Sunday, August 19, 2012
“I” is for Integrity: Sue Grafton and the Self-Publishing Blowback
One of those instant, internet explosions broke out this past week after the great Sue Grafton gave an interviewer some opinions on self-publishing. She said that self-publishing was a “lazy” way out. The interviewer pressed her on that, in light of indie successes like John Locke. Grafton responded:
Obviously, I’m not talking about the rare few writers who manage to break out. The indie success stories aren’t the rule. They’re the exception. The self-published books I’ve read are often amateurish. I’ve got one sitting on my desk right now and I’ve received hundreds of them over the years. Sorry about that, but it’s the truth. The hard work is taking the rejection, learning the lessons, and mastering the craft over a period of time. I see way too many writers who complete one novel and start looking for the fame and fortune they’re sure they’re entitled to. To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. Learning to construct a narrative and create character, learning to balance pace, description, exposition, and dialogue takes a long time. This is not an quick do-it-yourself home project. Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops..you already did.
Then the indie blowback began. A good example comes from Hugh Howey, author of the hugely successful Wool:
Sue Grafton thinks I’m lazy. Yeah. Hard to swallow when I look at how many hours I pour into my writing career each week (and weekend).
. . . .
Why in the world is this interviewer asking a buggy whip expert about picking out a new car? What does Sue Grafton know about publishing in today’s market and with today’s tools? Judging by this response, she knows absolutely nothing. Less than nothing, in fact. What she thinks she knows is harmful to aspiring writers.
Ms. Grafton saw the coverage, and asked the blog that originally ran her interview for a chance to respond:
The responses to that quote ranged from irate to savage to the downright nasty Indie writers felt I was discounting their efforts and that I was tarring too many with the same brush. I wasn’t my intention to tar anyone, if the truth be known. Several writers took the time to educate me on the state of e-publishing and the nature of self-publishing as it now stands. I am uninitiated when it comes to this new format. I had no idea how wide-spread it was, nor did I see it as developing as a response to the current state of traditional publishing, which is sales driven and therefore limited in its scope. I understand that e-publishing has stepped into the gap, allowing a greater number of authors to enter the marketplace. This, I applaud. I don’t mean to sound defensive here…though of course I do.
. . . .
My remark about self-publishing was meant as a caution, which I think some of you finally understood when we exchanged notes on the subject.
Ms. Grafton went on to say she takes “responsibility for my gaffe and I hope you will understand the spirit in which it was meant.” She added, “I am still learning and I hope to keep on learning for as long as I write.”
Good on her for this gracious response. Sue Grafton has always been on the writers’ side, and her initial comments grew out of this advocacy. Indeed, she stated at the very beginning that she wasn’t talking about the “exceptions” who break out.
Which makes her remarks largely valid. Many (not all!) who self-publish do so too soon. For many (not all!) it IS the “lazy” way, as compared to the hard work of learning the craft, getting better, being honest with yourself about your weaknesses and doing everything you can to correct them.
In that respect her view is not harmful. Indeed, it may be the very thing that saves a writer from embarrassing himself, or striking out expecting indie gold only to find canyons of wet dirt . . . and a reason to sit around Starbucks for the rest of his life grousing over his damned bad luck.
No matter how you publish, you have to earn success, and it ain’t easy. When it comes to encouraging self-published writers, I’m not going to offer pie-in-the-writing-sky. I’m going to offer clear and hard-headed advice that has proved itself over time. Advice that gives you a reasonable chance to make a buck, and maybe a living, by writing.
But a big part of that is not to short change yourself by publishing the first thing you finish. Amazon is not the place to throw up your NaNoWriMo project on December 1 every year.
And that is what Sue Grafton was getting at. She is old school, yes. But it was a school with some classic courses, and there is wisdom there to be heeded.
H/T to The Passive Voice for coverage of this controversy.