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Writing 101 -- What's It Worth?

During this long journey I have been on toward publication, a question has popped up over and over again, and I no longer have the ability to be polite in how it is answered.  I have been asked many times if I have ever thought of self-publishing something.  The answer, quite simply, is no.  And based on a story I read recently, it has become a resounding HELL NO.

This story originally appeared in the New York Times and a follow-up article was written, and if you don't want to click the link, I will briefly summarize it for you.  There is a growing trend now of children becoming published authors, and when I say "children becoming published authors," what I really mean is "their parents coughed up a chunk of change to have their literary efforts published by a vanity press."  The kids are, very understandably, quite excited by the whole process.  After all, how cool is it to be able to say you've had two novels published by age fourteen?  Who else can claim to do that?


That's the part that is willfully glossed over time and time again in the original story and the various follow-ups that I have tracked down.  It's not my intent to shit all over these kids, who have an excellent goal (be a writer) and probably honestly think that this is the right way to go about doing things.  The parents are the ones whose feet I would like to hold to the fire, so have a seat over there and watch as I sharpen my knives.

The train of thought that cropped up over and over again in the stories was the bright-eyed kids talking about how proud they were, and about how awesome it was to hold a copy of their book in their hands.  Nobody else seemed to have the heart to say anything to these kids about what they had done, so I will be the giant meanie and pop their balloon with the arrow of truth.  Ready?  Here it goes:

You didn't really accomplish anything.  You completed a business transaction.  And if the anecdotes in these stories is anything approaching the usual way this process works, you didn't even plunk down the money that you earned yourself to make this happen.  Your parents paid for it, and your glow of accomplishment and pride is completely out of whack with what has truly taken place.

Now, before you start up the bonfires and begin sharpening the pitchforks, allow me to explain a little more in-depth why I feel this way.  First of all, I am not saying for a moment that what these kids have done is bad.  I think the idea of more writers in this world is a great one, even if it does mean more competition for me in later years.  Everybody has to start somewhere, and the younger you get started, the more likely you are to be successful later on.

However, and I cannot stress this point enough, the beginning point is never the finish line.  To be a writer, it takes a lot of time and effort, not to mention more than a little frustration along the way.  You're supposed to get knocked down.  Your manuscripts are supposed to be torn apart by merciless red pens.  You're supposed to--

Oh, wait.  I forgot.  This is all stuff you're supposed to do if you want to be a good writer.  If you don't really give a shit about the quality of the stuff you produce and just want to be able to say you've written a novel, by all means, go ahead and charge forward.  But as for the title of being a published author and the kind of justifiable pride that comes with having hacked your way through the jungle to emerge on the other side with that manuscript in your hands, don't even think about trying to ride this train with that ticket.

Put another way: if my dad can sit down at the computer, type the word FUCK ninety thousand times and then enclose the resulting file with a check for a thousand dollars and receive published copies of his magnum opus, it really only adds up to a heaping case of jack squat.  If anybody you know can, with the appropriate amount of money, get in to see a show, the club loses a great deal of its exclusivity.  And if you don't think this can happen, you've never heard of Atlanta Nights.

In 2004, a group of science fiction and fantasy authors decided to put one of the biggest vanity houses, Publish America, to the test.  In the past, this publishing house had claimed they received up to seventy submissions a day and rejected the majority of them, claiming righteously that they were not a literary whore who would open up the legs of publication for anybody who had the cash to spend.  In addition, on the Publish America web site, there were numerous shots taken at authors in the field of science fiction and fantasy, essentially calling them the lowest of the low and advising that if you managed to engage one of these despicable bastards in conversation, your best bet was to run the other way as fast as you could.

I am not making this up.  I couldn't make this up, because nobody would believe that it happened, but it did.  Here's the description of the literary fuck-fest they came up with, from the appropriate Wikipedia page:

"The distinctive flaws of Atlanta Nights include nonidentical chapters written by two different authors from the same segment of outline (13 and 15), a missing chapter (21), two chapters that are word-for-word identical to each other (4 and 17), two different chapters with the same chapter number (12 and 12), and a chapter "written" by a computer program that generated random text based on patterns found in the previous chapters (34). Characters change gender and race; they die and reappear without explanation. Spelling and grammar are nonstandard and the formatting is inconsistent. The initials of characters who were named in the book spelled out the phrase "PublishAmerica is a vanity press." Under Macdonald's direction, the finale revealed that all the previous events of the plot had been a dream, although the book continues for several more chapters."

Now that, my friends, is the mother of all troll-jobs.  On December 7th, 2004 (a date which will live in literary infamy), Atlanta Nights was accepted for publication by Publish America.  In January of 2005, the authors revealed their trick and the next day, after "further review," Publish America decided that Atlanta Nights failed to meet their standards and revoked the contract.

I think you get the idea.

Groucho Marx famously said, "I'd never belong to any club that would have me for a member."  The bottom line is that at its roots self-publication is a pure vanity move, and the few examples that can be cited of successful efforts in this field are vastly outweighed by hordes of cringe-worthy suckfests that regularly plague bookstores (on the rare occasions that a reputable bookseller can actually be convinced to stock the titles; generally, the easiest way to get a bookseller to stop talking to you is to bring up your self-published book and how much you'd like to see it on their shelves).

So there you go, my screed on self-publishing.

Oh, and Samantha... thanks for not judging me.  You're one in a million.


( 6 Bullseyes — Fire Your Guns )
Apr. 18th, 2012 03:50 am (UTC)
An acquaintance of mine who is a published author was told by her agent that once you self-publish, most publishers won't touch _any_ of your work with a 10-foot pole, even if the work in question is completely unrelated to the self-published title.
Apr. 18th, 2012 05:49 am (UTC)
Yeah, in the normal publishing world, self-publishing is the kiss of death. As much as it pains me to say, the gatekeepers are in good place for a very good reason. When an author gets to basically write their own check without any balances from the editorial staff, what usually is produced in the end is mediocre at best, actively horrible at worst.
Apr. 19th, 2012 01:50 am (UTC)
As witness, check out any number of A list authors who are big enough to tell an editor where to stick it. Authors who are quite capable of turning out absolutely sublime novels get big-head syndrome and turn out some absolutely awful stuff knowing full well people will buy it because it is by 'X' author.
Apr. 19th, 2012 07:38 am (UTC)
I have to admit, from a purely business aspect once you have fulfilled your contract with a house and built up a reasonable following, it makes perfect economic sense to then go ahead and strike out on your own via self-publishing. Instead of a royalty rate of %15, why not go ahead and get up to %70? One of the hardest things a writer encounters is building up that initial fanbase, and it helps greatly to have a publisher standing behind you and arranging things.

The bad part comes when very few of the authors that take this path bother to bring along an editor. In addition to getting your name out there, publishers have a vested interest in not allowing a writer to shoot themselves in the foot. When you slip the editorial chain and run out into the street, you usually end up getting hit by a car (see Laurell K. Hamilton for a detailed account of how a good writer goes batshit with too much leeway).
Apr. 19th, 2012 06:41 am (UTC)
Thank you for not holding a sick friend to proper standards. The feeling is mutual.
Apr. 19th, 2012 06:50 am (UTC)
More than welcome, Sam. Like I said, it's my own trip. Hope you heal up soon.
( 6 Bullseyes — Fire Your Guns )