Is Self-Publishing Self-Defeating?
A recent Huffington Post article about traditional publishing vs. self-publishing has riled some feathers. I’ve got a lot to say, but hopefully I’ll restrain myself from going into pure ‘rant mode.’
The article, called Self-Publishing: An Insult to the Written Word, has gone viral among self-published writers. I don’t understand why, because there is literally nothing new in Laurie Gough’s post. These same tired arguments have existed forever—they’ve just morphed from railing against the ‘vanity press’ to railing against ‘self-publishing,’ a more inclusive and modern term.
The problem is, Ms. Gough’s position is less valid with each passing day. Her post is probably one of the last gasps of a dead industry that hasn’t realized it’s finished.
So let’s consider what’s really going on. I like reality. Join me, won’t you?
The Good of Traditional Publishing
Full confession time: I used to think much like Ms. Gough and that ilk does. When I worked in and for the industry, I was that ilk, and I had a reason to feel that way: her argument has some merit. Writing is both art and craft, and it does take a lot of work to master, and not everyone is, or ever will be, as good at it as most traditionally published authors. Also, having a methodology where multiple brains and eyes examine a manuscript between final draft and press time, a hallmark of traditional publishing, is incredibly beneficial to the final result. It’s not optional if one wants professional quality in the work.
Having said that, I defy anyone to convince me that those thoroughly good processes are the sole bailiwick of large publishing houses. Ms. Gough and ilk may not realize that many self-publishing authors have ghost written, and are, or could easily still be, ghost writing for many of the supposed ‘big names’ who have not touched a typewriter or word processor of any sort in years (some of them are dead, for crying out loud). Or we could be copyediting, or assistant editing, or holding any of a number of other positions in traditional publishing that are getting farmed out to save money.
This may be a stunner to some: even people who haven’t had actual industry experience, or a humanities education, can almost always develop their writing skills to professional quality. (I have both, for the record, but I was selling stories and articles long before I had either.) The best thing you can do to grow your innate ability to write is to write, and the second best thing you can do is to read. Not take classes, or serve an internship, or suck the cock of a corporate master. (Can’t talk like that on HuffPo, can you? Neener neener.)
Good writers read a lot. They read a lot long before they were good writers. They read a lot after. The works of others get internalized. The feel for writing is what can’t be taught, and what makes a writer good. Details can be taught, craft can be learned, things can be improved—but high-quality writing doesn’t come from having a marvelous CV or a nice work history on the resume or being part of the right ‘corporate culture.’
Being a writer is where quality comes from. Quality doesn’t come from being published. It doesn’t come inherently from having logged hours in a classroom. Quality comes from experience, from doing the work. Wherever one is doing it, however one is doing it, does not matter. Those who claim it matters are upholding an artificial distinction designed to stroke the egos of some, and hold others in a ghetto. That belief is arrogant, presumptuous, and just plain incorrect.
I had a slush pile as part of my daily life for years. Often, submissions I judged—not all, and no, not even most, but many—were as good, or better, right out of the envelope, right upon submission, without the author having had any editorial guidance or professional editing, than the pablum that was getting churned out by the company’s B-listers and ghostwriters for the A-listers. (Ms. Gough would have been made to edit that sentence into several shorter ones, because publishers believe readers are stupid and can’t follow a long sentence. I bet my readers had no problem with it.) But we’ll get to that soon enough.
Do Gough and her ilk seriously suspect that someone who has mastered the craft enough to have made a good living ghostwriting full-time—or in any case, well enough to write at that level—doesn’t know they need edited? Are the Ivory Tower guardians honestly so arrogant or ignorant that they think simple quality procedures are impossible outside of their corporate structure?
Are they just having a go, or are they propagandized shill pieces, or are they really that arrogant, naive, and out of touch with reality?
I have a developmental editor. I have a copy editor. And this is after my process of beta readers and trusted peers. (I don’t have a designer-slash-typesetter, and that’s one of my weak areas that I’m working on. I’m not Random House, and I don’t need to be…yet.)
One thing I have that Gough and ilk don’t have?
Complete creative control.
I agree that not everyone writes well enough to be published.
I do not agree that the reading public is unqualified to make the determination of who those someones are.
I have the final say. I approve the final edit, I approve the final artwork, I decide what I will publish and what I will not. Traditionally published authors may claim they do, since they approve galleys and get to make trivial decisions about design sometimes. But unless they are selling at Stephen King levels, they know as well as I do that they do not have that kind of control. (Don’t start a sentence with ‘but’! Don’t I even know grammar?)
The buck stops with me, not with some politician who worked his way up to being a boss. And with that segue into the bad, we’re done with Gough and ilk’s positive arguments.
The Bad of Traditional Publishing
The works that paid my check were often worse than most of my slush pile, and for corporate considerations, even the best of my slush pile would never see the light of day. At least, not if traditional publishing made that decision. My check which, by the way, I got every week, like clockwork. Not every quarter, when they didn’t decide to have a bookkeeping accident or ‘raise net against returns’ or any of the other corporate accounting doublespeak they use to excuse their refusal to pay authors what the authors are owed. The books they wanted to sell, they sold.
The editor gets a check every week. The assistant editors get a check every week. The line editors get a check every week. The secretaries (oops…administrative assistants) get a check every week. The custodians get a check every week.
The authors? They usually get an initial advance against earnings, with residual payments
paid quarterly once sales have surpassed the advance based on an agreed percentage of net sales, or nowadays net profit. usually never being paid, at least to the vast majority of authors. Highly successful authors make a lot of royalties while they are in print, but most authors never even earn out their advances.
Because it’s not a book or a story or characters and plot to them, it’s product.
Ms. Gough and ilk seem to misunderstand that fundamental flaw traditional publishing suffers from. (Ms. Gough, don’t end sentences with prepositions, make that read ‘from which they suffer.’ Grammar rules are important even if they don’t improve clarity…right? Pfffft.) Writers are artists and craftspeople. Publishers are just people going to work, where they make and sell books. How many of you know that the typical estimated weight of a mass market paperback is 15.6 ounces? They think of books in terms of pounds and pages and how much glue will it take to make a million of these, not whether it’s any good or not. If it’s not good they’ll market it better or work on a movie deal with a big name or write it off and destroy them come inventory time. The higher you go up that corporate ladder, the less story matters. They don’t care about quality, Ms. Gough, and the ones who tell you otherwise are trying to sell you something, to paraphrase the Princess Bride.
And those types are everywhere in publishing. You don’t rise to the top in that industry (or any other) by merit alone, and there seems to be an inverse square relationship between talent and success as a publisher. The political, manipulative types, the ones who only consider product and logistics and the profit motive are always going to be the bosses.
The ones who care about quality get cut off somewhere around Editor-in-Chief, and even Editors-in-Chief have too many political and financial stresses to worry about quality like they know they should. Just ask one. They’ll tell you, if they’ve had a drink or two, or if they’re feeling particularly disillusioned and nobody is going to overhear them toe that line. Maybe Ms. Gough and her ilk just haven’t been that close to real editors. Her position is an idealistic one, which as I admit, I used to share. The problem with it, again, is that it’s wrong. Real life doesn’t work that way.
Quality in publishing is just like quality in any other real-world industry. Nothing matters but money, and traditional publishing has screwed the pooch in that regard, but we’ll deal with that in a moment. Traditional publishing is the ‘gatekeeper’ of exactly jack shit these days, and if they do ‘gatekeep’ something, it sure is not quality. Maybe junior-high levels of political strategy? That’s the S.O.P. in the business, at least, so they tend to foster it if not ‘guard’ it.
It’s almost never the best of the best that makes its way out of the slush pile. It’s the best of the category that marketing needs to fill shelves with logistically at x future date, because no big names can be ghostwritten to cover that slot, after all the political maneuvering is done to determine which is the best.
That means it is a question of which assistant editor can successfully lobby the Editor to champion, over and against the choices of his or her cohort of assistants, his or her best manuscript from his or her slush pile. (Do you see how that grammar makes it harder to read than just using the ‘incorrect’ singular their? Maybe we do know grammar and choose instead to communicate effectively? Just a thought. ) The Editor then tries to convince the board that the winning manuscript du jour can be published with a minimum of hassle, and good odds of profitability, and no scandals or inconveniences from either content or author.
Oh yeah. They want to be all up in your business. And they try like hell to be, and they try like hell to keep you ignorant that they are trying like hell to be.
If the Editor happens to sell it to the board that day, then the book gets sold and you get the cheapest contract they can haggle you down to (natch). It’s almost never that day, unless it happens to be a ‘new name’ they have been intending to groom, which means the previous steps didn’t happen because those names and books don’t come out of a slush pile. It’s never the first one. It’s never the best one. I personally had a manuscript of mine caught in this loop for three years, where the Editor wanted it, and the board was on the fence.
That’s rare, though. It’s usually a merry-go-round of manuscripts that the Editor tries to sell the board on, over and over, one after the other, until the day a decision must be made. Boards don’t like making qualitative decisions like that, because they’re not inherently creative people, they’re inherently political people, and numbers people, and borderline sociopath, CEO type of people. And don’t think for a minute they only answer to the shareholders. They have bosses too. I don’t know what happens that high in the stratosphere, but I have my speculations.
What happens then? Most of the time, it comes down to that last minute. Something MUST happen or there will be consequences. They stand to lose money if a decision is not made—no product in the empty genre ghetto shelf come this time next year, or two years and a month from now, or next month, depending on how chaotic they’ve let it become. (Aside: Bookstore shelves are going the way of the dodo, in case you haven’t been paying attention to the world; this affects the publisher’s bottom lines and their entire model of business, and it scares them terribly—seems from a distance it’s affecting how they are behaving.) Then the board tells the editor what they were most likely to tell him all along: “Offer a standard contract to the author of the manuscript you’re telling us about right now, we like that one because it’s the only one we remember.” Not in those words, but to that effect. Again, ask an editor-in-chief.
And that used to work, even for B- and C-listers, because what those political types above the creative types did—and did damn well—was sell the damn books. Advertisers, marketers, those types, are always the ones who call the shots. And they still are, but…
The Ugly of Traditional Publishing
Jesus Christ, this one could take all night. I’m going to be brutally short and avoid the true ugliness in this cesspool of an industry, the sociopathic behavior I’ve witnessed first hand, the unforgivable things, the hard to believe things about ruined lives and true ugliness, and just stick to the argument.
The ugliest thing that’s really relevant to this discussion is that publishers used to sell books. Now they print books, and they do as little selling as they can. They put as much of that on the authors as possible. Selling costs money. How many book commercials do you see on television nowadays?
So I have to write a book that will pass their gauntlet of submissions—I can do that. I’ve done that. It’s doable, but it’s by no means a sure thing, and in almost no way is it based on quality. What a naive idea! I must clarify: it’s doable if you know at least one of the right people and have the goods in your work.
How many of you mass-market-published authors can look me in the eye and say you didn’t do any schmoozing to sell your novel? If there are more than a handful of you, some of you are lying. If you started publishing in one of the boom periods, in one of the boom genres, it’s more believable. Horror in the 80’s, for example, or sci-fi before that. It happens in Romance still. But the amount of schmoozing that happens, and has to happen, is just unbelievable.
Even so, basically everyone must schmooze. ‘Who you know’ is the only way to make getting published in traditional publishing a possibility and not a lottery ticket. It always has been, and it always will be.
Official Rejection of the Argument For Traditional Publishing
So why the fuck should I do all the work of an author, and do all the work of a publisher in the marketing and promoting of my books (outside of the logistical aspects, which they still do well), and allow them to pay me a pittance for the privilege, when and if they get around to paying me at all? I’m personally still owed residuals from one publisher who can now never pay me. The two settlements I was involved in got me pennies on the dollar.
There are now too many confounding factors and variables for the industry to dictate terms like it used to, and I personally resent seeing arguments which smack of a return to those halcyon days of indentured servitude. I’ve had enough of accountants and sociopaths dictating to me what someone else may enjoy reading. I have an audience, and they like me fine. Even if most of them don’t know it yet.
So no, I’ll self-publish, thank you very much.
Self-publishing is the future of all publishing, and you better just accept it. The established edifice of the past is rotten in its foundations. Amazon and Smashwords and other such platforms, readers who judge by quality alone, and the global economy have formed an earthquake that is bringing that building down even as I write this.
The technology is trivial now. If someone wants to be published, they should be able to be, even if they suck. Let the readers decide. Traditional publishing is terrified of self-publishing, because it’s not going anywhere, and we don’t need them any more. We don’t need to pay them, and they want paid.
People like options, and they’ve always known it. You won’t convince readers that the only ‘good’ options come from big houses. The entire HuffPo piece was completely irrelevant in the big picture. Too many people know better. They have seen that outfit on the Emperor by now, and everyone gets it. His pecker is hanging out, and it’s not impressive.
I suspect Ms. Gough was writing from a propagandist perspective at least as much as from her sincere beliefs, because they used to encourage me to do that, too. Unofficially, subtly, but it was absolutely implied. I was certainly indoctrinated with the argument at every turn.
So on a personal level, to those of you still enslaved in the mindset and compensation system of the Beast, don’t be afraid of what’s coming. Keep your seat in the Ivory Tower as long as you can. I know the money is good, at least if you’re ghostwriting, or if you managed to release a lucky title or three, or have a favorable relationship with your editors (for the moment). I say don’t be afraid because when self-publishing is the only game in town, we will welcome you with open arms, and if you can compete, you will do well here, too. And then you’ll see that most of us aren’t the incompetent assholes you perceive us as.
Some of us may be assholes, but watch who you call incompetent.