Hercules or Sisyphus: Publishing’s False Dichotomy

As usual, I’ve been meaning to update the Tortoise Books blog. But I believe promotional writing should always take a backseat to paid writing, so I try to focus on work I’m planning to sell, be it mine or yours. Another of my maxims: When you don’t have anything new—or at least new-ish—to say, don’t publish. (That’s not to say you should stop writing, because sometimes it isn’t until after you sit down that you realize that you actually do have something to say—you can write a shitty first draft, make some revisions, and eventually publish something that makes you proud. Shout out to Anne Lamott for that wisdom.) My thinking runs contrary to popular blog wisdom, which dictates that you should keep posting at all times, at all costs. But I don’t want to waste anyone’s time; I haven’t had much new to say, until today.

I’ve been investigating various publishing opportunities, both for Tortoise Books and myself; as part of this, I recently emailed the hard-working people at Oyster, who are busy trying to do something new in publishing: to sell it as a subscription-based streaming service, a Netflix for books. I wanted to sound a little highfalutin’, and I was busy trying to decide whether Hercules or Sisyphus was most metaphorically similar to the post-postmodern author, when it occurred to me that both are apt, and flawed.

I’ve read many publishing blog discussions implying that today’s author must either go the traditional route—writer lands an agent, agent lands a publisher, publisher lands writer fame and fortune—or go their own way, self-publishing via eBook and publish-on-demand, trying to build their own brand but still toiling away in obscurity, indistinguishable (at least in the eyes of the public-at-large) from the typo-ridden tomes hastily put out by all those mediocre keyboard monkeys eager to check “Write a Book” off their bucket lists. Some discussions do at least suggest that an author might want to go both routes, publishing some projects traditionally and some on their own. But nobody admits it’s a false dichotomy.

Granted, getting published via traditional means can feel like the labors of Hercules. If you don’t recall the specifics, I’ll spare you the Wikipedia refresher: Hercules was given ten tasks thought to be well-nigh impossible. (Slaying the Hydra, seizing the Erymanthian Boar, cleaning the Augean stables in a day, etc.) And because of issues with two tasks, he was given two more, bringing the total number to twelve. (Source: Wikipedia.) Surely anyone who’s prevailed in traditional publishing (which I haven’t) or even attempted it (which I have) can relate to the moving finish line, and the difficulty of, say, getting published in a respectable source, or getting an agent to read and respond to a query letter, let alone landing a major deal. But there is at least a logical progression of events, with a beginning and an end. And just as Hercules wanted immortality for his efforts, many who go the traditional route seem hell-bent on various analogous publishing accomplishments: the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Times bestseller list, the major-newspaper review, or even the Barnes and Noble bookshelf.

For those who are (depending on your perspective) too untalented, too unlucky, or just too inept at publishing politics to accomplish any of the above, there is at least an alternative: self-publishing. And as one who’s labored in this field (and seen others do the same), I can verify that it seems like a Sisyphean ordeal. Much as Sisyphus was forced to endlessly roll a boulder up the side of a hill, only to watch it roll down the other side, the self-published author’s labors are eminently accomplishable, and endlessly repetitive: tweeting and retweeting, writing and rewriting, publishing and republishing. These are not Herculean feats, for there’s no glory to be had, and no end in sight. (Camus’ excellent The Myth of Sisyphus romanticizes the eternal struggle, suggesting that one can find meaning and identity even in perpetual futile efforts. But the origin myth itself isn’t quite so noble: Sisyphus was being punished, after all, for his deceitfulness—a trait not uncommon among self-published authors, with their parades of five-star sock puppet reviews, and their suspicious five-figure Twitter followerships. [Yes, that’s right. I’m calling you out, self-published author tweeps. If your FOLLOWING and FOLLOWERS numbers both end in a K, and I’ve never heard of you, I don’t believe you. I won’t publicly call bullshit on you and your robot army, but I don’t really have to. You know who you are.])

Fortunately it doesn’t have to be this way, on either end. Smaller and smarter publishers like yours truly (and others, though I won’t name names) are using publish-on-demand for many titles, and figuring out other inexpensive strategies to circumvent the traditional model. Plenty of challenges remain: discoverability, physical distribution to independent bookstores, figuring out exactly what percentage of the eggs to put in Amazon’s (admittedly large and comfy) basket. And it isn’t ideal, but it’s ideal for anyone who doesn’t feel it should be deal-or-ordeal. Instead of exhausting himself, Hercules can go to the gym every day, get pretty buff, and save some energy for tasks of his own choosing; Sisyphus can repent for his deceit, round up some friends, roll the rock to a higher hill, and get some help to make sure it stays there.