Favorite Book Columnists & The Slog of Self-Publishing

The other day I was thinking about book columns.  I have always preferred columns to reviews.   And then I was startled to realize I read only two book columns now, “NB” by J.C. at the TLS and “Well Read” by Robert Weibezahl at BookPage.

There must be more than two book columns.  Do you know of any?  We like the personal voice.  When a writer publishes a column, we get to know his or her taste. No pretense of being objective:  columnists are  allowed to speak out.

There are witty columnists, and there are serious columnists.  J.C., the author of NB, falls into the witty category.   In a recent column, one of the items he wrote about was “the George Gissing Book Club.”  He says, “We do our bit for the cause. Most recently (NB, October 20), we listed the works of Gissing available in Italian, mentioning in passing a short novel we admire, Eve’s Ransom (Il riscatto di Eva, in case you’ve forgotten). It is, we suggested, ‘hard to find in English.’”

Then an irate reader wrote a note to him claiming Eve’s Ransom was not hard to find: the Idle Bookshop in Bradford had seven copies.   J.C. pointed out that Bradford is four hours away  by train.   I myself have now ordered a copy of Eve’s Ransom (Dover, 1980) online:  it’s cheaper than Bradford.

Robert Weibesazhl, on the other hand, devotes his literary columns to criticism:   Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays, Russian translations by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and James Wright’s poetry.  He does not write in a personal voice, but I take his criticism as seriously as I do  The New York Times.

Who are your favorite book columnists?  There must be more columnists out there.

THE SLOG OF SELF-PUBLISHING. Poets publish chapbooks.  Self-published memoirists take control of their  lives.  There is always a local writers’ section at bookstores.  One day I was buying a copy of a novel by the Native American writer James Welch when a man briskly entered the bookstore and asked if anyone had bought his self-published book.

He said to me, “You look like someone who would enjoy it.”

“Thank you,” I said, for no reason I can fathom. I hurried out of the store.

I did not fall into that trap with my own book,  Between the Pages:  Reflections on Reading, by Kathleen Adelaide.  (You can find it by typing  in Kathleen Adelaide at Amazon.)  I published it only as a Kindle e-book, because the readers would be family, friends, and a few bloggers.  My husband has given me my first blurb, “A good book to read at the gym.”  And he is now reading Pamela Hansford Johnson, as a result of reading at the gym.

The book is very short, really a pamphlet.  Most of my reviews and essays were published in the 20th century in little magazines and newspapers.  Most of the books are now forgotten or out-of-print.

The  process of self-publishing was difficult for me, a techno-primitive.   How could I upload the manuscript at Kindle Direct Publishing?  I had to convert the document into plain text or epub or something.  I had no idea how to do it. I got it after a couple of hours.  My husband thought I should change the cover.  I found a nicer image, but it took an hour to adjust the pixels.  And now I am far too tired to figure out how to superimpose the title on the cover. The Amazon-generated cover is fine.

The cheapest price for an ebook is now $2.99.  I had thought more in the spirit of alternative papers:  I do wish it were free.  I used to organize readings by novelists at conferences and colleges.  My students would attend for extra credit, but hardly anyone bought the books.

The best thing about publishing my book? I want to reread all these old books I loved. And I recently reread Susan Richards Shreve’s Queen of Hearts, and it is even better than I thought in 1986.  Why is it out-of-print?

Here is an excerpt from my review of Shreve’s novel.

In The Arabian Nights, cunning Scheherazade tells a thousand and one magical tales that divert a bloodthirsty sultan’s murderous intentions.

If the legendary Scheherazade were cast as the heroine of a contemporary novel, she might be a lot like Francesca Woodbine, the pop singer with second sight who stars in Susan Richards Shreve’s enchanting novel.

Francesca is no ordinary pop singer. It takes an artist as intuitive as she to penetrate “the secret lives of ordinary people.” Thwarted composers, teenage Don Juans, would-be snake charmers, and lion tamers range the streets of her seemingly humdrum hometown in the guise of housewives, sexy boys, harmless booksellers, and cat lovers. In her songs, Francesca unveils their hidden passions and crimes.

Let me know about your own experiences in self-publishing.  Isn’t it wonderful that we can all have our own books now for family and friends?

16 thoughts on “Favorite Book Columnists & The Slog of Self-Publishing

  1. Good luck with your book! I have it penciled in to read whenever I crawl out from under my current, mainly work-related, reading.

    I decided to try self-publishing my own fiction because the only thing I found more disheartening than my failure to get agented as a fiction author was the humiliations amanda hoop-jumping one has to endure in order to get scholarly work published. But with one click of a mouse I could upload my manuscript onto Amazon and make it available to the world! I too wanted to make my books cheap and easily available so that anyone could read them, ina kind of samizdat.

    Alas, I have not been one of the make-it-rich-quick success stories yet, but people do occasionally buy my books, so that’s gratifying. I also find that the formatting is very intimidating, I Save As my .doc or .docx files as .html files and then upload, which has been easy enough. Pro tip when KDP tells you they’ve found bunch of typos, check them all even if you know that most of them are character names and the like. Turns out I can’t reliably spell chieftain or harness, and neither could any of my proof readers,

    Covers are more of a trial but I am slowly coming to grips with InDesign, so perhaps one of these days I’ll get it! Making even a single and rather plain cover is many tedious hours of work, though!

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    • Elena, this is so helpful to me. I’m exhausted by the process, and wonder why the template can’t be as easy as blogging? And you’re right about the typos: I had typed old reviews into the computer, and hadn’t proofread carefully enough, so I fixed them AFTER it was published. And they ARE fixed on my e-book, thank goodness.

      I’m very interested in reading your fiction. I didn’t bother to go the agent route, because a collection of reviews would be uninteresting to publishers. I wanted to collect my “best of” so I could throw out the clippings.

      So much published today is very shallow. There’s a type of millennial women’s fiction, about pretty women who can’t cope and are almost completely passive. Well, I can’t cope either, but women’s fiction used to be more…shall I say strong? I don’t know what is going on with literary women writers today, but I find it distressing.

      As for agents, I do have a close friend who published, and it took her years. She had great social skills, and eventually met someone who knew someone who knew someone. I do have the feeling that connections are very important. I have read some stunning new books, but I’m not necessarily reading for the New York Times market or the Washington Post market. And that’s why I probably read more classics than new books. And I met a woman at a conference who got an agent: she is a good writer, but did write “issue” fiction. You know, kind of Oprahish. She is a lovely person and deserved the break, but bizarrely some of the best writers at these conferences have never been published, to my knowledge. There is a market, and one has to know it.

      I’ll look forward to reading your fiction. I DO have time, so I’ll make a point of it.

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      • Thanks, and I’m happy to pass in any formatting or whatever tips, although I can’t exactly claim to be an expert! The other thing I’ve found that is helpful is a free program you may already know called Calibre that will convert your manuscript to different types of files. Let’s say you downloaded a Mobi version of your book from the KDP website when you were uploading the book, but now you need an ePub or a PDF. Calibre will make that conversion for you very quickly and easily.

        Of course I’m always thrilled when people are interested in my fiction! The books are available quite cheaply in Amazon or I’m always happy to send people free copies, since I’m mainly interested in having them read rather than extracting money from readers. Anyone who wants copies should just let me know! The books are called The Midnight Land and The Breathing Sea and they are part of an epic fantasy series set in a Russian matriarchal society. So they are definitely not everyone’s cup of tea to be sure. I think that I have something in the press release about a combination of high fantasy and literary fiction, packed with allusions to Russian literature, that subverts both ancient and modern constructions of gender. I meant that as a warning but it doesn’t always scare people off as much as it should.

        Anyway, it’s a fun thing to think about and I totally agree with the problem of contemporary female characters who seem very passive and helpless. I’ve read some interesting stuff about modern women being so overcommitted that they enjoy retreating into a fantasy world where other people take care of them. Hmm, perhaps I should mention that my own female characters often start off passive and helpless and the books are about them figuring out how to break out of that. But when I encounter some of these modern heroines I can’t help but think that the heroines of Jane Austen or Fanny Burney, or even LM Montgomery, would eat them for breakfast 🙂

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  2. What both your blog and your publication have reminded me is the importance of making time to re-read some of those books which have been influential in my life for whatever reason. I know that I can’t let those books go but they do no more than sit on a shelf year in and year out. I may have to add one re-read to the monthly ‘to do’ list.

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    • There are so many great books! I do love rereading. I had fondly remembered Queen of Hearts, and it has stood the test of time, but some books are only for their time. I have occasionally weeded the wrong books. It’s hard to fit everything on the to-do list, though I like to make lists too!

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  3. I bought your book the other day and am almost finished with it. It’s just as I expected: intelligent and interesting. I hadn’t heard of many of the books. Like you, I always enjoy the personal touches in essays or reviews or blog posts. It is the perfect book for me to take my mind off, briefly, the stresses and nervousness of moving.

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    • Oh, I’m glad–and you’re very kind! Blogs are the closest thing we have to book columns now, I think. I swear I used to read them in newspapers and some magazines. We do like bloggers for their voices.

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  4. I self published several non fiction books in the 90’s. These were documentations of silverplate patterns and companies based on original research — specialized stuff, but interesting to collectors and other specialists. There is no general market for such books. Technology was different then. I made copies or printed at home and bound with plastic combs. Sold through dealers or, most successfully, through eBay buy-it-now. Sold about 1500 copies of my most successful book, the one on the Vintage pattern. Made a little money but time-wise I would have earned more at McDonalds. I looked into Amazon at the time but you had to have a ISBN number and it didn’t seem worth the trouble. Now I would probably do things different. When I got tired of the entire business a few years ago I posted most of my materials for free download at my blog: https://silverseason.wordpress.com/american-silver-booklets/

    You are right about proof reading. I am not to be trusted.

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    • Nancy, I do think that’s a real accomplishment. And actually I like those comb-bound books: my aunts used to write cookbooks and memoirs and publish them through Kinkos. I can imagine people were thrilled to read about silverplate patterns, because there would not be much about it. It is easy to publish an Amazon e-book, because it is free. But I do like the idea of a small printed book with comb binding. And, yes, our blogs are free. I like the e-book because I have a lot of the work in one place.

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  5. It was very courageous of you to go ahead and learn how to self-publish. Like Nancy, after other tries, I just put most of my work up to the point I was at on my website where it still gets a lot of people reading it, or blogs. I wrote a brief essay the other day on a group of allusions in Persuasion, I could have dolled them up, spent five months on nonsense documentation and over-reading and it it in Notes and Queries. To date I’ve had all my followers on the blog (160 or so) plus a couple of hundred clicks a day. It’s been shared twice. So I figure people reading it. Isn’t that the point? I know publication in book cover and in journals is the point of the other — where things “count” in other ways.

    I stopped reading columns as the Internet took over but I have now have some favorites on line (Mary Beard at TLS) and a few at The Post or NYTimes. I really read daily or skim a few pieces in journalism that comes into my bog (Truthdig, the Nation, Naked Capitalism).

    I read what my friends write 🙂

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    • It is very easy to self-publish on Kindle, if you know what you’re doing! The second time, if I go that route, will be easier. There are so many features on my computer that I never use. But, yes, I have a bigger audience for my blog than for a book! On the other hand, I was able to get rid of some clippings and photocopies that were in different boxes, never organized, because I typed them up and published them. And now they’re in one place!

      Yes, columns are gone from many publications and we do have the internet.

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  6. I’ve self-published my non-fiction books and I found it an OK process, in fact I screen-shotted the process but it takes SO LONG to write the blog posts up that I haven’t yet.

    If you want to make it free, go on another site like Smashwords, publish there at free then Amazon will notice and re-set your price. That used to work, anyway.

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