We Still Have A Long Way To Go

For the last few days, I’ve been nursing a cold. This always makes me cranky, because I have an active mind and feeling foggy and unable to exercise my mind due to some whim of my body frustrates me no end. I get discouraged about life in general and the fact that despite the best I can do in the promotional department, my books aren’t selling the way I would like. Anyway, earlier in the day I was chatting with a friend about the difficulties of self-publishing, and how there’s still a stigma around it despite the fact that many in various segments of the book industry–authors, editors, and agents–now support self-publishing as a valid path. The conversation reminded me of a blog post I wrote back in March of 2013, so I decided to reprint it here.

Another Dig At Independent Authors

Ran across This Blog Post the other day. In the main, it talks about how the publishing world is out to screw authors (for more about this, See Here), and how many professional associations purporting to support authors–e.g., the SWFA and the HWA–have membership restrictions that are far too narrow for this day and age.

All of that, I agree with and applaud. Thanks for saying all this, Elizabeth Donald.

But then. Then the author feels compelled to make a dig at independent authors:

“Here’s the other danger of a kerfuffle like this: aspiring writers will look at this and say, ‘Screw all the publishers. I can bop onto Amazon right now and put my novella up for the Kindle. If I’ve got to pay for the thing to get published at Random House, then I’ll just pay CreateSpace or Lulu to do it, then I get to keep all the money!’

First: don’t. Just don’t. I’m begging you.”

(Editor’s Note: By the way, I’m not sure Donald did her research here.  You don’t have to pay anything to publish through CreateSpace, and Lulu only requires you to purchase proof copies. Both companies do offer services you can buy–anything from editing to book and cover design packages.  But neither technically charges anything for you to publish, unlike some other POD companies or so-called “vanity” presses.)

She goes on to tell you the things that you really need from a traditional publisher, because you poor, ignorant saps who self-publish obviously will not take the time to research how to make your work the best it can be. Because you all sit around in your bathtubs thinking up great stories that you never edit, and you’re so in love with your idea of yourself as A WRITER that you lose any capacity for self-criticism.

Here’s my “favourite” quote:

“You are not a special snowflake who created the Great American Novel the first time out, and it’s a brilliant stroke of lightning sure to outsell Fifty Shades of Grey, because that was a piece of shit.”

Condescend, much?

I am the first to admit that there are many self-published authors out there who really should have stuck to selling used cars. I have done some beta reading for people intending to self-publish that just had me shaking my head. But the kind of attitude Donald shows in her blog only serves to perpetuate a stereotype that does a disservice to authors of ALL stripes. I know a great many independent authors who work harder and know more than any traditionally-published author I can name. We are hard on ourselves. We constantly question the quality of our work on all fronts. We read with a critical eye, hunting for writing that moves us and looking for the reasons it does. We enlist intelligent readers–editors, writing professors, critics and the like–to beta our work and tell us truthfully what they think. We make changes where we need to.

We do not simply upload the first thing that comes out of our heads because being published would be cool. This is our career. Credit us with some measure of professional pride, please. And if you needed a traditional publisher to teach you the basics of sentence structure, well, that’s your problem. Not ours.

When I read stuff like this, particularly from small-press authors, what I think of is Poor White Crackers who go around saying, “I may not be rich, but at least I ain’t no nigger.” You may not publish with a major label that gives you a huge advance, but at least you’re not (shudder of horror) one of those.

It’s demeaning. And it’s bad for everyone in a business that already treats writers as poorly as it can manage.

Writers–ALL writers–need to stick together and stop playing the hierarchy games. We need to support each other, not throw labels and tired stereotypes around. That’s is the only way we can achieve a modicum of power in an industry that eats its own young as a matter of course.

Things have changed in the industry since I wrote this post. Many organizations have begun to recognize self-published authors as the professionals we are, and now offer different membership options. Options based on earning rather than advances, for example. Some of them require total earnings from self-published authors that are rather higher than most can expect to achieve, but it’s a step in the right direction.

We still have a long way to go, however. People who love books and their ability to give us access to realities not our own, previously unimagined worlds, or simply to provide a means of escape for a few hours or days, are at odds with each other in many forums. Writers of “Adult” literature dis YA. Men who write Science Fiction and Fantasy give less credence to women in the genre. Romance is dismissed as less valid and valuable than “serious” work. Traditionally published authors look down on self-published and Independent authors for being lazy and producing work lacking in quality, and self-published authors attack traditionally published authors for bowing to “the gatekeepers.” Booksellers and reviewers dismiss certain works and laud others for what seem spurious reasons. And the list goes on. Personally, I see much of this as a reaction of fear in the face of a changing industry, where no one knows what’s going to happen next or whether his livelihood is going to vanish with the next radical shift. As such, it’s understandable. But fear and the reactions it provokes are rarely helpful. Most often, the impulse to protect what we have at all cost prevents us from coming together and supporting each other through difficult times. It hurts everyone, and in the long run, it hurts you as well.

In her speech at the national book awards, Ursula K. LeGuin said:

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

(She said a bunch of other incredibly relevant stuff, too. So if you haven’t, just go read her speech for yourself.)

I’ve been around for a while. I’ve been a reader almost my entire life, and a writer of some sort very nearly as long. I’ve watched various independent publishers in all genres, whose staff were generally motivated by the love of books and who were willing to take a chance on new and challenging voices, get absorbed by larger, profit-motivated companies until five or six corporations virtually control everything the public has access to. And yes, I do realize that every business is to some degree motivated by profit. And I certainly do not intend to cast aspersions at or diminish the contributions of all the agents, editors, and publishers in the traditional industry. But it concerns me deeply when it seems that a skillful practice of the art I love has less importance in the current environment than potential profit; when the market gets flooded with books in a popular genre until everyone gets tired of it and it becomes a “difficult sell” despite originality or quality; when–excuse my hyperbole–fame and fortunes get built upon the backs of those who create “the product,” and the likelihood of those creators benefiting in any measurable way is slim. It upsets me that a wonderful book may never see print because the author doesn’t have the–completely different–skill of expressing his point in a 140-character pitch or 250-word query, in a way that will make an agent or editor take interest. (And in case you wonder whether this is sour grapes on my part, I DO have that skill, and I have worked hard to develop it. I didn’t choose self-publishing for lack of traditional interest.) I loathe the fact that agents and editors are so overworked that they rarely have the time to savor submissions or the ability to take a chance on an interesting new voice that might just need a helping hand.

And, of course, I realize I have a one-sided view of the whole process. When I wonder how much you can really know about a 100,000-word novel from a 250-word query, I also remember that when I was a DJ, I could make a decision on whether I wanted to air a song from previewing the first ten seconds.

In the end, I have no words of wisdom, no sweeping resolution to offer other than this: Publishing is changing, and it will continue to change. If we want the changes to carry us in the direction we would prefer, all of us who love books and believe stories have a value beyond their profitability as a commodity need to support each other in moving the industry forward along the path we’d have it follow. Not just for ourselves, but for each other. And in that respect, we still have a long way to go.

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