Friday, August 29, 2008

Ambition, Contests, Self-Promotion, Self-Publishing, or Not

This morning I mailed off the signed book contract to my publisher Roxanne Hoffman (Poets Wear Prada). It is a landmark of sorts.

When I came to the States five years ago, to begin my creative writing MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, I aimed to to publish my first book of poetry within a year of graduation. Three years have passed since then, and those three years saw much hope, disappointment, and self-doubt, not a downward slide, but a frictionless oscillation of feelings. From writers, readers, teachers, strangers would come words of encouragement, but the words did not translate into the Word. I stopped submitting my manuscript to first book contests since the enormous number of entries, the unaccountable taste of judges, and the baseless thrill of anticipation combined to give the contests the flavor of a lottery. The winner is truly lucky, favored by the gods.

Three years is not a long time, for those with Job's patience. For me, if I didn't curse god, rail at the powers-that-be, I would have fallen into myself, and this entire enterprise--coming to America to write a book, to make a life--would have become absurd. I have the egotistical ambition to be non-absurd. 

True, Payday Loans was published in April 2007, but that is a chapbook, and, much as I still like the 30-sonnet sequence, it does not contain my best work. I saw it partly as a kind of promotional trailer for the full-length movie that, as 2007 slid into 2008, did not get made. Why weren't the hordes stumping their way to my door to beg me to let them publish me? (Three first person pronouns in that last sentence, appropriately.) To continue with the film metaphor, I don't want to be a one-minute clip on Youtube, but to be a summer blockbuster in multiplexes across America. 

Perhaps I am not getting the new technology, and the new reading and viewing culture. Certainly I still don't have a handle on traditional literary publishing in this country. Curious, and with time on hand, I started a blog, Song of a Reformed Headhunter, at the end of 2005. Then I signed up for Facebook. Then friends like Roxanne invited me to join Linkedin and Goodreads, and other professional and book marketing groups such as Poets & Writers Registry, and Book Marketing Network. Then videos became the in-thing, and there was a rush to post videos of poetry readings on Youtube and MySpace. Alumni associations jumped into the act, and I received emails urging me to set up my own page on their website. Now there is something as specific as a website to rank poetry blogs (called, you guess it, Poetry Blogs Ranking), and I've joined that. 

When is enough enough, or is it never enough? One can spend every free minute on the Internet, sharing, promoting, connecting, and still feel more can be done. What happened to the good old days when writers wrote and publishers published? Those good old days are, of course, more apparent than real. Many writers published their own stuff, out of necessity or choice, and became their own salesman and bookseller. The Internet has made it easier and cheaper to do so, and so a lot more writers are getting into the game. 

After reading about such self-publishing print-on-demand services like Lulu and Amazon's CreateSpace, I was drawn to the possibility of controlling the entire operation from writing to selling. Having such total control is godlike, but it also seems to me a full time job. I will have to spend hours learning how to design and format a book, to set up and advertise an e-store, and to deliver orders. More crucially, the operation will take time away from writing, my reason for doing this in the first place. That is why I decided to go with Roxanne finally. And why I'm so glad she wants to publish my book. 


Patricia Markert said...

Dear JeeLeong,
I am always inspired by your industry and discipline. Your blog (Headhunter) does not get nearly as many comments as readers. That last sequence of poems on Bacon's triptych--is marvelous. Your work deserves to be read by a big audience. I wonder if you would rather publish less prose on this blog, and just post your poetry?

Whatever you do, I will be looking for fresh work, because I love to read what you write.


Jee Leong Koh said...

Dear Patty,
Thanks for your encouraging remarks. They mean a great deal to me. I hope to post a poem from the new book every Saturday on this blog, and post fresh work on my Headhunter blog.

Jee Leong