Caution: Elephant in the Room

I won’t bother to preface this post with an introduction to the topic of self-publishing. Whether you’re in publishing or not, the words have been bandied about plenty, especially after the success of 50 Shades of I-Can’t-Bear-To-Think-Of-It. I’ve read many an article on the subject and for the most part I’ve stayed strong to believing that self-publishing *on the whole* doesn’t do the individual or the industry many favors.

I recently read an article by Jonathan Bennett that had a sentence I just couldn’t shake:

“It used to be that waiting, rejection, indifference and silence were honoured and, indeed, essential aspects of professional, literary writing.”

Read the full article here.

It struck a major chord in my mind. I’ve always believed that there can be no success without failure. By all means, let’s have more opportunities in publishing. But if everyone’s written-word becomes worthy of publication (isn’t it already? Case in point: blogs) and sales, does the term success change? Of course. Will book snobbery be at an all-time high? You betcha. Most importantly, is the integrity of the work and, in conjunction the industry, compromised when there are no hurdles to jump and everything is permissible? I think so.

This post is not one where I choose to regale you all with my thoughts on self-publishing. I’m just curious to know what you think. What do you think self-publishing can do? Opinions can vary depending on whether you’re looking at it from a consumer, publisher, seller, or author point of view. I’d love to hear them all!

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11 thoughts on “Caution: Elephant in the Room

  1. The terms of success are not publication. They are sales. If a book does not sell, it is a failure, even if the greatest editors and most prestigious publishing houses stood behind it. And a book that sells very well is a success no matter how many brilliant people reject it and turn their nose up at it.

    Self-publishing has many merits and many shortcomings but I don’t believe it is compromising the integrity of the of the work or the industry. It simply shifts power of evaluation from the quote unquote gatekeepers directly to the consumers.

    When we have these conversations it is important to note that most self-published works do not sell. And many traditionally published works don’t do great either. Bestsellers are an anomaly in both cases. One path is not necessarily better than the other and I certainly think the two can co-exist. It is up to the writer to think carefully about their goals and determine which option (or combination of options) is best for them. Because ultimately self-publishing is just that–another option.

    • I also want to add that quality literature and traditionally published are not synonymous. Many trashy celebrity memoirs are traditionally published. 50 Shades is traditionally published. And arguable the hottest title at BEA was the forthcoming Grumpy Cat book, also traditionally published. If there’s an “integrity” to protect, traditional publishing is doing a fine job compromising it all on its own.

      • When it comes to using the word “integrity”, I actually meant it in terms of the process. There’s something to be said about trying, failing, and trying again with your work as opposed to succeeding on the first try. This brings me back again to the quote, “It used to be that waiting, rejection, indifference and silence were honoured and, indeed, essential aspects of professional, literary writing.”

        I think success in publishing has several steps and getting published is step one. The success of a book need not simply be turning it into a bestseller but merely having it published in the first place. Getting discovered by more consumers is step two. We all seem to know that a debut novel is not what it always takes to get to the top and very often a good writer gets discovered at least three books after their first. J.K. Rowling is a fantastic example of all of this. She was rejected by 14 different publishing houses but still persevered. Her first novel, The Sorcerer’s Stone, did alright. It wasn’t until Prisoner of Azkaban was published that the Harry Potter series began to gain traction for readers. Another step of success is not merely getting published and sold, it’s being a good enough book that people who have never much cared for reading walk into a book store with the purpose to buy that particular book. Of course, I’m well aware that this was the case for Fifty Shades of Grey (as much as I heartily wish it weren’t), but there you go.

        All of these steps require patience and perseverance. The integrity of the publishing process gets lost when there is no need for those two very valuable traits. It’s a bit like the analogy of rewarding every child for participation. If everyone gets a medal for the smallest of “victories”, the term victory is redefined and ultimately so is success. The integrity of the process and the true “winners” is lost.

  2. Hey,

    So I do see your point. When Diana Gabaldon submitted her first manuscript to a few publishers, wondering if she had any talent or if it was all in her head, she came home to find a man waiting on her doorstep with an offer. I can’t remember if he was an agent or an editor, but whoever he was, he had a contract with a big advance for her to sign right them and there. Proof that the cream rises to the top.

    But that was decades ago. Now, big publishers have fewer places on their lists for books. Blame mergers, or changing tastes, or a shrinking market – or all of the above. But when I interned at a big house I saw wonderful books being turned away because that category was full, or they didn’t have the time they used to have to nurture writers.

    And what about the self-published authors who have become literary sensations? They are proudly and happily earning a living doing what they love. Maybe the publisher who turned them down was just plain wrong.

    Self-publication is hardly solitary these days. There are usually writing groups and mentors and colleagues and editors involved. So there is some vetting of the quality, without the financial constraints (or big budgets, conversely) of the big houses. Small and mid-sized publishers are great, but they can only publish and promote so many books.

    Self-published authors have greater creative control, keep more of the proceeds, and set their own schedules. Need I say more?

    • I absolutely see where you’re coming from. There is indeed a great value in being able to have more creative control over one’s own work. There is also something to be said about having your work vetted by peers and prominent members of the writing community, whether or not they’re involved with a publishing house in some way. There are pros and cons to everything in life and you’ve very accurately pointed out the pros of self-publishing. It may well be that one day I’ll find myself going down a self-publishing route–the future of publishing is a tricky business at the moment, so one never really knows.

      That being said, my concerns are still present for the following reasons:

      a) It’s true that there are many talented writers who deserve to be published but simply aren’t for logistical reasons rather than talent. For them, self-publishing is a natural outlet and should be utilized! Without knowing the actual statistics, I’d wager those individuals make up about….5% of the self-published population? Perhaps 10%? What about the rest? The ones who believe in their own talent, blind to criticism, and publish anyway with slipshod editing and impractical resource distribution.

      b) Back to the point I made under Leonicka’s comments. It’s the example of every child being rewarded for participation. Participation is key and everyone should be rewarded, but when rewards get handed out for minor and irrelevant “victories”, doesn’t that decrease the value of the competition? Of trying and winning? Even failure is a valuable lesson, which gets taken away. If everyone tried and succeeded, then that’s that. Publishing houses won’t have nearly as much stock as they used to (some argue this is good, others say it’s terrible). I merely think that there’s something to be said about the process of failure. There can be no genuine success without failure. Granted, I’m throwing out a more ‘general’ argument than focusing on the nitty gritty, but ethics and life lessons are important to me.

      What do you think?

  3. Reblogged this on lemieuxprblog and commented:
    When Diana Gabaldon submitted her first manuscript to a few publishers, wondering if she had any talent or if it was all in her head, she came home to find a man waiting on her doorstep with an offer. I can’t remember if he was an agent or an editor, but whoever he was, he had a contract with a big advance for her to sign right them and there. Proof that the cream rises to the top.

    But that was decades ago. Now, big publishers have fewer places on their lists for books. Blame mergers, or changing tastes, or a shrinking market – or all of the above. But when I interned at a big house I saw wonderful books being turned away because that category was full, or they didn’t have the time they used to have to nurture writers.

    And what about the self-published authors who have become literary sensations? They are proudly and happily earning a living doing what they love. Maybe the publisher who turned them down was just plain wrong.

    Self-publication is hardly solitary these days. There are usually writing groups and mentors and colleagues and editors involved. So there is some vetting of the quality, without the financial constraints (or big budgets, conversely) of the big houses. Small and mid-sized publishers are great, but they can only publish and promote so many books.

    Self-published authors have greater creative control, keep more of the proceeds, and set their own schedules. Need I say more?

  4. Self-publishing has always been around – anyone with the time and money has been able to publish their own work, but I agree that it’s hitting a different stride now. As a bookseller, I take self-published work on consignment because I believe it supports local authors and builds connections in the community. Having said that, I also firmly believe that self publishing is now a tiered process.
    There is the ‘vanity’ publishing that is, I suspect, very close to what you are referring to in your quote, especially when it relates to a very narrow field of interest or a deeply personal recount. There seems to be very little editing, and it often appears to be a personal manifesto rather than a manuscript. However, I’ve noticed a second layer of self-publishing coming through the ranks lately – one that includes professional editing, better layouts, professionally-designed covers and the ilk. These are much more polished, and demonstrate much more conversation between the author and a neutral third party.
    I absolutely believe, as Veronica Roth said at BEA, that criticism is part of the humility of writing. It gives you freedom to acknowledge your mistakes, to make changes and to become better. In most cases, the people I know who have chosen that second (higher?) tier of self-publishing have already been through the tradional submission/query route, and have taken that feedback on board (hopefully) to improve their work. That they’ve chosen to put it out there on their own terms will give them mixed results – some will become successful (Kristen Ashley anyone??) while others less so. Others will find their niche (we have a local historian who has outsold Fifty Shades by at least triple the sales numbers), while it may take others more time.
    For me, self-publishing has given us certain highly enjoyable books that might not otherwise seen the light of day beyond a research paper or blog post. They aren’t for everyone, but they are certainly exactly what some of my patrons want.

    • Excellent point on all counts, Jen! I especially loved “criticism is part of the humility of writing.” So true. I hadn’t taken the time to visualize the tiered structure that self-publishing has taken on, but you’re absolutely right about it. There is still a dedicated level of quality that people strive to maintain in their work. They just choose a different route to deliver it. It’s also interesting to know that patrons are actively seeking out self-published works.

      The “self-publishing pot” is starting to get pretty crowded. That makes me alter my question to focus not on the integrity of the work but how the integrity of the work is viewed and affected. There are some gems to be found, but a lot of self-publishing is still very much the “vanity” publishing. How do serious self-published authors break away from that and prove that their work is different? There have to be more Kristen Ashleys out there, right? As a consumer, I have to confess that I question the credibility and quality of self-published works. To Leonicka’s point, traditional publishing has put out plenty of flops. But I would still trust the stamp of an established publisher over something self-published. Just a personal thing that makes me wonder how everyone else reacts and feels.

      • I *just* saw that yesterday and LOVED it. He hit every point I’ve thought of when it comes to self-publishing and I’m glad he didn’t mince his words or try to take the “diplomatic” approach.

        Confession: I’ve never read any John Green. I’m terrified of depressing books. That video, however, made me fan girl over him as much as everyone else I know 😉

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