I’ve receieved a number of emails lately inquiring about the validity of self-publishing. It’s a well-worn topic and my personal perspective isn’t much different than everyone else’s. In the right conditions, handled properly, with realistic attitudes, self-publishing can be a viable business decision for certain people. But I don’t believe in resorting to it just because you think the mainstream publishing industry is comprised of meanies who aren’t smart enough to comprehend your art.
In addition to these queries about the validity of printing your own books, a handful of the emailers also wanted to know why self-publishing is so reviled. I think there are a couple of factors that contribute to the negative perception. First, there are undoubtedly snobs who look for a chance to sneer and chuckle. Elitist assholes exist in every industry so it’s absurd to think there aren’t folks in the publishing biz who love nothing more than an opportunity to pooh-pooh the self-published hoi polloi. Second, not every one, but some self-published authors invite the very ridicule they hate.
You remember Bobby? That weird kid in high school who went out of his way to wear plaid pants, day-glo sneakers, a green mohawk, maybe a little goth makeup, and sucked on a pacifier all day? Bobby spent more time planning his anti-conformity outfit (because, “you know, he just does his own thing, he’s such an individual“) every morning than Jenny the Cheerleader dedicated to her hair. But then he always bitched and moaned about how Pam the Prom Queen ignored him. Some self-published authors are the same way. They act like idiots and then wonder why they face such disdain.
Not Just an Author, but a Published Author!
I’m lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time in the company of writers. I’ve been around bestsellers and the most beloved literary icons. And not once, not ever, have I heard these people introduce themselves as a “published author.” They meet a non-bookish person and they say “I’m a writer.” They don’t ever feel the need to include the published qualifier.
In 1932, when Clark Gable famously asked Willliam Faulkner “Oh, do you write?” Faulkner responded with one of the best zingers in the history of literature. He did not respond with “yes, I am a published author!”
However, the type of person who gives self-publishing a bad name adores that phrase. These misguided folks thrust business cards that proclaim “Joe Blow, Published Author.” Mr. Blow strong arms the local bookstore in holding a signing and he takes out an ad that entices readers to “come meet published author Joe Blow!” He talks about how “they” can focus their efforts on stealing an athlete’s championship memories or a country boy’s high school diplomas, because he’s a published author and “they” can never take that away from him. Joe Blow gets a PUBLSHD1 vanity license plate on his 1984 Plymouth Reliant K and he pre-orders his tombstone that reads:
Here lies Joe Blow, Published Author,
Ignored by the Industry, in all their hauteur.
Since he lacked a famous last name,
editors wouldn’t play his game,
but his writing meshed, and for all eternity
he will remain, forever Pub-lished!
For the people who invite the derision, their obsession with the “published” tag makes all the difference in the world. And they don’t seem to realize how it’s a meaningless title when you bestow it upon yourself. If I go down to the YMCA and play a round of pickup basketball, then pay myself afterwards, does that give me the right to claim to be a professional athlete? If I form my own team, can I insinuate to friends that there’s no difference between me and Kobe?
I’ll Just Create My Own University!
The current mainstream method of selecting books for publication, editing them, and distributing those texts is archaic, ineffecient, ineffective, often ill-informed, and frequently unfair. I won’t deny that. But, it remains the system that we have. Does that system pump out horrendous books that are the literary equivalent of roadkill? Absolutely. Does that system overlook and ignore worthy authors and genius books in favor of celebrity crap? Definitely. Nevertheless, it is still the system we have and the system we all understand.
When you self-publish, or go with one of the more questionable print-on-demand services, you are essentially going around that system. You’re taking your ball, going home, and making up your own game in the backyard. Your game might be fun, it might be valid exercise, it might be the perfect thing for your situation, but it’s not the same way all the other kids play. And to pretend otherwise is to invite scorn and derision.
It’s probably safe to assume that virtually all of this website’s readers graduated from either high school or college. Maybe a few of you had to repeat 4th grade a few times, but that’s okay, I did the same thing with college algebra. I was in that class so many semesters in a row that the professor said to me, “You sure are small to be a football player.” The key here is that you made it, eventually, out of either high school or college.
Now, when someone says they are a college graduate, we know what that entails. They had to take standardized tests, write essays, gain admission, complete required courses, accumulate a certain number of hours, pass final exams, and maintain a certain GPA in order to graduate. You might have gone to Harvard, Indiana University, or Northeastern Southern Central Nebraska A&T State at Lincoln but regardless of the rigor of your school, you had to meet these same basic requirements. Everyone understands, roughly, what it means to be a college graduate.
We also know people who are intelligent, hard-working, determined, and valid contributors to society who didn’t graduate from college. Bill Gates, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Frank Lloyd Wright are but a few icons of this society who didn’t finish higher education.
Now, let’s say that Rejected Rob applies to every college in this country and they all reject him. His GPA isn’t good enough, his test scores are poor, and he smells bad. Or maybe they just don’t understand a truly individual brand of personal genius. Not a single college or university admits Rejected Rob.
“What do those people know?” he rants. “Bill Gates didn’t finish college, big deal! Plenty of intelligent people fall through the cracks and don’t get in while legacies and rich kids are welcomed with open arms. Who are they to judge me? Once I get into the work force, I’ll succeed or fail based on my own merits. All I need is a chance!”
So, fueled by his rage at being excluded by higher education in this country, Rejected Rob decides to form my own college. He incorporates the name Rob’s Kick Ass Institute of Learning and print his own diploma. Not content with a dot matrix diploma, he orders a bunch of business cards that read “Rejected Rob: College Graduate.” He places advertisements in the local newspaper to “come down on Saturday and meet college graduate Rejected Rob!” He tells people at the local coffeeshop that his achievement is just as impressive as that of a M.I.T. graduate. He appears at job interviews that require have a college degree because, you know, he deserves a shot just as much as all you elitists who went to fancy schools. And whenever Rejected Rob faces any criticism, he chalks it up to the fact that all you bigtime college graduates are snobs intent on protecting your priviledged position.
Naturally, everyone would be scornful and dismissive of his delusions about the prestige of a Rejected Rob Kick Ass Institute of Learning.
The same thing is true of the crazed self-published folks.
Not all self-publishing proponents fall into this trap. Most of them understand their position in regards to mainstream publishing and they realistically and objectively make their publishing choices. They are living proof that self-publishing, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it can be quite effective and lucrative.
Unfortunately, these reasonable self-publishing advocates suffer the indignities brought on by their obsessed “published author” colleagues.
I’m not going to tell the people who emailed me they should not, under any circumstances, self-publish. I’ll just warn them about being realistic, objective, and honest. I’ll encourage them to focus on sales and quality of writing if they choose that route and not to lean back and applaud themselves for being a “published author.” Self-publishing is not necessarily better or worse the mainstream book industry, but it’s definitely not the same.
Remember, self-publishing doesn’t embarrass people. Idiotic, delusional self- “published authors” embarrass people.