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Bewildering Stories

John Hawfield writes about...


So I’ve seen the trend, more and more “writers” are becoming disgruntled with trying to break into the market via the normal “pay-your-dues” methods (that whole practice, submit everywhere, wallpaper your house with all the rejection notices, realize what you wrote may not have been up to certain standards (i.e. it sucks but you just can’t see that — or refuse to see that due to all the time you’ve put into the sucker), actually try studying the art of writing this time, be more critical of yourself, learn from your mistakes, maybe get an agent — that sorta thing). Instead they opt out for the latest offering of snake oil — self-publishing. It’s almost the new pyramid scheme (Am-Way for the literary), with tantalizing thoughts of the pot-o’-gold at the end of a giant print-on-demand rainbow.

But my problem (a view that will probably net me a few new enemies as well as the title of King Weenie for a day) is that self-publishing is nothing more than a polite way of saying Vanity Press. When one self-publishes there is no editorial control — no quality control. Anyone and everyone can write something (no matter how absurd or poorly written it is), turn it into a book, and presto they are now the next Faulkner.

There was a time when I was open to the idea of self-publishing. I could see it as a way for the under-appreciated, or the more obscure to enter into print and become available. It would be a tool for the creative to find a voice against the deafening roar of commercialized fiction, a tool that would allow writers in the tiniest limits of existence an audience. My enthusiasm has slowly diminished, though, with the number of people I’ve run into over the past few years that wrote their first book (and usually their first attempt at writing anything) and self-published because they were tired of getting rejections. The writing of each one has not been, well, stellar. And recently I was given (quite by accident) a copy of a self-published book that can only be described an infantile — it was so bad I wanted to find the nearest parade of lemmings and join in on the trek over yonder cliff (Capote himself would have committed murder after reading this tripe).

My point is that unless you are doing a cookbook, or are Edgar Allan Poe, self-publishing may be actually adding to the illiteracy rate in the world. Before “damning the man” and going off into do-it-yourself land, consider writing some short stories and trying to publish them. Practice never hurts. Also, take some classes or join a writer’s peer group that will actually criticize the bejesus out of your work, and remind you that grammar and punctuation are important (you’re not being original or creative by deleting commas and periods — Cormac McCarthy did it much better). And, well I don’t know, maybe learning how to write might be a great first step toward publishing.

I’ve been writing for twenty some years (publishing what I feel was worth it here and there) and I see each day as another day I’m learning how to write. In my own view, I have a long way to go still. I just wish more people shared that view in themselves.



A fine letter, and we agree, sort of.

Most of your points are valid, but there are times when “self publishing” works. But in re those who won’t get editing and whose “dribblings” are “gold,” hey, you are right on.


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Hi, John... As usual, Jerry and I agree.

I understand focusing on the lack of quality control in self-publishing. True, there may well be gems in the vanity press; nothing necessarily precludes that. However, you have to mine tons of useless ore to find them. I think everybody understands that problem.

There’s something bigger at stake: who will ensure quality control? The question goes back to the invention of printing itself, when the selection practiced by copyists in medieval monasteries was replaced by printers engaging in the equivalent of today’s self-publishing.

The problem of quality was nowhere near as critical then as it is now; printers published books they knew were important and that people would buy. Nowadays, publishing has become so cheap and easy that the problem has been completely redefined: it’s not how writers can get their works published but how readers can find what’s good in a reasonable amount of time.

Must readers rely on a handful of print magazines and book publishers to make the choices for them? Or can a new “mandarinate” arise, one that includes more or less trustworthy selectors, such as Bewildering Stories’ Quarterly Reviews? Say what? We’re latter-day Mandarins? No, that’s overstating the case, but we do make selections from beginning to end for the purpose of giving people a glimpse of what’s going on outside the print magazines these days.

The old Latin saying “Who shall watch the watchmen?” has been turned upside down: “Where can we find good watchmen?”


Copyright © 2006 by John Hawfield
and Bewildering Stories

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