The Self-Published Authors Standing On Your Lawn

For reasons I've never been entirely clear on, when the newspaper industry began its slow decline, the very best version of the professional journalist was compared to the very worst version of the Internet blogger, and somehow--perhaps we recently watched--we all went along with it.
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Print journalism's death rattle

Let us all bemoan the demise of the intrepid reporter, that guy or gal whose job it was to doggedly suss out an Important Story, do the necessary background work, meet the informants, verify the facts, and stand up for The Truth and speaking that Truth to Power.

Alas, his/her job was taken by the nerdy, obnoxious blogger, trader of unsourced gossip, unverified facts, and inventor of lies about good people to get page hits, unconcerned with Truth in favor of what will get attention.

Now... let's turn off whatever movie we're watching and rejoin reality.

For reasons I've never been entirely clear on, when the newspaper industry began its slow decline, the very best version of the professional journalist was compared to the very worst version of the Internet blogger, and somehow--perhaps we recently watched All the President's Men--we all went along with it.

The truth (or Truth!) is, newspapers failed to adapt quickly enough to the Internet as a medium of information. The people who used to buy the paper to get their news were going online instead, where it was A: free, and B: faster.

I think what happened next is instructive. If we can imagine, for a moment, that the institution of newspaper reportage spoke with one voice--I personally hear the voice of an old man who wants me off his lawn--that voice would say these things:

  1. "Bloggers don't have the training or connections like we do! Nobody will read them to get The Truth!"
  2. "Okay, maybe SOME people will read them! But not our core readers! Our readers know Quality! People who get their news from the Internet are idiots!"
  3. "Fine, most people are getting their news online, which is proof of the decline of modern civilization, and it's the bloggers' faults!"
  4. "We'll go online, dammit, but we'll charge for it. Of course people will pay, because we're better than the free news and everyone knows it!"
  5. "What do you mean, that didn't work??"

I'm actually here to talk about the publishing industry and not the newspapers, but I'm bringing up newspapers because the slow death rattle we've been hearing for about a decade from print journalism sounds an awful lot like the one we're hearing now from the big publishing houses.

Bad comparisons

Today's ongoing discussion regarding traditional publishing versus self-publishing is being framed in more or less the same way as that of the intrepid fictional reporter against the venal fictional blogger, and for more or less the same reasons.

Self-published authors, we are led to believe, are scheming "writers" who aren't good enough to land an agent or a publisher, have no interest in improving the craft--and show no respect for that craft--eschew editing they are badly in need of, and, in short, don't deserve to be published, period.

In contrast, traditional big market publishers are producers of high quality curated works that have been thoroughly edited and expertly marketed, and are in every sense superior for it.

There are a lot of problems with both of these concepts, and we'll be touching on them, but first I want to point out that these two aren't even remotely like one another.

We need to stop comparing the very best example of one category with the very worst example of another. It is absolutely true that there are self-published authors in dire need of improvement, an editor, and a better understanding of how to write. Also, there are indeed books put out by big market publishers that are of the highest quality, and that may not have otherwise existed were it not for this industry.

But let's keep in mind that it's equally true that big publishing can produce pure dreck, and high-quality novels can spring from self-publishing. For some reason we aren't comparing quality-to-quality and dreck-to-dreck.

Let's talk about money and quality

A lot of the arguments against self-publishing are of the best-vs.-worst variety, even if they don't sound like it at first. The money argument, for instance.

The claim is as follows: "most self-published authors--with a few exceptions--don't even make any money."

Here's the problem. If you're going to point to the people who don't make money self-publishing, without also talking about the people who got traditional publishing contracts and saw their books backlisted forever (because the contract they signed is for the life of the copyright), you're being dishonest. Those authors--and I promise you, there are a lot of them--aren't making any money either.

Also, when we're talking about actually making money, we may mean different things. "Nothing" may mean "practically nothing" or "not enough to live off of" in these arguments. And it is certainly true that most self-published authors don't make enough to quit their day jobs. Of course, it turns out that neither do most traditionally published authors.

What I'm saying is, if money is the subject and you want an honest comparison, don't compare Douglas Preston to someone writing donkey porn for free. (Note: I have never read Preston, but I am assuming he does not write donkey porn. I am willing to accept the possibility that he does, however.) Instead, compare a midlist author with a big publishing house with a midlist author who is self-published.

The same applies to the quality argument. Not to pick on donkey porn again, but if you're comparing that to the next massive Donna Tartt volume, you have to stop. The appropriate comparison isn't Donna Tartt, it's Fifty Shades of Grey.

Yes. If you're in the habit of bad-mouthing self-publishing and Fifty Shades is any part of your argument, take a step back and slap yourself a couple of times, because you're wrong. Fifty Shades was never self-published, and it is incredibly likely the only reason you've heard of it is because it was bought from an indie publisher and released--unedited--by big market publisher Random House. It belongs on big publishing's side of the chessboard, warts and all. It is also a stellar counter-argument to the claim that traditional publishing is a source of quality manuscripts, if you feel like cherry-picking things to make a point.

And if that doesn't work for you, we can talk about the train wreck that is Go Set A Watchman.

The pattern

What's happening in publishing right now is following the same pattern as what already happened in the print journalism industry.

For publishers, the change in the market was the development of e-books as a viable publishing option, and most of what we've heard in the industry since has sounded a lot like old man journalism yelling at us to get off the lawn.

First, they accuse self-published authors of being unworthy of readers. When that doesn't work, they blame the readers for not recognizing quality. When that doesn't work, they blame the medium itself--which is in this instance means blaming the inventor of the e-book market (Amazon) rather than the medium, but it amounts to the same thing.

To make their point, they're presenting themselves as paragons of quality, and self-published authors as uneducated hacks. It's untrue, and unfair, and it's poisoning the entire debate.

Gene Doucette is the author of The Immortal Book Series, The Immortal Chronicles, and Fixer. His latest book is Immortal Stories: Eve

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