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Self-Publishing: An Insult To The Written Word?

12/29/2016 12:17 pm ET | Updated 5 days ago

As a published author, I'm often asked why I don't self-publish. "Surely you'd make more money if you got to keep most of the profits rather than the publisher," they say.

I'd rather share a cabin on a Disney cruise with Donald Trump than self-publish.

To get a book published in the traditional way, and for people to actually respect it and want to read it -- you have to go through the gatekeepers of agents, publishers, editors, national and international reviewers. These gatekeepers are assessing whether or not your work is any good. Readers expect books to have passed through all the gates, to be vetted by professionals. This system doesn't always work out perfectly, but it's the best system we have.

Good writers only become good because they've undertaken an apprenticeship. The craft of writing is a life's work. It takes at least a decade to become a decent writer, tens of thousands of hours. Your favorite authors might have spent years writing works that were rejected. But if a writer is serious about her craft, she'll keep working at it, year after year. At the end of her self-imposed apprenticeship, she'll be relieved that her first works were rejected because only now can she see how bad they were.

Did you ever hear what Margaret Atwood said at a party to a brain surgeon? When the brain surgeon found out what she did for a living, he said, "Oh, you're a writer! When I retire I'm going to write a book." Margaret Atwood said, "Great! When I retire I'm going to be a brain surgeon!"

The irony is that now that brain surgeon really could dash off a "book" in a of couple months, click "publish" on amazon, and he's off signing books at the bookstore. Just like Margaret Atwood, he's a "published" author. Who cares if his book is something that his grade nine teacher might have wanted to crumple into the trash? It's a "published" book.

The problem with self-publishing is that it requires zero gatekeepers. From what I've seen of it--and I'm basing this only on perhaps a dozen self-published books I've tried to read and from the consensus among every single traditionally-published author I know--self-publishing is an insult to the written word, the craft of writing, and the tradition of literature. As an editor, I've tackled trying to edit the very worst writing that people plan on self-publishing just because they can.

I'm a horrible singer. But I like singing so let's say I decide to take some singing lessons. A month later I go to my neighbor's basement because he has recording equipment. I screech into his microphone and he cuts me a CD. I hire a designer to make a stylish CD cover. Voilà. I have a CD and am now just like all the other musicians with CDs.

Except I'm not. Everyone knows I'm a tuneless clod but something about that CD validates me as a musician. It's the same with writers who self-publish. Literally anyone can do it, including a seven-year-old I know who is a "published" author because her teacher got the entire class to write stories and publish them on Amazon. It's cute, but when adults do it, maybe not so cute. With the firestorm of self-published books unleashed on the world, I fear that writing itself is becoming devalued.

I have nothing against people who want to self-publish, but self-publishing needs to be labelled as such. The only similarity between published and self-published books is they each have words on pages inside a cover. The similarities end there. And every single self-published book I've tried to read has shown me exactly why the person had to resort to self-publishing. Of the self-published books I've read, I can see that these people haven't taken the decade, or in many cases even six months, to learn the very basics of writing, such as 'show, don't tell,' or how to create a scene, or that clichés not only kill writing but bludgeon it with a sledgehammer. Sometimes they don't even know grammar.

Author Brad Thor agrees: "The important role that publishers fill is to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you're a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract."

Author Sue Grafton said, "To me, it seems disrespectful...that a 'wannabe' assumes it's all so easy and s/he can put out a 'published novel' without bothering to read, study, or do the research. ... Self-publishing is a short cut and I don't believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he's ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall."

Writing is hard work, but the act of writing can also be thrilling, enriching your life beyond reason when you know you're finally nailing a certain feeling with the perfect verb. It might take a long time to find that perfect verb. But that's how art works. Writing is an art deserving our esteem. It shouldn't be something that you can take up as a hobby one afternoon and a month later, key in your credit card number to CreateSpace or Kindle Direct Publishing before sitting back waiting for a stack of books to arrive at your door.

I realize that the publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past decade and getting your work published traditionally is much more difficult than in the past. I get why people take the self-publishing route. It must be a wonderful feeling to have full control over the whole publishing process. I'm probably ridiculously out of touch here and basing my observations on a dozen or so self-published books along with the word of others who've had the same experience probably isn't fair. What I'd love is to be proven wrong. If you get a chance, please send me your recommendations for quality self-published books and I promise to read them.

For now, whatever way you publish, let's all give the written word the respect it deserves.

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