How Not to Break Into Publishing

One of the fun thing about being at home for a weekend is that I get to see a close-up view of the death of the American newspaper. When I was a kid, Binghamton had two daily papers, the Sun-Bulletin and the Evening Press, published in the morning and evening, respectively (bet you couldn’t’ve guessed that). They merged into the Press and Sun-Bulletin in the early 80’s, and ave been declining ever since. These days, it takes about fifteen minutes to read the whole thing cover to cover. Twenty on Sunday.

Today’s edition, though, includes a story on self-publishing, which is a sad reminder that more people need to know about Yog’s Law:

Money always flows toward the writer. Alternate version: The only place an author should sign a check is on the back, when they endorse it.

From the Press and Sun-Bulletin story:

“I don’t want to die leaving my stories in the garage, barn or attic, thinking that no one’s ever going to read them.” said [Stephen] Poleskie, 71, of Ithaca.

So he contacted Wasteland Press, which produced his book, “Grater Life,” which might remind readers of Mitch Albom’s 1997 bestseller, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” a true story that chronicles the lessons of life Albom learns from his dying professor. Poleskie’s book is a fictional account of a developing friendship between a man dying of AIDS and the volunteer who visits him.

It’s not the first book that Poleski, who retired as a visual arts professor at Cornell University in 2000, has self-published. He previously contracted to have his novel, “The Third Candidate,” produced by Wasteland Press, which publishes about 500 books each year. The cost to Poleskie: $1,200. What he got: 150 copies of his paperback book, a full-color cover design, an ISBN bar code and 100 press releases sent out nationally announcing publication of his book.

This is practically a perfect example of the sort of thing Jim Macdonald and other talk about. And, indeed, the links in the sidebar of the article include several vanity presses that are listed as “not recommended” by Preditors and Editors, including AuthorHouse and XLibris.

Of course, there’s a big difference between people who see self-publishing as a way to route around the normal gatekeepers of publishing and achieve fame and fortune without needing to deal with pesky agents and editors, and those who merely want a small number of copies of their book just to see it. Those in the latter category are better off going with Lulu than anything else in the links on that article, though Writer Beware does include a positive recommendation of RJ Communications for those seeking to self-publish.

Sadly, the Press and Sun-Bulletin article hopelessly muddles the two categories, and is probably doing its readers a disservice as a result. The stories of self-published books that made it big are also no help.

As for Poleskie, which category is he in? Well…

At one point, while he was teaching at Cornell, Poleskie said he did have a reputable literary agent for a two-year period. “But he wanted me to change everything I’d written for one of my books. He promised me the moon and the stars if I would do things his way, but that wouldn’t have been honest, so I decided he wasn’t the right agent for me.”

Getting to the point where you’re signing checks on the back is going to involve some changes to your deathless prose. That’s the way the business works. Signing checks on the front to avoid that is not doing yourself any favors.