Sorry to delay the next world-building article, but I sorely needed to get this off of my chest. So bear with me.
It’s 2017. I know because I’ve multiple calendars scattered across my workspace. There’s the one on my phone, the one on my desktop, and there’s the one that’s included in this blogging site. Very handy. That’s how I know with certainty that we are, in fact, in the oh-so-futuristic sounding (at least to those born before 1990 or so) year of 2017. Cue epic synth score.
So then. Why in the hell in 2017 are we still giving credence to publishing elitism? I’m not referring to some of the commentary coming out of traditional publishers in the literature and comics vein. That’s a whole other article about sociopolitical jabs and a conspiracy hit-list of “who really benefits?” I’m talking about the simple flippant idea that still pervades the discourse.
“Self-published writers aren’t legitimate writers.”
Yeah. THAT slice of myopia.
Listen closely, folks: I’ve been through the gamut with both avenues, traditional and self. I’m going to tell you why in the end I opted to stick with the self-pub route, but first I think it’s high time to demystify the traditional process, and cut the legs out from under that flimsy detraction that gets levied at writers who aren’t backed by some New York house.
Unfortunately, not that kind of House. Some of the politics are applicable, though.
And, in the category of covering all bases, please note: This is not a for/against article designed to tempt you over into only self-publishing. You do you. There are a lot of great benefits to be had through traditional publishing avenues, after all. This article’s only target for annihilation is the concept that one of those benefits—the only one that matters to some—is legitimacy.
Got that? Great. Let’s go.
Firstly, there’s a mindset that traditionally published literature goes through a series of gatekeepers, so one can assume the quality is high enough to have made it through the laborious process at all. And, by and large, I want you to know that this is absolutely true. Factually accurate and sound and all other manner of reinforcing adjectives.
To submit that query to a traditional house is to accept that your work will be scrutinized and picked apart by a series of differing individuals arrayed in a manner that makes those ninja obstacle course shows look downright simplistic. This is doubly true if it’s your first time, or you’ve not yet established yourself with previous work.
Or, you could just be a celebrity.
I mean, after all, surely the zeitgeist personalities from The Jersey Shore, Jackass, or Breitbart had their work go through the same exhaustive quality control as Stephen King, right?
Let me interrupt the cognitive dissonance for a moment and spell it out for you. Publishers are a business. We can bandy about with high-minded topics like literature quality and the continuation and perfection of the medium and the plight of the artistic versus the materialistic and blah blah blah, but at the end of the day a traditional publisher, particularly the big ones, are only concerned with three innocuous little letters: R. O. I. Return on investment.
It’s my intern’s hand. He contractually has to follow me around and pose the pipe just so. Now, what was that about your little novel?
That being said, it means that as a storyteller you’re going to have to contend with that profit-driven mindset. I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here, because traditional publishers absolutely have a right to protect their business model. Unfortunately for you, it also means:
This is a given regardless, but it’s particularly apt here in the publishing world. There are windows of opportunity that have to be considered, and your story, good or bad, may simply have missed its opening in the current market. Worse? You’ve no idea when things will swing back to the point where what you’re slinging is considered bankable. You learn to write to trend if you’re new, or wait patiently.
This is also a no-brainer, but it doesn’t help you in the slightest. And while it can be safely said that other celebrities can be, and sometimes are as erudite and engagingly witty as Carrie Fisher in her own literary works, the idea that traditional publishing is a yardstick for absolute quality when all you need is a meme-worthy career and a ghostwriter is laughable.
You won’t know WHY your work was turned down.
This is something that perplexes friends of mine, as after I get a rejection letter one of them will inevitably ask, “Did they say why?” The idea, of course, is that knowing why will put you on the path to improving the work, so that you can shop it to them again in a stronger position. But traditional houses are not a beta-reader group. They are not a critique service. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you will simply get a very nicely worded form-generated email that simply tells you, in essence, “No thanks.”
Why? Because they are busy trying to make money. There’s nothing wrong with it. But that will leave you in the same position you were prior to submitting your manuscript, and without a guidepost to follow moving forward. Because …
The Slush Pile Is Hungry
The Slush Pile, as it’s called, is the ever-teetering stack—both digital and physical—of unsolicited submissions that the houses receive. Chances are, that’s where your hopes lie in state while you await the decision of the publisher. Whether or not your work gets further out of the pile than the first gatekeeper can depend on a number of factors. Factors, I add, that you’ve zero control over.
Fun fact: At this moment, you still have more control than you do over internal publishing criteria.
Let’s take one of my novels as an example. I submitted this work of mine to five major publishers in total. Were they right to reject it? Absolutely. But if you asked me why they rejected it, I’d have no ready answer for you, because that metric is constantly in flux.
It could have been quality, or word count, or genre, or the wording of the synopsis, or my introduction letter, or the goddamned alignment of the planets. Whatever it was, they didn’t look upon my work and see dollar signs. That’s the only concrete conclusion, because it tracks with their goals. And that’s their prerogative.
And, to punctuate the point being made here, I’ll address the “Well obviously it was because the quality was lacking” reasoning that gets used, because I most often hear that one from the same people who cite the number of times Harry Potter was rejected as a means to encourage an author to keep going. It’s a great slice of positivism to help a struggling writer, but you can’t expect me to let you slide on that kind of hypocrisy. One wonders when these people considered Rowling a legitimate writer. Before or after the first film got made?
So now that the process has been made a bit more clear, let’s tackle the go-to point of interest for the folks thumbing their noses at self-published authors: Quality. I hear this one used as the augur point when they attempt to drill in with their bias so often that I’ve considered making shirts that read: “Quality is as Quality does.”
Or, I’ll just screenprint this meme. Either or.
There’s a lot of crap in self-pub. Empirically true. When anyone can publish without restraint, you’re going to have a lot of chaff in the wheat bin. It’s simply a byproduct of user-generated content at every strata of our wired society.
But, I submit, there’s a lot of crap period. Having a publisher house backing ya hardly serves as an aegis against it. I can go into a Barnes & Noble, right now, and find some choice schlock proudly presented with a traditional publisher’s brand.
You want to go down the list of common complaints against self-published books that can be found in the traditional species? CAN DO! Books with typos? Check. Narratives that seem cribbed from bored Hot Topic employees? Check. Poor cover design and layout as overseen by first-year print students? Check. Overpriced tomes that contain absolutely nothing to warrant inflicting sticker-shock on the consumer? Check, check, checkity-check.
In both instances, be it shopping self-published items or from the publisher catalog, a little legwork on your part does wonders. Reviews, testimonials, ratings. But why bother when the Publisher system is so inviolate and sublime?
Spare me. Simply put: Twilight is popular for a damn good reason. Absolute quality in production values isn’t it.
I decided on self-publishing because I’m a storyteller. That’s the simple explanation of it. It wasn’t a matter of rejections, or the byzantine world of getting work through the houses. I totally accept why they are the way they are. But I, in my small aspirations and ambitions, just wanted to entertain readers with a good yarn, and pay some bills telling the kinds of stories I want to tell.
And it turns out there are readers who, shockingly, want to read those kinds of stories. They’re a small group, but damned if I’m not lucky to have found them. But even the traditional publishing route finds you locked in to that same search for an audience unless you’re already established, a celebrity, of some kind of luminary that has sadly passed on. At that point, the over/under on your profit spreadsheet is a moot point.
That’s right. Either way you choose, you still have to write the story, find the audience for it, market it, and grow the brand. I chose self-publishing because of the finer points of control over the process, from words to cover. But it doesn’t change the fact that once the book exists, I’m doing the exact same job that I would be had a publisher taken the reins.
According to my traditional published author friends, this picture is an accurate representation. Sometimes. The safe word is “quarterly”.
Only difference is the lack of advance or potential—not guaranteed—financing for things like going to conventions, readings, or tours. So, really, a question of money. If that’s the case, then “legitimacy” is just a code word for “affluence”. That’s hilarious. I’ve met too many traditionally published authors still struggling to make ends meet to accept that kind of douchebag mentality.
But still, knowing all that, the snobbery persists.
So, if the elitist mentality holds true, then by definition all any once-rejected individual needs to be a “real” writer is, essentially, to put forth the time, effort, and capital necessary to put their work through the exacting process of becoming a physical book, finding a demographic to sell that book to, and then to continue on from there to attract more notice by establishing your name as a source of good work.
Gosh. If only there were more avenues where someone could do that in 2017.
I suppose for now that I’ll resume pretending to be a real writer until I can prove my good heart to a wish-granting faerie. At least there are no strings on me.
That’s all from me for now.
Until next time, Horns Up.
(My new book is out! The Lexicon Calopa is on sale!)