Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Traditional Vs. Self Publishing

Recently, I stepped into a mire of goo the likes of which I haven't seen since I owned an 80lb dog.  I since deleted the post, but it got me thinking.  For the longest time (well, since I got into writing and got my first book published), I've been a staunch proponent of traditional publishing.  I've always been the guy out there yelling about how traditional is the way to go, that they are the gate-keepers of our craft and profession, and a thousand other arguments that fill message boards and professional organizations with vitriol and bile.  But it got me wondering.   Why is self-publishing so reviled?

I was born in 1971 and my childhood was spent in the 70's.  There were no "indie" bands that I knew of around that time, and when I was in Junior and High School  (1980's), it was cool for everyone to have a demo.  Indie bands were the thing.  I still have a demo of the Beastie Boys, and I can recall when Metallica was an unsigned act that was killing it in the local clubs.  And I recall, back then, the big question was "who are they signed with?" in regards to music.  If the answer was "no one," the retort was usually "then they can't be any good."

It was bullshit then.

Pictured:  That opinion

When I graduated High School and went off to college (I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, California for a couple of years), indie-music was still huge, and growing.  But there was a new phenomenon on the horizon:  Indie comics.  The big two (Marvel and DC) got too big for their collective britches, and a whole world of creative independent artists and writers got together and said "screw them, we'll do it ourselves!"  And they did.  And again, there was a stigma about whether their work was any good because it didn't go through the big houses.

It, too, was bullshit.

Not quite the easy button...

Which brings us to today.  I went and soul-searched a little and realized something:  I can be a bit of a snob at times.  Today, the big publishers are running scared because of indie (notice, I didn't say "self") publishing.  They're being more selective (meaning they're not buying as many manuscripts), circling their wagons (which means many are going out of business and being bought up by others of their kind), and branching out (which means creating a "pay for publish" branch… I'm looking at you, Penguin) in an attempt to stop the arterial bleeding that is coming from the publishing industry today.  And you get dinosaurs like me, who seem to have become what we used to revile.  But that's not entirely true.   I'll get to that in a moment.

Why is it that indie music and indie comics and indie films get love and are heralded as fierce and creative and brave, while indie publishing is not?  As a good friend, and someone I respect (Joe "The Pope" Borrelli) said, let the public decide.  What is it that separates musicians, artists, film makers, and such from writers?  In all honesty, nothing.  It's art.  It's their interpretation of art.  And there are truly shitty examples in every category.  There also lurks brilliance.

Many years ago, I was a critic for a newspaper, so I was inundated with indie music on cassette (yes, I'm that old), and I found that 80% of it was crap.  The folks making said music needed to go back and learn to play their instruments, needed to learn a modicum of music theory.  Needed to actually listen to music to see where they were going wrong.  But the other 20%?  I still listen to them.  When I did film and book reviews for Dread Central, I was greeted with a similar percentage of garbage.  But then, every now and again, brilliance.   Some of the books I got were offensive, not from their content, but by the sheer gall of the writers involved calling themselves authors.  Does that sound elitist?  Maybe it is.  Maybe it offends me that I've spent years making serious study and effort to hone my craft, and yet anyone can plug in a computer, jump on Createspace, and publish anything they want.  Seriously.  But the big question is, should it offend me?  Probably not.  The public will decide, Mr. Borrelli.  The public will decide.  And while certain titles exist that cast the whole independent publishing movement in a bad light, hasn't that always been the case with indie music, film, and comics?

But wait, you say.  What about the old arguments about the publishers and labels and big dogs of the creative world being the gatekeepers?  Yeah… That's also bullshit.  Many of them are run by bean-counters now.  And while there are many micro and indie presses, they are no guarantee either.  Many of them (like Raw Dog Screaming Press and Permuted) take great pains to come off as professional and hire good editors and put forth an excellent product.  Lots more don't, and, no, I'm not going to name names.  Let's face it, there are no guarantees today.

So now it comes down to it…  I still prefer to be traditionally published.  Everything I've ever written has been traditionally published (except for one book that was done for charitable reasons).  But does that mean I won't eventually be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century and indie publish something?  Probably not.  There may come a point when I decide to indie publish, and it will be on my terms.  But if anything, I'd like to offer the following advice for folks who do, or who intend to indie publish.

  • Do yourself a favor and hire an editor.  Not your buddy from down the street, but someone who actually knows what they're doing.  Yes, it's expensive, but then, so is publishing.  And it's worth it to present yourself in the most professional and polished manner possible.  Book reviewers (who drive your sales) are unforgiving when it comes to books full of typos.  
  • Invest in good cover art.  A good cover can sell a truckload of books.  Bad cover art can make your stuff come off as amateur and childish.  
  • Either hire someone to do your layout for you, or really learn how to do it.  InDesign is an expensive program, and so is Quark, but you're talking about your chosen career.  It's an investment.  
  • Learn the basics of promotion.  Network and market your ass off, learn how to book signings, and figure out how to get the most reach for your dollar.  
  • Surround yourself with a good team.  Beta readers, editors, artists, layout… Everything.  They can make or break you.  
  • Be ready to smile and avoid coming off as angry. *ahem*

So maybe I am a dinosaur.  But, unlike big lizards of old, I prefer to change and adapt, and I reserve the right to change my point of view.  I'd also like to note that I know several (not lots, but a few) independent published authors who have gone on to great things (Rhiannon Frater leaps immediately to mind), and I respect them and their work.  I'm not going to change my opinion when I see a book that I think is crap, and I think most folks reading this have known me long enough to know that I don't ever apologize for my opinion.  If I think it's crap, I say it's crap.  But to those offended by my (unintentionally) controversial remarks, I have one thing to say:

Mea culpa. 

Signed your Gentleman Dinosaur


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