It’s weird because to follow the rationale of that belief, real publishers never turn away good work (just ask Joan Jett) and everything that is published for real is good. But they do turn away good work (listen, quit bugging me and talk to Joan Jett like I asked) and they do publish crap. So let’s deal with some reasons:
Self Publishing Doesn’t Require You to Pay Money – Through the wonders of technology, the modern self publisher (and there are a lot of them) can be heard with little or no overhead. You’re reading a self publisher right now! This is what’s funny to me. In a world where cute girls can set up a video camera, talk about their day, and become moderately famous in a few short hours, I’m not sure why people are still asking me, “Wouldn’t you like to be published one day?” I am. What people are really talking about when they discuss getting published is having a distributor. Somehow it’s less valid to sell a hundred copies of a book, or have your blog read by a hundred readers. If you’re not a household name, in some people’s minds, or at the very least independently wealthy from your creative trade, then you’re not really published, or successful, or good. The internet is an effective distributor.
“Vanity Presses” – The misguided concept that people have of self publishers is the folks who plopped down their hard earned money to publish their work and now have a thousand or so copies of their work in their garage. The problem is that when I discuss self publishing, I’m not talking about going this route, and paying a company to print a ton of copies and then make a meager attempt to market it for you, but ultimately leaving you with no attic space. My simple plan is this: pay the extra cost per unit and print maybe thirty copies, send two to the Library of Congress for the official copyright, and try to sell the remaining twenty-eight. If you get stuck with any it won’t be such a big deal, and a lot easier to donate to libraries to get rid of them. If you do sell them, do another mini-print run and do it again. It’s like my recent discussion of the ET game for the Atari 2600. Selling only twenty-eight copies of your book isn’t really such a bad thing if you only printed thirty copies. Selling only twenty-eight copies of your book is a bad thing if you printed 2,000 copies. That’s called business. It’s very weird to me that people can conceive of an idea of buying cards and reselling them at a profit, or buying camera equipment to tape weddings, but the idea of popping down a few hundred dollars on a short run printing is just a bad idea, and even one that induces shame.
Creative Freedom – I know this probably seems like a dumb reason, but it falls into a number of different categories. It’s not just for hacks who don’t like to be told what to do.
Marketing – This is a big one about creative freedom. You’re not listening to somebody who is telling you what’s selling. And I’m not just talking about some of the weird ass stuff I write. The fact is that you may be really good. You may be writing a mainstream genre, but you may be passed over because that genre isn’t selling well enough to take in any new authors, or so few new authors that you don’t make the cut.
You Are Your Selection Process – Why are allegedly real magazine publishers more valid than anybody else? You can read a book and tell me if it’s any good, right? You can watch a movie and tell me if it’s any good, right? You can hear a song and tell me if it’s any good, right? What is it that magazine publishers do again? They read a book, watch a movie, hear a song, and tell us if they’re any good, right? Oh, oh! I know the answer to this one. They, whoever they are, know better than the rest of us, right? They have special powers. When they let a bad book, movie, or song through, it’s not because it’s actually bad. We just don’t have the same special powers. And when we think something is good that they, whoever they are, rejected, we just have bad taste because we don’t have the same special powers. It all makes sense to me now. I’m glad we had this talk, except something else bothers me. How is it that it happens that they, whoever they are, have special powers to recognize what’s good and publish it, but sometimes some of them will reject and then one of them won’t? That’s inconsistent. Unless not all of them have special powers! Wait, but then you could get published even if you suck because some of them, whoever they are, are just like us. Which means that if we self publish and it sucks, but enough people like it, it hardly matters what the real publishers say. Do you feel stupid yet? Good. The truth is that the self publisher merely needs to be truthful with one self about what came out good or not. Not everything you write is gold, and never will be, but if you can recognize the best of what you have, you too can be just another asshole with an opinion. Just like them, whoever they are.
Being Good Enough – Here’s the interesting thing about taking the time to self publish and market your work. If it is good enough to sell, it will be good enough to be picked up by a distributor or major publisher. The nice thing there is that you don’t have to hear crap like, “Change this scene. It will never sell like this.” It’s at that point that you say, “Interesting. Well, I guess I’ll just take it back and get back to selling it.” I was at a convention once. Neil Gaiman was speaking on a panel about the First Amendment. Real quickly, what he said was that we should feel lucky to even have the right to free speech written into our basic law structure. Another woman, and I wish I could remember her name, was talking about how it’s not a free speech violation when an editor tells you not to say something, but that sometimes the editors are asserting their own views rather than what is best for the story. I don’t remember if it ultimately was cut, but she was told to remove a scene in her book in which a male character is raped. The reason given was that since it was a male character being raped, specifically because he was male, it would hurt the book sales. If she had self published, sold a number of copies, and then ran into this issue with someone she could point and say, “My prior market experience does not support you claim.” Prior to release, you don’t have that kind of evidence to support you.
I Lost My Contract, Eh Whatever – It’s interesting to me that we live in a society that is all about self employment. It was once considered to be in bad form to do art for money, at least anymore than you needed to replenish supplies. Our current society doesn’t support that. They don’t say get a second job to supplement your income. They say start your own small business to supplement your income. They say do what you love when you start a small business to support your income. They say find a way to make money from your hobbies. This is another point about publishers, record labels, and whatever. Why do artists eventually take their money and start their own label? Sometimes it’s loss of contract, but sometimes it’s just that they get tired of being kicked around. Sure, some artists are content with publishers and labels. I’m not trying to suggest otherwise. I’m simply curious why we frown on the unknown self publisher, but not the self publisher with street cred. Don’t tell me it’s because they’ve already proved themselves. If their contract wasn’t renewed, they are basically saying you’re not good enough. You once were, but you’re not now. We say this based on something very arbitrary like sales. The interesting thing about business is that business will do whatever as long as there is a profit. They love Kevin Smith (who wasn’t a self publisher, but an independent film maker *tries not to let audience notice me rolling my eyes*). Why do they love him? His movies don’t make as much as the average blockbuster. But they also don’t cost as much to make, and so therefore he keeps making movies. Now I love Kevin Smith, but let’s pretend that his movies were pretty shitty, yet they still always profit. You guessed it. He and Roger Corman would be sitting around drinking sodas and laughing that there are good filmmakers out there who don’t get a break because their movies don’t make enough profit. And those filmmakers have to put up their own cash to make their films, and then work their asses off to scrape by with enough money to pay their bills.
Conclusion – What I’m trying to say is that the world of being published by a major publisher is just as glitchy as going it alone. It works out for some, and doesn’t work out for others. One of the members of the band Fretblanket was working a job at a dock to get by long enough for the release date of the band’s second album, when they would go on a tour of America to support the album. Peter Steele was worried that if Type O Negative’s next album didn’t sell, he would have to go back to being a garbage man. Not everybody with a major publisher/label contract wakes up one day to find all their troubles gone. Rob Zombie discussed the problem with getting started, because the labels get back everything they put into producing your album before you see anything for it. Why not, instead of wasting time trying to get noticed by a major, just go independent to start with? You can always change your mind later.