Updated, 2014: I'm putting this on the front page for a while because the Big Fight has returned. Comments for this post were turned off long, long ago to stop blogspam, but if you want to yell at me feel free to do so in the forums.
I’m not here to pick a fight, but it seems like a lot of self-publishers are.
Tactically, it makes sense. If you cast yourself in the role of the plucky underdog struggling against the oppressive overlords, well, that’s a good story. People love that kind of narrative, and if people like your narrative, they’ll look at you more closely. When you’re starting out, alone, unknown, ignored by humanity at large, anything you can possibly think of that will get the attention of anyone around you seems like a brilliant idea worth pursuing.
So taking part of a struggle, the new movement versus the old world order, huddling masses rising up against The Man… yeah, that has a poetry and sheen that will appeal to anyone entering into a new, scary chapter in life.
And you don’t have to look too far to find some evidence supporting your narrative. There are still plenty of pro authors who think self publishing won’t work. There are plenty of people who read fiction that still think self publishing is the final refuge of the no-talent hacks who would never get signed anyway. And there are legions of CRITICS who won’t even give you a second glance. Yes, self-publishing, specifically electronic self-publishing, is still new—I would go so far as to say that it’s in the dangerous phase of its life where it’s still so new that no-one has quite figured out how it’s ultimately going to work, but it’s been around long enough that a lot of people assume it’s established itself.1
It’s natural for new self-publishing authors to cast themselves in the role of the lone hero struggling against impossible odds—and to be honest, I’m sympathetic to that part of the narrative because it’s essentially true. The next part, though, where they gleefully assign the Traditional Publishing Industry (“TradPub”) the role of villain… well, I understand the temptation, but I’m not interested.
I’m not here to pick a fight.
Others are: some people are spoiling for a fight with “TradPub.” I suspect, to a certain degree, there’s a bit of mercenary calculation involved: first, telling people you’re going up against The Man is good publicity. Second, if “TradPub” were to collapse under its own weight, there seems to be a perception that it would crack the field wide open, and we could all feast on the spoils that are suddenly unguarded.
I understand the “good publicity” part. Trash-talking a competitor is a time honored tradition in the arts. You should have seen Webcomics in the early 2000’s! Time was, the best way for a web cartoonist to get new traffic was to savage another webcomic—people would flock to your site just to see the back and forth, the escalations, and even, at times, to merrily join in. Whether or not the “drama” actually resulted in a permanent increase in traffic, I can’t say, but a lot of people cheerfully adopted it as a marketing tactic.
The “if they fall then we get ours” part seems remarkably shortsighted to me. When institutions fall, it doesn’t immediately translate into advantages for everyone else. It usually translates into chaos, and it takes a while for the chaos to settle down before anything useful can happen. Especially when the alternative publishing landscape is still developing, as e-publishing currently is. No, if the big six were to disappear tomorrow, I’m pretty sure what would be left is a Mad-Max style road-warrior-esque landscape of authors roving the digital highways desperately trying to find a way to eke out a meager existence in an infrastructure that is no longer unified enough to bring readers together.
But what I find truly strange is the concept that “TradPub” is an evil, oppressive entity to begin with. The language self publishers adopt is taken from self-published musicians, who have quite a bit more material to work with when they discuss the excesses of their traditional publishing industry. The music industry has made stealing from its musicians an art form which is dwarfed only by the movie industry’s ability to cook the books of its movies to show that wildly successful films operate at a loss in order to get out of paying the guy they licensed the rights from.2
But in the world of books? I have no hard data, but the book publishing industry is not a high-margin business like movies and music, and most of the people who go into publishing do so because they really like reading books. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a business—but it’s a business that is run by the fans.
Like all fans, their tastes won’t be the same as mine. Like all fans, they will from time to time make bad choices.3 And because these publishing houses are finite, their ability to publish titles are also finite, which works against the goals of just about every self-publisher out there. And, at the end of the day, these fans are running a business, which will lead to making decisions that can be unfair to authors—dropped titles, discontinued contracts, etc.
Throw into the mix the occasional unscrupulous, dishonest non-fan who is out to make a quick buck, and then surround them by predators who live to feed off the dreams and naïve enthusiasm of authors who haven’t learned to detect a scam,4 and you will get an environment that has its share of hostility and predatory behavior. And it might be tempting to paint them all with the same brush, since when you’re at the bottom of the food chain the only meaningful difference is that the predators say “yes” but charge you money, and the legit ones usually tell you “no” or don’t reply at all.
So I understand that there is a short-term, immediate advantage to picking a fight with big publishers, whether the big publishers care or not. It gives you something to focus on, it gives you a platform to work from, it gives you a narrative to use when you start reaching out to the great, teeming masses of people who don’t know you from Adam—“Unlike Adam, I’m trying to fight against the oppressive actions of the evil Publishing Industry which seeks to silence my voice in favor of yet another Dan Brown book about how the Evil Catholics are suppressing the fact that Jesus had a lot of sex and also they’re crazy!”
But I’m not here to pick a fight.
Maybe I’ll want to pick a fight next year, or the year after that. Maybe, at some point, I’ll be so beaten down and embittered by my experiences that I’ll wallow in self-pity and angrily post a screed about the Man Beating Me Down, Publishing Style. But from where I sit, I actually see a publishing industry that spends a lot of time trying to help new authors get published. Editors and agents post on blogs about the best way to write query letters, what is considered appropriate, what is considered rude… successful authors actually give advice—apparently useful advice, instead of “advice intended to get a potential competitor out of the way.” Suggestions on what a first novel should look like, suggestions on what publishing houses are looking for at any given time… there is a lot of outreach going on. The only suppression I see is a simple illustration of the laws of physics: there are only so many people in the publishing houses, and the door is only so wide, and only so many people can squeeze through at one time.
They aren’t enemies. They don’t hate you. Well, some of them might. Some of them might legitimately look down their nose at you because you, like me, are part of the great unwashed tide of self-pubbers crowding the Internet. Some might fear you, some might resent your “impudence.” A number will legitimately point at piles of poorly-edited crap sitting on our side of the fence and use that as a reason to shy away from us like the plague. But just as we point out that the presence of crap doesn’t justify branding an entire group of authors as producers of nothing but crap, it’s stupid to point to an asshole and paint an entire industry as consisting of nothing but self-serving, tyrannical assholes.
So this is my point: I’m not here to pick a fight. I follow too many professional authors I admire, and I’ve run across too many fascinating blog posts, articles, and discussions held by professionals who work in the publishing industry to buy the whole “it’s a conspiracy against independents” game. I want the big six5 to keep succeeding, to keep publishing great books, and to keep giving great authors a full-time gig.
They aren’t my target. I’m not trying to win at their expense. I have no desire to dance on their graves. What I want to do is TO SHOW THEM, TO SHOW THEM ALL: and that’s eminently more satisfying when they’re still around to see it.
I’m a Self-Publishing Supervillain… like all supervillains, I grow tired of working within the expectations and norms of the established order. But I’m not the kind of supervillain who goes into town and picks a fight with the first hero he sees, just to prove his worth. Those guys? Idiots. I want to be the Moriarity of self-publishing… I will build my own empire, with my own network of operatives, all existing in a world connected to, but apart from, the everyday world. And I’ll have my own white cat, and my own tall, leather-backed chair, and maybe some fish frickin’ laser beams… okay, I see I’m drifting here. My point is, the lure of self publishing is to do it yourself.
Which, to be honest, is really, ridiculously fun.6 Which is why I’ve been publishing a webcomic for 16 years. And why I recorded music on my own before that. And not only is it fun, but now, thanks to technology, there’s a chance—just a chance, mind you, but it’s greater than it ever was—that you just might actually profit from doing it.
So, let me re-iterate: I think self publishing is grand and I’ll cheerfully disagree with any snarky comments made by someone who is against it as a matter of principle, but if you’re looking to start a war, don’t expect me to sign on.
I’m not here to pick a fight. I’m here to take over the world.
- 1. Electronic Self-publishing is, in fact, at the point where it is still an impossibly steep, treacherous canyon full of sharp, pointy rocks at the bottom, with no clear trail to the top, only there are now a lot of guys hanging around the base trying to sell you maps, and all the maps consist of an “x” on one end with an arrow pointing at it saying “you are here,” an “x” on the other end with an arrow pointing at it saying “you want to go here,” and in the middle are the words “climb.” The maps cost about $20. A lot of people buy them.
- 2. Repeat after me: “I want a gross percentage of the profits. Net is unacceptable. Gross, not net. Gross, not net.”
- 3. You liked the final episode of Lost? Really?
- 4. … yet.
- 5. UPDATED FOR 2014: Now the Big Five. TIME MARCHES ON.
- 6. Granted, making bank might also be really, ridiculously fun. I can’t say. I have no intimate knowledge of profit.