It takes a lot to get me angry. Mostly I don’t like how it makes me feel. My heart races and I feel a constricting pain in my neck. Getting angry gets me angry, which doubles my resentment toward the person who’s made me mad. What irks me more than anything else is willful, gratuitous, and unnecessary hostility. I tend to subscribe to the notion that most battles aren’t worth fighting, and the world would be a better place if people just let things go. I don’t need to win arguments—being “right” isn’t important to me. I’m comfortable enough in my own skin not to care so much what other people think about me, and I’d prefer not to contribute to the planet’s surplus of bad vibes.
Cut me off on the highway? That’s fine, I don’t care. Your time is obviously more important than mine.
(I should also mention that I tend to be passive-aggressive.)
I say all this to provide some context for the time I told someone to fuck off at a panel discussion on self-publishing at a suburban library near Boston. I’d been invited by the event’s very kind organizers because, in addition to publishing a number of books by more conventional means, I’d embarked on a multi-media self-publishing endeavor in 2008 called The Man Talking Project, which received some coverage in The Christian Science Monitor, Poets & Writers, and The Boston Globe, and ultimately resulted in a real, hold-it-in-your-hands book in 2012. Of the other three panelists, one was known to me—we’d taught together for a time at Emerson College—and the other two weren’t. My former colleague, Jon, had also done his share of self-publishing, along with work for commercial presses, while the man and woman who rounded out the panel had only taken the self-publishing route.
It should come as a surprise to no one that some commercially published authors have a snobby attitude toward self-publishing. Me, I don’t care. I don’t think I’m cool because I’ve done a couple books with a big press, and I don’t look down on anyone for bringing their work out on their own. I understand there’s a lot of luck in this business, and the important thing is getting your voice out there and connecting with readers. The means of engagement is simply that—a means. I didn’t arrive at the event in Watertown intending to put anyone down or make myself look big at someone else’s expense. Why? Good for anyone who has the courage to make their words public, I say.
Then I met these assholes.
The woman seemed nice enough at first—a bit grandmotherly, and proud of the series of quasi-historical novels she’d written and published herself. They looked like crap. I don’t mean the writing, which I didn’t examine, but the layout, the design, the quality of the paper and bindings, etc. Obviously I didn’t say anything negative—again, why would I?—I just shook her hand and tried to make friendly conversation as the smallish audience for the event dribbled into the room.
The man was a blowhard from the get-go. He showed up in a three-piece suit, an obvious douche move, and blared on and on in his loud voice about the memoir he’d self-published chronicling his life as a touring orchestra musician. A “funny tales from the road” type of thing. His book also looked like crap, for the same reason the woman’s book looked like crap: it was made by someone who was interested only in seeing their name on a book cover as quickly and cheaply as possible. I detested him instantly but remained polite.
The event began with questions from the moderator, and at this point, apart from my aversion toward the man for his overbearingness, I felt no real animosity toward the other panelists. They were fine. They were kind of annoying, but whatever—so am I. I didn’t have a reason to dislike them, and as I say, I’m not judgey when it comes to self-publishing. If it’s done poorly, it’s done poorly, but I certainly don’t have a problem with self-publishing as a concept. I have seen it done well, and I believe it should be encouraged and respected.
The man and I first locked horns over the issue of libraries. Someone in the audience asked him if, as a self-published author, it bothered him that libraries were unlikely to carry his book. His response, more or less, was, “I could care less about libraries. Why would I want someone to take my book out from a library when they could buy it from my website?” Mind you, the event was taking place in a library.
On this point, I could not remain silent. An opinion is an opinion, and I’m willing to respect another perspective, but here this man, in his ignorance, was simply feeding wrong information to an audience that quite possibly lacked the experience to know better. So I took the microphone—we all had to share the same microphone, which was awkward—and pointed out a few things. First, sales to libraries can account for as much as ninety percent of a book’s hardcover earnings. It’s not like those libraries get the books for free—they have to pay for them too. Far from losing sales to book-borrowing, libraries can actually stimulate the sales of a book when it comes out in paperback. Someone takes out a book, reads it, likes it, then buys a dozen of them and gives them away as Christmas presents.
Throughout all this, the man chuckled in his lordly fashion and rolled his eyes.
The discussion continued, and soon it was time for the woman to weigh in. My Emerson colleague, Jon, had just finished telling the audience about a chapbook he’d self-published with some friends. The idea was to have something in addition to his commercially published book that he could sell, inexpensively, at his readings. He thought it would be fun for readers if there was something they could only get at his events. He wasn’t trying to make money off of it, and never was there a pretense toward the book being something it wasn’t. It was a chapbook, and he’d had a friend who was a painter design the cover, and the whole thing made for a modest but visually arresting package.
This was when the woman, whose book covers looked like they’d been cut-and-pasted from some do-it-yourself template online, took one of Jon’s chapbooks, thumbed through it violently enough to bend some of the pages, threw it back down onto the table and said, into the microphone, “I think it looks cheap.”
At this point, the mutual dislike that one half of the panel had for the other became overt. Jon, who is a bit more outspoken than I am, grabbed back the microphone and expressed his insult to the woman in unequivocal terms. I should mention that prior to now, both Jon and I had been very good about holding our tongues. We didn’t even say anything when the woman mentioned she’d paid her high-school-aged granddaughter five dollars an hour to “edit” her latest book. Now that similar respect wasn’t being offered in return, we felt no need to keep quiet.
I don’t even remember what the man said that set me off. It was asinine. It was some dumb, uninformed thing about publishing, but worse than that, it was expressed in oppositional terms that implied his viewpoint was superior to mine and Jon’s. He was hitting all of my buttons: willful, unnecessary, and gratuitous nastiness. I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d done nothing to earn this person’s contemptuous condescension. Maybe it was something I represented to him—he’d read my bio and decided I was probably full of myself and needed to be brought down a peg. But it was what he said at the end that finally did it. Regarding my way of being a writer versus his, he said, “But it’s fine, you do what you want. You have my permission.”
That’s when I said, off-mic but loud enough for the room to hear, “Hey, man, I don’t need your fucking permission. Fuck off.”
And it felt so good.