Sunday, October 18, 2009

Traditional vs Self-Publish

Last week I became embroiled in a hot debate over whether it was prudent for authors to self-publish vs. going through the traditional publishing route. The debate was spirited, but it did bring to light the prevailing thought among many why self-publishers are loathed in the writing community. First of all, many I debated referred to the self-publishing business as vanity press and not small press or even self-publishing. This in itself indicates their position that those who self-publish do so just to see their name on a book. In fairness this is probably true for some of the people that take the self-publishing approach, but not all.

Those I debated made many compelling arguments against self-publishing. However, I will boil down their arguments into one issue. The opposing issue I took from the debate is that there is no policing in the self-publishing field. What do I mean? Well, it is simple. Policing assures quality, or at least adherence to the standards of writing. What I call the gatekeepers (e.g. agents, publishers and editors) are conspicuously missing in the self-publishing industry. There is no one to offer critical critique or check your grammar and spelling. To compound the issue, the advent of the computer has given false security to writers that they are producing quality work.

I've learned the hard way, computers and word processing applications can cause more harm than good; especially the auto correct function on most processors. All in all, the lesson learned is, writers cannot rely on the computer or themselves to edit/proofread manuscripts. Unfortunately, many self-published products are a result of self-editing efforts. Thus, those I debated last week concluded, the quality of work of "all" self-published writers could not withstand the scrutiny of the traditional publisher.

My argument is with the scrutiny the gatekeepers are applying. I forward the idea, the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing community use the explosion of the computer as an excuse not to delve into an author's submission and really examine if the story is marketable or not. As soon as they see one spelling or grammatical error in a manuscript, it goes into the reject pile. When I started out writing my manuscripts, I read that the gatekeepers were not looking for pristine work, but for marketable stories written by authors with high potential. Granted the author has to exhibit sufficient writing skills in the manuscript so not to detract from the story. But I think a few misused words, misspelled words, or grammar errors should not kill a manuscripts chance for acceptance. Today's gatekeepers only accept a flawed manuscript when it comes from famous people. Because the famous people have marketable stories, they are willing to attach a slew of editors to those projects. No, I am not advocating that each manuscript that comes through can be riddled with mistakes as long as it is a marketable story. I'm just saying manuscripts should be judged on the story and not on a few…catch what I write here…a few errors. Don't get me wrong, quality is appreciated and warranted by the system. The writer still needs to make every effort to present his best product to the gatekeepers.

With that said many authors with quality projects do become frustrated trying to get passed the gatekeepers and decide to go the self-publishing route. Although, this affords the author more control, it also increases the risks. The author has to act as agent, editor, publisher, advertiser and owner of his own business. With so many hats to wear and probably working only part-time on the book, many errors, problems and mistakes insidiously slip into the final product. This is where those I debated have a solid argument against self-published work. Until there is a mechanism to assure quality work, the self-publishing industry will continue to be spat upon by the so called "writing community" as frustrated no-talent hacks that couldn't withstand the scrutiny of the traditional publishing process. As an independent author, I reject the notion that all that use the small press/self-publishing process are frustrated no-talent hacks. I just believe the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry sometimes get it wrong.

They get it wrong because they have a checklist to follow. This checklist is too rigid and inflexible and not visionary enough to recognize a new voice…a different voice…cutting down the ivory pillars of what the book industry believes is necessary to make a good novel. Today, artists write the same old story, just with a twist, because the gatekeepers stifle imagination. There is a formula and no one can alter it. The formula is (known writer + publisher defined audience = success). Emerging stories do not see the light; new ideas never get to grow; and young writers never mature because of this formula. I promote the formula should be changed to (creative writer + dynamic audience = success). In other words the writer needs to be able to capture the reader's imagination and that the publisher's paradigm of who the audience is, needs to be challenged. The old way of defining an audience by just demographics is outdated. Demographics only work in census taking. Today, reading habits, personal experience and raw attraction is what should define an author's audience.

For example, the gatekeepers regulated my manuscripts/novels, Osguards: Guardians of the Universe, to black readers only, which in their opinion are only attracted to multi-cultural, exotic romance novels. They are wrong on both counts. First, just because my books have black protagonists, doesn't mean I'm writing for a black audience. The audience I'm writing for love to read military adventures, have experience with disciplined organizations, and are attracted to science fiction. Second, regulating the reading habits of one group of people without consideration for anything other than demographics is somewhat offensive. Now, I admit this is not always the case. Steve Barnes, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Tananarive Due, Walter Mosley, Jewell Gomez and Ishmael Reed, to name a few have been very successful in crossing the gatekeepers' threshold. So I have hope that my forage into the writing community was met by an anomaly from the gatekeepers rather than the rule. I may once again make that journey to push my work through the traditional means. But for now I remain an independent author.

However, independent authors like me are at a disadvantage. Because of this notion of being frustrated no-talent hacks, it is difficult to get wholesalers and distributors to carry our work. Foremost it is impossible to attract book reviews from media outlets. To fix this, independent authors need a dedicated book review process embedded in main stream marketing. The industry needs a review process that is able to dive into the trenches and weed the chaff from the wheat. There are reviewers that do so, but they do not stand on the same level as those reviewers that critique traditionally published works. Until this happens, marketing a "quality" self-published book will be like pushing a wet noodle up the hill with your nose.

Finally, I understand the reluctance of many to disregard anything tagged with small press/self-published stink on it, but I feel they are losing out on some of the best contemporary works in writing today. The question I have yet to sufficiently answer is with the stigma surrounding the self-publishing industry how can independent authors assure their quality novels get fair attention in marketing and distribution.



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