My decision to self publish evolved gradually. An invitation to contribute a 500-word story for a special section of microfiction in O magazine started me thinking. I’d been observing glumly the shrinking space allotted to fiction in national magazines. Could O’s interest in microfiction, even if it lasted only a single issue, be a good omen?
In our digital age, which supplies never-ending floods of information, unfazed by its erasure of distinctions between quality and quantity, maybe the quick, intense hit of a story that doesn’t instantly dissipate into the media babble surrounding it might offer a reprieve for captives of mass culture.
As I composed tiny stories, I wondered what to do with them. Could my experiments with form be matched with an innovative means of issuing the results? I daydreamed stories in daily newspapers, posted on billboards, scrawled graffiti-style on urban walls, printed on bookmarks, emblazoning banners waving in public parks, stories in post offices and supermarkets, in ad slots rimming subway car and bus interiors, on sandwich boards, T-shirts, crawling across the bottom of TV screens, broadcast in airports and train stations.
Self-publishing for me is no Nat Turner rebellion against fat books or traditional publishing. An astute agent and longtime friend has consistently engineered substantial financial rewards for my respected but far from bestselling fiction. Though not a fugitive slave, I still relish shaking things up. Hoping it might be more affordable for people like those I’d grown up with in Homewood, the novel Sent for You Yesterday was published in 1983 as a paperback original, back when a novel in soft cover, like self-publishing today, might appear an admission of defeat.
By self-publishing, I hope to liberate myself from two burdensome responsibilities—recouping the enormous, up-front costs of conventional publication and the necessity of earning large profits if I expect major houses to remain interested in my work. I’m seeking rational alternatives to the conventional routine of book promotion, an uninspired ritual that may garner 30 seconds or 30 days (if you’re lucky) of shelf life in mega chain stores, but mocks the aspirations of serious fiction and cultivates no audience for it.
Here’s where my son Daniel Wideman (a writer himself) enters the picture. Dan works for Lulu, a successful self-publishing firm. After I described my Briefs project, he convinced a father who’s not exactly a Luddite, but who still employs ballpoint pens, pencils, and yellow pads to write his books, to investigate the array of seductive, intimidating options available for introducing a new book to readers.
Print-on-demand could create the sort of arena I’d like my fiction to enter, a virtual niche where I can deposit a book without fearing it will disappear overnight, a space where I can watch it, tend it if I choose, extend for years its chance to gather an audience.
Another obvious attraction of self-publishing through Lulu is it’s free. Services to enhance a book’s reception are offered for purchase à la carte, but Lulu authors are not required to buy them. I welcome the option of releasing Briefs simultaneously in multiple formats—hard and soft cover, e-book, individual stories or customized groups, audio and video dramatizations of the printed page—each version previewable on the Internet. Although in my particular case self-publishing means forgoing the usual shopping around for a cash advance, I prefer the independence of gambling on future revenues, especially since, as author, I’ll receive the lion’s share of each book’s sale price versus the customary 10% stipulated by traditional contracts.
I grew up in a poor community where good, rich talk abounded. Attempting to represent that powerful orality in my fiction, I’m often reminded of the inadequacies of the written word. In human history, the electricity of one person speaking to another came long before we taught ourselves to write and read. Perhaps a digital age will restore to writing some of the energy of speech lost when the written word became Western culture’s dominant mode of embodying, conveying, and retaining knowledge. Given online publishing’s ability to instantly edit and revise, provide interactive
conversation and commentary, mix words with sounds and pictures, link text to text, will books be reimagined, not solely as finished products or done deals but as virtual works-in-progress? Can books regain more of the jazzlike spontaneity and improvisation vital to speech, that ancient fire of live, face-to-face exchange?
John Edgar Wideman is the Asa Messer Professor/Africana Studies/Literary Arts at Brown University.