The Self-Aggrandizing Self-Publishing Kings: Extreme Rhetoric, Inflammatory Language and Ulterior Motives
A few weeks ago, author Tobias Buckell spoke out on his blog about the extreme rhetoric and inflammatory language used by those who… let’s say they “advocate” for self-publishing and the end of the old publishing paradigm.
A lot of people blasted Buckell – well, a lot of people who already buy into the rhetoric of the self-crowned self-publishing Kings. But I saw in his post a reflection of my own discomfort with the rhetoric and language of these self-publishing cheerleaders.
While Buckell’s comments, itself, lead off with some pretty strong – one might even say inflammatory – language, the point he was making, the point that struck home for me, was that many of these self-crowned self-publishing Kings make a habit of using some pretty offensive language and imagery in their anti-traditional-publishing diatribes.
A good run-down of the issues Buckell inveighed against are given on writer S. V. Rowle’s blog. The basic argument goes thusly: if you’re using extreme, inflammatory, insensitive, and offensive language in the main thrust of your argument, then it doesn’t really matter whether your argument has merits; you’ve basically set yourself up as a jack-ass that can safely be ignored.
This is a big driver of what makes me uncomfortable with these supposed self-publishing cheer-leaders, though it’s not the only one. What sorts of things are they saying, that bothered Tobias – and myself – so much? Author Michael Stackpole referred to people who persist in traditional publishing, and defend the traditional model, as “House Slaves” (and he does this while continuing to traditionally publish, apparently without any sense of irony). Then he dug himself in deeper, trying to defend his earlier comment while claiming that he only meant it in an “economic” sense, and that people shouldn’t be offended by his analogy: he somehow expects people to believe that either he’s ignorant of the loaded racial, cultural, and classist baggage such a term carries with it, or that he’s somehow entitled to use the term despite that baggage without getting called on the racially and culturally insensitive subtext of his message.
Barry Eisler, himself no longer a true self-publisher, having accepted an exclusive deal with Amazon, refered back to Stackpole’s analogy and attempted to one-up Stackpole by comparing those who persist in traditional publishing to those who suffer from ”Stockholm Syndrome“. The subtext (okay, it’s not really subtext; no need to read between the lines here): writers who traditionally publish are mentally ill.
J.A. Konrath - the original self-aggrandizing, self-crowned, self-publishing king - used his own racially-insensitive metaphor, by comparing self-published authors to the “Negro League” of baseball. (Of course, Konrath has joined Eisler among the ranks of a not-really-a-true-self-publisher, by signing an exclusive deal with Amazon as well. I see a trend here…)
Author, and inventor of the term “Steampunk” K.W. Jeter later defended Stackpole’s fraught analogy (vis-a-vis “House Slaves”).
And in the ground-breaking post on Konrath’s blog in which Eisler announced he’d turned down a half-million-dollar deal from his publisher in order to self-published (only later to renege on that to publish not on his own but with a non-traditional publisher, i.e. Amazon – so he’s never actually self-published), Konrath and Eisler go on an extended digression on the subject rape, treating the matter as though it is one worthy of jokes and amusement.
Newsflash, folks: if you refer to a certain group of people as “House Slaves”, and pretend ignorance to the racially, culturally, and socio-economically insensitive manner in which you employ such rhetoric, you will earn the justified scorn of those people and others who are offended by your inflammatory language.
Newsflash: if you call an entire group of people “mentally ill”, you are not demonstrating that you fully grasp the merits of your own arguments, because you have ceded any rational debate to the realm of pointless and cruel ad hominem attacks. When you resort to ad hominems, you inherently demonstrate the weakness of your rhetorical position. That’s like the first law of debate, or something.
Newsflash: rape is not funny, it never has been nor ever will be. It is a sick and cruel and violent and criminal act. When you treat the subject so cavalierly and so audaciously, without concern for the feelings of others or the truly repugnant nature of the thing about which you joke, you have earned the derision and enmity of rationally-minded people.
When you blow off the legitimate complaints of people who otherwise agree with your position, and whine that no one’s engaging the merits of your arguments, you demonstrate something akin either to naiveté or to bullish pigheadedness. You’re not winning any points among those of us who appreciate rational, calm, and reasoned debate. You’re not winning over those of use who are looking at the rapidly-changing publishing landscape and trying to figure out what the best thing to do for our own careers is.
When you ignore the economic realities of people whose situations are markedly different from your own, and suggest that somehow what they doing is wrong even if it’s working for them, you make yourself into a one-note, one-dimensional clown with no perspective.
When people question why I have trouble with the rhetoric of the most outspoken, public and visible proponents of self-publishing, this is the sort of thing that sets me off about them.
What really steams me, though, is what I must conclude is either rank hypocrisy or a sick, thinly-veiled cynicism, with regard to the advice they give about self-publishing. Why do they say these inflammatory things? Why do they make such a habit of offending people? Because it draws attention. That attention creates publicity. That publicity leads to greater awareness. All of which? Drives sales. Of course I can’t prove it, because insofar as I’m aware these guys don’t publicly share their sales data, but I suspect that if we could peel back the veil we’d find that these authors have benefited directly, financially, from saying offensive and insensitive things.
This hypocrisy and/or cynicism manifests in another way, as well: these authors all argue that new authors should eschew traditional publishing in order to go “indie” – or in other words, to self-publish. And they apparently do this without any sense of irony. They don’t bat an eye when they accept non-traditional publishing deals with Amazon, for instance, nor does their essential message change when they do. (Note that I don’t have anything against deciding to publish exclusively with Amazon, as a pure business decision – you have to do what you think is best for your bottom-line - but to continue to pretend that you’re a self-publisher and to hammer that theme is both cynical and hypocritical.) They refuse to acknowledge the benefits accrued to them and their writing careers by having been traditionally published in the past – the name recognition and the value of a slow-build-up of fans, the former availability (or in some cases continued availability) of their books in brick-and-mortar venues on dead-tree formats. The marketing that they received and that those who continue to persist in traditional publishing are still receiving. They acknowledge none of that.
I haven’t yet mentioned another of the big names in self-publishing cheerleading: Dean Wesley Smith. On the face of things, Dean Wesley Smith is the reasonable, cool-headed and less-inflammatory uncle to the more extreme Self-Publishing Kings. The most extreme abuse he’s ladled on those who traditionally publish is calling them “suckers”, as in his catch-phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute, and they are writers”. But Dean still sets me on edge a bit. Of course, his advice is still given in terms of extremes: i.e. advice like “avoid agents at all costs“, to paraphrase. The lack of nuance employed in these sorts of arguments sets off my alarm bells. He also has a habit of making unverifiable claims about the industry (for instance, in this recent post, he claims that in the 1990s “Often an agent would help a writer sell the first book, but still a vast majority of books were sold over meals between writers and editors during this period” – a claim that may or may not be true, but is wholly unverifiable and for all I know is mostly reflective only of Mr Smith’s direct experience but not of the industry as a whole. These sorts of unqualified statements and unverifiable claims are enough to give me pause, but they’re not the biggest things that make me uncomfortable with Mr. Smith’s advice. Rather it is that he, of all people, is unequivocably financially invested in the collapse of the old order: he and his wife host and teach a number of workshops aimed at authors seeking to “indie” publish (the term they use to describe self-publishing).
I don’t begrudge someone making a living by teaching others how to make a living at something they love. But that does suggest that what he says when he talks about the purported evils of agents and publishers should be taken with a certain non-trivial amount of salt. A lot of what they say seems reasonable… but then they go in with their absolutes, their never-do-this and always-do-that. Arguing extreme absolutes, by itself, already gives me pause - the use of absolutes doesn’t square with a sound or well-reasoned argument. But when I realized how significant their financial stake was in convincing authors to forsake traditional publishing… well… forgive me if I’m slow to jump on their fanclub bandwagon. I’m sure they’re very good at what they do – excellent teachers and advocates for the self-publishing enterprise. I don’t discount the possibility that I might need at some future point to avail myself of the opportunity to learn from their prior expertise (indeed, I think there’s a strong possibility I might one day be in that position). But I try to be very circumspect, judicious, and careful about taking advice from someone who has something they want to sell me, because whatever advice it is – whether it’s good or bad – one thing I can be sure of is that said advice is in the advice-givers own self-interest.
For someone like me – someone who’s still in the early stages of their writing career, and who values straight talk and honesty – all of these are data points that enter into the calculus of my goals, plans, and ambitions for a writing career. They may not enter into the calculi of others. But many of the folks who are supporting the agendas and spreading the word of the Self-publishing Kings may be doing so without consideration for these factors, and I think it does a disservice to the profession and industry of publishing – be it traditionally or non-traditionally – to have the most visible and most oft-cited advocates for self-publishing be folks who are so compromised in the language they use and in the positions they take.
Where are the strong advocates with moderate language? Where are the strong advocates who aren’t trying to sell you on why you should self-publish, but only tell the story of why it was right for them? Where are the strong advocates who are actually self-publishing and not taking a major deal with a corporate sponsor on the sly? Where are the strong advocates who have succeeded on their own merits, and not based on the prior support of the traditional publishing industry? These people exist – of that I am sure – but we don’t hear enough about them. Amanda Hocking, for instance, is invoked only as an example of “See, it can be done! You can make a killing digitally self-publishing!”
I’m not saying that someone needs to be all of these things (except is it too much to ask that they all at least refrain from inflammatory and offensive language?), but right now the conversation is dominated by only a few voices, and they drown out the full variety of stories and experiences from writers in self-publishing. I want to hear the stories of the real writers working in the self-publishing trenches, the ones who’ve succeeded, the ones who’ve done not so well, the ones who are introspective about their success or lack thereof, and are willing to share the lessons they’ve learned. These are the real Kings of Self-Publishing.