Rob Boffard
Rob Boffard

Self-publish and be damned? Yeah, right

There have been a lot of comment pieces in the past couple of months about why self-publishing your own novel is a very bad thing. They’ve appeared in newspapers and on the kind of websites where the authors have their own photos and full biographies at the end of each article they write.

Almost without exception these pieces extol the virtues of traditional publishers, rage against the millions of apparently terrible books untouched by the guiding hand of a professional editor, wag their fingers and grimace at the temerity of authors to want to get their books published without going about it in The Right Way. After all, if newbie authors are going through Amazon’s Kindle Select or going through Apple’s ebooks and bypassing traditional publishers, then the entire system might collapse! Anarchy!

I want to find every one of these people, toilet-paper their houses and take a dump on their lawns.

Before we go on, full disclosure. I’m in the process of writing a novel which I hope to finish and have published one day. No, I don’t know if it ever will be and no, I make no representations as to its quality. I love it, but for all I know it could be the literary equivalent of a finger painting done by a three-year-old with no fingers and one eye. I quite simply have no idea. But the quality is not the point: I make the disclosure simply to point out that I have a vested interest in the debate, and when someone gets on their high horse and tells me that it’s their way or the highway, I get snotty.

The sheer arrogance and holier-than-thou attitudes displayed in their pieces is just unbelievable. Almost all the pieces I have read — and there have been many, in publications from the Guardian (Anthony Horowitz) to the London Evening Standard (Sebastian Shakespeare) to Fast Company — are written by people who have at least one book to their name. In other words, these are published authors, writing about the dangers of self-publishing. You’ve got to be kidding me, guys.

In some ways, they’re right about at least one thing. Self-publishing is dangerous. It’s a drawn-out, complex process and it places a huge burden on the author in terms of cost and time. It also has a stigma: one can imagine the author in a bar, years later, having to admit that he wrote a book — “self-published” — only to have all conversation stop and everyone in the group try to avoid his eyes. Make no mistake, self-publishing is a long and lonely road to take. Especially if you’re not sure that what you’ve written is any good.

But to say that self-publishing is a bad idea simply because it churns out terrible books is so wrong it makes me want to throw my computer down a flight of stairs in anger. Walk into any major bookshop and look at the new books section. A huge chunk of the selection will be utterly terrible. And I’m not talking about terrible in the sense of if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing. I’m talking about terrible as in borderline unreadable. The stuff that is written only because it sells, and it sells to people who do not care about good writing. Publishing companies produce great books, but as Gary Murning (an author who has been both published and self-published) says, they produce a hell of a lot of trash as well.

But actually, this isn’t even the most important part of the debate. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a book put out by a publishing company? I’ll tell you. Very. I haven’t even tried and I know it to be fact. Actually getting a company to even pay attention to you is the literary equivalent of a Special Air Service soldier made out of nails, diamonds and Os Du Randt. I’m bloody dreading it. If you are not really alert and on your game, you’re not getting published. Finish and klaar.

So these companies actually have zero right to act surprised if authors turn to self-publishing to get their ideas out. If publishers trumpet the value of a free market and a capitalist business model, then they have absolutely no complaint to make when someone invents another way which is more efficient than theirs. Right now publishing companies and their supporters sound like the music industry, circa 2003. Yes, MP3s are killing your CD sales. Deal.

Unfortunately, published authors don’t really have a leg to stand on either. While I respect them immensely — not only for their talent but for their drive, perseverance and guile — they have benefited from a system which unjustly excludes so many others. They are coming from a very biased position.

Books need editing. That much is clear. No first draft, or second, or tenth, is ever good enough. But until publishers can prove that their model produces better books, and finds the best writers, then they have nothing to moan about (especially with the amount of money they make — have you looked at what Random House makes in a year? Around €791-million, or R7-billion). All a new author has to do is get together a little extra cash to hire a decent editor and he can bypass an entire system that is as bloated and myopic as a blind sumo wrestler.

And on that note, I’m off to try and finish this blasted book.