How Indie Authors Are Like Naked Emperors

Subjective Fact #1: Most self-published books are forgettable

Subjective Fact #2: Most published books are forgettable

The following two “facts” I’ve given above point out a pragmatic reality about publishing—the great majority of all books ever published have been forgotten and the majority of books that will be published, will be forgotten; that very little is good enough to survive, and in the long run, a book needs to be astoundingly, eye-wateringly, soul-changingly good in order to survive more than a hot minute after its publication.

Most writers (all writers really) are either desperate for mainstream publication, or smugly self-satisfied once they’ve gotten it. While the substantial advances and royalties are the superficial attraction of mainstream success, I suspect that the affirmation of a major publishing company (writ large in a marketing campaign) is what truly satisfies a writer. But while this affirmation is nice, it is also a fetish—an entirely unnecessary appendage to the spiritual apparatus of the writing itself. A desire for undeniable, public, commercial affirmation can be crippling, but it also reveals a deep in-authenticity on the part of a person who might be otherwise claiming to care about their art; it reveals an appetite for the trappings of a literary world rather than a commitment to the work for its own sake. If a writer really believes in their manuscript, why wouldn’t they publish it themselves? At least if, as expected, finding an agent is difficult (which it is), or placing a book with one of the big six proves difficult (which it is)—aside from having to compromise the book itself in order to satisfy an agent or publisher (or both)—then…why not self-publish?

The answer writers give to themselves—or the answer I suspect they give—is that self-publishing comes with a stigma. More deeply—and unconsciously—literary-minded writers avoid self-publishing because it comes without the affirmation(s) of traditional publishing. Book parties, readings, and general sweater-vesty schmoozing are out; cry in the wilderness is in. This binary (that is the idea that we must choose between a small or large audience) however, is largely an illusion—the type of success and lifestyle that one imagines Jonathan Franzen as having, is unbelievably uncommon. For a poet, for example—or anyone writing any kind of difficult book without a commercial market—the monetary benefit of traditional publishing might be only marginally higher, or even lower, than self-publishing. For most writers in MFA programs—with rare exceptions—a small publisher offering a small advance, or no advance, may be their only bet aside from maybe years of ass-kissing in the major publishing world. Yet those writers, at least in my observation (I did not attend an MFA but know many who did or do) have an absolute aversion to nontraditional, or even the smaller, boutique publishers they are destined for.

The conclusion I’ve come to—admittedly a generalization, but I hope an instructive one—is that in many cases, after there is no longer a pragmatic, financial incentive to continue to hope for mainstream publishing, writers, particularly those literary writers working on their “great American” whatever, will irrationally refuse to consider alternatives. The reason for this irrationality, as I’ve suggested, is an aversion to the image surrounding self-publishing; an aversion which is utterly superficial. If a writer is really “literary”—that is focused on writing “literature” (a.k.a. something that lasts)—then they ought be concerned with putting their writing into a publicly available, finished form. There are no longer any financial barriers—with POD—to stop anyone from doing this; the only barriers are self-imposed.

To self-publish, to put one’s “great American” book into existence without affirmation from a publicly acknowledged filter, is to risk being an emperor without any clothes on—this is really what paralyzes otherwise ambitious writers from self-publishing. But being the naked emperor is an inescapable, existential risk of being any kind of artist in any kind of scenario; security is only ever a convenient fantasy. I don’t think it’s absurd to suggest that a mindset that leads people to spend years on a novel or poem or play also leads them to expect huge financial and social rewards for their work;  a more meaningful reason to write a book is because one feels an internal requirement to do so.

Ignoring self-publication is just a way to ignore one’s fear of failure—and as long as artistically serious writers shy away from it, the traditional publishing world will go unchallenged. Joyce delayed the publication of Dubliners for years because he refused to remove the world “bloody” from his text—and ultimately received slim royalties from the book when it was published. Wallace Stevens earned enough from the first edition of Harmonium to (if he was lucky) buy himself a single lunch. Harmonium is now considered by many critics to be the best first book of American poetry ever written—except for Leaves of Grass, which by the way Whitman typeset and published himself.

Publishing a book has always, always been Quixotic adventure, but classics always survive the madness. Very few writers are able to avoid struggling, but now, no writer really should struggle to get into print. If you believe in your book, publish it—that’s what I’m trying to say—writing a successful book is its own, intrinsic reward. Anyone with an internet connection, or anyone with a friend, can find a reader, and any truly great book, once it finds a single reader, is the only kind of book that can (and will) survive—and if you self-publish your book and it finds no sympathy at all, then at least you can say you had the courage to fail.

16 replies
  1. Derek Murphy
    Derek Murphy says:

    First of all, this is a beautifully written article. Secondly, I seem to agree with the main point – it doesn’t matter how you publish, as long as it’s a good book (although that’s only if indie authors take the time and spend the money to put out a quality product. Many of them don’t – which means they are making the success of their book less likely).

    But what has any of this got to do with naked emperors?

    I hope you mean authors might feel embarrassed, like they are naked without the superficial approval of a mainstream publisher. But then the point should be that we authors should all be naked, because it doesn’t matter as long as we put our book out there, which doesn’t tie in at all with the traditional moral of the story: that emperors are full of shit thinking they are wearing fancy clothes and only an honest kid can tell them they’ve been screwed over by a crafty tailor…. which makes me think of indie authors getting poached by author services; paying a lot of money for a subpar book cover or formatting for example, and going out in public shoddily dressed…. which is a reality with indie authors but something to be avoided.

    Sorry I’m ranting, I’m just trying to figure out what the point of the article was. Take risks, even if you’ll be embarrassed? Write for yourself, not for fame or financial reward?

    • Derek Murphy
      Derek Murphy says:

      It’s late, I’m tired – that comment sounds much more challenging than I meant it to be; it started out intended as a compliment to your fine writing and ran away from me.

  2. Bryn Hammond
    Bryn Hammond says:

    God I like your posts. This even more than the last. You use loaded language but I don’t mind, being not in need of conversion: I don’t have that fetish. I thumb my nose at that affirmation. You are right about the rest. This is a terrific post, and/or closest to my convictions. Only better thought out and said.

  3. Adam Alexander Haviaras
    Adam Alexander Haviaras says:

    Great piece, Matthew. You’ve nailed it. I think most of us have, or had, the daydream of trad publishing accolades for a long while. However, the more I read about traditionally-published authors waiting for months or years for their books to get out, the pittance royalties and major changes to their work, the more I realize what a great thing indie publishing is. For my historical fiction, I’ve had readers e-mail me to say that they loved my book and never knew how history could be so inspiring. I’ll take that over a schmooze-fest, air-kissing launch party any day. Cheers and thanks for your insight!

  4. A.G. Wallace
    A.G. Wallace says:

    Honestly? You’re writing an article for writers and the first two words are “Subjective Fact.” What is that? Something that you consider a fact but someone else might not? Isn’t that called an “opinion”?

    Perhaps that’s too harsh (although to be a writer is to get criticism). We humans are all too capable of twisting our “opinions” into actual “subjective facts” — for a myriad of reasons. But then I read the next sentence.

    “The following two ‘facts’ I’ve given above…”

    Following means to come after. The non-facts you are referring to cannot be both “following” and “above.” Yes, of course we all know what you mean. But the words are contradictory. Since your audience consists of writers, should you not be more careful?

    I know, I know. Internet Writer Etiquette supposedly demands that we support and affirm one another, but this is a second-draft effort at best. And if you’re going to call all writers either “desperate” or “smugly self-satisfied” then please do it with an article that doesn’t make you look like both.

    • Matthew Gasda
      Matthew Gasda says:

      I normally wouldn’t respond to something like this, but I wouldn’t want you to go on in your career as a writer, A.G. not knowing what IRONY is.

      • A.G. Wallace
        A.G. Wallace says:

        Yes, irony. But the flaws in this article — which occur from headline to conclusion — completely obscure any other intent you may have had. As pointed out by another commenter, “what has any of this got to do with naked emperors?” Why he apologized for saying it, I don’t know.

        But I guess it’s fine for today’s “indie readers,” many of whom don’t know what punctuation is, and have apparently been weaned on writing so bad that this particular essay seems good. If you or your editors think this is worthy of publication, then the naked emperor is you.

        Look, this isn’t personal. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. It’s just about the writing, and I think it’s bad. I’m just another indie writer saying what I think, and I don’t believe in the “sandwich” approach to criticism — say something good, then criticize, then say something good again. If you can’t take another look at this piece and see its flaws, then so be it.

  5. Candace Hammond
    Candace Hammond says:

    It is really hard to get past your ego and be okay with self- publishing. When I got the big agent I assumed the big book deal wouldn’t be far behind. Not the case. When my agent suggested I go with their new ebook offering I was complletly disappointed. But, eventually I did it. I’ve had moderate sales, but with out a last name like Kardashian it’s hard to break out from the sea of other ebooks.

    We are waiting to decide what to do with my latest book, but I admit to still longing for the traditional deal, even though it doesn’t necessarily make financial sense, that quest is hard to let go of.

  6. Donna Keeley
    Donna Keeley says:

    The traditional publishing model (query letter, agent, publisher, royalties) doesn’t work in today’s digital world, especially with Print On Demand and fulfillment services like THOR. There are good books out there but they get lost in all those “forgettable” books. Like YouTube, readers have to wade through a lot of coal before they find a diamond but those diamonds are in there.

    If you’re a writer, then write. If you don’t care about business then just upload to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Lulu, Smashwords, whatever. But if you want to be a self-publisher, then you need to wear the publisher hat as well as the writer hat and that involves running a business. It also involves paying for professional editing, press releases, mailing out marketing materials, and other non-fun tasks.

    I’ve invested over $3k into my business and have only sold about $500 worth of books; but my book is EXACTLY the way I want it and my cover and back page are EXACTLY the way I envisioned them. It is completely worth it if you believe in your work. Heck, I was at a panel with Dean Koontz and even he was edited to death by a story editor (they told him they were taking out 300 pages and half of his characters) which caused him to change publishers. And this from an established, well-regarded writer.

  7. David James
    David James says:

    I did like the article’s passionate advocacy of self-publishing not only as a worthwhile and legitimate activity, but as a necessity for the committed and locked-out author. In the last analysis it’s the only honest way. Other points raised, however, by later-feeders, do need thinking about. For a start the naked emperor analogy didn’t work for me. Writers, s-p or other, are not seeking to flaunt their nakedness; they are simply wearing clothes of words like mainstreamers. Secondly, although AG Wallace’s jibe ar indie writers is uncalled for, he does have a point. We can all, and we all should strive to, respect the conventions of logic and grammar. My opinion of a writer always drops a few degrees when I find him or her using ”them” and ‘.their” to refer to a singular antecedent. Grammar should never give place to political correctness. As for irony, I rather missed it altogether.

  8. Marianne Kimura
    Marianne Kimura says:

    The article is excellent. So many messages, so many writing styles or themes or approaches aren’t the “standard” ones and get rejected by publishers. Yet these books may find some readers. Maybe, not in some cases, enough to make the finances worth it for the middlemen—the agents, the maketing people at the publishing company, the art directors and their asistants, the printers and shippers, etc—-but still, the readers are there. The author is there. The product is there. The internet is there. The extraneous layers of middlemen may not, after all, be necessary in today’s digital world. Without these layers there is a satisfying directness—from author to the reader, directly. Does an indie writer need to keep his or her day job? Yes! I know it from experience. I recently self-published a novel. But I like to think of myself as a modern, digital version of a “player” or a juggler, a dancer, or a guitarist wandering from village to village in the days before theaters. A little hungry, a little tired, but energized by the direct contact with the audience, the immediacy, the closeness to the bone. For a writer is just another performer. And performance (in my opinion) always benefits from this closeness to the ground and direct contact. It’s real, it’s “live”, it’s not canned or tailored or massaged. Did you ever dream of being a spy, a dancer, or anything else? Live the dream through a book and let your audience (however small)in on it…..and who needs the middlemen?? You just might have a hit on your hands, anyway.


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