What does it mean to be a self-published writer?

I’ve always interpreted self-publishing in terms of a bookstore: A self-published writer is someone who, from start to finish, is responsible for getting that book on that shelf.

But if I’m a bookstore owner, why am I going to allow you to come into my shop and just put your book on my shelves? If I start doing that, I’m going to have hundreds of wanna-be writers showing up on my doorstep, trying to get their stupid-ass books on my shelves. If I say yes to you, the rest will think I’ll say yes to them, and next thing you know, to make sure the books I sell remain high-quality enough for my customers, I’m screening which books make it on my shelves and which ones don’t, which basically means I’m doing the job of a publishing house now, and damn it, I’m trying to run a bookstore, not a publishing house, so no…you can’t put your self-published book on my shelf.

Can you imagine trying to talk your way past that guy? That’s a hell of a struggle, and even if you’re persuasive, it just means you got your book on that one shelf in that one bookstore, and everyone knows that no one goes to bookstores anymore.

So now, when you’re talking about self-publishing, what you’re really talking about is putting your book on Amazon. And that’s simple. Anybody can do that.

And millions of them do.

So now what’s your next struggle? It’s rising to the top in the cage-match rumble for a reader’s attention. If you want people to find your book in the jungles of Amazon.com, you have to work your network, which means turning friends and family members into customers and hopefully having a few of them who turn a few friends of their own onto your book.

But that seems kind of slimy to me. It’s putting your network to work, and that feels like an exploitation. I don’t want my friends and family to work for me. If they dig what I’m doing and they recommend it to someone else in the natural flow of their lives, that’s great, that’s honest and genuine; and that’s how I want my relationship with my readers to be: honest and genuine.

So there has to be another form to self-publishing, one that doesn’t require me to haggle with a bookstore owner or exploit the strength of my network.

And that’s when I realized there’s this. My blog. There doesn’t have to be anything other than this. It’s a place where I publish my writings and make them available for free.

I’m not a professional writer, and now that I’ve reached the age of 40 and am involved in a career that satisfies me personally and professionally in so many different ways, I’ve given up the desire to become a professional writer. I pay my bills in other ways, so why not write for free?

This doesn’t mean I’m not going to self-publish a book someday. But if I do, I’m going to link to it here on my website and make it available for free.

Because that’s what I think self-publishing should mean. If I didn’t get paid to write it, why should you pay me to read it?

There’s no resource being consumed here, nothing but time. And if your time is just as valuable as mine, why should you have to cover the cost of mine?

Except, wait a minute, because if we’re really talking about an exchange of time, truth must be spoken: it takes me a lot longer to write these things than it does for you to read them. Doesn’t that mean you owe me something? If our exchange value is time, doesn’t that mean you owe me some of your time (provided I have’t wasted whatever time you’ve already given me)?

That would be true if our time was equally as valuable, but it’s not. By virtue of your presence here, we can assume that your time — i.e., your attention — is precious. There are literally countless other things you could be doing with your time right now, but instead of doing any of those things, you’re doing this: reading the words I wrote. That’s a gift I must truly appreciate.

Because obviously, as someone who actually keeps a blog, I must have a lot of time on my hands, a portion of which I choose to give to this.

As a self-published writer, I’m not being paid for this. But as a self-selected reader, you’re actually paying for the time that you give me: in an attention-based economy, giving someone your eyeballs is to give them a major form of currency. I can use your eyeballs as leverage in a negotiated contract where the other party would be agreeing to exchange their services (editing, publishing, and marketing) for your eyeballs. If I give them you (i.e., my network), they’ll give me money. They won’t even have to read my work first because decision makers don’t care about what’s between the pages they publish; they care about the number of eyeballs that will, at the very least, scan those pages.

But, as I said before, I will not trade on the strength of my network. I refuse to think of my readers — of you — as a revenue stream. That would fuck up our whole relationship, and I’m not willing to do that.

Your attention is expensive, and it’s the only resource being consumed here. Everything else I’m just giving away.

I hope you find as much joy in it as I do.

What’s the Significance?

You’ll often read that observation is a skill you need to become a good writer. I don’t have strong observation skills. Like the stereotypical husband that I can be, I am the world’s worst looker for things, and I often can’t tell you what outfit my wife puts on each morning, even after she’s only just left the room.

But I’ve learned that observation doesn’t just mean observing objects in a room or the precise details of a woman’s dress. It also means observing yourself and your relationship with others, and observing others and their relationship with those around them. It means trying to read verbal, physical, and social cues to understand the underlying dynamic of a given situation, and to then empathize with all of the elements affecting or being affected by that dynamic.

Observation is not looking. It’s probing and pursuing.

The action of looking is too passive. To be a good writer, you need to ask questions and follow wherever those questions lead, at every point asking yourself, “What is the significance of this? Why does it matter?”

It sounds like journalism, and to some extent it is — good journalism being, at bottom, good writing — but good writing posits those questions not only to bodies of power, but also to even the most basic of facts, such as the details of a woman’s dress.

This applies to blogging as well.

After all, what is the significance of this post? Why does it matter?

Blogging is a timely art form. Its impact is limited to the moment. While a blogger could post an article whose value lasts for weeks or months or years, the value of most blog posts are ephemeral, relevant only for a day or two beyond their time stamps.

The art of being a blogger, then, is to seek significance in everyday existence, to probe your entire day until you find something that matters, something that deserves to be talked about beyond its temporal confines.

This week, I had several experiences that could qualify, some of which I’ve already shared, others of which are still in the drafting stage, and still others of which I’ve yet to attempt to memorialize.

Like the fact that my college roommate and his wife are visiting us this weekend. Within that fact lies an entire treatise on the meaning of friendship.

Or the fact that I might have traumatized my daughter this week by letting her watch Coraline at way too young of an age, the result of which was a four-year-old girl who was afraid to go to sleep in her bed. I could connect that story with another where she was genuinely curious about what happens to the skin when a bug bites it: why does it get itchy and why is there a bump? I could then extend the investigation to her recurring fascination with — and existential dread about — the fact that, sometime in the future, the sun will explode. By the time I wrapped it up, it could be a blog post about the challenge of raising a child who is curious about the things that scare her, and the wisdom of that idea.

Or I could write a blog post about two different experiences I had at school this week, and both on the same day, the first of which involved getting an angry and belligerent teenager to stop being angry and literally smell the flowers, the result of which was an outpouring of creative energy whose like I’d yet to experience with this student; and the second of which involved letting an 11-year-old boy smack me in the face for 40 minutes straight because that was the only way I could get him to look me in the eye and talk to me about his life, each smack allowing him to punctuate his sadness and loneliness with peels of tension-releasing laughter.

Or I could write a blog post about buying my wife a Roomba for Mother’s Day, and use it to investigate why the gift was both good and not-good at one and the same time, resulting perhaps in a blog post about the intricacies of marital gift giving, with a tangent about the joys and challenges of being married to an incredibly intelligent feminist and the patriarchal irony of giving such a feminist a Roomba for Mother’s Day.

Regardless of what I chose to blog about, the key would be to find within it something of significance, something that matters beyond my need to “journal,” because blogging shouldn’t be about journaling. Journaling is a private affair, and blogging, due to its medium, is very much a public one. A blog shouldn’t be a place to make a confession. It should be a place where the act of reflection (whether on your experiences or on the news of the day) results in something that is worthy enough to share — worthy enough to be read, even if only once.

I don’t care what the books tell you: observation is not the skill you most need to be a writer; more than observation, you need interrogation — the ability to probe and pursue every fact and every experience until it reveals its significance within the wider moment. Whether that means interrogating a news item, a mother’s day gift, the arrival of a friend, or the details of a woman’s dress, at all points you must ask, “What is the significance? Why does it matter?”

Only then can you say to yourself, I know what to write.