Earlier this week an author made some accusations about the publishing world, and in particular, about self-published authors.
When I read the piece, it felt like a punch to the gut. I’d just come back from a really warm and fuzzy feeling conference where all the writers were intentionally supportive of one another, so to read someone being so judgmental – so mean – was hard.
Except, it also brought up a feeling I had the entire conference.
The most difficult thing about that writing conference was the fact there was no conversation about self-publishing. The closest it came was a session about newsletters (which was interesting but not explicitly “self-pubbing”). Because there was no conference-sponsored session talking about self-publishing books, or even referencing it in relation to other things, it felt like the dirty secret in the room.
Don’t talk about politics at Aunt Marge’s house and don’t talk self-pubbing at writing conferences.
This is how it felt to me, with no workshops about blogging or self-pubbing (note: the breakout sessions are the result of proposals, so this is an indication of both those proposing the workshops and those selecting them. And while there was a blogger table at the network lunch, few authors seemed interested in it, though I think blogging has an important place, as an exercise and business tool.).
To be fair, BinderCon is the most gloriously accepting environment in 99.9999% of ways. Seriously. It’s lovely. Binders are lovely and I am grateful for them every single day. They have transformed my writing life. I felt a level of care and compassion in that space which is rare to see – if ever – anywhere. It is because of the conference that two of my poems were pubbed the very next day in a literary magazine (WHAT?! I know! Totally fantastic!).
Still, every time I was asked, “Are you published?” I hesitated.
I have published 17 books (I think? I haven’t counted recently.). I have been blogging on a variety of blogs since 2005 for sure (maybe 2004? Again, this time is a bit fuzzy…). I spend several hours daily reading about publishing, marketing, and writing. I am a force of knowledge and experience. I’ve made some mistakes, but I kept going. I don’t take no for an answer ever. I make my own path. I’ve been doing it for years regardless of circumstances – resources, skills, or knowledge were no barriers to me. I figured it out or didn’t, learned, adjusted, and moved on.
When I say, “I’ve published 17 books…” writers’ jaws drop. They drop because that is not common. It is certainly not common to do in 5 years (Can you imagine a publisher doing that for one author?! HA!). I have done all these things and yet, I hesitated.
I hesitated because there is a stigma. No one wants to touch it because they just don’t know what to do with this strange new kid on the block. Yeah, this kid has been here for ages – for centuries actually – but because of the digital age it feels different. And the money is different.
Agents won’t touch you unless you reach a certain level of numbers because they think the numbers are an indication of commercial prospects (though we should consider that even traditionally pubbed books with an arsenal of PR don’t always sell). A gracious agent at the conference told me this (which wasn’t unexpected, but I figured it was better to talk with her than not and she was very gracious and even asked for my website info).
Traditional houses don’t want self-pubbers unless the numbers are there (But if you have the numbers, why go to a traditional house anyway? You can do most of the other stuff without them…so…unless you want a specific literary prize…).
People do not know how to talk about self-publishing. There’s even this thing about calling small presses “independent.” There are people who get very angry when someone uses this word – independent – to describe a self-pub author because they feel it negatively impacts the integrity of the small publishing houses. It’s ironic, considering the market circumstances that allowed for self-publishing also allowed for an increase in small presses…
Yet there is this connotation to self-pubbing that makes you dirty – as though being utterly independent somehow ruins the publishing world.
And maybe we do. Maybe we have. The tried-and-true way is gone. Traditional houses do not give the editorial support they used to (or so I hear). They don’t do the kind of publicity work they used to do. Now the onus is placed on the author to make sure the manuscript is polished and hire editors and proofreaders. The author is the one to collect newsletter sign-ups and build a social media following (though the power of the latter for selling books is grossly overstated).
Companies like Amazon have whittled away certain royalty percentages for all authors, even as they broke barriers allowing for more people to get a piece of the publishing pie (But remember traddies: self-pubbers didn’t have anything to do with Amazon’s business decisions. You can take that convo to Bezos and I will gladly stand with you in that fight.).
Without gatekeepers, the story no big house would buy is suddenly fair game. Any narrative is possible through the democratization of publishing. It allows for any and all voices. It allows for more creative control. It allows for trail-blazing.
It also allows for screw-ups.
Most every writer has made a mess at one point in time or another. Writing is a skill, so naturally the longer one writes, the better a writer becomes. If we forgive those messes that were purchased by traditional houses, why can’t we also forgive those that happen for the self-published author? Shouldn’t we give them at least the same slack if not appreciation for the additional skills needed as well as bravery to self-pub a book?
Clearly, to put down the self-pubbed author, to blame us for ruining the publishing world, is a stance rooted in defense of the status quo. It is against the changes that have occurred as a direct result of self-interested corporations, technological innovation, cultural paradigm shifts, and self-publishing.
The music industry has dealt with this already. The film industry is dealing with it. There is crap. There are also really interesting pieces developed by indies. And people are forgiving of a lot of the rough edges. In fact, the rough edges have a kind of appeal that hipsters cultivate.
Yes – the rough bits are “artistic choices” that make you cool.
So if this is happening in music and film, why are self-published authors having to fight so hard for a little forgiveness? A little respect? For solidarity?
Change is hard for many people. It is. But change is certain in life. We live in a day in age that is ripe with change. Surely life is more enjoyable when we embrace and accept it.
Something that stayed with me from BinderCon that applies directly to self-published authors: the Other drives social change. The Other drives the conversation. The Other drives the art.
Guess what? Self-publishers are a kind of Other. Not only are we driving changes in publishing, but we also have to come out to our writing friends. During my writing career, I have absolutely been judged for being self-pubbed – repeatedly – and it has been painful.
Often someone feels like they need to justify self-pubbing as an option, or apologizing for the nature of traditional houses or something.
If self-publishing was accepted, this wouldn’t feel necessary.
It’s even a coming out to people outside the publishing world because while there isn’t a deep understanding of what is involved in pubbing, there is history. And I’m not alone. I’m part of a large group of people who are self-publishing all manner of things. When there is accumulation, there is movement. Where there is movement there is change.
Guess what else? There is no going back from these changes. It has happened. It continues to happen. Deal with it or not, it is only going to continue. We all have the choice to resist or to accept.
Already self-published authors have associations, such as the Alliance for Independent Authors. There are awards specifically for self-pubbed books. There are groups and classes and all manner of things associated with self-publishing. Professional organizations have changed requirements to allow membership of self-pubbed authors, such as the Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers Association.
Success in publishing is not guaranteed with a traditional house or as a self-published author. The publishing world has changed and it will continue to change. Rather than quibble about the “good old days,” let’s work together to make today and tomorrow the best it can be for all writers, regardless of their publishing journey.
Note: I fully intend to propose a panel discussion about self-publishing for the next conference because I value BinderCon and I want to be a part of it. If you know of women or gender non-conforming self-pubbed authors who might be interested in this, let me know!
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