A word to traditional publishers and the self-published

Slow progress on the hard-copy edit of Princess of Shadows— it really seems as if everyday life is conspiring to drag me away from the book, hitting me with this, that, and the other thing at odd intervals. I am about a third of the way through. However, on the plus-side, I am cutting out some good-sized chunks of text.

Meanwhile, it seems that another firefight has flared up over self-publishing. A blogger identifying him/herself as “anonnymouse13” launched a tirade (again, with bad words) a couple of days ago against independently published writers–

http://anonnymouse13.wordpress.com/2013/08/10/why-indie-authors-still-suck/

Another blogger responded directly to anonnymouse13, taking the counter-position for indies–

http://mishaburnett.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/an-open-letter-to-a-frightened-man/

I have no interest in chiming in on anonnymouse13’s blog; mishaburnett has already done so quite adequately. I do find the anger and disdain in anonnymouse13’s blog disturbing; are people associated with traditional publishing truly this alarmed? He’s not the first to use this kind of language– it seems many of them are painting indies with very broad brush-strokes as incompetent amateurs who shouldn’t be allowed out in public for fear we’ll make a mess on the floor.

I’ve previously posted at length on self-publishing, but reading this latest exchange, I have kind of come to a summarization my own thinking on the subject. Half of what I now have to say is for trad publishing, half for my fellow self-publishers.

Traditional publishers— take a deep breath, step back, and figure out where you can fit into the new normal. The new normal is that trad publishers no longer have control over what literature is available to the public. Because of the Internet and e-books and online self-publishing platforms you are no longer the sole gatekeepers of literary production in our culture– and over the next few years that erosion of your former power is only going to get worse. In a decade or less, book publishing in our society is going to look very different from what it does now, and radically different from what it looked like a generation ago.

Rage as you will, you cannot reverse this trend, for two simple reasons– 1. the Internet is not going away, short of human civilization blowing itself to kingdom come (an outcome that would adversely affect dead tree books, as well), and 2. people have a free speech right to publish their writings and thoughts, and as long as there are online platforms willing to accept their work, they will. You are powerless to stop them, and stamping your feet and frothing at the mouth about it only wastes your time and raises your blood-pressure.

It would be much better for you to follow the example of the music industry– embrace the independents and figure out how you can work with them. Work at helping to create and mold the new normal. If you try to cling to the vestiges of your former power and status, you will be left behind.

Self-publishers— The greatest and most glorious achievement of the new publishing world is that the decision to publish a work has been taken out of the hands of cultural elites (editors and publishers) and delivered into the hands of the authors themselves. This is occurring just as traditional publishing is petrifying into some sort of living fossil, incapable of changing its ways and frequently unable to recognize good writing, as it ardently pursues publishing the same sort of material that has sold before.

But every revolution has its downside. The downside of online self-publishing is that, with no gatekeepers at all, we are seeing a flood of badly written material being presented to the public. This is evident from any casual examination of the inventory of e-book vendors.

In their eagerness to see their name and the name of their book on an Amazon or Smashwords webpage, many thousands of people have launched their work into the ether without understanding a basic truth– learning to write well is, for most people, a long, long process involving a great deal of hard work and, frequently, a good deal of humiliation and frustration. There are no five easy steps to writing success. Most of us take years to learn this craft. Occasionally we will encounter some native genius who picks up a pen and writes something great right out of the gate. They are far more rare than big-time lottery winners. The new publishing paradigm has not changed the nature of the writing process, nor how this skill is learned and honed.

The irony is that the same free speech right that now allows an author to publish very nearly at will also makes no value judgments about what is published. There is no quality test for free speech– it protects both cogently written works and incoherent drivel. Neither I, nor any traditional publisher, nor Santa Claus, have any right to tell an author they can’t publish if they haven’t spent twenty years learning to write and can’t figure out how to format a manuscript so that it is readable. So there is no way to stop the flow of inadequately written material in the new self-published world.

There is, however, a countervailing force, at least on self-publishing platforms that offer some form of payment– the freedom of the consumer/reader/audience to judge your work and utterly ignore it if they find it wanting. It is the marketplace, red in tooth and claw, and it is unforgiving. This is actually a good and hopeful thing– it means that those who work hard and honestly strive to make their work better still have a chance rise above the sea of the bad and the hasty. With all the material that is out there now, and all that is to come, it will not be easy– but what that is worthwhile in this life is easy?

So, here is my final word to my brothers and sisters in self-publishing– if you do not want to be ignored, or worse, ridiculed (and, believe me, one-star reviews sting like the dickens), learn your craft. Take the time to do it right. You won’t regret it.

That’s all I have to say.

Later.

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10 thoughts on “A word to traditional publishers and the self-published”

  1. A really well balanced piece on the trad/self publishing dilemma. You put all the arguments on both sides succinctly. I have been traditionally published but by a small press. Results have not been impressive and finding it difficult to acquire a new publisher despite having an agent, so like many others, I am teetering on the verge of self publishing, attracted by the thought of personal control over publication but put off by the poor reputation for quality of self publishing so far. Also there is a still a taint of sorts to being self-published. Some literary competitions will not accept self published entries and some literary societies will not accept self-published authors, but as you so rightly point out, times they are a changing. I’ve still got a foot in both camps and just hope I don’t fall into the water between.

    1. Thank you. There is indeed yet a taint to self-publishing in some minds. More than that, I would caution anyone thinking about stepping into self-publishing that there is one further significant downside– in the great (and ever-increasing) mass of self-published material, it is very difficult to get noticed. All marketing and publicity is on the author. There is a good deal of debate in self-published circles about the best ways to make your work known to the world, and no one has yet figured it out.

      Having said that, I personally would not go back to traditional publishing, at least for my fiction. It might be a different story for non-fiction, but for my stories the advantages of self-publishing now outweigh the disadvantages.

      Good luck.

  2. Thanks for the follow. Excellent piece.

    It is a bit crazy that these sorts of blog posts still have to be written, this isn’t 2010.

    But if they must be written, it is best if they are as balanced and nuanced as yours.

    Good to meet you.

  3. Well written D.D.
    Yes, there is a lot of drivel out there (and certainly not just from self-published authors). As you say, this is where feedback steps in, via ratings on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads.

    In truth, I can only feel satisfied at the prospect of writers enjoying ever more opportunities to make their voice heard – be that through a blog or self-published novel. Not all talents are equal but it delights me to imagine people beavering away across the nation, penning their hitherto secret thoughts.

    I agree that traditional publishers offer a ‘filter’ for the most mundane offerings but much of interest must surely be lost, for failing to appear commercially appealing.

    1. “Commercially appealing” is more and more the driving force for trad publishing. That imperative is making an already straitened publishing environment even more difficult for those who do not fit the mold of what is demand at the moment– to all appearances, Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey imitations. It’s depressing.

      Self-publishing is not an easy road, though, if you want to do it right. I will probably be posting in the near future about my struggle to get my novels ready for Amazon’s print on demand service; that’s been an eye-opener.

      Thanks for your thoughts, and the follow.

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