I Finally Found a Compelling Argument against Self-Publishing

Submitted by Christopher Wright on

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.

  • 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 “Traditional Publishing” market 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.

Comments

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My friend...

you are the best. THE BEST.

The Anono in your El.

Man, I wish it was just him.

Unfortunately he's just the latest (and, admittedly, most spectacular) in a series of very over the top expressions of idiocy. It's becoming an epidemic.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

Hey

Did you just write the phrase "I will show you, all of you" without maniacal laughter after? For shame :p

Well...

... maniacal laughter doesn't translate well to essay form. Comics, yes. Prose, sometimes. Essays, not so much...

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

Cackle-worthy and absolutely

Cackle-worthy and absolutely true. As a writer whose day job is working in online communities, I can attest that people have NO idea how to handle themselves when taking online criticism. I will self-publish with fervor and I will aid your cause, on behalf of WritersSansBatshit everywhere!

I agree

Yep. Eloquent. Pungent. Well-stated. Actually...brilliant. But I'm definitely not prejudiced. Not one little bit. Nope. Not me.

League of supervillains?

I'd put you ahead of the curve Chris. Not only do you regularly get into NaNoWriMo, you have this webcomic to establish your internet presence. Its a CV.
If a reader was scoping you out, checking reviews of your work, they could also flick through your webcomic to prove that yes, this author does have a sense of humour, can work narrative (especially necessary with clipart :) ), can read into topical events, avoids creative stagnation and has been delivering for decades.

As you say, you're in the authoring world for the long haul, and I believe that without a shred of doubt.

(Best of all you can respond to your fans without abusing them when they have typo corrections)

He claimed to be 48, actually

Carroll Bryant was listed as 48 before Jude posted her story. His blogger and Goodreads profiles supposedly were then changed to 36.

Anyway... Great article and a fun read. How much do fluffy white cats go for nowadays, anyway? Our two cats were strays that we picked up through various nefarious schemes by friends and terrible neighbors. They're awesome, but I'm just trying to say that I'm not sure what the going market rate is for sinister-looking white cats.

P.S. Thanks for the laughs!

You make a good point, but I

You make a good point, but I would add that the thing about commercial publishing is not that it's there to keep a lid on the crazy post-publication so much as that the process of submitting manuscripts to them beats your ego into shape well before you get published. A few crazies slip through the net, admittedly, but not many.

Self-publishing has the unfortunate side-effect of unleashing the slushpile crazies on the reading public alongside the relatively sane (if horribly insecure) writers. You only have to read the famous Slushkiller post on Making Light to get a glimpse of the demographic breakdown (scroll down to the numbered list):

http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004641.html

Responses!

@Adam:

I'm too grateful to my readers for finding my typos to abuse them for it. Crowd sourcing FTW!

@Rex:

Thanks for the clarification. I'll add a footnote with a correction. Glad you enjoyed the rant!

Also, a quick Google search on long-hair cats seems to put the cost at around $200... I'm going to need to sell more books.

@Anne:

I'd completely forgotten about that thread! Thanks for posting it here. But it seems the misbehaving parties of late have been writers who are actually finding success in self-publishing, so the slush wouldn't necessarily have been a factor in screening them out. Unless there's a "there's nothing specifically wrong with this story but the query letter gives me a creepy vibe" category that wasn't mentioned.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

I'll join...

Does the cat have to be white? Because I've already got a fluffy orange cat. Aside from a few minor issues, I think he'd be perfect. The issues? A tendency to bite, a bit of a temper, and a history of chewing through things. Outside of that, he's pretty decent.

Publishing company authors can be crazy too

Of course if you had a publishing contract you could be lumped with Ray Bradbury. I think it has less to do with which group is more crazy, and which is larger (and so has a larger absolute number of crazies).

Re: You make a good point,

That is a telling argument too.... Any bureaucracy will tend to flatten the extremes.

Where are the editors?

Or is a lack of editors considered a bonus of self-publishing. I guess the authors who are sensitive aren't going to respond well to edits or rejections. My favorite example of a need for editors is Stephen King's The Stand; the unedited version is just too damn long.

Well it depends.

Obviously one of the big advantages of self publishing is you don't have to deal with your story idea being rejected. So in that respect, editors aren't really in the picture. As to copy editors and story editors, in the self-pub world you have to pay for them. So it becomes an issue of "can I budget for this?"

I can't at present, but I'd like to be able to.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

Well said...

...but just because we're predominantly bug-fuck crazy doesn't mean you can avoid publishing TPB's chapter 23 any longer. *twitch*

Ha!

... fair enough.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

manical written laughter

... somehow "I will show you, all of you - bwah ha ha!" just doesn't read well. It works in a word balloon, or in verbal speech, but not so well in print.

The original version is still available...

Just think of the Complete and Uncut Stand as an indulgent present for us slobbering SK fanboys. And then go watch Haven on Syfy :)

That's what footnotes are for

And you know that. You use them frequently for that purpose.

(This is in re: maniacal laughter.)

Fair enough!

I hadn't thought to put it in a footnote. That would have been pretty funny.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

"I lack the resources to

"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 go to bookstores and browse potential purchases the same way I do online - read the first chapter (or 3 if they are short) and see it if grabs my attention. In my experience, the crop of dead-tree editions does not grab my attention more often than the rearranging-electrons editions*. What I don't find in dead-tree editions as often are typos and blatant grammatical errors, so if that's what you mean by quality then OK, but my definition of quality is what makes me look up hours later and go "Oh shit, where did my time go?"

And as far as bat-shit crazy, I have a hypothesis: A lot of times knowing we are interacting with other people tempers our reactions. So I am guessing that those authors who take the time/effort to put their stuff online with an attached message board would be less showy about it than others (not necessarily less crazy, just less likely to show it). Just a guess - your opinion?

*When asked by people I think can take a joke what I do for a living, it is "rearranging electrons". If I know they have a physics background I tend to say "reorganizing magnetic domains". Basically this means I sit at a computer all day and my office has a "paper only when absolutely necessary" ethic.