I Finally Found a Compelling Argument against Self-Publishing

In the tumultuous, vicious, and often petty warring between the Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing factions, I have, for the most part, managed to stay out of the back-and-forth. I self publish, so I’m part of that camp by default, but I haven’t been interested in the overall war, and the criticisms levied against self-publishing have never really stung.

But today I finally found one that stings. Today I have to say “yes, well, you have a point there.” I have found the argument I cannot refute… and I’m about to tell you what it is.

Look, don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty solidly in the self-publishing camp. I’m not a successful author by any definition you can provide,1 and I’m not one of the self-pubbers who believes that success is inevitable in the self publishing world, but I think it’s a) becoming viable, and b) worth doing. In other words, while I tend not to get too deeply involved in the “Self Publishing versus Traditional Publishing” wars that routinely make the rounds on certain blogs, I’m still nominally on the side of the self-publishers because I have a vested interest in success in that venue.2

As I said, I try not to get too deeply involved in the fighting, because I consider it irrelevant. The only thing that will resolve the issue, in my mind, is success or failure. That’s what I’m trying to figure out—the rest of it is just noise. Sometimes, however, the noise is entertaining. Occasionally some of the noise is instructive.

Jim Macdonald is a science fiction and fantasy writer who posts regularly on Making Light, a blog run by Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. The Nielsen Hayden’s both work for Tor Books, and you could, I suppose, make the argument that this puts them in “anti self-publishing” camp simply by association, but that’s bollocks. They like books, and they like what publishers can do for authors, and they’re able to describe, in an authoritative way, what publishing really can do when it’s working well. The site is also invaluable for writers because they don’t shy away from exposing fraudulent outfits—self-described “publishing houses” that purport to offer “author services” but just really take their money without providing anything in return.

Jim Macdonald is not specifically an opponent of self-publishing—he is, in fact, on record as saying it can be a wholly legitimate enterprise for an author. But he’s also on record as saying that it takes an enormous amount of work to do correctly. He’s not quite as on-record, but still heavily implies, that a lot of what is happening in the self-publishing world is not, in fact, being done correctly.

The Argument, Prepared

One of the things he does on the Making Light site is link to articles where authors are being… how shall I put this… fucking idiots.3

He has an awful lot of material to work with these days. You can find the examples in his sideblog (a linkroll on the left of the site, under his name), usually with the link title “Authors behaving badly.”4

The pattern is depressingly similar: an author who has had some self-publishing success will discover someone has written a review (sometimes on Amazon.com, sometimes on Goodreads) that is, shall we say, “less than flattering.” The author over-reacts, and attempts to do one of the following:

  • He or she creates a number of sock puppet accounts to “downrate” the review and spread accusations of bias against the reviewer.
  • He or she attempts to rally his or her “loyal fanbase” to strike against the reviewer in some harassing fashion.
  • He or she posts some incredibly bitter tirade against the reviewer in question, venting in the most asinine way possible.

When the inevitable backlash rises against this author—and it does—the author is 90% likely to accuse the reviewer (and keep in mind, often the reviewers are either people who just like reading and talking about books, or are people who are starting reviewing services online) of organizing a concerted campaign of character assassination. Which is, you’ll note, essentially what each of the bullet points above is.

Now… this in itself is a ridiculous display of behavior, and for a while I’ve considered writing about it, but today Jim linked to an article which takes the cake. It’s called The Legend of Carroll Bryant, and after reading it I was speechless.

You should read the article. But if you don’t, here’s a summary:

A reasonably successful self-published author writes in his blog that there are review sites who have been taking free copies of books in exchange for reviews, but never actually delivering on the reviews. He then posts a list of 6 blogs that he claims are the offending parties.

It is later revealed, by one of the accused, that this is, well, horseshit. What actually happened was that the author was “pursuing her” online. He was 40.5 She was 17. He went so far as to fly to Mexico to try to meet her, and after he was rebuffed he continued to stalk and harass her, including sending her messages where he urged her to kill herself, culminating in his false accusation in order to try to smear her reputation as an act of revenge.

W. T. F.

OK, first of all, on a deeply personal level, and as a 41 year old man WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING CHASING A 17 YEAR OLD GIRL TO MEXICO FOR THE LOVE OF GOD? Was there no point in that entire process where a little voice in the back of your head said that hey, maybe this is a bad idea and there could be consequences? And then after being rebuffed, did you really have nothing better to do than make her life a living hell? Like, I don’t know, maybe writing books instead?6

The Argument, Presented

But on a more general level, this story finally drove home for the one argument against self publishing that I think actually sticks. For the record, I don’t think it’s an argument that anyone has actually made yet, but I think it is 100% completely valid:

Writers are bug-fuck crazy.

Seriously. I mean, I know there are writers out there who have a handle on it, and who manage to convince the world at large that we’re not. But too many in the self-publishing world are letting this secret slip, and it’s going to ruin us as a whole. Without having our public interactions managed by a publishing company, without putting a general buffer between the writer and the rest of the world, it’s just too damn easy for the writer to show all his or her ugly bits.7

There are already repercussions to the general public learning how crazy we are. According to the linked article, book bloggers are starting to adopt a policy of not reviewing self-published work. And you know what? I really can’t blame them for that. The over-the-top insanity of the writers who go ballistic when every little thing does not go their way led them to decide it wasn’t worth the trouble. You know what? It isn’t. Yeah, this affects me, too, I can’t blame someone for deciding “I don’t need this” when they really don’t need it.

So for all my friends on the Traditional side of the Self-publishing vs. Traditional Publishing fight: the only argument you need to wield against us is that writers are too goddamn crazy to succeed without handlers.

Wherein I Throw Down the Gauntlet

Which leads me to the part of this rant where I turn my gaze on my fellow self-publishers, and deliver a message to you, and you alone.8

You don’t know me. There’s no reason you should: I’m pretty new to the game, I’m not a particularly social guy, and I haven’t figured out the trick to self-promotion that a lot of you have. But, for the record: I’m in this for the long haul.9

When I first got into this thing, I assumed that I was going to have to struggle against a number of forces: first, I was going to struggle against the simple fact that I don’t have a huge platform to make my work known. Second, I was going to have to struggle against the simple fact that there are people who believe that all self-published work is crap, and refuse to read it on that point alone. Third, I was going to have to struggle against the simple fact that as a self-publisher, I lack the resources to enhance the overall quality of the work I put out, so I was going to have to try at least twice as hard to put out a book that comes within maybe 75% of the polished quality of a traditionally published work. I accepted that and walked into this with my eyes open.

What I didn’t expect was that I was going to have to struggle against you.

Not compete. “Compete” just means that I have to get more people to buy my books than your books. That’s just commerce, and competition doesn’t have to be ugly. No, I mean I didn’t expect I’d have to think of you as a roadblock to me getting anything done at all. But it appears that I am. I am going to have to view you as an impediment to my success.

Not all of you, naturally. Not even, perhaps, most of you. I suspect a large majority of self-publishers are actually in exactly the same boat I am—looking on in horror as you suddenly realize that our greatest problem is coming from within our own ranks. But to those of you who have decided the most effective way of succeeding is to expose your insanity to the world and start flinging poo at anyone who stares at you cross-eyed, you need to know that all you’re doing is poisoning the well that every single one of us is trying to drink out of. And you’re going to have to come back to that well, eventually. You’ll suffer, just like the rest of us.

But I accept your challenge, crazy-assed full-bore psychotic break self-publishing writers. I’m not a Self-publishing hero, I’m a Self-Publishing Supervillain… and that means I take on all comers, even if they’re supposed to be on my side. So if, in order to succeed, it means I need to force people to view me differently from the rest of you mind-numblingly batshit insane writers—and I need to do it despite your constant reminders—and I need to do it without the support of any reviewers on the Internet, ever, because you’ve scared them all away because you’re a mewling pack of sociopathic crybabies—then that’s just what I’ll have to do. Someday I will show you, I’ll show you all.

But it’s a shame. We could have been friends, you and I. Together we could have conquered the world. But your actions have proven that you’re not capable of handling the power you wield. I mean, I get it—really, I do. There’s no such thing as a writer who started out with the world giving a damn about them, and we’ve all had to fall back on, well, let’s just come out and say it: to succeed at being a writer you have to develop an ego that can withstand being attacked… and, even worse, being ignored. So I know what it feels like to see someone thwarting your plans for world domination. And I know that when someone crosses you all you really want to do is lash out and immediately soothe those hurt feelings, to coddle your ego and tell it that everything is going to be OK.

But that immediate response? That’s the reaction of a common thug. A standard-issue villain at best. If you’re going full-on supervillain status you have to show that you can succeed despite opposition. The bullets have to bounce off your chest every much as they do for the spandex cretins who oppose your grand designs. You have to stick to your plan instead of getting so mired down in the sniping that your plan never goes forward.

In other words, you have to play to win, and playing to win means going looking at the bigger picture and going for the bigger prize.

To the rest of you self publishers out there: the ones who have, like me, managed to successfully hide your infirmities from the public at large, and are trying to confront this problem that seems to be sweeping through our ranks… we’re in the same boat. You should drop me a line. We could start a supervillain league, or something.

Maybe, if we pool our resources, we can all chip in to buy a white, fluffy cat.

Footnotes

  1. Other than the tepid definition of “everyone who tries is a winner!” which is so sugary-sweet it puts me in danger of contracting emotional Diabetes… which isn’t as dangerous as the actual kind of Diabetes, but hey, this footnote is rambling so let’s get back to the point.
  2. Though I do want to state, for the record, that I have no desire to see the the “Traditional Publishing” marking fall. I know some self publishers do, but I consider that a net loss for writers everywhere. I don’t want to see the old market shrink. I want to see the entire market grow.
  3. I tried to think of a way to describe this without using profanity, but this is really the only phrase that I feel fully characterizes the authors in question.
  4. To be fair, he doesn’t always focus on the authors. You’ll find occasional links to publishers behaving badly as well… but mostly? The authors.
  5. 48, actually. According to an update in the comments.
  6. And this isn’t meant to be a crack at 17 year olds. I know 17 year olds can be very intelligent and self-possessed—for example, the one in question was smart enough to keep all the evidence she needed to expose this bozo as a fraud. But my point is, and this is important, at the age of forty this guy was old enough to be her father.
  7. And once such a thing is seen, it is never unseen.

    Ever.

    Ever.

    …EVER.
  8. Which everyone else will be able to read, because THIS IS A PUBLIC WEBSITE. It’s a conceit. Just go with it.
  9. Or until my wife makes me quit. But she’s a lovely woman, so I think the long haul is probably right.

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