Writing my first novel was the most empowering experience of my life. I discovered new reserves of self-confidence, strength, and grace. It made me want to be a career author. Even the long slog of editing and refining felt extraordinary—even as it was painful.
Everything that came after was an exercise in fear, doubt and self-loathing.
As I sought a publisher for my novel, I received feedback from some nice people working for publishing houses, all saying the same thing: Their number one goal of making money wasn’t going to be met by my book.
This is the current state of publishing and I’m not going to argue with it. Publishing is a business. The bigger your brand, the higher your overhead. These days, we’re all watching our own asses and few of us can afford to take risks.
The problem with the traditional publishing model is that, as authors, we venerate the art. We craft and hone and struggle for each right word. Our number one goal is to write something great. Publishers, on the other hand, have the number one goal to stay in business. This is a rift between art and commerce that even the most elegant prose can’t bridge.
Luckily for authors, art doesn’t function on supply and demand. Art is not a fixed number and there are no bottom lines. It is free, democratic, and accessible to all. It is when we try to wedge art into the structure of a business that things get wobbly.
Of course, an author has to eat, and she deserves to be paid for her work, too. She has to bridge that gap between art and commerce.
To do this, the traditional method tells her to write and hone and submit, over and over, forever and ever, hoping someone at a publishing house will choose her. Then she’ll write something else and hone it and submit it, looking for another paycheck.
The publishing industry tells us that this is what authors are supposed to do. We’re supposed to suffer rejection, to choose between rent and groceries. Suffer long enough, and you’ll consider a meager publishing deal where you make cents per copy to be a major victory.
This, we are told, is what makes a real author. In this model, we are not authors without the demoralizing rejection based on our marketability rather than our talent.
Capitalism relies on scarcity. There are only so many publishing slots available on any house’s roster, and far more manuscripts submitted. We tell ourselves that if our book is beautiful and perfect enough, we will get a publishing deal. Then we pull our hair out when Snooki ends up on the bestseller list while our lovely manuscript flounders in the slush pile.
This can instill a poverty complex in an author. We can perceive each success of a peer as the loss of our own success. We can resent the industry, resent the business, resent our own stories and desire to write.
This is the death of creativity.
I chose a different path. I chose to self-publish. Not because I couldn’t hack it in the traditional world, but because I didn’t want to turn my empowering self-expression into a guessing game of market trends.
The advent of technological tools that allow for the democratization of publishing has shifted the power from the traditional publishers into the hands of the creators, and allows us to choose how to commodify our own work. This egalitarian access to the production of art shares much with other democratic social justice movements. Through this lens, we can view self-publishing as a feminist act.
Built into feminism is a distrust of the ruling class. After all, the ruling class exalts the wingtip-wearing suit while denigrating pretty much everyone else. It rewards docility and obedience. Likewise, capitalism favors popular appeal over risk, unique point-of-view, and niche.
The status quo likes it when people of any structurally oppressed group perceive themselves to be enemies rather than allies. By promoting in-fighting, the status quo keeps us busy deciding who’s the “in crowd” rather than organizing against the power-holders. Feminism teaches us to look to our peers for support, to see one another as allies rather than competitors. Writers, too, can look to one another for peermanship and support rather than another horse in an already overcrowded race.
Progress is good for oppressed groups. It offers opportunity for growth and power. It offers creative solutions to old problems. Progress is bad for those in power. Progress for them means the potential for overthrow, for loss. In the face of sea changes, the status quo tries to hold fast, to resist any sense of change or progress. When faced with potential shifts of power, the status quo legislates, adds addenda to contracts, and locks doors and windows. Examples of these fear-based reactions: anti-piracy lawsuits, copyright extensions, DRM, increasingly uneven contracts that support the producer more than the artist, and so on. While producers attempt to put a veneer of artistic support on these devices and tools, the research supports that these things rarely benefit the artists at all, and that often the artist would be better served by democratic access to their art.
Monoliths are dangerous business. They lead to executives that don’t understand the internet and publishers who don’t understand the market. They lead to treating all representatives of certain communities as if they share one mind and will respond in one way. Segmentation of communities based on superficial traits leads to the idea that African Americans share nothing with White Lesbians and that all African Americans share all the same traits with one another. Treating people as monoliths makes for easy computations but bad politics and even worse art. Decentralization means people look to smaller communities for resources. Most artists don’t need to go John Grisham-big to be happy. They just need enough people supporting them emotionally and monetarily to feel like they are making a difference in the world. Artists can find these people by talking to them, by making personal connections, by asking what they like and why.
Big media seems to think that a man with a degree in sociology knows more about women than a woman does. They like to put white guys on CNN talking about Chicanos instead of Chicanos talking about their own experience. Most of the time this is rationalized as a combination of “accessibility” (as if white people are the only ones trying to “access” the information) and expertise. Feminism honors personal experience as a valid form of expertise. Self-publishing honors personal experience as a valid form of market research.
Feminists have an invested interest in making the world a more egalitarian place for all genders. Artists have an invested interest in making the world more accepting of all art forms and access points.
Social Justice Serves Everyone
Feminism is the belief in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes. Feminism is good for everyone, not just women. Even competition, when it’s honest competition, is good for the economy and society. It forces individuals to strive to be better, not just better than the person with the least advantage. Artists, too, benefit from a world in which there is more great art. There are limited publishing slots available at the big houses, but now there are not limited resources to publish books. Supporting a community by employing graphic designers, copy-editors, and publicists, especially freelancers, contributes to a more art-full and beautiful world.
Feminists believe that everyone has the right to choose their own destiny, that all people should be able to rise to the apex of their capabilities and potential. Choice also means that there are multiple paths that an individual can take, and all are equally valid as long as they are chosen with informed consent. Self-publishing offers an opportunity to take a different path, that will likely be far more fruitful for more people than traditional publishing could be.
While self-publishing may not be the self-expression of many authors, there are just as many who have the requisite entrepreneurial spirit for the self-publishing path. I am inspired by the current technologies and communities available to writers. I want to dig in and play, learning new skills of both writing and artistic midwifery, to usher my art through the process from conception through self-sufficiency. Why not? The tools are there and so is my spirit. So is a community of warrior artists who have been producing their own stuff for ages, defying the monoliths and finding success on their own terms.
I want to count myself among these brave artists.
I believe I can.
I believe you can, too.