Monday, October 23, 2006

Reclaiming Self-Publishing

Wikipedia tells us that “The key distinguishing characteristic of self-publishing is the absence of a traditional publisher.” Despite claims to the contrary, PublishAmerica is not a traditional publisher. However, PublishAmerica is probably one of the best resources for authors who want to self-publish but do not have the cash to take all of the steps for themselves.

Unfortunately, PublishAmerica’s business practices leave a lot to be desired and they are easy prey for industry professionals who call them a vanity press (mostly because they are). But a vanity press just means that the publisher will publish anyone. In a healthy self-publishing environment, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

At the present moment, the self-publishing environment for books is dramatically unhealthy. How do I know this? Because there are other, semi-related publishing environments where self-publishing is not only accepted, it is actively considered to be a good thing. Awards are enthusiastically given out and celebrated. Trade shows abound.

Take a good look at independent comic books. Most of them are self-published with little or no overhead. A majority of the retailers at the annual Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD have day jobs. They do the work that they do for the love of the medium. New material is happily received. A community spirit exists that stems from a network of like-minded people.

Part of the reason for this healthy independent comics community may be due to the fact that mainstream comic books are almost universally wrapped around a single genre: super-heroes. There are professional, full-time comics writers who make an effort to work outside this genre, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. And so there is a casual acceptance of anyone who self-publishes because if you want to create anything but superhero comics, you almost have to self-publish. There is no real editorial oversight for quality control, just the market. (It should not come as a shock that print-on-demand technology has been regarded as no less than a godsend to this community.)

Role Playing Games (RPGs) fall into the same category. A large number of small, one or two man operations make extensive use of print-on-demand technologies. There are even awards given out to independent game designers, most of whom use print-on-demand publishers like RPGNow. This is a relatively small community, but there is no stigma associated with self-publishing.

In both environments, the writers and creative types take responsibility for the business aspects of their work. They overcome the hurdles and take steps to ensure that they are producing the best product they can. In a word, they are credible.

Not that many years ago, self-publishing could be considered a good thing. Now, the fact that it is so cheap to do so has made it a bad thing. The fact is, though, that anyone can produce a novel (graphic or otherwise) with enough hard work and persistence. Doing so should not be automatically considered a bad thing. To automatically do so is to prejudge the quality of a book without reading it first. Very much like judging a book by its cover. Or judging a person by the color of their skin.

The writer should be able to approach self-publication (yes, even through PublishAmerica) with pride. It is bad enough that the companies available act stupidly. Every child is embarrassed of her parents. Calling attention to that fact is just rude.

But it is equally incumbent upon the writer to produce good material. If you are not sure about how good your work is, ask someone. If you ask enough people enough times, someone will eventually tell you the truth. Sometimes the truth hurts. But one of the things that our society has groomed out of us is the ability to take criticism. Being a writer should mean being an adult, even if the other people in the relationship are incapable of following suit.