Honesty and the Self-Publisher

Raymond Chandler

A Guest Post
by George Copeland

When Raymond Chandler wrote that poor writers are dishonest without knowing it, he had no reason to suspect there’d one day be a militantly tenacious army of them slinging their stuff with the ad hoc marketing arm of social media. Bad writing has always been with us, but what’s new in its current form is the rise of a concomitant philistine ethic, a seeming celebration of the act of writing itself, not of a more deliberate and circumspect writing culture in search of excellence for its own sake. It’s a touchy subject. Bring the problem up in a room of indies and you’ll get the hard stare of rough men sniffing out the double agent in their midst.

Your first cautionary considerations come in the form of blog advice to follow those Twitter members who follow you, and advice that if asked to review a fellow-writer’s work and you cannot find the good in it, follow the old adage and say nothing at all. If the more tacit warnings aren’t immediately divined, you won’t travel the web too far before a veteran writer gives it to you straight: you go making too-public and too-pointed critical appraisals of another indie, boy, and you’ve jumped out of the foxhole. You’re storming that pillbox alone. As a matter of risk assessment for the would-be writer willing to do his duty as critic among his peers, the math is simple: the mediocre and poor have the advantage of numbers, and their ire displayed in volume across Facebook, Twitter and their endless supply of blogs can hurt you.

On one hand, we indies should stick together, help each other build our audiences. As a code, it’s an appeal to our better natures. On the other hand, where the code becomes an imperative, it’s a dead end for us all. Poor writers won’t improve, treading water as long as their myopic enthusiasm allows. Good writers will drown in the slop, and it will be the reading public who will eventually tire of us all and hold our heads under, then wade back ashore to the comforting uniformities of traditional publishing, along with the same gatekeepers who’ve brought the literary world to its almost Soviet intellectual and moral stasis of politically correct, tiresome, socially conscious heroes and republican villains. And we shall have deserved the drowning.

The predictable counter argument, here, is that individual excellence will out, that the indie cream will rise and that the reader thereby wins. And so it shall be, to some extent, especially if success is measured by gross sales, though the outcome of this literary anabasis is as problematic as it ever was. Left to this model, the indie world’s most accomplished will only continue to be defined by those gatekeepers already picking off writers who’ve hit upon the presumed magic of meeting traditional publishing’s already crass assessments of what it deems worth reading. There are exceptions, those who demur in the face of big advances and the validation of the Big Houses. There always are. But this leaves indies in the position of a baseball farm team throwing off an occasional starting pitcher—he can only throw within the currently structured game. I am talking about a different kind of success, the success to be had in getting a nod from an educated man or woman reading a work that pries under the expected, stirs things up, by an author not content with surface effects, who has taken some time to set his markers intellectually and morally. I’m talking about reading worth the time put into it, work that holds its own against anything with a Big Six imprint—but is more daring, a work gone looking for trouble, for that honesty Chandler was going at. Good writing. I’ll leave the word ‘art’ to finer sensibilities.

We need not accept the notion of inferiority as the ineluctable burden of self-published writers, but to make the notion untrue we’ll have to go more predatory in relation to our own. Right now, no one can argue we demand excellence, and despite the good-feeling implications of the term ‘indie’, we are anything but. We may write what we will as individuals, but we have been, and still are, judged by the company we keep. That of course, brings with it a mutual responsibility to keep the ranks in some kind of order. Until we refuse to back-slap each other in the hope of mutual promotions, and, instead, call bad writing bad writing, we’ll be also-rans at best, delusional aspirants at worst, and be guilty of driving readers away from the best vehicle for conveying fresh highs in good literature. And the cure is where Chandler identified it, in a dose of self-awareness, a little honesty.

Educated at Southwestern University and the University of Texas, George Copeland lives with his wife, Annette, in Houston, Texas. His writing background includes newspaper reporting and freelance essays on books, movies and politics for several Texas news publications. He sails the Gulf of Mexico aboard his Alberg sloop with his loyal schnauzer, Buster-the-Sailor-Dog. You can learn more about George at his website. You can also follow him on Twitter. George’s debut novel, Leverage, is available at Amazon.

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13 thoughts on “Honesty and the Self-Publisher”

  1. Outstanding piece; excellently put with an extremely well-balanced argument. I have seen this ridiculous mutual black-slapping that talentless hacks indulge in, and I have discovered Indie works that deserve to be read by thousands. Never have I seen both sides of the issue explained so concisely. Thank you.

  2. Excellent essay, George, with just the right balance between enthusiasm and skepticism. As you argue, the “let’s support each other” mantra can be counter-productive if it prevents us from striving for excellence. Whether we self-pub or go with an indie or a major house, it’s up to us to be as good as we can be. And to do that–there are no shortcuts.

  3. Great article. I have noticed that some artists who consider themselves indie go against traditional media and institutions reflexively, without thinking the creative and business issues through. Sometimes some reflection is in order

    1. I have been researching this as much as possible. I have not decided yet, but there are very compelling pros to self-publishing. Traditional houses are mostly giving tiny advances and zero marketing. So, if you don’t get a six figure advance from a Big Five house, said house will not do much to promote your book.

      On the other hand the self-publishing market still has the above mentioned stench of the decidedly unprofessional.

    2. The Big Five need to make things attractive for debut authors or they will cease to have them. Stephen King and Rowling will not write forever.

  4. Well put and you definitely encapsulated much of what has been on my mind lately. It’s nice to wake up to a post like this 🙂

  5. Great post, George, thanks. I value the camaraderie of indie publishing, but you’re right — the poor writers will never get better if we aren’t honest with each other.

  6. Fantastic article, George. You’re very correct, sometimes camaraderie can harm. The notion that we, as indies, must continually “high-five” each other for work that is sub-par is ridiculous. However we seem to risk the ire of many very outspoken individuals if we do not fall in line with this “good ol’ boy” mentality.

    If you never know what or that you’ve done wrong, how can you ever know to fix it? My mother raised me to give credit where it is due, but to not unnecessarily butter someone’s bread either.

  7. I agree in principle, but whereas I can critique a traditionally published author, I simply can’t do it to a fellow indie. 🙁 Right or wrong, sometimes silence is necessary.

    1. That impulse is natural, I think, but asking someone to read what you write is, ipso facto, one serious imposition, even if the writing is good. To ask that someone read it when it is bad is somewhere between inexcusably presumptuous and an outrage. My own view with indies is this: you have put yourself out there, in the ring. If you take a knockout punch, well, you just weren’t ready. And that’s on you. Another, and larger, point: silence in the face of facile and/or narcissistic behavior in the arts is, literally, killing the culture as a whole. I am no aesthete, but I can tell you that art does drive a large part of our imaginative life which in turn drives a large part of our individual creative lives–and I mean that in the macro sense. Show me a book keeper who doesn’t know trash from a Rembrandt and I’l show you a book keeper likely to say close is good enough. It seems clear to me: we either go harsh and unforgiving in relation to basic standards (in the Aristotelian sense of things), or we preside over our own undoing.

  8. Some say potato; some say potatto. There’s a vast subjective gap between a Rembrandt and, say, a Picasso. The average bookseller pretty much votes on the side of public demand rather than quality. Sometimes they get lucky and find both. Booksellers don’t sell books; they offer books. Trash and beauty sell because they ‘scratch a niche’. Sometimes one has to say Picaso.

    Personally, I am fed up with the elitists who say they know what writing is: good, bad or excellent. Indie authors who have put their work and money on the line, at least deserve a break and commendation that they tried to break the deadlock of them and us.

    Art galleries don’t rate paintings.

    The back-slap is unfortunately what facebook is based on. I don’t do it, but then I’m also a painter.

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