The self-publishing debate

June 30, 2010 Writing Comments (1) 129

I have a lot of people to thank for a rousing discussion of Friday’s post on self-publishing and print-on-demand.  This blog is normally quite starved for comments and the debate was just the boost my fragile little ego desired.  I liked it so much, in fact, I am going to give another plug to the person who kicked it off, literary agent, New Yorker, and fellow cat person Colleen Lindsay.

You can go read the whole thing from beginning to end if you like, but I thought I’d post a quick round-up here.  I was struck by the diversity of comments and perspectives.  For starters, most commenters were quick to remind me that not all self-published literature is bad.  I, too, have read some excellent self-published work, but it doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority is terrible, or that it’s almost impossible for a book or its author to stand out among the crowd.  As an example, every bit of self-published work I’ve read was pointed out to me by the author or another reader – I have never come across a piece of self-published literature in the market that I wanted to read.

Of course we had a couple of posts espousing the widely-held belief, to which I am totally opposed, that literary agents are elitist conspirators who cackle over martinis while pressing a heel into the face of every brilliant author who won’t jump through the right hoops.  Tracy, who did not link to a web site, advocated self-publishing as a way around these gatekeeper and their exclusive club.  A small part of me wishes more authors felt this way, because it might thin out the slush pile and move my work closer to the top.

More than one commenter drew a parallel I think is inaccurate between self-published writing and “indie” films and music.  I see those as parallel with small press writing, which brings a smaller investment and less marketing, but still draws support and financing from “gatekeepers” who have to approve the work before it goes to market.  Self-published writing is more analogous to posting music or video on YouTube – and we all know what kind of quality control to expect there.

If I am bold enough to identify a consensus, it was that self-publishing has its place, but that authors who go that route must either have a platform or perish.  Commenters pointed out successful self-published authors like Wil Wheaton and Karen McQuestion, who both went into self-publishing with a platform that helped them market their work.  Kristian Bland, an author who is currently self-publishing, reported that “So far, the response has been very positive – but I already had an audience before I started posting it.”

There was a fair amount of debate about means for self-published literature to reach an audience, a topic that deserves contemplation and one I will likely post about soon.  Some folks strongly advocate the “free market,” though I can’t help finding it ironic that most of those same folks also decry the “commercialization of literature” by agents and editors.  Kristian reminded us all that we need look no further than LOLcats and YouTube to see that the “cream” that rises to the top of the Internet is generally the most accessible material, not the highest quality or most artistic.

Author-illustrator Ryan Hipp contributed a few good comments, my favorite of which was the reminder that “if your book is good, it will sell” is a myth.  The correct motto would be “if your book is marketable, it will sell,” but as any reader of agent blogs can tell you (and if you want to be a published author, you should be reading agent blogs), a book’s marketability depends on much more than its quality.  Sometimes everything about the book is right except the timing – for instance, you’ve written a great YA teenage vampire abstinence parable, but it’s 2010 and agents are buried under YA teenage vampire abstinence parables.  To my mind, though, the right answer is not to toss it out on some Kindle or POD site where it will die a quiet death.  But it in a drawer and try again in ten years when it might make a splash – or revise it enough that it might sell.  Vampires, zombies, and werewolves are all done to death – perhaps a YA teenage ANDROID abstinence parable?  I think that’s a six-book deal waiting to happen.

One Response to :
The self-publishing debate

  1. I think something everyone should take away from the discussion is that there are *always* gatekeepers. Whether they sit at a desk in a New York publishing house, or they’re twenty-somethings in Topeka who run a massively popular website – your stuff just isn’t going to get seen until some form of “authority” points it out to larger groups than your family and friends.

    It’s true, with enough work and a certain willingness to be a hyperkinetic machine of self-promotion, you might be able to link-share your site into some level of notoriety, but this kind of thing is a practice that typically leads to a cyberspace circle-jerk of mutual ego masturbation. Sure, you start getting more hits to your site if you promise to hit other sites, but all you’re doing is expanding your bubble of family and friends, not truly increasing your readership. That only happens when some sort of gatekeeper deems your content worthy and links to your stuff. That way lies true readership, especially if the content goes a bit viral and spreads to other gatekeeper sites.

    The whole idea that you can write the Great American Novel and quietly slap it up on Amazon to have it sell millions based on its merit alone is just unrealistic – even if it’s truly the best book ever written.

    Hell, I’m enjoying this site a great deal, but I never would have found it if Jay Lake hadn’t pointed it out. I trust him as a provider of quality links, so I followed his advice as a gatekeeper. It’s the way of the Net and the World.

    -Kristian

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