Ultimately, the literary fantasy is just that: a fantasy. Nathan Graziano shows us how.
From the first sentence, you fantasize about your novel becoming a sweeping work of literature where the big publishers scratch and claw in epic bidding wars. Your agent wheels and deals then finally calls you — exuberant — with the news of a six-figure advance.
You resign from whatever job that has sustained you for the years, maybe decades, while you honed your craft. Finally, your MFA has paid for itself. For the first time since graduating, your checking account balance is in the black, and you can fold your arms and smugly smile at our parents and friends who told you that writing programs were a waste of time and money.
Next The New York Times and Oprah ordain you with swift taps their swords, and the offers for those sweet tenured-track gigs at the big universities roll past you like low hanging clouds. But you’re busy too working on your next book, living in a quaint mountain cabin in Big Sur to work full-time for someone else.
Ah, the literary dream.
While the desire to write and write well propels most, if not all, writers; while we are always told to not fixate on publication, publication is always the ultimate goal. Writing is, by nature, an egotistical endeavor, something that requires a great deal of solitude and self-absorption.
Certainly, in the current literary landscape, the days of a six-figure advance are almost obsolete, and practically unheard for first novels. Still, selling a book to a reputable publishing house has been, traditionally, the bar by which literary success is measured.
Like any writer, I yearned for that elusive glory to predicate the hard work that went into writing and revising, and revising, and revising my first novel, When We Were Locusts. The manuscript was my thesis in graduate school and later landed me a literary agent. More importantly, Pete Lowe — my main character — became a prodigal son of sorts. So, obviously, the ideal would’ve landed him squarely on the lap of an editor in a big publishing house. Pete would’ve ridden the wave of glory by my side, celebrating with me.
It didn’t happen.
However, I was not about to throw up my hands and shelve a book that I believe deserves to be read — although it probably goes without saying that anyone who embarks on writing a book believes this as well. The writing of a novel can consume years of our lives. The characters become boarders in our heads; they become the writer’s imaginative family, which is nothing to trivialize. And like any parent, you want the most for your kids. In selfish terms, they’re a reflection of you.
Unwilling to give up, I made the decision, with the help of my agent, to publish the book on my own. Anyone who even keeps a lazy eye on the publishing world realizes that self-publishing has exploded, due in large part to the accessibility of print-on-demand and the electronic book formats. While self-publishing is nothing new — Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass himself in 1887 — for a writer bent on a traditional publishing deal, it is different.
The decision to self-publish carries — perhaps, rightfully so — a number of questions and concerns for readers. The primary question being if the book was really that good, wouldn’t it have caught the eye of an editor somewhere, somehow? Is self-publishing just a way to circumvent the vetting done by editorial boards? These are legitimate concerns, and certainly things I had to consider before going through with the process.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle I had to overcome, however, was an issue of ego. Many people belittle books that are self-published, and, in some cases, deservedly so. But can’t the same be said for traditionally published books? The issue of ego, I believe, involves accepting a paradigm shift in publishing, which for some writers may never happen. But I’ve come to learn that self-publishing, when done well, is not lesser or a shortcut to avert the power arms in the traditional system. It is simply, as aforementioned, different; another path to building a readership.
Ultimately, the literary fantasy life is exactly that: a fantasy. Anytime you sit down and start typing the words with publication in mind, you are in the business of communicating ideas with readers. This singular objective should always be at the forefront of what you’re trying to accomplish, and the goal should always be to find eyes to read what you’ve written.
While Big Sur would be nice, having those readers should suffice.
You can read the first chapter of When We Were Locusts and purchase the novel on Nathan Graziano’s website, here.
Photo credit: ed_needs_a_bicycle/flickr