Recently, Roger Sutton (editor-in-chief of The Horn Book, a magazine that reviews children’s and YA books), declared in an open letter to self-published authors his reasons for not reviewing self-published books. The next day, Ron Charles (editor of The Washington Post’s Book World) picked up Sutton’s commentary for an article and interview, adding his own two cents of support at the end. Other editors and reviewers chimed in, echoing the comments and sentiments of both.
A few hours later, the self-publishing universe achieved critical mass and exploded.
Unfortunately, most folks involved in that explosion didn’t bother to read Sutton’s letter or the WP article. They just heard that their books had been interdicted, and that was enough send them into orbit.
Which illustrates a huge part of the problem: Self-published authors don’t understand the industry.
Yes, that’s a generalization, and when I stepped into the forums to discuss this issue, my penchant for taking overwhelmingly consistent testimony from experts and professionals and turning it into a “sweeping generalization” was the first thing to draw fire. How dare I generalize about self-published authors, based only on fact, testimony, and experience! A lot of self-published authors, it seems, don’t get that a generalization isn’t true about every member of the class under discussion, but is true in general. [sigh]
Anyway…the argument that Sutton (and Charles) put forth was essentially this: There just aren’t enough gems in the pile of self-published dog-poop to make searching for them worthwhile.
It’s simply a matter of efficiency and expediency. Reviewers have two piles: traditionally published “Big House” titles, and self-published “Indie” titles. The Big House pile is big, with more titles than any magazine can accommodate within their pages. The Indie pile is even bigger, a lot bigger, like an order of magnitude bigger. The Big House pile has both good and bad titles in it–as does the Indie pile–but the Big House pile has about 60-70% that are good quality titles, whereas the good ones from the Indie pile account for only about 10%.
Neither Sutton nor Charles imply that all Big House titles are good–Sutton states the opposite, in fact–but it isn’t about one being All Good and the other being All Bad. It’s about ratios, and the ratio of good books in the Big House pile is simply higher. Self-published authors bang on about the “gatekeepers” of traditional publishing, but the simple fact is that those “gatekeepers” ensure a higher average quality.
In the forums, as I was trying to get these points across to my self-published colleagues (i.e., as I was having my feet put to the fire and my limbs stretched from my body), I gathered enough data to generalize once more. This time, I was able to get a general idea of the main rebuttals against Sutton (and Charles, and every other editors/reviewer who I’ve read since this shit-storm began).
The rebuttals, in general, fell into the following categories:
- “That’s not me! My book is great!”
- Of course, Sutton was himself generalizing, and wasn’t talking about you in particular. Believe it or not, Sutton doesn’t know you. He does, however, have enough experience with the class of self-entitled, self-absorbed authors who make up the largest faction of the self-published to have drawn a pretty solid conclusion about the chances that your book really is great. Your book might be great, but chances are–chances are real good, in fact–that it isn’t.
- Sutton’s small staff and inability to handle the volume of self-published books isn’t an excuse for banning all self-published books.
- Except that, well, yes, it really is. Sutton runs a magazine, which is a business, which has employees, who must be paid for the hours they work. His resources are finite, and he must use them in the best and most responsible way he can. Devoting thousands of hours to pawing through the dung-heap that is self-published books, searching for that 5 or 10% that warrant a second look, just isn’t responsible. It’s also unnecessary, as Sutton gets enough titles–more than enough–from the Big Houses.
- How can Sutton know that all self-published works are crap if he doesn’t read them?
- First, he’s not saying that all self-published titles are crap. Second, obviously, he has read a number of them. Sutton has read enough self-published children’s and YA titles to know that most are “pretty terrible.” Badly written, without a sense of the genre, without appreciation for the history and capacity of the market, pick your poison. The point is, he’s speaking from experience, he’s not part of some secret publishing cabal, and he’s not just mouthing some meme he picked up on the internet. This is his business, and if the only or the best way to find good titles was by trudging through the mire of the self-published, he’d do it.
- Self-published authors don’t have the time or money to pay for editorial services; that doesn’t mean they don’t have talent that can be developed!
- Sorry, um, what? Is it your contention that the purpose of editors is to develop a writer’s talent? Is it your contention that reviewers like Sutton should develop writers’ talent? Are you drunk? Choosing to self-publish doesn’t put you in some special category where you get personalized care and encouragement. The opposite is true, if anything. Self-published authors must make the time to edit, and edit assiduously, especially if they can’t afford a professional freelance editor. And it is definitely not the job of an editor to foster, bolster, develop, encourage, or in any other way bring to maturity a “talent.” Their job is to make a decent, salable book into a good, salable book. And reviewers like Sutton? They review books. They don’t foster talent. Get real.
- Just because someone can’t write a salable novel, that doesn’t mean they should be prohibited from self-publishing!
- True, and nowhere did anyone suggest that this. You wrote a book of your grandma’s favorite sayings? Great! You compiled the wit and wisdom of your Irish Setter? Go ahead, self-publish away. But just as you have a right to self-publish, the rest of the world has the right to ignore that fact. Self-publishing a book does not give you any special rights or privileges.
- There’s plenty of crap coming out of the Big Houses, too.
- Agreed. And stipulated by all parties, including Sutton. However, the Crap Coefficient in the Big House pile is lower, much lower, than it is in the Indie pile.
And my favorite:
- Neenerneener you big, traditional, Big House publishers and your reviewer cronies! You don’t like me? Well, then I don’t like you either. The publishing world is changing, and you’re going to be left behind. Have fun, you dinosaurs. I’m cooler than you’ll ever know! You’re all part of a conspiracy, anyway, plotting to keep the status quo and to silence new and independent voices!
- Yeah, well, you can think that, if it gives you comfort.
Yes, publishing is changing, rapidly so, and we really don’t know what it will look like in ten years, but we’re not talking about ten years from now. We’re talking about today, and one of the realities about the state of self-publishing today is that we, the conscientious, diligent, studious artists who choose to self-publish are completely outnumbered by the Click-and-Publish nabobs who believe that their first draft is golden and worthy of a Pulitzer. Rail against it, distance yourself from it, deny it if you wish, none of that will make it go away.
We may have a right to write, but we do not have a right to be read. We have to work for it.