The Elites vs. Self-Publishing: A Study in Arrogance

An aptly-named book of poems self-published by e.e. cummings in 1935, after rejection by a score of commercial houses.

In a recent blog post at The Guardian, novelist/poet Ros Barber lays out a cogent but incorrect (and utterly elitist) argument against self-publishing.

Ms. Barber states that “self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write)” — the inference being that self-publishing is fine for all the rest of the peasants: all those intellectual midgets who fancy themselves writers.

Ms. Barber makes several arguments — a few of them practical, others more purely based on snobbery.

On the practical side, she argues that authors who self-publish will be forever condemned to spend a vast amount of time marketing themselves and behaving like “a fool” by posting tons of seemingly-desperate, self-promoting Twitter and Facebook posts. She also argues on behalf of literary agents and publishers, applauding their roles as “gatekeepers” who insure quality: protecting writers from publishing early, apprentice-work they might at a later date find embarrassing. Finally, she tells us that although traditional publishing means a life of poverty for most writers, one might expect even more poverty on the self-publishing side of the equation.

As for the snob factor, she reminds writers that if they self-publish they can “forget about” major literary awards such as the Man Booker. She likewise cautions that self-publishing will make one look like “an amateur” — aka, one of the literary peasants as opposed to the elite.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Writers in general, at least those who want to get an advance for their next book, invariably spend a great amount of time promoting, both in the physical world and in the digital world. Indeed, many of the publishers on whom Ms. Barber chooses to rely will not even look at a book coming from an author without a substantial online following. (I notice that Ms. Barber herself has nearly 8,000 Twitter followers.) We see these same writers populating grueling panels at countless literary festivals across the globe, writing blogs, standing nearly alone in bookstores doing readings for five listeners (three of them cousins who would rather be somewhere else), and so forth.

Sorry. Whether self-published or traditionally-published, authors need to sell themselves. In the end, the publishing imprint is not the brand. The author is the brand.

As for gatekeepers, many self-published writers use professional editors and — believe it or not — are actually not so dumb as to think that poor work might make for a good resume item going forward. Many recognize apprentice work for what it is. Also — believe it or not — much of the reading public is not so dumb as to think that the mere presence of a commercial publishing imprint indicates an instant mark of quality. (This, presumably, is what book reviews in The Guardian and other such publications are all about.)

The issue of remuneration bears no comment. If a writer does not have independent income or a profession separate from writing, that writer — whether traditionally-published or self-published — should not plan on drinking from the top shelf at the bar. (That is, unless one is the type of unliterary writer at which Ms. Barber would probably turn up her nose. I mean writers who have escaped the deadly mid-list — writers of blockbuster bestsellers both in trade and mass-market distribution, writers of the types of books which never win elite literary prizes: the Stephen Kings, James Pattersons, and Patricia Cornwells of the world.)

Interestingly, these writers don’t seem to care about literary prizes. They write for readers rather than trophies handed out based on entirely subjective judgments. Ms. Barber ought to be grateful for these low-lifes and their illiterate publics. They and the income they generate are the only reason why, for the time being at least, she and others in her class of authorship get any advances at all.

As for communing with amateurs — aka, the risk of being thrown in with the untalented, self-published mob — I will leave Ms. Barber to her tower.

But her tower has cracks. The traditional publishing firms on which she relies are dinosaurs gasping their last breaths in a drastically changing content -distribution environment. Here I speak of rapidly declining retail shelf space, rapidly accelerating digital distribution, and increased competition from indie upstarts such as my own New Street, to name just a few obstacles to the traditional publishing model. And all of it adds up to the increasing democratization of the literary landscape.

We can even see signs of the breakdown of the traditional model amid Ms. Barber’s own well-regarded books. The remaindered hardcover edition of her novel-in-verse The Marlowe Papers — winner of the 2013 Desmond Elliott Prize — can be had for one cent on Amazon here in the US, offered right beside the current $16.95 paperback. I do not present this fact to demean the undoubted quality of Ms. Barber’s work. I offer it as just one example of how the dinosaurs find themselves struggling amid a distribution environment unfriendly to their old ways, such as when remainders were out of sight and out of mind, and follow-up paperback editions actually sold.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, Ms. Barber will likely find herself having to join the rabble of indie-publishers and self-publishers. And the prize-givers may just have to adjust their rules.