Author’s note: On self-publishing "The Bad American"
The self-publisher faces any number of obstacles in bringing written work to the reading public, and about these, more anon. But self-publishing also confers at least one vast benefit to the writer: control. There are no higher-ups to be mollified, evaded or submitted to; there are no publishers, editors, agents, publicists, editorial boards or other meddlesome intermediaries. You get to do it as you see fit. You get to do it your way. All aspects of the project, even the mistakes, reflect your choices and sensibilities. It's the literary equivalent of a farm-to-table dinner. I am, then, the farmer and chef here; I am as thoroughly the author of "The Bad American" as it is possible for someone to be the author of a novel.
Much is made, in our managerial culture, of cross-checks in their many forms and of the value of consensus and group decision-making. And, indeed, another set of eyes can sometimes be helpful; another set of eyes can sometimes pick up blemishes and inconsistencies that our own eyes, touched by overfamiliarity and fatigue, can't. But I also know, from hard personal experience, that editorial interventions can bring dilution and cause damage to a literary work. The more hands that become involved in some project, the lower the common denominator becomes and the less true authorship there is.
The lowest common denominator of all, of course, is money. Book publishers -- at least as we have known them until recently -- take a great deal of interest in questions of saleability and marketability. Like all other businesses, they exist to make a profit. They have no other purpose. While I can't say that market concerns are of little or no interest to other self-publishers, I can say they are of little or no interest to me. I did not write this novel as a way of courting favor with a paying public, as I think will be obvious to anyone who reads even a part of it. I wrote it to do the best I could with material I came to see as important -- to do such justice as I was able to that material. And one great blessing of the digital revolution for me is that this tale will have a chance to make its way in the world, although without much assistance from its author and publisher. The most I can do is stand behind the work and make sure it is available, and, if I manage to do nothing else, I will be steadfast in that mission as no conventional publisher ever would be. This title will not go out of print (to use a now superannuated phrase of conventional publishing) in my lifetime.
The obstacles? The most apparent of these has to do with a lack of public attention, with what we know as publicity and buzz. No one will be hawking this novel. It won't be blurbed, and it almost certainly won't be reviewed. It won’t be advertised to a population conditioned to being advertised to by many decades of ingenious and ubiquitous pitches and cajolings. If it finds a readership, it will do so the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth or a recommendation from someone who reads it and responds to it and mentions it to someone else. Its path to a readership, if any, will be democratic and organic.
It is odd, and deeply gratifying, to think that a technological advance would bring a renewal of this forgotten way of doing things. I am against the passivity of American life, the tendency to sit there and let the television screen or the Internet pop-up tell us what to do, what to buy, what to think. I am against the habit of waiting for guidance from advertising. Passivity is a dangerous toxin in a society that purports to be self-governing and presupposes that its citizens will be attentive and engaged. If you have found this book, it means that you have somehow or other managed not to be passive, and that alone is a good thing.
The deeper discomfort for the self-publisher has to do with vanity and genuineness. Isn't it just an exercise in self-importance to self-publish work without the blessing of a traditional publisher? If the book were any good -- if it were a *real* book -- wouldn't a conventional publisher be publishing it and pushing it? These are good questions, and I have often wondered about them. Whether or not they could be answered, the mere asking of them seems to me to reflect older understandings.
Publishers are really nothing more than glorified printers, and until quite recently, as printers, they did hold a kind of monopoly on the mass dissemination of written work. If you were a writer who hoped to reach an audience of readers, your only real means of doing so was through a conventional publisher, which had access to printing presses, binderies, warehouses, distribution networks and bookstores -- all the physical apparatus necessary to mass production. Through the exercise of this print monopoly, publishers did become, in effect, cultural gatekeepers, the people who got to say whether a particular work or writer would be granted access to the reading public.
There abides, I believe, a general sense that a real book must be a printed one, and as a child of print, I share that sense to a degree. But that sense might be ebbing. The fact is that, while publishers might still hold a kind of monopoly on print, print no longer represents a monopoly on publishing -- on wide distribution of written work to the reading public. There are other ways of getting the job done, and you're looking at one of them. Two of the greatest works of American literature, incidentally (and favorites of mine) -- Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and Henry Adams's wonderful memoir "The Education of Henry Adams" -- were self-published, in the print era!
The writer's task, as I see it, is to offer work that is worth reading -- that transforms a reader in some way, that elevates, enlightens and enhances in language that is fresh, unexpected and original. I am fairly certain (!) that this novel is not perfect, but it’s as good as I can make it, and I also believe it’s worth reading. I believe, or at any rate I hope, that readers who read the entire text will feel, on reaching the end, that the journey was worth the trouble and their effort has been repaid.