Is self-publishing really an insult to the written word?
Who is Laurie Gough?
A random post on my Facebook feed caught my eye today. A fellow author posted about an op-ed piece in The Huffington Post by someone called Laurie Gough. I should say up front that I have no idea who Laurie Gough is but I’m sure she’s quite an accomplished author – at least, I’m going to make that assumption up front. Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt. I don’t tend to read The Huffington Post as a general rule either but I’ve come to understand it to be a reasonably respected outlet for news and articles so I happened to follow the link to read through the post. Laurie Gough’s onslaught to my sensibilities in her article, entitled ‘Self-Publishing: An Insult To The Written Word’ was severe enough to warrant me penning this response. In short, I couldn’t just ‘let this one go’.
As the title alludes, Laurie essentially makes a very simple claim: If you are self-published, your work isn’t worth being published. OK, deep breath in…and out. As a member of an already very large and rapidly expanding self-publishing fraternity, I’d have to say that Laurie is either misinformed or perhaps just playing the click-bait game. She could be trying to create a discussion by stating things that are untrue, unfounded or in some other way is just trying to cause a response.
Helpfully, Laurie does provide some context to support her assertion. The traditional side of the publishing scene requires that your work must first pass muster through a number of gatekeepers. These are the agents, editors, publishing houses, etc., through which your work must successfully pass before it reaches the bookshelf. This is true enough and you can pretty much bypass all of this by pressing the self-publish button yourself. Do that and out pops a book and you’re good to go. I suspect that what Laurie really wants to say is that this mechanism of bypassing the gatekeepers can result in poor quality work finding its way onto the shelves. This is also true enough but does that mean that we should all be tarred with the same brush? Leaving aside the fact this is a massive oversimplification to begin with, it’s like saying a cow is an animal and so all animals are cows. It doesn’t hold water. I could just as easily take an argument from the other side of the coin. How many shoddy books have been published through traditional means simply because of ‘who you know’ instead of ‘what you know?’ Does that mean all traditionally published books are therefore shoddy? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. But Laurie would have us all believe the same argument is true – just from the other side.
Self-publishing is a valid choice
There are, of course, a plethora of top quality books that are self-published. Laurie would have us believe that being self-published is somehow the result of not getting through the trad vetting process. Perhaps it is for some but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Going down the self-published route is a simple choice more and more authors are making nowadays. It isn’t a foregone conclusion that ever author ‘wants’ to be traditionally published. Many authors are not content to give up their rights or are unwilling to tie themselves in restrictive knots by jumping through a potential cesspit of legal clauses that bind them in ways they hadn’t yet considered. If an author is willing to put in the work needed and to promote themselves and their platform, then why not? At least they’ll make some actual money from the sale of each book by doing so.
How it works
Let’s take a cursory look at what’s needed to get through the gatekeepers. We’ll imagine you’ve written a beautiful book and you’ve decide you want to be traditionally published. You try to contact a publishing house but quickly find out they will only talk to agents. So, you try contacting an agent. A good agent might receive a hundred manuscripts a week. There’s no possible way they can review a hundred manuscripts a week so right at the outset the process involves pot luck – and we’ve barely gotten started. Having a really good manuscript isn’t necessarily going to get you through the door. Assuming you do get through the door, it could be years before your manuscript sees the light of day. You’ll immediately lose control of things like the book cover, the editing process and various other aspects of being an author. If you’re persistent, lady luck was on your side, and you don’t mind giving up control, this could very well be the way to go and the very best of luck to you. For many others, however, these are obstacles we simply don’t want to deal with and the self-publishing option is so readily available.
If you’ve published a book, regardless of how that came about, chances are that people are going to read it and review it. Those reviews are available for all to see and, notwithstanding the fact that the system can be gamed at least to a degree (although this applies equally to trad and indie titles), those reviews form part of the broader vetting process that Laurie hasn’t taken into account.
It stands to reason that there are books out there that have been self-published that are shoddy. That’s true of some trad books as well. I believe I understand what Laurie was trying to say, and perhaps what she should have said, is that there’s little to stop bad books from making it onto the bookshelves. Self-publishing is so readily available that anyone can access it, therefore you don’t have to be a good author to publish a book. That’s a more balanced proclamation that I would find hard to argue with. To make the blanket statement that all self-published authors are without talent, however, is nothing short of ridiculous nonsense.