The more often I attend literary fairs and book festivals around the country and meet other authors, the more I’m aware of the divide that exists between those whose books have been published traditionally and those who have self-published. As a member of the former group, I’ve sensed among my fellows a palpable snobbery to which, if I’m being honest, I must admit to myself. I’m not proud of it, and I try desperately to conceal it whenever I encounter a self-published writer; nonetheless, a snob I remain.
I do not deny that there are a fair number of very talented writers who, for a variety of reasons, have chosen self-publication. The sheer number of unpublished writers seeking agency representation and publication are so large as to guarantee that a few deserving authors/texts are being missed. What are these authors to do who, in pursuit of their dream and believing wholeheartedly in the quality of their work, have had all avenues to mainstream publication blocked? Trust me. I understand their frustration. My debut novel SO SHELLY was actually the fourth novel that I penned after four years and three rejected novels. It seems only reasonable that such frustrated writers go “off road” and blaze their own trail to publication. Why should a few gatekeepers at literary agencies and publishing houses be the only ones to decide which texts make it to print and into the hands of the reading public? The system itself seems elitist and un-democratic. In addition, it is impossible to deny that a handful of self-published authors have successfully utilized sales of their works to wedge their foot into the doors of mainstream publishers. It’s also true that an even smaller number have been so successful as to find themselves in a position to spurn the very publishing industry which had rejected them.
Why then does such arrogance exist amongst the published few? I believe that the answer is found in the previous question itself in the word “few.” When a writer earns the representation of an agent and the endorsement of an editor and the “go ahead” from a publishing house’s editorial board, he has reached rarified air. The ascendency to each one of these Olympian steps has been a validation of the expenditure of his time, energy, and talent – truly a Herculean achievement that leaves him crowned a Published Author. Therefore, when other writers – typically out of impatience and/or frustration born of rejection – choose to circumvent the system in pursuit of the same crowning, it should be more-than-understandable that we cry, “Foul!” (Note. I said, “understandable,” not charitable or gracious.)
As in most experiences of the adult world, the dynamics at work in the mingling of the traditionally and self-published at book festivals that cater to both remain those found on the playground. The “un-picked” self-published often find themselves and their books (which they have lugged in themselves) pushed to the periphery of the event floor, out of the primary flow of traffic and often removed from the invited published authors and their books (supplied, inventoried, and sold by a major bookseller). It’s not unusual for we cool, advanced, and royalty-earning writers to walk past our country cousins with cold shoulders turned while sneaking a peek at the cheaply-produced covers – a telltale sign of a self-published text. If we find a table unmanned, it’s great fun to flip through a few pages in search of amateurish phrasings and clunky punctuation, which, if I’m being honest, typically doesn’t take long to find.
I’m not proud of my snobbishness; in fact, I find it quite unbecoming, thin-skinned, and shortsighted on my part. I can’t, however, deny my snobbery towards or my antipathy for the ever-growing number of incompetent writers hawking their vanity projects for free in every available e-reader outlet. There exists an “old school” side of me that doesn’t believe every kid who participates should receive a trophy or that you can always get what you want merely because you want it. Some things need to be tried in the crucibles of competition and excellence. If truth be told, when everyone’s a winner, no one is a winner. When becoming a published author is as easy as the writing of a check to any of the dream-selling con artists who operate houses catering to self-publishing authors or when the path to publication is as simple as learning to run any of the various software programs for uploading text to compatible e-readers, what happens to the prestige of being an author? I choose to honor and admire those who continue to struggle in anonymity and in all likelihood of continued failure rather than to recognize as commensurate the specious “achievement” of self publication.
Although I’d concede that long-established institutions sometimes need to be destroyed, I do not believe for a second that the traditional publishing model is broken, unfair, or in need of overhaul. It is now and always has rightfully been a meritocracy. If you want admittance, write a great book that agents and editors must have. If you want to stay in, write books that the reading public purchases. The currently laying of siege to the publishing industry by self-published vandals has done and will do little to enhance the quality of the reading lives of the general public. In fact, in flooding the e-market with a glut of un-vetted and inferior texts, it has already begun to facilitate anarchy, not democracy.
The ultimate reality is that the publishing industry is undergoing rapid and dramatic re-definition. A fair number of authors who once swore never to go the self-published route (many of whom have already been published in the traditional manner) are doing so every day and changing the tune they whistle as they go. Clearly, the last laugh is yet to be had over this contentious divide, and in the end, the joke may be on me.