Your Writing Sucks: Elitism in Small-Press Publishing

This post has no breasts, no bulges, no deaths. What the hell am I doing here?

Like most people I keep in touch with, I grew up on a steady diet of Joe Bob Briggs. That’s probably why I romanticize the plight of B film producers like Troma. It fits in with my relatively Marxist view of the world as well. B films represent the have-nots of the film industry. By that I mean they didn’t always have the resources to make their visions a reality. What they did have, in some instances, was talent and savvy. They used that to up the ante so they could compete with the bigger film companies. And they weren’t afraid to take a few pot shots while they were at it.

After countless decades, not much has changed. I love that Lloyd Kauffman isn’t only out there making and distributing B films. He also supports others who want to do the same. I have watched him appear in countless YouTube shorts made by people just starting out in the B film industry. He’s written books on the art of filmmaking, most notably Make Your Own Damn Movie: Secrets of a Renegade Director. And why not? It’s not going to hurt him any if you make your own film. It most likely won’t hurt the B-film industry either. At worst, it’ll be another drop in the bucket that’s forgotten. At best, it’ll be a hit.

Apparently all that shit’s out the window in small-press publishing today* Every week I see more “you suck/you’re doing it wrong” articles referring to self-published authors than scathing reviews of 50 Shades of Grey. The source of this material is even more shocking than the frequency. It’s coming from my small-press counterparts, the underdogs fighting the good fight against the “big six.”

Every time I see an article or blog post of that rips on shitty self-published books, I can’t help but think about the ever-awesome Maddox, who bashes art drawn by children. It’s humorous because we all know kids aren’t the greatest artists in the world, but we never have the heart to say anything about it. Maddox parodies legitimate criticism because his cruel commentary isn’t constructive in the least, and it is humorous that Maddox pokes fun of people who dive so low to bolster their egos.

I can’t help but feel like posts bashing shitty self-published endeavors are the same, void of the parody and humor of course. These articles tearing down self-published books cover every facet of the publication process, from cover art to bios. I’d like to share a few of my favorite messages directed towards the worst of today’s self-published authors:

1. Your Book Covers Suck

K. Allen Wood has a good point. The cover art featured in this post is pretty rough around the edges. The point resonates with many authors today: if you suck at making cover art, don’t do it.

2. Self Publishing Sucks, and Here’s One Shitty Author to Prove it

I enjoyed this post. It really captures the essence of shock and disbelief when we discover that there are authors out there who literally shit books out and then bubble with pride as they discuss the self-designed covers featuring grammatical errors and horrible fonts.

3. Self Publishing Sucks, Here’s 10 Reasons (that hearken back to the stone-age of print publishing) Why

Self-publishing sucks because bookstores won’t stock them? Hold on Fred Flintstone, Amazon will happily whore shitty books free of charge. And what are these “book stores” you speak of. Finally: “readers care.” That’s nice, but the truly shitty self-published authors don’t. We’ll get to that below

4. Your Self-Published Book Just Plain Sucks

See general comments below.

5. Oh, and Your Bio Probably Sucks

This is reasonably constructive, but the tone borders on non-conducive for the alleged audience.

General Assessment:

One look at most of these articles–not just the ones included here, but the ones that crop up on a weekly basis–and the purpose becomes apparent: these articles aren’t meant to teach ignorant self-published authors how to improve their craft. These articles are preaching to the choir. This is the underdog beating down the uber-underdog. But I can’t understand why. At worst, shitty self-published authors should be met with apathy. At best . . . no, they should just be met with apathy.

I’m not debating the legitimacy of self-publishing here. It can be good and bad, as we all know. But if you’re not a self-published author lamenting the state of self-publishing, or even if you are a self-published author who has a good cover artist, a good editor, a concise bio and a great back-cover pitch–and you invariably admit that all of these factors can make or break your book–who gives a shit about self-published authors with delusions of grandeur and terrible grammar?

To a degree, I think our feigned, or perhaps misguided, concern for these authors rest with a few key misassumptions:

1. Self-published authors want to publish for the same reason: to get published simply so they can say they were published. Doing so is offensive because it reduces the general clout associated with being professionally published. So somehow these authors are dragging the validity of publishing through the mud.

Truth: For discerning readers and legitimate authors, the validity of publishing is in the content. We’ve all read “A-list” and small press books that are shit. These authors are just as guilty for dragging publishing through the mud as the shitty self-published gang, except the A list authors are highly visible and the self-published authors fade into obscurity. Who cares if self-published authors brag about their self-published books? The people who matter, discerning readers and writers, know the difference between a good published book and a shitty one.

2. All authors actually give a shit about (or should give a shit about) their audience, so their shitty work is a failure:

Truth: For some, especially those who only want to be published so they can say they have been published, the contents of the book don’t mean anything. Much like the English undergrads who collect hundreds of books they will never be able to read simply to adorn a shelf with signifiers of knowledge, some authors see their book as a signification of their success. Not audience reception, not the contents of the book, not meaning, not story. Just the book itself. That’s the only validation those authors wanted. It’s pointless to try to appeal to them.

On a scale of blue to red, how much do the worst self-published authors care about your biting criticism?

3. Readers aren’t discerning enough to sort out the good from the shit, and therefore the shitty authors are taking sales from good, small-press authors because the unsuspecting readers are picking up the shitty self-published books. Or, maybe readers are discerning enough but they’d rather buy something cheap, so the “good” authors have to reduce prices to compete with shitty authors who publish at the lowest rate possible.

Truth: To a degree, the latter portion of this assumption is a reasonable concern. But people will pay more for quality work if you let them take a chance on you at a lower price, which is what most small press authors I know are doing. This is wonderfully proactive, and I hold all authors who give their digital work away for free from time to time in high regards.

Where do we go from Here?

I’m not a huge advocate of self-publishing if one is trying to become a best seller, or even a moderately successful author. But if you’re just looking to throw a few copies in a local store, donate a copy or two to your local library’s “local authors” section, have a few copies bound for family, and put the book online in hopes that a few folks will buy a copy, then go for it. If your cover is shitty and the book is riddled with errors, then I may not be able to get through it, but you’re not writing the book for me so it doesn’t matter.

Part of the problem is that a lot of critics of self-publishing are still trapped in this print culture understanding of author/audience relationships. But it’s not the same as it was twenty years ago, and it will never be the same. People can cast their writing out into the world, much like a message in a bottle. It doesn’t matter who the audience is, and an audience may never be reached, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write the letter and give it our best effort in lobbing it out there, even if our best effort isn’t as good as the next person’s, even if our bottle is just an old Styrofoam cup and there’s a miserable curmudgeon on the next rock screaming “you’re doing it wrong!”

Closing Points:

1. We’re not going to stop self-published authors, no matter how shitty they are, no matter how much we piss and moan.

2. Readers can’t even stop shitty self-published writers. The worst of self-published writers are more interested in product prestige than reception.

3. It’s obvious from the tone that most take in their condescending posts and articles that few are interested in appealing to these people anyway.

4. If you frequent sites that bash self-published authors to validate your own career as a writer, I’m sorry. I really am.


* – It’s a bit shortsighted to draw parallels between the B-film industry and self-publishing without articulating a few nuances. Amazon is the key variable that complicates the parallel. In B-film, money is still a key factor in production and distribution. Without that, filmmakers are left with few resources and YouTube as a means of distribution. But Amazon has leveled the playing field for all authors in terms of distribution.

7 thoughts on “Your Writing Sucks: Elitism in Small-Press Publishing

  1. R. Scott McCoy says:

    There you go, using logic and stuff. My stance on self publishing hasn’t changed since I formed it seven years ago. It isn’t for me, but I’m not a champion against it either. This is a well written and cogent article, good job.

    • Thanks.

      The more I think about it, I start to wonder if some of the cynical writing relating to self-publishing is symptomatic of an overarching tone in blogging and online writing. I can’t think of the author, but I know I read a somewhat dated journal article a while back about how blogging wasn’t as “formal” as academic writing and how it was interfering with the professional identity of scholars. It cited the sarcastic tone as one of the “non-formal” elements.

      I disagree with the sentiment of that article. I think it is unfortunate that scholars and professionals are expected to adhere to a single, homogenized professional identity. But I do wonder if their observations about certain forms of online writing are true, particularly the convention of sarcasm/cynicism. I haven’t read enough to note the pattern myself. If it is a fair estimation, I wonder if that convention is overriding purpose in helping authors determine tone.

    • As for self publishing, I’m not sure what to think. I’m definitely not against people using it as a means of publishing. I’m just not sure if I would try it or how I would try it. I have a few friends who self-published a book under a pen name while they continue to publish with small presses. I know others who self publish quite frequently in between the small press publications of their books.

      • R. Scott McCoy says:

        I have friends that do it as well and it is a personal choice. I choose not to, but who knows ten years from now. If I ever did, I would hire an editor since I don’t beleive there is a writer alive that should publish anything without review by a third party.

        One thing I can’t stand are writers that hide the fact that they are self publishing by creating a fake small press. If people are going ot do it, just be honest about it.

        As for Blogs hurting scholars, I need to think more about that. Blogs aren’t acedemic or professional journals, they’re Blogs. A well written Blog, even if it is sarcastic (I am guilty of endulging this with my rants), can add to the discussion of a topic in a positive way if new perspective is added. Debate, as long as it is respectful, is always a good thing. We lack any form of real debate in our politics, but I would hope that writers could be more civil than politicians.

    • R. Scott McCoy: I get irritated with the self-pubbed authors who create a fake small press when they’re not honest about it. I have met some folks who self-publish and use a small-press name to signify a small group of authors who work together to edit their works. I don’t have a problem with that, and have considered being part of such a group.

      However, there have been many instances where I get material accepted by a publisher, only to find out it is another create space publication. I’m not sure why this rubs me the wrong way, but it does. I feel like I could have just published the work on my own.

      I agree with you about blogging. I think the article I read (I’ll try to dig it out to reference it) was symptomatic of a larger problem, the fact that academia tries to academize (for lack of a better term) everything it comes across, like when academia tries to academize pop culture so it can appear “hip” while simultaneously remaining scholarly. I’m pretty sarcastic in my blogs as well, particularly my earlier works where I rip on sources of nostalgia that I actually love. I realize now that the scathing reviews were actually a perceived stylistic convention that I noted in other online works. I’ve tried to tone down, but it surfaces quite often still.

      I know eventually this thread may run out of steam, but I hope we can sustain it a bit longer. I’m enjoying our discussion so far.

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