Michael Kozlowski, the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader, recently posted an op-ed* on his site titled Self-Publishing is Completely Corrupt. The title, of course, says it all: He tells all aspiring writers yearning to get into the business that the only way to do it is to go through a professional publisher, because all independent and self-publishers are hopeless shills pushing crap products onto the unsuspecting masses. He paints trade publishing as the only credible way to publish, pointing to the awards and accolades available through their system.
In response to his editorial, I’d like to start by showing you two things:
Okay, now let’s discuss.
Trade publishing, traditional publishing, professional publishing, whatever you want to call it, is a business. It has been from the very beginning, when the first publishing house was formed, and it remains so today. And as a business, it has one and only one purpose: To make a profit. They make that profit off of someone else’s work. Usually writers (but clearly not always). Usually lots of them… as many as they can handle. Because the more writers, the more books sold… the more profit.
Now, you can dress that up any way you want… but it all comes down to the almighty dollar, just like it does in every other business.
Kozlowski’s op-ed states outright that any aspiring writer’s only real choice is to go through the traditional publishing system. I guess he’d like to suggest that all good books will eventually be picked up by a publisher, and then you’re on the way to Easy Street. Now I can’t tell you how many books Kozlowski has written and sent to a traditional publisher, never to arise again from their slush pile… or, for that matter, how many publishers have told him when he submitted a book prospectus: “Sorry, we’re not accepting any submissions… go fish.”
I could tell you how often both of those have happened to me.
Publishers aren’t almighty gods with the omniscient ability to divine the good books buried under a three-story-tall slush pile. In fact, they only even look at that slush pile when they’re desperate for content. So there is quite literally no reason to expect success from sending anything, good or bad, to a traditional publisher. As many people besides me have pointed out, you’d probably have better odds (and a damn sight less work and more fun) playing Powerball than trying to make it in the door at a traditional publisher’s house.
Publishers are more likely to make money by going after someone who’s already proven bankability… the two books above being excellent examples. Already famous? Consider yourself first in line. Kim Kardashian, a girl who made her fame by starring in a (independently-produced) porn video and later mugging for the TV world along with the rest of her family, was given a publishing contract for a book full of pictures. Of her. Taken by her with cheap cellphone cameras. E.L. James (who is actually lauded by Kozlowski as a successful author other independents try to emulate) wrote cheap (and badly-executed) Twilight fanfic that no publisher cared about… until it was rewritten as cheap (and badly-executed) non-Twilight soft porn that sold like gangbusters. And then publishers lined the block begging to be James’ publisher. Trad publishers have shown a remarkable ability to shun a work, until it was produced independently and turned out to be popular as hell… at which time, the publishers would step in with an offer to make the author even more money (and pocket a significant profit themselves).
Kozlowski also makes the case that only traditional publishers provide quality products that independents are incapable of creating. He apparently forgets that many people (like, say, me) have actually read independent authors’ works. What’s more, we’ve compared them to traditional publishers’ works—especially over the last decade that ebooks have been developing—and I can tell you, traditional publishers have been responsible for some of the most egregious quality errors I have ever seen in books. We’ll be clear: Trad publishers aren’t perfect in print either. Yes, they generally employ many, many people to catch any errors before they go out. Which makes it even worse when books are produced with errors anyway. Traditional publishers’ products are not perfect… and as time and technology has improved, so have the products of independent authors, today easily rivaling (and often surpassing) the quality of traditionally-published fare.
One aspect of trad publishers Kozlowski discusses may have some merit: He mentions that trad publishers teach writers how to become public figures, to show themselves at functions, make pitches, answer questions and in general make the best impression of themselves to prospective buyers. Sounds legit. Of course, the functions of which he speaks are generally set up by the publishers expressly for the writers… they are PR events, and authors are taught how to walk their walk and talk their talk in order to make their published books look good. Kozlowski contrasts these with independent authors who “shill” themselves through social media, using the technology of the day to promote themselves in new ways. (Kinda like Good E-Reader puts out email newsletters and uses online forums to push its agenda. And its paid advertisers. #PotCallingTheKettleBlack )
He also stresses that traditional publishing is the only way authors can get awards and acclaim, which are shut off from independent authors. Of course they are… by deliberate design. Traditional publishers created those awards, specifically to show off their products… in order to garner interest in other of their products, generate sales, attract other money-making authors to their stables, and make a profit. Traditional publishers pay for the advertisements and press that get authors the worldwide acclaim that generates international sales. Traditional publishers actively encourage their writers to write glowing reviews to stick on the backs of other authors’ books, to impress the press and impressionable buyers. And they deliberately shut out smaller publishing houses and independents by making sure the entry fee into those services, awards and worldwide promotion are too high for smaller houses and indies to afford. They make sure most people hear about their products—not the products by the little guys—to maximize their profit.
As I read this ed, I found myself laughing out-loud at most of its assertions. Nothing Kozlowski claimed could convince me that traditional or trade publishers are anything more than the highly-organized, rich and connected shills that he compares to poor, unconnected, independent shills like me. They do not have a monopoly on content or quality, and the efforts they make to claim the high ground are transparent in their manipulations and machinations. In short: They gamed the system, so they can blow their own horns about how superior they are.
But maybe I’m reading this wrong. After all, Kozlowski himself used the name E.L. James in the same sentence as the words “successful writers.” “Writer” being used because he does not consider James an author. “Successful” because he recognizes the only value to James’ work is its bankability, as opposed to its quality.
So maybe this is a joke on me. Kozlowski actually knows that there’s nothing wrong with going the independent author route, just as he knows that there’s nothing particularly superior about trade publishers and their supposed value to the writers of the world. He knows it all comes down to money, and the trad publishers just have a lot more of it than the rest of us plebes. I’ve just wasted a lot of electrons rebutting a sarcastic op-ed designed to shame those clever, clever publishers into cleaning up their acts; and advising authors not to be suckered by their antics, but to be willing to try something new. He knows who’s really on the corrupt side of the coin here.
Don’t I feel silly.