Don’t Do This Ever: “Ego-Induced Amnesia” edition

Ros Barber will never self-publish. It is beneath her. It should be beneath any “serious novelist” (a title Barber seems to self-apply), and she has taken to The Guardian to tell us why.

Now, I understand that “indie publishing” is all the rage, but you might as well be telling Luke Skywalker to go to the dark side. Despite royalty rates of 70%, I think self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write). Here’s why.

I should warn you that any time someone uses the term “serious novelist” without irony, whatever follows will be an orgy of public masturbation. Barber’s piece is practically NSFW in this respect.

If you self-publish your book, you are not going to be writing for a living. You are going to be marketing for a living. Self-published authors should expect to spend only 10% of their time writing and 90% of their time marketing.

Wait, I thought this article was about why Barber won’t self-publish. I won’t go downhill skiing, but it’s a comfort to know that my inexperience won’t hold me back when I want to write an article for a major media outlet about why downhill skiing is terrible and no cross-country skiers should do it. Somehow, Barber is the expert on how self-published authors divide up their time, despite her reluctance to do it in the first place.

But if your passion is creating worlds and characters, telling great stories, and/or revelling in language, you might want to aim for traditional publication.

I’m not sure it’s possible to be more insulting than Barber is here. Only traditionally published, serious authors can create worlds and characters, because clearly self-published authors draw words out of a hat and hurriedly type them up so as to return to their mindless, repetitive social media presence. Only traditionally published authors can tell great stories.

Barber goes on to describe the very marketing behavior many successful self-published authors already advise against, and assumes that all self-published authors are equally guilty:

Imagine we have just met. I invite you into my house and the first thing you do is show me the advertising blurb for your book and press me to check it out on Amazon. Then you read me the blurb for someone else whose book you’ve agreed to promote if they’ll do the same with yours. Then you tell me how many friends you’ve lost today, and that I can find out how many friends I’ve lost by using this app. Then you poke a reader review of your book under my nose. All within the first 10 minutes. Does this lead me to conclude you are a successful author, whose books I might like to buy? Or a desperate egomaniac with no thought for other people? One who may not be able to string a decent sentence together, since your sentences come out as semi-literate strings of hashtags:


The tweet Barber uses to illustrate her point once again raises an often overlooked component of self-publishing, which is access for authors of color. Does Chopra’s tweet include a number of hashtag sins? Certainly. But one has to wonder whether Barber realized that by choosing Chopra’s tweet as an example of the “semi-literate” over-saturation of social media promotion, she was betraying the narrow scope of her own advantage with the publishers of “serious novelists”. A highly educated white woman (a “scholar”, as described by a dedicated section on Barber’s website) has a much better chance of skating by the gatekeepers Barber later lauds in her piece. Perhaps some unserious writers come off as “desperate” because they have to work ten times as hard to get their books noticed by readers, let alone publishers.

One also has to wonder when, exactly, Twitter became Barber’s private living space.

In another section, Barber compares self-published books to wobbly cabinets constructed by inexperienced carpenters using shoddy materials. The subtitle for this section?

Gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego

It doesn’t seem to have worked for Barber, but, as Kermit the Frog says in his popular meme, that’s none of my business.

My first novel was my fourth novel. It was accomplished on the back of three complete novels (plus two half novels) that didn’t quite make the grade (even though two of them were represented by well-respected agents). Yes, it can be frustrating, having your beloved book (months or years of hard work) rejected by traditional publishers. But if you are serious about writing, you will simply raise your game. You will put in another few thousand hours and complete your apprenticeship. And when you do, you will be very glad that the first novel you wrote was not the first novel you published, because it will now feel embarrassing and amateurish.

Amateurish is exactly the word I would use to describe an author who truly believes that talent and hard work will eventually result in a published book. Willfully ignorant is what I would call an author who sees traditional publishing as the inevitable end result of finely honed craft. If this were true, a certain world-wide record-smashing blockbuster series of novels based off an equally record-smashing blockbuster series of novels wouldn’t have slipped past those gatekeepers’ quality control. The Instagram filter Barber has chosen for her view of traditional publishing washes out the reality of commercial fiction and market trends.

You can only be a debutante once. First novels are all about making a splash. You’ll find it hard to make a good impression if the first thing anyone saw from you was that wonky cabinet with sticky drawers.

Again, I would refer Barber to some of the wonky cabinets built by first-time carpenters and haphazardly installed by the very quality control gatekeepers she lauds.

With genre fiction, self-publishing can turn you into a successful author (if you can build a platform, if you enjoy marketing and are good at it, if you are lucky). But an author who writes literary fiction is dependent on critical acclaim and literary prizes to build their reputation and following. If genre fiction is chart music, literary fiction is opera: the audience is small, and there are limited ways to reach it. Self-published books are not eligible for major prizes like the Baileys, the Costa and the Man Booker, and getting shortlisted for major prizes is the only way a literary novel will become a bestseller.

Here, I agree with Barber. Though some may take the comparisons of genre fiction to “chart music” and literary fiction to “opera”, I would agree with that assessment. That said, pop music is my favorite music, so I don’t see it as an insult. And it is rare for a self-published novel to win a major award. In 2013, Sergio de la Pava made headlines when he won the PEN/Robert W Bingham award for his novel A Naked SingularityWhat made De La Pava’s success so notable was the fact that his novel was self-published, and only became an eligible, “serious” novel once a publisher picked it up after the book had generated positive reviews under De La Pava’s own steam. In other words, this book that was dismissed by Barber’s precious gatekeepers was better than other traditionally published novels, even when it didn’t have traditional publishing’s stamp of approval. Instead of pointing out that self-publishing excludes authors from prestigious festivals and prizes, why not question why that’s the case?

Barber continues to explain the higher quality of editors at traditional publishing houses, and the advantage of not having to pay for those services. She also shares an anecdote from a one-time self-published author who turned to traditional publishing and is much happier.

She has just sold Korean translation rights to her children’s books, which illustrates another benefit of traditional publishing. Publishers and agents have reach.

Publishers and agents do have reach. I’m lucky to have a very good agent who uses her reach to sell foreign rights to my self-published books. So far, my self-published series has been translated into Italian, French, and Portuguese, and these foreign editions have been very popular with readers. Though finding representation for foreign rights isn’t a guarantee for self-published authors, neither does traditional publishing guarantee that your book will reach international markets.

For those who prefer orchestrated backing to blowing their own trumpet, who’d privilege running a narrative scenario over running a small business, who’d rather write adventures than adverts, self-publishing is not the answer.

A single look at Barber’s modest website will give you a clue as to what her “orchestral backing” sounds like. Take an hour or two to peruse and digest the bounty of self-aggrandizement there. Barber is an author, a scholar, a “conscientious creator” who “has been helping writers and other creative women to achieve their dreams since 2009″. Barber’s own self-promotion is a Wagnerian opera as composed by Gwyneth Paltrow. And if you manage to make it through the blaring sonic obstacle course of Barber’s instrumental soundtrack far enough, you can even find links… to her self-published books.

I’m not sure anything else needs to be said, except “don’t do this, ever.”

33 thoughts on “Don’t Do This Ever: “Ego-Induced Amnesia” edition

  1. Thank you! When I first read the article, I actually scrolled back up to double-check it was recent. The whole thing reads like a throwback to ten years ago.

    Besides, any “serious novelist” should know how Virginia Woolf was published.

    One correction: outside the USA, it is indeed spelled “revelled”. The Guardian being based in the UK, it would be wrong to spell it the American way.

  2. I just want to point out that my first real project in shop class was a cabinet, and before taking that class I’d never even picked up tools. Oh, and I got an A+, and my teacher said it was better than what most of his 3rd year students produced.

    Sometimes, you’re just good. :)

  3. Love your blog and read it regularly, but I couldn’t let this go by without mentioning: “revelling” is actually the correct UK English spelling. For many words that end in a single consonant, when used with the ‘-ing’ suffix in UK English the last consonant is often doubled.
    The rest of your post I completely agree with, but I couldn’t let that bit slide because I am a bit of a grammar/spelling pedant and also I’m Canadian and was taught using UK English spelling in most things. We’re weird up here like that–we even call the letter ‘z’ zed for some reason. Anyway keep writing, I really enjoy your work (especially your sense of humour). :)

  4. I tried reading Barber’s article, but her frankly elitist snob attitude turned me off of it pretty quickly. She sounds like a ten-year-old trying to prove how grown-up she is by acting the way she thinks adults do. And failing miserably at it. Sure, self-publishing has a few hiccups along the way that traditional publishing might not, but it’s a lot easier, cheaper and faster, as well as giving the author the freedom to market their book(s) the way they want to. There’s also the bonus of not feeling rushed or buried by deadlines, meaning there’s much less chance of the story and author suffering from burnout. She’s welcome to do whatever she wants with her work, but she shouldn’t feel she gets to belittle anyone that doesn’t follow her way of thinking.

  5. Considering she thinks marketing her work herself is beneath her, she seems to have written this article for that express purpose. Regardless of whether you have representation or not, any creator (I’m speaking as an actor) has to hustle their own shit. That’s just how it works now. Agents, managers, and I assume publishers, want their artists to be engaged with their own audience and drum up enthusiasm for whatever they’re putting out.

    TL;DR: this lady is full of shit.

  6. Hate to bust her historical bubble (well, actually I don’t), but well into the 18th century, a significant number of works WERE self-published. Unless you had a rich patron, you’d go into a printer’s with your ms., commission a limited number of copies, and hope they’d sell well enough to justify another printing. Novelist Samuel Richardson was a printer who originally published his epistolary novels of virtuous maidens pursued by lecherous rakes in serial form, and people lined up to get the next installment.
    And before that there was Caxton, who edited or often translated, printed, and marketed a large number of books. His marketing often consisted of a preface in which he credited a mysterious Noble Lady for suggesting this work, or a claim that all classes would be edified by reading it, etc. His office was then visited by any number of disgruntled patrons claiming that his version of Canterbury wasn’t like grandpappy’s or that the word should be translated as “egges” not “eyren,” or that this word was old-fashioned and nobody used it anymore, or that word was so newfangled that nobody had ever heard of it before.
    The whole idea of literary agents is a pretty recent thing.

  7. I’m not sure exactly what Barber’s point is, because all the traditionally-published authors I know, or whose blogs I occasionally read, seem to have to spend a pretty large amount of time on marketing, since publishers don’t do much marketing themselves, and then tend to blame mid-list writers for “not doing enough” self-promotion (just before dropping them for low sales).

    If Barber is free to spend all of her spare time actually creating, while her publisher does the work of selling her books and entering them for prizes, then I know a lot of writers who would love to get that sweet deal. But that doesn’t seem to be how professional writing works these days, no matter how one is being published.

  8. Jenny, you can actually use a better example than EL, i.e., Andy Weir:

    “Having been rebuffed by literary agents when trying to get prior books published, Weir decided to put the book online in serial format one chapter at a time for free at his website.[6] At the request of fans, he made an Amazon Kindle version available at 99 cents (the minimum he could set the price).[6] The Kindle edition rose to the top of Amazon’s list of best-selling science-fiction titles, where it sold 35,000 copies in three months, more than had been previously downloaded free.[6][8] This garnered the attention of publishers: Podium Publishing, an audiobook publisher, signed for the audiobook rights in January 2013. Weir sold the print rights to Crown in March 2013 for over US$100,000.[6]

    The book debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list on March 2, 2014 in the hardcover fiction category at twelfth position.[10]”

    The above was from the Wiki of the book called “The Martian” which became a huge movie hit as well.

    1. I don’t think The Martian is a good example of a poorly written book becoming a success, though, which was my point. Barber seems to believe that traditional publishing separates the wheat from the chaff, which overlooks the existence of blatant money grab books published and heavily promoted by traditional houses.

      The Martian is a good example to counter her allegation that any book not accepted by a traditional publisher is rejected due to inferior quality, though.

      1. Oh, and back to EL, when the charity shops ask donors to stop giving the books away and they have so many that they make a fort out of them (with even more in the warehouse and one guy offering to take them so he can make a wall with them) then that adds credence to your point that a poorly written book, self published or otherwise, is a poorly written book that no one wants to keep.

        http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-wednesday-edition-1.3504145/charity-shop-builds-fort-out-of-unwanted-fifty-shades-of-grey-books-1.3504147

    2. Yeah, I was also going to mention The Martian, and say how it seems Barber’s article misses a pretty big point about how self-publishing can open opportunities that can lead to traditional publishing (and then movie rights, I guess).

      Having never attempted to publish anything, I am speaking out of pure speculation, but I would imagine that traditional publishers see novels as a gamble, is this novel going to be successful? It’s part good writing, but also part what’s successful on the market, what is there an audience for. So maybe you have a great book, but you can’t convince a publisher that it’s going to sell. The Martian shows that by using self-publishing, you can demonstrate to publishers that, yes, this is going to sell, and then that can lead to traditional publishing opportunities.

      I think all of your points are right, but am also frustrated by Barber painting this as an “either, or” situation, where it seems like self-publishing can be a tool in itself to getting traditionally published.

    3. Ah, but The Martian is genre writing! And everyone knows that genre writers can just shit out books and the vast unwashed masses of barely literate genre readers will buy them whatever, amirite? While literary fiction is a pure and noble pursuit, and the few discriminating readers capable of appreciating it need to have the tailings washed away from the nuggets of greatness lest their delicate sensibilities be injured by inferior art.

      Or something.

  9. It sounds like she just read a few doom-saying articles on the potential perils of self-publishing, then regurgitated it all as gospel. I’m a first-time author whose book released just under four months ago, and this month, I’m breaking even on the money I put into it (the bulk of which was for the cover.)

    Yes, I spend time marketing that I could spend writing. Yes, I had to learn a few non-writing skills I didn’t already have in order to get the book to look good when it was published.

    And yes, I’m writing a sequel. Am I quitting my day job? Nope. But neither am I throwing my money down a well, like she seems to think I am.

    Research into the self-publishing process will help minimize up-front costs. Honest beta readers, especially if you get some in and outside your target reader group, can function as reasonable gatekeepers. And the nonsense she’s spouting about foreign publishing rights? Most small fry aren’t worried about that, or pinning our hopes on someone swooping in with a movie deal, so touting that as a drawback to self-publishing strikes me as disingenuous. (Though it’s awesome that you have foreign-language editions, Jenny, and more power to you.)

    The nerve of some people.

  10. She’s been responding to criticism on Twitter by saying that it was her personal thoughts about what was right for *her*, and that she wasn’t dissing self-publishing, and that she’s purely saying it’s not right for literary fiction, and everyone’s just getting hold of the wrong end of the stick. Apparently she does not understand that we can all read the ACTUAL WORDS THAT SHE HAS WRITTEN.

  11. “A background in science”

    As someone working hard for her biology degree, I’m always annoyed when people throw “science” in like it will make them seem more rounded or intelligent but magically fail to mention the field, their credentials, or link to any publications.

  12. She fails to address the concerns of those of us who write poetry. Aside from novels, short stories and comic books, I write a wide variety of poetry, and have been for as long as I can remember. I have also gone to various writers’ conferences all over the country and done my fair share of freelance editing for independent publishers as well as communicated with various literary agents and publishing houses, and in nearly every corner of the literary world you’re going to hear the same thing: poetry doesn’t sell. Most agents and publishers stipulate that they do not and will not even consider poetry.

    Go into the poetry section of any bookstore and you will find only one or two shelves filled mostly with the classics (e.g. Dickinson, Longfellow, et al), a few contemporary poets who miraculously managed to make a name for themselves, such as Allen Ginsberg or Maya Angelou, and the odd celebrity (e.g. Leonard Nimoy).

    What hope does any modern day poet have of publication? I self-published, and I am not ashamed, nor do I waste even a moment of my day in marketing. Why? Because I know poetry doesn’t sell in this day and age, and frankly I don’t care. I simply want my poetry available in a handy, aesthetic hard copy that I can duplicate with ease and share with my friends and family.

  13. Was anyone else immediately struck with the desire to see every reader of that horrible article purchase Aditi Chopra’s book, the one given as a “bad” Twitter example, and watch it skyrocket in the charts? Perhaps there should be an international indie author movement to make this happen…

  14. My inner graphic designer recoiled in horror at her website. If you’re going to be elitist, at least have the taste to back it up.

  15. A brilliantly funny riposte. When I wrote mine (just angry, not funny at all) I had to keep going back to the article to check what she had actually written.
    And yes, she did the “it’s not about you, it’s about my literary fiction” on Twitter to me, too. If she can’t see how, what she’s written, would annoy so many people, she has no business writing a shopping list, never mind a piece of literary genius.
    And, finally – the point of the article.
    On her Facebook page, with some fawning idiot saying how right she was to say what she said: “The Guardian editor is pleased with me, anyway. 23,000+ views and lots of engagement. They love it when readers get engaged”
    Which just goes to show how naïve she is. Because it’s not engagement they’re pleased about – it’s page views and advertising income, to a newspaper that’s struggling to cut its costs and is talking about cutting 250 staff and selling off property interests.
    Expect more nonsense article like this in the months to come, since The Guardian loves all of our “engagement”.

  16. Love this

    I thought the article was a spoof when I read it! It was definitely a lesson in the art of making yourself look like a totally pompous wanker in the press. Indeed, she, herself, is one of the best arguments against trad pub I’ve ever seen.

    Cheers

    MTM

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