During a recent discussion with friends on the possibility of a library panel on self-publishing, I was explaining the requirements for joining various writers’ groups—the rules for the Authors Guild, the Writers Union, and Mystery Writers of America are all different. This came up because MWA had just published their list of acceptable publishers and the criteria by which they are evaluated. We had just been through the debacle of Harlequin’s new foray into self-publishing/vanity publishing, and I was explaining in detail why Harlequin had been dropped and why Level Best Books, of which I am an editor, qualified.
This is the kind of arcana that writers love, mystery writers especially—the minimum advance, minimum print run, number of titles published, number of years between books, number of reviews and from which publications—we’re not the least bit coy about talking about the financial side of our work, perhaps because for most of us it’s pretty dismal. Samuel Johnson would find no blockheads in our crowd, though he’d find plenty of poor souls.
When the subject turns to self-publishing, writers with traditional publishers (the ones who pay and produce) cringe or wince or fall silent. We have an uneasy relationship with the self-publishing concept and no reason seems adequate. We trust the editors to vet a manuscript and as writers we want that sign of approval. Someone thinks well enough of what we have written to pay real money for it. Someone else is going to do some of the hard work—edit, design, print, and distribute the thing. Reviewers—not relatives or friends but people we don’t even know—are going to take us seriously (the one dream all writers have in common) and read the book. Self-publishing suggests the writer couldn’t find a publisher, or doesn’t have faith in his or her work to try to find one. The tacit judgment is that real writers find publishers.
I’ve had all these feelings and I recognize them as the contemporary brainwashing. Some of my fellow writers have self-published beautiful books of fiction and poetry, as well done as any from Houghton Mifflin or Random House.
But lately I’ve been wondering about how bizarre this standard can seem.
Several times a year I come across a new local musician who has put out a CD. He or she has chosen the songs and backup musicians, and used a local recording studio. She pays for all of this and hopes to get it back by selling the CD and, with luck, getting attention from radio stations and perhaps a bigger music producer. Now, I know absolutely nothing about the music business, but I pick up these CDs and marvel that any musician can pull together the cash, make a CD and sell it, and no one in the music industry thinks any less of the product because the musician took the initiative to produce it on his or her own. Other musicians pick up the CDs, listen to them, and react to the music, not the manner of production. Why do writers face a host of gatekeepers (publishers, reviewers, bookstores, readers) and musicians face none (except money and access to a recording studio)? Why are writers judged by how their work is produced, and musicians are not?
I don’t know the answer, but I suppose the real question is whether or not writing will go the way of music. Will writers in a few years publish their own books with no stigma attached to the work for its being self-published, and flog their books just as musicians push their CDs at performances? Will publishers become nothing more than providers of printing services? The world of writing is changing so rapidly that anything seems possible. But a world without gatekeepers in publishing will be really strange. Writers will have to learn to do the work of editors and designers. And readers will be left to vet books on their own—after they’ve paid for them.