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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Self-publishing Fail: Achieving Weak Goals is Meaningless

I'm still on my anti-self-publishing kick, primarily because there has been a lot of really crazy things popping up on the Internet as of late, such as B&N's decision to get their hands into the self-publishing pot. One post that bothered me the most recently was The Book Designer's 26 Ways to Win At Self-Publishing. Overall, the list is quite poor, with the majority either failing completely as praise-worthy goals or falling short of being impressive, and only a few falling into the "good goal" category. Some of the "wins" seem to have more in common with the 40-year-old man who still lives in his mother's basement who is going nowhere fast than with the guy who tries to run for President. They're not goals so much as really sad ways to feel good about yourself when you've essentially achieved nothing. It's sort of like saying I am proud of myself for waking up and breathing today, an action that, for most people, requires no effort whatsoever, and which pretty much everybody else did today.

The list starts pretty much on the lowest scale possible and jumps around from meaningless to semi-praise-inducing. Take, for example, the first item:
You finally get the book finished, printed and in your hand: you win.
Explain to me why this is something to be proud of. Anyone can do this. I can waltz over and print out a book from Lulu and have it in my hands in five days, with very little cost to me (in effort or cash). Unless you live in a country without the Internet, or you have no arms and legs and had to type your whole novel with your nose, then I fail to see what is impressive about this goal. It's a non-starter. To get excited about printing out the book that you self-published is like getting excited about finding your seat on the airplane. It's on your ticket, dear...The only thing praise-worthy about this is that you wrote a book. That's it. But even that is becoming less impressive these days, because anyone can write a book. Most people can't write a good book, though, and if you manage that, then maybe you can get a little excited.

The list doesn't get better after the first item either, with the second being just as meaningless:
At last you have a chance to fully explain the ideas you’ve been thinking and talking about for years: you win
Couldn't you have done this before you self-published? Why do you need to have a self-published book to tell people about your ideas and thoughts? There's no magic barrier that can't be crossed without SPing a book. Unless your family and friends don't listen to you, in which case I'd wonder why you hang out with them, then really there's no reason why this goal is even worth mentioning.

And then there's the fourth, eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth, seventeenth, twenty-fourth, and twenty-sixth:
You send a copy of your book to your ex mother-in-law: you win
You gift wrap a copy and hand it to your mother, watching her unwrap it: you win
You send an autographed copy to your 8th grade English teacher: you win
You overhear coworkers talking, and one mentions that you’ve published a book: you win
Your dad pulls you aside at the next family gathering and tells you how proud he is that you dedicated the book to him: you win
A friend at a party asks if you’re still looking for an agent, and for a moment you don’t understand the question: you win
You start to think about other books you’ve always wanted to write and can now publish: you win
So, if this list is getting at anything, it's that you should be really proud of yourself for gift wrapping or sending your book to people, or proud that people you know paid attention to you long enough to soak up the fact that you "published" a book. This is starting to sound like a list for the underachiever, someone with very few serious goals in life. If this is what makes you happy to exist, then maybe you need to reassess your priorities. Children find these kinds of goals exciting, not adults. Why? Because these are the kinds of goals that children try to achieve. They don't know any better.

But perhaps most pressing and most misleading is number fifteen:
Every one of the people you care about tell you how much they love your book: you win
If American Idol has taught us anything, it's that praise from the people who care about you (or that you care about) is not always reliable. Look at all the idiots on American Idol whose family didn't have the heart to tell them that they sucked. We know they suck, but they didn't because their family never bothered to be honest with them, thus sending them out to be crushed by the judges and the public (who gets so much pleasure out of their misery). If everyone is telling you they love your book, then maybe something is wrong. Even if they all are being honest, praise is meaningless if it isn't accompanied by constructive criticism. If all you're told is "this is wonderful," how can you ever expect to improve?

If you cut the list down to ten items, it's not a bad list. There are some good goals, but, for the most part, the list is dominated by awfully pointless and plain stupid goals. Having low standards for success doesn't suddenly make you a winner. You don't see football players saying "if I manage to hold onto the ball for three seconds, I win." Why? Because there's nothing about that goal that is remotely impressive. It's a weak goal, and weak goals are worth about as much as non-existent goals. Short of impressing your cadre of weak-goaled friends, saying you win and doing something that pretty much anyone can do is a waste of energy and time. Achieve something real, and then start jumping up and down.

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  1. I think self-publishing does have a place. It's not a very comfortable place for anyone who wants to be recognised by the book-buying world as an author of fiction - there is an immediate assumption that you have produced something not very good, and the wall of indifference a self-published novelist will be trying to hurdle is near to insurmountable.

    But at the same time:

    - Not everyone can write a book. No matter what the quality, the mere act of stringing that many words together is a huge thing, and I do think any author should feel a sense of achievement for doing so.

    - To some people, a book isn't tangible until it's printed. And currently most people prefer to read paper books, not ebooks.

    - Some people are writing for themselves, not others, and I expect as an audience of one they'll be quite happy.

    So there is a certain level of value, and a level of pride and pleasure which self-publishing can give you.

    While there are scads - echoing, wallowing warehouses worth - of negatives to self-publishing as a fiction author who wants an audience, I don't think it's a meaningless option - just a seductive and potentially self-destructive one. Like so many other facets of the craft.

    [Self-publishing is also very useful to the niche non-fiction writer, and the established fiction writer who has dropped off the bottom of the midlist, but those are slightly different issues.]

  2. I wasn't saying that self-publishing is meaningless (that's a different argument). I was saying that having weak goals is meaningless. Being prideful of doing something that anyone can do is, in my opinion, pathetic. I don't think better of myself for waking up this morning, or eating breakfast, or drinking water, or putting on my clothes after showering. I think better of myself for doing things that require effort and which most people don't do (such as getting a degree, going to graduate school, creating a successful website for young writers, and so on).

    I understand that books aren't tangible until in print (or in a "printed" medium, such as an ebook), but there's nothing impressive about printing a book. If someone finds that as pride-inducing, then they're underachieving by a few dozen miles. They're essentially feeling better about themselves for breathing.

    That's my problem with the list I linked to. If you're going to self-publish, at least have better goals.