As a general rule, I prefer to leave fisking – taking an article line by line and dismantling it – to the experts, like Larry Correia. But every so often something pops up on the internet that leaves me rolling my eyes in disbelief before putting hand to keyboard to refute it. And today there was this article: Self-Publishing: An Insult To The Written Word.
I have spent much of the last year reading articles that praised Trump and damned Clinton, praised Clinton and damned Trump, praised them both, damned them both … and I can honestly say that this article is still the most ignorant thing I’ve read. If it had been written in 2008, perhaps – just perhaps – the writer might have had a point. Now … the level of ignorance is staggering. Ignorance is not, of course, a crime. But one should at least attempt to remedy one’s ignorance before starting to type.
Looking at the author’s bio, I note that she has written travel books. I’ve never read them, so I have no idea if they’re any good or not. And, frankly, I have no idea if self-publishing is a viable path for travel books. I may be wrong about this, but I do question the value of her experience – such as it is – in writing about self-publishing.
I am a self-published author. Indeed, by the only definition that matters – earning enough to live without a day job – I am a successful self-published author. I do not claim to be an expert on self-publishing, but I have considerable experience in the field. And most of the article’s claims are, frankly absurd.
I’ve put her original work in italics and quotation marks, mine in plain text.
“As a published author, people often ask me why I don’t self-publish. “Surely you’d make more money if you got to keep most of the profits rather than the publisher,” they say.”
Assuming that the book was successful in both traditional publishing and self-publishing, your friends are quite right.
The problem with traditional publishing houses is that they make an investment in authors, furnishing everything from the advance, editing and cover design to promotion and publicity. (In theory – in practice, promotion is very limited unless you’re one of the big names.) They want a return on their investment, so the first profits will go to repay them. This has to be done before you see anything after the advance. And even after your book has recouped the advance, you’ll still receive only a small percentage of the profits.
And then there are countless other problems. You might be declared unprofitable and find yourself unable to write or publish further books. You might find your rights held hostage, preventing you from continuing a series elsewhere. And so on …
“I’d rather share a cabin on a Disney cruise with Donald Trump than self-publish.”
Would now be a good time to point out that Trump’s book – The Art of the Deal – has sold better than you and I put together?
“To get a book published in the traditional way, and for people to actually respect it and want to read it — you have to go through the gatekeepers of agents, publishers, editors, national and international reviewers. These gatekeepers are assessing whether or not your work is any good. Readers expect books to have passed through all the gates, to be vetted by professionals. This system doesn’t always work out perfectly, but it’s the best system we have.”
And yet, how many of those gatekeepers rejected Harry Potter?
The problem here is that the gatekeepers are no better judges of what appeals to readers than politicians. Indeed, some of them are really nothing more than interns glancing over a few pages before rejecting the book. (I’ve done slush reading. Trust me – it isn’t anything like as much fun as it sounds.) Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes they judge books by their content, sometimes they pick and choose for reasons that make very little sense to a normal sane person.
Even if your book doesn’t fall at any of the obvious hurdles, the publisher still has only a limited number of publishing slots. Their first-rank authors (the George RR Martin types) will have first call on those slots. Your book might be rejected or delayed because they don’t have time to publish it.
I’ve had books rejected by these gatekeepers that I self-published and turned into successes.
I’ve also seen books published that were rejected by the reading public. (Or at least me).
The system has its flaws – and they have become more and more apparent as the internet works to democratise publishing.
“Good writers only become good because they’ve undertaken an apprenticeship. The craft of writing is a life’s work. It takes at least a decade to become a decent writer, tens of thousands of hours. Your favorite authors might have spent years writing works that were rejected. But if a writer is serious about her craft, she’ll keep working at it, year after year. At the end of her self-imposed apprenticeship, she’ll be relieved that her first works were rejected because only now can she see how bad they were.”
There is a lot of truth in this, but …
I had an apprenticeship too. I started work in 2005. My first real success came in 2012. Between 2005 and 2012, I wrote around thirty manuscripts – making all the mistakes common to authors of all stripes. I too had people write in and say “you idiot, you killed this character off in the last book.”
The idea that self-published writers have not learnt their craft the hard way is insulting.
Yes, there are people who put their first manuscript on Amazon Kindle and get laughed at, not without reason. But there are professionally published books that are equally as bad.
“Did you ever hear what Margaret Atwood said at a party to a brain surgeon? When the brain surgeon found out what she did for a living, he said, “Oh, you’re a writer! When I retire I’m going to write a book.” Margaret Atwood said, “Great! When I retire I’m going to be a brain surgeon!””
If this is true – and I admit I have no reason to doubt it – I find it odd that Atwood, a hugely successful author, would need to work after retiring. In truth, I think she was having a quiet dig at his suggestion that writing was easy, compared to brain surgery.
But if she didn’t earn plenty of money, this may be because of her publishing contracts, rather than anything to do with self-publishing. Atwood would make lots more money today if she self-published.
“The irony is that now that brain surgeon really could dash off a “book” in a of couple months, click “publish” on Amazon, and he’s off signing books at the bookstore. Just like Margaret Atwood, he’s a “published” author. Who cares if his book is something that his grade nine teacher might have wanted to crumple into the trash? It’s a “published” book.”
There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Marge writes a book. (A soppy romantic book in-universe readers take for a reflection of her married life.) Writers loathe it. The idea that writing a manuscript is easy, followed by getting it published … <shakes head in disbelief>.
This paragraph has the same problem. Yes, a brain surgeon could write a book and self-publish it. But there would be no guarantee of success, no guarantee that he could give up his day job. The idea that he could hop naturally from ‘dashing’ off a book to signing books at a bookstore is absurd.
I am, as I said, a successful self-published author. But it wasn’t until the last convention I attended, a gathering of fans in my field, where I sold and signed more than seven or eight books. Most of my sales are electronic.
But tell me. Do you think I would have any sales – that any author would have any sales – if the books weren’t appealing to a large number of readers?
“The problem with self-publishing is that it requires zero gatekeepers. From what I’ve seen of it, self-publishing is an insult to the written word, the craft of writing, and the tradition of literature. As an editor, I’ve tackled trying to edit the very worst writing that people plan on self-publishing just because they can.”
On one hand, there is a good point here. Anyone can publish on Amazon Kindle. But that doesn’t mean that there are no gatekeepers. People can and do post reviews, which help raise the book up high or bury it in the dirt. And yes, most self-publishers could benefit from a beta-reader (or ten) and an editor. But most self-publishers simply don’t have the money to afford one.
And yet, the suggestion that we are an insult to the written word is insulting. Half of history’s greatest hits did not come about because someone wanted to write the Great American Novel. They happened because an author wanted to entertain people.
“I’m a horrible singer. But I like singing so let’s say I decide to take some singing lessons. A month later I go to my neighbor’s basement because he has recording equipment. I screech into his microphone and he cuts me a CD. I hire a designer to make a stylish CD cover. Voilà. I have a CD and am now just like all the other musicians with CDs.”
Except you aren’t. Are you trying to distribute your CD? Are you trying to convince people to buy it? Are you singing in bars and trying to make a splash so some record executive will notice you, or putting your music on YouTube in the hopes of selling enough to live on?
This is the core difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing. The former is an exercise in vanity. It matters very little to the vanity author if anyone buys his books or not -all that matters is that he has it The latter is an attempt to sell books to make money – and a splash. How many indie writers have hit it big, then drawn interest from publishing companies? Those gatekeepers you praise love finding an indie because he already has an audience.
“Except I’m not. Everyone knows I’m a tuneless clod but something about that CD validates me as a musician. It’s the same with writers who self-publish. Literally anyone can do it, including a seven-year-old I know who is a “published” author because her teacher got the entire class to write stories and publish them on Amazon. It’s cute, but when adults do it, maybe not so cute. With the firestorm of self-published books unleashed on the world, I fear that writing itself is becoming devalued.”
I’m a tuneless clod too. I sympathise.
But it doesn’t validate you as a musician, ironically for the same reasons you defend traditional publishing. It may be nice to have, but it isn’t developing your career. The thing that does validate your work – singing or writing – is having people pay money for it. Now yes, anyone can publish a book, just as anyone can upload a video of them caterwauling into a mike while performing a silly dance. But the thing that makes the difference between a successful career and a pipe dream is the money.
The great writers are not devalued by indie writers, any more than the Beatles are devalued by some half-drunk idiot trying to sing Penny Lane on karaoke night.
What does devalue traditional publishing is the simple fact that many indie authors are undercutting them. It’s become a competition, all the worse because indie authors sell eBooks cheaply while traditional publishers manage to price themselves out of the market – an unforced error that is costing them sales. And instead of choosing to adapt to the new world, traditional publishers are slamming indie writers.
And the people who are really hurting here are the traditional authors. They’re the ones who cannot go indie, even though they have the reader base to be successful. They are trapped.
“I have nothing against people who want to self-publish, especially if they’re elderly. Perhaps they want to write their life story and have no time to learn how to write well enough to be published traditionally. It makes a great gift for their grandchildren. But self-publishing needs to be labelled as such. The only similarity between published and self-published books is they each have words on pages inside a cover. The similarities end there.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that all that matters?
“And every single self-published book I’ve tried to read has shown me exactly why the person had to resort to self-publishing. These people haven’t taken the decade, or in many cases even six months, to learn the very basics of writing, such as ‘show, don’t tell,’ or how to create a scene, or that clichés not only kill writing but bludgeon it with a sledgehammer. Sometimes they don’t even know grammar.”
Except I did spend six years learning my trade. So did every other successful indie author. You’re tarring every single self-published author with the same brush.
The real difference, now, is that the mistakes are public. And yes, they can haunt writers for the rest of their lives. But really, this is sometimes true of traditionally published authors too.
“Author Brad Thor agrees: “The important role that publishers fill is to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you’re a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract.””
This is true, but sometimes the wheat gets thrown out with the chaff.
“Author Sue Grafton said, “To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy and s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. … Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall.””
Unfortunately, self-publishing is only a shortcut for getting a book online. It isn’t a shortcut if one actually wants to learn the trade, let alone turn it into a living. (And this quote could easily apply to the author of the article.)
“Writing is hard work, but the act of writing can also be thrilling, enriching your life beyond reason when you know you’re finally nailing a certain feeling with the perfect verb. It might take a long time to find that perfect verb. But that’s how art works. Writing is an art deserving our esteem. It shouldn’t be something that you can take up as a hobby one afternoon and a month later, key in your credit card number to CreateSpace or Kindle Direct Publishing before sitting back waiting for a stack of books to arrive at your door.”
Good luck trying to sell those books.
You know, I agree – the art of writing is thrilling. But you know, it’s thrilling for me despite being a self-published author.
“Let’s all give the written word the respect it deserves.”
I quite agree.
But this – and all of this – really leads back to validation. And from where, we might ask, does that validation come from?
There is, I will freely admit, a cachet to being published by a traditional publisher. To have someone make you an offer, to haggle over terms, to be paid an advance and watch as your book is edited, then bound and finally turned into a stack of paperbacks … that’s not something I would deny anyone. A person with a traditional publishing contract has a vote of confidence – a publisher thinks that writer can write sellable books.
Because it’s all about the money, really.
But there are some absolute howlers published by traditional publishers. One doesn’t even have to go into the agreements about books that tick politically-correct boxes or written by celeb authors (just because they’re famous, they think they can write books) to realise that traditional publishing has problems. The explosion caused by the internet has altered the face of the publishing world beyond repair. Traditional publishers are trying to force a sinking ship back to the surface by force of will alone. Instead, the people they’re really hurting are their authors. There are no shortage of horror stories about authors trapped by ironclad contracts that were written in the days before the internet …
There is something unmistakably elitist about the traditional publishing world. And yes, going by the tiny numbers of people who have earned contracts, it is an elite. And the one thing elitists hate is the unclean commoners forcing their way into their world. The idea of self-publishers, publishers who hadn’t paid their dues, becoming successful doesn’t sit well with them. The self-publishers have a status that many in the elite do not share, even though they are traditionally published. And this has played neatly into the hands of those who want to force the genie back in the bottle.
Self-publishing isn’t perfect. But to argue that we self-publishers don’t give the written word any respect is absurd. And there are so many misconceptions in this article that, in the end, it is laughably out of date.
I’ll let Heinlein (Life-Line) have the last word:
“There has grown in the minds of certain groups in this country the idea that just because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with guaranteeing such a profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is supported by neither statute or common law. Neither corporations or individuals have the right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.”