Why our exclusionary attitudes toward self-publishing must change.Posted: January 14, 2014
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.