“You’re nearing fifty and haven’t published a book,” one voice had been saying.
“But you’ve published plenty, lots of good stuff all over the world, and had fun doing it,” replied another. And it was forever correct on that point.
Yet something else was true: more and more of my published work was being lost, disappearing more by the day.
It’s a disappointing reality for writers. Your work vanishes from the online world as journals and newspapers close shop, go under, and their former owners and editors move on, burned out, broke, or both, and they stop paying annual online fees, abandoning their writers and their archives, letting the web domain return to its original state: a specific string of letters for sale. Sure, the Wayback Machine has a record of it. But that’s a unique archive, not really considered real anymore, kind of a shadow or suggestion of something that might have been.
When I totaled things up I found that around thirty percent of my online work had been lost. Short stories, features, reviews, and more. And it can’t be re-published. That’s the rule: most journals do not accept previously published work. That includes previously-published-and-later-lost to digital death. Now, you could lie and re-submit it, but that would be, as they say, lying. This rule implies writers should move on, stop caring about their older work. But it’s painful. Each story goes through such a long life before it’s submitted, let alone published. And to get something published feels like a huge relief to hand it over to someone and have it recorded for good. To have it then disappear is a weird loss.
The work was gone. There was nothing to do about it. I felt very suddenly my desire to get published online start to ebb a little. This isn’t to say my Submittable queue isn’t full of great online journals I’ve sent work to. But the more I thought about it I saw that I don’t have to keep doing absolutely everything the way I have for so long. I don’t have to keep being ghosted by online journals taking everyone’s work with them. I have this blog and have posted some fiction and essays that were published before by journals that went under. But something more permanent would also be nice. Something solid made right here at my desk to then distribute, somehow.
I had my doubts about this idea. But in the moment I was having I knew all I wanted was to make the thing, feel it and hold it and carry it forth, literally. So what if it wasn’t something a “serious” writer did? Wouldn’t it be bad for any kind of reputation I had? Wasn’t it laughably self-publish-y, and what about copyright? I managed to shake these doubts off pretty quickly. This would be a small-scale thing. I’d make chapbooks and just give them away, leave them in the park or something. I wasn’t going to sell them. They would be more like unwieldy business cards, not units for sale. Was it silly? Well, like everyone else, I can cite famous examples of writing that was first self-published, in print or online, before it got noticed and made its splash in the wider world. I didn’t have any hopes as high as that. I just wanted it in print, a little more permanence, if minor. Plus, the idea felt new, and more fun.
I was also encouraged by a strategy offered by Ursula K. Le Guin. She wrote in the essay Death of the Book, “The physical book may last for centuries. Even a cheap paperback on pulp paper takes decades to degrade into unreadability. … Moreover, e-texts have to be periodically recopied to keep them from degrading. … A university librarian told me that as things are now, they expect to recopy every electronic text that the library owns every eight to ten years, indefinitely.” She goes on to advocate for a duel life for texts—print and digital—whenever possible. Reading this energized me. Not just digital or print: both, for all the writing. (Many thanks to translator and publisher Lawrence Schimel for pointing me to Le Guin’s essay.)
I was excited, I’d repelled my doubts for a while, but I didn’t know how to make a good chapbook I could be proud of. Through some lucky timing, however, I had an example to follow. I’d recently bought a set of books by Robert York, his serialized fiction, Coherence, or Notes for a Mythology, Book One, produced through his press and website The Dreadful Point. As I read it I was struck by the fact that writing this good was being sold in this way, in this format. (York also publishes online.) It gave me a sense that I’d stumbled onto something hidden that the world really needed to know about. The prose is deeply compelling, experimental, expansive, and enjoyable. Plus, the physical books look really good. There they were, living in the world in this casual but elegant way, a model I wanted to follow.
As York writes at The Dreadful Point, he does this within the tradition of artists, poets, and writers the world over who are always doing it themselves when it comes to publishing:
I am a great admirer of the mini and independent comics of the 1980s and 90s (Love and Rockets, Yummy Fur, Palookaville, Dirty Plotte, etc.), and of the early newspaper and anthology comics that many of them were modeled on (Thimble Theatre, Mary Worth, Journey into Mystery, and the entire EC lineup)—not to mention the shared ethos behind everything from samizdat and second circulation to the do-it-yourself publication of fanzines. But what I especially like about serialization, whether in literature, comics, or television, is that it takes advantage of the notion, always present to some degree, that creator and audience are on a journey together, and expresses it in something closer to real-time.
In short time I was at the office-supply store getting what I needed to imitate York. Picking out a stapler, I had an odd pang remembering the little-used staplers back at the office building I hadn’t been to since the pandemic began. At home I figured out how to lay out a cover and my interior pages pretty easily, using that ungodly software published by Microsoft. I borrowed design touches from things on my bookshelves and with that done, since I already owned a little inkjet printer, in a matter of days I went from nothing to a cover on cardstock and a few pages of fiction on some decent paper. I folded, stapled, and there it was, looking not half-bad.
Doing all this felt like simple, basic, freeing action I had restrained myself from taking for no good reason. It had turned out all right. As for getting them into the world, honestly, my first thought was to just leave them on park benches. And I wasn’t sure if I should mention it online but being a Twitter addict, of course I shared it there. I expected no response online, and there has been some silence around it, but overall the response has been encouraging and kind. Since then I’ve hand-delivered chapbooks to people. I’ve stood in line at the post office holding envelopes of my books, ready to send them farther than I have traveled in the past couple years. I’ve placed my own modest books in an indie bookstore down the street on the ‘zine rack and peeked in the window later to find them all gone. And it has made me pretty happy to see for the first time that empty space where my books had been. They’re in other people’s hands now.
Some people have insisted on paying for them, if just to help with postage. Which caught me by surprise. I had to stop and think why. It wasn’t just the money. It was the insistence to support this kind of project. I’ve been paid many times for work in established venues. But I had been afraid to produce my own writing in quite this way. And people knew it was something new for me. And, maybe, they just thought it would be nice to have something by me in print. Novel idea!
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised people wanted to buy these little books. I also love ‘zines and chapbooks and like being able to carry several at a time. It just never occurred to me that I could and should make one, too, on my own. Smaller books like this, unique objects that sometimes spill out of one person’s effort—this is exactly what so much of book culture is about. I’d sort of forgotten that and wish I’d had the courage and sense of fun to do it years ago.
Meanwhile, I’ll still submit work to be published in the usual ways. But this is also part of my writing life now. I plan to make other chapbooks soon. It’s something I think every writer should do at some point. I know not everyone has the time or means, though. So if along the way I can help facilitate that for some other writers I really hope I can.