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?