Print Room Beamish, By David Masters

Indie Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing: It’s Not a Moral Decision


I have no idea why people get so nasty about publishing. We live in a magical era where you have choices. There is no good and evil.

“Max Bill and his followers despised the streamlined styling of postwar American design. ‘Good form’ and ‘moral purpose through design’ were expressions they used to describe their philosophy. Emil Ruder, Armin Hofmann, and Josef Müller-Brockmann were Swiss designers who, like Max Bill, did not confuse design with style and felt comfortable occupying the moral high ground.”

-Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne, 100 IDEAS THAT CHANGED GRAPHIC DESIGN

I love the quote above, and the book, for that matter. It’s the story of Max Bill and his International Typographic Style. Back in 1953, he came up with a new(ish) way of doing things in the typography world, and before long, his rules of readability were considered the morally-correct choice. There was then a division between designers among those who chose the new way, and those who cleaved to the old, separated by lots of talk of the morality of good design. In the end, the discussion collapsed under the weight of real-world application, because typographical choices aren’t subject to morality–they’re just tools to do a job.

I’m (at least professionally) acquainted with a lot of authors of every stripe. I know people who have hit the New York Times Bestseller List. I know indie pub authors who have managed to quit their day jobs. Because of this wide array of folks, I get exposed to a lot of blog articles from the writing world that I might never otherwise read. Most of these are pretty great, but there is always one variant that seems to stand out:

“A Certain Type of Publishing is Evil”

Now, this is the modern internet, so it’s probably more like, “10 Ways Self Publishing Needs to Die in a Fire” or “This Woman Self-Published Her Novel–What the Big 5 Did to It Will Shock You.” For example, you have indie pub advocate Hugh Howey saying that indie pubs represent an underdog fighting a battle against the evil giants. On the other side, you’ve got folks suggesting that indie pub authors suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is a polite way to say that many of them are idiots with superiority complexes.

It’s not hard to find these articles, and they’re written by people I deeply respect. Howey has made a lot of money writing books people love. He gives hope to many an aspiring author who feels daunted by the publishing industry. The originator of the phrase, “shit volcano” is Chuck Wendig, someone who I wish I could be when I grow up. I’m not sure that either of these authors meant to represent a side when they set out on their literary careers, but here we are.

My problem isn’t with offering a cost-benefit analysis of the writing industry. That’s just making sure people are informed. However, these articles are inevitably shared by followers with the sort of malice that one might have for an invading army or a ravening horde of uncultured idiots. And while trendsetting bloggers in this arena don’t seem to attack authors directly, there are hordes of followers who will, happy to create the most venomous possible version of the debate.

As we writers go about our days, it’s my hope that we recognize one thing first and foremost when we speak about publishing: being a successful author is fucking difficult. Publishing is scary! Do we really need to make it a question of good versus evil on top of that? No matter how that success is achieved (HINT: however you can get it), we should treat other authors with the respect you would accord any other comrade in the trenches. No matter whether you think indie pub is the way to go or traditional publishing rules all, there is always someone to prove you are empirically wrong. Most of us simply don’t have the resources we need to fight against the data presented to us, and we’re just trying to do our best.

I want people to drop the bile. Publishing is just a business–albeit one that runs on the collective hopes and dreams of the most desperate crowd of folks I’ve ever met. Here’s a lesson in character development for any writers who disagree: Everyone makes the decision they feel is right. No one is just a shill. Look at the data, make your decision, but for Pete’s sake, the other side isn’t evil.

I hope I haven’t misrepresented the views of any authors I’ve cited here. Also, maybe I’ve mischaracterized the larger conversation. If I have, please feel free to chime in and let me know in the comments below.

Image: Print Room Beamish by Flickr user David Masters, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

3 thoughts on “Indie Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing: It’s Not a Moral Decision”

  1. I think you’ve gotten the gist of the larger conversation, as far as I understand it. I see this from a similar vantage point to you.

    I think a large part of the point that you haven’t gone into any detail here (because it’s tangential to your point) is that of gatekeeping. I think a lot of the moral fervor that followers kick up centers on that instead. The idea that there are visionary authors out there (which there are) with great ideas (also true), but they just can’t seem to get those ideas out there because of gatekeepers (partially true, some of the time). Conversely, there’s the idea that not everyone should be able to just vomit a book out onto amazon or lulu or wherever. It’s an argument that I’m sympathetic to, but I’m not sure where we should draw the line.

    For now, I’m happy that more than one avenue exists, and I agree with you: there’s too much invective. I think the dogma that has grown up on both sides is causing more harm than good.

    1. I think it’s pretty simple for me, at least. When I want gate-kept fiction, I know where to turn. If I want to take a chance or go word-of-mouth, I’ll grab an indie. While I personally prefer most gate-kept fiction, I don’t see why it should be the norm for everyone.

      1. Yeah, I think you’ve struck the right balance. I think it’d be interesting to see authors able to use both (this may already be a thing?).

        A NYT best-selling author could choose to self-publish some stuff that they think is a bit too weird or out-there.

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