It's not just recently that good books had difficulty getting into print. William Kennedy's "Ironweed" was rejected by every major New York publisher. It wasn't until Saul Bellow explained to marketing people at Viking Penguin how to package and sell "Ironweed" that it was accepted for publication. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
John Kennedy Toole, unable to get a publisher interested in his novel "A Confederacy of Dunces, committed suicide. Eleven years later, Walker Percy championed the book into print. It won the Pulitzer.
Things are no easier today for aspiring writers. A recent New Yorker article detailed how Simon & Schuster is letting a random group of Web cruisers, rather than editors, read summaries of potential novels and vote on what books are most likely to make money.
Given this climate, increasingly writers resort to self-publishing. While it's good to see writers being proactive, the hurdles are enormous. Rarely will a self-published book be reviewed. It's tough to place them in stores or libraries because distributors usually won't handle them. Book review editors, and other writers, greet self-published books with silence or a sneer. Conventional wisdom holds that if the writing were any good, a major publisher would take it on.
There's some truth to that. What I've found is not that the authors of self-published books lack writing skills or interesting stories. Mostly, they rush their books into print too soon. Most of the self-published books I've seen would have a better chance at being published if the authors had taken time -- and spent the money they paid to self-publish -- to hire a professional editor to coach them through a draft.
Andrea Ferrell's book, "Autumn Seclusion" (Trafford Publishing) is a perfect example. Ferrell's book tells the story of her rebellion against controlling, religious parents. She runs off with boys, engages in high-risk behavior and ends up with a boyfriend who grills her cat and stabs her, leaving her hospitalized. "Autumn Seclusion" depicts this woman's descent and her eventual healing recovery.
But what is potentially a gripping story becomes difficult to read because of the minor yet annoying problems she has with the writing. Verb tenses switch from past to present without purpose. Some pages need to be split into paragraphs. She begins too many sentences with digressive clauses: "Watching me ..." "Meandering the trails ..." "Sitting on the mountain ..." An editor would have helped her fix this.
The same is true of Elaine Luddy Klonicki's "All on Account of You: A True WWII Love Story" (lulu.com). A heartfelt, sometimes engaging story about the love between her mother and father as revealed through letters, "All on Account of You" suffers from anecdotal material that rambles from one memory to another. Family anecdotes, amusing in conversation, aren't always "big" enough for a book. Klonicki has talent. A good editor would have shown her how to parse and focus, to cut unimportant anecdotes and highlight those with emotional heft.
Other books have a limited audience, and it makes sense for the writers to self-publish, as long as they're content to have a small body of readers and to market the book themselves.
John Rogers' wry look at college life from the top down, "Fame & Responsibility at Winford College" (lulu.com) may find readers among academics who recognize what Rogers is saying in his humorous treatment of the way universities put reputations ahead of their students.
My all-time favorite self-published book is one I disagree with completely: "The Atlas of Creation" (Global Publishing) by Harun Yahya is an Islamic refutation of evolution. The book is gargantuan -- weighs close to 20 pounds, 800 pages in length, with more than 600 pages of gorgeous color photos and a velveteen cover with 3-D pictures.
Most companies that produce self-published books charge writers several thousand dollars. Some claim to have distribution and marketing deals, but they rarely follow through. Morrisville-based Lulu.com, a relative newcomer to the self-publishing world, is an online print-on-demand publisher. You can publish without spending a penny. Print-on-demand books are sold for a set fee, which is too high for bookstores, accustomed to a 45 percent discount.
It's a good option for writers who have a niche book they are willing to sell themselves.
For writers who know what they want to say and are content with a small audience of family, friends and colleagues, self-publishing is a legitimate option. For writers who really want to make a career, it makes more sense to spend money and time working with a professional to hone their craft before going to print.