[O]ur censors are not just publishers and editors and distributors and
publicists and book clubs and syndicated reviewers. They are the
writers, and the readers. They are you and me. We censor ourselves. We
writers fail to write seriously, because we’re afraid—for good
cause—that it won’t sell.
Before the advent of ebooks, or online advertising and promotion, or
Amazon, or anything resembling a smart phone or even just a personal
computer, Ursula K Le Guin noticed something about the more open, more
“free” Western systems of publishing literature: we censor ourselves.
The contrast in 1973 was of publishing in a Western democracy versus
publishing in the Soviet Union or one of its satellite states.
Particularly under Stalin, if you were deemed to have written something
“wrong,” it was off to the gulag. No equivalent authoritarian repression
existed in the West then, nor does it exist today.
However, Le Guin noticed that a very similar effect could be achieved
(important, challenging work not gaining prominence in society) through
a very different kind of oppression, the oppression of the market, a
phenomenon driven by readers with low expectations. Writers who feel they
need to meet those low expectations end up “self-censoring,” in other
words, not writing the work that is legitimately expressive and
artistic, because they have become too concerned with writing to the low
demands of said market.
My argument today, after giving this much thought, is that, despite all
the trials sans tribulations involved, self-publishing remains the
best way to remain a truly “free” writer in 2020, in the full Le Guin sense of the word. We are already free of an
actual Stalin figure in Western democracies. As much as many of us may
dislike Donald Trump’s authoritarian streak, he is almost certainly not
having self-published authors hauled off to gulags for writing things he
doesn’t like. The Le Guin
freedom is the freedom to pursue Literature (capital letter intended), of
the SF variety or otherwise, without having to worry about market
pressure molding our writing in one direction or another.
Achieving this freedom requires additional care on the part of the
writer. It is notoriously easy to slip from “I don’t care about market
pressure” into “I don’t care about any pressure.” One has to be a very
careful observer of humanity in order to find the right pressures, the
ones that will drive their particular voice in a healthy direction.
Doing so is not nearly as simple as separating humanity into “good” and
“bad” feedback givers, either. Despite the fact that I can feel a past
version of myself reaching into the present to throttle me for what I’m
about to type, I have to admit that even my worst, most abusive feedback
givers ended up teaching me something important, even if only by
negative example. The vast majority of my former toxic writing group
members were a mixed bag of different pieces of good feedback mixed in
with many bad ones.
In the self-publishing world, individual authors are left to figure all
this out for themselves. This seems sub-optimal. The logic goes that the
traditional publishing industry helps authors by allowing them to funnel
their energy and attention into their writing, rather than having to
worry about proofreading, typography, and, most importantly for this
argument, marketing. Except that, when I observe the traditional
publishing industry from the outside, what I see is one enormous
marketing machine. Its label of ‘book publishing’ is quite literally
only a label. The traditional publishing industry to me does not look
like any kind of freedom from marketing, but rather the purest
distillation of subservience to it.
What of self-publishing then? Don’t I look at Amazon ebook countdown
deals, and free book days, and paid advertisements, and rankings, and
bestseller lists, and deflated prices, and doesn’t all that stuff make
me cringe? How do I get off saying that traditional publishing is
slavery to all that stuff when it’s most visible on self-publishing’s
My answer is simple. Self-publishing on Amazon means I can choose not to care about any of those
Traditional publishing, on the other hand, by virtue of requiring at the
very least coverage of its operating costs (and usually then some), is
beholden to engaging in those exact same mechanisms on top of other
mechanisms outside of Amazon.
Now, it is true that the strategy I am running—self-publishing with a
minimal of engagement in marketing—will lead to a dearth of reviews, a
low Amazon rank, and ultimately, fewer readers. It means that I am
forced to seek out readers entirely on my own, the few I will be able to
make a direct connection with. Instead of caring about how many tens of
book promoters I can woo, or how many hundreds of reviews I can garner,
or how many thousands of followers I can get for my Amazon author page,
I am instead interested in one single metric. How many readers can I
find, to whom I can give a new perspective, or a novel thought, or a
liberating idea, or a compelling character, and who will be willing to
engage with me on that topic? It doesn’t matter if that number of people
is a dozen, or five, or two, or even just one, because even if it is
only one person, then I still win. It will mean my books have existed,
were available to all, and that they influenced someone else in a
Self-publishing today is fraught with peril. It comes with a ton of hard
work. It means being not just a writer dedicated to the craft, but also
a proofreader, a freelance book typographer, and a marketer who is savvy
enough to own marketing rather than letting marketing own them. Despite
all that, it is the strategy I believe is most conducive to finding
one’s true to voice and producing one’s best work. In short, it is the
best path today for becoming a truly successful writer.