Something I’m asked fairly often is: “Why don’t you self-publish?”
In the moments following this question, I usually mumble some quick excuse and shrug the idea off because the truth is that my aversion to self-publishing is complicated. It’s not like I haven’t thought about uploading an e-Collection of work onto Amazon.com before.
I mean, why not, right? It’s modern, convenient, affordable, and you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to do it. Nor do you have to fight through a massive slush pile to be noticed by publishers. Heck, you can bypass the publisher altogether, avoid book contest fees and months of waiting to hear back, and maintain creative control over your work.
As someone who has built a career in publishing as both an editor and as a writer, I believe my perspective diverges wildly from the majority of my peers, at least when it comes to legitimizing yourself as an author and legitimizing the work itself (both of which important are incredibly important to me).
So what exactly makes an author or a book “legitimate”?
If you’ve never sat down and thought about your own definition to this question, you should do so asap, and try not to overthink it either. Like snowflakes, no two responses are the same, and there is no right or wrong answer. Your beliefs and the standards you impose on yourself are completely subjective.
My personal journey through publishing and my lifelong academic pursuit in the field of creative writing have both come to define my somewhat high standards.
The truth is that anyone can publish an eBook, and I mean anyone. In fact, the first thing that comes to mind when I think about self-publishing is the endless wave of YA paranormal romance novels and sci-fi books with mediocre, redundant vocabulary as well as completely predictable story arcs, characters, and narratives, which began popping up after “50 Shades of Grey”. For writers in these genres, self-publishing makes absolute sense, and might even be the most optimal method of publication. What better way to get your work directly into the hands of readers in this incredibly competitive market?
Also, I don’t mean to knock these genres as a whole. I’m just not a paranormal romance novelist or much for sci-fi in my day-to-day writing. More importantly, for me to be taken seriously in the writing community I’ve built my life in, self-publishing just isn’t an option. Other people have to recognize your skill before you earn your place in the sun.
Industry & Incest
The circles I am referring to here are chiefly comprised of two main groups:
1) Higher Education
This includes a) insular MFA communities which are somehow still connected on a national level that often feels downright incestuous and cult-like; b) overall holier-than-thou ivory tower poets, fiction writers, essayists, professors and intellectuals; and c) university presses.
2) Small Press
Anything other than the five or so major publishing houses like Penguin, Random House, and HarperCollins is considered “small“ press. Even if the press makes millions of dollars a year, it’s not considered a major publisher. This leaves a pretty wide range of presses. Many though, don’t make much in the way of profit and are run by professors and/or well-to-do writers that supplement the press with their income.
The kind of publications that come out of these circles are the kind of publications that have limited prints, big community and award prestige, as well as zero financial return. This is this type of work that is created out of love and is often the most rewarding to read.
Only a douchebag would self-publish in such circles. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to start your own press to publish work from other writers you enjoy but never for the purposes of packaging and distributing your own work.
One benefit of small press is creative freedom. Editors rarely try to push the work in any way. Manuscripts are, for the most part, published as-is. This is also a space where you can push the boundaries of genre hybridity, which is awesome. However, you pay between $15-30 in reading fees every time you enter a book contest. While 99% of these fees go directly toward producing the winning book(s), most can’t help but feel like they just bought into a pyramid scheme, one which they have no hope of reaching upper echelons of.
Given the unspoken rule about self-publishing, insular community, and competitiveness of it all, an insidious type of nepotism results, despite the best efforts of the community to prevent such conflicts of interest. You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours (i.e., you publish my book; I’ll publish yours). This is something I quickly grew tired of in graduate school. When you begin to notice how those who are published are connected to one another and who the heads of these presses are, it’s a little disheartening. But, in a way, it’s not much different from the highest form of publishing.
“No one said life would be fair.”
In grad school, it was insulting if you were dubbed a “career poet”, which implied that you were a brown noser intent on schmoozing your way to the top because your writing couldn’t stand on its own.
The serious academics in my program didn’t really care about this insult though because, unlike the rest of us, they knew that anyone who wanted to get ahead in this industry, like it or not, had to network; also, that this practice was critical to becoming a successfully published author. And yes, of course, there are exceptions to this statement, but not many.
This is a fact I never much cared for. I grew up with this grand fantasy of some freckle-faced editor at a major publishing house randomly picking up my manuscript from the slush pile and, within a few lines of reading, them exclaiming to everyone within earshot that they’d just struck 14ct gold, thus propelling me into my new life as the next J.K. Rowling.
Unfortunately, publishing is neither fantasy or based on merit. It’s based on sales. If you’re an optimist, maybe it’s a little of both.
You and I may look at a book like “50 Shades of Grey” and balk or wonder how the hell so many people enjoyed a book that was intentionally written as “Twilight” fanfiction. But here we are in 2018 the year of our lord still talking about it. After growing in popularity, it was picked up by a subdivision of Random House, not because it’s a good book but because it’s popular. 50 Shades was a smart business decision that drove sales through the roof and led to a three-part movie deal.
And I’m reminded of this shit-eating lesson every time I open up my HBO GO app and see the image of Christian Grey teasing a blind-folded and tethered Anastasia Steele.
What can we learn about publishing from pop fiction?
Over the years, I have done my research on some of my favorite and relatively popular authors and discovered that most of them were not classically trained in writing. Many of these writers didn’t bother with the slush pile, not in small press and not in any of the major publishing houses. Instead, most of these people grew an internet following, publishing their work online for free initially, then releasing eBooks that actually made money, which is damn hard when your book costs $0.99.
The first real-life example I saw of this was both unforgettable and way too close to home.
As part of earning our master’s degrees, we had to teach at least one ‘Intro to Creative Writing’ course per semester, and we often discussed our trials and tribulations in the MFA lounge. One day, a classmate, who was already well-established in the small press fiction community, told me she had a young student in her class who’d electronically published one of those YA paranormal romance novels on Amazon.com.
I rolled my eyes at this. But when we went to look at the book profile, we were both shocked to see that the student’s book had been purchased and downloaded thousands upon thousands of times. There’s a metaphor buried somewhere in this anecdote that I don’t care to parcel out. Just know that it stung.
While part of me feels against self-publishing and also that it is the downfall of literary quality and integrity, as it allows the market to be shaped by popularity, I can also see the appeal of it. Moreover, the act of self-publishing feels like a reflection of my generation, a generation characterized by instant gratification and ADHD (which I have btw). However, if you take a closer look at us millennials, we aren’t just a bunch of tech-hungry, selfish, pick-me jerks. We are brilliant entrepreneurs who constantly find new ways around a system that benefits from our mindless complicity and financial participation, like weeds refusing to be left under concrete to wither and die, always finding a way to the light. Perhaps, self-publishing is merely an extension of this resilience as well as a refusal to be buried.