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The Unfortunate John Kennedy Toole, and Why Self-Publishing Still Scares the Hell Out of Me

posted Nov 12, 2016, 1:32 AM by Douglas Sun   [ updated May 10, 2017, 1:03 PM ]

In 1981, a novel called A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Unfortunately, this did little good for its author. John Kennedy Toole actually finished writing his novel in 1963, but spent six years in a fruitless effort to place it with a publisher. Despair over this failure drove him to kill himself in 1969. If not for the efforts of his mother and Walker Percy after his death, A Confederacy of Dunces would have remained obscure.

Nowadays, Toole’s course would have been obvious. Self-publishing is easier than ever, and it no longer has the vanity press stigma that hung over it in the past. Today, he could get his work into the world’s largest online retailer through Amazon Createspace and Kindle Publishing. With assiduous self-promotion, a writer of his talent might well gather a coterie of fans, which might then attract the attention of a major publisher like Simon & Schuster, which rejected A Confederacy of Dunces. If he had trouble covering expenses, he could turn to crowdfunding.

Conversely, however: Even though the barriers to entry into the retail marketplace have never been lower, the barriers to getting the public’s attention have never been higher. In a world in which anyone can self-publish, everyone publishes. And the result is a lot of content, all of it fighting for attention.

We see this not just in literature. As part of Bushi-go, I’ve seen how the iOS Store and Google Play have cut out publishers and retailers the old gatekeepers — and given developers direct access to the retail market. As a result, in less than a decade the Games section of the iOS Store has become a morass. in which, ironically, it is almost impossible to stand out without a publisher to handle marketing and promotion. A freak indie breakout like Angry Birds is very hard to imagine today; it would just get lost among all the crappy Candy Crush knockoffs.

In board game publishing, crowdfunding has allowed indie designers to realize their ideas without having to convince publishers to take them on. But as one of my friends in the industry recently put it, lowering the barriers to entry has created a “glut” of product, a market in which it is difficult to make money and support a product line because the public’s attention is divided between too many bright, shiny objects.

Add to this the fact that today, we live in a general state of information glut. of which entertainment content is just a part. McLuhan’s Global Village has become a schizophrenic nightmare of voices competing to get inside our heads, all of them yelling about what we should buy, what we should like, how we should think. I get far more emails trying to sell me something than I do from people I actually know — and that’s just from the mailing lists I willingly joined. How do you get anyone to notice you in such an environment? Why should they, when they’re overloaded already?

When the unfortunate story of John Kennedy Toole made the news, I was a college freshman impatient to make my entrance on the stage. The optimist in me thought that he gave up too soon, that you haven’t failed until you make a willful decision to stop trying. Also, the 18 year-old me knew that when I wrote my Great American Novel, the first publisher to read it would recognize its genius instantly and snap it up. 35 years later, I have considerable sympathy for how he must have felt, frustrated and depressed and at the end of his tether. In particular, I have laid out an immense amount of time and energy over the last year or so trying to get people’s attention for my projects, to little apparent gain. The Universe is cold and indifferent; like Willie the Groundskeeper when Principal Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel declared their love for each other, it mutters, “Willie hears ya; Willie don’t care” and keeps sweeping.

In a world of content glut — a glut of which I am a part, admittedly — why should anyone pay attention to me? I think I have a reasonable answer to that. But if someone refuses to take the time to hear it, that would be a rational response to the world in which we find ourselves.