Posted on June 19, 2013 in Archive

Imaginary battles of history – John Green vs. self-publishing


Publishing industry commentary seems to be on a hair trigger right now. Tweets and blog posts are likely to be fired at someone before they’ve even finished speaking, much less been understood. The trouble with all this volatility is that its usually only the easy targets who get hit: agents, big publishers and anyone standing near them – in this case, John Green.

If you didn’t see it, popular young adult fiction author John Green recently received an award from the American Booksellers Association. He couldn’t make it to the event, so he sent a lively video acceptance speech. Not long afterwards, he was being condemned left, right, and centre for attacking self-publishing and suggesting it produces low-quality work.

Leaving aside the fact that so much online opinion ratchets up the vitriol just for show, a reaction like this is extreme. Obviously, I don’t claim to know Green’s opinion on self-publishing. I would suggest, though, that if he wanted to lambaste self-publishing, he would have referred to it by name in his speech. Since he didn’t, I’d say his critics are missing the point.

I first became aware of this story through the tweets of Alastair Horne (‏@pressfuturist). Since he’s made some of the same arguments I’m about to, I wanted to point out that he was being publicly sane about this before I was.

Green’s YouTube rant (it really is more a rant than a speech) is really concerned with what he calls “the insidious lie” that a book is the work of a lone author and that publishers, agents, editors and booksellers are now obsolete. Since he’s regularly held up as an example of a new breed of social media-savvy writer who can talk to their audience directly, he must hear pronouncements like that quite a lot.

Writing a book, Green says, needs to be collaborative.

…without an editor my first novel, Looking for Alaska, would have been unreadably self-indulgent.John Green

He argues that editors, bookshops, marketers, and even publishers actually add value for an author. They’re not just outdated relics, or worse – leeches. In fact, he implies that they help to safeguard the quality of American literature.

This is where the critics come in.

They start by hearing ‘lone author’ as ‘self-publisher’ and end up thinking Green is saying self-published books are all rubbish. Of course, he isn’t. Green’s target is the people who think being an author is as simple as thrashing out a long Word document, uploading it to Amazon and waiting for the cash to roll in. It’s the people who think digital publishing means they don’t need anybody to help them put out a book. Amazon certainly trades on this idea to encourage more people to use its platform.

Everything Green says about the need for collaboration applies just as much to self-publishers. And he never claims it doesn’t. He says authors “need editors and we need publishers and we need booksellers.” As Green’s critics point out, self-published authors hire freelance editors and typically pay someone else to actually publish the book, whether it be Amazon or a Print on Demand company. And obviously, someone other than the self-published author handles the sales, too.

As one anti-Green post asked, “It is possible to pay people to do these things for you. Since when did ANYONE say self-publishing is an isolated process?” No one did – certainly not John Green.

What’s really surprising about this whole thing is how hard it seems to be getting to publicly support anything publishers do. It seems like the ever-present dissatisfaction with the big publishers is boiling over into outright demonisation. Long-time readers of this blog will have noticed we’re hardly cheerleaders for the big publishers ourselves. They’ve certainly been slow to embrace digital production and distribution and, as gatekeepers for content, they’ve been, at times, frustrating.

But that doesn’t mean their entire business model is some kind of scam.

The fact remains that, for many writers, publishing houses add more value than they take. Some authors don’t want to deal with the extra work around self-publishing, which is perfectly understandable. There may be some overlap, but self-publishing and traditional publishing predominantly appeal to different people.

There’s no need to treat them as though they’re locked in an inevitable struggle. And yet, when an author hints at having a preference for one over the other, advocates of either go bananas.

If this is a sign of how people react to change, then there must be plenty more mudslinging to come.

Lego characters image courtesy of Flickr user Jeremy Mates.