A few weeks ago I entered a short essay contest at Backword Books. The Grand Prize was a copy of all eight works on the site. Second prize was a single book to each of eight second-place winners, and the contest rules asked each entrant to include mention of which individual book they might like to receive with their entry.
How did I choose which book I was interested in winning? Well, a combination of factors. I read all the summaries, so content was probably the most important filter. Then there was subject matter: I like Maine, and I thought it would be interesting to read something by someone from Maine. Third, the cover interested me, because I like snow and cold. The more snow in my world the better, and if you want to drop -50° F on top of the white stuff, I’m down with that. So barren trees tends in a field of white tends to draw me in.
My prize copy of Waiting for Spring arrived shortly after the close of the contest. The package that arrived had the weight of a book, and when I opened it that’s what I found: a book.
Flipping through the text I could see it was deep black against crisp white pages, giving good contrast. And the pages had some heft to them, so flipping back and forth was easy. In fact, I’ve flipped through a lot of books in my day, and if something had been markedly different about Waiting for Spring I think my book-flipping instincts, muscles and experience would have tipped me off. But no: it flips like a book.
I paused in a few places to read a paragraph or two, and what I read seemed able and sure-footed, like most of the text in most of the books I’ve ever read. I have no comment about the work as a whole because I haven’t read it yet. It’s still sitting pretty much where I left it, on a small stack with other books I intend to read when I have some time. But it doesn’t look out of place on the stack: it looks like a book.
Even as I type this I don’t know much more about it. I don’t even know if it has a copyright page or an ISBN. [Mark pauses to check.]
Okay, it has a brief copyright page, but no ISBN listed. On the back, however, there’s a bar code, and an ISBN is listed on the bar code. The book also contains some blurbs up front, and a Shakespeare quote, and I just discovered that it’s also signed, which is cool — and not because she gave away a signed copy of her book in a subsequent drawing and like and idiot I assumed that meant my copy was unsigned. It’s cool because it seems more real somehow. (Yes, that’s a serious tip to all you would-be authors. However, my lawyer would like me to remind you that if you blow a signature and ruin and entire copy with your errant scrawl it’s not my fault.)
In pretty much every respect Waiting for Spring looks like a book, inside and out. Yes, there’s the question of content. No, I won’t be posting a review. Yes, the publishing industry says it has all sorts of critical checks against content quality, meaning that a self-published work is probably crap. No, I don’t believe them in either case: they produce plenty of crap, and somewhere there’s an author self-publishing books who meets every test of quality and skill.
In the end, looking at the copy of Waiting for Spring now sitting in front of me on my desk, it seems unremarkable. Liberating as an idea, yes, but unremarkable as an object. Despite all the hand-wringing and the snobbery and the fear-mongering and the hysteria, a self-published book is pretty much like a published book, except perhaps in some small ways that simply don’t register with me. To the extent that these might be pointed out, I would never take anyone’s craft knowledge away from them, and I do not doubt the merit or value of their skills.
But from where I sit, at least today, a book is a book.
— Mark Barrett