What may be missing from the self-publishing debate is the fact that there are a lot of self-publishers who just aren’t that interested in a career in writing – whether it’s via a New York contract or selling books independently. Consider this an addendum to the Two Wings of Self-Publishing post – add a third wing: people who publish for the hell of it. If they get a few reviews, that’s great, but if they don’t it’s not a problem.
These writers might not care as much about the book cover or having a book properly edited. Personally, I don’t understand how someone with that type of ambition is able to put hundreds of pages together, but that seems to be the case – or there wouldn’t be so many novels getting written and published. The problem is that books by hobbyists are compared right alongside those self-published writers who are trying to make a career of it, and that’s totally unfair – as unfair as comparing Dostoyevsky and Dan Brown. They fulfill different needs for both the reader and writer.
This points to how weak it is to group self-published books together (“Self-published books are bad”), as writers are coming to the act of publication with very different motives. The equivalent would be criticizing a blogger for not being up to the standards of the NY Times or Huffington post. People understand that blogging takes all forms – sometimes being totally mundane, which is one of the great things about blogging. There are no constraints. The process of publication – putting that same blog within printed pages – means that some people think the writer should be taking greater care with what is eventually released.
The difference between blogging and self-publishing is pretty significant – reading a blog is free. The reader can just click away and start reading something else. If the reader had to actually spend money, they’re right to expect some amount of quality. But it’s as easy to publish as it is to set up a blog on Blogger. In a certain respect, it’s up to the reader to vet a book, just as it’s up to the writer to edit the book. If a book buyer buys a book sight unseen with limited objective reviews of the book, he or she can’t blame the writer if it turns out to be a bad purchase. And obviously he shouldn’t blame all of self-publishing that there’s a bad book in the ranks any more than he should blame Blogger for poorly-written blogs.
The more people learn about the ease of publishing via services like Lulu, and the more self-publishing loses stigma, the more hobbyists are going to be putting out their less-than-inspired work. Imagine a world where self-publishing becomes what blogging was in 2004 – when self-publishing makes the cover of Time Magazine and it’s considered the new revolution in the book business. It’s certainly possible, but it means that more and more people are going to be releasing their hobby projects at the very same time that self-publishing loses stigma. Even without a Time Magazine cover story this is already what’s happening. More of everything is being released: more good books and more bad books.
It may be particularly American to not understand how someone might want to produce something and not care about being hugely successful or famous, but so long as people understand that writing can be a hobby and not every writer is trying to make a major statement, readers will be less condescending when they read a book that isn’t all that ambitious. Personally, I wish people would take the craft of writing more seriously and not just release something for the hell of it – but this is a significant wing of people who self-publish with no overwhelming ambition, so they’ve got to be part of the dialog. It will help the writers who care more about what they release to acknowledge that there are a lot of books being released by people who are ambivalent about the book’s success – either in sales or how it’s written.
Taking Your Writing Seriously
Nathan Bransford (agent/blogger) got into trouble with a post earlier where he likened writers to hobbyists. He scraped the post of the word “hobby” because people (including myself) took issue with it. In the post he says:
I’m going to be honest here and say that while I don’t judge people when they define themselves as writer, whatever their publication status, I find it a little unsettling when they make it an overly intrinsic part of their identity.
First of all, people just don’t tend to define themselves by what they do in their spare time. You don’t hear anyone shout to the rafters, “I AM STAMP COLLECTOR!” or “I AM A CONNOISSEUR OF REALITY TELEVISION!”
The gist of the post is writers shouldn’t wrap themselves too much in the identity of being a writer because it makes every slight of rejection that much more insulting. Where he veered wrong was this sentence, which he then removed: “And until you’re making a living at it, writing is a hobby. It’s something you do in your spare time.”
For many, many people writing is as important as breathing. And of course rejection hurts deeply because it’s like having a part of your soul rejected. There’s nothing wrong with this. If you’re not feeling your writing this deeply, the writing might not have a whole lot of depth. It was disappointing to me that an agent would take this approach, when he should be looking for those writers who are just that passionate. My guess is the post is aimed at the people who are intensely passionate who don’t necessarily have the talent to back it up. But to state that writing is a hobby until you’re published puts a little too much power into the hands of the gatekeepers being in charge of that identity.
But getting back to the initial point: most writers are intensely driven. Some are not and there’s a section of self-publishing of people who say, “What the hell, I’ll put out my book and see what happens,” rather than “My career starts NOW.” To glom together all of self-publishers under the same umbrella makes no sense because people come to self-publishing with so many varied motivations, levels of talent, and styles of writing. Writing can be a hobby. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but for a growing number of writers that is exactly the case.