Don’t Go Trad

Lately I’ve stumbled across a number of articles, like this one and this one, about the perils of self-publishing. To be fair, because I do always try to be fair even when I don’t want to be, many of the articles point out valid problems and their writers, in theory, explain why it’s not the path they would choose. In theory. In practice, they present a narrow and one-sided view of the practice, focusing on the worst stereotypes of self-published authors as lazy hacks who clog social media with constant promotion.

I could write my own article about why no one should ever take the traditional publishing route. I might make points like this:

You have to spend a disproportionate amount of energy on pitching and querying. Writers do what they do because of a drive to tell stories, and part of telling stories is sharing them with others. If you go trad, you can forget being able to do that. Someone else gets to decide whether or not your story is worth sharing. Often more than one person, because if you’re lucky enough to sign with an agent, you still haven’t got a book contract. It takes a special skill set to be able to hook and agent and/or editor, and it’s not one most storytellers are born with. You have to learn it. Despite helpful Internet resources, most of the learning is through trial and error. Meanwhile, the story you wanted to share isn’t being shared, and any new ones get placed on the back burner. Traditional publishing actively prevents you from doing what you set out to do in the first place.

Being published traditionally can make you a condescending ass. Sure, there are nice traditional authors out there, ones who are open and accessible, and willing to help a person starting out. There’s also a lot of jerks who think they got where they are on merit rather than the serendipity of having the right manuscript at the right time combined with class, racial, and appearance advantages that make them easily marketable. These guys strut around like they’re the gods’ gift to literature and give condescending “advice” like, “Keep plugging away and you’ll get where I am some day.” Do you really want to risk being one of them?

Gatekeepers are subject to societal prejudice. You know 89% of books published are by white, cis, male authors, right? If you’re a woman and/or person of color, or another marginalized identity, your chances of “success” in a traditional climate plummet. Even if your book gets picked up, you’re apt to hear your character “isn’t relatable” and asked to make changes. Traditional publishing is giving lip service to diversity right now, but the industry hasn’t taken a great many strides. Why fight that fight?

I did my apprenticeship. Can people in traditional publishing please do theirs? I’m 53. I’ve been writing since I was 7, and I wrote my first novel at 12. Yes, it was an achievement for a child, and yes, it was derivative and the language was less than elegant. I’ve improved since then. I’ve been an avid reader since before I started writing, and I’m fully capable of learning from what I read. I understand pacing and dialogue and how to use words. I go over my work relentlessly, making it the best it can be. On the other hand, I don’t know about some editors. I’ve read traditionally published books with hundreds of pages of purposeless exposition stuck in the middle of a story, and ones with so many typos and grammatical flaws I wonder how it got printed. One series I like very much used the word “yolk” instead of “yoke” for three volumes, leading to phrases like “the yolk of slavery.” Really, I don’t have it to trust an industry person half my age, with little or none of my experience, to direct me how best to tell my stories.

See, I could write this post. I could refute every single point anyone has ever made about self publishing. But I’m not going to. I know that not every path works for everyone, and even our definitions of “what works” differ. Traditional publishing is a valid path. Self publishing is a valid path. Some people earn vast amounts of money in each. Most don’t and never will. Except in the case of a few, writing is not a calling that leads to riches (though hope springs eternal, and all that).

Inevitably, these articles about why not to self publish are written by people who have been traditionally published, who seem to have a limited understanding of why people choose one route over another. Often they strike me as “protesting too much,” of dismissing self publishing not because of its real flaws, but because the writers have doubts or questions about the path they’ve chosen. Have your doubts; that’s fine. Please stop thrusting them on those of us who have chosen differently. Thanks.

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