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Logic Error

April 27, 2012

There’s a lot of bad logic out there.  In the debate between those advocating for digital self-publishing and those advocating for traditional publishing… there’s more than a fair share of bad logic. 

I was intrigued by this infographic on “Rhetological Fallacies” recently linked on a daily link roundup of one author I follow.  These are argument logic errors.  So, keep that in mind as a basis for where I’m going next.

I get around on the internet, occasionally.  I follow a lot of blogs – some more closely than others.  That’s background.  It is, therefore, that I happened upon a blog post by aspiring author Tom Simon.  I’d followed a few of his posts before, ostensibly because something he posted once interested me.  But this one, in particular, smacked me as… well… Keep that link on Rhetological Fallacies in mind, will you?

Mr. Simon does a lot of posts with short quotes from various things he finds interesting.  Often, he’ll indicate that some quote or another is, in his estimation,wise. 

The alleged wisdom in this recent post goes back to another comment on a recent Passive Voice blog post

On the subject of whether to publish traditionally or to digitally self-published, the quoted sage said this:

My attitude is to look at what happens if you make the wrong choice.

If you self-publish and you do something wrong, you can fix it. If the entire self-publishing industry implodes, you still have the rights to your work, so you can still go sell it to a traditional publisher.

If you go traditional and something goes wrong, you are completely screwed. You’ve signed away your rights, you don’t have control over how your work is marketed, etc., etc. If your publisher goes under, it’s going to take a long time and a lot of legal work for you to be able to re-sell that work, assuming you ever can. Is it worth to you to take that kind of risk in return for some editing and cover art?

If this is what passes for wisdom… I must weep.

Where do I begin?  Well… that’s easy enough: I’ll begin at the beginning.  And when I get to the end, I’ll stop.

There’s nothing wrong with looking at the choice between self-publishing versus traditional publishing as a choice of selecting the least negative outcome.  That’s a perfectly rational decision-making criteria.  It’s actually not bad logic: if you do this, and it fails utterly, what have you lost by having made that decision?  But if you’re going to use that basis as your rationalization, it behooves one to ensure they have the rest of their logic intact, their i’s dotted and their t’s crossed.

What, really, is the worst that can happen if you self-publish?  You get no sales.  Or the whole self-publishing thing goes belly-up and readers start avoiding self-publishers like a highly contagious, frequently-fatal, vermin-born disease.  What have you lost?  Only what you’ve put into it, right?  (Time, certainly, but most authors write on spec anyway.  But if you’ve invested financially into the project, then that’s a negative cash-flow to boot.)

But, says our venerable sage, you “still have the rights to your work” and you can take the work and sell it to a traditional publisher, right?

Not so fast.  That presumes that a traditional publisher wants to have anything to do with an author that has tried his or her hand at self publishing… and failed.  Good luck with that.  Add to that this: most traditional publishers are primarily interested in certain qualities of “First” rights (first this and first that).  They aren’t usually interested in stuff that’s already been published.  But when you self-published, you used up those “First” rights when you self-published.  At this stage, your copyrights are worth approximately zilch. 

On the flip side, what’s the worst that can happen if you traditionally publish?  Our ever-wise sage tells us that we are “completely screwed” because “you’ve signed away your rights”.  Because you, oh dear, naive author with the crappiest Agent in the world, apparently signed away all rights in all formats for all your books for ever and ever in perpetuity, amen! 

Not that this doesn’t happen – there are horror stories applenty for those that want to read them – but I don’t believe anything remotely like that appears in even the standard boilerplate of most publishers contracts.  No, dear author, you’ve only lost those rights which you’ve specifically sold the publisher.  This might, in fact, set you back a few years as you wait for those rights to expire.  But they are not a perpetual and total screwing.  In point of fact, unless you’re hopelessly naive, you’ve still retained the essential copyrights to your work, even allowing for increasingly aggressive rights grabs from publishers.  And if a publisher tries to sell you that bill-of-sale, you should, I think, flatly turn it down.  What we have here is one of the classic logic errors in argument: a Straw Man.  (Look it up on that infographic to see what I mean.)

The moral?  Offering an overly simplistic view of this choice is not what classically we call wisdom.

As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again: there are many good and valid reasons for deciding to go with one of these paths or the other.  You shouldn’t make that decision based on faulty logic or bad reasoning. 

In point of fact, there are risks to each of these different potential paths.  But this particular line of logic overplayed that hand, and drove it off a cliff.  Rather, let’s be clear about what those risks really are. 

If you self-publish, and fail, you’ve very probably given up the opportunity to try to publish in the traditional market for a very long time.  (Could you recover from a self-publishing failure?  Certainly, I’m sure it can be done.  But not easily, and not quickly.)  Would you have succeeded if you had attempted self-publishing first?  That’s a counterfactual that you could never definitively prove one way or the other, but very likely you wouldn’t have: that’s the whole basis for a lot of the criticism of traditional publishing, naturally (i.e. that it’s slow and that the “gatekeepers” screen out too many good quality books and let through too many poor books).  But you’ll have forever forfeited knowing for sure.  For some, perhaps for many, that’s a risk worth taking: trading the certainty of knowing whether you’d succeed in self-publishing rather sooner for the uncertainty of knowing whether you’d ever stand a chance in the traditional slush pile after years of plying your trade there. 

On the other hand, if you attempt traditional publication and fail, what you’ve lost is the time you could’ve been attempting to self-publish.  With the industry changing so fast, that could be a huge opportunity lost.  Or it could be nothing.  Again, it’s a trade-off of one uncertainty for another.  Assuming the changes in the industry settle down and things continue in the way they’re going, the only thing you’ve lost for certain is the chance to find out if you’d be successful self-publishing sooner.

Basically, under realistic circumstances, in either case, what you lose by choosing one option is mostly the knowledge of whether you might’ve succeeded in the other path during the time you spent pursuing the path of your choice.  In either case, if that path goes belly up, you can theoretically recover and recommit yourself to pursuing the road not previously traveled.  This will be more difficult if you’re trying to switch from self-publishing to traditional publishing, and less difficult if switching from traditional publishing to self-publishing, but not impossible in either case.  The reality of this may change as new developments continue to reshape the industry, but for now, that’s where things are.

So, if you value speed, then the choice of self-publishing is possibly a good choice.  Speed is one of the key benefits of the self-publishing path.  But there are still good valid reasons to choose to wait, if you don’t value speed, or to pursue the traditional path if you have other values.

And that, my friends, is a little better grounded in logic, I think, though I make no claims to it being wise.  But please, feel free to illuminate the rhetological fallacies of my own thinking where you find them.  I’m sure I’ve missed something, somewhere – it’s almost inevitable.  And that said… what do you think?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2012 1:21 pm

    I’m getting the idea that some people have a really strong emotional reaction against traditional publishing — the endless waiting, the rejection, the loss of control — and so they decide to go indie. But then, since this is a “business decision,” they feel obligated to construct an edifice of logic (good or, in this case, bad) to justify their choice. (This goes back to what we were discussing a few days ago — the anger that some people seem to feel about Big Pub.)

    This goes the other way, too. To some people, publishing doesn’t seem “real” if it isn’t with a major. That feeling doesn’t have any effect on whether the traditional pubishing model will continue to be viable over the next few decades or not, but once the decision is made, the retroactive logic is brought into play.

    My reaction to both camps is the same: if your decision is based on logic, your logic nseds to be good; but if you’re going with your gut, just relax and say so.

    I publish the way I do because it gives me great pleasure to do so. Period. And for me, that is more than adequate reason.

    • April 27, 2012 1:34 pm

      Thank you, because that is exactly right. There’s nothing wrong with making a decision based on emotional reasons. But one should at least have the decency to be upfront about that. Myself, for instance: I’m inclined to prefer traditional publishing. I’m not convinced that it’s always the best decision, logically. But I have certain emotional reasons for preferring the traditional path. (I could go on at length about what some of those are, but they’re beside the point.) Heck, if we’re truly honest: there’s not enough real solid data about either traditional publishing or self-publishing to draw any firm logical conclusions about the way to go, so a choice in either direction is going to be heavily influenced by emotional responses. Ultimately, when the time comes for me to make a real decision, I’m not going to pretend that the emotional aspect won’t be some influence over the decision I make. But those emotional reasons will be particular to me and my preferences. To pretend that those reasons that are peculiar to my own emotional state somehow invalidate the choices made by others would be really disingenuous of me, and I won’t do it. Undoubtedly, whether I ultimately choose to self-publish or to try my hand at the traditional publishing grindstone, there will be many others who have chosen either of the other path and for whom that choice was both valid and right. The way that people on both sides try to frame the argument as though to denigrate the other side is, to me, pathetic.

  2. April 27, 2012 2:58 pm

    I’d simply add that in making this decision and facing things like contracts, its important that you do your research and don’t do it alone. Every convention I’ve attended has had panels focused on publishing that are a wellspring of information for the uninitiated. Connect with successful people and ask questions. A few cardinal rules I’ve picked up along the way. 1) The money always flows TO the author. 2) Get a lawyer to look over any contracts before you sign them. 3) Familiarize yourself with the basics – advances, royalties, agent fees if you have one and so on.

    As far as choosing to self publish, I’m not personally headed that direction for one reason. It is far more work on the business side of the equation. I need help selling my book. Good publishers do just that. You are running a solo marketing endeavor if you are self publishing, and though you may be quick to print, you may find yourself very slow to profit. People respect the work of traditional publishing. I personally don’t feel like “gatekeepers” are a bad thing. They do keep some good work out, but for the most part there is a standard of writing quality that is necessary. Anybody can self publish and unless they give me a very, very good reason, I don’t have enough time to read their work to find out whether its good or bad. I am not interested in buying the slush pile to find a gem. I’d rather just buy the gem.

    • May 2, 2012 10:02 am

      Yes, doing a lot of research and getting as informed as possible is definitely paramount. That’s a big reason why I do a lot of linking to stuff in the news: it’s for my benefit as much as anyone else’s. The first cardinal rule you mention is often called “Yog’s Law”, and I believe it’s been a very, very useful iron-clad rule right up until the moment digital self-publishing took off. It was a great rule (and still is) for warding authors off from scammers and vanity presses. But in the current environment, in which self-publishing is actually a viable career alternative… I think it can get in the way of an author doing what they need to do and paying for services they probably need: stuff like professional-level editing, art, and cover design. Of course, the difference is Yog’s Law is meant to ward off naive aspiring authors from paying to get published, whereas in the current market you can self-publish without paying a dime, but you might want to invest in related services. If you’re going through a publisher these things are part of the package, and Yog’s Law is in effect. If you’re doing it on your own you need to think differently. I’ll also add the counterargument to your point about the slush-pile of self-publishing (though I somewhat agree with you): that it is clear that many traditionally-published books are, in fact, crap, so what’s the evidence that they do an effective job at gatekeeping and curating? That said, my own personal hit-to-miss ratio with traditionally published works is pretty high, but I’m personally rather selective, and I don’t read just anything, even if it’s traditionally published. I can’t say yet whether that experience at self-curating would be applicable to reading self-published material, yet, because I’ve never tried it.

      • May 2, 2012 1:46 pm

        My thinking has always been that traditional publishers are the gatekeepers, but not of quality. They are the gatekeepers of salability. They don’t always get it right, but their goal is to find books that they think will sell. And correctly so — that is their job.

        I was at dinner meny years ago with some friends who were in publishing (with different companies), and after a few drinks they fell into trying to top each other with horror stories about the junk they had published to try to make money. They were somewhat sheepish about it, but they had been doing their jobs. Some of those awful-sounding books had indeed sold a lot of copies.

      • May 2, 2012 2:28 pm

        I think that’s a very useful distinction. There is, in my estimation, a large but not total overlap between “Salable” and “Quality” literature – such that there is salable literature that is outside the Venn circle of quality and quality literature that is outside the Venn circle of salable. What’s more – and to confound it all – the question of what lies in the “Quality” circle is highly subjective and likey to be different for different observers. (Theoretically what lies in “Salable” is a somewhat more objective – i.e. it can be measured by what sells, but at a certain level determing what lies in the “salable” circle is still a bit of an art, and thus also subjective.)

      • May 2, 2012 10:50 pm

        I think one difference is that salability changes over time in a way that quality does not. The best of Henry James is as good as it ever was, but I’m not sure if he’d get a contract today. I don’t think that style would sell. Another example, for other reasons, would be Lolita. Very unlikely it would get publkshed today, I would think (as a matter of fact, The Modern Library jiggered the results of their “best novel of the 20th century” survey so that Lolita wouldn’t end up as #1 — amusingly the final winner was Ulysses, which is far more obscene but much harder to read, and which does not feature pedophilia).

      • May 3, 2012 8:36 am

        An interesting point. So, one could say that quality is subjective on an individual level but consistent across time – and experts as a class of people will generally be consistent in their assessment of quality literature – whereas salability changes as macro-level cultural whims and preferences change. As a note… I’ve read something like a page or two from Lolita… and it made me feel dirty. In a way, I guess, that’s a non-trivial accomplishment. I’ve never even attempted to read Ulysses but I’ve heard the legend of it’s impenetrability.

      • May 4, 2012 7:20 am

        After I wrote my earlier comments, I remembered that I blogged about Ulysses, Lolita and the Modern Library (http://u-town.com/collins/?p=2606). That post links back to Sonje’s exegesis on Ulysses, which was a response to an earlier post about some “great” novels that might or might not be overrated.

  3. April 27, 2012 10:43 pm

    I plan to self-publish, but primarily because I’m lazy and this is a hobby for me.

    I agree that the anger some indies have towards the publishing industry tends to cloud their thoughts…and decisions.

    I foresee that self-publishing and traditional publishing will sort themselves out and serve the same purposes they had in the past. The difference now is that the self-publishers now have access to similar distribution networks that they didn’t have before Amazon and the internet in general.

    Good of you to point this out.

    • May 2, 2012 10:08 am

      Well… I’ll disagree somewhat with your prediction: but only because I believe in the past Self-publishing was never really a viable career option except in certain very rare break-out circumstances. Today, and likely in the future, it will be viable path, if not always the ideal one. And thus, yes, both traditional/commercial and self-publishing will continue to serve important roles in the publishing ecosystem.

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