When I used Kickstarter to help fund The Shulim Cycle: Book of Dahlia, I reached out to various social media outlets to try to get support for the project. In one of the forums, I received a little bit of feedback that both amused me and saddened me. I still keep it with me now because, any sting having faded, I still find it amusing. My book, my precious beloved novel, was just another “penny dreadful”. I was nothing more than another silly girl who fancied herself a writer.
Now, I love my “penny dreadful”. But the comment did bring something to mind that I have wrestled with since deciding to self-publish. It is the idea that a self-published novel is not as good as a novel from a major publishing house. It is not professional or polished.
The reality is that a book being published by a major publisher does not guarantee that it is good. It does not even guarantee that it is of professional quality. I’ve opened plenty of paperbacks released by major publishers with glaring grammatical errors, poor formatting, and even crooked pages. I’ve started reading books that I had to put down because I simply couldn’t bare to read another word. The writing was too simplistic. Or it talked down to me. Or it was just silly. And they were not self-published novels.
So, what is really the difference between books that are self-published and books that are put out by major houses?
There is no difference. Or, at least, there doesn’t have to be. Books I didn’t like just didn’t appeal to me, though they obviously appealed to someone. Grammatical errors can slip past even the most diligent close reader. In the printing process any number of things can happen to cause formatting to go awry. When the novel is 400+ pages, it’s easy to miss that formatting error if it only occurs on a few pages.
Self-published writers can edit. They have to. Most of us can’t afford to pay an editor to do it. We may not like editing. I hate it. There’s nothing that I despise more (except maybe logical fallacies) than having to slowly read through a text and look for errors. I get impatient. I get fidgety. I feel a need to kick out my feet, shift in my seat, and sigh the sigh of the eternally annoyed.
But I can do it. And I’ll get better as I continue to do it. Sure, I miss things. Any editor will. I’ll miss them for any number of reasons. It’s to be expected. We’re only human.
We can learn how to format. We can learn how to fiddle with Word to help make formatting easier. We can even study up on cute little things like font styles, x-height, and how to look for rivers in a block of text. Those of us who are English majors probably know most of this already. Those of us who took courses on document design will certainly be ahead of the curb. If you’re in college know, or you’re thinking of going back, and haven’t taken a document design course, do yourself a favor: take it. Take as many as you can. It’s probably one of the most valuable classes that I took, aside from my creative writing classes.
We also have the internet to help us. There are all kinds of articles to assist the author to be an editor. Tips on grammar. Tips on formatting. Advice on how to avoid mistakes. Tips to help you get through editing sessions. Instructions on setting up Word to actually assist you. If you need information, it is out there. I suggest Google to search for it. But that’s just a preference.
So we as authors can be empowered to make our beloved work the polished and professional novels that can stand next to any novel put out by any publishing house. We already do. Everything I mentioned above are things self-published writers already do. There is a reason that there are all kinds of resources for new writers: old writers put them out there. Editors shared their knowledge. Authors shared their own experience. I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before. I’m not suggesting anything that hasn’t already been suggested.
So why the stigma then? Why is self-publishing seen as unprofessional? Why are the books relegated to being “penny dreadfuls”?
We are well-trained to look at writing a specific way. We’ve grown up with names like Penguin and Del Rey and associate them with good writing. Novels must have a gate keeper in order to pass into the world of publication. There can be no other way. And this isn’t the fault of the gate keepers. Sure, yes, there are some agents that turn up their noses at self-published authors. I’ve read their blog posts. There are many others who don’t. The offer good advice to writers who are considering self-publishing or hoping to transition from self-publishing to a publishing-house. They’re as happy to work with the self-published author as they are the author who is waiting for the contract.
They understand, either actively or instinctively, that the idea of the gate-keeper is relatively new. The earliest storytellers didn’t have agents to represent them. They were the storytellers of their villages. The earliest plays weren’t managed by publishing houses. Even some of the earliest works were not, unless you consider the Church to be a publisher. Publishing evolved over time, as the needs of society and its creative elements, evolved.
And it is evolving again. Agents and publishers both see it. That’s why Penguin bought a self-publishing service. There have always been self-published authors. Technology has made it easier to do, so there are more of us now than ever before.
So, the world of publishing is evolving. Reader and writer expectations need to, and will, evolve as well.
The paradigm needs to shift.
For myself, I look at self-publishing the way I would look at any small business. Do we avoid a clothing shop just because it’s not a Macy’s or Sears? Do we refuse to shop at a convenience store because it isn’t 7-11? Do we turn our noses up at a bookstore because it isn’t Barnes and Noble? Do we look at hand-stitched sweaters and think they’re shoddy?
Of course not. In our towns and cities are all kinds of small businesses flourish. Many of us have favorite restaurants that are not part of a chain, but are owned by individuals. It is the only one, and it’s our restaurant to go to every weekend. We have a favorite boutique that we like to shop at when Christmas comes. Maybe it’s the place we always get our ornaments. We buy our Christmas tree not from Home Depot, but from the tree farmer who comes into town once a year to sell the trees that he cultivates. We purchase hand-woven baskets and hand-painted pottery at flea markets and crafts fairs.
The self-published book is no different than any of these. The self-published author is just another small-business owner, another entrepreneur. He has a product to sell. Try it out, because you might just like it.