Failing in public

Chuck Wendig has done a few posts on self-publishing recently, which is, as always, a controversial topic. His post from a couple days ago, Self-Publishing Is Not The Minor Leagues, admonishes self publishers not to publish crap just because they can. To quote:

Don’t celebrate mediocrity. Don’t encourage half-assing this thing for a couple of bucks. This is scrutiny time. This is time to not to say, “Here, you’re doing this wrong,” but “Here, let me help you do this better.” This is time for conversation and constructive critique, not empty applause and pedestal-building.

His followup post addresses the apparent uproar the first post inspired. It seems that there are some people who take issue with the idea of only publishing your best work. One detractor writes “I celebrate mediocrity. I celebrate half-assing things. I celebrate someone writing a book that objectively is terrible and going through the steps to make a terrible cover and a terrible blurb and publishing it and then they keep on going and write something a little better, with a better cover and a better blurb and then they keep going some more.”

Chuck points out that posting your work online and using the experience to level up your writing is all well and good, as long as you’re not expecting readers to pay for the privilege of being your beta readers.

My contribution to this discussion is mostly just to say: I am SO GLAD that the internet was not a thing when I was growing up. I didn’t even start using email until I was in college. I started a personal blog a couple years after that, but luckily knew enough not to use my real name on it. I was, of course, writing through this entire time, but I never thought about posting any of it online because that wasn’t what people did.

If self publishing had been around back then, there’s a good chance I would have tried it, and today I would be haunted by the grim specter of terrible writing attached to my real name. I wrote SUCH CRAP back then. And yes, writing that crap helped me a lot! Every shitty word was one shitty word closer to figuring out what works. You cannot be a good writer without first being a terrible one. As Mur Lafferty says, it is okay to suck. But if I had been publicizing that whole embarrassing process? That would mean that today, if I were to publish something actually good, I would have to turn around and look at that long trail of utter failure I’d foisted on the public to get to this point.

And I wouldn’t be the only one looking at those failures. Readers who had seen the stuff I’d published in the past would know better than to risk paying for my books again. Readers who had the luck of coming in on my newest, non-shitty work might go looking for other stuff from me, and stumble across a horrifying trove of drivel, and they’d come to the conclusion that my work was hit-or-miss. You only get to make one first impression on a reader, so why not make the best one you can?

The fact that self-publishing has no gatekeepers can be a benefit, but it also means that readers and writers have no trustworthy source verifying a book’s quality. This is why self-publishing has such a bad reputation: writers can be a terrible judge of the quality of their own writing. Traditional publishers are by no means the only place you can get this independent assessment of your work, but making your potential readers be the judge is clearly not the best bet either. This is why people go to writing groups. This is why people write fanfiction! There are so many ways to improve your game without hurting your future career.

I do intend to pursue self-publishing someday, maybe even soon. Before I do, I’m making sure that I have done everything in my power to make the work as good as possible. I’m workshopping chapters; I’m sending it to alpha and beta readers; I’m going through draft after draft. It would be faster to just toss the whole thing up on Amazon right now, but, if nothing else, that would just contribute to self-publishing’s untrustworthy reputation. Self-publishing can be a great opportunity, which is why you shouldn’t let your impatience sabotage yourself or the industry at large. Don’t settle for average.


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