Following my 12th birthday, my grandfather passed out identical Christmas gifts to my entire family.
Each present was a 150-page Xeroxed document, two-hole punched, hand-assembled and fastened with a two-pronged sliding fastener and bound in tangerine pressboard. An Avery label was affixed to the covers, which read "BENTON E. GATES: MEMOIRS." Earlier that year, the 75-year-old prosecutor and corporate lawyer had narrated it into his office Dictaphone and dictated that my mother type it up on her IBM Selectric. Just like the U.S. Savings Bonds he normally gave us, Gapaw's memoir was meant as something for us to appreciate when we were older.
Last year, a man walked into a local, independent bookstore and dropped off a box containing his memoir to a puzzled employee. His memoir was 147 pages, professionally printed and bound in paperback from a small Cincinnati publisher with a catalog of three other books. Atop the box sat a one-sheet description about the book, a business card and a note with dates to set up a book signing. A few weeks later, the indignant man called the shop berating its employees for not selling any of his books.
Both memoirs were written in first person, full of tales of formative years, professional accomplishments and anecdotes. Both contain yawning stretches, cataloging historical events in the author's life. Both were most definitely a product of "vanity press," just on a different scale and intent.
For today's aspiring authors, self-publishing increasingly sings a siren song. Current mainstream publishing seems fixated on the sure thing of celebrity-driven, ghost-written tomes. Most big-time editors treat a mountain of unsolicited manuscripts with a glacial pace and abject indifference. When Kurt Vonnegut first tried to break into writing, he kept boxes of rejection letters. These days, try getting a simple email back that just says, "No!"
Coupled with the current state of the New York publisherati, the smaller, more responsive, more nimble self-publishing houses promise editing, binding and promotion. And printing on demand and e-book publishing means the self-published author won't be warehousing boxes of books in his or her garage much longer.
Self-publishing accomplishes the immediate gratification of actually producing a finished product. But you'd think the success of successive books would generate momentum toward finding that agent and submitting subsequent manuscripts to publishing houses. But too often the self-published can find themselves stigmatized. It's like the downsized journalist who starts working for the Weekly World News: You don't get back to the mainstream so easily.
My past experience in trade-book publishing here in town taught me something very valuable: Every manuscript needs a qualified, authoritative editor. I'm not talking about merely a copy editor and proofreader, though certainly many of the bound books and e-books being produced could still use both. I'm talking about someone to help mold, revise and streamline the narrative -- or in many cases, create a narrative.
I have a hard time making this case when the originally published-on-demand "mommy porn" schlock 50 Shades series took off so meteorically. Even friends who've read it universally admit the books are "not really that well-written when you come down to it."
And, yes, I've had friends successfully self-publish their books. But they've really had to work on streamlining the manuscript, and despite what the publisher may promise, they've had to promote the hell out of it themselves. Unfortunately, even my friends who've published with the likes of Random House and Penguin will tell you the same.
Locally, I see strong parallels with visual art and music. Too many times creators spend too much time promoting and marketing a mediocre product and not enough time crafting it.
So by my reckoning, self-publishing isn't an easy way out, nor a smooth path to fame and fortune. True success comes when you take time to perfect your product and also cultivate quality relationships with people who can sell it to people who will enjoy reading it.