Author, Publish Thyself! New Directions Online for Big Publishing's Rejects and Refugees

Adrien Field, a stylist for Vibe and a fashion blogger, is working on a new novel, about the world of New York stylists, and he’s confident that he can get it published. “Between Vibe, writing for the Huffington Post, my blog, going out and gathering press about myself–I don’t know anyone as compelling as myself.” He looked befuddled for a moment. “People get books published, and they’re writing from Kazakhstan.”

As irresistible as Mr. Field may find himself, the publishing industry did not feel compelled to pick up his previous effort, The Making of a Social Climber. So Mr. Field self-published it through Amazon’s CreateSpace print-on-demand service after releasing a series of chapters on his blog. He sold about 100 copies. “I would have made more money as an Indian slave making minimum wage,” he said.

Mr. Field wrote the novel, a roman à clef about socialites in New York, a year after he moved to town to study at N.Y.U. (He later dropped out.) He told The Observer that he sent about 100 queries to agents. “I used Google to make sure I was doing it the right way,” said Mr. Field. “I personalized it, I made sure all the punctuation was in the right place.”

Although the 22-year-old Mr. Field received some positive feedback, and even landed a literary agent (who later quit his job), the novel went nowhere. Despite the rejections, Mr. Field viewed the novel as a document that could further his career.

“It’s definitely satire,” he said, “a peek inside the velvet curtain, as it were–and almost a sociological time capsule of a group of young people.” A typical sentence reads: “When Julien had made it back home on the Upper East Side, he set about completing his malevolent plan.”

With prose so accessible, and surely more commercial appeal than your average Kazakh novelist, why did Mr. Field not hold out for an interested publisher?

“It’s gonna gather dust–not to sound corny and New Age, but it’s about what you put out there.” Mr. Field no longer advertises the book on his blog, but he believes a book deal may still be in the cards.

But as the possibilities and ease of self-publishing–once merely the province of Grandpa’s memoirs in the “vanity press” era–increase, some writers are seeking anything but attention from the industry establishment.    

“I went out of the country for a week the day that I published it,” said Gabe Delahaye, a 32-year-old comedian who recently put a link for downloading a PDF of his historical novel about drifting hustlers, titled Detroit and the Kid, on his personal blog, “and I don’t think that was entirely coincidental. Just in case anyone said anything about it, I won’t be here.”

For Mr. Delahaye, online self-publication was less a matter of self-promotion than of purging a former self. He wrote the novel in 2003 while pursuing a master’s at the University of Chicago. He’d worked at Random House and “got into McSweeney’s–I mean, got into reading McSweeney’s” in the years between college and graduate school.

“I’m very proud to have written it. If I know someone well enough, I will slip in that fun fact at a party. I didn’t write a novel during novel-writing month; I sat down and wrote it,” said Mr. Delahaye. He views book publishing as a meritocracy, where the traditional metric of success is earned by producing work of high quality, a metric he did not hit with his early work. “I don’t write fiction because I was told I’m not good at it. Books should take a lot of time–you have to make it worth existing, worth killing all those trees, or all those Nooks or whatever.”

But if the book never satisfied him, then why put it online? Why not let it disappear?

“It wouldn’t have been my first choice, necessarily,” said Mr. Delahaye, “to have it as a hyperlink to a PDF download on a Web site no one reads, 10 years later.” Like Mr. Field, he figured someone out there would enjoy reading his work. “There’s 10 people in the world who want to read it besides my mom. Why not let those 10 readers read it?”

Not all who self-publish do so from a lack of options, but the desire to locate the ideal reader is a common thread.

Bill Knott, a 71-year-old poet, had since the 1960s been widely reviewed, publishing not just with small presses but with Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Random House. Yet Mr. Knott fought to reclaim the copyright to his work from his publishers so that he could self-publish his work on, a print-on-demand service that also produces free downloadable PDFs.

In 2008, Mr. Knott used his blog to address FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi: “I’ve begged you in private communications again and again to follow the standard procedure of remaindering my book and granting reversion, and you’ve refused. I now beg you openly, through the only medium I have to reach you, please relent.”

“It was clear that for Bill,” Mr. Galassi told The Observer, “being published by us wasn’t good for him psychically”; in what Mr. Galassi called “an extraordinary case,” rights reverted to Mr. Knott.
Mr. Knott does not stand to benefit financially from his work’s publication online–the cost of a paperback only defrays its production and shipping. “At this point in my life,” he told The Observer, “I simply want to try and find as many readers as I can for the work I’ve created over the past half-century.” In fact, Mr. Knott sometimes spends money on freelance editors, operating at a loss: “You gotta pay for it whichever way you go. If you go with a ‘real’ publisher, you gotta pay in other ways.”

And while finding readers is more difficult without the mechanics of a publishing house, Mr. Knott was frustrated by the lack of control he could exercise during his years under what he called “un-self-publishers.”

“I would never have asked Gerald Stern,” said Mr. Knott, “a poet I loathe, to write a blurb for my book,” as did Random House in the 1980s. Indeed, given full creative control, Mr. Knott started a recent book with pages of critics’ vitriol. “It’s a Nietzchean thing. I look at those reviews and I say, ‘All right, you bastards.’”

Now, in addition to writing new poetry, Mr. Knott shuffles books on his Lulu backlist in and out of print as he places poems in new contexts. He is working on culling a book of poems on acting into a book of poems about film. “On my Facebook page, when I announce the new books, I get a few thumbs up.”

Mr. Knott–whose ambitions now begin and end with publishing online–is on the vanguard. Steve Roggenbuck, a 23-year-old poet and an M.F.A. student at Columbia College Chicago, places his poems online as free chapbooks, both in PDF format and as long click-through slideshows. His new book, released March 1, is called Helvetica, and the title betrays Mr. Roggenbuck’s fetish for design. Mr. Roggenbuck isn’t wedded to the idea of making “books” and i
sn’t sure why poetry is different from other writing that generates memes online. “I’ve been putting a lot of effort into my tweets lately. Or considering them like I consider poems.” Mr. Roggenbuck mentioned that he often prints out Twitter users’ entire histories to read on the train. “It just helps you to appreciate it and take it in and pay attention to the whole.”

Rather than a conduit for careerism or a depository for moribund work, the Internet is for Messrs. Roggenbuck and Knott a safe place for poetry experimental in form or presentation. Mr. Roggenbuck said that after losing money on printing his first chapbook (also available online, and only partially funded by donations), he plans to start selling merchandise. “Any of the Helvetica poems would make good T-shirts or stickers.” Yet he doesn’t like the concept of charging for access to his work. “There’s a lot of stuff in Marxism that I only have a loose grasp on–‘commodity fetishism’ is a phrase that gets used–and I feel like that’s related.”

Mr. Delahaye had once wanted to turn his work into a commodity, as Mr. Field still does, but now they may at least draw some feedback, and, in Mr. Field’s case, publicity–he mentioned frequently and in incantatory tones the title of his next novel. “The best thing that can happen is, you contact me and we’re having this conversation. If you write this, it’ll be re-blogged by Gawker. That’s the goal of any self-published author: recognition from the industry.” :: @DPD_ Author, Publish Thyself! New Directions Online for Big Publishing's Rejects and Refugees