Tab Earley

25 June, 2011

Self-publishing Part 2

Filed under: publishing — Tab Earley @ 3:42 pm
Tags: , , ,

I will admit one thing right now: I often don’t read Guardian articles in their entirety. This is partly because of their tone, which generally falls somewhere between “self-impressed bourgeoisie” and “embarrassed and apologetic bourgeoisie.” It’s partly because I have a short attention span. It’s also partly because I’m much more interested in what’s going on between the lines and in the comments.

Take this one, for example. Silly headline making dubious assertion: check. The Guardian attempting to make an authoritative comment on a trend it probably doesn’t understand: check.

I’ve already written a little about self-publishing and how I don’t think it’s The Next Big Thing. That particular post was about public internet tantrums and the typical idea most of us have of self-publishers: badly written, badly punctuated, unedited drivel. There is no question that that’s the case for many of them, but what I’m intrigued about now is whether it applies to the really successful self-published authors (who still generally seem to choose to work with publishing companies when they get the chance).

I haven’t looked up any of these self-published authors, so I can’t comment on the specifics of their work. Quite frankly, I’ve got enough on my plate with my own books and my own attempts to get published. I can’t help feeling, though, that some of these people are missing a very very important point about going through a publishing company or agent: you have an editor. And a good editor is invaluable.

Let me put this in terms of my own work: I think I’m very good.  I think I’m good enough to be published. But the trouble I have with my work at this stage is that, as good as I feel it is, it could be better. It requires professional work at this point. It needs someone with experience editing to take a look at it like some kind of word mechanic and say, “Ah, here’s your problem.”

And the idea that you should hire a professional editor is absurd. How many people– how many aspiring writers– can actually afford to do that? Freelance editors do not come cheap– at least, they don’t if they’re any good. Perhaps that’s an option for people with a decent primary income (for example, the middle class readership of The Guardian), but for the young, the poor, and the unemployed, it’s not a possibility. It’s a silly suggestion, considering how many dodgy book doctors are already out there preying on writers.

There are no shortcuts. Editors and agents say it over and over again. If you are good enough, you will get published. Publishing is not a closed circle of haughty literati; it’s a business. It’s hard to break into, but not impossible. But it does require persistence and patience.  For me, the chief problem with self-publishing is the hubris required to insist that your work deserves to be read and sold now, because you are tired of waiting for someone to recognise your talent.

Do I think that every self-published author is a deluded, egomaniacal hack? No. Do I think all traditionally published work is inherently better? Certainly not. But I do think that there’s a definite lack of perspective displayed in this ‘us vs. them’ nonsense that I see over and over again in the conversation about self-publishing. Yes, querying and rejection are dispiriting processes. No, publishers and agents do not know everything– but I have yet to see a blog post or an advice piece written by a publisher or agent that claims they do. That seems to be an illusion that lives chiefly in the minds of wannabe authors who lack the patience to keep trying.

The publishing industry is in deep trouble, there’s no doubt about that. Their system has been broken by the internet. The problem they have now is the distinct possibility of serious competition from people who don’t have the same costs as traditional publishers. I think we’re still a long way from the level playing field that self-publishers like to imagine; big publishing companies still have a lot more money to throw around, a lot more contacts, and a lot more clout with both Amazon and other retailers. However, as book store chains continue to go out of business and the publishing industry continues to decline financially, something has to give.

The comparison isn’t perfect, but I think the publishing industry should take a hard look at what’s happened to the record industry and consider whether or not they want to go the same way. Paper books are expensive, and ebooks from traditional publishers are not consistently competitively priced.  Hell, I can’t even afford to buy secondhand paperbacks these days, much less a brand-new hardback. I also couldn’t afford to buy an ebook reader, even if I wanted to. Something has to give somewhere.

(Sidenote: am I the only person who found Barry Eisler’s comment that he would only make $142,000 a year a little avaricious?)

Returning to the original point, something that bothers me immensely about that article is not the article itself but the comments. Look at how many of the commenters are confessed self-published authors and how many of them just can’t resist the urge to promote their work– with varying degrees of subtlety and disingenuous self-deprecation.

It’s another aspect of self-publishing that I think is deeply unpleasant: the metamorphosis of a real person into a walking publicity machine. I’m the first to giggle at people who behave as if ART is something that should exist in a clean room where commercial considerations are sealed out. Commercial issues are something I have to consider– at some point. But god help me if I ever become the sort of person who has to sneak a personal plug into every internet communication I make.

I have no issue with self-promotion. I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I did. I’d be sitting in a room, writing my books, sending out queries and hoping to be noticed eventually. What I have an issue with is a culture that encourages people to see others not as friends but as potential word of mouth. Every interaction becomes an opportunity. I’m kind of sick of seeing people disguise a plug for their book as a useful contribution to a conversation.

To be fair, it’s not limited to self-publishing. I have a lot of friends who are musicians, actors, writers, poets, publicists– all manner of people who have to engage in self-promotion to some degree. Some of the people I know– the ones I like a bit less– seem to spend most of their waking hours promoting something, plugging their blogs, inviting people to events to launch the latest clothing label or magazine. Does that make them bad people? Of course not. Does it make them the sort of people I try to avoid? Without a doubt.

There are compromises involved with anything. I’d love to think that there’s a model of publishing where I don’t have to sacrifice most of the money made from my books, but I’m not going to trade that for a model where I have to sacrifice most of my time to promote them.  I don’t trust Amazon any more than I trust Random House, and with good reason.

I’d like to see a model of publishing that doesn’t still rely on an untrustworthy leviathan to facilitate it. It seems pretty silly to point accusing fingers at big publishers while happily jumping into bed with a company that has a long history of screwing people who sell through it. Do self-published authors think they will continue to get 70% royalty rates once Amazon realises how much money it’s losing by being fair? Fat chance.

I think there is room in the industry for a mixture of approaches.  I’d like to see more independent publishing houses emerge. I’d like to see author collectives that promote really good work without backslapping and sockpuppeting (despite how funny sockpuppeting is when it’s discovered).

I’ll be interested to see how this situation progresses.  Someone soon is going to puncture the dream of financial success through self-publishing. Hell, anyone with half a brain can see that the people making millions from their books are the exceptions and not the rule. Just like in traditional publishing.
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