Self-Publishing And The Burden Of Proof

“Whoever said that life is fair? Where is that written?”

— Grandpa, The Princess Bride

Last week I wrote a probably-too-cranky post about the bad apples bobbing around the self-publishing bucket, and that post got a little attention as it pinballed around Ye Olde Webnet, and as such, it received a number of interesting responses here and there and everywhere.

I thought it best to continue this discussion and, this time, tackle it with a little less, erm, invective on my part. Because I think we’re scratching at some very important topics here for DIY publishers.

The first and most troubling response is one I’ll get out of the way now: some folks seemed to believe I was giving all self-publishers the middle finger. Unless you’re looking to cherry-pick a bouquet of out-of-context quotes, you won’t find much evidence in that post of me smearing self-publishers. I’ve read many excellent books that exist only because the authors went that direction. I think self-publishing is part of what makes this time the best time ever to be a writer and a storyteller. I am, in fact, a self-publisher myself (though I favor a diverse “hybrid” approach). And in fact knowing self-publishers and being one myself is what makes me rail against the most poisoning voices. They may do themselves a service by getting attention, but they surely don’t do any other self-publishers a favor — and that leads to the second response.

The other response has been, “Well, this is all inside baseball and it doesn’t affect readers and so who cares what the crazies say or do.” And I don’t agree with that sentiment one bit. Let’s talk about why.

Traditional publishing is, for better or for worse, the current status quo. A book goes through the onerous task of reaching an audience — agent to editor to publication to bookshelves — and that’s the way it’s been for decades. Self-publishing has always existed, sure, but over the last many years it has been a fringe act. This is no longer true, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that this current wave of self-publishing possibility is very new. It is not the status quo.

Which means the current “system” is geared toward traditional. What do I mean by that? I mean: Reviews. Interviews. Awards. Rights. They all lean toward traditional and in many cases exclude indie efforts entirely. Now, the easy, knee-jerk response is, “Fuck them! They don’t want me? I don’t want them.” Except, you do want them. Some self-publishers do very well but plenty more find themselves struggling — and, in many cases, struggling with a beautiful, brilliant novel. Those struggling would likely find themselves reaching a broader, deeper audience with — repeat after me — reviews, interviews, awards, and rights. With those you would in fact reach more readers. (And remember, it’s readers we’re talking about here.)

Next comes the question: “Why are self-publishers excluded?”

Well, the simplest answer is, again, the “indie” community does not represent the status quo, and those outside the status quo are the ones with the regrettable and unfortunate (and, yes, unfair) burden of proving their mettle. The champion in the arena gets to strut around like the cock of the walk. The underdog has to prove he can cleave the champion’s skull in twain.

But, the more realistic — and more troubling — answer is that self-publishing has a number of standard-bearers who are not, frankly, all that healthy for the overall community (such as it is). And so we return to the “fevered egos” post in question, which calls out bad apples who do bad-apple-things (can’t write, use sales numbers as a bludgeon, publish a shit-ton of crappy books, act like jerkoffs, and so on and so forth).

They act like that, they hurt me, they hurt you, they hurt self-publishers. Because they get attention — the wrong kind of attention. In self-publishing, there most certainly is such a thing as bad publicity. A meltdown on a popular book review blog has… what effect, exactly? Do you think it:

a) Endears the book review blog to self-published authors?

or

b) Makes them more standoffish to self-published authors?

I’m going to go with “b.”

Again your response may be, “Blah blah blah, screw them.”

No, not screw them. They do this of their own free will. They don’t get paid. They’re out there spending time and effort (and sometimes money) to put their love of books on the line. They should have to put up with this… why, exactly? (I can speak to this a little myself. I get a lot of email from self-published authors and while many are very nice, I receive a not insignificant number who are pushy and assumptive and often at the same time offering content that is far below the bare minimum level of quality offered by traditional publishing. I have not gotten one such email from a traditional author.)

Blogs like these can help you reach readers.

Ah! Yes. Readers. Remember them?

See, I don’t think readers are unaware of all this. We can hope it’s all inside baseball as much as we like, but when an indie author melts down on a book review blog, you need to understand that’s a blog for readers, not for publishing insiders. It’s not a blog for agents to snicker at one another about the rube who just covered himself in medical waste and tinfoil while ranting about the “conspiracy against his literary genius.” Readers read those blogs. I know they do. You know how many readers found Blackbirds that way?

Plenty. And I’m thankful for that fact.

Do we think readers aren’t on social media?

Twitter? Facebook? Your blog? My blog?

Are we willing to bet that readers aren’t savvy? Are we willing to dismiss them as a crowd of blissfully-ignorant yokels? Are we comfortable suggesting that readers never have blogs of their own? Or Twitter accounts? Or Facebook pages? If even 10% of readers are this savvy, are we willing to lose them?

Whether we’re talking meltdowns on blogs or ugly books with bad editing, readers know. Readers see. Readers are a lot fucking smarter than you realize. They may not be privy to every little bump of turbulence that authors and publishers experience so keenly, but that doesn’t mean they’re a bunch of hee-haw ignoramuses, either. And so we return to what I believe is the truth at hand: the burden of proof lies in the hands of self-publishers. And every poison pill and bad apple who has a public shit-fit or puts his worst foot forward might as well be urinating in the public drinking water.

They give all self-publishers a bad name.

They increase the burden; they do not lessen it.

That burden of proof is on the indies. That’s what it takes to disrupt the status quo.

Is that particularly fair? No.

But, as Grandpa notes above, whoever said life was fair?

* * *

Now, to finish up here: a call to action. What to do, then, about all this? The easy answer would be to ignore it — ignore the crazy people and they’ll go away. (One only hopes that everybody else will ignore it, too.) Or, maybe you go the other way. Maybe you talk about it. Just lending your voice to the conversation can help it go further — that doesn’t mean shouting it down, necessarily, or being quite as, erm, vociferous as I am here, but I feel this is a worthy conversation to have.

Beyond that? Just don’t be that guy. Don’t be the crazy person. Write well. Be cool. Put yourself out there. Work for the good of indie authors and not against it. Lead by example! “Independent” authors and publishers may be separate from one another, but that doesn’t mean they don’t affect one another.

The more good apples we have, the harder it is to see the bad ones.