The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Saturday, April 22, 2006

DIY vs. RIP - part 1

Slush-pile on self-published authors:

Ive receieved a number of emails lately inquiring about the validity of self-publishing. Its a well-worn topic and my personal perspective isnt much different than everyone elses. In the right conditions, handled properly, with realistic attitudes, self-publishing can be a viable business decision for certain people. But I dont believe in resorting to it just because you think the mainstream publishing industry is comprised of meanies who arent smart enough to comprehend your art.

In addition to these queries about the validity of printing your own books, a handful of the emailers also wanted to know why self-publishing is so reviled. I think there are a couple of factors that contribute to the negative perception. First, there are undoubtedly snobs who look for a chance to sneer and chuckle. Elitist assholes exist in every industry so its absurd to think there arent folks in the publishing biz who love nothing more than an opportunity to pooh-pooh the self-published hoi polloi. Second, not every one, but some self-published authors invite the very ridicule they hate....

I'm lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time in the company of writers. Ive been around bestsellers and the most beloved literary icons. And not once, not ever, have I heard these people introduce themselves as a published author. They meet a non-bookish person and they say Im a writer. They dont ever feel the need to include the published qualifier.

However, the type of person who gives self-publishing a bad name adores that phrase....For the people who invite the derision, their obsession with the published tag makes all the difference in the world. And they dont seem to realize how its a meaningless title when you bestow it upon yourself. If I go down to the YMCA and play a round of pickup basketball, then pay myself afterwards, does that give me the right to claim to be a professional athlete? If I form my own team, can I insinuate to friends that theres no difference between me and Kobe?

Slush-pile continues:

The current mainstream method of selecting books for publication, editing them, and distributing those texts is archaic, ineffecient, ineffective, often ill-informed, and frequently unfair. I wont deny that. But, it remains the system that we have. Does that system pump out horrendous books that are the literary equivalent of roadkill? Absolutely. Does that system overlook and ignore worthy authors and genius books in favor of celebrity crap? Definitely. Nevertheless, it is still the system we have and the system we all understand.

As a defence of the status quo, Slush-pile's argument is fine as far as it goes. But unfortunately the system is getting progressively worse -- it's a slow process that is taking place decade-by-decade rather than year-by-year (though recently it hasn't seemed that way). But publishing insiders don't seem to grasp the extent to which they are walling themselves off from emerging writers. At present, many major publishing houses don't even look at work by emerging writers; and by this, I don't mean they won't look at completed manuscripts (the manuscripts that used to end up in the slush-pile the blog takes its name from). Instead, the major houses are not looking at anything: no queries, no sample chapters, nothing. Instead, it all has to be funnelled through agents. And again, this is fine as far as it goes. Most serious writers these days either have agents or are looking for them (this writer included). However, just because the system is what it is doesn't mean we have to be content with it.

I suppose that no one is to blame and everyone is to blame: the publishers and agents, of course, are just people generally doing their best. In some cases, they probably deserve more praise than authors themselves, because they are performing a task that is frequently underappreciated. (Perhaps we could look more critically at the role book prizes are playing.) And if book sales are declining, ultimately publishers have to respond to that reality. Nevertheless, that is not what Slush Pile is talking about here. Instead, SP wants to distinguish between professionals and amateurs; people with real talent and wannabes. But here's the thing: it may be that in the current climate of literary world panic that the two groups are misidentified. And this, too, seems to be a trend that is worsening.

These days, the major houses are tending to publish not so much literature as Literature TM; the "brand" of literature; something that has literary aspects but also, on some hard-to-identify level, is overly removed from life, or else simply is not as good an evocation of life as the work lesser known writers are producing. For what it's worth, two of the best short stories I have ever read, bar none, are by unknown writers. Again, the role that literary prizes are playing in the contemporary definition of literary writing needs to be examined closely, because the prizes themselves are frequently not pure assessments of quality but adulterated by an entire host of conflicting interests.*

In short, what is happening in the literary world today may not justify the increasing trend toward self-publishing, but it helps explain it.

*(See Laura Miller, Jason Cowley or James Wood who present various points of view on this topic. See also the commentary that emerges in various trade magazines and newspaper book columns around the time big literary prizes are due to be announced.)


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