When self-published work is derided: Often it’s justified

publishing word cloudCaitlin Dewey who runs the Washington Post’s Intersect Blog online wrote the following on October 2, 2014, “In the past 90 days, some 84 people have self-published Ebola e-books on Amazon, almost half of them in the past month alone…”[1]  She goes on to say that many of these books have highly-rated reviews on Amazon and yet, “…many of the books — almost all of them, in fact — contain information that’s either wildly misleading or flat-out wrong…”[2]

This is the best evidence I have yet seen on why the self-publishing world is so often deserves the criticism it regularly receives from the traditional literary media and publishers. There are no gate-keepers.  At the most benign end of the outcome spectrum all you have is drivel; at the most malignant, it can cause wide-spread misinformation if not panic, as could potentially happen in the case of Ebola.

I’ve written before about my happy and not-so-happy encounters with self-published books. A novel might simply be poorly written, derivative twaddle that otherwise does not harm other than wasting your time and clogging up the channels of entertainment.  Non-fiction, on the other hand, without benefit of editing, can disseminate all manner of harmful or simply wrong information.  So, why do I self-publish?

There are probably two reasons: first, I am sometimes impatient. Perhaps I am often impatient.  The traditional publishing process takes a long time.  Sometimes a really long time.  Second, and I am being more honest here than I have seen of other self-published novelists, my writing may not be up to the standards that the publishers I have approached in the past are looking for.  I have a track record as a well-published non-fiction writer, but I am a relative newcomer to fiction.  So, does that mean I shouldn’t publish my own novels?

Of course not. I can and I probably will continue to do so. Indeed, I’m also likely to publish a non-fiction piece or two in the future.  That being said, I have no call – nor do any other self-published writers – to either feel hard-done-by when the indie publishing industry is criticized, or to pester traditional reviewers.

If you are a self-publisher or contemplating this route, and you haven’t read Ron Charles’s recent piece No, I don’t want to read your self-published book, you should.  Charles, by the way, is the editor of The Washington Post’s Book World.  In it he refers to another piece you should read: An open letter to the self-published author feeling dissed penned by Roger Sutton the editor of a book review magazine.  Charles asked Sutton what inspired his open letter rant.  Evidently its genesis was in an email exchange with a self-published author who was feeling affronted by Sutton’s refusal to review self-published books.  When Sutton suggested to Charles that “…people are more interested in writing self-published books than in reading them…”[3] I thought, I could not agree more.  And we need to stop deluding ourselves.

[It is heartening to note, however, that Sutton’s derision of the self-published book has evolved over the past few years.  In his view, self-published children’s books today are still terrible; but he admits that “self-publishing for adults these days is demonstrating considerably greater skill and sense of audience than it used to, especially when it comes to niche topics and genre fiction.”[4]  Yay!]

The bottom line is that we should continue to write and even publish if we want to, keeping in mind that not all of our work contains as many bon mots as we think.  But we do need to stop feeling so maligned by the traditional reviewers and publishers: they are not the problem.  The plethora of unedited, poorly written self-published books is.

Of course there are many self-published authors who are probably as good as or even better than many taken on by traditional publishers. Sadly, it is more often the case that this is not true.  As a community of indie authors, what we really need to do is everything in our power to ensure the quality of our work.  Here are my suggestions:

  1. Write any kind of drivel that you want; publish only your best.
  2. Work diligently to improve you writing at every opportunity.
  3. Support other high-quality indie writers.
  4. Be honest when giving feedback or reviewing the self-published work of others.
  5. Stop feeling that the world of the indie writer is somehow in a war with traditional publishing.

What would you add to the list?

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/02/popular-on-amazon-wildly-misleading-self-published-books-about-ebola-by-random-people-without-medical-degrees/

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/02/popular-on-amazon-wildly-misleading-self-published-books-about-ebola-by-random-people-without-medical-degrees/

[3]http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2014/10/01/no-i-dont-want-to-read-your-self-published-book/

[4] http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/blogs/read-roger/open-letter-self-published-author-feeling-dissed/#_

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8 Comments

  1. Lots of truth here…However, there are also many big-name authors who are writing predictable, repetitive garbage nowadays. Personally, I would love to see the demise of “series” novels and see the stand-alone rise to prominence again.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, David. Interestingly, some of the most commercially successful self-published authors write series novels. I, too, love the stand-alone piece, though.

  2. Thanks for the thought-provoking piece. For many years I worked as a newspaper editor and would inwardly groan whenever someone wanted a review or story about his self-published book for the very reasons you mentioned. However, those days are in the rearview mirror as the line between self published and legacy published has blurred, particularly with genre fiction. In the end, I think what matters is good story telling and good writing. I’ve bought and read some wonderful self published ebooks. Now, if we all just had more time to read!

    1. Thanks for weighing in, David. Sometimes I feel as if I’m the only self-published writer who feels this way. I’m heartened about the future of indie publishing if those of us who truly care more about the quality have a louder voice and more influence than those wannabe writers who care only about being able to tell others that they have written a book. My preference Is for those who want to write to win out over those who simply want “to have written.”

    2. I, too, have read some terrific self-published books. What I really object to, though, is those disingenuous 5- star reviews that were either bought or extorted. and this can happen when the books are not self-published, but are brought our by smarmy publishers!

  3. I would also add that indie authors need to take themselves seriously. Simply uploading a manuscript and hitting “publish” doesn’t make a person an author, and it certainly won’t make a person a successful author. So care about the the formatting; the cover; the typos. Understand that when you indie publish you’re establishing a business, and treat it that way. Learn about this industry, learn to work within it, and use that information to find a way to stand out from it.

    1. This is the quality issue again, isn’t it? There was a time when those of us who have always wanted to be writers learned how to write, learned how to turn our ideas into manuscripts, cared enough to get it right and then looked for a publisher. It seems that without that publisher in the mix (third-party as it were), the lure of simply seeing your name on the cover of a book trumps that process of learning. Self-publishing is liberating, but without those checks and balances, the product can often be sub-standard. Thanks for weighing in.

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