Self Publishing: The Quest For Excellence

I was chatting with a friend of mine, and the discussion turned to self-publishing. The question “Why?” popped up a few times…not as an insult, but as a genuine curiosity. Why do people self-publish? This is an extremely touchy subject because much has been said that is less than complimentary. Understandably, it has become the third wheel of “Thou Shalt Not Discuss Politics, Religion, And Self Publishing.”

Let me just get it out there that I don’t disparage anyone who uses this option. The reasons are many, and I’m in no position to pass judgement.

HOWEVER…

I can’t help but consider the vast number of times I’ve heard people say, “If I get one more rejection, I’m going to toss my book up on Amazon and see what happens,” and this is what I’d like to ponder.

First off, why would countless rejections be the igniter to self-publishing? What do you expect to happen? That readers will come flocking to your book and peg you as the next Amanda Hocking, thus proving all those rejections wrong? It could happen, but the numbers aren’t in your favor.

In my mind, they’re not considering the most important thing at play here, and that’s the quest for excellence. The old axiom of trying harder has been replaced with the entitlement community who insist we should be given the chance that we deserve. And somewhere, excellence has taken a back seat.

I think of the current uproar over 50 Shades of Grey, and how US publishers are falling over themselves for this book, though admitting it’s a poorly written piece of drek. If it’s that bad, then why do they want it? Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I grieve over the loss of exceptionalism and the uptick of mundane writing and low expectations. And yes, it pains me that huge publishers are barking for this book because it’s plain embarrassing – especially when there are so many truly talented authors.

Rejection

Here’s the thing:  Rejection isn’t a reflection of your character or your morality, and it certainly isn’t personal. Rejection is nature’s way of saying that THIS work isn’t viable. That doesn’t mean your next book, or two books after that won’t be brilliant. Rejection is the vehicle used to filter the unqualified, mediocre, not-ready-for-prime-time. Just because I want to be a jet pilot doesn’t mean I deserve it. If I want it, then I need to do what it takes to qualify to be a jet pilot. The same thing should be said for writing.

I’ve heard this countless times: “My first book(s) were utter crap, only I didn’t see it at the time. All those rejections forced me to become a better writer.” The problem is that self publishing has short-circuited this process to a large extent, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the hows and whys self-publishing has gotten a bad rap.

There are no shortcuts in publishing

Few wake up one day and decide to become a bestselling author. Writing is hard work and takes years to perfect the craft, often by writing manuscript after manuscript – that end up under the bed.  If this is your first manuscript and 5,984 agents and editors have rejected it, do you believe your luck will change when you put it up with Amazon or Smashwords? It’s gotten to the point where anyone – and I do mean ANYONE – can call themselves a “published author,” so the words have lost their importance. If anyone can do something, then it’s no longer special.

Because we want to shortcut the process, our standards for excellence have been diluted. I see this when I read manuscripts that are filled with spelling errors, POV shifts that would make the beagle dizzy, horrendous pacing, and/or weak plotting. I wonder if this is the very best people can do. Instead of learning the art and craft and love of writing, they take those poor, dismal manuscripts and slap them up on Amazon for .99. Bada bing bada boom…I be an author.

Gatekeepers

I’ve heard all the rhetoric – publishers are the snobby gatekeepers who keep authors in their place by rejecting them. It’s a straw man argument borne of a minority who basically wants entrance into an exclusive club without having to meet the same tough standards. Publishers are gatekeepers to the extent that they employ standards of excellence in their books that a large marketplace wants to read. (And yes, I’m aware of the inconsistency of that statement, considering 50 Shades of Grey)

It’s not snobbery, but solvency. No matter what we read in the trade magazines and blogs, commercial publishing remains the gold standard because their success hinges on selling lots of books – and commercial publishers still sell the most books and make the most money. (Which is why U$ publisher$ want 50 Shade$ of Grey)

That doesn’t mean self-publishing is the antithesis. There are a lot of great reasons to self-pub, but it should be for the right reasons. Lack of excellence shouldn’t be one of them.

Intent

So what is your intent for self-publishing – or deciding on any publishing option? Whatever the reason, it should be a logical choice other than, “No commercial publisher or agent will accept me.”

Rejected:  Have you been rejected by everyone in the industry? If so, ask yourself what you hope to gain by self-pubbing. Do you believe all those rejections are wrong, and you have a diamond? If so, what makes you believe this? Who has quantified that logic? Would this not be a good time to reflect on the quality of your writing? After all, if everyone tells the beagle she’s sober, she takes great umbrage and rectifies the situation. Shouldn’t you?

A Stepping Stone:  I’ve talked with many writers who believe self-pubbing their book would give them a publishing credit and a step up toward a solid publishing deal. It isn’t and it doesn’t. Unless your book sold a ton, it won’t be given the time of day.

OP:  Are you an out-of-print author whose rights have reverted? Self-pubbing makes great sense because it keeps your books in the marketplace and makes your readers jump for joy.

Niche:  Did you write a book that has a small, niche readership? A commercial publisher may not be able to sell your book about whistling belly button tricks, but it may be a huge boon to those whose aim is to be the life of the party.

Ego:  Is it important to consider yourself a “published author”? I know that sounds simplistic because that’s every writer’s ultimate goal, but does that desire usurp your quest for excellence? Are you the one who says, “I just want to get my book out there and see what happens.” What does this mean? Sure, there are the Cinderella stories, but the majority of “what happens” is nothing. Maybe you’ll sell 25 copies of your e-book.

Stagnation

What worries me about the Ego Author is that they don’t grow as writers. By self publishing, they have relieved themselves of the rejection process and continue to pump e-books out with the same below-average writing. The result is that they short-circuit the importance of confronting their suckosity.

I don’t understand this. Ever seen a stagnant pond? It’s got all that green goo cover the top so that nothing grows. For the Ego Author, self-publishing could be the green goo of their literary advancement.

Shouldn’t our quest for excellence be hard-wired in our DNA? Doesn’t the idea of working hard sweeten the result of grabbing the brass ring? The hard truth is this:  Just because you love to write doesn’t mean that it’s any good and deserves to be published. If you truly love writing, then doesn’t that take precedence over the outcome? If your end goal is to be published, no matter what, then you’re missing the entire journey of excellent writing, which is delicious.

It’s not my intent to open up a fatwa between Published vs Self Published and screech about who’s better because that’s not the point. I merely want to put out there that the quest for excellence shouldn’t be a casualty of publishing…no matter the publishing option.

Don’t be afraid to strive for excellence because there are no shortcuts.

10 Responses to Self Publishing: The Quest For Excellence

  1. Julie Barrett says:

    Amen!

  2. Anita Neuman says:

    That confirms everything I hold near and dear to my heart about my writing goals. And funny, to boot! Here’s to confronting my suckosity!

  3. danholloway says:

    I’m talking at London Book Fair on Wednesday at the launch of the Alliance of Independent Authors. I was asked to send in a page about why I self-published. I’ve pasted in below what I sent back – I hope that’s not overdoing it but it’s worth having a few perspectives and I know you know how passionate I am about self-publishing. I also share many of your concerns and am frequently vexed at my fellow self-publishers but I also think it’s still very exciting and if I had to say why in one sentence I’d cite the freedom to fail interestingly – to ask great questions and not quite get the answer right. And in more than one sentence:

    Self-publishing was a very simple choice for me to take. Back in 2007 I decided I wanted to give writing for a wider audience a proper chance. Like most writers, I’ve always written and I have my share of drawers full of emo poetry and really angsty teenage novels, but at 35 it felt like the right time to give it a proper bash. I churned out a thriller set in Oxford, and set about fine tuning it with a view to getting an agent and then a publisher. To this end, I joined the writers’ sites Youwriteon and Authonomy in 2008, where I soon discovered I preferred writing literary fiction to writing thrillers, and by mid 2008 I had churned out a second book, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, a literary work set in post-communist Hungary about a girl growing up and trying to find her place in a world where nothing is constant. I set about finding an agent for it, still rather wet behind the ears and not really knowing anything other than that “this was what you did.”

    I had a lovely letter from the only agency I really wanted to work with (one that focused on international fiction) saying how excited they were by the book but they couldn’t sell it in the current climate. At about the same time I was learning more and more about the vibrant literary world that existed online, and I started to wonder why I’d ever looked for a publisher in the first place. I wasn’t interested in making “a big splash” as the agent had put it. I wrote because I had something I needed to say, in whatever form it needed saying – whereas publishers wanted to tell you how you should be saying it in order to get sales. I didn’t want sales. I didn’t even want readers overly much. I wanted to get what was in my head out of there in the form it wanted.

    And I wanted to play with what was and wasn’t literature. I’ve always loved art since a school trip to the Tate introduced me to Rothko. I’d spent hours at the infamous Turner Prize exhibition of 1999 and fallen head over heels in love with Tracey Emin’s work (and, it’s probably true to say, with her). Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is set largely in the art world, and references Emin’s works throughout. Art was very very exciting.

    My childhood and young adult heroes were artists – Rothko, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Basquiat, Emin and Lucas, the Wilson Twins, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Rachel Whiteread. Art was heady, dangerous, talked about, argued about. It incited passion. And whilst I was aware of the storm over Satanic Verses, that was hardly the same as the reaction to Sensation, to Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley. Yes, YBA was full of marketing and slick and surface and phoneyism. But it was also dangerous, challenged the way people thought about art, about the world, about themselves and reality.

    Literary culture just wasn’t like that. And aspiring writers just talked about how to get published. That wasn’t a conversation I was interested in. I wanted people to talk about literature like they did about art – I wanted to work with people who were doing wild things that would have people shaking their head and asking “but is it a book?” The whole world of getting published was, quite simply, a different conversation from the one I wanted to have.
    Of course that was simplistic. But it remains the case that the most exciting discussions of words take place “in another place” and not in the world of publishing.

    I have also been saddened rather than heartened by much that has happened in self-publishing since the launch of the Kindle. Self-publishing is now (and fair play to everyone concerned) a place where people can set out their stall and hope, with a following wind, marketing acuity, and great writing, to make a decent crust. Which means its landscape is much like the landscape of mainstream publishing. And the conversations self-publishing writers have are, now, about how to market, how to format, what their sales figures are.

    It is a conversation that is increasingly squeezing me out the way regular publishing did. Or, rather, it is a conversation that regularly threatens to subsume me the way regular publishing did, and that would be my biggest single piece of advice to a self-publisher – remember why you’re doing it and don’t be a magpie. Don’t let sales or invitations or publicity distract you – unless they were the reason for self-publishing, in which case go for it.

  4. Dan, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I’ve always respected your purity and thoughtful reasons regarding your publishing decisions. You didn’t take the DIY option lightly, but rather gave it serious consideration. You understand your intent.

    However, as with anything that’s put up for sale, one has to consider the promotional aspects. Otherwise, how would you sell anything? If you don’t care about sales, then what’s the point? It’s about balance. I agree that you can’t let promotion usurp writing, but it also can’t be ignored.

    What’s bothersome to me is that so many people are foregoing any hint of quality in the belief that it’s not important. I beg to differ.

  5. I believe quality and excellence should not “find a place in writing” but should be the primary goal. I have been reading since I was old enough to hold a book, and telling stories almost as long. At seventeen, I began putting my stories on paper. I have written two dozen short stories that were worth reading, oodles of poetry (lots of it haiku), and am “working on a novel”. (Not much from twenty-three years, I know, but… let’s just say I had troubles.) Regarding what I’ve written, I have been told by people other than my mother (or other family members) that my stories are well-written. As one Smashwords reviewer put it in a personal message, my stories remind her of a macabre O’Henry.

    And that’s the problem. The novel to which I am giving birth is hard science fiction, but my short stories are paranormal/horror/science fiction/literature, with a dash of philosophy and a smidgen of skepticism for flavoring. As I’ve discovered the hard way, there’s no pigeonhole for that. Out of over 200 submissions to various genre magazines – following each magazine’s guidelines and with a story geared (as best I could) toward their target audience – I received fewer than a dozen rejection letters, all of which said my stories were “good, but not right for this magazine”. Of the rest, I never even got an acknowledgement that my story was received. (And yes, prior to the near-total shift to email submissions I always sent the SASE.)

    Having received so little feedback from professional editors in charge of print magazines, I can only take to heart that little bit. In short, I am left with the knowledge that my stories are well written, but not right for traditionally published magazines. Leaving self-publication as the only forum in which I can “get my work out there.”

    Finally, for what my humble opinion is worth, I agree with Mister Holloway about remembering the reasons for self-publishing. My reasons are as stated above, and marketing my stories must be embraced as part of getting my work out there because I want more than to have my stories sitting on a virtual shelf gathering virtual dust. It’s coming along more slowly than I would like, but it is happening.

    Now you know my “why would you ever want to self-publish” story. Perhaps it will add another dimension to the subject for you and the beagle to ponder over margaritas.

  6. Personally, I think you’re way off base, by telling only half the story here. It’s not about “shortcuts.” It’s about a change in the industry dynamic. Agreed, there really is a certain sense of accomplishment through traditional publishing … and there’s a lot of trash out there in the self-publishing world. But really good writers, passionate about their work with an ability and drive to promote themselves are now a real part of the publishing world. It’s okay to be an entrepreneur in this world, just as in any other.

  7. Dan Holloway says:

    “What’s bothersome to me is that so many people are foregoing any hint of quality in the belief that it’s not important. I beg to differ.”

    I think we can agree 100%on that! I’ve written several pieces under titles like “we need more bad books” and I think that’s right to the extent that truly great things emerge when there’s a general culture of not being afraid to fail – but that’s a very different thing from the myriad who seem to have made aconscious choice to waive quality control.

  8. Steven, I’m not certain as to what half of the story I’ve missed. Obviously there are those who are successful, and I’ve happily acknowledged that.

    However, I know of no DIY’ers whose vision encompasses a wider scope of trying to change an industry. They simply want to be published and went the DIY route. As I’ve already stated, I’m very supportive of DiY’ers because there are those who are doing it the right way…quality over expediency; knowledge over naivete.

  9. Aston West says:

    Ah, but you don’t list other options for why one would choose to self-publish up there…you know, for those of us who are just anal-retentive control freaks that like to have our say in every aspect of the publishing process… ;-)

    That, and why not cut out the middle man and make more money?

    I actually had three blog posts that covered self-publishing a month or so ago.

  10. Hah, I did forget that one, Tod. Unfortunately, that trait can have disastrous results if the author doesn’t know what he’s doing.

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