The Nature of a New Medium

Jun 4, 2012 | Opinions

Something quite interesting popped up on my Twitter feed today – an article from Writer Unboxed on the recent brouhaha over some Things That Were Said by a contingent of professionals connected to the traditional publishing industry. The full summary there is quite succinct, but in short: there appears to be something of a war going on between the traditionals and the self-pubs. I’ve been following it with some interest, mostly as a bystander (my self-published book notwithstanding, I’m more of a designer and technician than anything else right now).

There have been flames and rationality on both sides, but one thing that struck me is that there are certain expectations in this conversation that don’t quite line up to reality, and at the heart of it all is the nature of the new medium of publishing.

The Traditional Dilemma

I read Sarah LaPolla’s article, and she has some good points – especially on authors who jump into self-publishing without researching it – but one quote stood out:

So, self-publishing community, for being called “self,” you’re not very autonomous. If you want to convince traditional publishing you’re its equal, stop drawing comparisons and start recognizing yourselves as your own entity.

Chuck Wendig’s article has more vitriol, of course. I feel his frustration in dealing with trolls; such is the way of the Internet. Here’s another quote:

To the self-publishing DIY indie community at large:

Call these screeching moonbats what they are: screeching moonbats. I’ve long said that the self-publishing community needs fewer cheerleaders and more police — meaning, more folks willing to say, “That fruity nutball does not represent me, my work, my ethos, my nation, my planet, my species, or my very molecular structure.” Don’t let them be the loudest voices in your community.

Nathan Bransford has some good ideas, and his experience speaks for itself. From the article about some self-published authors having a chip on their shoulder:

Your attitude reinforces the idea that self-publishing equates authors who were rejected everywhere else.

All this is interesting to me because it indicates one thing: the writers have imagined that the self-publishing industry is organized very much like the traditional industry. Therein lies the dilemma, because one is not at all like the other.

An Analogy

Consider America. It’s a large, culturally diverse region. It has its share of nutballs, even very vocal ones, but it also has its share of sensible leaders, new immigrants, experienced sages, and wealthy landowners.

Consider an article that addresses all Americans, and tells them to take responsibility and make the nutballs shut up – and, by the way, you shouldn’t call yourselves USians, because that isn’t the correct term for a citizen of the United States.

The response to this would be predictable, if nothing else. Some would respond, and say they do not speak for us. Some would ask, with justified anger, why the addresser thinks they can dictate what terms a person should use to identify themselves, especially when the term in question is in common usage and most people know what it means in context. But the most important one is this: most would either be unaware of it, or ignore it as irrelevant.

Self-publishing, as a whole, is just like that.

The Nature of the Medium

The traditional industry is based around limited things; limited space, limited shelves, limited numbers. It’s possible to conceive of a community of published authors with a certain level of commonality, in the traditional sense, because each one had to go through a process guarded by agents, publishers and bookstores, and the limits of the industry kept their numbers low. But, as I said in The Theory of Infinite Shelfspace, none of this matters in the context of the Internet.

The nature of the medium influences everything about the medium. As the Internet is infinite, for all intents and purposes, then what can you say about the self-publishing industry? I say that it’s not an industry at all, not in the conventional sense. There is no one self-publishing community, just as there is no one Internet community, just as there is no one American community.

Sarah LaPolla asks for self-publishing to develop an autonomous identity, but how? How can a hundred thousand authors with a hundred thousand aims, ideas and opinions find commonality? Would they even want to?

Chuck Wendig asks for more policing, but how can there be policing in a medium where there are no gatekeepers? If a few well regarded self-published authors speak up, what’s to stop the rest from ignoring them if they feel like it?

Nathan Bransford says that a bad attitude makes all self-publishers look like they only did it because they were rejected by the mainstream, but what does that matter to the authors who have no intention of doing anything but self-publishing? Why would they care for the opinion of the mainstream as long as they have an audience willing to buy their books?

Their expectations color their perception of what self-publishing is as a whole; as if it is a single entity, with a unified aim and methodology. I believe this particular battle will not be resolved until those expectations are altered to match reality.

In Conclusion

There will be some self-published authors who take note of all this. There will be some who refrain from calling themselves ‘indie’, as Sarah demands, and some who speak out against those with a bad attitude, as Chuck demands. But there will be just as many who will scoff at it all, write angry screeds, and continue to call themselves indie authors. There will also be just as many, if not more, who are completely oblivious to all this and will go about their business as normal.

In a way, they will all be right, because all of them will sell books if they have an audience. From this perspective, I suppose, the war itself is a moot point. But it would be appropriate for all concerned to consider the nature of self-publishing, and the nature of this infinite medium, before addressing the ‘self-publishing community’. I say this especially for those involved in the traditional industry: there is no such community, and there likely never will be. There’s barely even any consensus, as far as I can see. There are loose networks, and groups organized around certain websites, and authors working on their own, and professionals and amateurs of every stripe, producing works of every level of quality and selling them for any price you can think of.

It’s not really possible to lump them all together.