Thirteen years ago, soon after recording my first album THROAT, I became obsessed with getting a record deal. This obsession lasted for most of my twenties, largely because I understood that the music industry was a lot like high school, with a clear line dividing the cool kids and the nameless, the unpopular. I had spent my teenage years painfully on the wrong side of that line and I wasn’t going to allow that to happen again.
In the music world, the cool kids were the ones who were signed. To be unsigned, to be independent, was to be undesirable. Your music was obviously not good enough, because no institution wanted to get behind it, fund it, release it. It took releasing four independent records and six years until I did get signed by a boutique label in Paris. How’s that for cool? What I couldn’t have anticipated was that during those six years, thanks to the internet, specifically mp3s and MySpace, the compass flipped and suddenly signed bands were calling themselves independent. It was as though labels discovered that there was actually something inspiring about an independent artist’s underground popularity and DIY-hustle work ethic, which could easily be co-opted by re-branding their signed artists as “indie rock” or “indie pop.”
Less than two years later, I walked away from my label. It turned out that being signed meant my demos were repeatedly shelved because I wasn’t producing music the label wanted, music exactly like my previous record. It meant being told to take down specific photos from my website because I didn’t look “masculine” enough. It meant the bulk of the money I had made from my nominal advance went to my lawyer to secure my freedom once more—I paid thousands of dollars to be independent again. It also meant feeling genuinely broken-hearted and foolish for chasing a dream that ultimately didn’t validate my music or advance my career.
During this time, out of frustration and desperation to still be creative, I turned to writing what would become my first collection of short stories, God Loves Hair. As the book neared completion, conversations I had with author friends about publishing vs. self-publishing sounded eerily similar to the music world. I was told that self-published books were considered “vanity projects.” I could see the dividing line again, but this time I wasn’t going to be swayed. I decided to apply the same model I has used for eight years as an independent musician and invest in my story—in myself. I self-published God Loves Hair in 2010. Here are the highlights of what I learned from self-publishing:
1. Hire professionals. The number one lesson I learned from self-publishing was that people do judge a book by its cover. You might be a brilliant writer but many readers want to buy books that look and feel good. Invest in your writing and your book by paying a designer to create a great cover. Observe other book covers. Which ones stand out to you in a bookstore? What do you love about your favourite book covers? Also, invest in a designer to design your book so that it stands proudly next to published books. I can’t emphasize this point enough. Some people will want to dismiss your self-published book and a shoddy design will just give them permission to do so. Self-publishing can be expensive on the front end and a good designer will provide you options for how you can cut costs, but don’t try to save money by not hiring a designer. It doesn’t matter how good you think your Photoshop or InDesign skills are. You can employ those skills for your event posters and other book promotional material.
2. Be prepared to be rejected. Many local bookstores didn’t want to stock my book because it was self- published—though some of those stores changed their minds when they saw the book in person because it presented well (see above point). Large media outlets wouldn’t review it. There are many grants and awards that won’t consider self-published books (and now that the book is published, some of those same awards and grants still won’t consider the book because now it is deemed as a “reprint”).
3. Be prepared to be surprised. There is a huge audience that is hungry for and passionate about supporting DIY works. Find this audience by participating in local events, tabling at zine fairs and connecting with local writers.
4. Think and act like a publisher. If you self-publish, you need to see yourself not just as the writer, but also as the publisher. You are your own PR. No one is going to promote your work if you don’t. Tweet, Facebook, Instagram. Talk about your book. I remember feeling like there was nothing more obnoxious than saying, “I’m working on a book.” But when I had conversations with others about my work, they connected me to others—other writers/artists, book event organizers, and readers.
5. Be creative. In the absence of interest and acceptance from mainstream institutions (ie publishers, retailers, and press), I was constantly brainstorming different ways to promote my book. The book had illustrations, so I contacted tumblrs that featured illustrations. Because of the book’s queer content, I contacted various LGBTQ blogs and organizations, including a then-new duo called Everyone Is Gay who gives advice to LGBTQ youth. They didn’t review the book, but they generously tweeted about it and this past fall, four years later, we embarked on a 21-city book tour together.
6. Use your contacts.
I have built my career largely upon my mother’s wisdom:
It never hurts to ask. It was because I asked award-winning Toronto writer Farzana Doctor about how she kept the momentum for her book in the second year after its release that we ended up subsequently touring the U.S. together.
7. Say yes. In the year my book launched, I did almost three dozen book readings. I said yes to every invitation to read. Reading to a room full of strangers is incredibly vulnerable. Reading to an almost empty room of strangers is even more vulnerable. But you never know who is in your audience. I once did a reading for five people in an empty church on a rainy evening. I found myself wishing I had said, “No thank you” to the organizer’s invitation and instead was in bed watching Mad Men. One of the five attendants was a professor at a university who ended up adopting God Loves Hair as a textbook in her class for several semesters.
8. Give good read. Most writers are introverts and don’t see see themselves as performers. But I have learned that a great book reading that allows the audience to connect with the writing often results in book sales. I practiced reading in front of a mirror and/or to friends and found this very useful in developing dynamic presentation skills.
9. Believe in yourself. No, really. It’s strange and frustrating to consider that despite the dominant “believe in yourself” messaging that artists are pummelled with (and the even worse implication—that the lack of your success is due to not believing enough in yourself), the reality is that, sadly, the legitimacy of your work is most often measured by whether someone else, preferably an institution, believes in (and funds) you. Even after selling two thousand copies of God Loves Hair and being nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, I have occasionally felt the lack of this so-called legitimacy, in part because of my personal history, but largely because the ways my work has been dismissed by some in the literary world when I have uttered the words “self-published.”
Last year, Arsenal Pulp Press published a new edition of God Loves Hair (along with my new novel, She of the Mountains) and I am so grateful to them for believing in the book and helping it to reach new audiences. I am also grateful that I had the courage to self-publish, that I believed and invested in a book about a genderqueer child of colour, because I learned that it is possible to connect with readers without the backing of an institution. More importantly, God Loves Hair has given me the gift of knowing how it feels to stand behind my work and to legitimize it myself. There is nothing cooler than that.