Garrison Keillor on Self-Publishing

Today’s must-read.  Garrison Keillor signals the death of publishing and the birth of…something else:

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a Web site. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to Lulu.com or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris (sic – in the NY Times no less) and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check and our babies got shoes. But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And the New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, will vanish (POOF) whose imprimatur you covet for your book (“brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light” — NY Times). And editors will vanish.

The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.

Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn’t work anymore, alas.

Another must-read.  Many publishing bigwigs – including alt-publishing bigwigs – take issue with this.  A sample:

“The fallacy in all these apocalyptic pronouncements is to confuse ‘publishing companies,’ especially the New York ones, with ‘the publishing industry.’ Some companies are absolutely ill-equipped to deal with the ways the marketplace of reading has changed, some are fumbling toward a solution, and some are laying the foundations for enduring success. There will always be readers; the question is: Who is ready to put in the work of reaching them?”Ron Hogan

Personally, I don’t think he’s that far off and don’t really understand the outrage.  The reaction seems overly defensive to an opinion piece that was very subtly satirical in Keillor style.  There is a sort of Andy Rooney-vibe about being befuddled by the present day, but the fact is the old days of publishing when Keillor came of age had some value.  What he doesn’t seem to understand is that there are other types of acceptance and rejection than what’s doled out by an editor – book buyers, for one. Still, there’s a sort of wistfulness when he says – “It was beautiful, the Old Era. I’m sorry you missed it” – as if saying, I’m sorry I’ll be missing the future.

  • What I found most telling and poignant was Keillor’s description of finishing his manuscript (I suspect he was referring to ‘Lake Wobegon’), popping it in the manila envelope and sending it off to a New York publisher – whimsical and almost sentimental – it was if he was overcome by the complexity of the publishing world now.

    Henry, in your above quotes, you’ve underlined the point Keillor and Hogan were making. On the one hand publishers have disconnected themselves from authors, and on the other side of it (Hogan’s view), that disconnection now exists between publisher/reader.

    A couple of nights ago a poster on AbsoluteWrite’s SP Forum responded to my own post (obviously irked by my suggestion that the role of writer and publisher was changing). Their view? Writers should just write – nothing more. And the publisher’s customer was the bookstore not the reader.

    Strange how the two most important things in all of this are now (in the commercial publishing world at least) are isolated islands. Had Keillor reflected on this – I think he would have considered it sad too.

  • klcrumley

    >>And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.<<<

    HAHAHAHA! I Love how they still think we're only read by immediate family. My family (with the exception of my Aunt who gets a free signed copy) doesn't read fantasy, NOR do they own kindles. They're all "what's that…kin…that thing you always talk about…"

    So SOME PEOPLE not related to me are buying my stuff, and I have no idea who they are…but it's great to see. There are a LOT of indies out there doing even better than me, and they are an inspiration…I hope to achieve their levels of success.

    $1.75???!!!??? LOL!!!! That's delusional. I may not have made myself a millionaire but I have made a decent profit my first MONTH at self-publishing. And, that was only with one anthology, before I knew as much about indie publishing as I do now…
    It's all uphill from here.

    This article kind of sounds like he's accusing us of practicing medicine without a license.

    It's laughable more than insulting.

  • sleepyjohn

    Ah, the Good Old Days. “Do you mean before or after penicillin?” a friend of mine always lobs at those who trot out this nonsensical delusion.

    “Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I’m sorry you missed it.”

    Well, I was there and I can tell you I don’t miss it – typewriters, carbon copies, manila envelopes and stamps! I loathed typing so much that I would write a book completely in my head before ever taking the lid off the typewriter, then shove in two carbons, lock the door, unhook the phone and type the final draft straight off. Mind you, I waited a lot longer than a month for an acceptance letter and I never got a ‘large sum of money’. I wonder if he pines for chiselling stone tablets and carting them to New York on a wheelbarrow? Or is it just his own tiny sliver of time that he can cope with? Patronising twerp.

  • I spotted this article online last week via someone on my Facebook friends list who posted it as a link. Well, I commented that it takes hard work to be a self-published author (which I am) and that it is my belief that it can take even more work self-publishing than it does to get published the traditional route. My reasons for this are the abundance of work we have to do to promote our books and the different hats we have to wear – website design, cover design, editing, marketing, socializing, etc, etc, etc.

    Needless to say I was berated by the individual who posted the link because she apparently worships the ground that publishing houses walk on. I felt like this article was slapping self-published authors in the face and telling us exactly what Karen Crumley pointed out, that we are trying to practice medicine without a license. Ridiculous!

    I for one don’t have anything against publishing houses as a whole – if that’s the thing for you. But frankly, I want to keep the rights to my creative creations and don’t need a huge panel of people that don’t even know me telling me what I can or can’t publish.

  • I’ve always hated Keillor’s condescending nostalgic folksy crap.

  • The good old days are not what I considered the good old days. I always hated the idea of gatekeepers in the publishing industry, who have been magically anointed to determine who is worthy to get into print and who is not. Thank goodness for a new era where anyone can express their creativity in a variety of forms. No one has the right to stifle creativity. Had it not been for the opportunity to self-published, I’d be begging at the door and probably die never seeing my dream fulfilled. It’s ludicrous to think the traditional route is the only proper route.

    The remainder of the statements regarding who reads and how much we make as self-published authors is ignorant to say the least. Undoubtedly, as self-published authors we have put far more sweat and work into our writing. I know I’ve paid more dues than some of my traditionally published peers who can’t even spell a word right in an email. No doubt, somebody corrects their errors in editing and polishes them into something they are often not.

  • Want to chime in b/c I wonder if I misread his piece. I’m no great proponent of the gatekeeping system, but I do think he’s partially kidding – talking about carbon paper. Who longs for that? Nobody – it’s like longing for the days before email.

    It’s sort of like the argument against word processors. People have made that too, and there’s some truth to it. People write differently, more carefully, when you can’t just cut and paste or run spell check. But word processors are amazing and haven’t destroyed literature.

    And the gatekeeping process isn’t totally terrible. 40 years ago it meant something different than it means today. Now it means, how much a book can sell, not how good it is. Keillor doesn’t really get into that. But when he writes, “Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers,” I read that he’s (at least partially) kidding. Because torture is torture. Moving away from that is a good thing.

    But perhaps I’m giving him too much credit.

  • sleepyjohn


    I thought at first it was tongue-in-cheek, but decided at the end that it did not quite ring true as such. The apparent self-parody seemed to barely conceal a genuine, wistful longing for the past when writers like him were a cut above the rest, before the hoi polloi were allowed into the Club: the Good Old Days of expensive brandy, cigars and manila envelopes in the post to immediately adoring publishers, now usurped by a raucus, roiling raggle-taggle of talentless digital didicoys.

    If it was meant to be subtly humorous then I think he needs to improve his communication skills a bit.

  • I smell the same fear that must have been present when the Tyrannosaurus Rex saw the meteor enter earth’s atmosphere.

  • What used to work for writers only worked for a very few. Now funny people like me (funny ha-ha) can take a chance at making the whole world laugh: http://www.hotdishing.com

    Kate Mohler