Thursday, January 31, 2008


I originally posted the bulk of this blog as a response to another, but it's a subject that I feel worthy of rehashing—particularly given the number of enterprises out there whose aim is to divorce a struggling writer from his/her hard-earned dollaros.

There's always lot of heated posturing on the subject of self-publishing, but in certain circles, it's come to something of a head in the last few days. I see no point in bringing locales and personalities into it; most of the problem with such heated debate anyway is that anything meaningful on either side gets lost in the clashing of egos and the trading of witticisms. That's all well and good, but it rarely accomplishes much. (Not to say it can't be fun from time to time.)

For the serious, non-hobbyist writer, getting read (a.k.a. getting published) is no simple task. The hurdles are considerable, and if you're here reading this, there's a good chance you know many of them firsthand. You have to submit. You have to wait. You have to accept criticism that sometimes isn't kind (and sometimes worse). You have to wait some more. Once your work's been accepted, you have to make sure you've got a good contract. You usually have to wait to get paid. Sometimes things happen in the business world—small press, big press, it makes no never mind—that cause the venue you were about to bust into to go bust overnight.

In the early years of the 21st century, alternatives to traditional publishing are blossoming and beckoning, and oh, so tempting because they cut out much of that painful, rigorous editorial process.


Even the best authors out there benefit from working with good, professional editors (emphasis on professional). The absence of one is just one of many nasty pitfalls in self-publishing. While there is certainly the occasional jewel among self-published works, the vast, vast majority of them would never make it out of any half-decent editor’s slushpile. Having edited a major small press magazine (Deathrealm) for a decade as well as several professional anthologies, I can tell you right now that most folks who like to call themselves “writers” are simply not fit to do so. I find it rather hellish to even imagine retail bookshelves filled with such unfiltered dreck—and with price tags on the covers! Recently, just for my own edification, I’ve read a few of examples of self-published works, and I have to tell’s a mess. People, editorial processes exist for a reason, and if you’ve indeed been through it, I trust you can appreciate why any writer worth his salt would want a good editor. Lord knows I do, and in my time, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many, many good ones (and unfortunate enough to work with a handful of bad ones).

Thus, it’s easy to see why self-published books carry such a negative stigma. Also easy to see why bookstores seldom carry them, reputable reviewers rarely review them, and book buyers usually barely glance at them. Little is more laughable than to see the term “best-selling” applied to some self-published book. Best-selling compared to what? Everyone loves to point to John Grisham, Mark Twain, and all kinds of well-known names as successful self-publishers. Guess what: major minority we're talking here. Too often from a different time period altogether. For every shining success story, one can only guess at how many thousands of utter flops exist—the only winners being the Lulus and iUniverses who rake in the dollars from all the hopefuls. To be a successful writer, you've got to be a successful businessperson. Multiply that many times over if you're running the business of publishing yourself. Are you going to actually be able to write your next book while you're playing entrepreneur in a field stacked against you?

Another trap that I personally find rather galling: lately, I’m seeing “reviewers” who expect writers to pay them to review their books. God in heaven, what next? How can a review for which money has changed hands possibly be objective? If you, as a writer, pay a reviewer (who sells you on the premise because it will help you "sell, sell, sell") and then get trashed, what has the experience done for you that couldn't have been done better by simply workshopping the manuscript—or getting feedback from a legitimate editor? Yes, you may pay a publicist to get yourself more exposure, but that’s not buying a “review.” A glowing review for which you've paid means pure diddly to anyone. A review in Publisher's Weekly means something. A review in Library Journal isn't shabby, particularly if they give you a nice one. In the speculative genre, reviews in Science Fiction Chronicle, Tangent, Cemetery Dance, and others are nice enough, and if you really think that review blurbs are going to help you out, then at least with these you've got something reasonably credible on your side. And they don't cost you more than a copy of your book (in fact, in general, they cost the publisher an advance copy; another benefit of having a real one).

Note: please avoid confusing self-publishing with Print on Demand (POD). If you don't know the difference already, you shouldn't be reading this. Go research. Is very easy.

I’m an active member of HWA. I don't see it as an “old-boy’s club”; it’s a group that promotes professional pay for professional writers. Period. It’s hardly a perfect organization, but its “exclusivity,” if one wants to call it that, is there because it’s intended to promote professionalism—in terms of dollars and cents. It’s not for the casual hobbyist writer. As writers who work, we are looking to get paid to write by publishers who have the resources to acquire, edit, publish, and market quality fiction.

Just to clear up a misconception that came to my attention: an advance, at least from any reputable publisher, is not a loan. It’s just what it says it is. If your title doesn’t earn out, you may have difficulty getting as large an advance in the future, and if you regularly fail to earn out, then the publisher may not be so eager to continue carrying you. But you don’t give that advance money back to them. I would never deal with a publisher who expected the writer to return a portion of it. After all, while authors can be expected to publicize and push and help sales along, it’s the publisher’s job to sell the title. Failing to earn out isn’t solely the author’s fault.

As for me and why you might even care to listen to my opinion...well, no, I'm no best-seller; I'm no celebrity; and I'm not particularly rich from writing. But I've got a lot of years of working with editors, publishers, and other writers, in the big presses and the small presses. I make money writing, sometimes enough to make a real difference in my standard of living. No fame, but I have at least a modicum of recognition in the field, and at least to some, a certain amount of credibility that comes from lots of time dealing with professionals in the business.

Writing itself is a tough endeavor; marketing yourself is perhaps even tougher. Yes, the publishing landscape is changing, and innovative approaches, from the top down, are both necessary and part of the business. One thing that doesn’t change, though, is that the editorial process exists for a reason. A very solid reason. Writers who defy it do so at their own risk, and that risk is pretty grave, if you ever expect to have a real career.

Here's a link or two to articles and blogs on the subject that I feel are noteworthy and even balanced. Perhaps when I've got a tad more time to dig, I'll add a few more.

Random Humbugs to Round Off the Year (Storytellers Unplugged)

Self-Publishing: Perils, Pitfalls, and Possibilities

True Stories About Publish America


Okay, it's time for my dinner. I go away now.


Anonymous said...

Well said! Well said!

I've actually seen some Publish America books at our Barnes & Noble and all I've been able to think is WHY???

David Niall Wilson said...

You are spitting into the wind, my friend, and the only joy is that the computer shields the actual spit from hitting you on the return trip.

The people who understand what you are saying will nod their heads.

The people who think they know better will continue to do what they do, selling a few dozen copies of books that never should have been published and wondering why they aren't famous.

The truly clueless will just say you don't know what you're talking about because it's a new WORLD man, and blogging is the new writing, and self-publishing is the only non-sellout-route to whatever...


I write for part of my living...thousands of dollars a year I make on a regular basis, and it's important to me. It validates that I have some ability, and that I've paid the requisite dues...and continue to pay them.

For every successfully self-published book there are MOUNTAINS of unsuccessful ones. There are always people with their hands out for your money that will promise to shoot you past all the steps on the way to the top, but most of them are just what they appear to be...greedy bottom-feeders. If they truly could do what they claim, they'd be writing best-sellers themselves and promoting them to the top.


Paid reviews? Even I hadn't heard about THAT...

Macabre Ink