I recently got back from Iceland, where I attended the Iceland Writers Retreat. It was a very well-designed and well-organized event, and took place mostly at the Icelandair Natura Hotel in Reykjavik. In general it was a great experience, very illuminating, inspiring, and fun. There were 105 participants from 15 countries, and 10 instructors who administered short workshops on various aspects of writing. With such a large group it was impossible to get to meet and talk with everyone but I did get to meet and chat with many of the attendees. It was a very diverse group, all sorts of people of all ages and writing backgrounds and interests, and I found them all to be very interesting. I got a chance to have some very interesting chats with two of the writer-instructors, Adelle Waldman and Neel Mukherjee, whose work I admire very much. We went on a tour, had some great group dinners at Reykjavik restaurants, receptions, and had a fun time at a pub called Kex where two rather prominent Icelandic writers did readings and there was a beautiful performance by an Icelandic singer/guitarist who calls herself Lay Low.

Toward the end of the event there was a Q&A session in the hotel auditorium in which the assembled group of instructors was asked questions by members of the assembled audience of workshop participants. I found it to be pretty interesting but there was one question that led to some responses that I thought were problematic: a participant asked about self-publishing. One of the instructors, a moderately well-known writer with many books to his credit, took the position that self-publishing is essentially a waste of time, because (1) you will sell very few books if you self-publish, and (2) self-published books are generally not very good because if they are any good they will get picked up by a conventional publisher and then will no longer be self-published. Some of the other instructors chimed in their agreement, but I, having had some experience of self-publishing and having found it to be an interesting and creatively satisfying experience, was terribly disappointed that this very experienced writer would advance such a very simplistic view of publishing. Surely he can’t be naive enough to believe that the publishing world is a natural meritocracy, i.e. that good books will inevitably find a publisher, and books that don’t must not be any good? Or that the only reason for publishing a book to to sell a lot of copies? If that were true then Fifty Shades of Grey must be one of the greatest English-language novels of all time.

The nature of publishing has been undergoing a big change in recent years. The number of writers producing manuscripts has been increasing dramatically while the number of commercial publishers has decreased. Writers are looking now for alternatives to the traditional, big commercial publishers which used to be the only way to get something published. To find an audience for one’s writing has become a much more complicated and diverse challenge. These days an author would do well to cultivate an attitude of flexibility and to keep a keen eye out for all kinds of possibilities for presenting their work to the public, including publishing with small non-profit presses, self-publishing, organizing their own readings, presenting their work on the internet via blogs or Youtube, and any other ways (perhaps some that we can’t yet imagine) that might become available for getting one’s work out there. I agree with Neil Gaiman that we should start learning to think like dandelions.