Paradigm Now: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Self-publishing

My love affair with men of the woods began with a man in green: Robin Hood.

When I was twelve years old my family moved to a brand new neighborhood, where I had to go to a new school, in my new glasses and my new five inches of height, clothed in my customary shyness. During that lonely transition period, each day I came home from school, made myself a cup of cocoa, and curled up in front of the television to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood, where right always triumphed over might, and Maid Marion managed to be both alluring and resourceful even though she never let her hair down. At the time I preferred the television version because it never went into the sad final chapters of Robin’s life as related in the book. On the small screen, Robin and his merry men never shed a tear. I longed for such a life.

Well, time passed, I got contact lenses, got noticed, and things changed, but my passion for men of the woods never stopped growing. The journey from the green wood  to the Green Man was a short flight of fancy, with stopovers in The Secret Garden and Terry Pratchett’s Disc World.

I know I’m not alone in my love of magic trees. A recent news story that lit up email boxes around the world told of the plight of the real Sherwood Forest in England, where environmental degradation, developmental pressure and inevitable old age have combined to reduce the once four-thousand-strong legendary woods to a stand of barely more than four hundred massive oaks. Many of these ancient giants have names and are beloved by historians, English majors and environmentalists for the sense of solid truth they lend to the flimsy stuff of legends and folklore. Perhaps Robin of Loxley wasn’t all that we would like to think, but the woods in which he hid demand reverence.

And what, you might ask, does all this have to do with the chaotic state of modern publishing? Well, there’s never been a better time to be a Robin Hood of the written word — to infiltrate and outfox the system that once made it impossible for any but the well-connected and the very fortunate to get published. Thanks to modern technology we are in the midst of a redistribution of power, if not wealth. Never has it been so easy for so many to reach so many readers. With online publishing, blogging, print-on-demand options and internet marketing, the barriers to the open market are falling, and this opens up a whole new world of opportunity.

But of course, all that glitters isn’t sold. And if a book gets published in the forest and nobody hears about it, will it ever be read? Probably not. Without a brilliant marketing strategy, a new book has little chance of getting past the dungeons and dragons of the publishing world unless the author is an actual wizard or sorceress,  or can make a deal with the devil, or Oprah, who might be more powerful.

Scrambling to keep up with changing trends and marketing tactics, few conventional publishers can afford to process and evaluate the deluge of new material being generated on all fronts. Consequently, though the  publishing tree has sprung many new branches, it’s not yet clear how many of them will bear fruit.

Like many an aspiring author, I first tried the conventional, recommended route to getting my fiction in print. I sent out query letters by the dozen to agents and editors. I attended conferences and had pitch sessions with more editors and agents. I entered contests and got evaluations from other writers higher up in the food chain. But, although I had a lucky break and managed to get a novel published by a traditional publisher, the experience didn’t lead to quantifiable success. I sold a few books. But the leg up I had hoped this would provide proved inadequate to keep my later submissions from sliding right back into the slush pile.

Meanwhile, the clock kept ticking, and I began to  feel a sense of urgency. What if I died without ever getting my stories out to the reading public? The world would be none the worse, no doubt. But, who can say? If my small fantasies could lift the gloom from a few readers’ hearts, surely that would be worth all the humiliation and effort it took to get them in print. Wouldn’t it?

Yet, like most would-be authors of a certain age, I had been taught to consider any form of self-publishing as a craven act of pathetic vanity.

And then I read The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, chief editor of Wired magazine. The book makes a clear and persuasive argument for the validity of the new world of self-published works, from music to literature to independent movies, as the new paradigm for creative enterprise. Anderson argues that this new paradigm is made possible by the modern miracle of the internet, and it’s impossible to read his book and not feel a spark of Judy Garlandish optimism: Let’s put on a show! Or record a CD! Or publish a book! All these things are possible now, in part because of the unlimited virtual shelf space of online commerce.

The Long Tail of the title refers to the graph of supply and demand, which, in pre-internet days was ruled by the iron constraints of actual shelf space. If your book, CD or whatever didn’t sell in appreciable numbers, it wouldn’t be stocked. But now, the virtual shelf extends almost infinitely, like a long tail, and retailers can afford to “stock” an item which might sell at the rate of one or two copies a year, at the far end of that long tail.

Once I embraced this concept, I followed through by contacting one of the new online self-publishing businesses. I chose to work with iUniverse mainly because they have an arrangement with Barnes&Noble which offers certain qualified self-published works a limited trial stay in an actual brick and mortar B&N store. Although the process of qualifying for that “Publishers’ Choice” designation turned out to be a lot more demanding and expensive than I had  expected, after many months of painful editing I finally qualified, saw my book on the shelf at my local Barnes &Noble, and enjoyed a brief glow of accomplishment.

However, doors haven’t swung open. Most newspaper and professional reviewers refuse to deal with self-published works, and the market-driven demand for entertainment saturated with violence, sex, horror or suspense has little patience for small tales of restrained wit and compassion. Bigger, faster, badder. Those are the guidelines which rule.

But, I do not despair. My Green Man lives. His tendrils spread quietly, branch to branch, hand to hand, word of mouth. My hope has always been that he would be discovered by passionate gardeners, and passed along, like heirloom seeds.

I know Alice and The Green Man will never be a bestseller. But, I harbor the hope that somewhere down along the long tail, it may eventually grow into a minor horticult.

The Green Fuse is Lit

He’s lean, green and on the scene.

It’s been almost four years since he first showed up in my head, his green eyes twinkling with amusement, his bare skin scented with ferns and fresh cut grass. It took me a few months to get him down on the page. And then a few years to chisel away the excess verbiage that shoots from my pen with all the vigor of witchgrass in the border. Then the long process of trying to find some editor or agent who felt the same way I did about him, and well, as the children say, let’s not go there.

But, now, at last, another spring is upon us, the cherry tree outside my window is swollen with fat pink buds, and the pace is picking up. Today is the Vernal Equinox. It’s a good time for a Green Man.My new book, Alice and The Green Man, is about a woman who belongs in a garden. It’s the story of what she learns about herself when she has to fight to save the garden she has created on an abandoned lot. It’s a love story, of course. But in many ways, the love at the heart of the story is the love of gardens, of growing things, of touching the earth and feeling its deep healing power.

Okay. Those of you who don’t garden are right now fidgetting and looking for the remote. I know gardening isn’t a passion shared by everyone. But, for those who know the thrill of it, nothing else comes close. Well, maybe sex. But it could be argued that that is just another name for gardening. You sow seeds. With luck, they grow into wonderful new living things.So, it seemed to me, as a writer, that if you put gardens and sex together in a story, you could really have some fun.

I’m not the first one to think of this, of course. But I believe I am the first one to give the Green Man a chance to show what he can do. I see my new book as a kind of hybrid. It’s a cross between The Secret Garden and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. For many gardeners, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden stands alone as a kind of rich allegory about the transformative power of a garden. But, like many books we read as children, the text remains locked inside that innocent place where only children belong. Once a reader grows up and discovers that the world isn’t quite as civilized as one might wish, it’s hard to feel at ease in a garden, however secret.In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a truly adult classic, a woman rediscovers her own earthy passion through her relationship with a sexy man of the soil. Compared to the modern anything-goes-and-farther-than-you-would  style, DH Lawrence’s lush brooding prose is probably too slow for an audience geared to the frenetic pace of Sex and the City.

In Alice and The Green Man I have attempted to break new ground, to make a secret garden for modern adults. A place to have some fun, enjoy a few moments respite from the headlines, and to feed the childlike hope that it is not too late to save the garden that is this Earth.With the mounting evidence that global warming is not some fuzzy  theory but a hard fact, and that mass extinction of countless plants and animals is already underway, there has never been a more important time for readers to become gardeners and vice versa.

I do believe one person can make a difference. Maybe a small difference. But, even small differences can add up to something measurably wonderful. Planet Earth is, in essense, a small garden. Now is the time for all of us to nurture the greenness on which our lives and the lives of future generations depend.

Dylan Thomas once famously described “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” the mysterious power that pulses through our lives, taking us toward the unknown future. Humankind must learn to cherish this power if we are to save our planet for future generations. Now is the time for all Green Men to come to aid of the party. The Green fuse is lit.

Moving to the Left

In this New Year I can see Mount Rainier from my window on a clear day. Perhaps for this reason I appreciate clear days more than I did when I lived on the Right Coast. Most of my family and friends still live on the Right Coast. Their emails and phone calls always include weather updates, as if it’s understood that the main difference between the old East and the new West is the climate. And, it’s true, the climate here doesn’t seem as prone to the wild mood swings of Virginia.But I find the differences that resonate after a year of living here are more subtle than sunshine, more complex than plain vanilla patriotism. And lately I’ve been thinking it might have a lot to do with point of view.

Back in Virginia, the distant past seems closer, more imbedded in the mindset. Colonial days still cast a long architectural shadow, and in places like Williamsburg, Leesburg, and Old Town Alexandria it’s still possible to imagine a simpler time. The scars of the Civil War remain vivid in parts of rural Virginia, and many families stubbornly revere more than one American flag.All this looking-back is natural, but as a child growing up in that climate of nostalgia, I was impatient with the burden of the past. I wanted the future.

Well, as it happens, I was lucky enough to have one, and to grow old enough to appreciate the price paid by our ancestors to wrest this country from its original inhabitants. Here in the Northwest, the few reminders of the once thriving Native American tribes who lived here for ten thousand years before the first fur trappers set in motion the engine that would completely alter the landscape are the names on the maps: Snohomish, Puyallup, Yakima. The Native Americans, like the salmon on whom they depended for their survival, are struggling to avoid extinction in the face of continual pressure from development and the  relentless degradation of the environment.

The guilt gene is firmly embedded in my DNA. But even so, I am disinclined to dwell on past. I think the only way to work through problems is to go forward. However, I have come to realize that not everyone shares this view.One of the most curious unintended consequences of the Internet Age is the proliferation of borrowed communication. While a handwritten letter still holds a power that no amount of electronically expedited information can match, these days anyone who can master the act of clicking the “forward” and “send” buttons on a computer can flood the inboxes of thousands of relatives and relative strangers in the blink of an eye.My husband tells me I should simply tighten up my spam filter. But some of the people who seem driven to share every joke, every cute photo, every “amazing” fact or dubious political “truth,” are old friends or relatives with whom I have no wish to sever all ties. I have a delete key, and I know how to use it.

However, among all the drek that gets forwarded ad nauseam, there is a particular kind of “letter” which must hit a nerve with a lot of people, since I seem to get some version of it regularly. And the curious thing is that it comes from every direction of the political spectrum. Some versions are sent by distant relatives on the far right political extreme – people who dispute evolution and global warming – and from old friends on the far left – war protesting hippies. And what’s the common ground on which these disparate spammers come together? Nostalgia.

“Oh, wasn’t it great back in the days when nobody wore seat belts or helmets? When you could lick the bowl without worrying about food poisoning? When Elvis was skinny and candy bars cost a nickel and a tankful of gas was a dollar? Blah, blah, blah…”Sure. I remember some good old days. I also remember some bad old days before the Civil Rights movement. I know that only in the last century did women in this country win the right to vote. I remember when people built bomb shelters in their basements to prepare for the nuclear attacks we all thought were coming. I remember when Pat Boone was played regularly on the radio. Dark Ages indeed.

The wish to return to simpler, seemingly happier times is a natural desire, like wanting to return to the innocence of childhood, before you found out that terrible things can happen to nice people, when the world seemed bigger, more filled with possibilities. Now, thanks to all this information and disinformation we have at our fingertips 24/7, there is no way to avoid the uneasy feeling that we have made a mess of this world, and, unless my far-right-wing relatives are righter than I think, it’s up to us to clean it up.Unfortunately, this will require the full participation of the class, and from where I’m sitting, it looks like not everyone read the assignment. Global warming? Coming soon to a city near you.  Terrorism? A drag and a nightmare and a foolish waste of time and resources. The terrorists don’t care, I imagine, because in their view they are destined for paradise in the next world after they torch this one.Sigh. What a species.

Anyway. I think it’s way past time to stop looking backward. Enough with the nostalgia already. We need to focus on the future if we hope to have one, for us and our children. And this is what I have come to respect about the Left Coast.Everyone here recycles, as if it’s as natural as breathing. True, you do see too many SUVs. But there are more hybrid cars and bikes on the road, and buses. There’s an effort being made, and a consensus that conservation is patriotic.

To a child looking at a map of the United States it’s obvious that there’s a right side and a left side. Here, in the Left Coast Washington, there are many similarities with the one on the Right Coast – there’s a Capitol Hill, a Union Station, a Cherry Blossom Festival. But people here seem to have a different perspective on what’s important politically. They tend to a more global view. They’re not looking back to the way it’s always been. They’re imagining the way it could be, and should be.And that seems right to me.