Self-Publishing and the Decline of Literary Standards

By Autumn Thatcher
Guest Blog Post
Autumn’s Blog

Self-PublishingA few weeks ago, I sat down for tea with a local musician I was interviewing for the Salt Lake Tribune. Ironically, we began our conversation by discussing writing rather than music.

“Did you read that article about that 29-year-old author who is a millionaire now from publishing her own books?” my musical companion asked me, her eyebrows arched, her eyes wide and staring at me incredulously.

I dropped my tape recorder in shock. WHAT?

My interviewee proceeded to fill me in on Amanda Hocking, a young author who indeed made millions off of self-publishing her novels on Kindle. The discussion of self-publishing and the potential to be successful through it dominated much of our conversation.

Why do writers self-publish? As independent publishers and brick and mortar bookstores are run-out by major publishers looking for the next “big thing,” many writers are left feeling as if they have no other choice than to self-publish. While this is an ideal situation in theory—writers take a stand against the print gatekeepers and publish on their own—without the help of publishers, self-published books are often not screened and edited for quality writing. Therefore, a self-published author does not mean a good writer.

I could not admit to my friend that I was secretly pondering the credibility of Amanda Hocking—and any other self-published author for that matter—because I worried that I would sound like a book snob. Who was I to discourage the ambitions of wanna-be writers? Furthermore, why haven’t I tried to self-publish anything?

With a fresh desire to write a book and an intense curiosity surrounding self-publishing, I returned home from my interview and immediately conducted a quick search on the success story of the famous (and now published by publishing houses) author Amanda Hocking. Her story is something right out of the movies. A young, single 25-year-old living in a one-bedroom apartment wants to go see a Muppets exhibit coming to a town near her. She cannot afford the $300 to go to the exhibit. Naturally, she decides to self-publish her book My Blood Approves, on Kindle to see if she can make the money to go to the exhibit. What she didn’t expect was the immediate success of her novel: millions of dollars made and the publishing of many, many more books.

A once repeatedly rejected writer, Hocking became an internet sensation and a visionary for the do-it-yourselfers around the world. She became the desire of every publisher who had formerly turned her down. She was sought after and fought over, and as publishers tried to claim her as their own literary prize, she continued to make money on her own. Hocking achieved this self-published super-stardom all before the age of 26.

This discovery of Hocking sparked within me both a fascination and a hatred for the powers of the Internet. My friend argued that while she was intensely jealous of Hocking, she has become inspired to sell the book she wrote five years ago on Kindle. She may not become the success that Hocking has, but she will be able to say she has written and published a book. And with technology allowing us the opportunity to do things on our own, why wouldn’t we?

While part of me wants to be an enthusiastic cheerleader for aspiring writers who successfully utilize the Internet to become an author, there is another part of me that feels frustrated. In some ways, the Internet has devalued writers. There are those like myself who have studied literature, who have done the internships, who have worked their way one rejection letter at a time in to becoming a published writer. All of that work seems to be disregarded as technology allows anyone who knows how to type the opportunity to call themselves a “writer.”

In a New York Times article about self-publishing authors, Leslie Kaufman writes, “As digital disruption continues to reshape the publishing market, self-publishing — including distribution digitally or as print on demand — has become more and more popular, and more feasible, with an increasing array of options for anyone with an idea and a keyboard.”

I know that I have a long way to go to becoming a better writer; however, I put the work in to becoming a published writer, even if only at a local level. I admit there are some exceptions to the rule, like Hocking. But Amazon and Kindle have enabled anyone and everyone to be an “author.” Bloggers are now considered writers. The word ‘writer’ used to mean something different.

Self-publishing is the wave of the future. However, with this future comes the problem that much of what is being self-published has not been edited or even looked at by a professional. The absence of the experienced editorial eye often results in lack-luster books that do little for the reader in the way of providing any sort of intellectual experience.

Perhaps one of the biggest appeals of being picked up by a traditional publisher is the assuredness that the work will be looked at by a professional editor. It will then be marketed to the proper demographic and strategically curated online and in bookstores. With that publisher’s logo comes the fact that the writer can call themselves a “vested” author. Self-publishing does away with this credibility and thus ultimately does a disservice to the readers.

Bruce Fulton, an assistant professor and coordinator of the Digital Information Management Certificate program at the University of Arizona School of Information Resources and Library Science, has dedicated much of his research to publishing.  In one of his lectures, Fulton references the “Golden Age” of publishing. This period of time happened between 1940 and 1960, when the development of some of America’s most reputable authors was “…nurtured by talented editors with a relatively free reign and decision-making authority, and the social and symbolic capital to stand on principle for promoting high literary standards.”

In an article for the Huffington Post, adjunct faculty at the University of San Francisco, Dr. Jim Taylor, questions the quality of self-published books: “There is, I believe, a significant difference between authors published by traditional houses and self-published books in that the latter lack the processes that we can count on to ensure a minimal level of quality, both of content and style.”

Ironically, Dr. Taylor has self-published 14 books.

As I continued to read blogs and articles surrounding authors of self-published books, I began to realize that some of the major success stories have created the problematic question as to whether or not a self-published writer is in fact a credible author. E.L. James is the perfect example of a mega-star (and arguably a poor writer) who began her career through self-publishing. Her 50 Shades of Grey series has taken the world by storm, and as she continues to rake in the dough, critics are scratching their heads over why her books are so successful.

In an article for the Chicago Tribune, contributing writer Jessica Reaves writes: “Let me be clear: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ as a concept; erotic fiction can be, and often has been, beautifully written. It’s the book’s execution that’s problematic. Well, the execution and the characters. And the writing. And also the plot.”

Reaves argues that though the series began as an electronic piece, it is still considered a “book,” and should be judged alongside other books. Her conclusion: “Put simply, author E L James — who is now officially invulnerable to criticism because she has more money than God — is not a very good writer.”

It was upon reading this statement by Reaves that I realized how tragic publishing has become as a whole. Big publishers are not “nurturing” their authors as they did during the Golden Age that Fulton references. Instead, they are looking for the next big blockbuster hit—the smashing success that will be turned into a silver screen sensation. If an author writes a beautifully-crafted story that the publishing houses do not deem as a best-seller, then they will likely reject them. In that case, what option do they have other than to self-publish?

Niche authors especially seem to have no other option. Sadly, their books are most likely not going to become the next blockbuster hit. Their stories will probably go unnoticed by the mass population because they have nothing to do with sparkling vampires or sado-masochistic billionaires. They will remain “indie” books that might not even be noticed by the indie community because they do not have enough reviews to show up in the first few pages of Amazon’s search results.

Our society as a whole has a need to escape, and we are doing it through terrible blogs and cheesy romance novels. We are falling apart at the literary seams. As long as self-publishers are publishing without the guidance of someone who has studied quality writing and knows how to produce it, we are doomed to the depressing landscape of mediocre storytelling and the sex that sells it.