Sunday, March 25, 2012

Quality: Self-Pub Vs. Traditional-Pub

So, Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote a really long and strangely strawman-heavy argument that traditional publishing doesn’t guarantee quality. I like Rusch’s blog, and this was just one of many pieces defending the self-publishing market’s reputation at the expense of traditional publishing.

Honestly, I wanted to be on board with her. I know that there is quality work in the self-published market, and that there are some incredibly talented and hard-working freelance editors, and that many of the traditionally-published writers will be better off moving to self-publication, and most certainly there are publishing house editors that slack off.

But so much of Rusch’s diatribe (like many similar diatribes) was oversimplified or felt like deliberate untruth. She claimed to receive e-mails from traditional-publishing writers and editors who, “believe that only traditional publishing can guarantee that the reader will get a quality product.” How many of those e-mails actually espoused belief in that guarantee? I'm willing to bet very few, though I don't have the evidence since it's her inbox, not mine. No one in my inbox, and no one I can remember talking to, espoused this belief. I damned sure don’t believe traditional publishing guarantees quality work, and haven’t believed that since I was eleven and bought a bad traditionally published book at a school fair.

Now, I have run into many people who presumed it more likely that a traditionally-published book would be worthwhile than a self-published one. It seems like most of those people believed this based on experience with vanity publishing and the stuff that mucks the 99-cent zone on Amazon, though I didn’t keep a tally. There is definitely the cultural impression that your odds are better with a mainstream publisher’s book than with self-published book. That's a serious (and in several ways flawed) concern authors must deal with, but rarely gets a fair hearing.

Not everyone who works in traditional publishing thinks all their products are better than all the products in the self-publishing market, nor do all writers view it that way, nor have I ever heard anyone ever voice the opinion that, in Rusch’s words, "Amanda Hocking’s books [are] better because St. Martins Press published them." For such a long article, she created many unfortunate strawmen that only undermined the credibility of her argument, especially when what she was arguing towards could easily be oversimplified to "Any self-published books are just as good as any traditionally published books." Whether or not she believes this, it is something these arguments reduce to too often, and it is only invited by pre-emptively engaging in this sort of oversimplification.

I'm reading Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers right now. No self-published book I've read in the last fifteen months can touch it. In fact, most of those self-published books weren't worth finishing.

Does that mean all self-published books are crap? No.

Does it mean self-published books can't meet the high quality of the best traditionally-published books? No, and I'd sure hope not, as it's the avenue I'm considering.

But does it indicate that most self-published books don't meet the level of quality of high-end traditionally-published books? That's the sticking point Rusch failed to address rigorously, and in my experience, that ardent self-pubbers circle around in over-defense of their distribution model. This is the sticking point that, more than anything and despite the talent of many writers in the e-pub world, sustains the current stigma.

Have I read crappy traditionally-published books? Yes, too many. Too many not to laugh when traditionally published authors leave the big New York houses to self-publish. It’s a funny world.


  1. One thing to keep in mind in the traditional VS indie discussion (in addition to quality) is control. A trad publisher may overrule you on some things. I've been published both ways & the quality is actually better in the indie stuff... and the control I have there is satisfying!

    1. I'd bet! Especially when you're just uploading to Smashwords and Amazon, you almost don't have an authority over you, I guess barring some policies about extreme content. This door might even swing both ways, with an inexperienced writer in control creating an inferior product that would benefit from checking, and a highly competent writer not being held back by someone else's unuseful predilections. That's an interesting point, Jill. One hopes that the market and mavens sift the latter type out and raise them up to prominence.

      It does suck that the incredibly diverse modern publishing market lacks the likes of Max Perkins. Or maybe we just haven't heard of them with all the voices?

  2. I think you've hit at least one nail o the head with "all of the voices". It's been my experience that the self-pub world has a far higher percentage of absolute trash, and it's difficult to sort out the true gems from the overwhelming volume. I read as much as I can from all sources and all genres, but if I'm in the mood for a really great book, I use the tried and true method - asking people that I know well (and who know me well) for recommendations, and the publisher doesn't matter.

  3. I have talented friends who are self-published and have put serious time and effort into their product and I believe they are equal to that of anything you'd find on the shelf in Barnes & Noble. The books are well edited and have great covers. Yes, self-publishing gives you all the control you want, but what it doesn't give you is the distribution, such as foreign rights. We all have Twitter followers and Facebook friends in other countries and you can make your book available on AmazonUK, but can you translate it into German, Spanish, or any number of Asian languages? Can you really access the global market on your own? Can you even reach middle America on your own? I don't know that I can and after watching what my friends have gone through in terms of marketing themselves, I know it's something I personally don't have the time to invest in on my own. Self-publishing isn't the right choice for me right now. It doesn't mean that it can't be or won't be down the line, but right now it's just not an option I have the time to invest in.

    But more than anything I really don't understand why it's always an us vs. them argument. Self-publishing is right for some and not for others. Neither side is better. There are a lot of self-righteous attitudes on both sides of the argument and it just makes me tired. We all want to reach readers, whatever path we choose is personal and we celebrate whatever choices our fellow writers make.

  4. More power to ya' if you could plow (or plough if you prefer) through all of Rusch's article. I'll take your word that she did & said. I pretty much agree with your opinions, except I wonder about "But does it indicate that most self-published books don't meet the level of quality of high-end traditionally-published books?" being the crux of the weakening SP stigma.

    I think we can all theorize about that and never prove anything, especially because we couldn't agree on how to judge such quality.

    And yet ...

    Earlier this month, I declined to edit a new writer's novel because it was so poorly written. There was little to edit--it needed rewriting by someone who can write reasonably well. The author had been all ready to find a publisher.

    Last week I turned down editing a novel that I had read to critique. It was so beautiful and had only a couple of typos. In fact, I felt guilty taking the new writer's money for the critique, when all I could say was, "I hope you'll let me help you find an agent." She had asked me also to format the work for self-publishing.

  5. Kris has responded to your comment on her blog. I thought that you'd like to see that if you already hadn't because her arguments actually AREN’T strawmen arguments.

    1. Thank you for bringing my attention to it. I went back and found her reply, though it doesn't actually provide any evidence for her claims. The one article she linked in another, older post is actually about traditional publishing as a mechanism for sifting through poor fiction, not the claim that it's a guarantee of quality. I'm not surprised the rest of her response was a question of my experience rather than the presentation of evidence to educate me, but I was pretty disappointed. Her arguments in that post remain hefty strawmen. Any argument that's led by "The gist of the argument is this: Only traditional publishing companies can publish a quality product" without a quote, source or actual piece of evidence attached tends to function that way.


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