Traditional publishing? Author services? “Vanity presses”? Self-publishing? The options can be overwhelming.
When author Tanyo Ravicz of the independent author cooperative Running Fox Books wrote to tell me he’d left an author services arrangement to release fully independent editions of his books Alaskans and A Man of His Village, I asked if he’d be willing to share his thoughts on that experience in this Q & A.
What motivates you to write?
An irrational drive to give lasting and meaningful shape to the experience of life is what motivates me to write. The satisfaction comes from engaging other people with the result of the effort, or, failing that, or in addition to that, in the consciousness of having written the best prose I can. If my words cause people to smile or grit their teeth or anxiously knit their brows or to ponder, that’s a rewarding engagement. Still, apart from that, it’s satisfying to see something in your own way and to crystallize that vision in penetrating prose.
What made you decide to forego traditional publishing?
That feels like a trick question. Honestly, whatever I offer about publishing has to be understood as coming from someone who’s had the experience several times repeated since the late 1980s of trying to “get” a literary agent and “get” a publisher. From the manila envelope to the iPhone, I’ve seen the changes in how things are done, but I’m not well qualified to speak about traditional publishing from the inside. By the same token, of course, you wouldn’t expect me to greatly lament the disruptions to the industry.
The first editions of your books were published through one of the larger author services companies, one that’s sometimes called a “vanity press.” How did you choose this particular service? How did it work out for you?
In 2006 I published the novel A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE through iUniverse, which was then a young company and still independent. The results were excellent. I was in my 40s, we had settled down in California after the years in Alaska, and I had been having the unpleasantly familiar experience of not being able to convince anyone to take on a manuscript of mine. There was a difference this time, though, and it was called print-on-demand technology.
Absolutely revolutionary. I went with iUniverse because I’d seen one of their posters in the Barnes & Noble window and I liked the concept. They were also running an effective whole-page ad series featuring pictures of Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman and other literary lights who had published their own work — effective, I suppose, in normalizing, if not romanticizing, the idea of self-publishing, or at least diminishing the lingering stigma, though speaking for myself I never felt much of a stigma. To my mind, the scores of literary agents and small presses I had tried with the book had made a mistake. A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE went on to win the top prize in its category in a couple of open national contests and by publishing it I was able to get out and do events and sell some books.
Two years later, in 2008, still working with iUniverse, I brought out ALASKANS to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood. It was good timing: I got a bump in interest in my book with the ascent on the national stage of Sarah Palin. ALASKANS is a collection of ten stories, two of them Pushcart-nominated and nine of them previously published in literary magazines, a circumstance I mention to help to dispel the stereotype that self-published work is unvetted and unprofessional.
Do people use the term “vanity press” anymore? This is archaic terminology rooted in the protectionism of the legacy publishers. It makes me think of those black-and-white ads discreetly tucked in the back pages of print magazines in the late 1900s. True, since the early days of print-on-demand publishing, an industry has sprung up around peripheral marketing services for authors, many of which play to our vanities; but what’s really happening here is a further closing of the gap between self-publishing and traditional publishing, which after all is hugely dependent for its advantage on its marketing machinery.
Recently, you’ve re-released your books on your own. What prompted you to do this?
Yes, I’ve broken off with iUniverse and I’ve brought out A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE and ALASKANS in new authoritative editions under the Denali Press imprint. It’s a way of taking ownership of my work and moving forward from here.
iUniverse has changed a lot since 2006. Actually, I hadn’t been entirely happy with the contract to begin with: I had agreed to a lesser paperback royalty percentage after iUniverse had represented to me that the discounts would be passed along the distribution chain. This was something it turned out iUniverse had no control over. It was a misrepresentation I wouldn’t forget.
Meanwhile iUniverse was swallowed up by Author Solutions, which in turn was acquired by Pearson, a division of Penguin, which has recently merged with Random House. This phenomenon of the old guard publishers getting into the author services business is interesting. Authors should be aware of what’s going on here structurally. A company of course wants to claim a share of the sales earned by the best-selling self-published books, but the ironic bread-and-butter truth is that these old publishers are partly evolving into “vanity presses” themselves, establishing divisions to encourage and profit from the “vanity” they earlier derided.
It’s not as though iUniverse did a good job anyway. They mismanaged the rise of ebooks, and speaking of my books in particular, iUniverse botched the ebook conversions. A reader took the trouble to inform me of this, and this was really the last straw as far as my attitude to iUniverse goes. Times had changed — the rise of ebooks, Amazon, Apple, Smashwords — and it was time for me to examine my options and to move on.
Personally, I needed to take stock anyway. Every now and then we look around and consider where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Finding myself again in the position of finalizing a new book and reaching out to literary agents, I wanted to have a strategy in place for averting the negative emotions that can come with the process.
Denali Press (“founded in Palm Springs, California, a publisher of quality fiction and nonacademic nonfiction”) is the result. Going forward, this is the rock under my books. I now have a direct relationship with Amazon, Apple, B&N and Kobo, a list which may grow as I choose. I register my own titles and I set the look and prices of the print books and ebooks. With drop caps, a matte cover finish, and a 5.25 x 8 trim — my choices — these print books are beautiful products that physically rival (at a more affordable price) the trade paperbacks of the big players.
The transition has cost me some months of concentrated effort, but I’ve become an exacting writer and so I didn’t mind the labor of one last time editing these two books. Also, the process of establishing a sole proprietorship, designing a logo, setting up vendor accounts, and so on, teaches valuable lessons. Financially, I’ve incurred switching costs — for example, I paid a pro to do my ebook conversions — and I’m in the red again with my writing, but I expect in the long term to recoup the losses.
Still, we all know how hard it is to sell books. One-book and two-book authors might be better advised to just stick with Amazon or an author services outfit and not to bother with setting up their own imprints.
Let me say too, Deb, that I had noticed what you were doing with your books over at Running Fox. You cared enough about your out-of-print books that you weren’t going to let them stay out of print. Emerging authors can look to you for an example of the nimbleness and adaptability of today’s writer who doesn’t necessarily reject tradition but isn’t bound by it.
What publishing advice do you have for emerging authors?
By all means try to work with a traditional publisher. A writer isn’t just a witness but also a participant, and your story as a writer, not the one you write but the one you live, becomes a part of the record of your time.
Remember that the established book world, from its editorial reaches to its diminished infrastructure to its far-flung superstructure (including bookstores and print journals) has never been especially friendly to self-published authors. In my experience, there are wonderful exceptions to this rule, but by and large I find it true. Small publishers face very large hurdles in bringing serious attention to their titles.
A third reason, if you’re an emerging author, not to hasten into do-it-yourself publishing is you’re probably not as good a writer as you’re going to become. Look at your finished manuscript two or three years from now; I guarantee it won’t seem so finished.
At a certain point, though, a pile of rejected manuscripts is toxic for a writer. If you don’t look out for your writing, no one will. Act. Act. Act.
If you’ve internalized the misconception that traditional publishing is somehow synonymous with literary quality and that the rest is dreck, you need to get past it.
Don’t fear Amazon and Apple. If as an author you’re a free agent, Amazon is your ally.
If you’re young, you probably don’t sit around longing for the lost simplicity and glamor of an earlier publishing era you never knew anyway and which may or not have existed. Considering our relative freedom to write what we want and the digital technologies that enable micropublishing, America in 2014 is a pretty good place to be a writer if you really have to be a writer. And like I always say to my friends who lament being overweight, don’t let them tell you that you take up too much of the world. It’s the world that takes up too much of you.
Tanyo Ravicz grew up in California. He attended Harvard University and settled for many years in Alaska, mainly in Fairbanks and Kodiak. In Alaska he worked as (among other things) a wildland firefighter, cannery hand and schoolteacher. His novel-in-progress, Wildwood, draws on his experience of homesteading with his family on Alaska’s Kodiak Island. Tanyo’s classic short novel Ring of Fire, which explores the conflict between an Alaskan big-game hunting guide and the Crown Prince of Rahman, will be released in a new digital edition in 2014. His books include A Man of His Village, relating the odyssey of a migrant farm worker from Mexico to Alaska, and Alaskans, a selection of his short fiction.