The war over self-publishing.

I feel impelled to step away for a moment from my periodic recounting of my progress on Princess of Shadows to share some thoughts on self-publishing. There is something of a flame-war going on right now online. In the last few weeks there have been a number online blogs/videos/rants that basically suggest that self-publishing is the worst thing since Velveeta cheese–

Self-published authors are destroying literature–

John Green on Self-publishing (video)– Publishers and the publishing infrastructure are necessary (watch out– he uses naughty words…)–
(not sure what Ayn Rand has to do with self-publishing, but there’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand in this life).

Andrew Franklin (as reported on “The Overwhelming Majority of Self-Published eBooks Are Terrible”–

Some of the points raised by Green and Franklin are no surprise at all to indie authors– that most self-published works are poor to terrible, and most indie authors will never capture an audience. No new insight there, frankly.

It’s their implicit or explicit assertion (particularly in the case of John Green) that the traditional publishing industry/infrastructure is necessary to produce good or valid (whatever that means) literature that has caused certain members of the self-published community to go ballistic. Here is a long counter-rant by Libbie Hawker—

The publishing industry is undergoing radical change at the moment. The thing about radical change is that it is either creative destruction or just destruction, depending on your point of view. Self-publishing, or the self-publishing model embraced by Amazon, Smashwords and others, eliminates the “gatekeepers” of traditional publishing– the agents, editors and publishers– by allowing authors to upload files directly to the web for customers. Those who favor trad publishing hold that the old-style gatekeepers were the arbiters of quality, and kept a lot of rubbish out of the public view. The new model, they say, opens the flood-gates of a mighty river of crap.

There is, in fact, some truth to that. When I attended science fiction conventions some of my favorite panels were “It came from the Slush Pile” readings, where publishers would read the worst/funniest selections from their slush pile, with names removed to protect the guilty. It was great fun (up to the moment they started reading your stuff, after which it was a lawsuit). There was almost always some jaw-droppingly awful stuff we could laugh at.

And, as I have already said, much of what is self-published these days is awful. It’s perfectly obvious that there are people who have not learned the craft, have not spent the time to do all the hard work of formatting and editing, and are shoving material out there that is not ready for prime-time. For some people it’s inexperience and newbie ignorance; for others it’s a genuine inability to appreciate their own lack of talent, like contestants on American Idol who really think they can sing when they sound like a rusty hinge, and then get huffy when the judges boot them.


There’s a fly in the martini of traditional publishing, a truth its defenders seem to be eliding– with a few exceptions publishers do not primarily exist to advance literature. They exist to find and market profitable commodities. Others have pointed out that nowadays most publishers (or agents, for that matter) are very leery of taking on new or unknown writers; they want proven performers, or authors bringing them material in genres already proven to be popular money-makers. Traditional publishers are not holding up lamps to illuminate literature; they’re wielding flashlights to point people where they want to go, which is frequently someplace ugly.

I’m old enough to remember the flood of crap pseudo-science-fiction that came out after Star Wars. Before SW, sci-fi was much smaller in scale, and not at all mainstream. Afterwards, sci-fi suddenly looked extremely profitable, with a market swollen with all the new fans clamoring for more, and so there was proliferation of bad writing that made it to print.

In much the same way we’re now suffering through the current flood of vampire/paranormal/undead books, largely because of Twilight. Publishers, by and large, are not looking for art; they’re looking for a sure thing. And they will not hesitate to put something second or third-rate out if it will increase profits.

And that brings us to the flip-side of slush pile reality– in the process of pushing through what is perceived to be profitable, genuinely good writing is all-to-frequently ignored. There are far too many tales of famous books that went through submission after submission after submission before being accepted for me to repeat them. God alone knows how many books that would have found an audience and made an impact have been lost to us because the authors gave up after losing heart. The myth that all good books are eventually published is, in fact, just not so. It has, quite simply, become harder and harder for new writers to break into publishing.

This is the hard reality of publishing that Amazon and other online publishers understood and found a way to get around. Although it’s still early, the new model appears to be profitable for them. Individual authors are a different matter, and right now the focus among indies appears to be “discoverability”– the struggle to get noticed in the sea of available material. That is a problem that has not yet been solved, in my opinion.

I still haven’t addressed the trad publishers’ assertion that really good literature requires editors, cover artists, etc., in other words, a team. This assertion seems to have really inflamed some people. Personally, I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding in operation here of what constitutes “good” writing; “good” is getting conflated with “publishable”. The two are not the same.

I once read a history of World War II that talked about mail censors (and sorry, I do not remember the title– so many history books….), and, in particular, the experience of one censor, who had found his service uplifting. He had, he said, read some of the greatest prose in the English language in the letters he censored– frequently written by people who could not spell. If a person can write– if they have something to say– then the writing, in and of itself, has value, whether or not it’s punctuated according standard rules, and even if its spelling is dodgy (English spelling…a dark and ambiguous subject….).

This is very different from whether the work is publicly presentable– i.e. publishable. Recent scholarly research on Jane Austen’s original manuscripts reveals her editor did a lot of cleanup on her rather sloppy punctuation, etc.–

Does this prove the trad publisher’s point? Only to this extent– as any experienced writer will admit, the first draft (and the second, and the third…) stinks. Nobody except an egotist or a newbie thinks otherwise. And yes, it helps to have other eyes on your manuscript, which is why many indies, including me, have beta readers.

But now we run up against one of the realities of independent publishing. When I was still trying to go the traditional publishing route, an agent who expressed interest in my work recommended a professional editor. I contacted the person and she seemed reasonable…until she mentioned her fee. As much as I wanted the help, there was no way I could afford $2000. I still can’t. And I suspect not many indies could.

If I understand the trad publishers, at this point I should, for the sake of Western literature, stop myself and say, “I haven’t been professionally edited, therefore I must not publish.” I hope everyone sees the intrinsic fallacy of that statement. It essentially assigns implicit censorship powers to a cultural elite who haven’t deigned to take my work up and deal with it on at least the same level of respect as Fifty Shades of Grey.

Would I like a professional editor to look at my work? Certainly, just as I would have liked a publisher to pick my work out of their slush pile over all the years I tried to get their attention. But the evident reality for me is that, if I were to continue to wait around for a traditional publisher, in a publishing environment that is increasing rigid and restricted, I would probably be waiting until I died.

So I am out here, pretty much on my own (with some help from friends, none of whom are professional publishers, either), and I have finally found a way get my work to an audience. But here’s a critical point that many (but by no means all) indies are missing– I have the same obligation to get my novels and stories right as a publishing house would. I need to do the work, as best I can with my limited resources, to correct my mistakes, to edit, and to format my work, so that it is at least reasonably readable and appealing. That is why I continue to edit my published novels when I discover problems (see my previous post on lunar systems and apparent diameters). That’s why I am going through four drafts, or more, on Princess of Shadows before uploading it to Kindle.

The bottom line is that, as long as online entities like Amazon and Smashwords provide the platform, I have a free speech right to publish my work. If I produce slop, it’s on me– I can’t even blame a typesetter or an editor behind a desk. And the customer, who can finally, finally access my work, will make the decision whether it has value to them. This, on the whole, is a tremendously good thing.

My recommendation to my brothers and sisters in traditional publishing– take a deep breath, see the change, and figure out how it can work for you. Because the changes are here to stay, one way or the other.



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