Stephen sent an e-mail to the Speculative Faith columnists with a question that developed into a conversation: Should we list self-published books in the Speculative Faith library?
I didn’t even need to think about it. My answer was no, and my rationale went something like this…
Self-published books are inferior, because:
- There’s no trustworthy quality control for self-published books.
- If a self-published book was any good, it would have been picked up by a traditional publisher.
I thought about it in more depth later, read a couple of related articles, and came to the conclusion I was reacting to the issue out of simple prejudice. “Self-published” equals “bad.”
I’ve accepted this equation for years. Self-publishing is a vanity operation for people who don’t have the patience for legitimate publishing. People who can’t handle criticism and rejection. People too lazy to walk their manuscripts through agents and editors. People who can’t put two coherent sentences together but still think they’re God’s gift to literature.
It’s never been a completely accurate assessment. Many authors of renown have plied the murky waters of self-publishing over the years for a variety of personal and practical reasons, not to mention the many great works of classic and ancient literature that were written before publishers existed. It is, however, a lot easier and less expensive to take a story from manuscript to book and place it in the market than ever before—according to Publisher’s Weekly, 764,448 titles were published in 2009 by “micro niche” and self-publishers, compared to 288,355 from traditional publishers. Some of these books and their authors have jumped into the global spotlight, all without benefit of a traditional publishing house.
Let’s take a look at my two supporting points.
There’s no trustworthy quality control for self-published books.
This seems obvious at first glance, but it’s a blanket assessment. Just because there’s no structured quality control in self-publishing doesn’t mean quality control isn’t happening at all. A diligent author will ensure their manuscript is professionally edited and formatted, with attractive cover art, before going to press. If they don’t, the market provides its own quality filter, and shoddy products won’t survive long.
We also have to be careful about how we define “quality,” because it doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it does when we’re talking about publishing. There are a plethora of impeccably proofread and typeset books produced each year by conventional publishers, and many are pure dreck, from a literary point of view. They’re published because they’re marketable—people will buy them, and publishers are in business to sell books. From that perspective, a quality book is one that provides a good reward-to-risk ratio—a book that will sell, written by an author with a proven track record and audience. Quality in terms of literary merit is a secondary issue.
If a self-published book was any good, it would have been picked up by a traditional publisher.
If a self-published book develops enough of a following, chances are, a conventional publisher will pick it up. In a recent USA Today article, publisher Andrew Martin observes that the pool of self-published e-books is becoming the 21st Century slush pile, one that outsources the labor of slush reading to the market. Books sell, or don’t sell, “…with the cream rising to the top,” and the publishers skim it off.
So, are self-published books inferior? They’re certainly a mixed bag, but I can’t simply say they’re inferior or illegitimate by definition. They emerge from a different publishing model that wasn’t practical until recently. They’re different, but not necessarily of poor craftsmanship. If anything, the ascendance of self-published fiction puts more burden on me to be aware of a larger universe of stories and not to rely entirely on the judgment of the traditional publishing community to determine what is and isn’t worthy of my reading time.
If I’m looking for something different, for the next big thing in speculative fiction, it probably won’t be sitting on the shelves at my local bookstore, where the established writers and their endless sequels reside. It’ll turn up in the electronic marketplace, written by somebody I’ve never heard of before. The big publishers are looking there already—and why should I wait for them to find it?