Follow-Up On Self-Publishing: Readers Are Not Good Gatekeepers

Yesterday, I wrote a post, blah blah blah — self-publishing is not the minor leagues. Basically: we can all do better, be your own gatekeeper, stop celebrating half-ass efforts, etc.

Shorter still: a rising tide lifts all boats.

The resultant response continued a bit across a few forums and blogs — which is good! I like this conversation, and I understand that what I said is controversial to some and I recognize that pushback is inevitable and important. Some of that conversation carried on at kboards, where — maybe unsurprisingly — it got a little hostile (anybody wonders why I find kboards not very welcoming, well, there you go).

I want to use that conversation to zero in on something, though, to maybe shine a light on maybe a core attitude that represents the culture I’m talking about.

Here’s a kboards comment from author Emily Cantore (excerpted):

In the end, more linkbait from Chuck Wendig, as per usual. His arguments aren’t supported by evidence. He builds strawmen and then argues against them (such as these supposed self-publishers who openly say they don’t care about the reader. Where are they Chuck? Are they actual authors or just halfwit idiots out there who you are picking to support your straw?).

He says this:

“Don’t celebrate mediocrity. Don’t encourage half-assing this thing for a couple of bucks.”

And my answer is: I celebrate mediocrity. I celebrate half-assing things. I celebrate someone writing a book that objectively is terrible and going through the steps to make a terrible cover and a terrible blurb and publishing it and then they keep on going and write something a little better, with a better cover and a better blurb and then they keep going some more.

I celebrate the massive tsunami of creativity that has been unleashed and unlike Chuck, I recognize there are entrants at every level. There are terrible books being put out there but those authors will iterate and get better and one day will be making a lot of money.

No one will argue that you shouldn’t try as hard as possible but it is also not true that you need a professionally designed cover and x, y, z that someone else says you need that happen to cost more money than you have.

Self-publishing tore down many many barriers (we’re down to: are literate, have a computer that can make a word document and an image and have internet access and a bank account) and here we have Chuck trying to put up more barriers. It must be professional! It must be better than traditional publishing has to offer.

No. Do your best and iterate. Go again and do your best. Soon your best will be better than their best.

Ah, but again I don’t know why I’ve spent so much effort refuting Chuck’s unsupported posts. As I’ve said before, it’s mostly low-effort link-bait and gulp, we all swallow it.

Okay, so. Casting aside for a moment I don’t think we’re going to agree on the definition of “link-bait” and “straw-man,” let’s talk about, drum roll please, the reader.

The reader is held up as a gatekeeper here, right? The idea being that all barriers have been removed from the author-audience relationship. All those kept gates of old-school publishing have been blown open and now only one portcullis remains: the one manned by the reader.

Now, let’s cue up a commercial. From darkness come the sounds of a sad Sarah McLachlan song. And soon we’re treated to a slideshow of images — images of readers staring in utter bewilderment at their WUNDERBAR KINDLEMASCHINES. Some of them are crying. Some of them look bemused, others horrified. One looks into his empty wallet and pouts. Another has broken open her e-reader and is guzzling all the e-ink just to wipe her memory of what she just read.

At the end: who will think of the poor reader?

See, I’m with Emily in that I celebrate the tide of creativity. I think this is great. The Internet has given us all a voice, and we’re all part of a beautifully discordant chorus. It’s powerful, wonderful, weird stuff where we all kind of blur together as author and audience. I love it. I roll around in it like a dog in stink, covering myself with it.

But that, to me, is writing.

That, to me, is storytelling.

And for that we have a wealth of places to put our writing. We have blogs. We have Tumblr and Twitter and FB and Circlesquare and Crowdzone and SexyFistingFinder-dot-com and whatever other social media outlets will pop up. We have places like Wattpad and Book Country. We still have the remnants of Livejournal, where you can post your fiction and then get digitally shanked by some sentient Russian spam-bot who steals your credit card and your dreams.

Point is, we can write, write, write.

We can iterate our writing. In public! We can find an audience there.

You have permission to suck.

For free.

Free, there, is key.

Because the moment you go somewhere — Amazon, Smashwords, B&N, wherever — and you start charging money, that changes the equation. By a strict reading, that’s no longer Hobbytown, Jake. You’ve entered pro grade territory. You’re asking readers to take a chance on your work for one buck, three bucks, five bucks, etc. You’re not hosting a party. You’re running a lemonade stand.

So stop pissing in the lemonade and asking people to give you cash to drink it.

When an author says — I celebrate mediocrity. I celebrate half-assing things. I celebrate someone writing a book that objectively is terrible and going through the steps to make a terrible cover and a terrible blurb and publishing it and then they keep on going and write something a little better, with a better cover and a better blurb and then they keep going some more.

That’s the culture I’m talking about.

It’s a culture that scares me a little. It’s a culture that cares more about itself and its personal freedom to publish than it does about the result of that publishing. It’s a culture of me-me-me, a culture of wagon-circling, a culture that refuses to look at itself and take responsibility for what it’s putting out. It feels exploitative. It feels careless.

And it’s is not an uncommon attitude amongst author-publishers, and what it tells me is, you care about yourself as a writer but not your readers.

It tells me that you’re comfortable asking readers to pay you so that you can get better.

It tells me you have no interest in being your own gatekeeper — and, very plainly spoken, it literally says you’re not going to give this your best effort and investment.

Readers are a resource. A living, breathing resource. They’re how authors get to do what they wanna do, and the more we pile on the audience’s shoulders, the more garbage we rain on their heads, the more turned off they’re going to be. You know how many readers will tell you, “I tried a self-published book and now I won’t give them a shot?” This is true in traditional publishing, too. A reader reads a bad book by a publisher — not bad as in, I didn’t like it, but bad as in, Doesn’t meet basic standards, they’re potentially going to stop reading books by that publisher.

Asking readers to be your gatekeepers is putting a lot of responsibility on the people who are paying you. Stop saying you’re going to let the readers figure it out when it comes to sorting through what’s crap and what’s not. You need to figure that out. That’s on you.

Eventually, readers will grow tired of having to be your gatekeepers.

And they’ll ask someone else to do it for them.

I’m not advocating new gatekeepers or new barriers.

I’m advocating you as your own gatekeeper. A critic of your own work. Be an example for others. Help lift the other boats. Help other authors be great, not mediocre.

This is true in all forms of publishing.

Said it before, will say it again:

Writing is a craft, storytelling is an art, publishing is a business.

If you’re charging money for your work, you owe it to the reader to give them your best. Not your most mediocre. Not your half-assiest. Is this really that controversial?

[UPDATE: I don’t intend to be hovering around here too much today — too much to do, I’m afraid — but I will ask that folks keep it civil in the comments, or I’ll punt you into the Spam Oubliette. While I don’t agree with Emily’s post in its entirety, her points deserve fair consideration and commentary.]

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