I really like author and blogger Noah Murphy. I’d like to think we’ve had a good relationship on Twitter. I’m excited about his upcoming book, Ethereal Girls. But I’m growing pretty tired of self-published and indie authors whining about being repressed and “kept down” by the traditional book publishing industry when that is clearly not the whole story.
In his article, Publisher’s Weekly Review Double Standard, Murphy accuses book periodical Publisher’s Weekly of extorting self-published authors. As you probably already know, Publisher’s Weekly reviews traditionally-published books for their book review section. But they also have PW Select, which reviews self-published and indie-published books. The catch? The regular PW only takes submissions for books published by a publishing house, and it’s free to submit; however, PW Select charges a fee for your submission.
To Publisher’s Weekly, we’re not real authors – worthy of consideration for free – because we’re not part of the club. We decided to go outside the system and therefore we should be punished for that by extorting us. We have to pay to even be considered worthy of a review. This is the major way traditional publishing can keep us down because otherwise they’re quaking in their boots.
This is the kind of whining I am talking about, and it is totally delusional. If the traditional publishers (and their lapdogs, the periodicals) had the kind of time to plot ways to keep self-published authors “down,” don’t you think they’d spend it doing something a little less nefarious? Like, trying to make money? If the money (and the future of publishing) is really in self-publishing, as Murphy seems to believe, then shouldn’t PW be throwing themselves at the opportunity to take a bite out of the pie?
If anyone should be on trial extorting self-pubbed authors, it should be vanity presses like Author Solutions–not Publisher’s Weekly, who simply has a business model that doesn’t fit self-publishing.
Let me start at the beginning and try to disentangle this big mess of hurt feelings and the principles of economy.
Friends and family are always asking me, “Why don’t you self-publish?” Often they are appalled to hear that I have considered this option and voted vehemently against doing it myself–for now.
If I wanted to spend a ton of my own money on editing, on professional cover design, on buying ISBNs and learning to code for e-readers (and not the one-size-fits-all Smashwords way, but do it for real with fancy chapter headings like Cheri Lasota who is awesome), then sure. I’d go self-publishing. If I wanted to take the time away from writing books, which is what I really love to do in all of this, then I might consider it. But I don’t. I want to write books, not code them and manage contractors and incorporate and get a Tax ID number and all that other crap that an author intent on self-publishing has to do. (Authors have to market themselves anyway now, regardless of whether we go traditional or self-pub, so I won’t bring that up.)
Of course, there’s the argument that not every reader out there is looking for high literature, or a professional book cover. Many readers are happy picking up a book in their niche and aren’t bothered by typos or poor cover design or any of that. Okay. Sure. But that’s not the book I, personally, want to publish with my name on it.
But there are a lot of reasons authors do choose to self-publish. I think they fall into three categories:
1. “I am good enough to skip all this.”
Querying agents? Too much work. Submitting to publishers? Blah, I don’t want to deal with that. My book is great as-is. I am going to knock the world flat with this magical 250,000-word novel that I can’t be bothered to edit down to a reasonable length or scour for typos. I’m better than that.
2. “I was rejected because of reasons. That are false. They just can’t see how great my book is.”
I can almost guarantee that every traditionally-published author with a book coming out this year was rejected at some point in time. It’s a good thing. We learn from rejections. The best rejection I ever got was after a request for a full manuscript. The agent wrote back to me that the book “just didn’t grab” her.
My first thought was the same as many up-and-coming authors: She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Duh. My book is great.
But take that feedback in your right hand and go back to your manuscript. View it through a new reader’s lens. You might suddenly see something you didn’t before–that the first ten pages of your book are downright boring. That you have all this great backstory (you spent so much time on that backstory!) but little to no action.
Know why queries are so often rejected? Because a query often tells an agent everything he or she needs to know about you. And he or she didn’t like what they saw on that first glance. Maybe your writing really isn’t as top-notch as you think it is; maybe you need to work on the skill set some more. We live in a culture of bloated egos, and this is a symptom. As writers, we all have something to learn–some more than others. Man up and acknowledge that. Work on it. Even authors who have published dozens of books are always refining their skills.
3. “I want to keep as much of my profit as I can.”
Alternatively: “I want total control over my book.”
Well, good on you. Keep at it, then. If you’re making money on your self-pubbed book (like this totally cool guy, Will Hertling, who had coffee with me last month), then I see no reason not to keep doing it and encourage others to do it.
But Publisher’s Weekly is not out to get you.
Publications and companies like PW are not the boogeyman in the closet, whose only goal is to spit on self-published and indie-published authors and grind them under the toe of the corporate boot. They are for-profit enterprises who know one thing: a book through a publishing house has passed the gatekeepers. It is going to have name recognition. It is probably going to be readable, and maybe enjoyable, and maybe even a good candidate for their review section. A self-published book doesn’t come with even a tiny portion of this guarantee.
I know mediocre books make it through the publishing house “gatekeepers” all the time. That’s not my point. My point is that a book through a publishing house comes with the assumption that it’s worth looking at.
The publishing industry (literary agents, periodicals, publishing houses) performs a weeding function: sometimes it’s a sheer numbers game. Agents and editors receive hundreds of queries, and turn down 99.9% of them. Imagine if even a tiny portion of those rejected queries turned around and self-published that book instead. We now have 100 times as many self-published books as traditionally-published books. And that leaves a company like Publisher’s Weekly in a bit of a bind: they can afford to pay a few staff people to review those traditionally-published books because they know how many to expect, and they can pay those staff with advertising and sales revenue.
But how many people would PW have to keep on staff to review those thousands upon thousands of self-pubbed books? Most of which are published by the first two kinds of people and not the third? It is just unfeasible for a for-profit company. It is unfeasible for the business model they use.
Maybe that’s PW showing its age. But I think it’s also that self-publishing has shown itself to be a mixed bag. For every great book, there are ten not-so-great books. It’s a greater risk than in traditional publishing, not to mention ten times as many staff reviewers required to basically “slush pile” it. The fee dissuades authors who aren’t serious about submitting, and it probably pays employees to staff PW Select.
Obviously, this isn’t the case everywhere. Amazon has done a great job of designing a system that allows the best of the self-pubbed and indie-pubbed books to shine and get picked up by readers. Social media makes choosing a book easier, and gives self-pubbed authors a great marketing opportunity.
So please, self-published and indie authors: stop whining about being left out. You’re in a young industry. You’re trying to convince companies who rely on the traditional publishing model to open their doors to anyone and everyone, without any kind of filter in the middle when they’re used to having one. It’s going to take time to change the whole business model, if it changes–and I am not convinced that it should change completely. As a reader, I want some standards. And until some kind of universal benchmarks are established in the self-pub community, companies like PW are not going to blindly believe in you and hire those two-dozen extra staff.
And Publisher’s Weekly may go out of business eventually, opening the door for new ventures that can intelligently deal with self-publishing. I’m cool with that.