Triumphalist narratives about self-publishing have been running in the mainstream media for over a decade now. They have become a scripted just-so story:
1) pick your rags-to-riches self-published exemplar, such as Andy Weir, Amanda Hocking, or EL James,
2) pretend that these exceptional successes are the norm, and
3) sneer at the failures of out-of-touch literary gatekeepers whose are too snobbish to recognize a bestseller when it crosses their desk. It’s an obviously appealing story: literary elites are revealed as nude emperors while the humble author triumphs. Of course, it isn’t true – which may well be the definition of a good story.
A recent survey of authors by David Throsby, Jan Zwar and Thomas Longden paints a very different picture: the average Australian self-published author will earn about $1,100 per annum from sales, while the average traditionally-published author will earn almost four times that amount ($4,100) from royalties. Traditionally-published authors are also more likely to attract subsidiary income that is larger than their royalty payment from other institutional sources.
While mocking urban literary intellectuals is both entirely understandable and pretty fun, most publishing professionals are overworked and underpaid compared to similarly-qualified employees in other fields. No-one in their right mind would become a book editor to get rich, although the fact that you can earn a living while doing intellectually interesting work continues to make publishing alluring.
Rather than being out-of-touch, contemporary publishing professionals are more across the market than ever before: what’s selling, what’s likely to sell, what the trends are, what the zeitgeist was on Wednesday, and whether it will be more zeit-y or geist-y on Friday. As Sybil Nolan and Alex Dane have noted, many publishers are now increasingly using social media analytics to guide – and perhaps even drive – their publishing decisions.
Nonetheless, picking a bestseller is like picking the winning number on a roulette wheel. It’s madness as a business model, and yet the business model of most large publishers is to place as many bets on as many roulette wheels as they can, in the hope that the one big jackpot recoups all the debts and then some. I am simplifying, of course: many good publishers still maintain complex portfolios that balance ‘worthy’ but lower-selling titles with reliable earners, but there’s less and less of this than even in the recent past.
As I argued a few years ago, one result of this situation is that explicitly literary works – including most of the unusual, hard-to-categorise, original or difficult works – are increasingly published by smaller publishers. This isn’t because big publishers are evil or stupid (though this might also be true), but because they have higher overheads, and they simply need their books to sell at a certain rate to make a profit. Smaller publishers can make money from smaller print runs because they tend to have fewer upfront costs, and because they can use other techniques – such as selling direct to the public at launches and events – to increase their margins. Smaller publishers are also far more likely to benefit from Australia Council grants to help offset the cost of ambitious and culturally important publishing lists.
Even in a publishing ecosystem like this, very important books don’t get published. This, also, is not new. Joyce’s Dubliners was rejected by eighteen publishers. David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress was rejected by fifty-four publishers (and he kept a list!). Gertrude Stein once received a brutal rejection letter in a parody of her own style from London publisher Arthur C Field: ‘Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time.’
What is the oft-rejected author to do? Well, for US author Sergio De La Pava – after eighty-eight different agents rejected his novel – the only recourse was to self-publish his A Naked Singularity (2008) with little hope of success. His wife, Susanna, determinedly kept sending out copies to online reviewers, and the novel slowly accrued a cult following. It was picked up by the University of Chicago Press and won the PEN/Robert W Bingham Prize for a first novel in 2013. It is, in my view, one of the best novels by a US author in the last twenty years.
Perhaps this is the literary self-publisher’s equivalent of becoming an unlikely bestseller. There have been a few similar examples, including Australia’s own Nicholas John Turner, whose bizarre and wonderful, Hang Him When He Is Not There, was self-published in Australia before being picked up by the UK publisher Splice (and shortlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize). It has recently been published by the US publisher Zerogram Press. Self-publishing is becoming an increasingly important conduit for literature, especially for works that are unusual, eccentric, or difficult – or what I like to think of as, you know, good books.
Michael Winkler’s self-published Grimmish (2021) was not entirely overlooked by Australian literary tastemakers. Winkler did have an agent – Martin Shaw of Shaw Literary – who sent the book around to most of the more literary presses in Australia. I can’t say that I blame any editor for passing on the book: it is not easily classifiable in terms of its genre, and it is hard to think of many obviously similar works. Grimmish combines fiction with non-fiction, highbrow allusions with lowbrow humour, and avant-garde gestures with sincere discussions of mental illness and personal failure. It also features a talking goat. The narrator of the book calls it ‘an exploded non-fiction novel,’ which is probably as good a description as any.
Grimmish opens with a fake review of itself, perhaps anticipating most readers’ uncertainty about it. After a brief anecdote about Richard Zenith’s translation of Fernando Pessoa, the ‘reviewer’ notes that the work is ‘ostensibly about the hapless Italian-American boxer Joe Grim’s visit to Australia in 1908-09.’
Ostensibly, indeed! Those looking for sculpted prose about the technical aspects of boxing will be sorely disappointed: Grim was infamous for his capacity to absorb brutal punishment in fights, despite being not much of a puncher. He was a literal human punching bag. This book, as the narrator notes, is not about boxing but about pain and endurance, and represents the narrator’s attempt to understand how any person could willingly subject themselves to such violence.
It is also a book that is very much about masculinity, and the way that groups of men place symbolic value on displays of this kind. In one scene in the ‘Noguna Ladies’ Lounge’, a large group of beer-swilling men take part in a headbutting tournament for the right to go against the almost-inhuman champion known only as ‘Pig Thug’. Winkler’s narrative has a frame story – a discussion between the narrator and his sherry-drinking ‘Uncle Michael’ that seems to allude to Uncle Toby from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. These discussions present another form of homosocial interaction that simultaneously complicates and reflects the scenes of violence in the book. Winkler’s reflections on men and violence are themselves hedged with irony; as the narrator states late in the book: ‘The young male brain is a bizarre country and I would not advise visiting, not ever.’
Though Grimmish would not pass a literary version of the Bechdel Test, the novel includes a trio of scenes with a young woman named Dora (technically, it’s the same ‘scene’ in three alternate versions) that serve as an explicit response to the book’s focus on masculinity. Winkler’s similarly spends a chapter explaining why the book does not depict any Aboriginal people:
Australians like me have stolen and continue to steal a lot from Aboriginal people, and at the very least I can avoid stealing their stories. So I avoid it, respectfully, while being aware that this becomes one more contribution to whitewashing.
This is typical of the self-reflexive and dialogic approach of the book, which – though interested in masculinity – has no interest in glorifying it.
Grimmish is almost impossible to summarise. There are historical scenes depicting the brutality of Joe Grim’s fights. There are genuine intellectual engagements with Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. There are dialogues in which a Fescennine talking goat says things like this: ‘Who was this Sabinus fucker … I am not well-acquainted with his story, notwithstanding mind you that I‘ve never met a goat that owns his or her own copy of The Lives of the Saints.’ And there are also deeply sincere reflections on writing:
I thought it might be between half-a-million and a million words written in hope of publication and then thrown back in my face … I tried and failed to convert those words … into minutes and days and I could not do it: and then I realized that what they added up to, really, was most of a lifetime: and I said to my wife I have spent my allotted years in a room alone writing words no-one wants or will ever read, it is the most stupid life imaginable … .
The novel also frequently returns to issues of mental illness and the accumulated trauma of Grim’s brutal fights. That it manages to hold together all of this disparate material in a cohesive whole is a testament to Winkler’s skill.
While Grimmish may not resemble – in a direct way – any recent works, its tone and its concerns are perhaps less singular. In particular, readers of Wayne Macauley and Ryan O’Neill would find much to enjoy in Grimmish. He shares their interests in Australiana. Like Macauley, he combines grim humour with surreal events. Like O’Neill, Winkler combines an avant-garde sense of formal experimentation with an unguarded sentimentality that may occasionally seem too earnest. Although they are very different writers tonally, Winkler also resembles Martin Edmond in his combination of non-fiction and fiction and the interest in local histories. Regardless, Grimmish is probably the most unusual Australian book I will read in 2021, and, without a doubt one of the best.
Though Winkler’s book is self-published, it has – as a result of buzz on social media – quickly developed something of a cult following. The novel has made it into the hands of some well-known authors like Murray Bail (‘I laughed aloud.’) and JM Coetzee (‘The strangest book you will read this year.’). It’s even been picked up by a few readers in the USA, like the writer and critic, Greg Gerke, who said ‘Here’s a novel that takes chances, that animates an hazily documented life and bleeds it into a strange music called fiction’. And it’s been reviewed by Australian Book Review and The Melbourne Age. My perhaps-futile hope is that it may somehow make its way onto a few literary prize shortlists. Regardless, one wonders if the book would have generated the same level of intrigue if it had been published by a traditional publisher. This minor recognition will probably never make Winkler wealthy in material terms, but hopefully it’s helped him avoid the ‘most stupid life imaginable’.