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.

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