I was wavering between amusement and horror today as I watched two friends take on the publishing revolution in a battle of 140-character grenades on Twitter. They made good points: Digital’s rise is formidable. Self-publishing pundits are “post-apocalyptic” about traditional publishing. And so on. But I started to worry about the vitriol I see in the wider debate about traditional vs. self-publishing. Why must it be one or the other?
There are people out there who love books but seem to hate, well, everybody on the other side. As if there were another side. As writers (and as publishers, self- or otherwise), I think we’re on the side of telling great stories. Or at least some of us are; even in my most Pollyanna moments, I have to admit that some people just want to make a buck, or many millions of bucks, as rare as that kind of success may be. Vintage Books didn’t pick up the “Fifty Shades” trilogy because of its literary value. Some maudlin bestsellers seem more cynical than sincere. And publishing, big or small, is a business, and writers will make decisions accordingly.
Still, even though making money from writing is a kind of validation, or ideally, a living, it’s not the main reason most writers write.
Perhaps it’s not true of you, Writer, but I think most writers, whether they aim to create great art or craft the perfect thriller, ultimately want to be read. To be read, one must be published, one way or the other. How we publish books is important to their success, but I don’t think one’s strategy has to be all or nothing, Us vs. Them. But that’s the way the discussion unfolds. Wordsmiths turn into cornered animals. Given the upheaval in publishing, it’s no wonder the traditionals feel threatened and the upstarts feel defensive. Livelihoods and reputations are at stake. I’ve seen self-publishing advocates eviscerate traditional publishers for being short-sighted and rapacious (see Jessica Clark’s screed, which is compelling partly because she came from traditional publishing). I’ve seen traditionally published authors snark about the unwashed self-published, whose books, by definition, must suck.
I hate to be sensitive to the latter stance, but I am, a little. Though I once had similar opinions, I chose to self-publish earlier this year after going through several rounds of traditional-pub rejection and years of angsting and revisions. I did it not because I think it is the one shining path to revolution, but because it just made sense for me. My novel apparently defied genre, I wasn’t getting any younger, I was actually happy with it, and self-publishing was exploding. It was a business and personal decision. I made back my expenses, and I’m glad it’s out there.
But never mind my book. I know writers who are still struggling to get published the traditional way, writers I’ve worked with closely over glasses of wine, and their stuff is brilliant. But agents/publishers haven’t wanted these brilliant books for whatever reason, and I fear they will never be read beyond a few lucky critique partners. That’s enough reason to self-publish a book.
Sure, a lot of self-published books still stuck – as do some traditionally published books. I always think of Flannery O’Connor’s response to the question of whether universities discourage young writers: “My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” (1)
In the case of self-publishing, stifling is elusive. The vetting process is what’s missing, for good or ill, when you take away the traditional publishing grinder. We all need friction to smooth the rough edges. We need smart people to critique and edit our books before they see daylight. As a journalist and frequent book reviewer, I used to see many, many self-published books cross my desk. Long memories of poor design, bad grammar and amateur efforts mean the stigma will linger. But we’re seeing many more of these books published at a professional level, shaped if not screened by editors, and designed well. New and refreshing voices are emerging. Even if they are not bestsellers, they can find their niche. They can find their fans. They deserve to be heard, and not to be disdained without cause. And self-publishing also offers an option for traditionally published authors who want to stretch beyond what they’re told will sell, or who want to promote their work in a new way. (It’s Us and Them.)
Once published, all books should be held to the same standard (or the standard that fits – whether it does what it aims to achieve). I’m agog to hear critics and book bloggers say some self-pubbed authors have scared them off because said authors freak out if a review isn’t favorable or ask them to be “nicer” because the book is self-published. These unprofessional writers taint the rest, and more education is in order.
Even if all books are held to the same standard, traditionally published books still have the advantage of reach and marketing (or at least a publisher’s A-list books do). The big houses have already earned the respect of traditional media, who remain wary of embracing self-published books. As a recent graduate of newspapers, I can say that attitude is slowly changing, even as coverage of books is shrinking. But in the realm of media attention, the traditionals are likely to have the advantage for a long time. I definitely read more traditionally published books than self-published ones, because their media advantage makes them easier to discover.
Consequently, when it comes to marketing, self-publishers do sometimes smell a bit desperate. Blogs for “indie” writers tend to be much more about promotion and platforms and getting reviews, about Amazon and the effectiveness of giveaways (or should I say the glut of giveaways), than about writing. And that’s OK. I’ve learned a ton from these blogs. But the key is still writing a really good, professionally packaged book. That book will not exist in an indie vacuum. It is one of millions published each year around the world, and it has to earn a place in a much larger literary landscape.
We’ve entered an era when even an unconventional, unproven, transcendent writer can hope to see his book in print, no matter how small the publishing scale. The hope is that the good books will get respect. With time and luck, they should do so, no matter how they’re published.