I wrote this for the old Apex blog in 2010 (before being expelled after the very whiny pushback following an even more controversial–but perfectly accurate–post that came after this one), so this is its 10 year anniversary. While I recognize that there are many excellent writers who self-publish, I stand by the major points and the role of gatekeepers. At the very least, it’s good to talk about these things. Always happy to discuss disagreement in the comments.
The last couple of weeks seem to have had a single hot-button issue. Unlike many of the topics that get discussed in the genre, this one is truly relevant: publishing is changing, and no one really seems to know where it’s headed. Will all print books disappear? Or will ebook readers only destroy the mass-market / airport reading paperback business? These are valid questions, and I’d like to take a shot at it.
But today, I’d like to address the other component that gets discussed when talking about worrying future trends: self-publishing.
The discussions generally go something like this:
Self-publishing proponent: Self-publishing and especially electronic self-publishing are great! We don’t need to worry about those pesky agents and editors any more! We can print our excellent work without interference and Amazon will even let us into their shop without all this insistence on having grammar and plot! Finally, we can let readers decide what is good or bad!
Anyone who loves literature: Die! Die! Die!
And the people who self-publish are often left in a state of confusion regarding why the other party doesn’t share their enthusiasm. After all, isn’t giving the authors more control over everything a good thing?
Well… Let’s have a look at this.
Most proponents of self publishing fall into one of three groups.
- Clueless. These people are generally victims of a vanity press scam. They believe that people like Stephen King pay to publish their books. They are to be pitied more than censured, and the best thing you can do for them is to send them a book contract for them to study. It might take days, but I suspect they will eventually realize that the money flows toward the author. Sadly, much of this is their own fault – the information necessary to avoid scams is readily available, all you have to do is make a minimum of effort.
- Conspiracy theorists. These are actually a subset of number 1, people who think that editors and agents are there to keep new writers and new ideas from ever hitting the shelves. This particular group is just as irrelevant as the first, because it shows that they haven’t done their homework. Or maybe it’s just easier to believe that there’s a conspiracy than to accept the sad truth: the writing you are subbing just isn’t good enough for public consumption. Not liking the options (get better or get out), these people went the self-publishing route.
- Economists. It’s better to keep all the profits yourself, right? Why pay these editors, copy-editors, formatting people and especially artists, when I already have a great book – my first draft! – and I can format it myself, and use a cover design made by my niece, which is just as good. And who needs publishers when I can upload it to my kindle. And if I go the print route, I’ll sell them myself, after all, authors have to be great salesmen, don’t they? I’ll make a fortune. All I can say here is: probably not, and your cover art is making my eyes bleed.
But why does any of this hurt real writers? Am I admitting that the publishing world is moving to a model without gatekeepers, where it is a pure democracy?
Don’t make me laugh. I may not know how it will work, but the world will defend itself from this somehow, and self-publishing stealing their sales is a laughable proposition.
The reasons that real writers are being hurt have to do with the confusion that readers are going to be experiencing until the gates are established again. Readers know that most of the work they find in a bookstore has gone through an editing process, been checked for most spelling mistakes, and been formatted by someone who knows the correct sequence for page numbers (hint: 1, 2, 3, 4…). Now, if bookstores suddenly disappear, how is that same reader, faced with only a product page to know that Fly By Night Publishing is a vanity press that will publish anything, including Atlanta Nights, or an individual whose knowledge of English consists of what he was able to pick up on the boat ride? The profusion of self-published titles will educate some readers as to what publishers are worth their time, but it will alienate others, after they get burned. Less readers hurts real writers.
The words “Published Author” have also lost much of their magic. Most people, when you tell them that you’re published will ask “How much did you pay?” The ratio of real writers to people who couldn’t make the grade and decided to self-publish seems to have gone oversquare at some point. Even bookstore employees flee if you tell them you’re a writer.
Finally, and most sinister, is the fact that publishing houses are run by people who can do math. So, if writers are willing to pay to have their books printed and also willing to eschew (or pay extra for) decent cover art, why are we footing the bills for all this? A major romance publisher has already launched a self-publishing imprint. Can others be far behind? Of course, the smarter houses have realized that GOOD writers don’t pay to have their work published, and that they are also not good at selling books from the trunk of a car. But it’s still worrying to see this trend, isn’t it?
So, as I have no interest in selling my books from the trunk of a car, especially my unedited books, I have to say that, even though they represent no threat to real writers from a sales point of view, proponents of self-publishing do damage their ability to make a living.
And that explains the words “Die! Die! Die!”
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work is very emphatically published by publishers and not by him (mainly because he likes real editors to proof his work before showing it to others). His monster novel Ice Station Death was both well-received and popular. You can check it out here.
*The best thing about living in Buenos Aires is that one doesn’t need to be euphemistic about blog post titles. We don’t believe in political correctness down here, thankfully, and no one who disagrees with me can drive to my house and berate me in person for my views!