The Way of the Word

18. January 2010

Sturgeon’s Revelation And Self-Publishing

Filed under: books,Commentary,writing — jensaltmann @ 10:55
Tags: , , , , ,

Some publishing pundits look at the current state of publishing, especially all the POD printing services out there, and cry:

“Now everyone can have their book published”

They say that as if it’s a good thing. Is it? Frankly, I don’t think so.

Sturgeon’s Revelation says: “90% of everything is crud.” SF writer Theodore Sturgeon said that back in the 1950s. Personally, I’m inclined to think he was optimistic, but let’s just go with that figure.

The best argument for traditional publishing is that as the reader, you can be assured that there has been some quality control. The novels you see have been looked at by an agent, then by an editor. Both helped the writer make it the best they could make it. In the next step it has been proofread, to eliminate most of the writer’s spelling and grammatical errors. Someone designed an enticing cover for it. Only then has it been professionally printed and distributed so that you, the reader, can buy it and read it.

That’s the theory. In practice, the quality control isn’t really all that successful, is it?

If you look at the shelves of any given bookstore, you’ll see pretty much the same thing. You see a handful of bestsellers by the same handful of writers. You’ll see a ton of midlist novelsm, which you won’t remember 50 seconds after you’ve seen them because their covers all look the same and the description on the jacket also sound very much the same. If you’re looking at thrillers, odds are you’ll get a choice of several dozen thrillers where a mentally and/or emotionally damaged protagonist has to take on a serial killer who has some vague connection to the protagonist’s past. If you look at the horror section, the only thing that hasn’t been crowded out by novels of women who have a problem deciding if they should fuck the sexy vampire or the erotic werewolf are zombie novels. On the SF shelf, you get a choice between Star Trek novels, Star Wars novels and militaristic SF. The general fiction section probably flows over with books that carry the byline of TV personalities, movie stars or other celebrities.

The problem is that the above is stuff that sells. If Dan Brown has a bestseller about a Great Religious Conspiracy, then agents and editors will look for more novels featuring Great Religious Conspiracies. Writers who are desperate to sell their stuff will write about Great Religious Conspiracies. The result is that the bookstores will be flooded with novels about Great Religious Conspiracies. Because right now, that is what sells, and the publishing companies aren’t about providng quality entertainment, they’re about what sells. Can’t blame them, especially these days.

Basically, book publishers are exactly like Hollywood: they don’t take chances. Every now and then, a new and original voice will slip through. But in these days of literary homogenizsation, that is an increasingly rare event.

The question is, is self-publishing an alternative? I say thee nay.

One problem is that it lacks quality control. Anyone can get anything “published” by a printing service like Lulu. Anyone out there willing to try and see if Lulu will actually publish someone’s laundry list? Services like Lulu don’t care what they print up. They’re not publishers, they’re printing presses. You can type up the worst kind of crud with maybe one correctly spelt word per page, and Lulu will print it up and just take their cut if anyone buys a copy. Unlike a publishing company that actually has a reputation to lose, these printing services know they won’t be held responsible for what they clients have them print. The lack of quality control goes much farther. If you collected those 500 rejection slips because your writing sucks and your story doesn’t make sense, the printing services won’t care. If you really cared about what you published, you’d spend a couple of hundred bucks on a professional editor, right?

I won’t go into how they also won’t help you with marketing. These days, even publishing companies expect the writers to do most of it themselves, so that doesn’t really make a difference. The other big difference, however, is distribution. A real publisher will get your books into the bookstores. POD presses won’t. The difference here is that all your marketing efforts will amount to nothing, because the potential buyers can’t easily buy your book. (Unless they buy online.) No bookstore presence also means that your book won’t be randomly discovered by readers who browse the bookshelves. It will only be bought by people who actively seek it out and place an order.

Of course, regarding marketing, the deck is also stacked against you. Reviewers won’t review self-published books. One journalist told me that when he gets a review copy from a local author, he’s usually interested — until he finds out that it’s self-published. I’ll concede that this can be something of a backhanded compliment: I once read a review that started, “We don’t usually review self-published books, but…”

The question is, is self-publishing through a POD service a good way to launch your writing career? Again, I’d answer the question in the negative.  Because anyone and everyone can get their book out there, regardless of (lack of) quality, self-publishing is not considered publishing. Last week, I looked at the submission guidelines of publishing companies. I was wondering if perhaps I should bypass getting an agent and instead start submitting The Coldest Blood directly. Several of the publishers I looked at, and those were mostly small press and indy publishers, actually had it in their submission guidelines that writers who had self-published their previous work, or had it published as e-books, would not even be considered. If even the small presses and indies are that biased against self-publishing…

Anyway, all of this can be summed up as: if you are serious about having a writing career, don’t self-publish.

But wait, you cry, what about those writers who self-published and were discovered that way? GP Taylor started out that way, Matthew Reilley, or that guy who published that zombie novel on his blog and it got picked up? To this, I’d say, those are three examples out of how many hundred or thousand who self-publish in one way or another every year? I’d say that those are the exceptions that support the rule.

When is self-publishing an option? From where I sit, it’s an option for four kinds of people:

– It’s an option for the hobbyist. The one who wrote a book for fun and figured, why not try to make some money out of it. The kind who looks at the income from his book and is happy if it earns them enough to take their family out for dinner.

– Or the one who is really passionate about a certain subject matter, so they write a book about it. Sadly, there is not much general interest in whatever subject matter they write about, so reardless of quality, it doesn’t find a publisher. Since they are really passionate about it, and if they don’t intend to make a career of it, self-publishing is definitely an option.

– Or those who wrote book after book, collected rejection after rejection, until they gave up all hope of ever having a real career and thus decided to self-publish their work in order to share it, because even that is better than just having spent all those years working for the waste basket.

– Celebrities won’t go away, and they will continue to crowd those proverbial talented new voices off the bookshelves because they make money for the publishers simply by virtue of being celebrities. But if anyone should go the POD route, it’s them. Simply because they have it easiest to make it known out there that they have self-published a book. And any reviewer who would toss a self-published novel by an unknown into the trash without opening the envelope would happily review a celebrity’s self-published book.

That’s it, really. Self-publishing is an option if you don’t have any plans for a serious writing career. If it doesn’t matter for you whether or not you’ll ever get properly published.

But what about Sturgeon’s Revelation? That 90% of everything is crud?

Good question, and now we’re coming to the real point of why I consider it a bad thing that anyone can publish anything these days. I mean, I generally should be glad if more people self-publish. It reduces the competition over getting represented by an agency, or even actually published. The problem is that if all those self-publishers put all their stuff on the market, the readers lose what little chance they have left of keeping an eye out for interesting stuff. The signal-to-noise ratio changes, and not for the better. There is already too much noise out there, drowning out the signal. More self-publishing means more noise to cover up the signal.



  1. Here’s a heartwarming POD full circle story for you.

    My first comic, The Collected Prison Funnies, was done with a POD business. They printed me just enough copies to sell some to local shops and at a couple of conventions. Was essentially like doing a Kinkos zine, but looked a heck of a lot nicer.

    It was the feedback from that which got me to send a copy to Diamond for inclusion in their catalogue. They accepted, I promoted, and I did a nice big print run with a traditional printer (lesser quality paper, strangely!). That run sold out so I did another, which recently sold out as well.

    Now I’m in the situation where I have an OOP issue, but no plans to go back to press on it. A trade may happen eventually, but that doesn’t help those that just need that issue. So, I’m back at POD. Taking the issue that started off that way and offering it again (in the next couple of weeks) in the format it was originally printed in! Which is weird, but makes sense.

    Yeah, 90% of what gets printed is crap. But POD is also a good way of finding and cultivating the talented 10%. I probably wouldn’t have done the books that I’ve managed to get out there if it wasn’t for the initial POD boost and that feeling of having a book of mine in my hands.

    Anyways, POD helped me and I’m not a celebrity. It’s not the be-all-end-all to printing, but it can be a valuable tool for a creator.


    Comment by Chip Zdarsky — 18. January 2010 @ 16:34

  2. Nice story, but! I totally admit that in comics, self-publishing is not only an option, it’s a requirement. If I applied my rant to comics, there would be no comics industry at all today. I’m looking at it from another angle, however. Not comics, but book publishing.

    Comment by jensaltmann — 18. January 2010 @ 17:24

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