Sometimes we just want someone to tell us we’re pretty.

That’s the conclusion I’ve drawn after many conversations with different authors over the years regarding whether or not to self-publish.  I’m talking about authors writing genre fiction, either with existing fan-bases (from fanfic or their indie books) or just starting from scratch.  These are the writers who should be doing this themselves.shutterstock_153593882

I can put together an argument that’s pretty convincing, in part because I’ve been on both sides of it.  (At one time I was the author needing convincing.)  So I get it.  For a lot of new authors, self-publishing looks riskier.  Sure, it’s faster and potentially more lucrative, and yes, you have more creative control over the thing you end up publishing… but look at all the things on the other side of the aisle!

A real publisher will produce a well-edited, expertly designed book with a marketing team behind it.  That’s a much better plan.  And to get that kind of deal you’ve gotta get an agent to speak for you, one who can put the book into the right hands, negotiate a strong contract, and line up additional marketing opportunities.  Why pass up the chance for that kind of career for a pie-in-the-sky self-publishing scheme?

The reason why, is that essentially nothing in the last paragraph is true.  I’ll get into why I say that another time, because today what I really want to talk about is the authors who have all this laid out in front of them, generally agree with it, and then try to follow the traditional publishing route anyway.

How this happens is something that’s been bugging me for a while, but here’s what I think may be a factor: I think they want the right person to tell them they’re pretty.


That sounds like I’m passing judgment, but I’m not, because all of us wanted the same thing at one point in our careers.  I certainly did.

Writing can be terrifyingly feedback-free, and we’re not necessarily the best ones to ask if we have talent.  We want someone else to tell us, and we want that someone to be a person whose opinion actually matters.

22783d1290472515-far-east-duct-action-horse-drinking-water-pondIn traditional publishing, the people whose opinions matter are called agent, editor, or publisher, and it wasn’t so long ago that theirs was the only opinion that mattered, because if they didn’t think you were pretty, nobody else got an opportunity to weigh in.

That’s no longer true, because self-publishing doesn’t require the advance opinion of anyone in the traditional publishing industry.

This hasn’t stopped a lot of us from seeking that approval anyway, because somehow it means more if someone from a big publisher reads something of ours and declares it good.

Except I’m not so sure it should mean more.


There’s another word for what’s expected from that pageant judge panel of agents, editors and publishers: gatekeepers.

People complaining about the current publishing landscape use this word a lot.  There are no gatekeepers for self-published authors, goes the argument, and therefore any old crap can get published.

Yes.  But also no.

The gatekeepers of self-publishing are the readers.  Whether these readers are looking at a finished product, an in-progress manuscript, or an exercise in fan-fiction, they’re providing the feedback writers need to figure out if they’re any good at this.

The form that feedback takes is usually expressed in sales numbers, which is both terrifying and not exactly perfect—yes, there are good books which don’t sell and bad books which do—but I would argue that it’s a more meritorious process than anything in the old system.TheScream

The counter-argument, of course, is that allowing the market to be its own gatekeeper means accepting the glut of bad books, which are certainly out there, and accepting that something like Fifty Shades can happen.

(I appreciate that bringing up Fifty Shades of Grey is the publishing debate’s equivalent of Godwin’s Law, but hang with me a second.)

It’s absolutely true that without the modern apparatus of fan-fiction, this book would not exist because there would have been nobody calling it pretty, or good.  You could also say this is an example of the new gatekeepers falling down on the job.  I say this is the perfect proof that they’re better at it than the old gatekeepers.


Here’s where the gatekeepers of traditional publishing get a little full of themselves.  It’s one thing to say without gatekeepers, how will readers know what is good vs. what isn’t good? but it’s another to say how will they know what’s good if we don’t get to tell them?

The marketplace is now rewarding books that traditional publishing never would have published, and the response from the gatekeepers of old has been that therefore the general public doesn’t actually know what’s good.  Yet when a book becomes successful outside of their corner of the industry, those same traditional publishing houses will jump at the chance to buy it and make as much off of it as they can.

Like Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance.

That’s my problem with this whole gatekeeper thing, in a nutshell.

The argument is that the gatekeepers in the traditional publishing path are important because they know what’s actually of good quality, but the industry they man the gates for is interested in what will actually sell.  There was gnashing of teeth and rending of garments when an erotic novel of somewhat dubious provenance became an international best-seller, but that didn’t stop Random House from buying it and republishing it.

Their gatekeepers would never have let a book like that through, and if we are going to pretend they are there to promote QUALITY MANUSCRIPTS, then fine.  But they’re not.  They’re there to pick books they think will sell, and it turns out “quality manuscripts” and “books that will sell” aren’t always the same thing.  And that means the marketplace itself makes for a better gatekeeper.


If you’re a first-time author seeking the approval from someone in the traditional publishing work stream, you aren’t going to get what you think you are, because the goal of everyone on that side of the aisle is to figure out if they can sell what you’ve written.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t like it.  Sale-ability and quality aren’t the same thing.

I appreciate that the alternative—rolling the book out to the general public and letting them decide—can be terrifying.  But it’s also a lot more honest.

What I’m saying is, let the marketplace tell you you’re pretty.  In the end, it’s the only opinion that matters.


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  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt on March 21, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    I think that lack of ‘official recognition’ from an agent, for example, has a certain capacity – NOT always exercised – of making a writer work WAY harder, until even her own objections are destroyed.

    It doesn’t, most of the time. Most indies AND most people submitting to traditional publishing are not ready to publish (Sturgeon’s law).

    But it CAN.

    Writers may be too hard on themselves. Many of the ‘imperfect stories’ now flooding the marketplace are good enough – and satisfying to some readers, or to MANY readers. Some of those writers never get ‘better’ – and others do. Since ‘better’ or ‘good enough’ are entirely subjective, this is fine.

    It results in serving many more categories of readers, the ones disdained by traditional publishing and the ones unhappy at publishers’ prices among them, but mainly those whom the establishment decided were too niche to be worth publishing books for – because they wouldn’t sell in enough quantity to be ‘worth it.’

    The myth of blessings from above as the only true reward dies very hard; there is no all-knowing guru. It is the same little man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.

    I’d rather be hard on my own writing.

  2. Catherine Dunn on March 22, 2016 at 8:32 am

    I think there’s still quite a lot of snobbery around self-publishing – mainly a hangover from the ‘vanity publishing’ label. That lingering feeling among authors that if they were good, they’d get picked up by a traditional publisher. And, of course, that whole ‘but there are no gatekeepers!’ thing. You put it so well!

    There’s also an element of wariness of the risk of getting conned with various self-publishing services. Again, I think that’s also a hangover from the vanity press days when authors would pay ridiculous amounts, get charged hidden fees and never recoup their money. As a service provider (ebook distribution, copy-editing, proofreading, cover design and marketing) we sense this suspicion at times. Things are definitely changing, though, as more authors are taking control and engaging these kinds of services directly.

  3. Hitch on March 26, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    I concur–entirely. I do think, though, that there is something to be said for “ye olden days.” I’ve posted about this often, in various writer’s locales–and usually, I’m sneered at for being nostalgic, rather than people thinking “[h]ey, she may have a point there.” As I’ve seen about…5,000 (?) manuscripts in the eight years that we’ve been providing eBook (and to a lesser extent, print) layout and conversion/formatting for Indy Authors, I think I can speak to the level of writing with some experience.

    What I see as the biggest loss in the “no gatekeepers” mechanism is that writers aren’t, in many ways, forced to become better. It’s no longer a matter of who lasts through the myriad tasks and obstacle courses, honing his work along the way; it’s now who can push the “save and publish” button the fastest. In ye olden days, a would-be writer wrote his or her first book, submitted it and then suffered the slings and arrows of rejection letters. Those destined to be professional authors got drunk, sorrowed over the narrow-mindedness of editors, and then grit their teeth and started again. They submitted short pieces to magazines, to literary journals; entered writing contests, went to critique groups, writing groups, writing classes, and persisted some more.

    When they learned how to pitch a magazine, they did so. They suffered those rejections for a while, learning, again, what they needed to about The Pitch. Then one day, an article was accepted; they wrote it enthusiastically (or not). THEN they learned about working with editors when a version of their lovingly-gravid piece came back looking like Charlie Manson had met it. They rewrote, or they saw what had been rewritten. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    They wrote more books that got nuked by more rejection letters. They tried them out at critique groups. They found a writing buddy. They–gasp–took a writing course!

    And then one day, at a writers’ conference, they pitched an agent…and were asked to call that agent after the conference. Or better yet, gave some chapters to them, right then and there. And the rest, as they say…well, y’know.

    NONE of that happens now. I see dozens–hell, hundreds–of writers at the KDP forums who want to know WHY their fabulous book isn’t selling–and it’s not only amateurish, but the English is incoherent. They don’t need a Creative Writing class–they need a fundamental English class. But nothing stops these folks from publishing, and nothing helps them or forces them, directly, to GET BETTER. I’ve suggested critique groups–even ones like Critters, which isn’t very interactive–hundreds of times. And I have yet (because I track these things) seen ONE of those authors click through to try those groups, etc. out.

    Yes, those who are paying attention, those who desperately really want to be GOOD or even GREAT writers–they will persist, and they will grow and develop as writers. In some ways, it’s a sharper razor, today, that cuts between the wheat and chaff. I just wish, for the writers’ sake, that there was something remotely akin to the Gauntlet, which helped them along on their path.

    Just my feelings on the topic. I will say that this article says, rather brilliantly, what I’ve been attempting to say for ages. I’m going to link this puppy in our FAQ! Well said.

    • Gene Doucette on March 26, 2016 at 5:13 pm

      I think you’ve hit on one of the points I was working toward in the article, which is that if it isn’t good, it doesn’t tend to sell. Whether or not writers learn from this and figure out how to improve, I couldn’t say, but the market does (sort of) reward quality.

      We are now–and I’m quite sure i’m using this metaphor wrong–getting both the baby and the bathwater. Whereas before one could be a good-but-different writer and fail to get published because the industry doesn’t handle ‘different’ well, or one could be a mediocre-to-bad writer and fail to get published because mediocre-to-bad writers probably shouldn’t get published.

      This is maybe bad for the readers trying to find the good writers, but it’s good for the ones who never would have gotten published any other way, and who are actually good at this.

      • Hitch on March 26, 2016 at 7:46 pm

        Yes. You’re right–the bad ones sink like the proverbial stone. But: there’s also the problem of “too much support.” Hell, if you hang out at writer’s forums, there are always folks perfectly happy to say “[i]t’s not you, it’s the dumb readers,” or, more and more frequently “[i]t’s not you, it’s that your book is sagging underneath the weight of 4 million other books.” And that latter sentence is the bigger problem, I think.

        It’s akin to the ubiquitous “evil reviewer.” That person with the grudge. The person who is really another writer in the same genre, trying to do the author “down.” Those reviews aren’t real, of course.

        I don’t think that the isolation of being a writer behind the screen has served these would-be authors well. They don’t have real flesh-and-blood role models, mentors showing them the way. Encouraging them. Telling them that no, an ellipsis and an emdash aren’t actually interchangeable in the narrative or dialogue. They don’t get ENcouraged to attend workshops, groups, courses; they simply get trolled and DIScouraged about how badly their books are written. I do believe that “ye olden days” had more general positivity for those would-be writers. Or, perhaps, for only a given class of them–those that obviously had some talent and capability. Now when a writer gets ripped by some anonymous person on the net, they get (as the kids call it) “butt-hurt” and simply take their ball and bat and go elsewhere. They don’t get the other side of it…that camaraderie with the other writers who got ripped by Professor this, or critique group that.

        Insofar as not selling…again, although to most of us, that would be a ‘tell,” there’s simply a new class of writer that effectively is willfully blind to that as an indicator. And they are, sadly, encouraged by the others who tell them that it’s really their long-lost former-BFF from 8th grade, getting even after all these years.

        I wonder if the pendulum will swing back the other way, as so many in life do?

        A quick-ish non sequitur:

        I think that one thing self-publishing HAS shown us is that Indy pubbing reached a massive group of people that have always wanted to read, but found trade-pubbed books inaccessible. If you look at so many of the mysteries and romances that are selling wildly today, they are not deep. They may not even have real themes, above and beyond the obvious. No subplots, parallel plots and so on. Potato-chip books, as we used to call them. Cute characters, relatively simple plots, easy to follow and consume.

        So those selfsame readers that couldn’t really find a lot of adult reading material before are able to find it now. That’s one superb Unexpected Consequence of Indy pubbing–that we are reaching, catering to and nurturing an entire class of readers that probably weren’t really well-served before when editors and publishers guarded the gate. That’s a GREAT thing. Bringing anyone who has been previously unable to find reading material that suited them into the fold–I’ll take that any day. Reading is the doorway to pretty much everything–learning, self-instruction, better paying jobs, you name it.

        For that, we should all be happy…dragons at the gate or no.

        • Gene Doucette on March 26, 2016 at 8:10 pm

          Kristine Kathryn Rusch made a great point in a column last year about the difference between “good” writing for someone who writes well enough for college and an English degree, and “good” writing as a novelist. There’s a little something extra needed to make the leap from competent technician to talented novelist, and I’m sometimes inclined to say that that something extra is something that can’t be taught or learned. It’s the “you either are or are not” argument. I will absolutely champion anyone who wants to self-publish, but I have to admit that in doing so, I’m championing work I will probably never read… because I can’t, because it’s not good enough to interest me.

          Having said that, I think I started writing novels (I was a playwright first) after reading a certain book by a certain best-selling genre fiction writer, getting to the end of it, and saying to myself “I can write a better book than this guy.” This was twenty years ago. So the takeaway is either A: there are mediocre genre-churning writers everywhere, or B: I have unreasonably high standards.

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