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Why Self-Publishing Still Has Its Stigma

I don’t want to hold my tongue any longer. There’s a vibe in self-publishing that if it makes money, it’s OK. There’s also a desire on behalf of authors for self-publishing to lose its stigma. Unfortunately, point a is detracting from point b. Just because something is making money doesn’t mean it’s well-valued.

While many want to hold up self-publishing successes and declare “self-publishing has arrived” it is not entirely heartening to see the types of books that are becoming successful – any more than it is to see yet another Kim Kardashian story on my news homepage.

I’m well aware that I’m not the audience for romance novels – never have been before I ever heard of self-publishing. Back then Harlequin books were in their own corner of the universe. Selling boatloads (for some reason) but not really something I ever thought about. Now they’re everywhere.

Here’s Galleycat’s list of bestselling self-published books. I find the synopses for the first lot really painful.

1. Vain- Part Two by Deborah Bladon: “Posing nude for the illustrious Noah Foster seemed like an exciting escape from Alexa’s life. No one was supposed to find out, but when the one man who owned her heart, discovers her secret, everything changes. Alexa is not only caught in a compromising position but in a situation in which her past and present collide.”

2. Sweet Addiction by J. Daniels: “Wedding hookups never amount to anything. Those who partake in this wicked little activity know the rules. Get in. Get laid. Get out. There’s no expectation of a relationship. It is what it is. Dylan Sparks knows the rules. She’s familiar with the protocol. And she engages in the best sex of her life with a complete stranger at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding.”

3. Indestructible by Angela Graham: “Love. Passion. Respect. Logan West finally has the one thing he believed unattainable: the fiery woman who challenges, protects, and adores him just as much as she does his young son, Oliver.”

4. The Fixed Trilogy by Laurelin Paige: “All three books of the NY Times Bestselling Fixed Trilogy are included in this bundle.”

5. Uncovered by Emily Snow: “My name is Lizzie Connelly, and I have it all. The gorgeous apartment. The new job most women would rip out their own souls for—working for Margaret Emerson at Emerson & Taylor. I have one of those lives you’ve always dreamt about, the kind you only see on HBO. But, the thing is, that life is a lie. A façade.”

6. Rhett by J.S. Cooper: “I’m Rhett. I’m cocky because I can be. I’ve got it all: the looks, the money, the endurance. I’m the guy that every girl wants to be with, yet none of them have ever been able to tie me down. I don’t do love. I don’t do relationships. And I sure as hell will never do marriage.”

Let’s look at those last two: “My name is Lizzie Connelly, and I have it all.” and “I’m Rhett. I’m cocky because I can be. I’ve got it all.”

Anyone you meet in real life who says “I have it all” is commonly referred to as a prick, yet somehow in books this fantasy is OK. It’s not, really. It’s embarrassing. It’s doubly embarrassing that both books use the same trope.

It reminds me of the viral posts that say “These 10 pictures will change your conception of everything.” Like this:

viral headlines

The people in these novels are like the literary equivalent of the above: empty slogans. It’s like the characters are walking advertisements for themselves.

What do you care, I can hear people saying. So those books aren’t for you. True. But I care about books. I care about self-publishing. And I don’t find the fetishization of materialism and sexism as something to celebrate. It’s actually pretty depressing.

As someone who advocates for self-publishing – who loves the whole medium – I sometimes feel the need to cheerlead segments of the culture that I actually find kind of dangerous. Women longing to be abused by men (50 Shades and the Fixed Trilogy being the most notable examples) is frankly weird. As a guy, perhaps there’s no way I can understand this. As a father of a daughter, I hate it. I mean, even Divergent sends incredibly odd messages to young girls:

Here we see a girl getting the shit kicked out of her – cue girls thinking this is OK, it’s part of being “strong.” No it isn’t.

This isn’t a self-publishing problem entirely, it’s a cultural problem. Either way, it’s a problem.

I realize I’m not the first person to call 50 Shades of Grey sexist. What’s happened is we’ve gone from one successful book to an entire literary movement. And it’s a movement that’s come to represent self-publishing, as is shown in GalleyCat’s list.

There’s no real answer to this. People are going to read what they’re going to read. But if you tout the success of books like these as a victory for independence it sort of sounds like one of those people saying “I have it all.”

  • Alex

    Thank you, I’m really glad someone finally said that. I mean, Rihanna and Transformers sell A LOT and this don’t make them better than Björk or Spike Lee. Lots of people mimicking Barbara Cartland won’t legitimate any indie path, the same way indie bands don’t try to mimic Nickelback.

    • http://www.henrybaum.com Henry Baum

      Exactly, thanks for chiming in.

  • http://www.InklingBooks.com/ Michael W. Perry

    Several of the books in your list, while belonging to a specific genre like romance also belong to a mega-genre whose best description might be ‘nothing like real life for people whose life is drab and isolated beyond belief.”

    Years ago, when I worked nights at what is today Seattle Children’s Hospital, I went to the to pick up some drugs. As I came up, the pharmacist, a stocky, middle-aged woman with short, too-blonde hair, was reading a romance novel. Seeing that I’d seen, she said something about that being the ‘only way I can get romance.’

    I thought I that when I gave up reading Daniel Silva’s The Kill Artist about a week ago. It’s terrorism for people so isolated from life’s experiences they have no concept of terrorism or any other violent crime. The lead terrorist kills people he stays with for just a few days. Silva’s great cadre of clueless readers no doubt regards that as a violent but effective way to get rid of witnesses and get away with crimes.

    It is no such thing. In the real world shacking up with some woman for a few days in Amsterdam and then disappearing, and he would not have been noticed. Given the dim minds of some women, that happens all the time.

    But murder her, and he get lots of police attention. Murder multiple people across Europe, as this terrorist does, and he is at the top of Interpol’s wanted list, even if they don’t know he is a terrorist. And for what? To avoid a witness giving a description of him, a mere guest of a few days. That accomplishes nothing. There were others who’d seen the guy and surveillance cameras who’d have recorded images. That murder was stupid beyond belief. It gets police the taking fingerprints, doing DNA scans and asking everyone who might have seen something.

    Keep in mind that flaming romance novels and kill-crazed thrillers like that of David Silva sell by the millions. The shelf of Siva works at my local library is about three feet long. He’s not a self-published author struggling for recognition. And he is no doubt talented enough to know just where his reader’s illusions are.

    There’s a lesson there. Writing for busy, heavily engaged people is hard. They’re doing so much, they have little time to simply read. They’re also so knowledgable, you have to work hard to get them to take you seriously.

    In contrast, writing for people whose lives are woefully empty of romance, of adventure or whatever, and and you’ll have a huge audience with lots of time on their hands. Because they do almost nothing, they have lots of time to read and lots of illusions about what life is like ‘out there.’

    Some of the stigma of self-publishing lies in the fact that it has many writers who’re not good at portraying realism for those in the know nor illusions for those with drab lives. Answering neither need, they fall flat.

    • http://jrtomlin.com J. R. Tomlin

      It is fairly amusing that someone has the nerve to post agreeing with a blog that complains about sexism and make the comment, “Given the dim minds of some women…”

  • Anne

    Nothing you point out in this article isn’t also done by trad-pubbed authors. For your information: FSoG was trad-pubbed.

    You appear to have a problem with fantasy fodder for those who like to switch off when they read. It’s like watching the summer movie, in book form. Get down from that ivory tower, please and let people enjoy what they like.

    • Naka Jackson

      I think that’s a ridiculous notion and given “Divergent” is mentioned I think we can say the author of this article is saying it is widespread. This is certainly the voice of the readers buying these so-called novels, but it leaves many self-published writers in the lurch. You say these books are written “for those who like to switch off when they read” – hmmm isn’t that all books? I would say that’s a prerequisite for all. And “FYI” FSOG was only trad after it was a fan blog then self-published due to the demand of the women who bought it, and Twilight fans.

      So was the video “Deep Throat” by Linda Lovelace.

      So was anything cheap and nasty that requires no effort because it’s easy to sell trash with no pride, filled with sex.

      I think the point is that the lowest common denominator is winning out, which is a terrible shame for those with a little pride in their craft. These sorts of books used to have a niche, but the fact they flood the market is the point: they give self-published crafted literature a bad name, and that leads to stigma for self-publishers. If you want a quick fix, fine, but from a writer’s point of view that’s really grim.

      I’m sure if I gave out pictures of kittens in a basket I’d get more takers than if I gave out cards explaining the math behind “infinity plus one,” but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a huge mass of us that would groan and feel terrible about the kittens in a basket. It may be be preference, but it isn’t in my opinion, literature.

      These books are badly edited and are filled with mistakes and bad writing – I did try to read one in case I was missing out on something. I was appalled as an intelligent reader and as a woman. Anyone with any culture used to laugh at these books at airports and old people’s homes, and now there’s a “silly culture” where the more crappy the writing the better it sells.

      FSOG should be banned for what it suggests to young women. Talk about backward. Women should be going forward in the fight for equality. It’s not equal to become subservient to rotten men, and I am not happy with this trend at all.

      I reject it.

      I’m sticking with feminism and the role in society I get with progress. I hope these books fade out and quality prevails. It gives good indie books a bad name – and no room to get out there.

      I am glad the likes of Michael Bunker and Hugh Howey, both “fantasy” writers btw in the true sense, are doing so well. It might push out the dross eventually.

      I’m in the ivory tower until the peasants stop making a mess down there.

    • http://www.henrybaum.com Henry Baum

      This is an old argument – literary vs. commercial – in which “Ivory Tower” is usually invoked. Sort of the Godwin’s law of literary discussions. “To each his own” is too easy. At what point is cultural criticism OK? Eventually we get to “Ow My Balls!” and no one’s said anything.

      Anyway, this is actually less about self-publishing than I was even saying, and is too big a topic for this one post. When there are sites like http://womenagainstfeminism.tumblr.com/ there’s something far larger going on than can be attributed to a publishing path.

  • Randall Radic

    Great post, Henry. I’m glad to see someone speak candidly on this subject. Sadly, in my humble opinion, many self-published books lack any type of elegance, editing or structure. There are, of course, many wonderful exceptions. I read many excellent self-published sci-fi books. Still, even those would benefit from a proof-reader, along with an editor.

  • funny

    just remember yesterday’s fluff is tomorrow’s masterpieces.

  • http://jengentrysbooks.com Jen Gentry

    It seems to me that your issues are with are with poor quality, poorly written, and in general just cheesy books. I agree I think the top selling romance are just that cheesy. Meh… Not my thing BUT for millions of other people those books are the cat’s meow.
    My issue is this. THOSE kinds of books were being sold LONG before the self indie explosion. It does not stand to reason that indie published books are sub standard with a stigma as being poor quality because they are trashy and traditionally published books are not. Simply because they are traditional. I have unfortunately read many many many traditionally published books that were poorly done and trashy and cheesy.
    So this stigma on self pubbed authors is laughable to me because honestly trad pubs are the ones who made crappy books popular in the first place.
    Thank you for allowing me to voice my humble opinion.

  • http://jrtomlin.com J. R. Tomlin

    Henry, those are the books the NYT chooses to list on its best seller lists. I suspect you are perfectly well aware that they are NOT the best selling books in the US, hence it is a totally invalid argument. If I am mistaken that you know how that NYTimes makes sure that Harlequin books, etc. that sell more don’t end up on their lists, some research on it isn’t hard to do.

    I’m sorry that you don’t like a lot of what sells, but obviously a lot of people do. They are going to buy cotton candy for the mind whether in book, movie or game form if that’s what they want and your reproaches aren’t going to change that.

    • http://www.henrybaum.com Henry Baum

      I don’t think this little blog post is going to have a major cultural impact. I do think it’s a topic worth discussing.

      You’re right about the NY Tmes list. Maybe lists like this (and Indie Reader’s) could mix up bestsellers by genre. Otherwise it seems very one sided.