Self-Publishing: Take Two

Last week I opined at length about self- and e-publishing (summary: I don’t care for either), and now I’m coming back for a second look.

I haven’t changed my mind about self- and e-publishing because I still believe it is a flawed system for its lack of quality control; without editors in the mix, too many books get through to the public that are badly written — meaning that the writer in question is in dire need of some brush-up English classes and/or the stories he/she is telling is awful (or, at least, poorly told).

One could argue that there has to be something to e-books in particular in light of the strong sales reported by, primarily, Amazon.com, but it’s important to note that books that are also available from traditional publishers as print editions make up the bulk of those sales; brisk sales by indie author phenoms such as Amanda Hocking and Kerry Wilkinson remain the exception, not the rule.

The reason they’re the exceptions? Because they’re writing material that is traditional-publisher-worthy, and they create that level of quality because they behave like, for lack of a better term, “real” authors. They’re not simply people with A-list dreams and D-list talent; they are at heart true writers, people who have developed their skill and honed their craft and care about things like storytelling, technical competence, etc. Their chosen method of getting their work seen does not diminish that.

It is because these folks are the rarities that self- and e-publishing has a bad rap among those in the industry, and those in related industries, i.e., book critics. There are too many hacks and not enough top- (or even middle-) shelf talent to make indie authors as a group respectable, and at this point in time, there’s no evidence (that I can find, at any rate) that the writers who publish exclusively through vanity or e-presses are, as a group, showing a strong interest in improving their shared image — a feat that can only be accomplished by improving their skills as writers. Or somehow weeding out the wannabes who should be kept far, far away from a keyboard.

But as long as vanity presses and e-publishers maintain their hands-off philosophy, indeed even actively solicit would-be authors regardless of their qualifications, that’s not going to happen.

The publishing industry is in a transition state right now thanks to the advent of e-publishing and the rise of vanity press operations, and to claim that they’re nothing more than a fad is an expression of ignorance or denial. It’s the same sort of foolishness, if not arrogance that led to the downfall of Kodak and Polaroid, which instead of embracing the emerging technology of digital photography clung to the Old Ways, and paid the literal price for their folly. We’re still seeing that same sort of willing blind eye among recording artists who refuse to jump on-board the download train (AC/DC, looking in your direction).

Self-published authors will undeniably play a role in this developing new marketplace, but I suspect they are going to remain the bastard children of the publishing world for a long time to come, all because the ease with which authors can self-publish, and the absence of a guiding hand to step in when necessary, allows anyone to try their hand as a novelist.

All this is not to say that people shouldn’t pursue their dreams (I am the last one to piss on someone’s career goals), but writers who choose to self-publish have to look at the big picture realistically: self-publishing will remain the black sheep of the family until and unless someone steps in to filter out the crap that dominates that segment of the industry — or those precious few writers who create worthwhile art become much more aggressive about becoming the face of the indie publishing movement.

The Pros And Cons (And Cons) Of Self-Publishing

As I write this, it’s been two weeks since I sent off my Action Figures manuscript, and there is still no word. Not unexpected, this, and I’m trying not to get anxious about it, but still — HURRY UP!

I was asked recently by a friend aware of my recent developments a question I am asked every so often about my writing career: would I ever consider self-publishing, either via e-book or a vanity press?

No. No I wouldn’t. And while I believe one should never say never, I will say that as of right now, I never will self-publish. Honestly, going the self-publishing route would feel like I was giving up.

I admit readily I have a bias, one might even say a prejudice against self-publishing based on what I have personally seen of self-published works. Every so often I’ve come in contact with a novel that has come into the world via a vanity press — a business that allows aspiring authors create and sell printed books, often with no editorial oversight involved — and they’ve been uniformly wretched.

There was the fantasy novel that opened with a grammatical train wreck of a first sentence, setting the pace for the entire first chapter I muddled through. There was the urban fantasy novel written by a friend of a friend who did not have any grasp of basic storytelling. There was the instructional book about performing at renaissance faires written by someone I would not consider an expert in that field any more than I would consider him a competent writer (or layout artist, considering how insanely wide his page margins were). There was the supernatural romance novel given to my wife by a family friend that was weighed down by a clumsy narrative, derivative ideas, and an “it was all a dream” plot twist the author gave away at the very beginning of the story.

I cannot help but think this is the rule for self-published books rather than the exception. For every Amanda Hocking, who tells solid stories and is doing quite well through her chosen alternate medium, e-publishing, there are dozens of Jacqueline Howetts, an e-author who became Internet infamous by responding to a not-entirely-unfavorable review of her novel The Greek Seaman on Big Al’s Books and Pals blog with a staggering lack of professionalism and an abundance of fuck-yous.

Here’s the thought process for my opinion: with traditional publishing, there are a lot of safeguards designed to filter out the crap and let the cream rise to the top, but with e-publishing, there are no filters whatsoever. There are no editors to tell authors where they could improve the pacing or to point out plot holes that need patching or correct grammatical errors or say that one thing some would-be novelists really, really need to hear: “This book is awful.”

I do not for one second deny that the filters inherent in the traditional publishing process can too easily become roadblocks that stop everything from getting by, good, bad, or in-between. I do not refute arguments that the traditional publishing route is deeply flawed, not only because it can prevent great writing from ever seeing the light of day but because it sometimes lets through complete crap that deserved to be circular-filed immediately by whoever was working the slush pile that day.

Self-publishing, however, is the promise of potential success without exceptional effort — or any effort at all, beyond uploading an MS Word file and paying a small fee. The utter lack of quality control within the vanity press industry was revealed by the infamous Atlanta Nights experiment, and from what I can see is still the prevailing business model (even Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, perhaps the most successful e-publisher, doesn’t offer any sort of editorial oversight).

Call me a snob, but this is not the world I want to live in. I don’t want to be a self-published author or an e-author, because the present company is sorely lacking. To borrow a phrase, the great thing about e-publishing is that anyone can be an author; the bad thing is that anyone can be an author. I don’t want to be just anyone.