What I found in a brown paper bag


My decision to self-publish was found in a brown paper bag

“Could there be some silent audience eagerly awaiting his new novel? Some hidden force unrecognized by the publishing and critical world of New York City, which, like an orbiting space station, looks upon the rest of America without ever interacting with it?

-excerpt from Less is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer

I can’t help feeling that the space has contracted, that our national
literature has been reduced. We live in a nation of 3.8 million square miles. The Big Five
publishing houses are located within a few subway stops of each other in Manhattan; that
rich island which represents 0.000887 percent of our country’s surface. This is not benign.
Our literary culture has distended and warped by focusing so much power in a singular place, by crowding the gatekeepers into a small ditch of commerce. A review in the Times trumps
everything else. You can’t tell me that this doesn’t affect what is, finally, bound into books,
marketed, and sold. Which designates what can be said and how one says it. Why do we cede
American letters to a handful of corporations that exist on a single concrete patch?”

Matthew Neill Null

Big Five or self-publish?

The top except is from a novel I’m reading entitled Less is Lost. I read it and laughed out loud. The quote stayed with me and hours later, I found myself digging into my archives to find the syllabus from a class I took at the Indiana Writer’s Center about five years ago called, The Basics of Self-Publishing, taught by local YA author Robert Kent. The second excerpt is from that class.

I may not have followed up on the top excerpt if I hadn’t just put my second novel out on Amazon and Ingram Spark. I resist using the word publish in relation to Amazon and Spark because they are platforms, internet shelf space, static things. They do not align with any active verb. When you chose to self-publish, you very much self publish.

After two novels, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  However, looking back, I chose the path of self-publishing, author-directed publishing, or what ever you like to call it because of a brown paper bag. It’s true. Was is the most rational, emotion free decision I’ve ever made? Probably not.


The Big Five publishing houses are:


One critical element that I feel is missing from the Null quote is that the folks at the Big Five are folks whose jobs depend on the books they chose to publish. Because it is their job to sell books. Why risk delivering subs on a bike in mid-town Manhattan for your novel?

This seems familiar

Years ago I was trying to get my first novel Tripio published via the traditional method. It was what I knew, what I was supposed to do. All you writers out there know it: query letters, find an agent, submit, submit, submit. It didn’t take long for me to see this as another job search. Searching for a job you knew you could do when you needed it, really needed it.  If you haven’t’ been in that position, consider yourself fortunate.

Here is that part where I expect you think me a little wacky. Well before I could even think about sitting down for five minutes a day, let alone writing a novel, I was laid off. Sent home jobless, over a Christmas season with four young kids at home. Laid the fuck off.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

I will always remember a neighbor, two days before that Christmas bringing us shampoo, bar soap, toothpaste. The neighbor had been in similar position a few years ago and offered the brown paper bag full of necessities as a gift, not charity, not as a label that said she thought my family’s situation was hopeless. The brown paper bag was filled with practical things, which my kids, wife, and I all used over the Holidays that year.

So when I started looking for agents, submitting to publishers, it brought all this back. I had spent way too much time writing cover letters, filling out applications, submitting access to my livelihood to people whose livelihood depended on a decision they made. Hire that guy. Sell a book. It is a process too much like that of a writer hoping to get noticed by a publishing house.

The cat is out of the bag

I looked for a different option. One I hoped would be more transparent, less subjective. After a bit I found the alternative universe of Self-Publishing.

Was this an abstract thought process? One made without emotion? No. First of all there is no such thing. No. I recognize that. I even understand that one day I may sign with a Big 5 house and look back on all this shaking my head, knowing better, knowing I was being foolish.

But I doubt it.

Is inbred too strong a word?

Comment now or think it over-both would be appreciatiated.

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