What Would Woolf and Whitman Do?
(A Practical Primer)
What would Woolf, Whitman, Stein, Eliot, Pound, and countless other self-published writers do in the face of the monolithic publishing industry today? Which new and contemporary writers should consider “alternative” means to get their books into the world?
Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman published, stomped for, and distributed their own books when it was considered “vain” to do so. As technologies advance and access to book-making opens, that stigma is fading. Larger publishing houses may attempt to usurp the industry and dictate taste, but emerging small presses now support a range of non-traditional texts due to lower costs and less risk. Authors can also escape the burden of yearly submissions and long wait times by publishing their own books, thus maintaining control of their intellectual property.
Five years ago, armed with a disdain for submission fees, I jumped when a small press inquired about my work. The offer to publish my first full-length collection came when only a few of my poems had appeared online (another formerly disreputable practice). With book in hand a year later, I answered a review query with the caveat that my book was POD (print-on-demand). The reviewer replied that a book is a book is a book. It didn’t occur to me that my book should be judged on its merits, not by its means of production. What would have happened to Leaves of Grass or A Room of One’s Own if Whitman and Woolf caved to possible disapproval?
Your work is the main dish you’ve been preparing to serve. It’s finally time to summon up the courage to bring your feast to the table. But first, you’ve got to get the aroma across the airwaves to tempt your readers.
Whitman might agree: due to its reach and increasing ease of access, the internet may serve as the next democratizing force in the world. It provides a means for dissemination unlike any paper predecessor and should not be ignored by aspiring writers. I’m not encouraging book burning, but I wish to open others to newer means of publishing and understanding of how new literacies are built on, in relation to and as complements to those in play today. To ignore changing technologies and how we process literature is to be stuck, blind to the evolution from papyrus scrolls to mimeo to typeset to digital—regardless of anyone’s resistance or fondness for the good old days. That loyalty can inform your next step; let’s consider how a writer’s wares may adapt.
Not Your Grandma’s Recipe
Apologists and the internet-fearful, take heart: you’re not parting the seas to achieve your goal; you’re marketing your wares in a way that *is* precedented, and you’re not alone. Getting your work into readers’ hands is feasible for every writer now, without big brother’s approval and sometimes-very-costly “helping hand.”
Intentionally or not, the big business model aims to gobble up independent booksellers, marketers, and publishers, and they’re doing so with some success. Large online and bookstore franchises are beholden to profits. Publishers pay big bucks for front-table placements and website “features.” They market to sell in volume and are not concerned, ultimately, with content. A blatant example of corporate disinterest can be seen in the distribution of Michael Moore’s film, “Capitalism: a Love Story.” Wal Mart stocked it, though the film indicts its practices, because it sells (more here).
The end result of capitalist marketing, a model increasingly adopted by the literary world, is that safe tastes rule, and authors are tempted to “water down” for popular market mentality rather than create what their own consciences dictate. Old values are reinscribed and writing styles remain stagnant, despite writers’ efforts to present incisive views, to give voice to the ethical, and to explore atypical modes of thought and style. We all have freedom of speech, but who gets heard is quite limited, especially when it comes to publication.
Women, still viewed as the world’s primary caregivers, teachers, and masters of the domestic realm, should especially forego stereotypes that claim only men are invested in technology while women stick to old-fashioned methods of dissemination. These should be outmoded clichés, despite the fact that the recent cadre of iPad and e-reader reviewers has been almost exclusively male.
Consider the common trend that men typically read male authors, while women read all genders. Women read approximately 80% of the fiction published, while men primarily read nonfiction (Messud). If one considers the number imbalances of female and male authors on awards and “Best of” lists, what becomes obvious is that women’s views, styles, and values are not appreciated and rewarded proportionately to that of male authors (See “The Count”).
In “Do real men buy novels?” David Rothman suggests, “Perhaps the United States wouldn’t end up in wars so often if its policymakers showed a little more empathy with others and used diplomacy instead. Guess what can help build empathy. Yep: the F word [fiction].” I submit that women’s poetry offers similar potential. A focus on male-authored texts does a disservice to the literate world that no profit margin can remedy. Big business publishing gives primacy to male accounts of history, nonfiction depictions of notable lives, and masculine modes of art and creation, but that same model has not made significant room for the values, interests and work by women that break the standard. We need to radically change this model.
Publishing women’s words may be one of the first steps necessary to shift the current paradigm that disallows a *variety* of voices the visibility they’re due. Consider this matter in relation to economics. From “Letter from Zainab Salbi and Naila Kabeer,” “When we allow the traditionally male-dominated front-line discussions of war to be segregated from the back-line struggles of women working to ensure that there is food to eat, water to drink, and hope to spare, we only widen the chasm dividing the grassroots from the decision-making processes that affect all of society. In this way, women’s wellbeing is the bellwether of society, and how women fare correlates directly with how the society fares overall.” In a March 2010 report from the UN Economic and Social Council, Czeslaw Walek corroborates, “The greater the gender equality, the higher the satisfaction with life. States could not revert to ‘ancient’ behavior and customs that portrayed the obligatory private woman and public man.” These measures conjure a similar need for gender balance via the reading of both male and female visions and values in the literary world. As economists work to create measures reflective of the societal spectrum, writers must also work for a richer, more equitable literary landscape.
We need to make public the voices of the world’s caretakers, nurturers, and educators. Of course, not all women fulfill or write from these roles nor are these roles only held by women, but we cannot fail to note the absence of many who inhabit these roles from the larger chorus. Similarly, world business should not be limited to the lens of Gross Domestic Product, an inherently-flawed measure that lacks considerations necessary to fully assess well-being.
This model, like the big business model for literature, is focused on exponential, unencumbered production growth, regardless of how wealth is distributed, how much unpaid work (domestic and volunteer) factors into community solidarity, how environmental health, sustainability, and a number of other factors feature when appraising society’s “wealth.” The big business model for publishing, like the GDP, is soulless, neutral to the particulars that make up the health and sustainability of any population, including the literary community. Literature can present a range of thoughts, philosophies, and lifestyles in symphonic cacophony, rather than only one homogenous segment of the population (& in only one traditionally masculine mode).
Wheels on the Meal
Various technologies can oust the books-for-profit model, providing opportunities to writers so that they need not be indebted to that model. It’s up to those willing to forego “waiting to be discovered” to become proactive writers who push their words into the world to see what they really can do.
While there is still be debate over POD publishing, the concerns have shifted from questions of validity to the quality of publishing platforms; authors now question which company will provide the best services and end-products. (An aside: Issues of publication “saturation” in the marketplace hasn’t impeded a flood of well-known publishers from disseminating any number of vapid books, which nullifies the argument against “everyone getting to publish anything” — the marketplace would change in terms of how the “good stuff” rises and readers find it.) A number of companies offer a variety of options ranging from user-friendly platforms to packages tailored to authors’ extended goals. Services include the provision of ISBNs, barcodes, and distribution assistance right down to book specs like paper quality, size, color, etc. One should research, and assess her own needs before confirming any deal. Or try an online company like Lulu.com, which doesn’t require a package; you can simply try your hand at design and print as many copies as you wish.
The new crop of small press publishers use POD publishing too. A few include Blazevox, No Tell Books, Coconut, Word Tech, Bloof Books, Blanc Press, Salt Press, MiPOesias, Shearsman, and Otoliths. Others no longer qualify their printing means, rightfully so. As archival paper and ink have come into use, one can no longer distinguish between digital and large company print. Noteworthy benefits of working with a small press publisher include a close rapport with your editor, who often promotes and is willing to try new marketing strategies, unlike big industry professionals who may not focus on promotion at all. Instead of waiting years for the big fish to catch you, proliferate your work by available means now.
Poets may publish an e-chapbook with presses like Moria, Scantily Clad, Blue Hour, Duration, Dusie, Coconut, MiPOesias, H_NGM_N, and others. E-chaps offer ease of distribution, durability, versatility, and often feature audio, images, animation and other multimedia elements.
All writers should investigate e-books as more e-readers appear and draw interest. Major writers have begun to include “e-rights” in their contracts, and some libraries, like Cushing Academy in Boston, have gotten rid of book collections altogether, replacing them with e-readers and laptop carrels. While the arguments for hardcopies remain valid, don’t ignore the electronic realm to prove your loyalty to curling up with a good book. You won’t reach those who find it as comforting to turn on their iPads while sipping their cappuccinos or riding the train each morning.
Setting the Places
The more the spider spins her web, the broader her reach. Many fear stepping into the metaphorical “web” where marketing wares online can feel overwhelming—if you let it. The web you initially weave can be quite manageable in the long run. I’m surprised when I hear, “I see your name everywhere! How do you do so much?” While the initial work of establishing an online presence took many hours, maintenance requires very few.
When moving into a new neighborhood, you establish a home, reach out and integrate through schools, local groceries and watering holes, neighborhood watch groups, YMCA, etc. People begin to know you. The same holds true online: you move to a “homepage” and then establish relationships.
Cultivating community should be one of your core foci; do so via blogs, listservs of topical interest, community sites, social networks, and through your own group of friends and associates. If you have time, run a reading series, attend conferences, post photos and videos from readings, do a road trip book tour with a friend. As with all content you post, always link back to your homepage. Connecting with others online is one of the most effective ways of getting your work into the world.
* Blogs – a two way street. Start your own and post content, but be sure to link to others that speak to your interests. Publish frequently and comment on others’ blogs to attract traffic to your own. Link to peripheral sites such as your photo page, videos of your public readings and wherever your poems or reviews appear. Maintain a schedule page to alert readers when you’re reading next.
* Join listservs whose subject matter is relevant to your genre. To keep email low, subscribe to the digest for one daily email that contains the day’s discussions. Participate in discussions! Women especially should forego “lurk” mode where our voices could stand to be heard. Use your email signature, which appears as a footer every time you participate. You might change it regularly to include a link to a recent interview, poem or article you wrote.
* Keep a writer’s profile at Red Room and She Writes, two major DIY sites. It’s very easy to cut and paste blog posts to the templates there. Readers may encounter your work though they’ve not visited your original blog. The internet is fragmented; re-post worthwhile content. Link back to your homepage whenever you can. Open a Goodreads account, locate writers who interest you, then add your own book and “recommend” it to your network of reader friends.
* On Facebook, stay focused and make “friends” – stats show that men reciprocate online “friendships” while women do not. This is networking at its most basic: connect with others who share an interest, such as your preferred genre, reading groups, academia or publishing. Also, Facebook can import your blog posts forever with one easy link submission.
Consider Facebook an informal water cooler. I post off-topic articles to shoot the breeze, inquire about the latest hot tunes, or ask who’s reading in the city soon. Avoid all zombie and solitaire games; they’re time munchers! The FB water cooler lets your personality shine through; enjoy it.
* Keep a list of emails for “real-life” friends, colleagues, and writers to announce your latest publications, upcoming conferences and reading appearances. Regularly remind your core group that you are still plugging away and hope to see or hear from them soon.
Again, women should finally embrace these communal technologies and practice the art of unabashed self-promotion, confident that your subject matter, content, style, and voice will edify the literary landscape. Your book creations are also children, labored over for weeks and years, to be sent into the world and fiercely promoted; we write to be read.
I’ve witnessed enough female students leave classes, recuse themselves from public debate, avoid reading invitations, and miss opportunities men actively seek, whether their work was ready or not. When I edited, male writers outnumbered women in submissions more than two to one. Editors and curators can solicit women whose work they admire, but more importantly, women should also finally throw off the mantle of modesty as we master new technologies to get our words heard.
What the body politic needs now is a balance of voices and literatures so that we might truly begin to integrate, and overlap, the practices and values both men and women employ. It may be simplistic to say the current model is not working well, but if we consider the growing gap between the world’s poor and wealthy, the continuous wars, the fact that the 20th century was one of the bloodiest in human history, then hearing a few more women’s voices in the literary realm surely can’t be any more shocking than our glaring absence on those “Best of” and notable prize lists. If that means women and sympathetic men are to emerge from “marginal” positions of publishing, then let’s set more places for the books forthcoming.
Abel, David. “Welcome to the Library. Say Goodbye to the Books. Cushing Academy Embraces a Digital Future.” The Boston Globe. 4 Sept. 2009. Web. 18 Apr. 2010. <http://www.boston.com/>.
Messud, Claire. “Guernica / Writers, Plain and Simple.” Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics. Feb. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2010. <http://www.guernicamag.com/features/1528/seven_remarkable_women_claire/>
Rothman, David. “Do Real Men Buy Novels? And Could E-books Boost Male Readership?” TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home. 11 Sept. 2007. Web. 18 Apr. 2010. <http://www.teleread.org/2007/09/11/do-real-men-buy-novels-and-could-e-books-boost-male-readership/>.
Salbi, Zainab, and Naila Kabeer. “Letter from Zainab Salbi and Naila Kabeer”.” Stronger Women Stronger Nations: Report Series. Women for Women International, 2009. Web. 18 Apr. 2010. <http://www.womenforwomen.org/>.
Walek, Czeslaw. DECLARATION ADOPTED BY WOMEN’S COMMISSION REAFFIRMS BEIJING TEXTS, STRESSES NEED. Rep. no. Fifty-fourth Session 5th & 6th Meetings (AM & PM). United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2 Mar. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2010. <http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2010/wom1777.doc.htm>.
* Red Room
Amy King is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently: Slaves to Do These Things (Blazevox) and the forthcoming I Want to Make You Safe (Litmus Press). She is also preparing a book of interviews with the poet Ron Padgett.
King authors VIDA’s (Women in Letters and Literary Arts) “The Count” and serves as a board member, her poems have been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, and she has been the recipient of a MacArthur Scholarship for Poetry. King also moderates the Poetics List (SUNY-Buffalo/University of Pennsylvania), the Women’s Poetry Listserv (WOMPO), and the Goodreads Poetry! Group. She teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.
She is also co-editing Poets for a Living Waters with Heidi Lynn Staples. With Ana Bozicevic, King co-curates the Brooklyn-based reading series, The Stain of Poetry. For more information, please visit http://amyking.org.