Sunday, February 6, 2011

Everyone shouldn't be published

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Why is it wrong to say that everyone shouldn’t be published? Yeah – that question is already sending some of you to your refrigerator to procure vegetable missiles. And while I might have to duck and cover, I will say that I don’t believe that everyone who writes and seeks publication should actually achieve it.

Should everyone be an accountant?

Does everyone have the ability to be a neurosurgeon or a rocket scientist?

Trust me when I say you don’t want me playing with sharp objects near your brain or doing whatever mathematical equations are necessary to launch people into space. Does that mean I suck at science or math? No. No it doesn’t. But it does mean that some people are better than me at it and I’m glad they’re the one in charge of keeping satellites in orbit.

Could I have applied myself and become a fabulous doctor or a ground breaking scientist? Yes – although all the studying in the world might not have helped me reach the fabulous or ground breaking parts. But yes – I could have spent years and years in school studying the principles and then years and years in internships and residencies and in a variety of jobs to learn the skills I needed to learn.

But I didn’t and so I will never crack open a skull (unless it is on the page) and I’ll never get high on rocket fuel fumes.

When I decided to sit down at my computer and type, I did so because I wanted to see if I could tell a story from beginning to end. And I did. Once I did that, I decided I wanted to learn better ways to write a story. I worked with other writers to learn about the craft of writing. I read lots of books in the genres I wanted to write in to see how the authors I liked best sculpted their words. And I worked hard to find my own voice….as crazy and wacky as it sometimes is. And even after years of work I knew that I might not ever be published because there are only so many books publishers will buy and mine might never be one that fits what they are looking for.

Would not being published mean I was a bad writer? No. Great writers go unpublished all the time. That’s just the way the business works. And I was okay with knowing that. In fact, just knowing that made me work harder to make my own writing stronger. I never wanted to publish the books myself (even though many do and they are very happy with that choice) because I wanted all or nothing. I wanted to get an agent, be edited by an editor and go through ever step that the authors I have loved for years went through. And if that had never happened I would have been at peace with it. I would never have thought less of myself for trying or curse the fates.

Publishing is what it is. A tough business.

And yet, for some reason saying the words “Everyone who writes shouldn’t be published” gets a lot of people pissed off and ready to do battle.

Being published takes hard work and even still you might come up short. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. The current trend to self-publish (and I’m talking full novels here not short story collections that are best sold directly to the author’s fan base by the author themselves) seems to perpetuate the thought process that all people who type on their computer should call themselves published authors. I can’t help thinking this is wrong. The new trend of writing a book and sticking it up on Amazon almost immediately after hitting "THE END" gives writers permission to skip steps in learning the craft and the business that would make them a better writer. They don’t have to go through the painstaking editing that might be required to get the book to the next level. They don’t have to worry about making sure every word is necessary. They don’t…

They just don’t.

Those steps are important. And I’m not saying that there aren’t books out there that have gone through these steps and for some reason or another didn’t get traditionally published. And I’m not saying that there aren’t reasons that one might want to self-publish a book. (Those short story collections are great reasons to venture into this arena.) But everyone who writes – traditionally published authors included – should never skip the steps that make their writing better. And if you are willing to skip those steps then you shouldn’t be published.

I’m not saying any of this to be mean or rain on anyone’s parade. In fact, I want to do just the opposite. I want every writer striving for traditional publication to keep working toward that goal. Keep writing, revising and submitting. Will you find an editor or agent if you do this? Not necessarily, but your chances are better. The more you do this, the more lottery tickets you buy in the publishing raffle. And one day, when you least expect it, your number might be called. And if not – then you will be proud of your efforts.


Sandra Ruttan said...

All a person ever has to do is watch a few episodes of American Idol in the audition round. Not everyone should be a singer, and if someone does something badly, it's better to tell them to chase another dream than to waste their time with something they aren't good at.

Not everyone can write. And of those who can string sentences together, some can't construct a story. That's an absolute reality.

If everyone could write, there'd be no value in the accomplishment of getting published, or completing a work, or an award nomination. Sales would only be popularity contests, not indicators of talent.

John McFetridge said...

Hey Sandra, nice to see you here.

The flip side of this, of course, is not everyone can read. When publishing companies are entirely run by accountants you get safe, been-done-before books and almost no risks.

American Idol is a good example. None of the music on offer is very innovative, the goal is do something that's already been done with a certain level of skill. They're not looking for innovation, they're not interested in the kind of music that is often described as "musician's music," stuff that only other musicans really like - and understand.

But that's where all the influence and innovation comes from.

I used to work for a movie producer whose signature quote was, "Show business - show, little itty bitty word. Business, great huge word." (he had a Scottish accent, that might help).

The danger in the "tough business" of publishing is that it becomes entirely business. If innovative, experimental, niche books have to published outside the mainstream then I hope they do because we need them.

(but yeah, sure, what we don't need are a million poorly-written wannabe bestsellers)

A.L. said...

Reading your article, I don't think your argument matches up with your title.

You say everyone shouldn't be published, but what you wrote was "Everyone won't be published". Your argument for why you aren't a famous physicist is because you didn't have the drive to accomplish it. The inverse is your argument for how you became published.

I like the article, and your words need to be heard. People like me, dreaming of someday getting good enough to be published, and running towards that goal, need to know that it is hard work. Need to understand that if all we're in it for is the "I'm published" credentials, that we're probably doomed to failure.

I agree, everyone shouldn't be published. More importantly though, everyone /can't/ be published. So if you want to be one of the published, you need to get in there and go for it as hard as you can.

Bryon Quertermous said...

OMG, I couldn't agree more. I think self-publishing offers a lot of options for books that maybe aren't right for mass market publishing, but for first authors, there's no short cuts.

What pisses me off though, is the vast majority of readers don't care. Many of the "indie" authors making ridiculous amounts of money, aren't very good. And not in the James Patterson, Stephanie Meyer, bad, but in can't string together a coherent sentence bad.

But for those of us in it for the long haul, you've got it right. You've got to work at it, always striving to get better, and know that, even still, you may not achieve that dream.

Brian Tripp said...

Most people who are published, self or traditional, have no business being published. It obviously doesn't mean you're a good writer, or even competent at your craft, just that you created something someone things they can package and use to make a few bucks.

How you're published or where doesn't matter much anymore. Even self published books that aren't doing very well are selling more than traditionally published midlist authors. Pretty soon these authors are going to see how much money they're losing, and they're going to put the books out themselves. If they're any good, they'll sell. If they're not, and most aren't, they'll fall where they deserve to fall.

I feel bad for all the new traditionally published authors. It must be hard to reach a goal only to realize the game has changed.

Jen - Devourer of Books said...

A-freaking-men, Joelle. It is always interesting to me the justifications people use to try to convince themselves otherwise.

John McFetridge said...

Brian Tripp is right about midlist authors, or at least he's right there are plenty of self-published authors selling a lot more books than I am with my traditional publisher.

Still, I think there are other good reasons to be with a publisher - even (maybe especially) a small one.

My hope now is that the new technology like e-books and POD will allow more small publishers to start up. Like our own Steve Weddle is doing with Needle Magazine and Needle Publishing soon bringing out a collection of Dave White's stories.

Maybe other e-zines and flash sites will start putting out e-book collections.

Maybe Sandra and Brian will launch some kind of Spinetingler publishing (hint hint...).

Addley C. Fannin said...

Amen. This idea that "everybody CAN be published, so everybody SHOULD be published" makes me want to headdesk until my skull splits open. It's not like there's not good self-publishing out there, but the ones who rush in because they've never had to fight to be good are just...ugh. So aggrivating to deal with.

Steve Weddle said...

How often do you hear:

My dream is to walk into a bookstore and see my book on the shelves.

My dream is to be a published author.

My dream is to see my name on the NYT Best Seller list.

My dream is to have a book signing with 1,000 people.

My dream is to have my book made into a movie.

My dream is to sign with a BIG NAME publisher.


I hear that all the time--much more often than I hear "My dream is to write a great book."

Lamar said...

I agree. Not everyone can be published, and not everyone should be published. I also agree with what some commenters wrote about some works being published that should not have been.

The idea that being able to self publish allows writers to forgo efforts to learn the craft is a serious message that I think needs to be repeated often. Yes, it's easy to self publish, and some good writers are going that route. However, how long will this be a viable avenue if the image of self publishing remains that it's a vanity project or that it's poorly crafted?

Of course, then there is the fact that far too many books published not just by small publishers, but by big-name houses, are not only poorly written, but are poorly edited. I recently read a popular, New York Times bestseller title from a major publisher that was littered with typos, grammatical errors and mistakes that a beginning copy editor should have caught.

However a work is published, the writer has an obligation to work hard to create the best book possible, to practice and honor the craft of writing. Editors and publishers, though, too, should also work hard to ensure a high quality of craft. I think there are just too many shortcuts taken through out the industry these days, from bottom to top.

Chris said...

Because I'm lazy, I'm basically just going to cut/paste a comment I made on a similar discussion elsewhere. . . .

I guess the question I ultimately arrive at is this: who cares if people are self publishing bad writing? Is that any worse than having all of this stuff clogging up the slush piles of legitimate publishing houses and/or agents? Personally, I find the latter to be more disturbing, as that has a direct correlation between whether something I submit may or may not be read AT ALL. I'd rather have those folks frustrated and self publishing than continuing to submit.

I suppose some people do, but it's hard for me to imagine just randomly buying something self published on Amazon. I usually only find stuff because I'm looking for it specifically, either as the result of a review, a recommendation, word of mouth, etc. Even then, a synopsis that is horribly written probably will make me stay away, assuming the prose will be equally bad.

As someone who likely WILL self publish at some point, whether it is a collection of stories or even a novel, I realize that friends and word of mouth is about the only way it will get noticed. I'm fine with that. Doesn't matter one bit to me, and I don't care if it is a "risk" to my career. There are plenty of pitfalls in being published traditionally as well. It's nice to be recognized as having written well by someone else, but that approval isn't going to make or break whether I put stuff out for people to read when that time comes. Especially a collection. With all those Kindles out there, throwing a batch of stories out on Amazon, or a serialized novel, sure seems to make more sense to me even than putting them on a blog.

I guess I just don't get what all the fuss is about. So someone who self publishes calls themselves a published author. So what? For example, is a writer published in Needle any less published than one who has a story in Mystery Scene? If so, why? If they are, then that smells suspiciously like some kind of friggin' rule that artists of all types should be setting about breaking into teeny tiny pieces.

Eric Beetner said...

Great post Joelle. You said it all quite well, all I can add is - right on.


I agree with virtually all you said, Joelle, and have never wanted to self-publish. Why? Because of the reason I write.

Like most writers, I love to read and I love that a total stranger can reach inside my mind and heart to touch places ... and make a diffrence with words on paper.

I write because I HAVE to, because I want to reach into the minds and hearts of other people and make a difference. Because I'm a participant and I believe in reciprocity.

As a writer, if I want to make a difference, the words I put on paper better be arranged in such a way that they DESERVE to be received with appreciation.

Honing my craft, working with an editor and a publisher, constantly striving to be better, winning the approval of readers and reviewers--that's my reward.

Self-publishing won't do it for me.

As an aside: I've reviewed a number of books for one of my blogs, Author Exchange Blog, and I've never discriminated between traditionally published, indie published, or self-published authors. I can state, unequivocally, that the majority of the books I haven't published reviews for (because they had "issues" or I didn't care for them) were self-published. And the packaging and publicity involved in many of them was so good I didn't realize until I was several pages into them that they were self-published.