[O]ur censors are not just publishers and editors and distributors and publicists and book clubs and syndicated reviewers. They are the writers, and the readers. They are you and me. We censor ourselves. We writers fail to write seriously, because we’re afraid—for good cause—that it won’t sell.
Before the advent of ebooks, or online advertising and promotion, or Amazon, or anything resembling a smart phone or even just a personal computer, Ursula K Le Guin noticed something about the more open, more “free” Western systems of publishing literature: we censor ourselves.
The contrast in 1973 was of publishing in a Western democracy versus publishing in the Soviet Union or one of its satellite states. Particularly under Stalin, if you were deemed to have written something “wrong,” it was off to the gulag. No equivalent authoritarian repression existed in the West then, nor does it exist today.
However, Le Guin noticed that a very similar effect could be achieved (important, challenging work not gaining prominence in society) through a very different kind of oppression, the oppression of the market, a phenomenon driven by readers with low expectations. Writers who feel they need to meet those low expectations end up “self-censoring,” in other words, not writing the work that is legitimately expressive and artistic, because they have become too concerned with writing to the low demands of said market.
My argument today, after giving this much thought, is that, despite all the trials sans tribulations involved, self-publishing remains the best way to remain a truly “free” writer in 2020, in the full Le Guin sense of the word. We are already free of an actual Stalin figure in Western democracies. As much as many of us may dislike Donald Trump’s authoritarian streak, he is almost certainly not having self-published authors hauled off to gulags for writing things he doesn’t like. The Le Guin freedom is the freedom to pursue Literature (capital letter intended), of the SF variety or otherwise, without having to worry about market pressure molding our writing in one direction or another.
Achieving this freedom requires additional care on the part of the writer. It is notoriously easy to slip from “I don’t care about market pressure” into “I don’t care about any pressure.” One has to be a very careful observer of humanity in order to find the right pressures, the ones that will drive their particular voice in a healthy direction. Doing so is not nearly as simple as separating humanity into “good” and “bad” feedback givers, either. Despite the fact that I can feel a past version of myself reaching into the present to throttle me for what I’m about to type, I have to admit that even my worst, most abusive feedback givers ended up teaching me something important, even if only by negative example. The vast majority of my former toxic writing group members were a mixed bag of different pieces of good feedback mixed in with many bad ones.
In the self-publishing world, individual authors are left to figure all this out for themselves. This seems sub-optimal. The logic goes that the traditional publishing industry helps authors by allowing them to funnel their energy and attention into their writing, rather than having to worry about proofreading, typography, and, most importantly for this argument, marketing. Except that, when I observe the traditional publishing industry from the outside, what I see is one enormous marketing machine. Its label of ‘book publishing’ is quite literally only a label. The traditional publishing industry to me does not look like any kind of freedom from marketing, but rather the purest distillation of subservience to it.
What of self-publishing then? Don’t I look at Amazon ebook countdown deals, and free book days, and paid advertisements, and rankings, and bestseller lists, and deflated prices, and doesn’t all that stuff make me cringe? How do I get off saying that traditional publishing is slavery to all that stuff when it’s most visible on self-publishing’s biggest promoter?
My answer is simple. Self-publishing on Amazon means I can choose not to care about any of those things.
Traditional publishing, on the other hand, by virtue of requiring at the very least coverage of its operating costs (and usually then some), is beholden to engaging in those exact same mechanisms on top of other mechanisms outside of Amazon.
Now, it is true that the strategy I am running—self-publishing with a minimal of engagement in marketing—will lead to a dearth of reviews, a low Amazon rank, and ultimately, fewer readers. It means that I am forced to seek out readers entirely on my own, the few I will be able to make a direct connection with. Instead of caring about how many tens of book promoters I can woo, or how many hundreds of reviews I can garner, or how many thousands of followers I can get for my Amazon author page, I am instead interested in one single metric. How many readers can I find, to whom I can give a new perspective, or a novel thought, or a liberating idea, or a compelling character, and who will be willing to engage with me on that topic? It doesn’t matter if that number of people is a dozen, or five, or two, or even just one, because even if it is only one person, then I still win. It will mean my books have existed, were available to all, and that they influenced someone else in a meaningful way.
Self-publishing today is fraught with peril. It comes with a ton of hard work. It means being not just a writer dedicated to the craft, but also a proofreader, a freelance book typographer, and a marketer who is savvy enough to own marketing rather than letting marketing own them. Despite all that, it is the strategy I believe is most conducive to finding one’s true to voice and producing one’s best work. In short, it is the best path today for becoming a truly successful writer.