In The Self-Publishing Kingdom, The One-Eyed Writer is King

Sue Grafton
Sue Grafton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Okay, so Sue Grafton said self-publishing was for writers too lazy to do the hard work. I’m not so sure what all the fuss is about. Sure, Grafton should have chosen her words more carefully, but, as the self-publishing fraternity dust themselves off after the latest scuffle, they might note the real sense and value in Grafton’s comments. I think it is only fair for the record to give the full questions and context Grafton gave her controversial comments:
Do you have any words of wisdom for young writers?
“Quit worrying about publication and master your craft. If you have a good story to tell and if you write it well, the Universe will come to your aid. Don’t self-publish. That’s as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work.”

In light of our Louisville neighbor John Locke’s blockbuster indie sales, and the growing percentage of each best-seller list being filled out by “indie” writers, do you still feel that advice is solid? I know it was the standard advice a few years ago, but is it still good advice?

If so, what hard work are indie success stories too lazy to complete?

Is it possible that indie publishing is more effective than querying agents & publishers, for the new writer? More and more agents and publishers seem to be treating indie books as the new slush pile.

“Good questions. Obviously, I’m not talking about the rare few writers who manage to break out. The indie success stories aren’t the rule. They’re the exception. The self-published books I’ve read are often amateurish. I’ve got one sitting on my desk right now and I’ve received hundreds of them over the years. Sorry about that, but it’s the truth. The hard work is taking the rejection, learning the lessons, and mastering the craft over a period of time. I see way too many writers who complete one novel and start looking for the fame and fortune they’re sure they’re entitled to. To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. Learning to construct a narrative and create character, learning to balance pace, description, exposition, and dialogue takes a long time. This is not a quick do-it-yourself home project. Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops…you already did.”

I think it is important to note that it was the interviewer who introduced the proximity of John Locke and his indie publishing success, combined with the indie vs traditional argument, in light of hearing Grafton’s advice to aspiring writers. [Clearly the interviewer felt the advice of ‘the Universe will come to your aid’ might not be so palatable to many writers today.] Initially, Grafton directed her words at self-published authors, but following a week of criticism from the indie author fraternity and some mature reflection, the US bestselling author conceded that her comments were ‘ill-fated’ and her perception of self-publishing was grounded in the 1970’s.
“I have five unpublished novels still packed away in cardboard boxes, assuming I could lay hands on them which I’m not sure I can. In the ’60′s and 70′s, self-publishing was done through vanity presses which were not highly thought of. Like mystery novels, self-publishing was dismissed as second rate…a non-starter if you were serious about a so-called literary career. It was in this context that I tossed out that ill-fated comment about self-publishing being as good as admitting a writer was ‘too lazy to do the hard work.’

“My remark about self-publishing was meant as a caution, which I think some of you finally understood when we exchanged notes on the subject. When I’m asked for advice I warn many writers about the charlatans lurking out there. I warn about the risk of being taken in by those who promise more than they actually deliver and do so at a writer’s expense. My other point, which I didn’t delineate in that interview, was that the struggle is what teaches us. Learning to be resilient, learning to have courage, learning to take rejection in stride…these are some of the ways the system schools us as painful as it is.” (August 15th-rebuttal)

Nevertheless, Grafton’s core point was that there is a lot to be learned by writers going through the critical and rejection hoops of the big bad world of traditional publishing. Whether writers are self or traditionally published, often the best published work comes from the writers who have spent years honing their craft and understanding the ‘mechanics’ of the publishing world. Indeed, some many of the indie successes of today like Konrath and Locke cut their teeth and built their author platforms soundly in the traditional world of publishing.
If Grafton spoke out of turn, it was that she made generalised comments on a sector of the publishing world she needs to understand a great deal more before leaping into the public arena. Alas, the same criticism could also be levelled at many writers entering self-publishing. The stinging rebukes Grafton was subjected to at least prompted her to engage with the community of writers she had offended and she learned a great deal in a very short space of time from the her last comment above.
Let’s back up a bit here before some things get lost in the fog of time and what I have observed over the past three weeks as being—at times—nothing more than self-publishing hissy-fits by some very, very precious authors. We should start with the theme of laziness, considering this was the accusation laid at the door of self-published authors by Grafton.
Firstly, this is the actual piece in the which sparked off the whole hoopla and the one I used to open this article. The online local newspaper ran an interview with Grafton written by journalist and author, Leslia Tash (the interviewer), though I’m still convinced many people across the blogsphere and other so-called reputable news outlets and online journals (as well as writing forums) who picked up the story actually bothered to fully read the original interview published on August 7th. Certainly, even less people read Leslia Tash’s follow-up piece on August 15th when Grafton asked if the journalist could allow her address the criticism aimed at her comments about self-published authors. Alison Flood, writing in the Guardian UK yesterday, at least presented a full perspective on the story by citing both LouisvilleKY pieces, more than can be said of many bloggers and—it seems—the very precious self-publishing fraternity. For me, that smacks of fighting an accusation of laziness with laziness itself.
It seems to me that Sue Grafton is no more guilty of firing out a generalised comment on an area of publishing she was ignorant of, than the same leap of ignorance many writers make when it comes to self-publishing a book—particularly their first one. Even the most ardent supporter of self-publishing will honestly accept that far too many books enter the market from writers who don’t appreciate the finer points on the craft of writing and publishing like; a good story well executed; professional editing and designed; and a physical or electronic product of quality and value for money. I hear some murmurings and cries of descent from the back…
But publishing houses are the gatekeepers of quality?
But publishing houses put out shitty books too, with typos, bad stories, crappy formatting and at higher prices—it’s not fair!

No, it isn’t. And the point is…what? That good self-publishing is easy? Have you ever heard a really good successful self-published author say that without first trying to jump through the hoops and rejections of traditional publishing? People don’t often talk much about the rejections they have had experienced in life. It’s a human instinct of survival and self-preserve, but writers are one of a few who have turned it into a craft. Have you ever heard anyone say that self-publishing is a licence for every writer not to care about what makes a great book great or that getting a book to market should always take precedence over quality, editing, marketing etc? If you have read something along those lines—you certainly didn’t read it here at The Independent Publishing Magazine. Maybe you are reading too many John Locke or Joe Konrath success stories or reading and listening to too many words from author solutions service providers. No. The core mantra of every self-published author should be:


And, not,


What irks me so much about the hoopla over Sue Grafton’s comments on self-publishing—and to be fair, others have had their say as well in denigrating what self-publishing has to offer, like the recent comments by Jodi Picoult—is the way the self-publishing fraternity sees itself in the world of publishing. In many ways, some self-published authors see themselves as exclusive from the rules of good publishing, yet, believe—almost righteously—that they have a place within the world of publishing, without question. We can’t have it both ways. I’ve always believed that if you wish to break the rules—you must adhere and understand them to begin with. You have to join the club before you can leave it, or at least abide by the rules for a time. It might seem pedantic and simplistic, but it’s why Locke and Konrath are so successful at what they do. They learned over time what was both good and bad about self and traditional publishing before making their choices. They would both like us to believe they are playing the game by their rules—renegades—with two fingers up to what is the established method of publishing tradition, when in reality, both are driven by the same commercial ethos in most publishing houses. The trick of success is making others believe you are riding the special horse in the race and build your brand on that perception. It’s a marketing game where you sell ideas and not just books.
I think what most irked the self-publishing fraternity about Grafton’s comments was not so much the suggestion that they were ‘too lazy to do the hard work’, but they were reminded that the core of a good book stems from the craft of honing your writing talents first and foremost and the hard work of publishing is just one part of the process—not the only part of it. Every writer understands the analogy of the suffering artist, Grafton included, but she dared to draw the line in the sand in a different place than some self-published authors draw it. The argument of course is that Grafton is tarring every self-published author with the same brush. She clearly acknowledged that falsehood within eight days of her original interview and pleaded her ignorance of modern self-publishing and ‘ill-fated’ comments. I would like to see the same graciousness, clarity and reality from many in the self-publishing fraternity who claim to know so much about the world of publishing, how it works/should not work, while also attempting to represent a highly varied array of self-published authors—ranging from the naïve and banal, to the gifted and entrepreneurial.
The Guardian UK piece, published on August 29th, includes some quotes from British author, Adam Croft. I’m don’t agree with all that he says, and I wonder if he was fully aware of the second rebuttal piece by Sue Grafton on August 15th when he gave this below comment to Alison Flood.
“Self-publishing means finding your own proofreader, finding your own editor, finding your own cover designer (or designing your own), doing all your own marketing and sales work, etc. Having a publisher is lazy as all you need to do is write a half-acceptable book and allow your publisher’s editor to make it sales-worthy. Self-publishers must do it all – we have no one else to pick up the slack.”

Guardian UK, August 29th

Indeed, hardly a quote from the Stephen Hawkins of publishing—having a publisher is lazy! Work that piece of mental gymnastics out if you will. I’ll give Croft the benefit of the doubt with that ‘doh’ comment having just been stung by the Grafton ‘bite’. I think this was a case of receive a ‘lazy’ insult, throw another back. I’m also not sure what a ‘half-acceptable’ book submission is—answers on a postcard, as they say. Croft is also affording a great deal of praise on editors at publishing houses. I don’t think the best editor in the world can transform a manuscript that isn’t ‘sales-worthy’. After all, this is the very criticism hurled at publishers, day in-day out—that they will only look at manuscripts with high sales potential.
There is an old adage that comes to mind about this whole hoopla over the past few weeks. It begins with throwing stones…you get back what you cast out. Traditional publishing is far from the perfect model of publishing and there is no doubt it has learned a great deal from the self-publishing fraternity over recent years, particularly in the areas of utilising social media and the brand of an author.
Indeed, we can now argue that self-publishing through adopted models and services by mainstream publishers is now very much a part of the book industry no matter how we might suggest it sits easily or uneasily within it. I don’t think Sue Grafton spends her evenings on the veranda in Louisville, Kentucky firing stones across at her indie neighbour, John Locke. I’m sure they both still get along fine.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is ahead for self-publishing and the authors who represent the new wave of modern publishing. It’s time to put down the stones—stop being so damn precious—and start to expend energy on addressing and putting right the issues and concerns it has in its back yard before trying to fix the greater challenges facing the kingdom of publishing.

“In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

Desiderius Erasmus

…or as Orna Ross, founder and director of The Alliance of Independent Authors puts it in the Guardian article…
“Certainly, self-publishers need to guard against the temptation to press the ‘publish’ button too soon. One of the core objectives of the Alliance of Independent Authors is to foster excellence in the self-publishing sector. We encourage writers to perfect their craft and hire good editors before publishing. Humility, hard work, craft skills, creative development – and their opposite – are found in both the self- and trade publishing sectors. It is impossible to pre-judge an individual writer, or work, on the basis of how they are published.”
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