Small Press, Traditional, and Self-Publishing: Let’s Stop Judging
I’m going to get a little ranty today. This should be no surprise to those of you who follow my Twitter feed. I tend to get ranty about important things.
A part of human nature seems to be putting others down to make ourselves feel better. We like being set apart. We like being up high where we can look down at those below us and see how far we’ve come. It’s a sharp, nasty edge we’ve all got inside us somewhere. As much as I try not to, I do it almost daily. It’s tempting to make negative assumptions when I see someone in sweat pants with a screaming child in Walmart. I have no room to judge; I own sweat pants, and I’ve dealt with my share of upset children. But that negative assumption makes me feel a bit better about myself, because clearly I am not that woman.
That’s a small example of a serious problem. When we’re little, we bully and mock and taunt other kids to impress others with our wit, our strength, our bravery. If you asked us, we’d have “good” explanations, too. He’s fat. She has two moms. He’s the teacher’s pet.
We have “good” reasons, too, for judging people based on their skin color, nationality, orientation, faith, income level, education level, political beliefs, and any other difference we can think of. There must be some kind of inclination to instantly compare when it comes to differences. We see a difference and want to know which is better– mine or hers? We react like there’s some objective evaluation somewhere that weighs our differences and pronounces someone the winner.
No one wins when we put down someone else to make ourselves feel better. And it doesn’t make us feel better, not really. We’re still discontent. We’re still looking for someone else to be better than. We have to keep feeding our superiority complex, have to keep looking for proof that we matter MORE THAN THEY.
I see this showing up in publishing sometimes. We like to think self-published books are poorly edited. We assume, sometimes, that they were sent to and rejected by editors, when often self-publishing was the first choice for the author. We like to think they couldn’t sell to a publishing house because they weren’t good enough. There’s a horde of them. Look at all those self-published authors, thinking they can take a shortcut and still be respected.
We like to look down, just a little bit, on small press authors. Their books are just another ebook, right? Not good enough for major publishing houses, and the authors weren’t brave enough or business-minded enough to self-publish. Right? Look at them, wishing they were big-league and not making the cut. If they wanted a serious career, they wouldn’t accept a small press deal.
Sometimes it goes the opposite way. We resent authors who want a traditional publishing deal because they must think they’re better than us. A small press isn’t good enough for them. They’re too good for self-publishing. How elitist. How high-minded of them to think they deserve The Big Five, when everyone knows publishing is changing so fast.
Dividing up writing this way, into “us” and “them” so we can compare and judge and be better than is so damaging. Writing is hard. It’s solitary. It’s putting your soul, your thoughts, your love on the page and holding it up for the world. It takes so much commitment and bravery and enthusiasm to write a book, and even more to put it out there for people to read. And those things? They’re draining. People say writers have to develop thick skins, but I doubt many of us ever get there. We just learn to cope. Balance. Understand people are people; learn how much taste and quirks and knowledge affect why people say what they do. Thick skin? Not really. Not me, anyway.
When writing is this hard, this draining, when it contains so much of who we are and is a lifelong goal for so many of us, it’s an undeserved, unfair blow to judge someone by his or her publishing path. (And really, what a silly thing to judge someone by. Books are so much more than their publishing method.)
When we claim publishing path as a reason to feel better about ourselves and look down on someone else, we’re judging them unfairly. Read that author’s book. That’s what we should judge their book by. The actual pages of the story itself.
Yes, there are differences in publishing paths, and those differences matter. I’ve worked in a literary agency that deals almost exclusively with major publishing houses. I’ve worked with two small presses. As a freelance editor, I’ve helped authors self-publish. I’m attempting to start a career in traditional publishing, myself. The flexibility and marketing required for each of those choices affects where authors go. The distribution and personal attention available at the press affects why authors pick what they pick. The concept of the story itself and the market at the time of publication affects what authors want for their book. Sometimes it’s the writer’s long-term career goals that decide the matter. It’s not about the quality of the story.
I’m going to say that again. The publishing path an author chose is not an indicator of the quality of the story.
Judging someone’s art based on publication path isn’t right. Some self-published books are poorly edited. Some traditionally published books are poorly edited. Some small press books don’t sell well. Some Big Five books don’t sell well. Leigh Ann Kopans self-published her gorgeous story ONE (and now, TWO). The editing quality is great and the stories are every bit as enjoyable as my other recent YA reads. Leigh Ann is one of a growing crowd of sharp, smart, professional writers who are choosing to self-publish as a career decision. Earlier this year, I read Shadow and Bone, and I’m thrilled that Henry Holt brought this book to so many people. I regularly see the author, Leigh Bardugo, as well as a host of other classy, approachable authors (Mindee Arnett, Susan Dennard, Sarah J. Maas, Mindy McGinnis, John Green, etc) interacting in a supportive and appreciative manner with fans of all ages. I work in a small press where individual attention for authors is prioritized, and I simply can’t wait for you to read the titles I’m working on now. They are brilliant, creative, complex stories, and I couldn’t be prouder of my authors. Effortless With You by Lizzy Charles is one I worked on, and it’s gotten 60+ four- or five-star reviews, hit several Amazon bestseller lists, and just released in print. (CONGRATS, Lizzy!)
We don’t have to be alike to be equal in value. We don’t have to compare our differences and pick a winner. We don’t all have to want the same things for our career or try to fit our stories in the same box. Variety in the publishing world is a valuable, wonderful thing.
So many of my writing friends will cheer for and support their fellow writers no matter what publishing path they choose. It’s a solitary, unique career with a very odd set of challenges. We need each other. We need stories brought to readers, brought to us, no matter how they’re delivered. We need the support and excitement and understanding we gain from working together. It’s so much fun and it’s so rewarding to meet other writers and hear about their decisions, their stories, their publishing experience. (Hi, Em! Hi, Bethany! Hi, Summer and Nikki and Tonya!)
I am thrilled that writers have options. Let’s try, every day, to not judge fellow writers by what they felt was best for their story. Let’s judge a book by the book, not by the publishing path. Let’s respect each other’s differences, realize we don’t know others’ careers as well as we think we might, and be collaborators and colleagues. It’s such a rewarding field with so many truly talented and compassionate people.
I’ll leave you with a look at some of my books. In this stack, there are traditionally published, self-published, and small press books. Amazing how much they all look like real books, isn’t it?