Late to the Party
I’m hopelessly late to the party about the piece in HuffPo condemning self-publishing. I almost wonder if it was written just to go viral because Gough knew there would be many biting responses (and possibly also many who agree). Well, FWIW, here’s another one.
Let me start by acknowledging that I’m a hybrid author. I use that term to mean that I’m both self-published and published by, well, publishers. (I think some others use “hybrid” to mean other things, and the truth is the terminology in publishing has become muddied overall and can be problematic, but that’s another blog post entirely.) While I’m pleased that some publishers have seen fit to take on my work, I’ve done better with my self-published material. By “better” I mean I’ve sold more. That’s one of the only concrete metrics we have when it comes to writing since it’s so subjective. We fixate on numbers—sales, units printed/sold, how many reviews/stars—because those are tangible. We take them as an indication of “good” or “not good” via a kind of sliding scale. But in reality, “good” isn’t quantifiable. It’s entirely based on personal preference.
Now let’s just look at some of Gough’s claims:
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.
1. This assumes that readers only respect and want to read traditionally published books. That’s clearly not true since some self-published authors sell plenty of books and make plenty of money. (“Plenty” also being subjective.) Someone is buying self-published books.
2. This also assumes that agents, publishers, editors, and reviewers hold the corner on what is “good” or not. As we’ve already discussed, that’s a highly personal matter. Even agents, publishers, editors, and reviewers don’t agree on what’s good. And what about all the self-published books that get rave reviews? Or are we going to begin arguing about which reviewers “count”? Are we going to say that some readers have “no taste”? That’s not possible. Everyone has taste, just not the same taste. And no one’s taste is more valid than any other’s. This is one time when it really is a matter of opinion.*
3. Another assumption: readers expecting books to be vetted before they buy. Well, yes, if I’m buying a book published by [insert Big 5 Publisher here] I have that expectation. If I’m buying a self-published book I certainly hope it’s been edited and all that, but I admit my expectations are not as high. Maybe they should be, but . . . I’m just being honest here.
4. “It’s the best system we have.” Really? It’s a system that is primarily worried about making money, not about promoting “good” art. So, in truth, something half-assed that will sell still makes it through over something really well written that has a smaller audience. Does that mean the well-written book doesn’t deserve to be published? Because that’s the system that’s being touted here.
The article goes on to talk about how a good writer must put in thousands of hours, years of work in order to hone his or her craft. Okay, with this I agree. You should not immediately go self-publish that book after the first draft. You need to get feedback, possibly hire a freelance editor, etc. But in the context of this article, Gough just sounds bitter that she took the time to “do it right” and others are doing it faster and still seeing some success.
Or perhaps, as she mentions being an editor, she’s sour that some self-published authors don’t use editors or an editing service of some kind. I agree that can be a problem. (I also used to be an editor.) But to condemn all self-published work because some isn’t well edited is a terrible generalization.
In fact, the entire article is a generalization. It makes a sweeping assumption that all self-published work is crap that couldn’t hack it in the “real” publishing world. As if there is such thing as “real” and “fake” publishing.
The only similarity between published and self-published books is they each have words on pages inside a cover. The similarities end there. 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.
Sure, some of these writers haven’t learned the craft and should probably do a bit more work before pushing that “publish” button on Amazon. But to say every single self-published book tells me she either hasn’t tried to read very many or has chosen the worst ones, probably just to prove her point.
She then quotes Brad Thor as saying, “If you’re a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract.” Well, that’s nice, but it’s not realistic. As mentioned previously, publishers are looking for something that sells, which isn’t always something “good.” And as the big publishers merge and shrink and smaller publishers fold under financial stress, there are fewer shots at a publishing contract even for “good writers and great books.”
I understand the general frustration of seeing poorly written work for sale online. But let’s look at this in terms of movies. Is an independently produced film—one funded by the writer and/or director using actors trying to make names for themselves—any less of a film than one produced by a major studio? Sometimes they’re bad, yeah. The quality can be lacking. But sometimes they’re wonderful and unique and couldn’t get a break with the majors because the majors all want blockbuster superhero films. And sometimes the majors make really terrible films, too. So it is with books. There are great little self-published books and dreadful ones. There are splashy traditionally published books with big names on them and atrocious ones where you wonder what they were thinking when they made it. And you can argue that you’ve seen more bad indie movies than bad studio films, and maybe that’s true. But you can’t honestly say there are no good indie movies ever. Nor can you say that of self-published books.
*Excepting grammar. Spelling and grammar are not a matter of taste or opinion.