First off, I would like to make it VERY clear that I am a rank amateur. I have had books published by no mainstream, small or independent press or any combination thereof. My only published work is on this blog, and whether that counts as published or not seems to be entirely subjective. So while I am offering my tuppence-worth on the self-publishing debate, they are completely my own limited observations and I’m happy to not only hear other points of view in the comments but to have more knowledgeable people than me put me straight.
To be honest, this post comes from some comments and follow up posts on Jane Smith’s blog, How Publishing Really Works, and more specifically, this post which was part of a series rebutting what seems to me to have been a grossly misguided hymn to self-publishing. I do pity the man who wrote the original article, as Jane refutes his points ruthlessly over the series, but it disappoints me that so much of her very fair and informed response has been misunderstood and blown up into a storm rather than a debate on a very topical subject.
There are many points raised in the comments, and I’m not going to go through them as Jane does a much better job of responding than I could. One of the ones that really stood out for me, though, was an assertion that Jane seemed determined to review self-published books with the sole aim of proving that they are all rubbish. It’s very disappointing that someone can go to the trouble of reading, reviewing and blogging about books that the average reader will not come across in an effort to find beautiful writing, just to have someone with their own axe to grind write off those efforts as, effectively, worse than worthless. As far as I can see, self-published writers fall into two camps – the minority, who are genuinely excellent writers but for one reason or another do not have a commercially-attractive work and turn to self-publishing this particular piece, whilst in the meantime continuing to write until they do have a piece for which publishers can see a market; and the majority who have taken little feedback or criticism and having fallen at the first few hurdles decide to do it themselves. The reason I’m making this differentiation is the very small sample I’ve seen – the first camp take care to produce their book as professionally as possible and do not have a view of publishers or agents as a Mafia-like force, determined to keep real talent beaten down in the name of profit. The second, well, often do have this view, and in general their books are, as Jane says, not good enough (by any criteria).
I think a problem arises when people put publishers on some sort of pedestal. A few of the comments talk about the need (or not) for publishers to educate the public and provide worthy books instead of chasing sales. But surely a publisher is a business, and therefore has to chase sales to exist? If the public demand is for ‘worthy’ books, they will publish them; if not, they won’t. Maybe it might help people to remember that a publisher is a person doing a job – to sift through hundreds of manuscripts (of varying standard) and try to do the best job they can to make money for the company whilst producing quality products. Sometimes this will be a lucky new author, sometimes a crowd-pleaser and sometimes a celebrity piece, because, let’s face it, people buy celebrity books.
I have been into my local bookshops a few times lately. Sadly these are not as extensive as I might like. A WH Smith with a relatively small book section is my closest bookshop; followed by a moderate Waterstones in the larger town roughly 10 miles east and the same west. A decent size Waterstones is about an hour’s car ride; for a good-sized one and smaller, more independent shops, I need to go to Newcastle which is about 45 miles away. A 90 mile round trip, then, for a good bookshop. Anyway, my point is that my physical access to books is limited, as it is for my neighbours, but what I do have to say is that in those bookshops, even the closest and most limited, there is a good range of books. Not always what I want, but a good range of literary, genre fiction, celebrity bios, and some self-published (usually with a local connection). I have seen works by established authors, debut authors, celebrities and the odd long-shot, the unexpected success, as well as the runaway phenomenons that I personally aren’t that keen on but that the buying public obviously adore, judging by the coverage. I would venture an opinion, then, that between them the publishers are getting it pretty much dead right.
Yes, there are almost certainly fantastic books that slip through the cracks and don’t get picked up (if any publishers reading this have a manuscript floating round with the name Rebecca E Brown on, that’s one of them. Just saying.) and selecting books is ultimately impossible to do completely objectively – there must always be some personal preference creeping in because no-one can turn their emotions on and off at will. But I have faith in publishers, who are (like it or not) the experts in their trade, that they are doing the best job they can, and that somewhere along the way those unfortunate deserving authors will get picked up if we keep trying and keep writing and keep improving. And if any of us do turn to self-publishing, that we do it with our eyes open and for the best possible reasons, not because we’ve taken our toys home in a huff, creating a storm out of nothing.
If, by some strange quirk, you haven’t visited Jane’s blog (which I linked to above), I recommend it as one of my must-read resources for writers, alongside Nicola Morgan’s Help! I Need A Publisher! And for a guide to self-publishing which manages to be thorough, realistic and still very entertaining, pop along to see Catherine, Caffeinated and read her story.