I’ve been writing since I was about eight years old. My first writing project was a collection of short stories about a pebble and his friends, and their adventures in a stream. I wrote four stories, one for each season. It seemed to me, after I wrote the first story, that the premise worked, so why not write additional ones?
I guess I’ve always thought big, right from the start.
Over the course of my childhood, I knew just what I wanted to be when I grew up — a writer. I wanted to write stories that would transport others, the way I was transported when I read what others wrote. Books were some of my best friends, because I could read what was written on the page and have my own experience. It was mine, all mine, and the problems I had with my hearing (it was difficult for me to distinguish between similar sounds like “b” / “v”, and “f” / “s”/ “th”) … well, they didn’t affect me, when I was reading.
I wrote a lot in the course of my childhood and youth. Short stories. Journals. And poetry. I believe I really discovered poetry, my sophomore year in high school, when a really great English teacher actually taught us to dig in and understand what was there. I still have my beloved Philosophy and Literature book in my active collection — in fact, it’s lying right beside me on my desk right now.
Over the years, I’ve written a lot. Much of it has never seen the light of day — and hopefully never will. I’ve written novels, essays, how-to guides, and a ton of poetry. I’ve had pieces published in “little magazines”, and I’ve put plenty of my words online. Now and then, it seemed like it was going to pay off for me in terms of a publishing contract… but something happened to kill the deals, and I went back to what I’d been doing before. Getting up and going to work each day, and writing when and where I could, in between discharging my daily duties.
Back in 1997, I had a book deal with an independent publisher. The company was in an adventurous mood, and they decided to take on a collection of short stories I’d written that were… shall we say, edgy. Then they relocated to the southwestern US. And then there was a flood at their warehouse, which destroyed 75% of their inventory. Suddenly, their adventurous mood changed, and they decided that maybe my book wasn’t to their liking. It was too experimental. It was too fringe. They found an editor to help me turn it into something more marketable, which resulted in nothing more than some heated arguments on all sides, a lot of side discussions, and the ultimate scuttling of the deal.
Of all the aspects of that extended exchange, the one thing that jumped out at me was the publisher’s exclamation of dismay, when I told her what I was working on, those days, besides an edgy, experimental collection of short stories. To their credit, they didn’t want to give up on me, and they were looking for something else of mine they could publish.
At the time, I was really digging into a collection of poems that were pushing to get out, and I was excited to share the news.
The publisher was less than enthused. “Poetry doesn’t pay!” she exclaimed. I protested to the effect that I was really happy with what was emerging, but she remained unimpressed. She wanted to know what I was working on that they could sell. To as wide an audience as possible.
I think that was one of the last relatively civil conversations we had.
That whole experience left me with a sour — no, acidic — taste in my mouth for years after that. It was true, “Poetry doesn’t pay”… at least in the sense of it not being the most financially viable art form. And being the sensitive soul that I am, I let it really get to me… and I went pretty much underground with my poetry for quite some time after that.
If I wanted to have my writing matter, it needed to be some other form.
So, I wrote some memoirs. And whittled away at some novels. And penned a bunch of essays. Some of it went public, a lot of it stayed private. I got another book deal to write a historical piece on Eleanor of Aquitaine… but that deal fizzled, as well, because three different publishing houses consolidated into one, and the market dried up for my sort of book.
Through it all, I couldn’t shake that echo in my head that “Poetry doesn’t pay!” I tried to focus on prose, I published memoirs and exposes. And I figured that would do it.
But you know what? The poetry was still there. And one afternoon in 2006, while vacationing in Provincetown, I pulled out my laptop, logged onto Lulu.com, and I published four collections of what I’d written over the years.
And it felt pretty fantastic. Just to have the books done and out there… fabulous.
They were pretty good-looking books, too. Well laid-out and thoughtfully created. Like I’d expect a poetry book to be. It was hugely gratifying, to be able to publish my own book — to see the finished product in my hand, and have it be, well, done. After all the years of hoping that someone else would notice, that someone else would “pick me up” and put my work out there… at last, I could do it myself. And for free.
It’s been over 10 years, since I started self-publishing with Lulu (and now I’m checking out Amazon’s CreateSpace), and it’s been an on-again-off-again affair. Being able to actually create your own books — or any other artistic creation you may need to express — and get them out there, is immensely gratifying. For those of us who grew up stymied by the editorial process and traditionally exclusive publishing models, this new world is a breath of fresh air like nothing else.
And now, it’s getting even better. I recently discovered Gumroad, which lets you publish and earn from your digital creations at rates that frankly kick the ass of mediums like Amazon, iStore, Paypal, even Lulu. Plus, they integrate with other sites like Booklaunch.io, so you can both get your work out there, and not be penalized by high participation costs.
All this is pretty amazing and exciting. And it seems the logical progression of technology as a tool to empower individuals in ways that were never possible before. There’s a lot more to say about this, but the bottom line (for this piece, anyway), is that with technology, you can now reach more people than ever, and you can sell at truly accessible prices, earning from exposure, rather than approval of a select few cultural gatekeepers.
Now, like never before, it’s possible to actually make money from doing good things for other people. Because you can create that good and send it out to a vast sea of individuals and make it available for them in ways that let them return the favor in ways that don’t keep them from putting food on the table. $.99 for a song or $1.99 for a book is very doable. You don’t have to weigh the pros and cons and decide between a book and a nice dinner, like you do with a hardback edition. Nobody actually has to suffer in the new equation. Not like before.
And that’s a beautiful thing.
I’m reformatting my print poetry books and putting them out there on Gumroad in various forms, to see what takes and what doesn’t… to see what works and what won’t. It’s all an experiment, and because the cost and barriers to entry are so low, I have plenty of freedom to try new things and see if any of it works.
It’s very cool. Maybe, just maybe, poetry will start to pay, after all.