Two Theories: Why can’t we in publishing all just get along?

For a while now, I’ve been trying to understand the resentment toward self publishers by some in the traditionally published writing community. I get why publishers don’t like it–it’s opened up massive amounts of new, lower-priced competition that threatens not just their sales figures but the entire cost structure of the industry their large infrastructures depend on. Simultaneously, it’s also given writers, who were essentially a captive supplier, leverage to fight against potentially onerous contract terms and even the capacity to walk away from a deal, which was virtually unthinkable even five years ago. I totally get the rhetoric from publishers.

Writers who dismiss or otherwise demonize self publishing, on the other hand, I don’t get at all. These are new opportunities for you to make money. They are opportunities that can get you better terms in your contract, or more money if used properly. It also has the potential to drive the industry toward more writer-friendly terms for a change. There is more access to more readers the world over than ever before and it can all be done keeping most of the proceeds in the actual creators’ pockets, something else virtually unheard of on a wide scale until very recently. As a writer, it makes very little sense to me to fight against this tide.

So I figure there has to be a reason for this. I’ve had two somewhat conjoining theories bouncing around in my head lately and I can’t decide which is more likely. It may well be both, or it could just be as simple as abject fear of change.

My first theory is of the writer’s ego. One of the most commonly referred to benefits of traditional publishing is the validation factor. In some circles, being chosen by a publisher is worn as a badge of honor and used equally as a bludgeon against those who either haven’t yet achieved that contract or who eschew that entire process. Imagine all those years of effort trying to convince the gatekeeper set of your worth, all the mountains of rejection, humiliation, restrictive contract deals you’ve subjected yourself to just to get inside those walls.  Then one day, very suddenly, a whole bunch of other writers start skipping that path altogether, and worse yet, a significant and increasing number of them are selling books and making money at rates only the upper echelons of traditional writers exceed.

What good is that validation you slaved away earning when another writer who doesn’t have it can sell books right next to yours with almost no definable difference from the reader’s point of view? The strength of that validation certainly isn’t what they’d been led to believe it was their entire working lives. Even more, the new ways are much more democratic. It doesn’t matter what school you went to, or if you even went to school at all. It doesn’t matter how many prestigious writing programs you’ve been involved in or how many literary awards you’ve won. A poor housewife from Nebraska who penned her first novel eight weeks ago has a (relatively) equal chance of being a best seller as the most critically acclaimed writer out there.

The writing world has always had an ugly elitest side to it. That was never an issue when virtually all the successful writers were part of the same pipeline, born of that shared experience. But now that large numbers of writers outside of that framework are finding success, it’s not only threatening the business model of their publishers, it’s threatening their very self image.

When outside validation becomes crucial to your worldview, anything that undermines those doing the validating becomes a target. So theory number one is that some writers are resentful because self publishers are finding ways to avoid the crap they were forced to subject themselves to, and their memberships in the exclusive traditional publishing club no longer carry the same cache they once did, and may well be declining by the day.

The second reason is simply laziness. Well, not laziness, exactly, but complacency and a lack of desire to try new and different things. Given the proliferation of comments I’ve seen coming from trad writers characterizing self publishing as a short cut and a lazy choice (Google Sue Grafton for the most recent example) I am beginning to believe they’ve got it backwards. Look, the stark reality is that it’s much more difficult to do this stuff essentially by yourself than with the backing of a giant corporate publisher. To suggest otherwise is to be purposely naive. If you happen to be one of the fortunate writers inside the gates who moves books, you get lots of support the other 95% of traditional writers don’t even get, let alone self publishers. The notion of tossing that off and self publishing is to take on significant responsibilities you currently pass on. In that respect, it’s the traditional writers who are shying away from extra work. Not saying they’re wrong for doing that, given their situation, they’re not. My problem comes when they cast aspersions on the work ethic of others when they, themselves, stay away from these activities because of the added risks and extra effort necessary.

Let’s be honest here. Writers like Grafton, Ewan Morrison and Scott Turow do little more than just write. Even the smallest one-person self publishing operation is doing much more than just writing. Criticizing other writers as lazy or taking shortcuts looks like sour grapes when their paths are far more ambitious than yours, requiring more effort in numerous directions than simply writing a book and sending it to your editor (I know, I’m oversimplifying, but just look at the bitching by trad writers about publishers making them actually, god forbid, promote themselves more to readers. Self pubbed writers accept that as a matter of course).

For serious self pubbed writers, it’s not simply about writing the book. It’s also about publishing the book. And it’s about selling the book. Three inter-related but very different activities. And, to top it off, writing the next book and starting over again. That’s a lot of interconnected hats to wear, and the ones who do it successfully wear them all very well. Lazy’s got nothing to do with it. Lazy writers who flock to self publishing will find themselves discouraged, overwhelmed and out of the picture soon enough. Self publishing is not an easy answer, a shortcut or the lazy way. It’s incredibly difficult to do well. For top tier trad writers to point fingers and call self publishers lazy shows their ignorance of what’s actually involved. Or maybe it’s not. One of the oldest political tricks in the book is to accuse your adversary of the very weaknesses you fear in yourself. But why are we adversaries in the first place? It doesn’t have to be that way. And you certainly don’t have to be openly resentful to those looking to blaze new trails you have no interest in, and willfully taking on the extra work that entails.

Do these writers have a point that there are a lot of shitty self published books out there? Do some writers take the relative ease of getting something live and for sale now and abuse it? Absolutely no doubt. But in case you didn’t notice, there are people like that in every industry and every walk of life, even traditional publishing. I’ve read a lot of shitty books, seen a lot of shitty tv shows and movies, heard a lot of shitty music on the radio over my lifetime, and you know what they almost all have in common? They were vetted by a media company gatekeeper. Shitty work happens in all creative pursuits, no matter how big the bank account of the producer. No one is immune to it. The ratio of great work to crap is always gonna lean heavily on the crap side, no matter the system. Basic human taste and subjectiveness guarantees that.

I think the problem can be illustrated with a simple mental image. Imagine Grafton, Morrison and Turow kicking back catching some rays by the pool inside the gated publisher walls. Suddenly, the gates swing open, and all the outside rabble comes pouring in, doing cannonballs, splashing water everywhere, their shouts and laughter almost deafening. Just generally throwing the relaxed, exlusive poolside scene into chaos. Now, those three are no longer the fortunate few who get the pool to themselves, but just a couple folks in the big crowd diving in. If I were in their shoes, I might resent that kind of development, too. Ah, who am I kidding? I’d be grateful for the company. I’m sure the conversations at that poolside were getting kinda stale before those gates burst open.

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