ETA 10/9/2011: Welcome to all who are here for the “hysterial diatribe!” As you read, please remember that this article was written over a year ago. Not sure why a blogger decided to dig deep into the archives and cite this one now. As the publishing industry has evolved, so have many opinions on digital and self-publishing, including my own. For more of my thoughts on electronic and independent publishing, check out KidlitApps.com. Thanks!
I have never talked about self-publishing on this blog. Why? Because some people who self-publish usually use gatekeepers like agents and editors as an excuse, like we’ve literally driven them to Lulu.com with our cruelty. We are The Man. We keep literary geniuses down. So they circumvent The Man and self-publish. Since I’m The Man, what do you really expect me to say?
What finally got me to articulate myself on the topic is a fantastic Salon article. This is the closest I’ve come to reading my own thoughts about self-publishing.
The average person has no idea what lurks in slush. The writers querying agents obviously think their stuff is up to snuff, or they wouldn’t be querying. Even so, most slush is not ready for human consumption. Why? Because writers are notoriously erroneous judges of their own work. A lot of them think they’re ready for “prime time,” and that is often not the case. It is my informed opinion — having read what most people call their polished work — that most self-published books, unless professionally edited beforehand, will read like my slush pile, not like the New American Literature.
Most of the time, when you get a rejection, it is really saying, “This isn’t ready for publication yet.” The questions going through my head when I evaluate submissions are: Is this saleable? Can I sell it? If the answer to one or both questions is “no,” I reject. If the answer to both is “yes,” I’ll pursue the project. It’s really no more complicated than that.
I do have to say one thing in defense of self-publishing: it is a very useful tool for people who have a niche audience or their own book sales channels. Ideally, both. Most traditional publishers may not do “niche” projects (not a large enough target market to justify general trade publication). If you have a book about a very specific subject, say, a kid with heart disease, and you also have access to the American Heart Association’s mailing list, for example…you might be successful at zeroing in on your target readers through direct sales.
But most people who self-publish don’t have a niche book or a good marketing strategy: they want to target the mass market. They have a project that would appeal, in their opinion, to everyone and anyone. And self-publishing a book intended for a trade audience is where these would-be authors get in trouble. Because reaching a mass audience — casual readers — with a self-published fiction project is nearly impossible.
From now on, I’ll be talking about these people self-publishing. The people who don’t believe what editors and agents keep telling them: their work isn’t ready. Just because a shortcut and a loophole exist, doesn’t mean you need to use them. And just because you use them, doesn’t mean you’ll get the same results as people who publish traditionally (your book distributed in stores…readers for your work…reviews…sales…any kind of profit).
The Internet disproves a simple, old-fashioned idea: “If you build it, (throw it up on Lulu or Amazon or any of these other websites) they will come.” Readers will not come. They have too much other stuff on their browser. It’s just like trying to get your band discovered by putting up an mp3 on MySpace. Every other band is putting up their mp3, too. (Not that MySpace is relevant anymore, of course.)
The Internet is flooded with content. As a reader, my time and psychic space are limited. I seek only the things I’m looking for or already know about. I don’t go trolling for complete unknowns just to check out a new ebook, and I certainly would never pay money to try random self-published wares.
But it’s not my job to sway anybody from wanting to self-publish. All the people who want to self-publish, should. We clearly disagree on a few key issues and I, as The Man, have better things to do than argue. When folks actually self-publish, they’ll figure out firsthand how difficult it is to get their books in the hands of readers. It’s also one thing to self-publish once you already have a reader base, like Kindle evangelist Joe Konrath, who now has Amazon releasing his books, but quite another to rustle up some hungry eyes as a rank debut.
The decision, in my opinion, is this: do you work through the rejection, finesse your writing craft, earn traditional publication and make the dream come true in a big way, or do you find a loophole and “publish” your work to a very limited audience? It all depends on what will make you really feel like you’ve accomplished your goal. I’m a writer in my spare (ha!) time. And I want to target the mass market. I would never, personally, self-publish. To me, a self-published version of my work wouldn’t be an achievement. It would just be a printout of my manuscript bound between two thicker pieces of cardboard, and about as fulfilling as my pile of scratch paper. Blogger Christoper Keelty goes as far as calling self-publishing, “selling your failures.” (Thanks to Colleen Lindsay for the link.) There are agents who will consider self-published projects, if they have gone on to sell big (like, thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies). But I’m not one of them. I prefer to focus on bringing something to market for the very first time.
The writers who self-publish because they’re sick of rejection aren’t writers I’d like to work with, anyway. I’m only interested in people who grow, learn, polish, adapt, and set their sights on the difficult goal of traditional publication. It’s hard for a reason. Not everybody gets to do it.
I went to one camp as a kid and, at the end of summer, the counselors held a lavish award ceremony for our families. Every camper got a ribbon for being special. Parents cried. Camcorders hummed. Kids tried not to embarrass themselves on stage. The counselors had to write something nice to everyone, so campers got contrived ribbons for “Best hair” and “Funniest laugh.” Anything, really, that the adults could think of at the last minute. Did that make everyone feel more special in the end? No. It cheapened something that is supposed to reward an extraordinary achievement. Call me a snob if you like. But I have read lots and lots of slush. And I wouldn’t wish most of it on the reading public. America has enough problems with declining literacy, as it is. We don’t want to scare people away from reading altogether by unleashing a tide of bad writing.
Sure, there are exceptions. Joe Konrath’s success with bringing his existing readers to a new format has been noteworthy. And there are self-published books for the mass market that have sold huge. Two things come to mind: the work of Christopher Paolini and an adult book called THE LACE READER. And you know what happened to them? Both moved on to traditional publication. You know why? Because that was probably the writers’ goal in the first place, and they took a circuitous route.
And you know why I know about these exceptions? Because they’re news. They’re rare. The other hundreds of thousands of self-published books? They’re unvisited websites and unopened boxes in somebody’s garage that I don’t really need to know about. I’d rather work with the writers who are approaching me to pursue traditional publishers, and focus my attentions there. There is a lot of talent in the world that’s worth being found and developed. I wouldn’t be an agent if I didn’t think so.
But like I said, I’m The Man. You’re either with me, or you wish you were with me. 🙂 (And I’m a cheeky Man, at that.)