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.
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.
In 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.
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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