I used to have a firm, unshakeable opinion on self-publishing. “Don’t do it,” I would say, when writer friends asked my opinion on the matter. It seems like every Joe(sephine) Shmoe and his/her mother is self-pubbing lately, leading to a flood of “OMG MY NEW BK IS OUT BUY NOW ON AMAZON ONLY $2.99 THIS WK!”-esque nonsense overtaking my Twitter feed. I still hate that, for the record–but it’s an issue that extends to writers with traditional publishers, as well as the self-pubbers…and that’s a marketing conversation for another day.
The main problem with self-publishing was, and continues to be, a lack of curation in the process. Without the traditional pipeline of agents and editors, a ton of sub-par and unintelligible writing makes its way to the public eye. The success of platforms like Amazon’s CreateSpace has eliminated the hierarchy of the publishing world. While browsing the internet for a new read (And let’s face it, that’s where people are looking nowadays. Not that I don’t love and prefer local indie bookstores, but this is a truth-telling space), there’s no pre-purchase guarantee that a self-published book has been read and vetted by someone with a trustworthy opinion about literature. There may be grammatical errors, distracting structures, incomplete characterizations–but here’s the big takeaway, my friends: traditionally published books have those, too.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Most publishers are professionals who work with authors, editors, production gurus, and proofreaders to ensure an end product that at the very least reflects the cleanest version of its content. There are, however, also a huge number of writers without publishers who work to achieve the same effect. That’s the realization that lead to my change of heart. Today’s publishing industry is a corporate feudal system, where the majority of writers serve as peasant farmers and payday reigns supreme. The focus has shifted from harvesting and distributing quality books–beloved by editors, publishers, and readers alike–to bulk production of whatever the masses are willing to ingest at any given moment. The great acquisition question is no longer, “Is the work good?” Now, from the bottom of the slush pile all the way to the tippy top bookshelf, the literary powers-that-be are asking themselves, “Will it sell?”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s even marginally interested in reading. And in a way, we have the fluffy-melodramatic-romances-that-shall-not-be-named to thank for keeping money rolling in for the book people. Still, the fact remains that publishing houses put out crap sometimes. And agents and editors pass up fantastic, heartfelt, well-written manuscripts all the time–usually out of necessity more than greed or ignorance. It’s the nature of the game, and for the time being, it’s simply a survival tactic for the industry. You can only fit so many people in the lifeboats; women and children get dibs.
The result is a slew of ultra-talented writers who are unable to find homes for their work within the typical channels. As the stigma of self-publishing weakens, and the appeal of greater profit shares grows, more and more of these bards are taking matters into their own hands. So why not read them? In another time and place, these are the books that would have been picked up by the Random Houses and Simon & Schusters of the world. The authors are serious writers, many of whom work with private editors and book doctors, writing groups, teachers, and literary-minded friends to polish their prose until it reaches a standard that readers expect. They know their craft, and they’re not messing around. Great writers can click the “publish” button just as easily as terrible writers.
The current state of the literary world is such that, no matter where you shop for books or how those books are being published, some effort is required from the reader in order to weed out the undesirables. If you want mindless bubblegum pop literature, that’s certainly not hard to find; feel free to ignore anything with a thought-provoking synopsis. If you want something meaty and layered, with complex characters and an engrossing plot–those are out there, too. In any genre, any sub-genre, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or that weird dusty shelf in the corner where the books defy categorization, there is something to satisfy everyone. I promise you can find whatever it is that you’re looking for. It just might not be where you expected.
So here’s my final proposition: read the books that interest you. If you love them, recommend them to friends. Write Amazon reviews. Tweet about them. Do whatever it is that you do when you come across a piece of literature that you enjoy. Don’t give a damn about how that literature made its way from the author’s computer to your eyeballs. Just be grateful it found its way.
And if you’re a writer? Choose the path that makes sense for your work. Do what works for you, and try to do it as well as you possibly can.
What are your favorite self-published books?
Send me your recommendations in the comments!