Patience, or the Zen of Indie Publishing

Indie Personal Publishing

Four months ago I announced my intention to publish one e-book a month for the next year, thus launching a new publishing branch of this long-running website. I've released three Kindle books so far, right on schedule, and I'll be presenting the newest title on Thursday. Unlike your local train line, I've still never been late.

This is hard work, but it's going pretty well so far. The first of my three books seems to keep selling, and while the other two are lagging behind, my latest chapbook of selected literary essays did get a very nice review at Dead End Follies. Still, as I proceed I can't help feeling that I'm going both too fast and too slow. I'd like to explain what I mean by this.

I suppose it's obvious that I'm going too fast, because I'm publishing one book a month. Nobody publishes one book a month! I originally pledged to maintain this fast pace because I figure if I'm going to jump into the indie publishing business with both feet, I may as well do it Kerouac-style. I don't want to waste a lot of time triple-proofreading or worrying over spreadsheets. I want this new publishing venture to go, go, go.

But I'm paying the price for this fast pace, because I'm sure I could do a better job developing, nurturing and marketing these books if I gave each one more individual attention. Which leads to why I think I'm going too slow.

I'm falling short of my expectations on many fronts. I hoped to have my e-books available in the Apple store, the Kobo store and the Nook store by now. As of this writing, each of these three formats will be available "soon" (soon, they say) but the three books are still currently only available on the Kindle, and the fourth one will be coming out only on the Kindle too.

This is especially unsatisfactory for me because my fourth book is meant to bring my venture to a new level in a few ways. It's a collection of the eighteen best essays about the Beat Generation from the complete Literary Kicks archives, written by several authors, and I know this book will have long-term sales appeal. It's more than twice as long as any of the three previous books (and, based on the amount of work that went into it, I'm going to charge $4.99 per copy instead of $2.99). It features cover artwork by David Richardson, whose beautiful illustrations from Proust may have caught your attention here last year.

While the first three books in this series were designed with "quirky" in mind, this one is built to sell. But I'm not sure how to give it the marketing push that any book needs in order to reach its potential readers, and this is where I'm worried that I'm going too slow.

I'm especially disappointed that I haven't had the time to begin producing print versions of my books yet. That too is coming soon, but I know the new book would be a natural for the print format, since I think (and hope) that many readers will find it a "keeper", a bookshelf kind of a book. I expect to have the hard copy version ready by the end of the summer, but I'm worried that I'm cutting into the marketing potential of the hard copy by letting the book "trickle out" as a Kindle version first. This is no way to launch a book!

But: okay. When I find myself fretting about this, I pause and remind myself that I wanted to go fast. And sometimes going fast means going slow, because you have to frequently stop to catch up with yourself. I'm trying to find the Zen spot of indie publishing, the perfect pace, the "natural breath". I'm watching other smart companies in the emerging electronic/print web/book indie space, like Byliner, Red Lemonade, Electric Literature, Figment, Book Country, and trying to figure out what pace I can maintain (unlike all of these ventures, I am not a company and I don't have a budget or a staff) that will keep me in this game, at least until the next move.

Like so many things in life, the Zen of indie publishing turns out to have a lot to do with patience. But patience alone will not get me where I want to go. You know, I've been running Literary Kicks for seventeen years now. Patience, I got. I'm a staying machine.

But what else have I got? What else am I doing to make sure these books get into the hands of readers? The fact that I am capable of being patient doesn't necessarily imply that I'm moving at the right speed.

These are the vexing questions I'm thinking about right now, as I prepare to announce my fourth Kindle book ... other formats coming soon ... in the next two days. Speaking of time, the new book is called Beats In Time, and it's designed to capture the magical feeling of the encounter that occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the rising Internet generation discovered and embraced the inspiring model of Beat literature. It's about how a few great writers from the 1950s and 1960s found new readers, and new relevance, in changing times. As a collection of selected pieces, it represents the best of the first decade of Literary Kicks, when the Beat Generation was the site's primary focus. It includes pieces by John Perry Barlow, Don Carpenter and Michael McClure, interviews with Robert Creeley, Diane DiPrima and David Amram, and stirring, memorable spontaneous accounts of the death of Allen Ginsberg and the funeral of William S. Burroughs. I think this book is really something special, and I hope you'll check it out when it becomes available in two days.

12 Responses to "Patience, or the Zen of Indie Publishing"

by Michael.Norris on

I just visited the Beat Museum and City Lights Books in San Francisco, and I must say that the appeal of the Beats is on-going.

Beats In Time: sounds great!

I've had to learn patience as well. One of the reasons I went Indie is that the publishing houses all seemed to take so long to do anything. For example, someone like Jeff VanderMeer or Steve Aylett would announce a new book they has finished writing in, let's say, the summer of 2009, followed by "the publisher says the book should be out by August 2011" or something. I wanted my book out yesterday!

But I was too impatient. I see that now, because it simply takes time to get everything right. Cover design, proof-reading, getting the books available through various wholesale catalogs, and other types of planning.

I still don't regret going Indie, though, because even being patient with the bigger publishers wouldn't have guaranteed a book deal. I might have waited two years and still not got published. You just never know, it can go either way.

By the way, I hope you are including the Robert Creeley piece by Jamelah Earle. That was a good one.

When I stumbled upon LitKicks more than a decade it was because of the focus on the Beats. I’m super excited that this next book will return to those roots.

by K.B. on

I'd love to say the books will speak for themselves. As a reader, writer and publisher--I would LOVE to say that. As a marketer, I cannot. It's hard work, but work that in the end will pay off. I think now is the time that people have the biggest opportunity to rally behind indie publishers like yourself. Right now, I think its worthy of congratulating yourself that you have stayed the course and are doing what you enjoy. These are changing times as well, as you know--push forward and take the ride.
-K.B.

by catalyst on

keep doin your thing man. you stand by your princibles which is admirable...i may have to check out this beats in time!

I'm in the same boat right now. I'd like to publish shorter forms of writing every month (fiction and nonfiction), but only as ebooks and at 99-cents. I call them "cocktales." I'm curious to see if having my own ebook store on my website will increase sales on my novels. It's another form of market promotion, I believe. We'll see!

Great article!

i must admit, in my country Indonesia reading book is not part of our culture.
but by reading this site. i had to believe, reading is one way ticket to enlightment.
great job!

by Book Nerd on

I am very interested in this but my stories are usually with colorful pictures which makes no sense for the Kindle. You just sparked my interest in checking ebooks out closer! Thanks :-)

by nora on

Same here. I also think it would be a natural for a print book version. (says the girl who still doesn't have a Kindle/Nook/whathaveyou)

Just a thought, but maybe you could hire someone to help you do the marketing/selling part of the business? Even if you don't have money to pay, you could probably find an intern/volunteer willing to do it for experience. I know when I first started out in web design I did all kinds of stuff for free or very little money just so I could have a portfolio to show potential employers. Find someone who's got a good size social network already and is willing to spread the word. Give out a few free copies to people/websites that might be willing to review the book.

I have to say that I discovered the Beats in college, and they became my first literary love and the first group of writers that let me look at myself and say, 'hey, maybe I am a writer after all." - so while I don't focus as much on their works now, I still have a soft spot for all things Beat. (to the point where I somehow managed to get away with writing a 20-page essay on the Beats in grad school for a class that was supposed to be about the Transcendentalists) I'd venture to say that I'm not the only one who feels that way about the Beats.

With all due respect, and there's more than of it than I can say, your first reference to the "indie publishing business" hit a nerve with me. Maybe if you're Melville House, it's a business. For 90% of everyone else, it's a hobby. That's what it's always been for me.

Book Nerd, I believe the Nook has a color model.

What the fuck is going on with modern fiction?! I’m dying to read that wonderful book, which has a bloody big heart, yet I cannot find it. Gifted writers I greatly admire like William Boyd are now forced to churn out books like Restless, an all-too-familiar spy thriller that will be forgotten in no time, written for a pay check and no more. I can hear William’s agent whispering in his ear, “Look, just give me something I can get on Oprah, okay. The friggin chimps in Brazzaville Beach aren’t cutting it. The British public are not interested in Central Africa and its primate inhabitants. Give them something more familiar, Will, something they can relate to. Yes, another World War II spy yarn, that will sell. The market will lap it up. This will be your bestseller!”

And so writers of the quality of Boyd are forced to pen boring, mediocre fare – yes, commercially-driven fiction conceived for the market first and the committed reader second – the kind of unremarkable books which those of us who believe in, and have a passion for, literature have bought and read a hundred times but never come close to finishing. Hell, we don’t even get a third of the way through them. And why? Because they are unremarkable, are not alternative, do not inspire. We know these books well. We pluck them off the shelves of Barnes & Noble with great anticipation, our hearts beating excitedly. We dive into them as soon as we get home, settling ourselves on the settee and reading the first few pages in a kind of frenzy, longing to be immediately lost in their fictional worlds, consumed by them. And yet they do not grip us, do not move us, and soon, we are easily distracted from their pages and are looking for something else to do, to occupy us.

Who’s at fault here? The bookseller, the publisher, the agent, the writer or the reader. Well, all of them, to the extent that they are all slaves to the market. Yes, the relentless commodification of modern fiction is a ghastly thing! Why, because it encourages mediocrity, books becoming as bland as DIY furniture – made to measure, functional, conceived to do a particular job. Make you laugh, make you cry, bish bash bosh, job done. Now, books sit beside rows of tinned tuna in supermarkets, nothing more than commercial goods to be consumed, easily digestible and not too taxing. Idiotic sales statements adorn their covers, publishers reassuring would be readers that, yes, don’t worry, it’s more of the fucking same! And so, “Jo Nesbo is the new Stieg Larsson!” and “If you loved the Twilight series, then you’ll love The Immortals even more.”

A new book today, if it has a chance of being published, must not possess a whiff of the alternative, the innovative, the cult. A few possessing these awkward, unwanted traits do, however, slip through the moronic, money-grabbing filters of agents, publishers and booksellers, thank God, such as Michel Houellebecq’s Les Particules Elementaires or Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but they are rare indeed. Hell, these two were published over a decade ago! Perhaps the logic of agents and publishers is the very same as tabloid editors and media moguls. The public want the lowest common denominator, therefore give them this and they will not ask for more.

The majority of writers comply, because they have to: they have children to feed, mortgages to pay. And so they write safe, producing work that imitates others, written within a clear genre, which their agent can flog easily to the publisher, and which the bookseller can then peddle to the lazy reader, who’ll consume it like a bag of popcorn, mindlessly and effortlessly. Others, however, think fuck ‘em and self-publish. The agent or publisher might be too damn lazy and disaffected to do the work, but they are not. They believe in what they’ve written, however challenging or idiosyncratic it is, and they’re sure that even if the mainstream will not appreciate their work a small niche will, and greatly. Notable self-published authors include James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. These three, James, Marcel and Virginia, cared little for the majority, the consensus. They wrote not for the market, but for the love of writing, the beauty and truth it contained not the moolah it made. The same can hardly be said for James Patterson and Tom Clancy!

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