The Cultural Myths of Publishing

Martha Wells, author of the Murderbot series, which seems to be doing well among fans of SF/F these days, published this article recently at The Mary Sue.

Writing is about digging around in yourself and pulling things out. The only special thing about our work is us, what our own unique brains and personalities and experiences bring to the table to make the stories new. That’s where the answer to whether you should continue to persist or not needs to come from, from you.

Good luck. I’m rooting for you.

Taken as a whole, I’m a fan of what Wells is doing in this article. What writer isn’t familiar with the dread of putting themselves out into the world only to be ignored at best or trodden over at worst? Her statement, “I’ve written a whole essay on People Who Want You to Stop Writing,” certainly struck a chord with me. I know very well that writing can feel this way.

However, there are a couple of aspects of Wells’s presentation of this overall theme that I find problematic. There’s this:

I had interactions that made it clear I was expected to maybe self-publish a little and then go away, emphasis on the go away.
As a proudly self-publishing author, I don’t appreciate this attitude. There’s a persistent and, in my opinion, toxic cultural myth that so-called professionally published works are somehow better than self-published works, and we self-publishers are only doing this because we “can’t” be traditionally published. I challenge any traditional publisher to offer me better cover design, interior print layout, ebook formatting, and editing than I am currently capable of. If the publisher is not up to my quality standards, I will reject them. Wells’s comment serves a well-meaning point, but her derisiveness of self-publishing is toxic and unproductive.

There’s also this:

And there’s that whole category of People Who Are Happy to Take Your Labor But Don’t Want You to be Paid, and also the People Who Would Be Happy if All Creative Art was Produced by Those Rich and Privileged Enough Not to Need to Profit From Their Work.
A big way in which traditional publishers create the perception that they are necessary is the myth that they are raising up the downtrodden and giving a voice to people who would otherwise would not have the monetary means to put their work into the world. There was probably a large element of truth to this in 1980. In 2020, there are two big problems with this statement.

First, in terms of actual money, publishing a paperback book is now dirt cheap. It can be accomplished on Amazon using a cheap laptop (at let’s say $500), LibreOffice (free), GIMP (free), and Sigil (free). Now, good editing, a good cover, learning all the nuances of book typography, learning HTML for a proper ebook, etc. etc. are either expensive or time consuming, but that isn’t the point of the assertion. The claim is that there are those who want art to be "produced [only] by those rich and privileged enough not to need to profit from their work." Self-publishing actually solves this problem. Self-publishing on Amazon is effectively free. And I would challenge anyone trying to back Wells’s claim to show me the traditional publishers who have lists of published authors who lack the means to provide themselves a computer and the internet.

Second, while I have received interest from commercial publishers in the past, none of them has so far passed my sniff test. All but one has wanted to foist upon me worse cover art than I was capable of procuring myself, worse interior layouts than I was capable of designing myself, or wanted to snare my work in vicious contracts, where they would effectively own all print rights to my work in perpetuity, making it so that if they ever wanted to stop printing my work, it would become effectively dead to the world. I also remain suspicious of their editors, who are employees of a profit-driven business. Am I really supposed to believe that these people are going to help me develop my voice? Sorry, but it seems much more likely that they will be interested in shaping my voice into what is most profitable for their company. The cultural mystique that professional publishers’ editors are superior to all else boggles my mind.

I’m sure that there are wonderful small, independent publishers out there. I know certainly of one, with whom I have worked and would gladly do so again. I hope to meet others someday. I insist on retaining reprint rights to my work, and it would be a joy to add my typography skill and editorial experience to such a press’s endeavors. I keep my mind open that more such presses exist now, and that more might come into existence. Sadly, most of my experience so far has been to the contrary.