Self Publishing: The Destruction of Literature

Troll at keyboardThere is a raging debate (hyperbole actually, no one really cares) over the impact of self-published works on the state of literature. To understand that debate it is valuable to understand that the critics of self publishing fit into two categories. The first are those whose argument draws comparisons between self published books and Literary fiction. Literary fiction, for those not in the know, is that body of work that focuses on internal dialog, on introspection and on “big and important” things. Plot is less important in literary works than these other qualities. The second category of the debate are those who criticize self publications based on the perceived quality of the work. They are important distinctions because those in the literary fiction camp often expand argument to include traditionally published work, while those in the second category tend to isolate their criticisms to only self published works.

Both arguments have their merits, but both arguments tend to include vast generalizations that prove unsupported upon closer examination. The literary fiction (LF) argument is stronger than the self publishing argument(SP), but it is also far less important. At the heart of the LF argument is that literature should serve a higher purpose than just entertainment. Furthermore, to achieve that purpose, novels should be more than an interesting plot line —  they should reveal meaning and universal truths. I don’t argue with either statement (I just sort of yawn) – I think some novels should do those things. I also believe that reading serves many purposes and that one of those purposes is entertainment. Faulkner’s, As I Lay Dying is a classic, but one could point out that it took an awful long time to bury mom.

“One thing is destroying another thing” in discussions of art, literature, music and culture is not a new contention. Some people like to hold on to the old things and the old ways. Even in video games. There are scores of players who only play Call of Duty, World at War 1. They consider themselves “purists” and contend that every evolution of the title in subsequent releases should be scorned. Sound crazy? Well a few hundred thousand people are still using Windows 98. The problem with the literary fiction argument is that it takes about a hundred years to know if a book is a classic — being literary fiction is not synonymous with having long-term cultural value or containing universal truth.

We can also draw comparisons to the movie industry. Often the winner of the Oscar is a movie that three people watched, while the most popular films go unmentioned. LF’s don’t argue this point. They are sort of hipsters in that sense — if it’s popular than it is trash. Many popular things are trash (see Velcro wallets and the song Pumped Up Kicks) but not everything is trash because it’s popular.

I can concede that most self published work is not literary fiction. Neither, however, does it intend to be literary fiction. Those facts do not suggest nor prove that within the self publishing world there are not masterpieces of literary fiction. They also don’t prove that self published works are destroying the value of literature because “value” is defined by the reader and readers read for a variety of valuable reasons. I also believe far more children would discover a love of reading if we provided at least some stories that were both entertaining and educational. If I had to base my evaluation of reading’s value on the Scarlet Letter or anything written by William Bradford, I would most assuredly be illiterate. It is possible and probable that a hundred years from now the new classics may be stories parading under genre categories like Fantasy, Romance, Horror, or Women’s Fiction…and they might also be the P word — popular.

The second argument that self publishing means the destruction of literature is codswallop. I will agree that just because you “can” publish does not mean you “should” publish. I will agree that some self published authors are disrespectful to readers because they are not proper stewards of the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. On the other points of the argument I disagree. It is dishonest to state that all self published works are substandard. Dishonest because most claims of such are based on either a very limited reading of self published works or by readers (trolls) who haven’t actually read self published works and make statements based on false and untested contentions. Many dismiss self publishing quality under the premise that “if it was good, it would be traditionally published.” An argument which demonstrates ignorance to the traditional publishing selection process. — publishing criteria are not based on whether it is a good story, but if it is a good story within a popular (high selling) category. The volume of queries also means traditional publishing cannot possible get to every story of merit and thus great works will be in the slush pile. The critic’s logic is tantamount to believing that if Wal-Mart doesn’t carry a product then it can’t be any good.

It is difficult for a self published author to overcome the pockets of readers who hate self publishing. It is unlikely that critics will change their minds or that they will retreat from their position that self published works mean the destruction of literature. Critics will always counter any logical arguments by pointing to one or two examples that prove their point. Confirmation bias and subjective validation are common to those with strong disdain for self publishing.

Fortunately, it is also unnecessary to the future of our industry or to literature in general that critics change their position or opinion. I think the important lesson in such criticisms is that a self published author should ensure that he or she does not add fuel to the argument. Readers may not like your plot or your characters or your treatment of a specific topic — I received a 3 star review because the reader did not appreciate my characters’ attitude toward God. Readers however should not be tripping over spelling errors, wrong words, punctuation minefields or wading through info dumps. Aside from those basics, an author should pay no heed to generalized and unfounded statements that claim self published authors are hacks or that they provide no literary value.

I find it interesting, perhaps intriguing, how many critics see it as their duty to take any and every opportunity to criticize a category of writers based solely on the method of publication. An amazing form of prejudice and ignorance. It supports the contention that as intelligent as a critic may sound with the words he selects to throw at authors, the prejudice itself dismisses the critic from being considered a competent and contemplative thinker. Rhetoric may make one appear intelligent, it may make an argument influential, but it is often a weak argument disguised by pretty words —like a chocolate covered onion.

I find these critics as bemusing as the atheist who goes to great effort to remove spiritual words, symbols and the rest from public view. I’m not out hunting vampires…because I don’t believe in vampires — So why are they so willing to give up their valuable time fighting against something they believe has no value?

Makes me wonder if perhaps their hearts are just “three sizes too small.”

End Note:

  • Today Lynda taught me how to create an em-dash which is why I sprinkled them throughout without concern to proper placement.
  • I kind of do believe in vampires but it seemed making such an admission would detract from my desire to sound intelligent and authoritative in my argument.
  • I don’t use the word codswallop but since critics often dazzle with pretentious vocabulary I felt it was amusing to do the same.
  • Wal-mart may have seemed an odd choice when making a comparison to quality. It was purposeful because I unfairly and ignorantly accuse traditional publishers of seeking profit over product.
  • After writing on “tolerance” I felt like being intolerant to critics




21 replies »

  1. As a freelance editor I have heard that (enter latest technological advance) was going to be the death of publishing. So far publishing has survived most everything else as I imagine it will survive self-publishing. One good thing about self-publishing becoming so popular is that a few authors actually bother to hire the services of a good editor. I ask many would be self-publishers how much they wish to embarrass themselves by publishing a manuscript that was not ready.

    • I agree- there is a cost of entry into any business. While I have disdain for any generalized criticism (except my own of course) I do think SPAs should be admonished for skipping the third party editing piece – it’s like bringing Natural Light to the wine tasting, it brings the whole thing down.

      • Most of my clients have been former SPAs that suddenly realized their manuscript was full of errors. My last client wrote a very good geopolitical thriller however, it had several technical errors mostly with firearms. Most authors are not “gun people.” I find that mistakes with firearms usage and proper military terms and lingo usage are some of my most corrected errors for SPAs.

    • “Former SPAs who suddenly realized their manuscript was full of errors” is exactly how I got my first editing job. I left a gently scathing (oxymoronic?) review on Amazon, suggesting particular common sense “fixes” for a novel that had been edited very poorly. The author contacted me to re-edit the book and it started the ball rolling. She’d had no idea that the original editor had actually damaged her book further, rather than fixing it.

      • Editing is a business of trust – it sort of like getting one of those asian symbol tattoos, you’re really taking in on faith that the changes are correct. I’d love to see a blog that lists Ten things that warn you need a new editor.

      • I got my first editing job the same way. Amazon SPA that made some horrible errors with firearms and military jargon. I made some comments, noted that he was a few miles from where I live and offered some creative criticism. Many SPAs are unaware of editors and of the service we provide. Many are then shocked at how much it can cost to properly edit a novel. My guild is very good at weeding out the poor editors. You have to be a graduate of a professional course in order to join my guild.

      • I don’t disagree that credentials are helpful but I wouldn’t discount an editor for not attending Harvard. SPAs need affordable editing and honestly when you say guild I tend to spell it e-x-p-e-n-s-I-v-e: not saying its not of value just saying cost is the thing preventing much of the editing and support service cost structure has to reflect product profit structure… Econ 101.

      • You are correct that guild members tend to be more expensive than non-guild members. I tend to believe that you get what you pay for. Certainly there are non-guild members that do as good of a job for less but how many of those do you want to chance with your manuscript before you find a good one? With a guild certified editor, yes it costs more, but you are getting the service of someone that at least graduated from a professional editing course and had to prove their competency before being accepted by the guild. I have this discussion with each new client. I know that I lose many clients because they cannot justify the cost. Quality work takes time and time costs money. I have a BSBA, so I understand the economics. I work towards the lower end of the pay spectrum in the guild for two reasons. 1) Editing is not my primary source of income. 2) I am not an editor to someone famous. I was shocked at how much editors charge for some of the big name authors. It is difficult for most SPAs to justify the cost of a guild editor, and I disagree with many of my fellow editors on pricing structure. I do not nickel and dime for every little change. I also do not mind just looking over a ms quickly and offering some creative criticism for a token fee. Many guild editors are also competing with the non-guild freelancers who charge ridiculously low fees and hurt (in their mind) the editing profession.

  2. Halfway through the post, I found myself thinking, “Hey, he did learn how to do the em dash!” I’m so proud of you. We’ll talk placement during Lesson #2.

    Well-timed post, considering the hubbub about this lately. And I do enjoy the troll anatomy, especially the butt-shaped mouse.

  3. I do get a bit tired of the ‘Trade Publishers are the Gatekeepers of Literature/Quality Fiction’ argument. If so, why do they mess up so often? Just an example: John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces. Poor guy killed himself over being rejected everywhere. His mother took control of his manuscript after his death, flogging it ceaselessly on trade publishers to honor her son’s death. It took a frigging decade for the book to finally be published, only to go on and win the Pulitzer eleven years after Toole’s death.
    And he’s not the only one. I actually spoke to a self-published author who was glad for the opportunity to self-publish, because she’d become suicidally depressed by the rejections from trade publishing. AFAIK, she can live from the earnings of her books…

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