Why You Should E-publish; Why You Should Not

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever. Why? Because being the first is a power trip. In this installment, he discusses the complexities of e-publishing. Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe.

Get out there on the blogosphere and you're going to run across it: strong words--yea or nay--about the merits of e-publishing. Some people argue that conventional publishing--that supreme waste of paper --is a holdover from a bygone era: like the human coccyx that is now a vestige of what once was a prehensile tail. They'll say that e-readers--Kindles, Nooks, ipads--have democratized the process, making it possible for the producers to market and ship and profit--all directly. They liken it to how, nowadays, small boutique organic farms can sell high quality, bowel-moving kale at prices that gouge neither the producer nor the consumer.

But there are a lot of naysayers, too. The most powerful voices among them point out that writers should spend time on, well, writing; they shouldn't get sucked up in marketing--blogging, campaigning, cover designing, tweeting, promoting--the vast muddle of dung-heap drudgery that paves the way for a book to become something you want to pick up. There's also an elitist edge: critics point out that it's more prestigious to conventionally publish, that this means your writing has been properly screened and edited. Allied to this is the aristrocratic feeling of holding an actual, concrete book--an artifact--in your hot little hands. According to the most vociferous critics of digital publishing, an e-book is an empty thing: smoke and mirrors; froth on the top of a mocha latte; nothing, really, nothing.

No doubt, there's some truth to both sides of this debate. I'm completely sympathetic to making my own money, sticking it directly into my own pocket and blowing it all on bubble gum. The most I ever made from a conventional publisher was fifty bucks and I was so happy, I promptly got into a fenderbender! But I also don't want to spend all my time on marketing and such. To boot, I'm a little less sympathetic to the idea that editors are going to give me a special approval. I've been publishing stuff conventionally since I was 21 and as soon as I lost my writing virginity--and every writer obsesses about that first moment of publication as if it were coitus--the siren call of seeing yourself in print was over. In one feel swoop, I not only lost my virginity; I lost my rights; I found this out the hard way. When my story was picked up for reprint they, sent me a check for fifty dollars and said "Hey, this is just a courtesy call. YOU don't really own this. We bought it off the journal that originally published that sad little shriveled up story."

I wonder if that was why I got into that little fender bender and stood out in the middle of two way traffic on one of the busiest intersections of Los Angeles wondering, not whether I was going to get run over, but whether I had insurance.

What you should realize, if you are considering e-publishing is that what is missing from the debate is a nuanced understanding that there are no absolute positions--no black and white stands--but idiosyncrasies, wrinkles, that reflect your place in the world. Count me lucky: I have already been approached twice now to be published with small, independent publishing houses for the three novels I'm writing. But I've graciously declined each offer. And my reasons are my own.

For me, what is really important to realize about the choice to e-publish and the choice to conventionally publish is all about you, your needs and your circumstances. Face it, you're a crazy loon if you think you're going to ever make a lot of money off this--so, really, the money question is entirely off the table. Instead, ask yourself this: What do you stand to gain from e publishing? What is it going to do for you? What do you lose if you get a real tree-based book out there? In helping you think through this key question, here are my major reasons for e-publishing my Detective Novel. It may not be YOUR reasons but I think it's important for me to articulate these reasons precisely because they are not your reasons and most probably will never be your reasons. You must find your reasons. So here goes:

1) I know I'm good: I've published and done all sorts of writing--conventional and artsy--and so I know that I can write as well as all my friends who are already published with award-winning books, movies, plays. I've even edited works by my friends...many of which went on to win awards. So I don't really need the approval of an editor. I know: the title of this subsection can also be called "arrogance."

2) The only reason for me to publish would be to get a tenure track job as a Creative Writing professor but I've already secured that. Publication--conventional publication--still is what counts in the world of academia. But guess what? I already spent many years doing that kind of drudge work...and found that it often was the impediment to true creative production. Most Creative Writing Professors never find a moment to write; they're too busy critiquing or grading or doing committee work. I taught Creative Writing in Iowa--the mecca of Creative Writing--at one of the top colleges in the country. So, I never want to go back to that. I've had my fill.

3) I also want zero interference from a publisher who will tell me to do crazy stuff. I don't even want to think about the possibility of an editor in the offing. I have had so many friends alter their manuscripts to pander to editors, marketers--all the hobgoblins of conformity--that hem you in. With Asian American mystery writers there is a special danger: the need to pander to the lurid or the stereotypical. I know that it might help an editor or a publishing house to have a character who is dealing with Triads and white slavery...so I'm not even going to have that kind of conversation.

4) I want to publish quickly. This doesn't mean I want to publish sloppily. But even after a book manuscript is revised, proofed and edited, conventional publication takes years and years and years. And this is not counting the submission process, which takes years and years and years. It's glacial. And I've had friends whose manuscripts, even after acceptance, take 3 years to finally appear in print. I know that if I publish these 3 detective novels expeditiously, I will definitely be the first ever Vietnamese American writer to pen a Vietnamese American Detective novel about a real Vietnamese American Detective. That's a coup. That's a power trip. That makes it worth the effort. If I diddle around for another 3 years, somebody with gumption and a computer--some whippersnapper--will beat me to the punch.

5) I want to keep my rights. Most writers don't realize that they lose their rights. Maybe not all of their rights. But at least some of them. You may lose your rights to turn your project into a movie, for instance. Or you may seriously impede the translation of your project into other projects--stage plays, radio broadcasts, etcetera. Writers are almost like migrant farm workers; they just sign on the dotted line because, like many people who keep their heads to the grindstone, they don't see the sky above. Now let's just be clear: I don't think, necessarily, that I'm going to be able to sell whatever I write to a movie studio. But I want to retain my rights just as I want to retain control over my body.

So, these are my reasons for e-publishing my book. If I have contributed to the conversation by articulating positions that you, dear reader, are trying to muddle through, than I have already exceeded expectations: this is awesome. But what most people should realize, as they decide whether or not to involve themselves in the process, is that everybody brings to the table a radically different set of experiences. There is no one cookie-cutter answer. Yet again and again, the blogosphere is filled with self-righteous people who think their position is correct. I have made my choice but I do so with the awareness that my position is probably not right for you; after all, how many former-creative-writing-professors-disenchanted-with-academia are writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Novel with the first Vietnamese American Detective? Few, my friend, few.