Part of the reason I’m so attracted to self-publishing is that it’s so reviled. It’s for misfits. It truly is the publishing version of punk rock – something that anybody could do and something that people snubbed their noses at. Something that inspired conservative outrage. Really, when you boil it down, self-publishing is a very positive development: the ability for writers who were not able to get a book deal in a highly competitive industry to be able to find readers. It’s totally democratic and a great example of free expression. Why you’d want to crap over something that has so many positive implications reveals something – not about self-publishing, but maybe about those who are doing the criticizing.
The ways that people criticize self-publishing fall into several camps:
Exhibit A: The quality of self-published books is poor. I agree with this. The quality of some self-published books isn’t great. But then the quality of traditionally published books isn’t that great either. I am left to wonder just how many self-published books these critics have seen. If I wasn’t running this website, I wouldn’t be seeing too many other self-published books, so how these people are seeing dozens upon dozens of self-published books to make a generalization about their quality is puzzling. My guess is that most people haven’t held too many self-published books in hand. Thousands of books are self-published books every year, in all types of genres, so to say “they’re bad” is an absurdly blanket statement.
Exhibit B: Self-publishing services misrepresent themselves and unsuspecting authors lose a lot of money. This I don’t get. There are places like Publish America, which is a terrible service. But the criticism is that all subsidy publishers are taking writers for a ride, giving them a false sense of their prospective success. Some writers have been ripped off, sure, but many more understand that self-publishing is not the same as traditional publishing and that it’s going to be hard to sell books. Given the difficulty of selling traditionally-published books, writers would have to be pretty deluded to think that self-publishing is an easy road. That delusion is not necessarily the fault of the subsidy house – the writer just hasn’t done his or her research.
Exhibit C: It’s too easy. There should be a vetting process and writers should get a stamp of approval from a traditional press. What I think is happening here is that traditionally published writers like the validation of having the book bought by a publishing house. To them, it means their writing is better. Which it doesn’t: any more than getting good reviews means your book is good. It just means someone liked it. There are people out there who will love or hate anything. Check out the reviews of any movie on IMDB, for example, and go straight to “Hated it.” People hate masterpieces.
Yes, professional validation is different than reader validation, but it still is not proof that a book is “better,” just that one person liked it. It may just mean that the book is more marketable than others, which is no measure of a book’s literary longevity. But traditional published writers like this validation – they want the gatekeepers to keep defining what’s good and what’s bad because they want the gate to keep having the same meaning.
Under this umbrella are those who think if a book was good enough it would get published. Again, “good” and “marketable” are different things. It’s harder and harder for good writing to break through, which is not the fault of the writer.
Exhibit D: It makes all books harder to sell because it dilutes the number of books with a lot of poor-quality work. This was argued recently in an interview. A writer said:
I think when an author self-publishes a book, it hurts all writers.
I have a theater background. Theater is a near-dead art form, and I think some of that has to do with community theater. Community theater dilutes the theatrical pool the same way self-publishing dilutes the literary pool.
People do community theater. Most of them aren’t that good at it and, since it’s community theater, they have no real reason to get better. But they do shows and they force their friends and neighbors to come see them. This is the only taste of theater that most of these people get. They never go to anything else, they never even consider going to anything else, because the community theater production was so unprofessional. It leaves a bad taste in their mouths.
Authors that self-publish are doing the same thing with fiction. A lot of people already hate reading because of books they were forced to read in high school. Then a friend or neighbor comes along with their self-published book. The poor victim buys the book, tries reading it and never wants to crack open a book again.
That’s a pretty unique criticism of self-publishing that I haven’t heard before, but it just illustrates the variety of vitriol leveled against self-publishers.
Exhibit E: It’s a sub-par form of publishing. It’s harder to get reviews and get distributed. So it’s inferior to traditional publishing. This is the one that I agree with. It’s true: self-publishing makes it harder to sell books. Still, this doesn’t mean that writers shouldn’t do it – because reaching any amount of readers is important – but just that it is difficult.
All in all it’s not readers who are criticizing self-publishing so much. A lot of readers might not even know the difference between AuthorHouse and Random House. The criticism of self-publishing most commonly comes from traditionally published writers. And there’s got to be a reason for that – that they feel threatened in some way. It’s not that they feel protective of those writers who get suckered into spending money. It’s that they don’t want the competition and the lack of validation.
Seriously, the hatred spewed against self-publishing is weird. Why bother spending so much time to criticize a system that already puts writers at a disadvantage? It’s as if people don’t want it to be a successful medium. They want the old system to be the main way that people get published now and forever. That’s something of an ulterior motive.
About Henry Baum
Author of The American Book of the Dead, which won Best Fiction at the DIY Book Festival and the Gold IPPY Award for Visionary Fiction. Largehearted Boy says it's "reminiscent of Philip K. Dick and Haruki Murakami, a book that boldly explores the future and defies genre." Also the author of North of Sunset, winner of the Hollywood Book Festival Grand Prize, and The Golden Calf - first published by Soft Skull Press, with editions in the U.K. (Rebel Inc.) and France (Hachette Littératures). Henry was a finalist along with Alan Moore and Dr Brooke Magnanti for his novel " God's Wife" at for Best Writer at The Erotic Awards London UK in 2013. He lives with his wife Cate Baum in Los Angeles. He is the founder of SPR. Visit henrybaum.com for more information.