Self-Publishing is Dumb

Are self-publishers dumb? Don’t answer that.

Recently, the debate has arisen again about genre vs. literary self-publishing (as if there’s some kind of war between the two) with Chris Meadows gloating on Teleread:

Maybe because, I dunno, nobody wants to read them? I read to get away from the real world. I don’t want to read more stories about the real world.

Anyway, I come to wonder: after all these years of sneering at genre’s low-brow nature, is literary fiction about to die off because its writers couldn’t make the same transition to self-publishing that genre’s writers could? That would be pretty amusing in my book.

So, it’s apparently joyful that people might not read literary fiction. And somehow reading well-crafted sentences doesn’t take you away from the real world. Good writing takes you out of the real world – whether it’s a space opera or a family drama. That’s what it is to read a book.

This is why literary writers are reticent about dipping their toes into self-publishing. Because the culture of self-publishing is stupid. Not always, but very often.

A comment on the Passive Voice writes:

Literary fiction writers have a problem. They write well, and their prose flows like honey, but for most readers their books are boring.

Hmmn, if prose “flows like honey” how can it possibly be boring? Good writing isn’t boring.

What people are saying is: there needs to be more explosions. It’s advocating the lowest common denominator. When has this ever been something to be lauded?

Before you call me a snob, I mainly write genre fiction. Weird genre fiction, but books where people are murdered and planets are decimated. Not quiet stories about relationships. But it doesn’t make sense to me to denigrate literary writing, any more than it makes sense for literary writers to denigrate genre. I get that genre fiction writers have been sneered at over the years, so they’re sneering back. But it actually helps out all writers if literary authors are welcomed into the fold. Ironically, self-publishers are acting like a kind of gatekeeper saying: you don’t belong here.

The world of self-publishing seems awfully stuck in a mindset like bad reactionary politics – in which everything is black and white. Genre good, literary bad. Traditional publishing bad, self-publishing good.  Gun control bad, gun rights good. I probably shouldn’t even begin to get political, but that’s what people are sounding like. Writing itself is about nuance, so it seems awfully strange that a group of writers should be totally incapable of it.

Obviously, I’m making generalizations as well. There are plenty of self-publishers who write literary fiction, and aren’t dancing on the grave of literary fiction.  Another comment on the Passive Voice:

By sneering at literary fiction just as the handful of literary snobs sneer at genre fiction, aren’t we behaving just as misguidedly as the establishment we are trying to change? Why can’t we simply accept that we are part of a vast sea of wonderful words, and that we can now write and read what we want to, without people feeling the need to denigrate each other’s choices?

Professional Critics Matter

All this aside, the reason literary fiction hasn’t been adopted as quickly is because literary writers need bookstore distribution more than genre writers do. Genre writers are much more likely to buy books on the Kindle. You might need to pick up a literary novel and read through it – not just the first 20 pages to see if there’s an action scene hook in the first few pages. 99 cent books are like the new dimestore novel, which were once bought in bulk.

Literary books are also more of an object to be owned than a lot of genre books – and because literary books are harder to read (not boring, more challenging), it makes sense to be able to see well-considered reviews from reputable sources. And though self-publishers might not want to admit it, readers don’t make the best gatekeepers. The evidence of this is in one-star reviews. If the internet has revealed anything, it’s that people will be critical about anything. Read any post online: a picture of puppies playing on grass. How could you possibly criticize that? Scroll down to the comments. Oh.

I was reading the reviews of a friend’s book the other day. The one-star review had this to say –

The author stole the idea from another book, Aftermath, Inc.: Cleaning Up After CSI Goes Home by Gil Reavill published in 2007.

My friend’s book was first published in 2004. It’s getting to the point where Amazon reviews might not be working  – and so reviews from reputable sources carry more weight. Is that a gatekeeper? Yes. Is it better than that sub-literate Amazon review? Yes.

A one-star reviewer had this to say about my novel:

The book was nearly as torturous as Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky…and if you have read that book you know it is very slow reading, and hard to make yourself finish it.

The guy is kind of admitting that he’s an idiot (I admit this is a humblebrag, I obviously like being compared to Dostoevsky). This may seem like a different discussion than the above. We all know there are stupid one-star reviewers out there. But it’s part of the same issue: the lowest common denominator is now actually running things! That’s not progress, even if writers now can control their own fate. If writers and readers both are denigrating writers who take chances, then this has the potential to be as confining as any walled-off gate.

So don’t celebrate that people aren’t reading literary fiction, it’s kind of a disaster. People need to be reading more of everything, not less. Even if literary writers have been pricks about self-publishing in the past, we’re all writers. It’s hard to make a living as a writer, it’s hard to write a book. It’s no victory that it’s getting even harder for some of us.

  • Thank you for posting this, Henry. The battle between the writers of “genre” and “literary” fiction is mostly fictional. I’m more interested in what the writer is attempting to accomplish. Immediate global adulation? Good luck with that. Ultimate acceptance as a classic? Good luck with that as well.

  • Jan

    Fantastic post. Thank you! I’ve also heard/read that literary writers and genre writers are learning from each other–more ‘plotting’ in literary novels, more well-crafted sentences in genre novels. To me, this would be the best outcome of the war. Personally, I read and enjoy both kinds of fiction. Congrats on the Dostoyevsky comparison, BTW. 🙂

  • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that genre novelists are sneering now, because they’ve been sneered at for too long. Or, in the case of traditional publishing, they’ve FELT sneered at and mis-treated. The picture looks very different on the other side of that fence, largely because those inside publishing have radically different information than authors do. Both sets of information are important, but they’re not the same.

    Sneering when you are finally not the underdog is completely normal, but it’s not useful.

    And I don’t think anyone in any part of book publishing is now in a position to disregard what’s useful. The margins and profits are too small to let any possible advantage pass you by.

  • Maggie Lynch

    There have been wars between writers forever, and before them between orators. But I believe it is a minority of complainers that create this fake “war.” Those few complaints are then magnified by a need for other individuals or companies to have sensational headlines to sucker people into looking. In my opinion, this “war” has more to do with an individual’s fear and competitive nature than any trend of millions of people taking sides.

    It’s not just the ebook evolution that has been the final straw for literary authors or traditionally published authors. It is something that has been growing for at least the past two decades. Traditional publishing and its acquisition and distribution model has been undergoing tremendous change. First it was the multiple mergers in the 1980’s where most NY publishing entities became big media conglomerates with interests in movies, games, TV, and perhaps even books. And many of them were gobbled up by groups that had nothing to do with books but liked the cash flow. Next publishers moved from deploying a large salesforce to lots of indie bookstores to, instead, concentrating on big box bookstore (B&N, Borders, Target, Walmart, etc.). This required fewer salesmen which increased profitability. In the 1990’s and early 2000s, publishers focused on short-term profits above long term planning. This required primarily investing in blockbuster (or designated to-be a bestseller) books that could ensure big numbers, big hype, and something to tell the stockholders. This decreased the ability of, now short-staffed, editing departments to work with mid-list and new writers. They still acquired some of those non-blockbuster books, but they had no time for them and definitely no budget. The blockbuster books held up entire companies of smaller and mid-list books. At each step along the way, the opportunities for any type of book (genre or literary) to move or to be nurtured toward break-out status narrowed further.

    Then ebooks came along and a software-focused discovery approach challenged the status quo. When publishers were narrowing distribution, Amazon blew it open. Where publishers (and thus agents) were concentrating on finding those single-book blockbusters, Amazon concentrated on easy distribution of millions of small books to generate even more money. Yes Amazon was disruptive, but they were disruptive because traditional publishing had already continuously narrowed the liklihood of continuing to be profitable.

    The problem with book wars, genre wars, or author wars is that they are all based on an unrealistic view of the past (things were good, easier, more lucrative when…) and the individuals waging the war live under the mistaken belief that if only these changes weren’t happening he/she would be better off, would get his/her due (money, fame, fortune, awards, whatever they are looking for). Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Whether one is a literary writer, a genre writer, or some cross of both, the opportunities are still the same as they have always been. It follows the normal curve of any career path. A few people make big money and a few people (who stay in the game) make very little money. One or two people make it with seemingly little effort and one or two people kill themselves, also with seemingly little effort. Both the extreme highs and lows are outliers. Most people end up in the middle making somewhere between slave wages and a decent living. And, most important, absolutely no one has figured out how to determine what to do to make sure a book ends up in the outlier position of making big money.

    The only difference self-publishing and ebook distribution has made is that more people can enter the publishing arena. Previously, the number of people who could enter were limited by the number of books traditional publishers were willing to take on in any one year. Now, anyone can enter and exit with or without a traditional publisher. However, the curve will still be the same. It’s just seems there are more winners or more losers because the statistical population is larger. There are more voices at each end and all along the normal curve, but the percentages remain the same.

    I disagree that literary writers need publishers more than genre writers. Both types of writers can get reviewed by notable reviewers, the difference is only in who pays (a traditional publisher or the individual). Both types of writers can get distributed to bookstores and on the web. Again the difference is who pays for the distribution and how it is handled. There are plenty of middleman companies who are happy to take an individual’s money and do the same work of distribution as a publisher. Or the writer can go direct to Ingram and get in the book catalog of 28,000 stores around the world.

    As long as I can remember, some genre writers were always miffed that they were not eligible for certain types of awards. Some literary writers were always miffed they could not make the money some genre writers made, in spite of the fact they had won a literary award. The ones who are always looking for more and need a reason, outside of themselves, for not achieving that will always complain.

    My experience is that most professional writers simply work hard, put out books, distribute them in the best way they can (traditional, independent, some hybrid) and hope that with the next one they will get a few more readers, maybe a little more money, and simply be able to continue writing and not have to find (or stay at) a different job in order to put food on the table.

    It has always been a long slog. It has always been a profession of patience and managing expectations, and continuing to do a job even when it is not evident that you will ever make a big name for yourself. But most of life is that way. And most careers are that way. To expect something different is asking for disappointment.

    Of course, I hope for money and having hundreds of thousands of readers. But I don’t expect it. I write because of all the careers I’ve tried in the past 40+ years, this is the one that brings me the most satisfaction. This is the one I always return to. This is the one I will take to my grave.

  • “Hmmn, if prose “flows like honey” how can it possibly be boring?”

    Because good prose =/= good story. At least, not in and of itself. On the flip side, in fiction bad story = bad writing, no matter how fancy the prose, because the purpose of the writing is the story.

    Of course, that’s just my not-so-humble opinion, and worth exactly what you paid for it. 😉

  • I hate to hear anyone being a snob. I know writers and publishers have been known to be so on occasion. I just love to write and to read. Literary criticism is necessary, but we should all be a lot more accepting of anyone who wants to write. It’s a beautiful thing.

  • Mariana Llanos

    Great post, and congratulations on being compared to Dostoyevsky. That only makes me want to read your work.

  • Laura

    Isn’t the real problem for literary fiction authors that “reviews from reputable sources” and placement in bookstores is, um, particularly challenging for independent and self-publishers? When reviewers and bookstores blacklist as a class an entire segment of the modern publishing industry—to protect the big publishers, to spite Amazon, or perhaps out of an easy out to lighten the workload—they are in fact harming and entire class of authors, and self-/indie published literary authors most of all for, as you say, their readership is more inclined to buy from the shelf, not from the web browser (perhaps because “literary fiction” is rather hard to pin down and therefore distill into recommendation algorithms to make Amazon more helpful for literary fiction readers).

    A little “sneering” by a handful of self-publishing genre evangelists may be discouraging to some literary authors, but I feel that’s nothing compared to the bifurcated market dynamics in play.

  • Excellent article! I have friends on both sides of the fence. Self-publishing is hard for literary fiction writers because it appears that most readers of self-published work prefer genre fiction. But self-publishing is also hard for genre fiction writers because the field of many genres is so crowded. Instead of sneering and jeering, writers should be helping each other learn and navigate their way to being read. I feel fortunate that the community of self-published authors I’ve come to know (and love) are very supportive of each other even though they write in widely different genres, including literary.