1. Those who want to use self-publishing as a stepping stone to being traditionally published.
2. Those who don’t care about the traditional system whatsoever and want to sidestep it.
The vehement reaction in the Publishing Renaissance debate against traditional publishing makes me want to write about the second. And this post might just get me into trouble. I wrote a comment on that post that I enjoyed the debate, but it’s been kind of weighing on me. It’s weird to be on the side against self-publishers, as I’m such a staunch advocate. But at the same time I come pretty firmly in camp #1. Might as well come out and admit that.
I wonder about people who say they have no interest in the traditional system. It’s almost like saying – I don’t want to be as successful as I could be. Even if you were able to sell thousands of books via non-traditional methods, having a book in bookstores is one better. Until most book shopping doesn’t occur in bookstores you can’t really claim that self-publishing is ideal, even if it does have great potential.
I have the feeling that people don’t want to deal with traditional publishers because it’s safer. The reader review system can be fairly uncritical – a lot of backscratching and support. It’s no doubt extremely important to reach readers, but (I’m reading into people’s motivations) maybe they want to do this because it never really puts their writing to the test of intense critical analysis. So they write off the gatekeepers- whether editors or trad print reviewers – so they won’t have to face them. It’s easier to believe that the gatekeepers opinion doesn’t count for anything. I see an impulse in the self-publishing community to believe that all books and opinion carry the same weight. No, there are better fiction writers and better reviewers. It’s not snobbery to believe that – it’s unrealistic to think otherwise.
But really, if you’re serious about reaching the greatest number of readers you should be interested both alternative and traditional media. It basically doubles your potential readership – if not more because a review in the Washington Post will do a lot more for book sales than a review on Goodreads. And traditional distribution via bookstores is superior to online-only distribution – the ideal is the two combined, the most progressive web 2.0 methods plus old-style distribution. So traditional publishing has real value, no matter how much people want to ignore that.
I’ve been accused of being too attached to the traditional model – which is ironic because I hate the traditional system. It has repeatedly disappointed me. But I also think it’s a potentially beautiful thing if done correctly – it’s just become totally corrupted by greed and short-term thinking. But a system that lets writers reach the greatest number of readers is a great thing. It’s something to aspire to – have your writing make the greatest possible impact. I advocate self-publishing as a totally valid avenue because trad publishing is such a mess, but the traditional system also has a huge amount to offer if done right.
I may be totally off-base in my assessment of (some) people’s motives for sidestepping traditional publishing. But I don’t think it makes sense to write trad publishing off because it is still a very efficient way of reaching readers. So there must be another reason people want to avoid it – and one of those reasons is that some writers don’t care about being taken seriously by established media, even if it means selling fewer books.
For self-publishing to be taken seriously, top-down criticism of self-published works has to happen. I’m not trying to stamp idealism, but being a realist. But if people aren’t interested in being a part of more-established literary circles, this may never happen. Steven Reynolds wrote an astute comment, saying,
The parallels with independent film and punk rock don’t ring true for me. They might if self-publishing were full of challenging, experimental, non-commercial books breaking new artistic ground; books that were being resisted by risk-averse mainstream publishers who were too conservative or too stupid to see a new kind of literature blossoming around them. But is self-publishing really like that? Honestly? In some cases it is. But the majority of self-published books were aiming squarely for mainstream commercial success and just didn’t make the cut.
Zoe Winter left a similar comment:
I’ve thought a lot about this issue: the attitudes about indie musicians vs. indie authors, and I think a big part of it is that a lot of the first indie music was punk and other forms of “rock,” which is by nature, defiant. Punk and rock/alternative musicians tend to be “defiant” as well. This defiance makes it socially acceptable within their group of other musicians to break away and do their own thing. Being anti-establishment is very trendy.
But in writing, it’s different. Most writers just aren’t that defiant.
What worries me is that if more writers aren’t intent on more traditional success that it could actually halt self-publishing’s progress – i.e. self-publishing won’t be an avenue for all types of writing and will remain an avenue for niche fiction and non-fiction, which is really no different than it’s been for years. This worries me to the point of thinking I shouldn’t have the reins of this site because I couldn’t care less about something like vampire erotica. Yes, I know it’s a mistake to write of a genre, but often that kind of stuff is more about its subject than it is about the writing.
At the same time, it’s vampire erotica-type fiction that can more-easily subvert the traditional system and find readers. Is it wishful thinking to think that all genres and types of writing could break through in this system? If writers aren’t more willing to put themselves on the line with more-critical readers and more-critical reviewers, then this may just be the case. Books that are well-regarded both traditionally and non-traditionally will help establish self-publishing overall.