When this site started up in December 2008, self-publishing was still something you didn’t really talk about in polite company. It was really big news in January 2009 when the New York Times published a piece called Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab. There were detractors to the rosy picture of that article, but it seemed like a breakthrough.
Now, in 2010, self-publishing is everywhere, rightfully so. It’s not always flattering – but even when it’s being criticized, it’s seen as inevitable, and that inevitability isn’t seen as a bad thing. Recently, there was an epic post in the Wall Street Journal: “Vanity” Press Goes Digital. Today, working off of that article, there’s a piece on Salon.com called When anyone can be a published author. Salon’s the kind of place where self-publishing would never have been seriously considered. It spreads some negativity, but not all of that negativity is unfounded.
One thing is true: Aspiring authors have never had more or better options for self-publishing the manuscripts currently gathering dust in their desk drawers or sleeping in seldom-visited corners of their hard drives.
You’ve either experienced slush or you haven’t, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven’t seen the vast majority of what didn’t get published — and believe me, if you have, it’s enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.
The article makes the age-old severe generalization that self-publishing is full of “inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters — not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés.” The better point it makes is, “if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours…this possible future doesn’t eliminate gatekeepers: It just sets up new ones, equally human and no doubt equally flawed. How long before the authors neglected by the new breed of tastemaker begin to accuse them of being out-of-touch, biased dinosaurs?”
That’s true, but I prefer the democratization of many, many bloggers and readers making the decision about a book’s success via consensus, rather than that power being put into the hands of a dwindling number of editors. She’s absolutely right that this system will still reward a certain type of book – mainstream-style books will always be successful, even if the books are published independently. Independent doesn’t always mean cutting edge.
Where this post misses the mark is that it’s coming at self-publishing from a literary fiction standpoint – i.e. “good” writing. I’ve given into the fact that the success of self-publishing rests on commercial fiction becoming successful via the self-publishing route.
The fact is when it comes to “inept prose,” many readers don’t care. Inept prose is very frequently extraordinarily popular. Setting aside Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer – who are monstrously successful – there’s a much larger wing of midlist authors that are doing very well regardless of the quality of their prose. Saying “quality” is subjective is too easy – it’s very obvious when something is more plot-based than character-based. And more often than not, plot-based fiction is not as caught up in sentence structure. So: self-publishing is on the map for the express reason that “low quality” prose (by Salon.com’s standards) is successful. One person’s slush is another person’s beach read.
Yes, there is true slush – something that misspells words in the first sentence. But this type of book will largely be forgotten. It’ll get limited traction, so most readers won’t have to take the time to wade through it. A reader should be able to tell a book’s quality from the types of reviews and an excerpt. Sure, this is more work for a reader, but it also gives more power to both the reader and the writer, as they’ll be making the decisions about a book’s future – not an editor who may be selecting books based on dubious criteria.
All in all, articles like this fault self-publishing for not being perfect. Flooding the market with bad writing is a side effect of this democratization – just as someone who’s elected might not be the “best” person for the job, it’s still a good system of government. In the old system of publishing, it’s like only a handful of people selecting who should be in office. That’s just not a fair system. If “slush fatigue” is the worst side effect of self-publishing being a viable option, this is a fair trade off for good books not being released at all.
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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.