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.
69 thoughts on “The Self-Aggrandizing Self-Publishing Kings: Extreme Rhetoric, Inflammatory Language and Ulterior Motives”
I agree with absolutely everthing you’ve said. Great post.
(As a note, have you checked out http://www.thebookdesigner.com/? While he is selling something, vis a vis his book design and copyediting skills, the blog is mostly focused on how to self-publish from a practical standpoint, and features semi-regular guest articles from self-published authors without all the rhetoric.)
I haven’t seen that site, no (I’m not currently in the market for such services – considering I’ve got no finished books to worry about one way or the other). But that’s the kind of approach I totally condone. It’s not the offering of services related to self-publishing, nor advocating for self-publishing. Indeed, I think the whole digital self-publishing phenomenon is potentially exciting (although, at a personal level, I approach the idea cautiously), and very interesting – and a lot of writers who are actively pursuing that course could use advice and other services to help them. But if you’re going to do that, be above-board about it, be honest about it, and don’t be excessively inflammatory about it. The world is changing fast enough as it is; there’s no point in scaring people.
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No matter what side of the publishing “battle” each and every person needs to decide for him or herself what works best.
Inflammatory language has its uses – it creates discussion which less inflammatory language wouldn’t do. The world needs the extremists to find the reasonable middle-ground.
I don’t know that I agree with that conclusion. I think extreme language pushes people out of the conversation who might otherwise be amenable to reason from one side or the other. Take American Politics as an example: the conversation there is largely dominated by extreme voices on either side. I don’t think it’s unrelated, then, have abyssmal voter turnout in our elections – because so many people feel disenfranchised from the conversation by the extreme rhetoric of the competing sides, and feel that their voices don’t matter and can’t be heard in the conversation, or they don’t understand the relevance to their own lives. I truly believe that extreme rhetoric and inflammatory language is damaging to a conversation, and drowns out voices of moderation and reason. There is a place for shock rhetoric – but that’s the realm of satire and polemic. What these gusy are doing is writing polemics (poorly, I might add) disguised as writing advice. And I really think that’s to the disservice of the conversation over e-books. The fact is, the shifts and changes to the industry and the sudden emergence of this powerful new, disruptive option for writers is shocking and alarming enough to get the attention of writers like myself – we don’t need inflammatory rhetoric to see reason.
[ETA] I do agree with the conclusion, however, that each writer needs to decide for themself what path they will take and what works best for them.
You and I are on opposite sides of this debate and I don’t intend to rebut anything you’ve said. Your position and analysis is consistent from post to post. It appears to me that you object to the delivery of the message more than the message itself, in some cases.
The old adage “don’t shoot the messenger” comes to mind and after following the blogs of these “so-called Kings” I’ve noticed that most posts are reasonable and rationale and focused on tracking the changes to the industry.
The key bit of information I’ve learned is that publishing has had quite an unfavorable hold on writer’s over the past several decades and that the terms they offered for publication were dismal. But, as the only way to publish, the terms had to be accepted. With the advent of digital indie publishing, there are new avenues to broader publication and therefore new opportunities that don’t require tiny advances that don’t earn out because of horribly low royalties.
If nothing else, the landscape will change so that traditional publishers will begin offering better terms, in the way that free agency revolutionized sports contracts for athletes. No longer did a major sports team “own” a player for life and could pay him under market value for the life of said contract. Contracts could be renogiated and even though the most famous athletes got the millions, the changes trickled down so that even league minimums were far above what most CEOs would make in a year.
As for the inflammatory rhetoric, I don’t defend it, but to some extent I understand that it is often based on a reaction to a constant stream of attacks on them. I suspect if I was a big guru champion of a cause and was attacked constantly from multiple sides, I might get a little ruffled and lash out here and there the way a cornered bear might.
Again, messengers aside, if you look past the language, understanding the more blunt, inflammatory stuff is meant to get our attention, the way yelling “fire” should get people’s attention in a crowded room where smoke is appearing.
I put this forth as why “I, myself” don’t object too much to the message or the messenger. Regardless of the verbiage, at its core is some valuable perspective and advise that is worth considering.
Unless your position is that all new writers should always choose self-publishing, and never seek tradtional publishing in this day and age, then we aren’t really on opposite sides of the debate, I think. I respect those writers who have chosen to go-it-alone, so to speak, and self-publish. It’s a courageous decision. And as I try to reiterate and make clear, despite the criticisms I offer of those “self-crowned self-publishing kings” that I allude to here, it’s not a choice I have yet ruled out for myself. I have the luxury, in a manner of speaking, of not having to choose at this juncture because I don’t have a finished, marketable novel. My position in this debate is and has always been that there is no single answer and no single path, and that each writer must choose for him or herself what the best route is. I don’t deal in absolutes.
One of the many problems, however, I have with these self-publishing kings is that the “key information”, such as you call it, that they offer is colored and sometimes incorrect, or doesn’t take into consideration conditions and situations different than their own. Whether a publisher’s terms are good or bad for a writer, for instance, is relative to that individual writer’s circumstances – and there are plenty of writers who are making a comfortable living within the traditional paradigm and have no cause to rock the boat, so to speak. And there are others for whom the old paradigm is a very bad deal indeed. But I think that blanket statements about what’s good or bad for writers in general denies those who take that advice too seriously the opportunity to discover for themselves what’s the best path.
That’s why I decry this sort of inflammatory rhetoric. I think it detracts from the conversation, and contributes to a low-information environment where soundbites stand in for data and information, and make it difficult for new and up-and-coming writers to make a reasonable, informed decision for themselves. I trust in my ability to make a good decision for myself – and if I make a bad decision, I trust my ability to re-evaluate my decision and change course. But that ability doesn’t function without good, accurate data. Extreme rhetoric is noise. It makes it harder to find good data, because people who might otherwise be interested in providing that kind of data are instead swallowed in that noise – either by contributing to it or reacting against it.
I should think that if some writers really want to prove a point and demonstrate the validity of their position, they ought to put their money where their mouth is and share some data. I know some are too private to do that, and I can respect that… But to a certain degree when you stand on a soapbox and use a megaphone, you give up some claim on your privacy, with regard to the issues you are discussing on your soapbox.
That said, this doesn’t really affect me or you, at this stage – we’re both still charting our courses and writing our books. I don’t have a lot of evidence of my own one way or the other about the best path for me. What I’ve got are my own opinions, the opinions of others, and what little data I can collect from those out there willing to share it. What I’m asking for here is for those to be the voices we listen to and the sources we turn to in this ongoing discussion – not the loud-mouths intent on offending every third person, but the ones who are quietly saying “here’s what I’m doing and why”.
David Farland in his “Daily Kick” newsletter is possibly that more reasonable voice to which you allude. He has made many of the same observations and has expressed many of the same opinions as the “kings”, but he does not use inflammatory language. He is a noted writing teacher, so I suspect he understands how to convey a message so we writers can both appreciate and assimilate the information. If you don’t subscribe to the Daily Kick, you should. Everyone should. His advice is always timely and thoughtful. He’s a bestselling author of dozens of spec fiction books and just self-published his own enhanced eBook YA fantasy. I haven’t checked it out yet, but he walked his readers through the process and it was educational.
I do indeed follow David Farland’s Daily Kicks (although, in all honesty, I’m about eight months behind on reading them… for various reasons, so I haven’t read most of his self-publishing thoughts as yet; I’m still back when his daily kicks were still mostly writing advice and not getting-published advice), and I agree he might be the right advocate for the job. David Farland’s problem is this: although his posts are freely available to the public, they’re burried in an e-mail sub. You can’t easily find David’s thoughts and advice by searching on the web.
Available by email but not on the web? How… 1995 🙂
Indeed. Although it sorta makes you feel like you’re in a secret club when you subscribe – since only subscribers get to see what is in effect his blog.
I’d also think that if these self-publishing kings are making truly valid points… it’s likely someone who’s more reasonable and less inflammatory is making those points and those arguments better. I think it’s the responsibility of all of us in the writing community to condemn inflammatory language and rhetoric and praise the uplifting and reasonable. We can elevate the conversation and make it about the real merits of the debate, and not about foul and offensive metaphors. But we have to choose to. So in a way, this is a plea to the community to do so: stop giving these guys the time-of-day, because you’re just playing into their hands. Let’s find new voices who can engage a reasonable and uplifting and enriching discussion.
I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I stay out of the inflammatory wars and just write. You wanted to know how the little guys of Self-Publishing are doing? Here’s my sales numbers for November.
Thanks, Ken. You’re definitely one of the good guys, in this conversation, IMO. I’ve linked to some of your past sales data posts before, and I appreciate you continuing to share your data.
When somebody’s talking about publishing and throwing around those sorts of metaphors (rape, slavery, mental illness), it’s not always easy to tell whether they’re clueless or opportunistic — because the fact is that sort of thing does get you attention. Sad but true.
It is tempting to dismiss these sorts of opinions — as it is tempting to dismiss the claims of people who can’t write a coherent sentence — but the quality of the messenger doesn’t automatically invalidate the message. These complex questions would be a lot easier to figure out if it did, of course. 🙂
I’m not giving an opinion one way or the other about the specific questions (except that “indie” to me does not mean Amazon 🙂 ), more just saying that there are usually boneheads on both sides of complex questions, and you have to put that to the side to start to really get to the truth.
That’s true, of course. The messenger is not the message. But my point here isn’t that the message is wrong because the messengers are so compromised, but that the language the messengers use makes it impossible to get the real message, because people hear the language and not the message. For example, in the comments to Stackpole’s second post, where he tries to defend his fraught and offensive analogy, several other authors try to explain why his analogy is offensive and detracts from the conversation, and Stackpole just digs in his heals and refuses to acknowledge that he was wrong to use it. The conversation, then, has become about the offensive language used to deliver the message and not the facts at all. And that’s what I’m talking about here. These people make me uneasy, and I can’t embrace their message because the way they deliver the message is so toxic or flawed. I’m advocating for a shift in conversation away from these folks and toward others in the community who can deliver a more honest and less tainted message. Finally… I’ll agree with your thought about Amazon: an exclusive deal with the 800-pound-gorilla does not an “Indie” make.
This is definitely true. If the conversation is about the language, then obviously it’s no longer about the actual subject. Which may be the idea, of course.
Yeah, I think the idea, for those who engage in this kind of inflammatory-language-use, is for the conversation to be not so much abou the language as it is for it to be about them. Which is also not helpful.
I linked this post around Twitter today. It says a lot of what I feel about the rhetoric in publishing. Especially in an industry where we sell words, using inflammatory language is obnoxious. There are several top tier bloggers I simply can’t stand anymore for how prickly and pompous their missives are. Stephen, you are dead-on about being dubious toward anyone as a source of information who has a vested interest in the outcome.
This comment chain here set up something I hadn’t thought about before – that you might divide the groups into the clueless and the opportunistic. Ignorance is doubtless part of the problem in any widespread conflict. That those who aren’t ignorant might well be mendacious hadn’t really settled in, but there are definitely folks, like Konrath, who breathe fire to attract crowds.
Yeah, the fire-breathing, as you say, just turns my stomach. As for Dean Wesley Smith and those who may be more like him: I don’t necessarily see them as mendacious – I think they really buy what they’re selling, that they believe their own advice – but that their perspective is probably more than a little colored by the fact that they’ve got a healthy business going in teaching people how to self-publish effectively. Glad you appreciated the article. If more of us voice opinions like this, I think the conversation will slowly turn away from the fire-breathers.
Totally agree. Great post.
Interesting post, Stephen. Given that the people you’re criticising are writers, you’d think that their choices of metaphors would be considered and would accurately target all the nuances they wish to invoke. I don’t think a writer can turn around afterwards and say, “I didn’t mean it like that.” Not a good writer, anyway.
I used to listen attentively to J.A. Konrath and co, but I became very disillusioned, not by the rhetoric, but by their marketing tactics. If these people are successful, I now believe, it is because they are excellent marketers, not excellent writers.
That’s a line of criticism I thought about pursuing more fully in this post, but the post got a bit long even without it. But yeah… it’s hard to believe that someone who deals with words on a professional level would fail to understand the naunce and offensive undertones of the words they’ve chosen to use. One would think that a writer who suffered from such a lack of perspective would quickly find themselves on the short end of their writing career. In the case of Stackpole’s analogy, at least, it seems likely to me that he did, in fact, know that his analogy could and would be taken as offensive – and that he sought to blunt the criticism he probably knew, on some level, that he’d receive for his post by referring to “Spartacus” and posting with a picture of gladiators in the arena.
But I’m convinced that somewhere in the back of Stackpole’s mind – whether fully consciously or only intuitively – he knew the analogy would bring American slavery to mind, and that some would find this offensive. And still he used it. This suggests to me that at some level the controversy such an analogy would generate was partly the point of using it.
His attempt to further restrict the conversation to the “economic” effects of slavery or “indentured servitude” I also found disingenuous. Surely he realizes, I thought, that slavery is never purely an economic institution: it’s always about oppression and distinction of race and class.
I have to agree with you that these guys are very good at marketing – and at the end of the day I think that’s what this controversy is really all about for them. It’s not about advocating for self-publishing or for self-published authors. There are plenty of people who are doing that just fine without offending anybody. I think it’s about generating controversy to generate publicity, in order to create awareness and market their books. That’s business savvy, sure. But it’s just not the way I want to do business. If and when I self-publish any of my own work (and given the current climate, I think there’s a strong probability that I will self-publish something, even if I pursue a traditional publishing career too), that’s not how I would want to generate awareness of my own work.
I read an interesting post a few days ago from a writer “in the self-publishing trenches” whose (publishing) experience probably reflects that of the great majority of self-published writers. It’s called “Glacial Progress…” http://zoewhitten.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/glacial-progress/
That seems to be the gist of a lot of what I’ve read lately about self-publishing. Early on, when it first got big and Amanda Hocking was a new thing, people talked about self-publishing like it was a get-rich-quick scheme. Upload a story – it doesn’t even matter what the quality (it was never said so much, but early on it was often implied) – and hungry readers will come flocking. As more and more rational minds share their experiences, the discourse is slowly turning to “it takes a long time to build up a reliable readership” – and more and more the importance of quality is acknowledged. Slowly this collective wisdom is accreting into something that maybe will resemble a viable career path, but is definitely at least a viable source of income even when not quite enough for an actual career… It’s that accretion of collective wisdom that I’m looking for, to help me, and others, understand the ups and downs of our options. So thanks for sharing the post.
Ironic that you mention you’ve grown disillusioned by Konrath and co’s marketing ploys. All through Thanksgiving, the only post up was Konrath announcing his latest release and telling people to buy it if they have ever read his blog. While I don’t read Konrath because of the content of his stories, I did find the post off-putting and bluntly self-serving.
Thanks for linking to my blog post, Stephen. I think it’s always a wiser choice to make one’s arguments with facts, not flames.
I exited the affiliate marketing world a few years ago because it was really annoying to have to wade through the racism, misogyny, random pictures of naked women, and Ron Paul zealotry to actually find sage business advice on the forums and blogs. It was a really hostile environment for anyone who wasn’t a white, straight, middle-class American male. JK’s blog has been creeping in that direction for some time, and it doesn’t help when other heavyweights excuse this kind of behavior. One of the very reasons I decided to self-publish was the way the bottom line convinced a lot of publishing executives to whitewash YA book covers of characters of color and reject books with LGBTQ characters in them, so the last thing I wanted to see was people making assumptions that “anything is socially acceptable as long as it sells, not matter how offensive it is” is the calling card of the self-publishing community. As nebulous as that community is, there’s little point in alienating at least half of your peers because you couldn’t keep the bigotry on the back-burner, you know?
On the other hand, I wouldn’t write off all of the underlying advice simply because some of its proponents are obnoxious. Artists seem to be the only business people willing to put up with what would be firing offenses or causes for litigation in any other field of work.
For instance, Dean Wesley Smith and his partner/spouse Kris Rusch are industry professionals with publicly available track records. They ran a small press, and Rusch was a senior editor at one of the top two fantasy magazines in the country for several years. Yeah, the overuse of “Folks…” gets to me at times, because it reminds me of salesperson speak, but my BS detector very rarely goes off when I read their blogs. They were late when compared to other independent authors came to embracing self-publishing as a viable option, and they support going traditional and indie for established authors and going indie for new authors for a couple of years while the industry transitions. Dean and Rusch offer most of their non-fiction and a good deal of their short fiction for free; The Freelance Writer’s Survival Guide and Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing are invaluable. I have archived copies of the older versions of some of Dean’s posts with all of the comments and arguments before he rewrote them if you want to read discussions between industry people.
I don’t agree with everything that they say, but when it comes to agents, they have no financial incentive to criticize agents in general or the agent-as-publisher model specifically, because new authors are just as likely to tar and feather them as to thank them.
Thanks for chiming in! I’ll agree that all the things you point out are worrisome/troublesome aspects of the traditional publishing industry. That said, I see signs that these things are changing (even if it takes the authors clubbing the industry over the head to force them to change; but the fact that the authors are making a big deal of it and that the change is slowly coming suggests that authors do still have some influence in the industry). But yes… the self-publishing world seems to have taken on many of the worst aspects of a “wild west” attitude: anything goes and only the strong survive. Blatant bigotry is ugly, not matter how you dice it. And I don’t have the time-of-day for people who troll it, regardless of whether they’re influential authors or not. Which is part of why I’m calling for a shift of attention away from these folks and toward authors who are more honest and open and less salacious, inflammatory, and offensive.
As for Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch, what bothers me about them is not offensiveness – they’re not really offensive – but the fact that their advice skews toward that which benefits them directly. On the contrary, I think they do benefit when they criticize agents generally. Those up-and-coming authors who hew to their advice will avoid agents. Having thus avoided agents, they’re chances of getting read and picked up by a traditional, NY editor fall precipitously. (Can you get read and picked up without an agent? I’m sure you can. But it’s not going to be easy.) And those are the same who are more likely to shift their attention to self-publishing, and thus the same who are likely to see some benefit in attending one of Smith & Rusch’s seminars designed to help equip them to do so successfully.
The fact that Smith & Rusch have run a small press in the past, I think, certainly qualifies them over many other self-published authors to pass on the things they’ve learned to help this new generation of self-publishing authors, and I think it’s a good thing that they are doing it, because it benefits the general knowledge base of the authorial community. But to me, it makes their advice suspicious, because taken to the logical conclusion, that advice pushes people toward attending one of those classes. I don’t think they’re above-board in making it clear when they give this sort of advice that they’re invested in authors taking that advice and subsequently taking one of their classes. If they were honest about it, they’d disclaimer their advice every time they gave it. They don’t, and this conflict-of-interest slips under most radars.
That said, they’re worth more attention, both, than either Konrath or Eisler or any of those others who troll in offend-people-to-build-publicity tactics. At least they actually know something worth knowing and passing on.
What a fantastic article. It’s extremely frustrating to me that people, such as those mentioned above, as well as others who are new to self-publishing look down on those who are still striving for that dream of being traditionally published. We live in a wonderful time for writers, a time with myriad options for getting your work in readers’ hands, but we shouldn’t diminsh the dreams and goals of those around us. I have friends who are published with small presses, I have friends who are self-published, and I have friends with agents who are working on finding a publisher. No one’s path is wrong. There’s no need to belittle any writer for their choice. We should all be champions for good books and excellence in writing, regardless of how that book is published.
All I can say is “Amen to that”. It’s a time of exciting opportunity – and choice. I’m glad these choices and opportunities exist, and that there are multiple viable paths to a successful career in writing.
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Nice to read someone else who’s tired of being screamed at.
I’ve been published by traditional publishers and self-published and imagine I will continue to as I need/want to do. Sometimes I write about it on my blog, although less recently because I don’t really think anyone really knows where it’s going. If anything, the changes over the last 2 years have suggested that it’s too volatile to predict.
In terms of the get-rich-quick theme that’s cropped up in the last year, I plan on sharing some thoughts next week on “sustainability” because I’m hearing some suspicious rumors that what seemed to work so well 6 to 12 months ago for some writers is slowing down. Interesting.
I’ve been thinking on the subject of “sustainability” in digital self-publishing as well… but I don’t have much to go on to support my thoughts on way or the other, as yet. But I’ve been wondering if “that ship has sailed”, so to speak, and if any given author wasn’t already on that ship, if such an author was attempting to enter the self-publishing e-book market now whether they’d be able to get anywhere near the same traction that many of the first-movers got. I don’t know the answer to that question yet, but I wonder about it a lot. So I’ll be interested to check out your thoughts.
It’s an excellent question in that writers like Scott Nicholson and Lee Goldberg and a few others who have been very outspoken about their successes, have pointed out in the last four or five months that they’ve gone through some major dips in sales. That may or may not be a trend, but it makes me wonder. This model of authors cranking out a LOT of materials, 4, 5, 6, 7 or more books a year may be sustainable from their point of view, but from the readers’ POVs, maybe not so much. There are other factors as well, such as some of the novelty of buying cheap books only to find you have waaayyyyy more books than time (or inclination) to read them wears off and ebook readers start showing (possibly) more restraint about what they download.
Yes, that’s definitely part of my own thoughts on the issue. I’ve read posts by folks who are trying to argue that the the demand for books is, effectively, infinite (at least as compared to an individual author’s output) because readers can read faster than they write. But I think that’s a nonsensical position, because the demand is by necessity quite finite – no matter how fast a reader reads, reading still takes time and time is a decidedly finite resource with respect to an individual reader. And relatively few readers I’ve ever known are monovores – they typically like to read and enjoy from a variety of authors. If there are enough frustrated novelists putting out e-books in large enough quantities, and if the number of book readers doesn’t grow as fast as the number of writers, eventually the market for e-books will become saturated (and in the process the market value for e-books will drop). It’s a pretty basic supply-and-demand situation. There’s not a lot of data to prove the point in this particular case, but it’s a logical proposition, and there is data from similar industries that have gone through similar transitions that can sort of help us get a sense of where things are going.
One thing that I don’t see and would like to is how much of that 70% royalty rate is left after the self-published author deducts his/her expenses such as editing, cover art, proofreading, etc.
Even more informative would be a calculation of the monetary value of the self-published authors time spent on those things provided by traditional publishers.
Comparing the traditional publishing royalty rate to the KDP royalty rate is like comparing apples to cucumbers. Traditional publishing essentially pays for everything. KDP pays for nothing.
A real comparison to see which is the better financial choice would be: Traditional Royalty rate + traditional services to KPD royalty – expenses – monetary value of time spent
I’ll agree with that. The comparison that’s often touted, between KDP reimbursement rates versus traditional royalty rates just doesn’t fly. It’s very much “apples to cucumbers”, as you say. In one of the classes in my Master’s degree program, this was a regular theme: you can’t base decisions on comparing trade-offs that are denominated in different values. For the decision-making process to be effective, the different factors need to be re-valued in some common terms. It’s also particularly frustrating when those factors appear to be in the same unit but in fact are not (as is the case with these competing “royalty rates”). The best way to compare the paths, then, is to compare bottom-lines – which, as you say, will take into consideration the values of those other things like editing, proofreading, cover art, etc. that traditional publishers do – and for different authors those comparisons are going to produce different outcomes. For some self-publishing will probably make more economic sense. For some, traditional publishing would definitely be the superior choice.
After I stopped chuckling at the image of T.Buckell dissing extreme self-promotion, I stopped and gave some consideration to the issue. I think there is a line between promotion and desperation. Some authors feel the door opening a tad and want to blast through. Given the corporate environment, you can’t blame them.
There’s little I can add that others haven’t added before me. I’ll just say I saw the topic on Scoopit, followed to your blog, and read your work. Thoughtful, balanced, articulate. I’ll be stopping by often in the future. Thanks for doing a good job.
No, I don’t blame those who are pursuing the new self-publishing world with gusto. (I’m a more cautious type, myself, so I try to be very careful into which baskets I put my proverbial eggs.) And for those for whom this is working, I think it’s great. I’m glad you liked the article. I try to be balanced in my approach, both in general and especially to this particular issue – not the least for which I haven’t really figured out for myself which path I’ll want to pursue when I finally have a finished work worth talking about.
Thank you for opening this discussion, it is sorely needed! I wholeheartedly agree with your position, and the consensus seems to be that we needn’t approach this issue from a bipolar perspective; there is room for not only two, but many publishing platforms and models. The very nature of the thoughtful, reasoned responses to your post proves that we can have this conversation without the intrusion of toxic invective. Civility never goes out of style…
I’ll agree with both sentiments, for sure: civility is a sorely-needed trait in online discussions. And there does seem to be a lot of room for many different options in the publishing world, today: not only traditional versus self-publishing, but various degrees of hybridization between those two, and probably still others that haven’t been pioneered yet.
“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?”
Isn’t it obvious? They don’t have time to posture on the Internet. They’re busy writing. 😉
Ahh, touché. Good answer – good and witty to boot. 😉
well, yea, konrath&co. aren’t the nicest of people, but i hardly think that’s a crime. i admittedly like their blogs (no, i’m not a white middleclass man), but then, maybe i just have a really thick skin. i’ve been around the traditional publishing world, and i’m not sad to see it go – the careless and arbitrary way in which manuscripts are selected sickens me, and many of those who are picked up can barely make a living. so it doesn’t surprise me that some of these angry authors are now lashing back. for me, i’m just glad there’s an alternative for writers now.
i don’t think it’s necessarily “hypocritical” for them to sign w/ amazon – i think when they say “self-publish”, they mean to publish via amazon, rather than the Big 6.
I agree that there are some problems with the traditional big-6 publishers, and that I’m glad there are alternatives for writers. I just don’t think the way in which some of these self-publishing authors have gone about promoting themselves and their brave new world is the best way to do it: and I don’t think it’s particularly helpful for those of us who are looking at these options and trying to decide how we want to craft our own careers. I’m the kind of guy who likes to really understand what I’m getting into… but I don’t think the crazy rhetoric helps me understand, it just confuses me. I’m much more interested in evidence and numbers that can help me analyze the different options.
konrath&co. do give numbers. and their numbers are much higher at amazon. i agree that their brash rhetoric can be off-putting to some, but i also think that if they feel these terms are the best way in which to convey their sentiments, then they should be allowed to speak as they see fit. there’s no need for everyone to be soft-spoken – better to be yourself (however crude and potentially offensive) than to be a people-pleaser.
if you’re examining options, maybe you’ll like david gaughran’s blog – he’s blogged over the course of this yr, giving monthly numbers. he’s also very helpful and approachable and will prob be happy to answer any questions you might have. there’s also nathan bransford’s blog. hope this helps!
Admitedly, I haven’t done a diligent search of Konrath’s blog, or those of his cohort, so inasmuch as they might have made a public note about the specific details of their sales, I haven’t seen it. In some ways, that’s kind of the point: if this information is out there, it’s not exactly easy to find, not the least because what draws attention, and links, and google-search-ranking is the nasty, vitriolic stuff, not the helpful and informative stuff. Right now the conversation circles around the low-brow commentary and unfortunately offensive analogies like matter spilling into a black hole. If there’s the light of good conversation and useful data, it can’t escape.
Also, I’m aware of Nathan Bransford (though perhaps I should follow him more closely) (also aware that he linked to this article recently), but I’m not familiar with David Gaughran. I’ll have to check them both out more thoroughly.
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Thank you very much for this article. I am a writer. I have been preparing to be published for the past ten years…by a Standard Publisher. It is true with the web anyone can publish, and claim, “I am a published author.”
To me that sounds like a person who goes to Hollywood, and wants to be a movie star. Un-able to stand to the mark, they buy a Brownie movie camera, and make their own film which they star in, and SHOUT…“I am a movie star.”
I do believe some time in the future, eBooks will dominate most of the market. I do not believe it will be dominate by the self-published.
Readers still demand quality stories. Standard Publishers offer quality reading. True many readers find it easier to pick up a book on their electronic device. That is a great advance. I for one hail this new technology.
To be accepted by a Standard Publisher a writer must produce quality work that will sell. The only segment of the publishing world who assures quality…is the Standard Publishers.
It is these Standard Publishers that will set the pace for the electronic books. In pulp, or key-board, the reader will always demands quality.
The Kings of self-publishing, as they are termed, are a nasty lot. I thank God my computer has a button which reads, “DEL.”
My advice to those seeking to stand to the mark;
Stay away from writers forums…they are the feeding ground of self-publishing.
I agree with your assertion that readers demand quality fiction (although what exactly that means varies from reader to reader). And there was a time I would’ve agreed with your analogy. But increasingly, it’s possible for independent authors to turn out fairly high-quality fiction without turning to a traditional publishing house: no longer are traditional publishers the only source of good quality fiction. In fact, the traditional publishers have been known to publish some stinkers from time to time, simply because a known-name-brand-author or celebrity is behind the quill, while passing over more worthy fare. So I don’t discount the ability of self-publishers to produce some great stories. My point here isn’t about the quality of the work, it’s about the quality of the discussion surrounding self-publishing. If someone is thinking about the possibilities of self-publishing in the future (i.e. me), I want them (i.e. me again) to have some basis of knowledge and understanding about the realities of that path. Right now, the rhetoric drowns out the quality discussion.
Thanks for the come back Stephen, I understand what you’re saying.
I used to have a friend who managed a large book store. (B&N.) She told me, “It is the big chain stores who tell the publishers what they will buy. The big stores also have a buy back policy. If the books don’t sell, the publisher has to buy them back. Working in a field like that has to be hard. The writers blame the publishers, and they should be blaming the book chains.
The problems is the big book stores. The eBook I’m sure will put big stores out of business. (Knock on wood.)
I think if the Standard Publishers go after the eBook market they will accept many more books from writers. After all, it won’t cost much to offer an eBook, no stock, nothing to buy back. I think it will be a good thing for writers.
I don’t feel the self-pub group that is trying to convert others to their movement will last.
If this, (and who the hell can say what is going to happen) does come about, writers will still need to produce good, well written stories.
I hope the change does come about. I look forward to the day the eBook is king. I also would like to see those chanting eBook all over the net go away. They are nasty in their attack on any writer who will not join them.
I started to learn how to write fifteen years ago. Five years ago I begane on my first book. The market started going up, down, and to the side. I did not submit work, I just kept writing. I now have five books done. I’m still lost as to which way to go? I think the matter will be settled within the next few years. But again…who can say.
I agree that the traditional “remainder” system is pretty bad for the book industry, in general. I think it puts a lot of pressure on book publishers, and the crap, as they say, rolls downhill. I don’t think it’s good for authors, or publishers, or the industry. The remainder system will be a welcome casualty of the e-book revolution, I think. (Although I say this without having any idea what the unintended consequences and side-effects of such a demise might be, and so I reserve the right to adjust my opinion on the matter in the future.)
Empty vessels make the most noise and untuned instruments make the most unpleasant sounds. I never liked the alarmist tone though, which goes along the lines of “The gatekeepers are out to steal your soul if you choose to stick with them!”.
they talk about their numbers all the time… i’ve only read a few of konrath’s posts, and they were peppered throughout with numbers (forgive me for linking it here, since i kno you hate him – but maybe the figures will help you): http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/12/eisler-konrath-vs-hachette.html
to quote the numbers: ” I currently earn enough money via self-publishing to be in the top 1% tax bracket of the US. Compare that to the eight years I spent in the legacy publishing world, making $40k a year and spending half of that on self-promotion.”
there’re also other numbers: “the ridiculous current 52.5%-publisher and 17.5%-author digital split needs to be massively adjusted” etc. etc.
Those aren’t the kinds of numbers I’m talking about, honestly. Those are numbers that, to my mind, appear designed to deceive and obfuscate. I don’t mean they’re inaccurate, but they don’t provide a clear picture. What does it mean to be in the top x% of a tax bracket vs. $40K? To get a really clear picture… I’d like to see sales numbers: i.e. “I sold ‘X’ books before as a traditionally published author at Price ‘A’ with ‘B’ royalty rate and ‘B-Prime’ advance vs. selling ‘Y’ books now as a self-publisher (or whatever you want to call what Konrath & Eisler do) at Price ‘C’, etc.” They provide some but not all of those numbers, and only in a way that supports their specific claims. But worst of all, they bury it in a long and barely-readable anti-traditional-publishing screed that’s peppered with misogynistic comments and others sorts of offensive humor. I don’t doubt that Konrath & Eisler themselves, personally, do better with self-publishing than they did with traditional publishing. The question, for me, is not whether those two authors have that status, but whether any given struggling writer can do the same. I don’t think the reality is as cut-and-dry as Konrath & Eisler are trying to make it out to be – and that different authors with different circumstances will have different results – and I think their language is designed primarily to draw attention to themselves, but it misleads authors who are considering their own individual paths.
It’s always an education to see how someone takes a rebuff.
Hmm. This is an interesting comment; not least which because I’m not sure what the intended effect is. I hope that I take a rebuff well… I do also hope that criticism of myself is fair and, well, accurate. But then that might be a total non-sequitor, since I don’t quite know where you’re going with the comment.
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