First, an announcement: My novella Angels Are Lonely on the Earth, which I wrote in 2013, is now available as a Kindle e-book, and will soon also be available as a paperback. I decided to go ahead and self-publish this one for a couple of reasons.
One reason is simply that it is a novella, that misfit of fiction forms that is too long to be published as a short story (for example, in a magazine or literary journal) yet not long enough to publish in a (traditional) single volume as a novel. Especially being one written by an unknown author, Angels didn't stand much of a chance at "legitimate" (i.e. big house) publication, and I didn't feel like putting the time and effort into marketing it the way I intend to do with my two novels once they are finally completed. I also want my first novel (not a novella) to be my real literary debut.
Of course, one might wonder: why not just sit on it until after Bluebird is published? To which my answer might well be: That long? Actually, my self-publication of this novella is intended only as the beginning of a larger program of self-publication of a number of my older works, some dating back to the 1990s, as well as of any number of minor works I may write in the future. I do not feel the need to limit myself, in this day and age, to any one avenue of publication.
The publication of Angels has got me thinking about myself, not merely as a writer, but as a maker of books. Ever since childhood I have been deeply fascinated by books as objects and have always either made them or dreamed of making them.
I am now 46 and, after a lifetime of writing, have yet to have any of my work traditionally published. I have barely made any attempt whatsoever to get any of my work published in that way—have not submitted my short stories to magazines, have never submitted my poetry to journals, have not had a truly finished novel manuscript to submit to an agent or publisher.
Even though my literary obscurity would seem to be the only possible result of my own inaction—simply the logical consequence of keeping my work largely hidden (publication of poems and short stories on my blog being, in reality, not much more public than sharing with family and friends)—I do harbor, and have long harbored, the desire to get my work "out there". I just want to do it the right way, by basing my literary ambitions and reputation on what I consider to be my best, greatest, and most important work.
I am a librarian, so I see and am surrounded by books on a daily basis. As one who has, since childhood, felt himself to be one of the "book makers", the fact that none of the books in the world are yet ones of my own creation fills me with a kind of wistful longing and a deep sense of unfulfillment (if all these other people can make books, why can't I?). Because if there is one thing I feel I can contribute—that I feel I should contribute—to the world, it is books. And yes, I am working on it.
But I have long realized that my contribution need not only take the form of ambitious literary novels. As a writer, my interests have always been quite varied, and my ideas so numerous that it has often seemed fitting that many of them should find their home in some form of self-publication—especially considering that, as I said above, I have always been fascinated by books as objects and have always enjoyed designing and making them myself, in whatever form.
And now the main question of this post: What is, or was, or will be, my first book?
The short answer is: It depends what you mean by "book".
My first book—my very first book—was one that I made when I was in kindergarten and just learning how to write (probably late 1976 or possibly early 1977). This book no longer exists, and my memory of it is vague, but it consisted of one or more folded sheets of paper, a technique I often used in childhood for making my own books, and it contained a story about dinosaurs, one of my major interests at the time.
Or perhaps my first book was The Lazy Scarecrow, a set of science fiction stories which I wrote and illustrated as part of a creative writing course for gifted students when I was in fourth grade (begun in the fall of 1980, completed in January 1981). The teacher and a classmate bound it and created a cloth cover. I still have that book. It is certainly my oldest surviving book.
Or maybe my first book was the first novel I ever wrote, Eastway Beach. This novel was handwritten on about 200 pages of a notebook and followed the lives of high school students in a fictional Florida beach town. I wrote it in 1990, and then wrote a sequel, Eastway Beach Sharks Come Back, in 1991. The sequel was a bit longer, taking up some 300 handwritten notebook pages. These works no longer exist; I destroyed both manuscripts in 1993.
I also made a few poetry chapbooks between 1993 and 2000, as well as (in the late 90s) a number of short stories (and one novella) printed as booklets with cover illustrations.
Or possibly my first book can be considered to be The Librarian’s Apprentice, which was, ironically, not even intended to be a book. I wrote the story as a work of blog fiction in 2008, and my father, who has also written and published a number of his own books, decided to surprise me for my birthday that year by publishing it via his imprint. When my parents presented me with the book version of my blog story, I was not only surprised by the book itself, but also by how long it looked in printed form (not a novel, but long enough to qualify as a novella). It was as though I had written a book without even meaning to (and not only that, but gotten it into print without even trying!).
Then again, perhaps the moment in 2012 when I typed the last sentence of my first “real” novel (the Eastway Beach books being, not only no longer extant, but also works of juvenilia) was the moment when I had at last made a real, honest-to-goodness book.
And yet… 5 years later, The Bluebird of Happiness remains a work in progress. So perhaps—hopefully sometime later this year—when I finally bring my first novel to a state of satisfactory completion—perhaps that will be the moment when I can say that I have made a book.
Or maybe it will be that moment when Bluebird is actually published—when I can walk into a bookstore and see it on the shelf—that I will know, beyond any doubt, that I have made one of the books in the world—I hope, I like to think, I dream, perhaps even one of the great ones.
In a way, Angels feels like the first, in the sense that it is the first book I have intended to publish (and, for that matter, the first one published that I intended to be a book). But of course, as I have illustrated above, it is not that simple. Further complicating the picture is the fact that Angels is a novella, a form which is not usually considered long enough to publish as a book unto itself. That may be changing these days thanks to self-publishing and print-on-demand titles, and of course the very definition of what constitutes a “book” is undergoing the strain and stress of technological and cultural change. In the future, will the word “book” even have anywhere near the same meaning or importance as it has traditionally? Who can say?
People always talk about the death of the book—and the death of literature, the death of the novel, the death of poetry, and so on. But, as a librarian and author in the twenty-first century, I can’t help but feel that such pronouncements on the death of the book are greatly exaggerated. Much closer to the truth, I think, was the ancient philosopher who said, “Of making many books there is no end.”