An Open Letter to the National
Endowment for the Arts
from Amy Wachspress
I recently learned that the
eligibility requirements for application for an NEA Literature Creative Writing
Fellowship demand that applicants have published at least one book.
Self-published books, however, don’t count.
What were you thinking when you
made this decision, people? What if independent filmmakers were not eligible to
win an Oscar?
In a <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Publishers Weekly article entitled
“Indies Learning to Love Self-Published Authors,” Judith Rosen documents the
way indie bookstores and indie authors are teaming up locally and regionally to
reach readers. Rosen quotes Arsen Kashkashian, head buyer at Boulder Book Store
in Colorado: “I think self-publishing is just going to keep growing. You ignore
it at your own peril.”
So, NEA folks, perhaps you are not
only in peril at the hands of lawmakers who want to cut funding to the arts,
but also in peril of becoming so wedded to an obsolete paradigm that you can’t
find the pulse of creative thought and enterprise in this century.
Why do authors self-publish? Many
authors want to retain rights in and control of their books and to make more
for their labor than a pittance in royalties doled out by a publisher that
takes the lion’s share of profits (in many cases just to stay afloat in the
dwindling profit-margin world of publishing). Other authors have not had the
good fortune to attract a literary agent, editor, or publisher with their
manuscripts and—in the interests of getting into print before global
warming melts the Arctic—opt to self-publish.
An author with a terrific book
could spend years jumping up and down and shouting “Over here!” before an
editor would emerge from behind the stacks and stacks of manuscripts and squint
into the distance and take notice. Robert Orben, the humorist, once said, “Do
you realize what would happen if Moses were alive today? He’d go up to Mount
Sinai, come back with the Ten Commandments, and spend the next eight years
trying to get them published.”
A history lesson:
If truth be told, it is precisely
these self-publishers who make up a large percentage of the truly gifted
authors who are most in need of NEA support. Consider the 1 percent of books
published each year that become mainstream bestsellers. How many of those books
would you characterize as a good read, but not something that would change your
life? For a book that will change your life, you might have to turn to
self-published books such as Walt Whitman’s <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Leaves of Grass or Richard Bolles’ <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>What Color Is Your
Parachute? or Dr. Masaru Emoto’s <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>The Hidden Messages in Water.
Self-published authors who would not have been eligible to apply for an NEA
grant under your current eligibility rules also include D.H. Lawrence, Mark
Twain, James Joyce, and Henry David Thoreau.
I wouldn’t know where to begin to
discuss authors from marginalized groups who have not had the opportunity to
make themselves heard via established media. In his article “Pros and Cons of
Mainstream Publishing,” posted earlier this year on the African American
Literature Book Club Web site (<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>www.aalbc.com), C. Liegh McInnis writes,
“Self-publishing has been a major vehicle for African American writers who have
been and are still very much locked out of the mainstream media. When African
American writers have needed a tool to raise their voices about their situation
in America and that voice was no longer in vogue, self-publishing and
independent publishing remained as excellent vehicles, ensuring that all voices
will be given the opportunity to be heard.”
James Joyce, whose <span
consider the most significant novel of the last century, wrote, “Publishers and
printers alike seemed to agree among themselves, no matter how divergent their
points of view were in other matters, not to publish anything of mine as I
wrote it. No less than twenty-two publishers and printers read the manuscript
and when at last it was printed some very kind person bought out the entire
edition and had it burnt.” It’s hard out there for a writer. You may remember
that Joyce was also unable to get <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Ulysses published until Sylvia Beach put
up the money, and she would have gone bankrupt as a result if not for the aid
of her circle of wealthy patrons in subsequent years.
It’s about an alternative.
I actually have faith in you folks
at the NEA. I truly believe that if you allowed self-published authors to apply
for the NEA grants, you could quickly determine which submissions were
appropriate for your full consideration and which to weed out.
So why not offer this opportunity
to those who really need it, those who are overlooked by what Barbara
Kingsolver refers to as “the literary–industrial complex”? As a
self-published author, I write this letter in the hope that you, the NEA, will
get with the times and consider changing the eligibility rules.
Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of Book
Passage Bookstore in Corte Madera, California, is quoted in Rosen’s <span
article as saying, “Self-publishing used to be a dead end. Now it’s an
alternative.” A big shout-out from me to you, Bill. Book Passage was one of
many regional bookstores that agreed to host an author event for my indie
self-published book. I believe these visionary bookstores will be able to say
“You heard it here first” about my book, and are already saying this about many
other self-published books on the market.
A member of PMA, Amy
Wachspress self-published The
Call to Shakabaz, a children’s and young-adult fantasy adventure
featuring all black characters that demonstrates the fundamental principles of
nonviolence. She is also a grant writer who has raised over $70 million for
initiatives that benefit children, youth, and families in 20 states. For more
information, visit www.wozabooks.com.