Why our exclusionary attitudes toward self-publishing must change.

This afternoon, I read a piece in The Guardian about John Green, and some remarks he made in a speech to the Association of American Booksellers. Most of his statements, overall, are inoffensive. He gives the reasons he would not self-publish, despite his large internet following, and all his reasons are fine. Writers generally get into writing because they want to write, not because they want to be independent publishers, and you can’t really fault someone for saying, “what I’m doing right now works, so there’s no reason to change it.” The only statement Green made that seemed at all controversial was the following:

“We must strike down the insidious lie that a book is the creation of an individual soul labouring in isolation. We must strike it down because it threatens the overall quality and breadth of American literature,” he said. “They hold me up as an example but I am not an example of publishers or bookstores extracting value because without an editor my first novel, Looking for Alaska, would have been unreadably self-indulgent. And even after she helped me make it better it wouldn’t have found its audience without unflagging support … from booksellers around the country. I wouldn’t have the YouTube subscribers or the Tumblr followers, and even if I did I wouldn’t have any good books to share with them.”

So many aspects of this quote concern me. First, I don’t believe it’s an “insidious lie that a book is the creation of an individual soul labouring in isolation.” While Green is right, the support of agents, editors, booksellers, and marketing teams do help to launch a book into the public consciousness, it isn’t impossible to accomplish these things as a self-published author. Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking come to mind immediately as authors who managed to build a successful following without the initial support of a large publisher. Their success is definitely out of the ordinary– but so is John Green’s. Only a very small percentage of authors reach the heights of popularity that Green has. He is as much an anomaly as Hocking or Howey.

Furthermore, while it takes many people to create a traditionally published book, and we celebrate their involvement when a title becomes a runaway hit, the fault of a novel’s failure is put solely on the author when it comes time to go to the next contract. While a string of failures will impact a publishing house, a single poorly received book can irrevocably destroy an author’s career. We might not stand alone in the creation of a critical success, but we’re certainly “labouring in isolation” when answering for a financial flop.

Second, I bristle at the implication that only with the help of a big six editor does a novel lose its self-indulgent aspects; before the advent of self-publishing, there were plenty of self-indulgent novels on the shelves. While Green is speaking only of his work, as a self-published author, I can’t help but wish that writers would examine the flip-side of this type of statement before they make it. It’s disingenuous to assert that only through traditional publishing are these feats of editing and marketing possible; self-published authors can hire editors, copy-editors, cover artists, and publicity teams. No, not all of them do, but not all successful traditionally published authors accept the notes and advice given to them by their editors and agents, either. Ego and attachment to bloated prose aren’t the sole provenance of the self-published author.

Finally,  I find it disturbing that Green feels self-publishing is threatening the quality of American literature. How can that statement be taken in any other context than as an insult to self-published authors? He is blatantly stating that lack of involvement by traditional publishing is creating lower quality. I fail to see how else that statement can be interpreted, regardless of how Green may have intended it.

To add to the insult, Green delivered this ode to the gatekeepers while accepting something called the “Young Adult Indie Choice” award. Perhaps “indie” means something different to booksellers than it does to the rest of the world, but I simply don’t believe that an author who writes for the big six and vehemently rejects self-publishing fulfills any definition of “indie,” regardless of the number of YouTube subscribers he has.

Another aspect to consider here is that John Green is a white man. In publishing, as in everywhere else, white men rule the world. Green has been embraced as an author in  a way female authors, even white female authors, rarely are. He’s been established as the star, the groundbreaker, the leader of the YA movement, in spite of female authors like Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins being credited with revitalizing the once dying genre.  There’s no denying that John Green is a YA star, but while Meyer was derided for writing wish-fulfillment romance for teenage girls and her contributions only grudgingly acknowledged, Green’s prose seems to be considered sacred and above examination by readers and critics alike. This isn’t Green’s fault; women have always had to fight harder for recognition and validation in publishing, and they will continue to do so long after Green retires.

The fact that there are so few celebrated authors of color in YA is also a sign of Green’s privilege as a white male author; his books, no matter how groundbreaking or well-written, would not have received the support or acclaim they received if they had been written by a person of color. It’s very likely that they would never have been published, but dismissed as “ethnic” or “urban” and therefore deemed an unacceptable financial risk by traditional publishing. Through self-publishing, more authors of color have been able to find a voice and a market for their stories. Is this harmful to literature? Or does broadening the scope of which stories are told enrich the cultural narrative of our literature? I truly believe that if this were pointed out to Green, he would acknowledge the validity of this fact, but since he is a white male author, he isn’t obligated to examine it from that perspective.

It speaks to Green’s integrity that he values editors in his process. He’s certainly reached a level of success at which authors are allowed more control and self-indulgence, so to see him out there, saying, “I need help making these books what they are,” rather than, “I don’t allow editors to deconstruct my vision,” is such a breath of fresh air. There is nothing more disappointing, as a reader, than to see a favorite author’s work begin to unravel once their sales numbers soar and they’re given more leeway to ignore edits. If Green had (or if the article had) separated this point from his remarks about self-publishing, it would have come off as less of a condemnation.

John Green has the luxury of rejecting self-publishing because he is John Green. He is the current darling of traditional publishing. It’s very easy to say, “I would never self-publish” once that plan B is off the table as a necessity. Many of us who self-publish do so because we have to. We’re self-publishing either because we can’t break in to traditional publishing, or because we were traditionally published and failed in the market. That doesn’t mean the books we were submitting or the books that weren’t selling had no merit or quality to them, it simply means that writing is a business, and traditional publishing is not in the habit of shelling out their dollars for something they don’t believe will generate a return. Sometimes, these books are rejected because they’re low quality; other times, they’re excellent and too much of a risk. Nearly every editor and agent I know can point to a book they really believed in, but couldn’t sell to a publisher or get past marketing to offer a contract. How is this model superior to a market unfettered by the bottom lines of major publishers?

To me, the attitude of, “I will never self-publish,” coming from any author, indicates that they have never been in a position where it is their only option. Or, they have such an antagonistic view of self-publishing that they would rather just not write than lower themselves by self-publishing. But the fact remains that self-publishing is the only way many authors, for various reasons, will ever be able to put their books in front of an audience. Suggesting that alternative methods of publishing will harm literature is the same as suggesting folk art will harm high art, or YouTube will harm television, film, and music. None of these forms of outsider creation and free market have replaced the industry that inspired them, so why do so many authors and industry professionals feel that self-publishing be ultimately destructive to the entire business?

Perhaps Green didn’t think his statement would come off this way. Perhaps he was quoted out of context or his statements presented in the wrong order. Or maybe he just hasn’t thought about how exclusionary his reasoning sounded. But his speech does echo a long running theme in the debate over trad vs. self publishing. As self-publishing doesn’t appear to be going away, it’s long past time for this particular attitude to be laid to rest.

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38 Comments on “Why our exclusionary attitudes toward self-publishing must change.”

  1. Pansy Petal says:

    Thank you Jenny! I have to tell you that currently, about 75% of my reading is self published authors. (Your next book is due out when?) They are wonderful! Also, if I had heard of John Green before your article here, he impressed me so much that I forgot him! But I do know Hugh Howey (his books are amazing!) and Amanda Hocking! (Still on my tbr list.) So, from this reader’s point of view, his thoughts on self publishing are just so much hot air.

    • Jenny Trout says:

      Oh, he’s really cool, though. His YouTube show Crash Course is amazing, I lose SO MUCH time watching it. Totally worth checking out.

  2. Dracon Ra says:

    I’ve heard that a lot from German authors as well, since I started to consider publishing. Authors who self-publish are not good enough to get into professional publishing, they never work with editors and are harmful for the whole industry. When self-publishing, even when you’re not as bad as everyone else, no one will find your book. Because there are so many bad books, that it is impossible to find the rare good ones.

    Is it true? I don’t know. It is true that everyone who wants to write can self-publish, no matter how good or bad he is.

    I see how tempting it is. My friends got the first draft of the first story I’ve ever written. And all of them wanted to see it published.
    And it would be so easy, wouldn’t it. But I don’t want to be one of those authors who give self-publishing a bad name. So I resist the temptation and try to get better at writing. If I succeed, I will publish it, in a few years. I’m already saving money to pay the editor. If not, I will keep on writing for myself and my friends. I don’t really need to share my stories with the rest of the world.
    Could I get a contract? Who knows, I don’t really care. I like the idea of self-publishing.

  3. Chloe says:

    I took a creative writing class at university and my Professor (who is a published author) told the class to never go down the route of self-publishing. It does seem like something some published authors say to aspiring writers and it kind of feels because they like labeling themselves as ‘real authors’.
    I completely agree with you that there are many excellent writers who simply can’t get published. What I like about self-publishing is that there are not any guide-lines you have to follow, which allows a potential for greater creativity.
    And if the standard of writing has slipped in recent years, it isn’t the fault of self-publishing. Writers who have gotten published in recent years include people like Stephanie Meyer, E L James and Dan Brown- all of whom prove that some publishers don’t give a crap about writing quality as long as they can market a book to a certain audience. Even authors like Proulx and McCarthy, who are critically acclaimed and have both won Pulitzer’s in recent years, really aren’t good writers in my opinion.
    I agree with John Green that quality of writing is important but he bizarrely seems to be saying that the ‘insidious’ problem is self-publishing itself rather than, you know, bad writing. He doesn’t say ‘self-publish if you like but hire an editor or get a second opinion’, something which I would agree with.
    As an avid reader, I am more than capable of making my own decision about a book I read, self-published or not and find his statements patronizing and misguided.

  4. Jemmy says:

    There’s an author who started his career in the 70s, I started reading his books about 20 years ago. He got huge, so much so he could probably publish a laundry list and have it be a best seller. I haven’t bought a book of his in years because, in my very humble opinion, he needs a better editor. His early stuff is great, and then at a certain point it just all goes bleh. I put it down to him being too popular, he can get away with ignoring the editors.

    I could be wrong with that, but that’s how it feels to me.

    It seems ridiculous to blame the quality of literature on people who self publish. There’s a ton of bad stuff that got through the editors, it certainly can’t be any worse in the self publishing area..

  5. I only wish the self-published novels that get all the hype weren’t among the worst of the batch. :/ There are a lot of good ones out there but it’s always the crappy ones that everyone talks about. I wish the good ones were easier to find.

    “It’s very likely that they would never have been published, but dismissed as “ethnic” or “urban” and therefore deemed an unacceptable financial risk by traditional publishing”

    I can absolutely attest to this from my personal experience. I’m half Japanese, with a French last name and white-passing appearance. At writing conferences, the second agents found out I was half Japanese their approach to me flipped like a switch. All of a sudden, I was advised to play up an “ethnic” angle in my fiction or make it a story of the mixed-race MC’s struggle to find identity (for the record, this is not a struggle I ever experienced, perhaps because I grew up in a very ethnically/racially diverse place).

    I am really over white male authors/creators/etc. who seem to have no awareness of their privilege, or who just don’t care.

    • Zee says:

      Agreed, so many books have been recommended to me, and then I find I can’t read them for one reason or another. I tried Anna And The French Kiss at someone’s recommendation, and regret it. Seriously regret it. Going to chapter-by-chapter analyse the crap out of it on my blog I regret it so much. But same goes with trad publishing. I read Billy And Me by Giovanna Fletcher last year (spooked that too) and at the end realised I’d just read a story of a girl abusing her boyfriend. It was sold as romance, but she broke him as the story went on. It’s told from her point of view as well. I felt sick. But it’s celebrated as being refreshing and sweet. No.

      • Yup. Actually, some of the worst books I’ve read recently were traditionally published. I was strongly recced the Divergent series and good god was that a mess.

        I am here for the chapter-by-chapter review if you do it. I love detailed snarky reviews.

        And I’m so, so over the abuse=romance trope, regardless of what gender everyone is

  6. Zee says:

    I love you for this post so much, Jenny! First off, there’s something that puts me right off John Green that I can’t put my finger on (though as an experiment the other day, I bought one of his books, just to see what the fuss is about. Yet to read it). Second off, I write young adult fiction, so the opinions of other YA authors kind of matters to me, I want to know what brought them to the genre, you know? And third off, I want to self-publish. The more I learn about the publishing industry, the more I feel it would suit me better.

    But not for what John suggests. I’ve had a couple of authors, and even a middle school teacher tell me I’m talented enough to do it – okay, not editors or publishers, but still, people who know the genre. I don’t want to hand my project over to a publishing house who want to change the whole thing, or just purely won’t invest in it. There’s no guarantee that just because it was picked up, it will do well. And actually, successes like twilight, the fault in our stars and the hunger games make it harder to be invested in, because publishers know they can make a killing with the right book, and the pressure to have a marketable product becomes greater. Crime or romance or sci-fi, they don’t have those pressures right now.

    Also … maybe I’m just growing cynical, but the more I read of the YA that’s out there, the more disenchanted I get. Trad published especially. They’re rushing the publishing process to compete with ebooks, and there are typos, bland characters and predictable plots everywhere. I do not want my story to turn into a poorly edited, cookie cut-out just to make a quick buck. John should know that there’s more to writing than just the business aspect.

    I would love it if my story could go against everything he’s implied. My beta readers – one of whom came from here – have been incredible, not because they shower me with compliments, but because they’re honest, or they spark good debates. I know without an editor that elements of my ending have to change. I know some of the voices are off, or I’ve repeated unnecessarily. I know I still have a tonne of corrections to do. As for my cover? A friend has agreed to let me use a picture of hers, another friend has agreed to edit that. If not, I know a graphic designer who would do it for free as well. And all that they’ve asked, every single one, is just some acknowledgement of their efforts to raise their own profile. They know I would do the same if I went to them. It’s not self-indulgent, so long as you listen, and work with the feedback.

    And wouldn’t it be wonderful to be the person who had the runaway success from self-publishing? If Jenny McGuire and Abbi Glines can do it, then dammit, so can we!

    • Zee says:

      Sorry, I just read that back and realised I wasn’t being clear at first. I meant that I am choosing to self-publish, because of how I view trad publishing right now.

  7. redhead312 says:

    I sent John Green the article hoping that he might respond because he has responded to criticism in the past. I have to admit to being ignorant and buying his idea of self publishing because that’s what I’ve always been told. However, following your blog and seeing your work and the work of others who have self published has opened up my eyes to how ignorant it is to see self-publishing as low quality. I personally, would want to go with a big 6 publishing house but that is my personal choice. Self-publishing should be seen as a valuable option instead of a lower alternative that some think it is. publishing is a business and having a book self-published does’t make your book bad.

    • redhead312 says:

      I will admit that I am biased because, even after this quote, I’m still a fan of John Green.

    • M Dubz says:

      I am a fan of John Green’s books and also a total Nerd Fighter, so I would love to see what he has to say to this article. I hope, for the sake of my own fan girlishness, that it is reasoned and thoughtful and provokes some really interesting commentary about the current state of publishing vis a vis privilege.

  8. Suzy says:

    Does anyone remember about 10 years ago, musicians who could not get record deals started taking to the the internet to get their music heard? Remember how everyone thought this was an amazing and inovative way for those artists to be heard? How is that different from self publishing?

  9. Ensis says:

    Trad pub has its own set of problems and to suggest that more than 1% of what’s out there is ‘high art’ is a downright falsehood.
    Or wishful thinking. I pick up book after book on the shelves of my local bookstore and am blown away by the outright crapulence of some.
    And self publishing has the same issue, down to the letter.

  10. Bethany says:

    I love the vlogbrothers, but I never could completely get behind John because of how he talked about publishing. He said something along the lines of “without my editor, 50% of Looking for Alaska would have been about how to skin a beaver” and I was just like okay, but some writers don’t need someone else to tell them not to write 200 pages about skinning a beaver in a young adult romance novel. I recognize that my writing would be better with an editor, but ever time he mentions writing he makes it seem like my writing is worse than dog shit since I don’t pay someone to go through and tell me if there are plot holes. I am a good editor for other people’s work (not professionally or anything, I just have good attention to detail) and I’m not so biased about my work that I can’t say “yeah, you really need to give that character a personality flaw, they are an annoying little shit right now.” I have high standards on my own work. When I sit down to read it I want it to read like a real novel, not like one of the ones that are posted on amazon with a flurry of one-star reviews saying “there was no character development, they mixed up their and there, and the three sub-plots were never resolved.”

    Obviously, there are some really shitty self-published novels, but there are some shitty published novels *cough*50ShadesofGrey*cough* but there are some good ones too (The Boss is just self-published right? I’m not just confused?).There are just some people (like me) who don’t have the money to put into getting an editor or trying to advertise their novel. My plan is just to write the best that I can and self-publish. Those who’ve read my work liked it pretty well (though I haven’t finished editing anything, so they either really liked it despite that or just had low standards) so my best bet is just to put it out there are find a few people who really enjoy my work. I write just because I feel that people would enjoy the stories I have to tell, not because I want to be on the #1 bestsellers list and get rich.

  11. Flo says:

    The internet has changed the way we watch television, the way we listen to music and the way we read books–to think that the old way is the only way is not a very optimistic outlook in times that are changing faster than we can keep up. I’ve been contemplating writing a cookbook, but as someone who isn’t “known” for writing, the only way that I will ever get it printed is to self-publish it. I personally love seeing all these people who have become successful in media using non-traditional methods. In my opinion, its the way of the future.

  12. mverlaine says:

    I agree strongly. There was a time when I looked down on self-publishing, but that was before I really understood how difficult the publishing word is. And frankly, just because a book has traditional publishing does not mean some people won’t find it self-indulgent unreadable trash. Look at ‘Eragon’.

    • To be fair, Eragon was originally self-published before it was picked up by a traditional publisher.

      That being said, however, your other point still stands. Plenty of terrible traditionally published books.

  13. Regina Chapman says:

    Maybe I’m biased going into this. I’m a big John Green fan and 99% of what he generally has to say (through Vlogbrothers, Tumblr, Crash Course, you name it) to me not only seems extremely intelligent, but also kind and compassionate. Then again, I’m a big Jenny Trout fan, too, so maybe that evens it out somewhat:).

    First of all, does the fact that John Green’s a white male really have to do with his specific stance on self-publishing?
    In spite of the commercialization of the whole book business, the old adage that ‘quality shines through’ still applies, and John Green is simply an exceptional writer, stellar human being ánd he has his finger on the pulse of current YA culture (nerdy becoming a good thing, Youtube communities, etc). Couldn’t his success have come of that, too? Did Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who had so much success with The Beckoning of Lovely, have that success *in spite* of the fact that she was a woman? Or because it was simply a great idea, and she a good ambassador? John Green’s own wife is an extremely successful art curator, for whose career Green has moved several times, so it’s not as if (successful or unsuccessful) women are not on his radar. I’m not saying that this white male-thing might not factor into his view of the matter at all, but I think in this case it muddles your main point.

    Which is: self-publishing does not stand for a lower quality of literature.

    And this is where I’m really intrigued, but don’t know what to think, myself. My reasoning is very anecdotal at best, because I’m not a writer; I’m a reader. Bear with me, I’m just relating my experience, not drawing any definitive conclusions:).
    On the one hand we have you. I love your books, I think they’re generally well written, and to me they even seem so ‘commercially viable’ that I’m surprised publishers wouldn’t feel the same way. And I do acknowledge publishing is an extremely competitive and commercialized world to break into, btw.
    On the other hand, we have…a lot of other indie authors I’ve come across so far. I actually became interested in indie authors through this blog – thank you – and the first-ever indie I bought was a title from an author featured here. I won’t go into detail, but the book was very, very much unedited, to a point were simple things like dialogue attribution were not styled consequently, and the whole thing was just very hard to follow. It looked like a rough first draft to me.
    After that first experience I’ve come across, I think, two very capable authors I enjoyed so far, and a lot more books that mirrored the first one I described. There’s potential in them, but a lot of them (I’ve only read about twenty so far) just seem so…thrown together?
    If I look at my Twitter feed, I’m not surprised: I follow around 200 indie authors, and most of them brag on a regular basis about the amount of words they’ve written each day and the speed with which they ‘pump out’ books. To me it would seem that quality would suffer from that. If you’re running at break-neck speed, you can’t stop and tie your shoelaces.
    Then on top of that, they all sent out these scheduled promotion tweets that clutter my timeline and just look so…desperate? Spammy?

    So my overall impression of indie books so far, in spite of going in totally open-mindedly, *has* been that a lot of them are sloppy, pushed out too quickly and promoted in a kind of annoying way. Not saying that these things could have been avoided if these authors were traditionally published, but – and maybe that’s my point – no publisher would take you seriously if you showed up with such a sloppy manuscript, so these authors wouldn’t have been able to publish these books, in their current form, to begin with. And in that way it does set a bar, I think.

    That’s not to say all indie literature is like that. Maybe I followed the wrong authors on Twitter and just haven’t come across the heart-breaking works of staggering genious that must be out there. As a matter of fact, that might be a nice way to further my thinking on this matter:

    Who has a good example of an indie title that’s an absolute must-read, has rocked your world, and could arguably not have been published traditionally? I’d be very happy to buy that book (or multiple books:)) and have my mind changed. I like fantasy and contemporary romance, but also literature with a capital L. Oh, and I have most of Jenny’s books, thanks:).

    • Jenny Trout says:

      I would say that John Green being a white man has a lot to do with his success, and I’m not really sure we can remove that from the discussion of his views on self-publishing. That’s not to say that John Green isn’t a very talented person, it’s just saying that certain avenues are available to him that aren’t available to everyone, making it much easier for him to reject alternate paths.

      Think about it this way: if it really is a case of “quality shines through” and quality of the content is truly the only way that an author’s brand becomes successful, but there are fewer authors in marginalized groups being offered contracts for their work, does that mean that only white men are truly capable of generating quality literature? If we remove John Green’s white male privilege from the equation, and we say, “His work got published and became popular because it’s quality, and quality is all that matters,” but we look at the shelves and find them dominated by white authors, and male authors, are we accepting that only white people are capable of producing books that are publishable? Or should we consider the possibility that white authors have a clear advantage in the marketplace?

      Someone in the comments section on this post shared their experience as a biracial author, that agents and editors felt this writer’s only strength would be to play up the “ethnic” aspects of their fiction, and become pigeon-holed as an Asian author writing only about Asian experiences. This is massively concerning to me; while white authors have free reign to write characters of any race, and speak to the experiences of these marginalized groups without being a part of them– and sometimes, as was the case with The Help, blatantly exploiting those experiences without acknowledgement–, authors who are actually in these marginalized groups are required to make their fiction about the struggles of “their people” and write only about the “issue” of race/gender/sexuality/etc. They’re forced into token roles, and if they won’t play the part of the token minority, their work becomes uninteresting to publishers, who are interested in catering to a predominately white audience they believe will not buy books they can’t “see” their personal narrative in somehow. So white authors definitely have the advantage when it comes to publishing.

      As for John Green’s support of his wife, that’s great, and to be clear, I’m not accusing John Green of racism or sexism. But privilege is something you are given by other people and their perceptions of you, not something you can choose to have or cast off at will. At the end of the day, no one is going to ask John Green to be their token minority author, no one is going to ask him if he can write white characters realistically or not. No one will assume that his book will only appeal to readers of his race and gender. So it’s unlikely that his work will ever be rejected based on those factors, leaving only the avenue of self-publishing available to him.

      Often times, it isn’t a case of “this book couldn’t have been published by a major publisher,” but “traditional publishing felt that this couldn’t turn a profit.” The people hearing this type of rejection most often are authors in marginalized groups, so self-publishing is the way they’re able to get their work out there. Since this is one of the reasons people end up self-publishing, we can’t really cut white privilege out of the discussion of trad. vs. self or indie.

      Now, as to the other questions in your comment, I hope you’ll forgive me for giving a short answer, because OMG I AM SO HUNGRY I AM ABOUT TO EAT MY OWN FACE, but I didn’t want to forget to answer: yes, there are a lot of bad self-publishing books. But there are a lot of bad YouTube videos. There are a lot of bad indie bands. But the fact that they exist doesn’t take the shine off the really good YouTube videos (like Crash Course, which I love) and television, or the really good music out there. I don’t believe the presence of the mediocre harms the art form, I think it makes the truly exceptional independent shows, music, books, art, etc. stand out more.

      And as for the idea that that publishers only accept quality, let us all pause a moment to remember the existence of 50 Shades and The DaVinci Code. When you buy a traditionally published book, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get a quality product. All you’re getting is the guarantee that a publisher thought the book would make them money. Self-publishing gives us many more chances to buy a shitty book, but traditional publishing doesn’t guarantee that you’re buying a book that’s any better than a bad self-pubbed book.

      Now I will go eat something before I begin prying keys off my keyboard and swallowing them from desperate hunger.

    • Silverwane says:

      First of all, does the fact that John Green’s a white male really have to do with his specific stance on self-publishing?
      In spite of the commercialization of the whole book business, the old adage that ‘quality shines through’ still applies, and John Green is simply an exceptional writer, stellar human being ánd he has his finger on the pulse of current YA culture (nerdy becoming a good thing, Youtube communities, etc). Couldn’t his success have come of that, too? Did Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who had so much success with The Beckoning of Lovely, have that success *in spite* of the fact that she was a woman? Or because it was simply a great idea, and she a good ambassador? John Green’s own wife is an extremely successful art curator, for whose career Green has moved several times, so it’s not as if (successful or unsuccessful) women are not on his radar. I’m not saying that this white male-thing might not factor into his view of the matter at all, but I think in this case it muddles your main point.

      To answer your first question: possibly.

      Okay, you say that ‘quality shines through,’ and while this is, to an extent, true, it is only to an extent. Just take a look at “top books of the year” lists, particularly ones published by “reputable” sources. How many female authors are there? How many POC authors are there? How many WOC authors are there? It’s not even close to parity. So are you going to believe that’s because there aren’t as many good female writers, as many good POC writers, as many good WOC writers? Or are you going to believe it’s because of systemic problems at work?

      And I’m going to say right now, if you think there aren’t as many good non-white dude writers, you’re full of shit.

      Works written by non-white dudes do not get the same kind of publicity, and the authors are much less likely to see the same sort of fame. Of course some get out there. But it’s more like playing a game on hardmode versus playing one on easy. You’ve still got to be good in order to beat the game, but it’s a hell of a lot harder if you’re not a white dude.

      So does being a white dude influence John Green’s opinion? Again, I say possibly.

      I think that because he’s a white dude, John Green possibly saw a lot more success with traditional publishing that he wouldn’t if he weren’t. If he had really experienced first-hand how hard it can be for, say, a WOC to succeed in the publishing world, then perhaps he’d talk about self-publishing differently. His privileges just made traditional publishing easier- so he doesn’t really seem to realize how for someone without those privileges, they might have to self-publish just to get their shit out there.

      And, you know, I bet any influence isn’t even conscious. The majority of how we function with our privileges is. That’s how privilege works- we’re taught to see it as natural, we’re not encouraged to see outside our own POV, we’re taught to doubt other POV’s, we’re taught to believe that everything we got in life was earned by us, we’re taught that it isn’t even there even when it is doing its worst work.

      You have to question privilege in order to begin to dismantle it.

      And part of questioning privilege is pointing out “Hey, you have these privileges that someone else doesn’t. How would someone without those privileges interact with what I’m talking about?”

      If you don’t do that, then you’re only supporting the institutions that build oppression and privileges in the first place.

      Attacking the question of good versus shit indie books, a lot of people have already made the point elsewhere in the comments that there’s a ton of shit work that ends up traditionally published. But another point is that just because you self-publish doesn’t mean you can’t hire an editor.

      I think that it would have been far more useful for John Green to encourage people who self-publish to use beta readers, to find a good editor, to focus a lot on revision and honing their novel using feedback from more than just their own eyes. Cause that sort of thing would help a lot of indie authors just put out better stuff!

      • Zee says:

        One WOC who has done well, in England anyway, is Dorothy Koomson. But she, like Jenny said, touches upon the differences of colour in her books. The Ice Cream Girls is an interesting take on the notion of colour vs money.

        That’s it, by the way. My only known WOC author. Proving your point :)

      • Regina Chapman says:

        ‘Thank you, Jenny and Silverwane, for your detailed and thoughtful replies. Sorry I didn’t get back sooner; I live in Holland so I sleep when you eat and vice versa (except right now I don’t eat at all because of a nasty stomach bug, but meh). I’ll try to get to all the points raised above.

        a) John Green criticizes self-publishing, partly because he’s a white male.
        I don’t know. I think saying that John Green is not allowed to be critical of the self-publishing world *because* he’s a white male sounds almost…sexist? I mean, if it were a woman making the statement ‘self-publishing lowers the general quality of literature’, would you suddenly agree with her? Of course not. You don’t disagree with Green’s statement because he’s a white male, but because you find it to be untrue. That’s all I meant by the discussion getting muddled.
        b) White males have it easier in traditional publishing.
        Since you’re a published author and I’m not, I’ll take your word for this one. And of course privilege is real. I mean, that biracial author being told to be more ‘ethnic’ – that makes my blood boil.
        I’m very aware of psychological bias, and the fact that I have my own. As a white woman being born in Holland – I wouldn’t say privileged, but definitely made to feel I could accomplish whatever I wanted – I just don’t see this as much here. The debuts that come out every year are almost equally divided over the sexes. There are as much, if not more, prominent, bestselling female authors as there are male ones. With long lists for literary prizes, the division is also quite equal. Now, for who actually *wins* these prizes…that’s where there’s still a lot of white male supremacy. That’s wrong, and there are a lot of factors playing into that, but that’s another debate entirely.
        All in all, I think you’re right about the point of the white male perspective not only being the predominant one, but also the lens through which all other perspectives are viewed. And yeah, I could say ‘what about Zadie Smith/Jennifer Egan/Nicole Krauss/J.K. Rowling’ but you might be right that percentage-wise, they are just drops in the ocean. I think I might not have bumped my nose hard enough personally, to fully see this yet.
        c) ‘Quality shines through’. I’m not naive. I’m aware that these days, ‘sellability’ is a large part of the whole quality package. That’s what I meant when I said that John Green might also have gotten a book deal because of sheer ‘quality': not only is he an excellent writer, he also writes about stuff that young people want to read about, and his tone is masterfully reminiscent of the voice of the current YA generation. No, I’m not saying that it’s as easy for a woman or a person/woman of color to ‘hit the right note’ with their ‘quality package’, but what I’m saying is, if you have it, publishers will want to work with you, no matter who you are. There are ways to touch freshly upon what people want to read that simply haven’t been discovered yet. And publishers (again, I’m talking here in Holland, where I have several friends in the publishing industry due to our shared education (writing school)) are always looking for that.
        d) Women know what it’s like to have no choice but to self-publish. My concern here is that – no matter how unfairly the publishing world treats women or how true it might be that for some women/POC/WOC self-publishing IS the only option BECAUSE of who they are – looking at it like this might cause self-victimizing for some people. Of course, if you’ve been TOLD a publisher will not publish your book on account of it being ‘not ethnic enough’/’too feminine’ (or whatever crap), you have every right to feel powerless and be livid about that. But in light of the main point up for debate here, ‘does self-publishing lower the standard of literature?’, I think that this line of thinking might cause some people to go ‘of course I’m not getting published – I’m a woman!’ when the truth is, their books might simply not be very great. I see this a lot on Twitter, where people will triumphantly write about how ‘traditional publishers just don’t GET me!’ and when I check out the books, I’m like ‘eh, no…*you* don’t get the basics of this craft.’ I’m afraid this kind of reasoning stimulates people to self-publish crap and then dare anyone to criticize them. In fact, this touches upon the phenomenon of ‘literary criticism viewed as bullying’ that you have so enchantingly raved about on this very blog.
        I think as long as you don’t know why your book isn’t getting published – assume it’s because you have more work to do. Not because that’s necessarily true or fair; but because it’s the only way you’ll make it, anyway.


        a) The crap doesn’t detract from the pearls.
        I read an interesting article about this a while ago. The author stated that, in the traditional literary world, publishers and literary critics have always been kind of the gatekeepers of quality (now matter how debatable their standards). Now that there’s a whole new world of self-publishing – who are the gatekeepers of that?
        I think this is a concern. Of course I have my own opinions, but I still rely on The New Yorker, or Harper’s or whatever to find out what’s new and good. And these magazines generally don’t review self-published books (or do they? I’m not sure). So it’s okay that there’s a lot of crap, as long as there are pearls; but if there’s no instrument of pointing the pearls out, I’m just wading through crap blindly, you know? You may not agree with the standards that ‘traditional’ literary outlets present, but at least there is a standard. Such a standard, set by some kind of professional, generally respected source (whatever it may be) doesn’t seem to exist yet for self-publishing. There’s no professional place to go to see what’s new and good. And if there is no standard, I think yeah, there might be more crap.
        b) Publishers only care about money.
        Like I said, I know quite a few people in the Dutch publishing industry, and those are all people who have a tremendous love for books and literature. Sure, a lot of them complain about the heightened competitiveness and commercialism in the business – but they stay because they love books. And they love reading manuscripts in hopes of discovering that next great author or that next unique voice. Sellability is a part of that, but certainly not the only part.
        Also, these people generally have years of literary education and experience under their belt. To say that they don’t contribute to a certain standard, or that their absence might not lower the standard at least a little bit, is somewhat unfair to professional editors and publishers, I think.

        To top it off, here’s some badassery from Maureen Johnson about the patriarchal view of ‘women’s YA literature':

        My question still stands:
        “Who has a good example of an indie title that’s an absolute must-read, has rocked your world, and could arguably not have been published traditionally? I’d be very happy to buy that book (or multiple books:)) and have my mind changed. I like fantasy and contemporary romance, but also literature with a capital L. Oh, and I have most of Jenny’s books, thanks:).”

        Jenny? Silverwane?

      • Mandi Rei says:

        I don’t want to toot my own horn(because it feels akward to pimp my own stuff), but my first novel is damn good. I am NOT saying that because I wrote it– I have a habit of rereading the same books over and over, and discovering something I missed the first time I read it. When I read A Toast to Starry Nights, there are times when I forget I wrote it. No lie.

        The protagonist has an ‘oh shit!’ moment when her longterm boyfriend proposes marriage, causing a visceral reaction with some public Mt Vesuvius/Pompeii roleplay.

        Her mom is a new age-y type, who makes a deal- find out via therapist what triggered the protagonist to react the way she did and the woman who named the MC after a Star Trek character will keep her Trekkie hands away from wedding planning.

        Her bestie is a snarky ‘Dewey Decimal humping She-Pirate’ with a heart of gold.

        The groom to be is a transplanted Croatian from a wealthy background who breaks tradition to be with the woman he fell in love with as a high school exchange student. He is uttely perplexed that his hunny isn’t gung ho with the wedding planning.

        But for all the romance and sex, it is a story that is more psychological in nature as it deals with the lingering ghosts haunting from a past life. A snarky study on human nature and overcoming personal demons. It also takes on the notion of weddings being the ultimate right of passage, that every female wants her ‘ pretend to be a princess day’ to be one of the most important days of her life notion, when it’s the marriage itself which seems to be overshadowed in society.

        It is self-published. I did have an editor who said it was very polished and most of my issues were an abuse of certain punctuation marks (no !? alas) and a fondness for profanity.

        That said, it makes me wonder whether Mr Green has worked on improving his craft, if he’s handing in a manuscript that needs 200 pages of beaver-skinning removed from it. Slaughter thy darlings and all that jazz.

        Because I pidgeon-holed my novel as a romance (because I fell for the female protagonist + sex = must be in the romance genre and nothing else trope) I had pitched to the wrong agents who found it “too edgy and dark” for the current market. After a year of rejections, I self-pubbed. And after I had my frame of reference adjusted, I moved the novel to Literature.


        This was the review that made me think ‘I can do this!’ no, I don’t have a pot publicity team to put my work in the public eye… But I know the quality is there, despite it’s self-published status.

        Just sayin’. :)

      • Mandi Rei says:

        My apologies for typos/spelling. doing this on my cell phone and my cell phone doesn’t like typing, but does like moving the curser on me.

      • Jenny Trout says:

        I can’t help you on the book front, because I don’t feel like there *are* any books that couldn’t be traditionally published. I mean. They published House of Leaves, right?

        But I have read some self-pub books I’ve really enjoyed. I’m pretty sure Locked by Maya Cross was self-published (think 50 Shades-ish without the hero being totally freak out scary), and right now I’m reading a fantasy series by Kelly Walker that’s called Cornerstone. Neither of these books *couldn’t* have been traditionally published, but as I said, I can’t imagine a book that couldn’t be published by traditional publishing. Just books that traditional publishing *wouldn’t* publish.

  14. Highlander II says:

    You know what’s funny? I’ve heard the same argument made by anti-fanfic authors/people – the ‘it’ll make writers/writing worse’ or ‘it’s taking away from traditionally published authors’. Self-pub’d authors aren’t ‘stealing’ anything. They’re trying to make a living, just like trad pub’d authors, and they’ve found a way to do it that works for them. (Fanfic writers, otoh, aren’t making money from any of their work – [or, they’re not supposed to be] – and they’re not ‘stealing’ either.)

    (My other fave is ‘why don’t you just write your own characters/story?’ – to which, every fanfic author replies ‘do you know how hard it is to create your own universe/characters?’ – b/c writing a story is such a simple and easy thing to do that anyone can ttly do it, right? That’s why there are only a handful of authors who make buttloads of money at it, yeah? But that’s a whole different discussion.)

    • Actually, as an author of both fan and original fiction, I’ve always pointed out that it’s actually harder to work with pre-established canon than with canon you make up yourself (well, unless you write alternate universe or just run roughshod over the canon, lol). It takes a lot of imagination to come up with something fresh and exciting while still adhering to the rules of the canon universe.

      I obviously have no issue with fan fiction in general, but I do have an issue with pulled-to-publish fan fiction. My impression is that fan fiction gets around its nebulous legal standing because nobody is profiting off of it. If you’re just going to find+replace names and publish a fanfic that has a pre-existing fanbase, I’d say that is profiting off fanfic. I find that dishonest, even if it’s perfectly legal. But like you said, this is a whole different discussion.

      • Zee says:

        Same, sunstreakedblonde, I do both fiction and fan fiction. They equally have their challenges. I think fan fiction can be a wonderful vehicle in which to learn how to write well, and to challenge yourself to work within a pre-established world. And likewise, I would never dream of making money from my fanfiction, and I feel uncomfortable when I hear that people have, like the guy who created the James Potter books. He changed enough about Hogwarts to make it plausibly his, but I think he does charge. It’s why Amazon worlds is such a horrific idea.

  15. mezzie1024 says:

    I was just thinking about this very issue yesterday after beginning (and abandoning) another crappily-written book that I’d downloaded the first chapter or so of to my Kindle. I have no idea if the book was self-published or not, and I don’t think it matters. We all know that hastily-published genre fiction (you know — the ones that capitalize on a previous book’s success and use the same color scheme and font on the cover, and essentially the same characters and plot points inside) is traditionally riddled with errors, sometimes more so than the self-published books I’ve read. I think that gives genre fiction a worse name than self-publishing ever has (which is too bad since there’s some great, meaningful, well-written genre fiction out there).

    The thing is, most self-published books I see are available as ebooks (possibly because that’s a cheap way to start), so I’m able to read the beginning for free. If I want to read more, then I can download the rest for a generally cheap price while still resting assured that the author is getting a decent cut. For that price, I’m forgiving of a handful or so of typos (but absolutely unforgiving of bad writing, characters, and plot development). If I *don’t* want to read more after investing 15-30 minutes, then I don’t. Simple enough. I can do the same with traditionally published books, but I have to shell out a bit more for the full book. In those cases, I am less forgiving of typos, partly because I’m paying more for a cleanly edited book, and partly because I feel like it may hint at more sloppiness in writing to come. Maybe that isn’t fair, but it’s the thought process I currently undergo.

    As far as whether or not I would ever self-publish — I have no idea. I think I would try traditional publishing first just to see if anyone in that industry liked my ideas or writing, but I wouldn’t be totally against the self-publishing route. I feel like it would be more intense work to write AND market my book, though, since I absolutely do not have the money to hire someone to do that).

    I suppose this is just my long-winded way of saying self-publishing doesn’t hurt the industry as a whole and it’s not hard to avoid the crap regardless of how it was published.

  16. I had to look up John Green to figure out who he is. John Green wishes he had Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight money.

    Furthermore, I have read some books distributed by big time publishers that never should have made their way onto a shelf. Similarly I have watched many TV shows produced by major studios that have no business being watched by anybody. Being approved by a multi-million dollar corporation does not mean you have created a quality product.

    • M Dubz says:

      Eh, given that John Green basically has an army of geeks that do his bidding, and he usually mobilizes them to make youtube videos for charity, I don’t think it’s a matter of him being jealous of Stephenie Meyers. He’s a great author and a really interesting producer of media in general, so it galls me a little that people on this thread are going after his fame level or the quality of his writing, when there’s so many perfectly valid critiques of just the quote that he gave, which is super problematic for all of the excellent reasons that Jenny stated.

  17. Ana T. says:

    “There’s no denying that John Green is a YA star, but while Meyer was derided for writing wish-fulfillment romance for teenage girls and her contributions only grudgingly acknowledged, Green’s prose seems to be considered sacred and above examination by readers and critics alike.”

    I agree with most of the points you made regarding the worth of self-publishing and how people shouldn’t diss it, but I’m side-eyeing this one. Yeah, there is denying. I have never seen or heard anyone except rabid fans try to imply that John Green’s writing is “sacred”. Some people like what he does, some people LOVE what he does, some people don’t care, some people think that his writing is pretentious and overly sentimental and that he’s basically the YA-version of Nicholas Sparks. (Can you tell which camp I’m on?) But mostly, I just think that Meyer is not the best author to compare him with. It reads like you are trying to equate things like this:

    John Green => Man => Nobody Criticizes Him / Stephenie Meyer => Woman => Everyone Talks About How Awful She Is

    …and willfully ignoring the fact that Meyer is criticized because her writing sucks balls, and John Greens gets less (but still some) flack because his writing is okay. Ish. You mentioned Suzanne Collins. Why not try to compare JG with her? She’s also a YA star. She wrote an incredibly successful trilogy which has been adapted into highly successful and critically acclaimed movies. While YMMW on whether her books are any good, they haven’t, to my knowledge, been as universally panned as Meyer’s have. However, you can’t say that John Green is more acknowledged/respected within the genre than Collins, or even more well-known, so there goes that. (Unless things are incredibly different in the USA. Around here, everyone knows Katniss Everdeen, but if you ask anyone what The Fault in Our Stars is, you get a blank stare.) While there is an argument to be made about the difficulties that female authors face to succeed in publishing, YA is really not the genre you want to use as an example when trying to make that argument. I mean, look at this:


    Most popular YA books. On the first page, you have like 6 men and more than twenty women, and some of those women have more than one book on the list. (And one of the guys is Mark Twain, who is dead but still kickin’. Go Mark Twain!) John Green isn’t stealing the spotlight from the ladies because he is a man. He isn’t stealing it at all. I’m not saying that it isn’t perfectly possible that some of his fans are going around yelling “JOHN’S MAGICK WHITECOCK SAVED YA FROM THOSE ICKY VAGINAS HOW AWESOME!”, but the man himself isn’t anywhere near as big a deal as the women who rule the genre.

    • Jenny Trout says:

      That’s… kind of my point. John Green has gotten a ton of press where he’s been praised for “saving” YA or being the “star” or the “biggest name” in YA, when there are tons of women who are not only outselling him, but are more popular with readers.

  18. Ilex says:

    Sing it, Jenny!

    Because as someone going through the process of trying to get an agent for the first book I’ve written that I think is good enough to sell, I’ve been forced to conclude that agents are looking for what they believe to be “marketable” first and foremost — and not necessarily acting as gatekeepers of “quality.” For one thing, so far as I can tell, they’re receiving loads of queries for equally “good” books — well-written, well-plotted, etc. But they can only read maybe two new novels a week in addition to serving their existing clients, and that’s out of a hundred equally competitive queries. So the odds of getting published traditionally are very low. I’m starting to see why self-publishing looks so good to so many people after going through this querying grind. (Full disclosure: My book has a vampire in it, and is currently deemed “not marketable.” I have 38 rejections as of this afternoon.)

    So I can understand John Green’s attachment to traditional publishing since it has served him really well — but the truth seems to be that most of us are not going to win the agent lottery. So why shouldn’t self-publishing be viewed as a good option in this kind of environment? I refuse to believe that my book is no good or lacks “quality” just because my query doesn’t grab an agent or because the story happens to be off-trend.

Oh mah glob, leave a comment if you feel like. Or talk about how awesome Adventure Time is. I love that show.

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