July 6, 2007

Personal essay: The good, the bad, and the ugly of self-publishing.

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(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

I just got done hanging out with my old childhood friend Ken Kase, where we spent almost an hour humorously complaining about something that is now a regular part of both our lives -- the Misguided and Expensive Vanity Project Sent Out to the Usual Small Press Places, that is. I'll explain...

Ken is a pop and jazz musician down in St. Louis, someone who's made quite a regional name for himself over the years, as well as occasionally sitting in with the nationally-known band The Sun Sawed In 1/2 for recordings and tours; he's also an accomplished jazz critic and essayist, who recently received a Masters in Communications from one of the top-five schools in the country regarding the subject. And last week, Ken was telling me, he received a CD for review that featured what was normally a group of well-known and respected jazz studio musicians, but was actually quite a terrible album; and that the more he dug into the subject online, the more he realized that the lead musician is in fact a member of a famous and rich family here in America, and that an elaborate and expensive marketing campaign has been quietly taking place behind the scenes, in order to effectively buy this mediocre musician a career. And it was working, too, precisely by this group using the same avenues and opportunities as any other basement press, garage label or self-publisher.

And let's face it; being in the underground arts for the last twenty years like I have, I've had plenty of opportunities to see such projects myself, from my old high-school punk days in the '80s all the way up to this website itself, which is what made me commiserate so much with Ken today over this story, and what kept us on the subject for nearly an hour to begin with. And that's because anytime you present an option for people to subvert the usual way of doing things, there are always going to be different kinds of people taking advantage of that option, for a host of different reasons: how if you're an optimist about self-publishing like me, it's very easy to paint a rose-tinted picture of the endeavor, a veritable underground factory of misunderstood geniuses, toiling away at a quiet revolution that allows them to directly communicate with their fans without any middlemen needed; while if you're a pessimist about self-publishing, you can just as easily ridicule the entire practice, declaim it as nothing more than a group of deep-pocketed, misguided, self-delusional fools, willing to throw perfectly good money at something no "real" publisher ever wanted in the first place. And this doesn't even count the aforementioned vanity projects, all the lawyers who think they're the next John Grisham, all the housewives who think they're the next Nora Roberts, all the church groups and civic organizations putting together a book mostly for posterity's sake, all the grandparents writing primarily for only their family in the first place, not to mention all the talented amateurs who simply thought it'd be fun to write a book, then offer it for sale at a print-on-demand place just because they can.

Whew! It's for this complexity, of course, that I love self-publishing so much to begin with; but I also acknowledge that it's the same thing that turns a lot of other people off the subject. And I also admit, there are a lot more bad self-published projects out there than there are good ones, an undeniable fact that critics of the endeavor use in an attempt to discredit the entire thing. What I argue, though, is that this is no different a situation than any other artistic endeavor you want to mention; that if you walked into the average book superstore on any given day, for example, and took a look at all the big mainstream books being published on any given day, the vast majority of those are going to be terrible as well. And the vast majority of college-radio bands; and the vast majority of slam poets; and the vast majority of television shows; and the vast majority of science-fiction novels.

I've always argued, and will always continue to argue, that this disproportion of good to bad projects is never a reason to dismiss an artistic endeavor; that indeed, without a situation where most artists are just not very good, we would be unable to have the appreciation we do for the ones who really are the best. And I mean this not only from an audience standpoint but from the view of all those artists too, which is something else I've said often; that if you want a really deep and complex appreciation for great artists, there's no better avenue than to try to produce a project in that medium yourself. I've tried singing in public before, for example, and know exactly what kind of crime against humanity it is; and that's what gives me a much greater appreciation for musicians who actually are good.

When you choose to bypass the usual mush spoon-fed to you by corporate interests in a mainstream world, you also choose to take on a wilder and more unregulated world; a world where there are less signposts available as to what's "good" or "bad," where there are a lot more charlatans who can get away with their games a lot more easily. As I've said here before, I believe in the idea of exercising one's mind as regularly as one does one's body; of occasionally sifting through a lot of random options available to a person, listen to a lot of college and community radio, check out a lot of blogs, take a chance on a lot of self-published material. It can be tedious at times, I grant you that; and as Ken and I laughed about today, you can definitely come across projects sometimes that make you roll your eyes and want to give up on the format altogether. I for one, though, think that the effort is worth the time, in that you discover more sincerely great projects and artists that way, ones you can form a more direct relationship with than through the usual mainstream filters of distributors and handlers and corporate partners and management teams and marketing experts. There's nothing in the arts like feeling you have a direct connection with the artists you admire the most; and there's no better way to do this than through the option of the underground, despite a lot of it admittedly sucking.

Anyway, just some thoughts to leave you with this warm and sunny Friday afternoon (or at least warm and sunny here in Chicago). By the way, Ken's thinking of moving to Chicago for good, which is what has him in town so often right now; also, he's recording a new album, believe it or not, of which he's posted a couple of sneak-preview tracks at his MySpace page. (MySpace, MySpace -- always with the MySpace with you musicians!) The next time he's visiting, in fact, I should finally have my new digital audio recorder; I'll probably be sitting down with him for an episode of the CCLaP Podcast, so I hope you'll look forward to that.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:12 PM, July 6, 2007. Filed under: Reviews |