Why I Publish EBooks

by Richard Kostelanetz (September 2012)


Now in my seventies, I was probably slower than younger colleagues in signing onto the Internet and thus even slower in realizing the possibilities of publishing ebooks. Not unlike other writers my age, I’ve always thought of bound volumes as the ultimate goal for a writer, not only if I completed them from scratch, but in collecting fugitive texts of mine that had previously appeared in, say, periodicals. To a bound-book man such as myself, even scriptwriting, so attractive to younger writers, was a distraction strictly for hacks. On another hand, since 1975 I’ve committed myself to explore new technologies for publishing my words—first audiotape, then videotape, film, holograms, and multi-projection installations.

As my writing has been profoundly radical, not only in content but in styles, while I lacked any position affording me power to intimidate editors, my manuscripts had from the beginning encountered all kinds of obstacles before appearing in print. Some books were done by commercial publishers, others by presses connected to universities, yet others by small presses and micropresses. (I can go on at length about the differences among them.) More than one appeared from publishers other than those originally commissioning them. A few were necessarily self-published, never with apology or regret. Nonetheless, no matter how they appeared first, only shelves of bound books emblazoned with my name authenticated my writing career.

Around 2006 I put on my website several manuscripts that never found any book publishers: The Art of Radio in North America, which was based upon talks prepared in the 1980s for Westdeutscher Rundfunk; Jewish Writings So Far, Home and Away (travel essays), Book-Art, Anthologies, and Alternative Publishing, and On Sports and Sportsmen, all of which were essentially collections of fugitive essays. I also added The Maturity of American Thought, which is an incomplete intellectual history of post-WWII America that I began after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967.

My hope in making these books available free was that some people would find them useful and perhaps tell other people who would tell other people. I’ve learned by now that my name appears in literary encyclopedias and critical histories because strangers, people I’ve never met, want to tell others that they like one or another work of mine enormously. This phenomenon reflects the truth that books can get around in ways that I can’t. Even if a strong book is scarcely publicized or noticed upon its initial publication, enthusiastic readers discover and recommend, thanks to the absence of censorship not only by the state but by the marketplace. So I hoped in 2006 that even a book appearing first in cyberspace—in effect a virtual book—could attain considerable weight in certain readers’ minds. To judge from fan mail, some of them indeed did.

Pleased I was to discover a few years later that Amazon.com, always an ingenious merchandiser, had established a portal to sell ebooks, virtual books, that could be read only on its comparably ingenious device called the Kindle. Given Amazon’s merchandizing muscle, as well as the possibility of earning money, it seemed appropriate to republish my virtual books on its website.

Once I made that move with my initial website books, I realized that Amazon Kindle could take other book-length texts of mine that were essentially finished but couldn’t find a backer, mostly of fiction: 1001 Stories Enumerated, Openings, More Openings & Closings, Lovings, etc. It was not for nothing that Peter Parker’s Reader’s Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers (1995) classified me as “probably the world’s most experimental writer, or at least he represents the farthest extreme of the formalist approach within the broader field of ‘experimental writing'. He goes much farther along the route more popularly associated with Georges Perec, who wrote a novel without the letter ‘e.’ Kostelanetz’s work includes a novella with no more than two words to a paragraph, a story with only single-word paragraphs, a ‘novel’ of 1,000 blank pages, stories composed exclusively of cut-up photographs, ‘narratives’--one of book length--composed entirely of numerals, and a good deal more, often of some complexity, including film, video, and audio-tape pieces.” Disadvantaged, I had to find other ways to publish. Once Kindle had my fiction, I added my Minimal Audio Plays (2011), because I hoped they would be performed, and my English, Really English (2011) because I hoped that with a more appropriate typeface that these 5,200 discrete words would somewhere be exhibited one word to a page.

The next move was publishing addenda to books already in print, such as my SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony (2003), Ecce Kosti (1995), or new entries to my Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (1991, 2000). Perhaps a reader coming across these addenda might then seek out the original bound books that are still in print.

Once that was done, I added more books too long “in progress” that, like The Maturity, I didn’t complete and now would not complete, because I could not imagine anyone else publishing them and my remaining years are necessarily limited. Preambles to the New (2009) collects the prefaces that I’ve contributed to over one hundred books for over one hundred thousand words. Its only predecessor known to me as collected prefaces was done by George Bernard Shaw. More On Innovative Music(ian)s (2012) collects writings mostly about classical music that were published since the appearance of a bound book titled On Innovative Music(ian)s (1989).

With a book of my otherwise uncollected literary essays from 1985 to 2012, I was able to produce two editions almost similar in contents but with a radically different ordering sequence, one of them proposed by the intern Elizabeth Bonapfel who edited the book. Whereas her sequence is titled Person of Letters (in the Contemporary World), my sequence is Son of Letters. While two simultaneous editions of the same text would be expensive in print, on the Internet they cost me only additional time in moving chapters around.

Since I’d written over 100,000 words about book anthologies, I decided to make them into a book perhaps unique in literary history. Since some of these words were included in the Book-Art, etc. book on my website, I decided to remove them from that source, retitling that earlier book simply Book-Art and Alternative Publishing, while the new one is On Anthologies. I also added a definitive text of Autobiographies at 70 (2011) that has been in progress for the past decade.

One advantage of Internet publishing is that new editions can be made quite easily, wth some effort but no expense. Just as Book-Art has become abridged, so others have been enlarged and revised.

Given the nature of Internet publishing, I could also submit to Kindle much shorter books, indeed so short that traditional book publisher would have glibly dismissed them as “unpublishable.” such as Categories, which is an ironic division of my career into familiar rubrics (11,000 words); More Prose Pieces (12,200 words), which is a sequel to a collection of alternative experiments first published in 1979; Kosti’s Early Commonplace Book (10,900 words), which reprints with annotation the epigraphs pinned to my writing room’s wall in the early 1970s; and Collecting Cultural Magazines’ Retrospectives (45,100 words, mostly bibliography). Most of these shorter ebooks are also susceptible to additions. As long as one person other than myself finds any of these ebooks valuable, they were worth my making virtually public. On second thought, shouldn’t I be pleased that these books appear apart from my harddisk, even if no one buys them. This move cost me more time than money. Shouldn’t we all be gratified that gatekeepers’ censorship has come to an end? While I can’t imagine anyone purchasing all my Kindle books, so different they are in various ways, may I hope that some readers like one or another of them enough to recommend to others. I write this text to introduce them to the opportunity.

Virtual publishing enabled me to make public several longer short books, averaging 30,000 words, collecting essays on a certain subject: DanceWritings (2012), Dick Higgins (2012), Brown University Remembered (2012), Deeper and Further: More Political Essays (2011), and The Rockaways: The Rise and Fall of New York’s Beach Towns (2011). I suspect that as I have more thoughts and even write more essays about these subjects, these too will become longer virtual books. Once fuller in length, some might eventually be printed and bound, yippie, under on-demand auspices. At my age, with elite recognitions behind me, I need not observe commercial publishers’ ideas of strategic pacing in releasing my work.

The invitation implicit in Kindle also inspired me to make books that wouldn’t have occurred to me before, such as Annotating My Bibliography 1960—2012, which is perhaps unprecedented at 100,000 words, and  the collection of negative notices that I called, literally, in pseudo-Yiddish a Dumbkopfbuch (2011). Even if only a few people ever purchase this sequel to H. L. Mencken’s Schimpflexikon (1928), I don’t think I made a mistake in Kindling this. In A Book of Kostis (2011), I also made my own selection of choice prose passages from my critical writings, fully aware that someone else might later make a different selection from the same voluminous source. (This would be a great intern project.) To both these collections as well I expect to add.

Thanks to Amazon’s ingenious pricing scheme, l could make very cheap—only $0.99—books I wanted people to read, while making expensive (at $200.00) certain texts that I wanted preferably to remain scarcely read, if purchased at all, such as More Portraits from Memory (2012), which recalls past lovers at one to a page; There’s No Such Things as a No-Cost Delay (2012); and Family F…ing (2012). The latter two are both intimate memoirs in progress that, circumventing Kindle, I might now send personally to certain people, who should be pleased to receive a text that would otherwise cost them two hundred bucks.

What I haven’t yet done is Kindle earlier published books of mine, most of which I keep in print as Archae Editions and sell over Alibris and my eponymous website. While Aram Saroyan, among other colleagues, has reported retrieving rights to his printed books as a prerequisite to offering them on Kindle, I am perhaps still too devoted to my “historic” bound books to want to see their texts reappear in virtual forms.

So far I’ve published virtually only on Amazon Kindle, giving them exclusive rights, even though one problem with that channel is that it cannot accept images. (still true?) Kindle works better for me than it might for others, because I’ve been publishing for fifty years, Amazon and its suppliers are already selling other RK books, and many people already treasure certain books of mine. On the other hand, since Kindle lacks gatekeepers, it should inspire beginning authors to produce work that is not just acceptable to authoritarian gate-keepers but, crucially, influential in the free marketplace.

At a time when commercial book publishers pump and dump so fluently, I’m attracted by the ideal of Amazon’s keeping these in print, literally out of my house, making public what might otherwise be lost, overcoming censorship, adding to my legacy, leaving behind my texts where they can be found. I’m also able to publish manuscripts that, notwithstanding elite recognitions, publishers dismissed as too avant-garde, too esoteric, too unprecedented, too eccentric, etc.

I’m also clearing my backlog so that I can concentrate on my principal project for this decade—aphorisms of various kinds, such as minimaxims, instances, aphors, kernels, one-word  meditations, one-word bull’s-eyes, and thoughts. I’m also preparing what I hope will be the three major writing projects of the next decade: a double biography of Charles Ives and Gertrude Stein, “The American Imagination,” and “Polyartistry,” not to mention my continuing work in poetry, fiction, and visual literature.

Whereas “Freedom of the Press” once belonged initially to those accessing such machinery, the great achievement of the Internet is making such FREEDOM universally available, offering to all writers opportunities that have not yet been fully exploited—indeed, more opportunities than I’ve yet discovered.

Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.

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