Novelist Ros Barber wrote a piece for The Guardian’s Books blog last week that tacitly pans self-publishing in favor of traditional publication.* Entitled “For me, traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way,” the article is a list of points explaining why Ms. Barber won’t self-publish, and why you shouldn’t either. Here’s my point by point rebuttal.
“You have to forget writing for a living.”
“If you self-publish your book, you are not going to be writing for a living. You are going to be marketing for a living. Self-published authors should expect to spend only 10% of their time writing and 90% of their time marketing.”
Barber’s first assertion, like all those that follow, is anecdotal at best and a blind assertion without any evidentiary support at worst. The only explanation for the 90/10 percent ratio she cites is that a single self-published author who commented on her blog put the percentage of time he actually spent writing in the single digits.
This breakdown is contrary to my own experience and that of pretty much every self-published writer I’ve talked to, but, more importantly, it also ignores a fundamental truth of publishing in 2016: every author is also a marketer.
Ms. Barber’s article is very quaint, in that it makes references and draws allusions to a type of writing life that simply does not exist anymore, except perhaps for a very select few. She impliedly invokes the image of a writer who focuses all of his time on the craft itself, “reveling” in the language of his creation, likely hunched over an Underwood putting words to the page with equal parts passion and torment. The type of writer whose only obligation is the writing–the craft, oh, don’t we love to call it the Craft; the words, my friend! Hemingway and Joyce!–who doesn’t have to leave his desk until his editor tells him its time to accept his Man Booker prize.
But this completely ignores the fact that pretty much every traditionally published author is also expected to do a significant amount of marketing these days. Unless your name is George R. R. Martin or J.K. Rowling, you can pretty much forget about your publisher spending any significant amount of money advertising your book. You’re expected to have your own “platform” from which to market your work, which is why literary agents are often quite interested in how many Twitter and Facebook followers you have. People are putting that stuff in query letters, these days.
Don’t believe me? Go read terribleminds.com or Mark Lawrence’s blog. Or, for that matter, go read your favorite traditionally published author’s blog–if their name isn’t Stephen King, they’ve no doubt mentioned this phenomenon at some point.
So with that in mind, it’s more than a little deceptive to sit there and say self-publishing’s bogus because it involves a lot of marketing. Welcome to the future, Ms. Barber. We have this thing called the Internet, and all authors are expected to do their part marketing their work. And the vast majority of those authors will also tell you that the “work” of being a writer often does eclipse the time spent actually writing, sadly enough.
Finally, this quote is just downright offensive: “But if your passion is creating worlds and characters, telling great stories, and/or revelling in language, you might want to aim for traditional publication.” We’re all in this for the passion of it, and implying that self-published authors can’t create as well because they (arguably) have more logistics to worry about is presumptuous and, often, completely inaccurate. If your passion is creating worlds and characters, telling great stories, and/or revelling in language, you might want to go ahead and just fucking do that, regardless of who publishes your book. The implication that self-publishing is just a bunch of crazed, auto-tweeting salespeople who either don’t have the time or the interest in focusing on the work itself is asinine.
Don’t judge the self-publishing community on the worst of us, Ms. Barber. We don’t judge you on James Patterson.
“Self-publishing can make you behave like a fool.”
“Imagine we have just met. I invite you into my house and the first thing you do is show me the advertising blurb for your book and press me to check it out on Amazon.”
Again, the patronizing comparison to the worst kind of hard-selling online shyster. Yes, there are plenty of authors who think spamming people’s feeds with repeated “buy my book” messages is a good idea. I don’t know how well they do, but I do know pretty much every reasonable person I’ve spoken to thinks they’re ridiculous, and nowhere have I read this described as a winning social media strategy. I immediately unfollow people who do this.
“Gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego.”
In which Barber indulges in an overblown metaphor about a cabinet-maker, the point of which seems to be that experience counts when it comes to perfecting your skills. Well, um, yeah. It does. No argument there. Most authors, self-published or otherwise, have to write a few books before they really hit their stride. And I’m aware that some feel that the ability to “throw a book up on Amazon” means that there is no refinement process in self-publishing, and that self-published authors don’t hone their craft because they’re not forced to continually up their game just to break in.
But it’s not that there aren’t gatekeepers, it’s just that the gatekeepers have changed. Yes, you can publish anything to Amazon, but if it’s shit people will know it’s shit, and it won’t sell. If you’re serious about writing, you’ll continue writing until your writing gets better, regardless of whether an editor or an audience makes that determination.
“Good writers become good because they serve an apprenticeship. Serving your apprenticeship is important.”
See above. These two are really the same point. My response is the same. All serious writers serve an apprenticeship. For some, their masterpiece (in the literal sense of the term) is getting published; for others, it is seeing a readership grow or simply looking back on their early work with increased understanding.
So, in a sense, I guess I’ll give her this one: yes, learning to write is a process. But you can do it by writing, not just by getting published traditionally.
Surprisingly, Barber doesn’t make the point that many critics of self-publishing do: that the absence of an agent/editor relationship negatively impacts the finished work. I’ve addressed this issue before, so I won’t repeat myself here.
“You can forget Hay festival and the Booker.”
Yes, you can. Provided you gave two shits about them in the first place. Ms. Barber is mostly talking about literary fiction in this article, and she points out that literary prize shortlists are pretty much the only way to get literary fiction on the bestseller lists. Which is true, since people don’t really read literary fiction anymore.
Genre fiction has its own awards, and yes, those awards are pretty much solely relegated to traditionally published work. Mainstream publications’ reviews are, as well. But it’s questionable how much longer that will be the case, given the increasing popularity of self-published fiction. Matt Damon starred in The Martian because Andy Weir self-published a novel on his website and then Amazon.com–it’s only a matter of time until the literary elite catches up to the mainstream. Or not, who knows. Who cares, really? The truth is, unless you’re talking about the Pulitzer and the Nobel, literary prizes are mostly only important to publishers and other authors. Yes, that stamp on your cover might give your sales a boost, but most readers don’t choose what they read based on awards, especially if we’re talking about genre fiction. The debacle at last year’s Hugo Awards revealed some of the cabalistic workings of fiction awards–on both sides. Their importance is questionable at best, particularly when it comes to awards given out by organizations where a vote requires a membership.
Perhaps the growth of new awards on the Internet will change this, eventually. I know I’d rather win a Stabby than a Hugo, at this point.
“You risk looking like an amateur.”
Ah, here’s the “you need an editor” argument, but she’s focusing on the fact that traditionally published authors get services like editing and design as part of their deal.
Look, there are plenty of traditionally published authors who manage to look like amateurs even with the supposed benefit of a publishing house behind them. Moreover, you absolutely can contract out for all of the services you need: editing, design, etc. And despite Ms. Barber’s presumption to the contrary, there’s good stuff out there. Let me let you in on a little secret, Ms. Barber: those artists and designers that publishing houses hire? A lot of them are freelancers. Many of them also offer their services to the public. And a little while spent browsing Deviant Art and, yes, even Fiverr.com reveals that there is a lot of talent on the Internet for the hiring at an affordable rate. And they’re also all using the same tools as the big boys. Access to the full suite of Adobe design apps, for example, is only $50 a month.
The same goes for editors: there are, and always have been, a lot of good editors available for hire through the Internet.
And yes, it might cost some money. Being an author is a business, and business requires an investment of capital in order to function. That goes for traditional publication as well, it’s just hidden better.
I know a lot of writers feel differently, but I’m more comfortable putting up a little of my own money in any case. That way, I own my success or failure. I’d rather be successful in my own right, or a failure with no one to apologize to but myself.
I think it’s worth pointing out here, too, that despite Barber’s condescending reference to the “authorpreneur” platform–that is, the practice of supplementing one’s self-published writing income by offering self-publishing consulting and services to other hopeful authors–her own website reveals that she is doing the same thing. In addition to offering online, writing-related self-motivational “live events,” the front page of rosbarber.com loudly pushes a “free resource guide” called “The 5 Essential Tools I Use to Write My Books.” If that title sounds like clickbait to you, that’s because that’s exactly what it is.
She refers to offering such ancillary services in her piece for The Guardian in a way that makes it sound as if it’s something only self-published authors need to do, but her own website reads like an infomercial.
“70% of nothing is nothing.”
Ms. Barber points out in closing, again by anecdote, that traditionally published authors make more than self-published authors. Let’s think about that assertion.
Here’s what Forbes had to say about author income back in 2013:
According to data from a new survey from Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest, the median income range for self-published authors is under $5,000 and nearly 20% of self-published authors report deriving no income from their writing.
By comparison, authors published by traditional publishers had a median income range of $5,000 to $9,999 and “hybrid authors” (those who both self-publish and publish with established publishers) had a median income range of $15,000 to $19,999.
At the high end of the spectrum, 1.8% of self-published authors made over $100,000 from their writing last year, compared with 8.8% of traditionally published authors and 13.2% of hybrid authors.
The one takeaway from this information ought to be that almost nobody is making great money writing books, either traditionally or via self-publishing, and the average traditionally published author is not supporting herself on her writing income. This is obvious enough if you follow any authors on Twitter–unless you’ve hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list recently, chances are you’re working a day job and writing at night, even if you’re published by a major house.
That said, there are two points I want to make here.
First, the data is clear that it is hybrid authors, not authors who are exclusively traditionally published, who are doing the best financially. Meaning that even if you’re critical of self-publishing, it clearly has become an important facet of professional writing.
Second, this is one situation where the huge number of non-profitable, non-serious self-published authors actually works to our statistical advantage. When most self-published authors make zero income from their work–i.e., the hundreds of thousands of people who just “throw their book up on Amazon,” including but not limited to the thousands of people who self-published Grandma’s cookbook, that means that they bring down the curve for the rest of us. In other words, the median figures quoted above are not necessarily representative of the median income of self-published authors who are actively trying to make a living as working novelists.
Regardless of the sample group from whom that data was collected, traditionally published authors have no such competition from less dedicated writers.
In all, Barber’s pat summary of the problems of self-publishing is just that: thin, conclusory, and based on evidence that is anecdotal at best.
If the Guardian wants to talk about gatekeepers, maybe they should tighten the security at the gates of their Books blog.
* I read this article after Mark Lawrence shared it under the #SPFBO hashtag on Twitter. In response, several of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off contestants were talking to Fantasy Book Critic about possibly doing a group response on that blog. If and when such a post appears, I will happily link to it here.