photo from Allen R. Allen's blog... with Ruth Harris

photo from Allen R. Allen’s blog… with Ruth Harris

Continuing my thoughts on Hachette vs. Amazon, I read a post on The Guardian’s blog, called “Self-publishing is not revolutionary, it’s reactionary.” As the title suggests, the main point the post makes is that, despite what people think, self-publishing is, in fact, reactionary. It offers the following arguments in support of this unusual claim:

  • self-publishing is individualistic because the writer is both producer and marketer of his work
  • the reader is reduced to the status of consumer
  • because of the above two points, self-publishing is timid and not adventurous enough. Indeed, self-published authors will only write in specific genres that the readers-consumers will buy. Self-published authors will not attempt an original work, for fear of falling short of the consumers’ expectations
  • in traditional publishing, authors are allowed to put their work first and not bother with the entrepreneur side of things, the latter being the job of the publisher
  • self-published authors have basically installed the tyranny of the market (sic)
  • the problem with self-publishing, is that authors are expected to publish in specific genres and around particular themes, therefore leaving other equally interesting but less profitable subjects out of the self-publishing world. For instance, academic works, poetry, arts, new and daring literacy fiction will never appear on bestseller lists, which is why Indie authors don’t bother with these.
  • bottom line, self-publishing authors are “authorpreneurs” and individualistic

I wonder what Hugh Howey (whose interview I will discuss tomorrow) would make of the way the first two points lead arbitrarily to the conclusion that it is Indie authors that are timid, when they have nothing to lose but their time.  Traditional publishers, on the other hand, who actually spend money on each book they publish, can somehow afford to be generous, knowingly publishing books that will never become best-sellers. I was also impressed by the tyrannical power attributed to Indie authors. In fact, I was reminded of Joe Konrath’s recent rant:

“So I fell into the trap of becoming too involved in the Amazon/Hachette dispute, and I’ve been openly wondering where all the stupid is coming from, and if I could somehow cork the stupid so it stopped splashing all over the Internet.”

Granted, a lot self-published works evolve around specific genres (romance, sci fi, fantasy, paranormal, vampires). But I have seen some amazing poetry, very funny and touching children’s stories, self-help books (for humans and animals alike) and so many other subjects that I just can’t accept that self-publishing is genre-specific. Yes, self-publishing can be a vanity thing; people want to publish their thought or a piece of written art and decide to do it themselves. Taken within that context, self-publishing is individualistic. However, it is equally liberating!

As far as the reader is perceived as a consumer, I think the reader always was and always will be a consumer. Recently, a big bookstore chain in Greece organized a contest, whereby the public had to choose their preferred title among 700 titles published between 2013 and 2014. This is traditionally published books, through traditional publishers. Some ninety percent of the titles were romantic books, light reading and historic romances. Ninety percent! I have absolutely nothing against this genre but I find highly ironic the fact that traditional publishing houses are accusing self-publishers of being individualistic, when they themselves will only publish saleable books of a particular genre. Let’s not kid ourselves; readers have always been consumers because they actually pay for the book. Were the readers offered the books for free, then we could talk about something else. Oh wait – that’s what Indie authors have been doing!

As far as mixing authorship with entrepreneur, I think that it is quite useful. The moment an author decides to become commercial, i.e. to write in order to make a living, they should have some sense of entrepreneurship, whether they sign a contract with a publishing house or not. Having a feeling of how a book is published, what sort of costs publishing entails or what profits the author should expect are all valuable concepts that any author should have. We all have –more or less- a sense of how we should be prudent with our money (investment, savings, paying bills, paying for a pension … the basics) but we have never been accused of being entrepreneurs because of that. Since when is that a bad thing, and why should it be different for an author?

Finally, I was reminded of the Price Waterhouse Cooper report on publishing, which you may remember from my previous posts. The report was comparing traditional versus electronic publishing. The only books that resist electronic publishing are:

  • children’s books: these need to be tactile, while children like pictures, and it is still hard to present beautiful images in Kindle format;
  • specialty books: photos, directions, maps etc are difficult to portray electronically;
  • academic books: because graphs, images etc are harder to read on a small screen, while student love to keep side notes

These are the main subjects where physical format is still the norm rather than the exception, and these are the books that traditional publishers will probably continue to print and publish for a while longer. Since self-publishing inevitably involves electronic publishing, it is no wonder that relatively few people bother with specialty books or academic ones.

In other words, it has nothing to do with being an “authorpreneur” and everything to do with the limitations of digital publishing. After all, since finishing my PhD thesis in 2000, Architecture in the Digital Age: in Search of a Collaborative Design Paradigm, I have published it online!

I know you’ll have grown tired of reading this, but I just don’t get this whole “war” between Indies and traditional publishers.  We all love books; we all wish to increase our readership; we all want to make a living out of it.  It’s not a zero-sum game; when a reader reads a traditionally-published book, it’s not because he won’t read an Indie one and vice versa.  Readers enjoy a good book, and don’t care who published it.  So, how about we bury the Hatchet (heh heh – I kill me) and focus on fighting illiteracy instead of of each other?

– photo taken from Allen R. Allen’s blog… with Ruth Harris

What do you think? Is self-publishing reactionary or revolutionary?