The Case for and Against Self-Publishing

Me, my wife, and my nephew, with my self-published book c. 2004

An author once told me to forget about art. “Publishing is a business,” he said, “and you have to write what sells. If you’re lucky, art comes later.” 

I sincerely tried to take this advice to heart. But as I went about dealing with publishers, I was appalled by their suggestions. “You have to make your chapters 30 pages each,” they told my college buddy, so he kept asking me to critique his work, but the only problem I could find was his overlong chapters. Fed up with a system that measures quality in dollars, I decided to take a different route. Eight years ago, when I first heard about self-publishing, vanity publishing, or POD, whatever you want to call it, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. After all, independent film usually gets more respect from critics than Hollywood features, and in the music industry it’s the underground bands that seem more interested in art than music-monopolizing record companies like Sony. Nobody chastises an artist who elects to paint along the Champs-Elysées. I imagined “independent publishing” ushering in an era of literary freedom, where writers are judged by the public, not by a half dozen accountants occupying two blocks of NYC. After all, Christopher Paolini started off self-published and now stuffed dragon toys based on his Eragon series litter every Barnes & Nobles I visit.

Unfortunately for the literary world, self-publishing has ushered in a deluge of crap. This isn’t to say that all such books appear to come from a bird’s anus. I’ll take the independently released hack-fest that is Battle-Chasers over Pamela Anderson’s pseudo-biographical Star any day. But I have also been witness to Ryan’s Tale, a sprawling fantasy with poor understanding of grammar and inappropriately used quotation marks throughout.

The difference between good and bad self-publishing, I believe, isn’t about skill but attitude. When I started writing, it was with pen and pencil. Very few people used computers in those days and almost nobody used them for storytelling. With the coming of word processors, writing became far more accessible, so much so that people use written language today more than in any time in history. Naturally, this translates to an increase in fiction being produced, but the ease that comes with technology has eroded the work ethic traditional authors have had to learn, and readers have suffered as a result. I experienced this poor work ethic as critic and publisher of an Internet fan-fiction site a few years back. Some of the fiction I received was worth the read, but most of it was terrible. When I asked these writers for a minimal edit, they became upset with me and quit. Apparently, they hadn’t realized writing is hard work! If everyone knew how much work quality storytelling can be, I don’t think we would have so many badly written books.

This overabundance of pulp negatively impacts anyone associated with self-publishing, even those who genuinely care about the craft and are willing to work hard to improve. But I believe the future will erase some of this stigma, as successful authors in the coming years will no doubt give it a try. It is extremely hard for new writers to get their foot in the door. Publishers rarely invest in unproven talent, and if they can fill their quota with known authors, they will. In the instance that an opening becomes available, most manuscripts won’t even get read. Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune, was turned down 11 times. I bet if self-publishing had been around in the 60’s, he would have given it a shot before his 11th rejection.

George R.R. Martin’s "A Game of Thrones" —My Thoughts

Plot: George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones involves a dizzying cast of characters in a world that can best be summed up as “north” and “south”. On this extremely similar to medieval North Europe/United Kingdom type world (with some Hun-occupied Russian steppes thrown in for good measure), it can be winter for years or summer for years. The story begins when Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell (of the North) learns of the death of his friend, the King’s right hand man, “the Hand”. King Robert sends for Eddard to become the new Hand and his many children go their separate ways as he leaves his wife behind in Winterfell to start his new job. His two daughters, Arya and Sansa, go with him. His three sons: Robb, Bran, and Rickon, stay behind, and his bastard son Jon goes to live on the “the Wall”. The Wall is just what it sounds like, a big wall, which is meant to keep out . . . something, the story is never really clear about it. Unfortunately for Jon, life on the Wall is harsh, since he’s “taken the black” meaning he’s doomed to wear black forever (and never leave the wall, or get married, or have kids). While Eddard tries to unravel the mystery of the old Hand’s death and a conspiracy to murder the King, Daenerys Stormborn, daughter of the previous dynasty of kings, is married to a Mongolian (er, Dothraki) chieftain, so that her family might someday regain the throne.

Cons: I picked up Martin’s A Game of Thrones based on the overwhelming popularity of the series, so maybe I expected a bit much from this novel. But I did my best to judge the book on its own merits.

I have grown tired of the same old setting—chiefly, the Dragonlance/Lord of the Rings/King Arthur/Harry Potter, etc. type world—a world that is oh-so close to a historical medieval Northern Europe. I would love to see more exotic settings in fantasy; anything inspired by Ancient Greece/Rome/India/China/Arabia, or even just Southern Europe! Let’s see a Byzantine era fantasy!—now that’s an idea—but I digress. I suppose the Northern European setting will never die, but I had hoped for a bit more originality. This book’s got it all: knights in shining armor, check; a jousting tournament, check; a conspiracy to kill the king, check. Even the Mongolian inspired Dothraki people lack much originality, and are, for the most part, stereotypical in their raping and murdering and horse loving ways. At least Khal Drogo, chief and husband of Daenerys, shows some tenderness. The whole raping/killing barbarian is so 1940’s British anthropology. Modern historians know that people like the Monguls, the Huns and the Vikings were just as violent/aggressive/raping as their neighbors, but usually lacked the economic infrastructure to leave a more favorable impression in the history books.

My other big complaint is more subjective: The book just isn’t very exciting. I mean, you would think that there would be a bit more action in an 800+ page novel, but the action is rare and when it does happen, it’s short.

Finally, this book just had TOO MANY CHARACTERS. I mean, at the second to last chapter, Martin is STILL introducing new characters. I just kept asking myself: Who are all these people? About halfway into it, I just gave up and stopped asking. Maybe my brain has too little RAM, I dunno, but after about ten or so major characters, I’d had my fill.

Pros: Martin a jack-of-all trades writer. There are writers out there who do some things great and other things terribly, but Martin does it all well. His style is solid and very readable. He paints a world so vivid in detail (not so much description but detail), and so populated with characters that you are hard pressed not to believe in it, an essential quality in fantasy.

Every character in Martin’s book, even the guard in the background holding the spear, is a character, and you can imagine he has a story just as compelling as the rest. What Martin does best, in fact, is inventing people you care about, one of the toughest and most important challenges a good writer must do. I found myself especially drawn to the Stark family. Lord Eddard Stark is a unique main character, though virtuous to a fault, due to the simple fact that he has six children; I was touched more so by the plight of Bran who became paralyzed; or Robb, his fifteen year old son who must earn the respect of much older knights and lords; or Jon, who has some very Harry Potteresque escapades on the Wall (think of a really crappy, really cold Hogwarts without the magic). One of my favorite characters is Arya, Eddard’s youngest daughter. She rebels against the aristocratic etiquette she is forced to adopt and is hated by her older, more “proper” sister Sansa. I really enjoyed reading about the Stark kids (there should be a book just on Arya’s or Jon’s adventures) and wished Martin would have focused less on all the other characters.

Overall: For someone looking for more straight-forward action adventure, or for more fantastical fantasy, A Game of Thrones may prove a bit dull. Overall, Martin’s A Game of Thrones is a solid, well-written quasi-historical fantasy epic, with a lot to offer anyone who enjoys the intricate politics and personal relationships of a Feudal society.