In the January/February issue of Mother Jones magazine, Ted Genoways, editor of the venerable literary journal the Virginia Quarterly Review, laments the impending “death of fiction,” and suggests its cause: too many publication outlets, and too many writers flooding the commercial market. There are now some 822 creative writing programs, Genoways writes, citing Louis Menand's 2009 count. “Graduates of creative writing programs are multiplying like tribbles,” he warns, suggesting a deluge of crap that will choke the life from the literary world as we know it. “The reality is that not everyone can be a doctor, not everyone can be a professional athlete, and not everyone can be a writer.”
But a number of young writers and M.F.A. students, like Baltimore's Adam Robinson, don't quite see it that way. Thanks to technology—from blogs to social network tools, e-book formats to templates and inexpensive design, printing, and distribution—the reality is that not only can everyone be a writer these days, they can publish, too—and a generation of tech-savvy, culture-minded writers have spawned a wave of DIY presses not unlike the alternative record labels that once energized the music world. In 2006, Robinson, a grad student in the University of Baltimore's publishing program, started his own imprint, Publishing Genius (as in, he publishes works of genius, he says, rather than he is a publishing genius). So far, he has published about a dozen books and earned a modest yet devoted following—and even a shining success story: Shane Jones's novel Light Boxes.
Among his first “signings” (although in true DIY fashion there was no actual contract), Light Boxes, made its way to the hands of film producer Spike Jonze, who optioned it. Jones then signed with William Morris agent Bill Clegg, and reprint rights were sold to Penguin, who will publish the book later this year. “Things happened kind of backwards for me,” Jones tells PW. “I never pursued a major house or agency. I just pursued getting people interested in my writing and my book.”
Jones, 30, says he has been writing since he was 16. The author of three books, several chapbooks, and a host of “other little projects,” he has published all his work so far with small, community indie publishers: Publishing Genius, Fugue State Press, Scrambler Books, Boneworld Publishing, MLP, Greying Ghost, and Vis-a-septic. “I found most of these publishers because I just loved what they were doing and how close the editors worked with their writers,” he says. “I never really even thought going to a big publisher was a possibility because they felt so nonaccessible. You need an agent, an M.F.A., maybe a Ph.D., publications in the New Yorker. I figured I was just going to publish in indie places. But I also love having my work put out by these publishers. There's so much care and love and fun involved. It's exciting.”
Who Needs You?
Ironically, as it has become easier than ever for aspiring writers to reach readers, it has become harder than ever to reach a major publisher or an agent. Nearly all of the major publishing houses today flatly refuse to accept unsolicited manuscripts. Finding an agent isn't much easier. In fact, the ICM Web site warns authors that the one sure way not to get your material read is to send it unsolicited.
Meanwhile, self-publishing efforts fostered by some publishers have been looked on with suspicion. Harlequin, one company that does still accept unsolicited submissions, recently forged an effort in partnership with Author Solutions to offer aspiring romance authors a self-publishing option, Dell Arte, but the effort met with surprising opposition from entrenched professional writer's groups, including the Romance Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America, who claimed the program smacked of predatory, “vanity” publishing. Harlequin CEO Donna Hayes expressed “surprise and dismay” at the reaction. In a thoughtful response, she noted that Bowker reported some 285,000 new titles and editions were self-published in the U.S. last year alone, more than the 275,000 titles published by traditional houses, a rise she viewed as “validation that writers perceive self-publishing as a viable path.” Author Solutions CEO Kevin Weiss, meanwhile, distributed a YouTube video offering to travel to meet and discuss his company's services.
Upcoming generations of writers, however, seem increasingly happy to go it on their own, and the result has been an explosion of artful, humble community-oriented publishing operations, a trend that flies directly in the face of rumors of a reading culture in decline. “The community is really cool,” Jones says. “Publishers and editors want to find new writers and support them. They want to take chances and find something they care enough about to invest their own money and time and put out in the world.”
“I'd wanted to start a publishing company ever since I was a kid,” Robinson tells PW. His moment of “genius,” however, came after one of his publishing classes challenged him and fellow students to create a nontraditional book. His idea: IsReads, in which he “published” poems around the city of Baltimore—on telephone and light poles. The idea captured public attention, feeding Robinson's desire to bring his love of literature to the world.
Former Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash, who's now working on a revolutionary upstart, Cursor, says that today's burgeoning indie scene is “recognizable, historically,” in the ecosystem that spawned and supported Soft Skull. “Just as the first digital publishing revolution—Quark, Kinko's, Photoshop—produced Soft Skull, Akashic, Melville House, so now this one is producing its generational wave,” he tells PW. “Wave one found stuff in the slush, but also in the reading series at the bar, in the zines, and out of the daily, nightly culture. Now, cheap as zines were to make, the digital stuff is even cheaper.”
“A lot of [indie publishing] exists because of the Internet,” Jones says. “Places like HTMLGIANT and Bookslut serve as a sort of hub for what's going on, and so many writers have Web sites and blogs. It harbors community.”
So, what are the implications for the major houses? In one sense, you can say the Internet has replaced the slush pile—many young writers see no reason to be ignored or rejected summarily by editorial assistants in New York when they can fulfill their literary ambitions within a community that they know, respect, and can support. At the same time, savvy publishers in New York, who would otherwise be choked with bandwidth-sucking email attachments from unsolicited writers, can scan the Web for writers and writer communities that are not only gifted but industrious.
This small new wave of Web-fueled indie presses is no direct threat to the big business of major publishers. Nevertheless, it suggests an emerging new paradigm for readers and writers. While Genoways's Mother Jones essay questions the future of old-guard publishing careerists, and whether writers can still make a living on their art, the next generation doesn't really seem to care much about either prospect. Having never been considered by major houses, many don't even think about going that route. Having never made much as writers, they have nothing to lose, and having come of age in an Internet world, many have different values and different expectations.
Matthew Simmons, a copywriter for University Bookstore in Seattle, recently published his latest novella, A Jello Horse, with Publishing Genius, which he knew through his online community, and says he never really imagined the book being published anywhere else.
Recently, Simmons posted a humorous piece on HTMLGIANT called the “Five Stages of Publishing,” riffing off the five stages of grief. The last stage, acceptance, suggests starting one's own publishing imprint. “I'm less cynical about writing and publishing than that suggests,” he tells PW. “I'm not necessarily against the system. It's just easier to be in the indie press world. There is this wonderful vibrancy. They are interested in new authors and innovative work.” Asked if he would like to have a deal with a major house some day, he is reticent. “I like where I am,” he says. “Adam is great to work with. I'm perfectly content with A Jello Horse and the attention it has gotten.”
Even with his recent success with Light Boxes, Jones says the film and book deals haven't changed the way he looks at writing either. “It's still the same process for me, and I'm sure it always will be, with little changes here and there,” he says. “Something like the Spike Jonze thing, is something I can't control. It's outside of writing for me, so I detach from it in a way.” Like most writers, Jones says he still can't make a living solely as a writer—but that's okay. “My day job kind of balances me out.”