Saturday, October 4, 2008

Why Self-Publish?


Thirty years ago I wrote a novel called Famous Potatoes. No big publisher would touch it (“too quirky”), so I self-published. By doing it myself, I got to choose the design and layout and general “feel” of the book. And I got to include illustrations, which no big publisher would have allowed.

I must have done something right. Seymour Lawrence/Delacorte saw the book while it was still in galleys and bought the rights. They kept the illustrations and general feel of the book - after all, that’s why they bought it - and then they designed a new book jacket while staying true to the spirit of the novel.

I got a savage review in the New York Times. My wife printed some quotes on a T shirt: “Stupefying dullness and improbability” on the front, “Mawkish” on the back. I wore it with pride. Loathed by Manhattan, I got a reputation as an “underground” writer.

Famous Potatoes was translated into seven languages. It went out of print 25 years ago, but I kept getting letters. With the advent of the internet, I started getting e-mails. They’re still coming, not just from the USA but also from Germany, Australia, Japan, France, Israel, Great Britain, South Africa, and lately from Italy. They usually say something like “I found Famous Potatoes on a bookshelf in some dusty hut in Guatemala when I was hitchhiking to Tierra del Fuego, and I just wanted to tell you how much I liked it.” They never say they bought the book; it seems people passed it hand-to-hand. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t make much money from it.

Now an Italian publisher wants to reissue Famose Patate in Italy and wants me to promote it in conjunction with the Piacenza Blues Festival - which I’ve never heard of, but it sounds like fun. Folks, I never get invited to anything. Well, okay, once, ten years ago I got invited to accept an award and give a speech in Hershey, Pennsylvania. But Italy! I’m thrilled!

In a few weeks, I’ll self-publish Clear Heart. Again, no big publisher would touch it (“too quirky”). No illustrations with this one - I couldn’t afford them - but I like the look and feel of the book so far. Maybe the podcast of Clear Heart is the illustration. I still have an offbeat audience, so I still don’t expect good treatment from the New York Times. Another T shirt, perhaps. But maybe, thirty years from now - should I live so long - just maybe, somebody will invite me to a do-wop festival in China.

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