Self-Publishing: The Tsunami

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Y’know… I’ve self-published a number of my own (lesser…) efforts. I do not make any pretenses as to their superiority or lack thereof. And I think it’s delightful that an independent, unknown author can take her beloved magnum opus to its audience of two (if she’s lucky) and tell herself that she’s “published.”

But… My god, there should be a limit!

Problem No. 1 is the same problem we’ve always had with this route to the public: in the absence of a gatekeeper, any kind of schlock can go to print and distribution. And believe me, it does.

Problem No. 2: Amazon et alii have made the self-publishing process so easy that we now have an indiscriminate flood of schlock. It saturates the book market.

It saturates Amazon to the extent that you can’t tell whether you’re ordering a decent book or not. People put up their friends and hire hacks to post glowing reviews, and so if you sort an Amazon search by customer reviews, a slew of apparently stellar volumes will pop to the head of the list.

They’re stellar, all right. In the sense that a red dwarf star is stellar. Dull and glowing by the light of spent radiation.

An example of this struck the other day, here at The Copyeditor’s Desk. We would like to offer proposal writing services through our little business. As a faculty member at Arizona State University, I wrote a few proposals, and in an earlier incarnation, my little business picked up a number of jobs by answering federal RFPs. And I spent several terms — nigh unto a decade — on the Arizona Humanities Council’s board of directors. All we did there was read, assess, and decide whether to reject or approve proposals.

So I do know how a proposal works.

However, it’s been awhile. Given that times do change, I figured I’d better cobble together a DIY refresher course to bring my skills up to date before offering us up on the open market as proposal writers.

First off, I spotted a course offered through a national association of grant writers. It was pricey, but I could add people to it, so I subscribed for myself and my associate editor.

Result: middling. Apparently there’s not enough to say on the subject to fill several hours of video time — certainly not enough time to justify charging what that outfit charges — and so the instructor bloviates. On and on and eye-glazingly on. The content ranges from saccharine pep talk to entire segments dedicated to telling viewers what she’s going to say next.

I do not have time to waste like that (nor, truth to tell, did I have the money to waste on the thing…).

Insight: I need a book: a guide to proposal writing.

So I go to Amazon and see there’s really not much out there. Well: there is, but there isn’t. Most of the hits on searches for “grant writing” and “proposal writing” receive mediocre reviews. The ones that show near the top — one, for example, in the “Dummies” series — appear to have arrived there grâce à self-promotion of the most vigorous type.

I go back to the online course, waste some more time listening to hot air. Lose patience. Give up.

Drive down to the only surviving general bookstore in the city. They have exactly NOTHING on the subject, and the place is so over-run with Christmas shoppers I have to prize my way into a harassed clerk’s attention. She directs me to a) the business section (nooo…) and b) the wanna-be writer’s section (noooo to the power of ten).

Damn!  Back to Amazon. This time I filter the search in order of customer reviews. Several how-to books on grant writing appear, festooned with five-star decoration.

Order one that looks like it might be OK.

First warning sign: it takes for-freaking ever for the thing to be shipped: ten days or two weeks.

Now it finally arrives. I tear open the package to find this thing printed on the cheapest of all possible paper with one of those cheesy covers that curls up the first time you open the book and then stays curled for all eternity. Evidently self-published, despite bearing the name of a prominent East-Coast publisher.

Well, yes. Look closely at the copyright page and you learn that said venerable publisher has added self-publishing to its wares.

This outfit’s name on your copyright page looks grand, but evidently the author got no more publishing services than I would get running my copy through the PoD press I use. In fact, my guys produce a much better-looking book.

Oh well.

Now I start to read the thing.

First thing I come to is the advice that you must L-O-O-O-O-V-E your cause and your work to be a successful grant writer.

Oh.

Effing.

BARF!!!!!

I’ve just sat through hours of the same kind of bloviation, transparently intended to fill space in the expensive video for which customers are charged a L-O-O-O-O-V-E-ly pretty penny.

When you’re trying to learn a professional skill, you do not need a pep talk. You need a road map.

Where was this woman’s editor?

Absent, apparently, along with her common sense.

Herein lies the problem: It’s too easy to churn this stuff out. It’s too easy to get it published on Amazon. It’s too easy to hire a printer to make a fake book out of it. It’s w-a-a-a-y too easy to put people up to posting bushels of ecstatic reviews at Amazon.

The result is, we have an ocean of trash out there, much of it deceptively packaged. I would not have purchased this book if I had realized it was self-published blather. Which, my dears, is exactly what it is.

Therein lies the problem with self-publishing. The tripartite problem, really: it acts on authors and publishing houses as it acts on readers. Videlicet: in the absence of a discerning gatekeeper’s eye — without an editor, a marketer, and a publisher who knows what quality work looks like and who has a decent sense what will sell and what will not sell — we are all awash in a sea of mediocrity.

For authors: we don’t know whether what we’re emitting is worth the hot air we expend on it…or not. We always think our stuff is wonderful. So does our mother. Our friends…maybe not so much, but you can be sure that they want to stay our friends and so they tell us that yes, yes, we’re so right: our stuff is wonderful.

This will happen even if what our stuff deserves is a one-sentence form letter reading “This is something that we cannot publish.”

It’s damn hard to blossom when you’re standing in a field overgrown with weeds. And how do you compete with someone who hires people or puts friends and acquaintances and customers up to blitzing Amazon with five-star reviews? Most writers hang out in the garret writing because they prefer their own company. We’re not  marketers. We’re not social butterflies. We’re writers. And that would be why we need publishers (real ones, that is), complete with marketing apparatus.

For publishers: they can bust their buns to put out the best books imaginable by the most gifted writers in creation. Good luck bringing them to a public drowning in schlock. Who wants even to be bothered to look for a decent book, at this point? Why, when I can find what I want online? No, it’s not all in one place, and it’s not all in a convenient form that I can pull off the six-foot shelf when I need a reference. But hey: it’s free, and I do know that something from the National Institutes of Health or PBS is likely not to be schlock.

And as for the public? One word. Schlock.

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