The past is no fun and self-publishing is the worst: Ted Heller and solipsism

Those of you who are thinking about publishing your own books or already have—and I know you’re out there—should read Ted Heller’s “The future is no fun: Self-publishing is the worst” for a couple reasons, the most important being that it highlights the way self-publishing is probably not a path to fame and fortune for most of us. But Heller should also highlight that, for most of us, conventional publishing wasn’t a path to fame and fortune either.

He writes that he conventionally published three books between 2001 and 2011, then found that he couldn’t get a publisher for his fourth, West of Babylon. If he’d begun publishing in 1991 and had the same experience in 2001, that would’ve been it: self-publishing didn’t exist in a practical form, and now it does, which means his book at least has a chance.

It’s also clear that Heller is doing it wrong. He writes about sending review copies to newspapers and magazines (“I do everything I possibly can in about four or five paragraphs to inspire interest in whomever the email is sent to”), but that’s like me wanting to become a gigolo for female clients: the world just doesn’t work that way. Me wanting the world to work that way isn’t going to make the world work that way either. Newspapers and magazines barely review conventionally published books any more, and self-published books are explicitly forbidden by most of them; to the extent newspapers and magazines write about such books, it’s after they’ve become best-sellers (like 50 Shades of Grey).

Heller appears to have few personal connections with anyone at newspapers or magazines (“When I finally found contact information for someone at the show I’d been on, they did email me back [. . .] to politely tell me that they would not be having me back onto their show”), which means he’s wasting his time by sending out random P.R. e-mails. I know this. Why doesn’t he?

Heller doesn’t have a blog, as far as I can tell. He doesn’t say that he scraped the e-mails of everyone he’s ever corresponded with and sent a quick e-mail blast about his book. He apparently hasn’t been collecting the e-mail addresses of his readers. The price for West of Babylon —$8—is too high. It should be $3 – $5. The book sounds at best mildly appealing. Though the topic–has-been, 60-year-old rockers—makes me want to look elsewhere, it could be pulled off. Still, based on the description, I wonder: what’s at stake? Do I care about whether these guys can “pull the tour off?”

The Salon piece also makes Heller sounds like. . . I’m look for a euphemism but none come to mind. . . an asshole:

If there is one positive thing about this self-publishing business it is this: You separate the wheat from the chaff among your friends and acquaintances. Who is willing to lend a hand and who cannot wait to abandon you? Who will nudge someone they know and get your book to them and who just won’t even acknowledge your desperation or is laughing at you behind your back? Some people have been remarkable, others’ names are now forever etched onto my Eternal Personal Shit List.

Look, if your friend doesn’t like your book, it doesn’t mean shit, other than that your friend doesn’t like your book. I’m neutral towards 60% of the books I read, actively dislike 30%, and find 10% magical. Playing the straight odds, when a friend publishes a book, there’s a 90% shot that I’ll be neutral towards or dislike their book. The probability of me liking their book is probably lower, because the vast majority of books I read are books I choose.

When I start self-publishing, I doubt all my friends will like what I write. Which is okay. Having cancer and seeing who supports you and who doesn’t separates “the wheat from the chaff among your friends and acquaintances.” Publishing a book that you friends don’t love is hardly a reason to be “forever etched onto my Eternal Personal Shit List.”

Let’s examine the upside for a moment. Heller has a real chance to get his book in front of readers, which he wouldn’t have had ten years ago. He’s playing a game with low odds of success. Thousands of other writers, and maybe hundreds of thousands, are in the same game. But he’s living in a time when it’s possible to get in the game, and that itself is still something to celebrate.

EDIT: I should add that, based on what I’ve read, most writers at most major publishing houses get very little real marketing / PR help. The ones who do are the lucky exceptions. Throwing a stone into the ocean of literature and having it sink to the bottom is normal. Throwing a stone into the ocean of literature and having it turn into a cruise ship is not.

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