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Self-publish and Be Damned
by Paul Kopal ©2000

There are in the world as many kinds of writer as there are people capable of holding a pen or tapping at a keyboard with one or more fingers. I personally will confess to the use of only two digits in the execution of this very diatribe.

Despite the astonishing variegation of those who aspire to any sort of literary endeavour whatsoever, I believe that they can be crudely divided into two main types. The first is a person who admires words and aspires to communicate, either in response to a particular didactic urge or more broadly to ease him or herself of some kind of inner conflict. Alternatively they may have a need to tell stories but while these narratives need not be of a personal autobiographical nature, they do well up imperiously and demand to be told in the author's voice no less stridently. Perhaps with this class of writer the hearing of their own voice is the most important thing, to reassure themselves that they are in the world at all they have to generate words. In the spirit of confessional, I admit to being one of this last type. The second is a person who admires words and desires to wield them in a professional manner, it matters little upon what subject. These persons are often journalists or you will find researching 'market niches' and positioning them selves in the market by 'networking'.

Now this does leave us with two distinct sections of people. One who have, or consider themselves to have, a talent that they are offering for use and those who have already written and are offering, a commodity. Both have the same problem albeit in a different form. The first have a learned skill to apply to some subject specified by another and so have to prove themselves capable in their chosen profession. The second have a commodity to hawk as if selling fruit and vegetables at a market stall.

Standing between these hawkers of either talent or commodity are a host of obstacles in the form of other people, sometimes culled from the ranks of the second class of writer, most of whom consider themselves arbiters of taste and barometers of talent. These 'obstacles' operate on behalf of their financial masters in that they seek not to waste the funds of publishers upon inadequate endeavours. That is to say endeavours that will not generate income for the company. They operate on behalf of the reading public in that they spare the reader the terrible experience of sitting through incompetent or dreary texts. The fact that one very frequently is forced to sit through thoroughly incompetent or dreary texts would seem therefore to be something of a mystery and the woe begone cries of publishers that they are in a state of near penury also casts doubts upon the competence of these 'obstacles'.

It seems fair to say then that, taking these two observations to be fact, then the process seems to be far from foolproof. Evidently the obstacles, competent or no, are considerable blocks to self-expression on the part of anyone without the skills to navigate the piranha haunted tributaries that wind towards acceptance at a publishers. Paramount amidst these skills would need to be self-confidence, a certain lack of sensitivity around the area of rejection and an ability to persevere. This automatically means that you are never going to read a book written by an uncertain, sensitive or easily dissuaded individual. Now, a great many writers hail from one or more of the aforementioned camps and they, quite naturally, resent being displaced from the ranks of those allowed a voice by virtue of their shortcomings in these psychological arenas.

The book publisher is fed manuscripts filtered many times by various persons and processes to ensure that the sub standard never offends a reader. This system, while not specifically designed to remove persons of a certain type leaving only the hardy and strong willed with access to the public ear, does effectively do so. This naturally means that only books in a very broadly similar voice are seen and thus become eligible to enjoy the apotheosised status that proceeds from acceptance and publication. The process is not one of ensuring quality, it could hardly be so given the frequency with which it fails to function and in any case is intended to provide only a saleable product, which as we know is hardly an infallible sign of quality. What it does do is disenfranchise a vast section of creative personalities, people who by their very nature are often introspective and not hardy or confident. What choices have they who might be poor self-publicists, sensitive to rejection or uncertain of them selves in some way? There are only three paths that these wretches can follow. Write and thereafter remain ever silent about the process, admitting to only a few chosen friends that they have ever dared to venture their thoughts into words. Write and seek an agent to represent them in the shark-infested waters of the publishing world, although once again this process automatically bars many who lack the correct psychological underpinnings. And then there is one last ghastly option, one for the very mention of which I must needs lower my voice to a whisper. For it is the option that dare not speak its name, the option that shuffles nervously and looks at its feet -self publication!

As soon as this idea is mentioned those who promulgate it are damned as onanists, self flatterers and ego maniacs and an immediate assumption is made of their lack of talent before a single word of theirs is read. In fact faces are made very similar to those upon the city fathers of old Salem when an elderly and reclusive woman who kept a black cat and brewed medicinal herbs in her remote cottage walked by. Now, in the world of popular music, many a white label record has been created in a bed-sit by a person with a computer and a sampler. Many a rapper has paid a recording studio to press copies of his first CD. Plenty of rock groups pooled their resources to fund a first independent single. Yet none of these persons are reviled as egotists and bigheads merely because they self-published. None of these musicians are vilified and told that only selling their tunes to Warner Brothers can confer validation. In the world of comic books the situation in which a lone creator writes draws publishes and distributes his own comic is so common as to be a cliché. These individuals are often held up as self-sacrificing for their art form and even regarded as therefore somewhat noble. The comics' scene enjoys a great number of eccentric and wayward creators none of whom are recommended to hawk their work to Marvel comics as a corrective to their loathsome self-indulgence. Stand up comedians, with no encouragement whatsoever, arrive at 'open mike' nights and offer their wares directly to the public, and yet no one in the audience is heard to demure that the jokes are unfunny simply because the person was not paid to tell them. And yet, if the purveyor of words dares to print up a small pamphlet without the blessing of a person whose specialised and self appointed task it is to publish, then vituperation and recrimination follow them like a horde of black crows seeking meat.

Now why is this?

Why do readers have a respect for the discernment of a book publisher that is almost the antithesis of the suspicion held against Monolithic Record and Comic companies? How did the book publisher get so lucky? Readers implicitly trust these arbiters of taste and guardians against the substandard. Any who might presume to go behind their fat backs are fallen upon as a viper might upon a nest of fledglings by the very people who might most enjoy a fresh tone of voice speaking to their inner self.

Now, self publication upon the dear old Internet is the standard practise, no one submits their website to a publisher of same to gain access to the Web. Accordingly, thereupon flourishes a horde of sites some of which curdle the blood with their dreadfulness but some of which are delightful. And yet in the mind of the general public there persists an idea that this is not quite right, that something is lacking in the Cyber world. This lack is I believe in many cases the simple absence of an object. What is seen on the screen is patently a collection of lights that vanish at the click of a key, the world hovering there in that grey box seems ephemeral by its very nature and therefore without substance in both senses of the word. It is literally without substance by being composed of pixels that disappear under the circumstance before mentioned or during a power cut. They are also therefore perceived as insubstantial in resonance and meaning. And yet, does the fact that any box of matches make a paper book extremely insubstantial lessen its gravitas? Never. Does the fact that CDs may wear out or get lost dissuade customers from purchasing them? Decidedly no. Is the percentage of awful to interesting really so very much greater in a free for all than in an arbitrated medium? Who has not read a perfectly foul work, one passed by agents editors and publishers as fit for consumption, in which the English language has terrible outrages performed upon it with monotonous regularity? In which plot and character are no more than supremely malleable suggestions twisted about by an author with no more regard for the sensibilities of the reader than a plumber has for pipes? Furthermore, does anyone ever care how many fingers were employed upon the keys while their favourite author wrote? Does anyone refuse to read a book because the writer was not a very good typist and considers their attention reserved only for authors passed of by a secretarial college as having reached a good word per minute speed?

I acknowledge that the end of my piece contains many more questions than answers, but this is because, cudgel my brains as I might, I cannot even begin to theorise how it has come about that the written word alone is treated so draconian a manner.

Cut out the middle man.

If something is good enough to publish then it is good enough to self publish!

© copyright 2000 Paul Kopal
reprinted with permission, all rights reserved

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