Self-Publishing Is Not The Minor Leagues

(This plays a little with the baseball metaphors dropped by Scalzi last week.)

Let’s all agree that self-publishing is a viable path.

It’s a real choice for authors.

You can, if that’s the type of person you are, be the publisher of your own work.

You are author-publisher. Behold your mighty yawp! Freeze-frame heel-kick high-five!

It is, overall, an equal choice to traditional publishing.

Let’s go ahead and just agree that. Even if you don’t agree — for now, nod and smile.

That means it’s time to stop treating self-publishing like it’s the fucking minor leagues.

See, here’s the thing. Though acting as author-publisher is a viable choice, it’s one that retains a stigma — lessened, these days, but still a stigma carried by other writers, by those in publishing, by bloggers, and in some cases by readers. The air, suffused with an eggy stink.

You want to get rid of the stigma once and for all? Clear the room of any bad smell?

Good.

Then it’s time to take a long look at the culture surrounding self-publishing. We’ve moved past the time where we need to champion the cause, okay? We’ve seen enough success in that space and have plenty of positive examples it’s time to stop acting as cheerleaders.

And it’s time to start acting as critics.

The attitude that pervades self-publishing is that it’s a good place to test your craft, to hone your work. We are reminded constantly that the cream floats to the top, that all the crappy self-publishing efforts have no effect on anything or anybody ever despite evidence to the contrary. The culture forgives and sometimes congratulates even the most meager of efforts because of how courageous someone is to take the plunge to publish their own work. The culture says, “Just click publish!” The culture criticizes the faults of traditional-publishing, but excuses (or celebrates) its own. And yet, sometime in the same breath, self-publishing gets painted as a path to traditional publishing, not as a path separate and scenic all its own.

The culture is full of contradictions.

“Traditional publishing screws you and you won’t get paid anything!” And then: “It’s okay to make $100 off your self-publishing because you just bought yourself dinner, now you’re living the high-life.” Well, which is it?

“Traditional publishing is just corporate control! Down with the Big Six! Er, Big Five! Big Four? Whatever!” But then: “Let’s hug and squeeze Amazon, a giant monolithic corporate entity kaiju who has changed the rules on us so many times our heads are whipping around wildly upon our necks! Amazon is the Big One! Yay lack of competition! Huzzah, all our eggs in a single basket! Woooooo corporations!” Wait, do we like corporate control or not?

“The readers are our gatekeepers, that’s who we care about.” Except: “Publish your first effort — it’s okay that it has errors, as long as people buy it! Who cares about readers as long as I’m satisfying myself?” Do we like readers, or do we wanna punish them with sub-par efforts?

“Self-publishing is a revolution! Traditional publishing is risk averse!” And then: you publish the safest, softest low-ball efforts that suggests it’s not a revolution but, rather, more of the same.

“Traditional publishing does it wrong!” And then: you do it worse. What the crap, people?

Get your head straight. Point north. Care about this thing you’re doing. You don’t want to be inferior to the books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. This isn’t a garage sale. You want to be better than the books on the shelves at bookstores. You say those books have errors? Ugly cover or bad books or lack of risk? So go and do different! Do better, not worse.

Let me get ahead of this — someone somewhere, here in the comments or on another site, is going to accuse me of bashing self-publishing and its authors.

I am not.

Self-publishing is an amazing option. You can now write a novel however it is that the novel demands to be written. That book that lives in your heart? You can now crack open your breastbone, rip the book out and hold the throbbing crimson creature in front of readers and say, “This is the story I wanted to tell and nobody was able to stop me.” You can not only write it your way, but edit it, design it, market it — again, all your way. Nobody but readers can say “boo” about it. You’ll have no publisher telling you the material is too risky. You’ll have no publisher trying to put a cover on your book that you don’t feel represents the story you told. You won’t feel like the publisher has forgotten the book when it comes time to market it. If anybody fucks it up, it’s you.

Self-publishing is also great for traditionally-published authors. Acting as your own author-publisher is a way to put out material staggered with your other releases. It’s also great to have as an option for if the time comes when publishers don’t want your other work. They start giving you the we love it but can’t sell it story, all you have to say is, “Well, if you won’t publish it, I will.”

I will continue to exercise my own self-publishing options this year with a few releases.

I don’t just like the option. I fucking love the option. It has changed the game for authors. Anytime creative people have a new door carved into the giant wall in front of us — the wall separating our work from our audience — I’m going to cheer and gibber and wail and probably swallow a half-dozen gin-drinks and maybe rub an aromatic lotion into my beard and then summon dark entities from beyond and couple with them.

But that love can still come with a criticism of the culture. Just as my love of traditional publishing can be tempered by its own criticism, too.

In fact: I criticize because I care. Because I want to see the option done right. If I didn’t give a shit, I’d just point and laugh from the sidelines and snarkily snark with other smug, self-superior traditionally-published authors. (And just as that superiority isn’t attractive from them, it’s not attractive from the side of author-publishers, either, by the way.) The authors who often get held up as paragons of the form? They’re doing it right. They’re treating it like it’s a professional endeavor, not some also-ran half-ass effort. They’re acting like it’s the real deal — a trip to the Majors, not time spent in some Dirt League.

Self-publishing isn’t a lifestyle choice.

It isn’t a hobby.

It’s not a panacea. It’s not pox on your home.

It is neither revolution nor religion.

(Oh, and it damn sure isn’t a place to improve your craft. That’s called “writing.” Writing is how you improve your craft — by doing a whole lot of it, by reading, by having your work read by friends and family and by other writers and by editors. Publishing is not where you improve your craft. You don’t learn to pilot an airplane by taking a job with U.S. Airways. A job as an executive chef is not analogous to a cooking class. You wouldn’t expect that of other careers, so why are we okay with it when it comes to author-publishers?)

Self-publishing is a financial and creative decision.

Self-publishing has no gatekeepers. That is a feature, not a bug.

So you’re going to have to be your own gatekeepers.

You are your own quality control. You are your own best critic.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again: it’s time to put down the Pom-Poms and time to pick up a magnifying glass — or, for some, a mirror. Don’t celebrate mediocrity. Don’t encourage half-assing this thing for a couple of bucks. This is scrutiny time. This is time to not to say, “Here, you’re doing this wrong,” but “Here, let me help you do this better.” This is time for conversation and constructive critique, not empty applause and pedestal-building.

The culture will need to start asking tougher questions. If we’re going to admit that self-publishing is an equal choice, then it’s time to step up and act like it. It’s time to stop acting like the little brother trailing behind big sister. Time to be practical. And professional.

Defeat naysayers with quality and effort and awesomeness so blinding they cannot see past you.

To reiterate:

Fewer cheerleaders. More critics.

Self-publishing isn’t the minor leagues.

You’re in the majors, now. Which means:

It’s not time get hit with a pitch and expect a high-five for it just because you stepped to the plate.

It’s time to play hard or get off the field.