The Publishing Cart Before The Storytelling Horse

I got a little rant stuck between my teeth. It’s like a caraway seed, or a beefy tendon, or a .22 shell casing (hey, fuck you, a boy’s gotta get his vitamins and minerals somehow).

Self-publishers, I’m talking to you.

And I’m talking to the pundits, too. In fact, I’m talking more to the pundits than to those actually walking the self-publishing path. Not everybody. Just a handful.

If you get a little froth on your screen, here — *hands you a squeegee* — just wipe it away.

Here, then, is the core of my message to you:

It is time to upgrade the discussion.

Let’s talk about what that means.

First, it means: we get it. Self-publishing is the path you’ve chosen and further, is a path you believe is lined with chocolate flowers and hoverboards and bags of money and the mealy bones of traditionally-published authors. Self-publishing is a proven commodity. You can stop selling the world on its power. This isn’t Amway. You don’t get a stipend every time another author decides to self-publish. You’re not squatting atop the pinnacle of a pyramid scheme. (And if you are, you should climb down. One word: hemmorhoids.)

Instead of trying to convince people to self-publish, it may in fact be time to help people self-publish well. While self-publishing may by this point be a proven path it doesn’t remain a guaranteed path. In fact it’s no such thing: I know several self-published authors out in the world with great books, kick-ass covers, and they are certainly not selling to their potential. In fact, if they continue to sell as they appear to sell then I would suggest these books would have done much better had they been published — gasp — traditionally. Succeeding in an increasingly glutted space is no easy trick. Every bubble pops. Every gold rush either reveals a limited supply or instead ends up devaluing the gold one finds there. The reality is that it’s going to become harder — note that I didn’t say impossible — to succeed in that space and so it behooves the Wise Pundits With Their Long Beards to acknowledge the realities and help authors do well.

It may then be a good time to acknowledge some of the challenges of self-publishing rather than ignoring them. Filter, for instance? Dogshit. Total dogshit. Discovering new self-published authors is left almost completely to word of mouth or to the marketing efforts of one author’s voice. The discovery of just browsing a bookstore and finding great new stuff to read is gone. Amazon offers little in recompense: browsing there is like trying to find a diamond in a dump truck full of cubic zirconiums. Marketing as a self-published author is a whole other problem: it’s tricky as hell. Half the self-publishers out there still manage to sound like Snake Oil Salesman — myself included — and so why not try to discuss the best practices? Why not talk about the way forward?

Though, actually, let’s take a step backward. Here’s another problem: maybe we should stop putting the publishing cart before the storytelling horse. In self-publishing, I see so much that focuses on sales numbers and money earned, but I see alarmingly little that devotes itself toward telling good stories. After all, that’s the point, right? Selling is, or should be, secondary. The quality of one’s writing and the power of one’s storytelling is key. It’s primary. It’s why we do this thing that we do. Any time you hear about the major self-publishers, it’s always about the sales, the percentage, the money earned. What’s rare is a comment about how good the books are. When the narrative was all about Amanda Hocking, everybody was buzzing about her numbers, but nobody I know was buzzing about how good those books were. Focus less on the delivery of the stories and more about the quality of what’s being delivered.

It’s worth too to try to foster a revolution not merely in format or distribution but also in what’s being distributed. If DIY publishing is really going to assert itself, it has to stop mimicking other publishing. Exhort authors to take risks in format and in genre. This is the time to do some really new stuff — go big, get nuts, let what’s going on inside the story be as iconoclastic and rebellious as the means by which you produced that story.

Really, though, the biggest thing that needs an upgrade is the attitude.

Traditionally-published authors are not slave labor. They’re not idiots or fools. They’ve not made “the wrong choice.” You went one way. They went another. Sometimes your paths converge; other times, they do not.

Yes, yes, I get it. Big Publishing has, in some instances, abused authors who have come into their stable. This is no secret and it is inexcusable. It’s also not a universal phenomenon. And it’s a phenomenon that a good agent — not a shitty agent, not an agent who is more in love with publishing than with authors — can help to protect against.

You do realize that some trad-pub authors are actually… happy, right? Note I didn’t say “happy in the shackles of corporate slavery,” I mean, they’re actually pleased with the way they’ve been treated. They like their agents, they like their editors, and they’re actually earning out. Hell, it’s why you see some self-published authors take traditional contracts when offered — it’s because the terms were right.

Publishing traditionally remains a choice, but many want to paint a false dichotomy as if any who travel that path are deluded slaves or desperate authors — as if self-publishing is an immediate and guaranteed path to success. It’s not. Neither is traditional publishing. You pick your choice, you take your shot, and that’s that.

Not every author is primed to go all DIY on their own asses. Many paint that self-pub choice as an easy one — the obvious choice, the “duh” choice, like you’re some kind of brain-damaged window-licker if you didn’t make it — but the reality is, publishing your own work is a hard row to hoe. It’s more work than many authors want to accept, and I don’t blame them. Covers and formatting and independent editors and marketing and hey-if-you-don’t-mind-I’m-going-to-just-suck-on-this-shotgun-lollipop-for-a-while-BOOM.

Nobody should be punished for choosing either path as long as they walk the path wisely.

Self-published authors don’t like to be dissed by the traditionally-published and the reverse remains true. Nobody’s got a lock on the truth. Nobody’s got their thumb on the pulse of the future (despite how much they love to trumpet their own oracular insight). Yes, things are changing. But the sky isn’t falling — the ground is merely shifting beneath our feet.

Same way it shifted — and continues to shift — in other creative endeavors.

The rhetoric often assumes that we’re all on our own side of the fence, but here’s a newsflash for you: there’s no goddamn fence. You’re a storyteller. I’m a storyteller. Good books are good books no matter how they got to market. You make your choice, so why not let others do the same? Further: don’t be a sanctimonious dick about it. Upgrade your attitude. Elevate the discussion. You should be proud of your own accomplishments and excited that the path you picked was the right path. Go any further than that and you do little to endear anybody toward your imaginary bullshit either/or dichotomy.

We should all be helping one another tell great stories.

Let’s talk to one another not as publishers, but as writers and storytellers.

All of us, wondrously pantsless. And probably drunk.

Amen.

*drops mic off stage, disappears in a cloud of incredulity and oompah music*

134 comments

  • Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes. I am one of those traditional authors of which you speak. I cannot bear the notion of marketing, layouts, covers–and I’m an artist! I can do my own covers if I have to!–and all that bullshit. I would infinitely rather have somebody else do it. (Marketing in particular…dear god, no.) I love my agent, I love my editor, I…am reasonably fond of my art director…I feel a warm glow of affection for the nice lady over in the foreign rights department who sends me the Portuguese copies of the book.

    If you’re gonna tell me that this makes me a corporate slave and gleefully predict the imminent demise of trad publishing and the unemployment of the nice people who send me checks full of real money and the aforementioned Portuguese copies, you damn well better have written a book that would make statues weep engraving acid tears. And even then you still shouldn’t be a dick about it.

  • Excellent post! I love your voice. My favorite was when you said, “The rhetoric often assumes that we’re all on our own side of the fence, but here’s a newsflash for you: there’s no goddamn fence.”

  • I wanted to get up and cheer when I read this post. Thank you for writing it, Chuck. Too much on either side, I get this “holier than thou” vibe that is as hard to stomach as a Rebecca Black song (with or without auto-tune).

    Like you said, we’re storytellers. The point is to get our stories out there. I’m making my own luck with self-publishing while waiting for someone in the legacy world to give me a chance. That’s all. I’ve done extremely well with my free titles on Amazon, and it’s bumping up my other sales. I haven’t made a lot of money yet, and I would absolutely love it if I had more exposure, my own editor and cover artist and people who can help me figure out a marketing plan — all those things a traditional publisher can offer — but I can’t help but be utterly thrilled that people are reading my work right now, that my stories are on THOUSANDS of Kindles right now. It doesn’t even bother me if some of them don’t like it, because OMG THEY’RE READING MY WORK! Someone’s giving me a chance! From a pure storyteller standpoint, there is no better feeling. The money… it will come. Whether it’s from a publisher or directly from the reader, it doesn’t matter. I’m getting there, one tiny step at a time.

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