This is a rant, so be forewarned. Several days ago I read a Facebook posting that left me surprised and furious all at once. It came from someone I know only slightly but have always respected as a talented academic. It dealt with an ongoing discussion about a controversial new book in a field with which I have some familiarity, so I was interested in a casual way. (All of that to demonstrate that I really don’t have a dog in that particular academic fight.)
The poster shall remain anonymous, just in case s/he did not mean to be as snarky as the comment seemed to be. It started this way: “I have not read this book, but . . .” Now if I were inclined toward snark myself, I would stop reading right there. “No? Then shut up! You shouldn’t be commenting on something you admit to knowing nothing about.”
Ah, but this was a comment from someone I’ve always liked in an offhand sort of way, so I continued to read: “I have not read this book, but I am inclined to reject the argument because the book is self-published.” Then the writer went on to explain that self-publishing meant that the author knew all of the following: that the book was not worthy of “real” publication . . . that no publisher would have accepted it. . . and that the argument would not stand up to careful fact-checking. ARRRRGGGH! I had so hoped that we were past that old view that equates self-publishing with the rip-offs of a vanity press.
Do we need to make these points again? Apparently so!
· Traditional publishers put out some books that are unworthy of publication, simply because they know the author’s name or the provocative title will guarantee high sales. We could all name book series that have deteriorated over time, with the author’s carelessness or impending senility. Traditional publication does not guarantee high quality, and has never done so.
· Some fine and talented authors have good books in several venues – traditional, small press, and self-published. The types serve different purposes.
· Last year two of the top-ten best-sellers on the New York Times list were self-published.
· Self-publishing does not necessarily mean undocumented nonsense, badly-written prose, or a book full of typos, misspelled words, sentence fragments, and grammatical nightmares.
· Some (make that many) self-published authors have their work carefully edited at their own expense, use beta-readers to weed out any objectionable material, hire professional cover designers and layout experts to produce visually-appealing books, and take full responsibility for all sales and promotions. Self-publishing is hard work, not taking the “easy way out.”!
· Legitimate authors self-publish for many reasons, including a bad experience with a traditional publisher, a need to get the book out in a timely fashion, or the simple fact that they need to make enough money on the book to recoup their expenses. (One example: I have a book that is both traditionally published and self-published in different formats. From the traditionally-published volume, I earn $0.17 per sale. From the self-published paperback, I earn $3.45. I’m not going to get rich on the latter amount, but it’s a closer estimate of what my time and expertise is worth than is the $0.17 retail rip-off.)
· Like e-mail, digital images of rare manuscripts, online editions of out-of-print books, and other electronic wonders of the past ten years or so, self-publishing has become a reality without which much fine scholarship would never reach the public.
· Are there bad books among the self-published? Of course. That’s where human judgment and scholarly discernment must come into play. But to reject an argument on the simplistic grounds that it has been self-published is like rejecting all books with red covers just because they seem too showy.
Add this to my list of reasons for being happily retired from academia!