If my Twitter feed is any judge, a lot of authors are talking/blogging/thinking about self-publishing of late, and while I’m not a well-known, award-winning author by any stretch, I wanted to toss a few of my thoughts into the mix.
I recently tried out a local critique group (no, I won’t be naming any names) in the hopes of connecting with some other writers in my area. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, especially after reading through the pieces that were to be critiqued at that meeting, but I wanted to give them a shot, so I tried to withhold as much judgment as possible until I actually met everyone. This is your chance to call me an elitist snob who thinks he’s better than other people because he has a fancy degree in Creative Writing, whatever that’s supposed to mean. When I got to the group, I discovered that one of the authors whose work was to be critiqued that meeting (and the work with which I was least impressed) had self-published their first book after trying unsuccessfully to get it published through traditional means. (They then plugged the book in what felt like a well-rehearsed way.)
In my younger years, I had a lot of strong, shouty opinions of self-publishing (mind you, this was before ebooks were a big thing), mostly along the lines of “the gatekeepers of traditional publishing are important in maintaining a semblance of quality,” to which the usual counter-argument (because I was shouting about this in forum posts) was “you’re just mad because my stuff’s published.” Most of my objections at the time, especially with print-on-demand publishing, were to do with the idea that the money should always flow toward the author–yes, you could do the PoD thing for free, but if you wanted things like an ISBN, you had to put down some money (and my feeling is that most of the people who went this route only barely broke even, if at all).
Returning to my critique group experience, though, gives me a concrete example of my thoughts on the issue. Now, I’m not an expert on writing, nor am I above a certain level of popcorn books, but those books have, for the most part, gotten past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. Somewhere along the line, there was an editor who said, “yes, this is a book we can sell,” even if that book was a Resident Evil tie-in novel (don’t judge me). What I read through for that critique group was of course a rough draft to some extent, yet my feeling, especially after the mostly glowing praise that this writer was getting from the rest of the group, was that it was not going to get much better. A friend, or even a stranger in a critique group is usually going to give more positive feedback than negative, and the negative is often couched so heavily that it’s hard to find it at all. This is because most people want to be nice to you, at least to your face. Editors, on the other hand, are not paid to be nice–they’re paid to find good stories that will sell and make money for the author and publisher. If you already have an editor, or if you manage to get an editor on a particularly good day, and you send them something that’s good but flawed, they will send it back and tell you that you can do better. (If you send them crap to begin with, they’re probably just going to send you a form rejection.) The ability to self-publish takes away much of the impetus to make your writing better. I have a feeling that in a few years, if I returned to that critique group, that same author would be flogging the book of which I read a draft of chapter one, and I don’t expect, if I were to lay down my money for that book, that it would be much better than the draft I read.
I’m not against self-publishing (in fact I think it has an important place in the industry), but I ask that it be done well. If you self-published your book because nobody else would buy it, it’s entirely possible that you just got unlucky–selling a book or a story can be as much about right market/right time as it can be about execution–but it’s equally possible, from my standpoint as a potential consumer (and as a snark) that nobody was biting because what you wrote just wasn’t that good, and you’re just taking the easy way out rather than trying to improve your work to the point that some editor/agent will pick it up.