If you like watching television, then you are most likely familiar with the television critic Alan Sepinwall; and if you’re not, then I suggest you start reading his work right away. Sepinwall has been writing about television for nearly 20 years. He started out as a columnist for the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., while also maintaining his own blog, What’s Alan Watching? In 2010, he started writing full time for the website HitFix, where he writes about nearly every show on television. Following Sepinwall on Twitter and reading his website religiously—both of which I do—it is amazing how he illuminates each show he covers.
This past year, Sepinwall wrote his first book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, a study of the “television revolution” of the past 10 to 15 years that succinctly profiles the creators and stories behind shows such as The Sopranos, Oz, Lost, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and more. The book displays all of the qualities of Sepinwall’s online writing that have gained him rabid followers—the ability to make layered, objective analyses about shows he obviously takes personal enjoyment in; the references to and appreciation for television’s evolving canon; and an insider’s view of all the people involved in the creation and production of a television series.
In a surprising decision, Sepinwall decided to self-publish his book in November. Self-publishing has certainly gained popularity over the past five years, but someone with Sepinwall’s following surely wouldn’t need to resort to that method.
“I looked into the traditional publishing route but didn’t receive a lot of interest based on my initial pitch,” Sepinwall says. He did garner one offer from an editor whose bosses weren’t as enthusiastic about Sepinwall’s book as the editor himself was. Sepinwall’s friend Ken Levine (a former TV writer) had self-published a few of his own books, so Sepinwall felt encouraged to try it himself.
Sepinwall wrote the bulk of the book this past summer and went through the editing and formatting process over a few weeks last fall. “I didn’t trust myself to edit,” he says, “so I hired a friend of mine who is a professional editor to catch typos and tell me where I went off the rails. I also hired a cover artist and a formatting company called 52 Novels, and when I got the files back and was pleased I hit the button and we were ready to go.”
Once the book was published, Sepinwall took to Twitter and to his various media contacts in order to spread the word.
“I did some blog posts and reached out to people I knew in the business and asked, ‘Hey, could you mention that I wrote this book?’ I sent them copies and reached out to a few publications and then all of a sudden I had the surprise of the New York Times running a very positive review of it.”
Based on his sizable Internet following and network of friends, word did spread. In fact, a college contacted Sepinwall and asked how they could purchase his books to use in a for-credit course on television.
That kind of inquiry certainly makes sense. Sepinwall’s voice and tone are entirely authoritative. In The Revolution Was Televised’s prologue, Sepinwall provides a dazzling history of the television shows from the 1980s and 1990s (Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, NYPD Blue, among others*) that paved the way for the shows and television landscape we have known for the past decade. In the space of seven or eight pages, Sepinwall manages to fit in a wealth of knowledge and appreciation for the early pioneers of the form that he holds dear. It is the kind of tactful, economic prose that any professor would be wise to include in a syllabus, whether the course is on television or nonfiction writing in general.
Even though Sepinwall has been pleased with the results of his self-published book, last month he made a deal with Touchstone Books for the rights to The Revolution Was Televised. He is working with his editor at Touchstone on some slight revisions and additions, but he wants to make sure that there is a seamless transition between the versions. “I want it to be that one day you are ordering the self-published version on Amazon and then the next you’re ordering the Touchstone version,” Sepinwall says. He is hopeful that the Touchstone edition will be released during the first quarter of this year.
The publishing world is in flux—that fact is evident. However, it should be encouraging that a writer such as Alan Sepinwall, with an ideal mixture of a large online following and a history in traditional print media, can still feel dissatisfied with established publishing routes and get creative. The fact that Sepinwall’s creativity led to a book deal on his own terms should be even more promising. In publishing, there is no “right” answer.
* If you want a tip from Sepinwall, then watch Homicide: Life on the Streets. He believes that it’s the drama that still holds up the best from the first wave of edgy prime-time dramas of the 1980s and 1990s.
Matt Domino is the assistant Indie editor at Kirkus Reviews.