I got drawn into a…

I got drawn into a surprising little flamewar on the SLF small press co-op list the last few days. I think it's mostly damped down now, but it was heated for a bit, mostly centered on the idea of using Lulu's publishing services, and whether it was a huge waste of money, whether that counted as really self-publishing or just vanity publishing. (The latter being a seriously loaded word that I think should be used with extreme caution.) After the discussion was over, I ended up writing this, on legitimacy. It's centered on publishing, but really, I think it could apply to innovative writing projects, or almost any other field of human endeavor.

I was trying to think yesterday, to figure out why some folks seem to have such strong negative reactions to the idea of using a service like Lulu. And I came up with two possibilities:

1. They've seen writers taken advantage of, by various scam agencies and publishing groups and the like, so they're very wary of anything that may look like that. Which I can totally understand -- I spent a while in class last night, warning my students about agents who charge you to read your manuscript, and supposed 'publishers' who really are vanity presses, the kind that ask for many thousands of dollars from the author and spend none of that on designing, editing, or promoting the book. Scam artists, in other words. There are enough of them out there that I can see what some folks might be hypersensitive on the subject, and why that might lead them to think of a service like Lulu as just another scam, instead of seeing it, as I do, as a service that's useful in certain circumstances, if used wisely. I'm hopeful that the discussion we've just had has made clear why one of us might reasonably decide to use Lulu for a small project -- and also clarified why it still makes sense to recommend against using it for many larger projects, for the financial reasons we've discussed.

2. Or, they've spent enough time and energy trying to justify their own works' legitimacy to others (because it was small press instead of large, or used POD technology, or some other reason), that they have a kneejerk reaction against services that they perceive as not meeting the 'professionalism' criteria that they use to justify their own projects. That's a really understandable reaction, but I think it's one that's worth trying to overcome. I'll give you an example:

When I started Strange Horizons (more than seven years ago), pretty much *everyone* in the field told me that it wouldn't work. That I'd never be able to make the finances work, that an online magazine that paid pro rates would run out of money within a year. And also that an electronic magazine, even if it paid pro rates, would never be taken seriously as a legitimate publishing venue. I was told this by people like Kent Brewster, who ran the Speculations market listing at the time, by a variety of the pro and semi-pro magazine editors, and by a ton of writers. I thought they were wrong, and pretty much ignored their advice. I went on to prove my case -- whether or not you like what SH publishes, I think it's clear at this point that it's one of the top five magazines in the genre, winning honors and awards and publishing steadily (paying pro rates) every single week for the last seven years. And counting.

Now, when I started working on the project, I can see that it would have been tempting to try to defend our legitimacy by slamming those who weren't using the same standards we were -- putting down all the semi-pro markets, like, for example, Patrick Swenson's Talebones. We could've lumped them in with 'amateur' markets, and talked about them all in the same negative terms, in some misguided attempt to draw attention to our own payment of pro (and therefore SFWA-qualifying) rates. We could've dissed everyone with a smaller circulation than ours too. But a) that would be mean, b) that would be stupid, since a lot of those semi-pro and amateur markets are doing very nice work, and c) that would be self-defeating, because it would've just made us enemies who were even less inclined to believe that Strange Horizons was worth paying attention to. What worked for us was to just concentrate on doing the best magazine we could, in the way that made sense to us -- and at the same time, recognizing the great work others were doing in different areas of the genre.

So even though I've never run a book press before, I do have a little experience on the publishing side of things. (We even put out a few print anthologies of Best of SH compilations.) And that's what my experience tells me -- listen to experienced professionals in the field, but if, on reflection, you disagree with their assessment, trust your own judgement. Maybe you've figured out a new way to do things. Concentrate on what you're doing right. And don't feel like you have to tear down what others are doing in order to build legitimacy for yourself. It'll just exhaust your energies, and draw them away from doing good work yourself.

In the end, if you do consistently good work, the public (and your peers) will see and recognize it. You just have to have faith in the process.

6 thoughts on “I got drawn into a…”

  1. Very nicely said! I sometimes find myself making sweeping statements about other forms of publication because I feel called on to defend my own chosen method. It’s a habit I’m trying to get out of because it detracts from my original point: that there’s not just one path to success, and that if you don’t like “the game” that’s laid out before you, you can always find an alternative.

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Heh. I’ve noticed the sweeping statements, a bit, in your comments to MU. (Which I am *totally* addicted to, btw. Good job!) I think the defensiveness is natural, especially when well-meaning folks keep trying to tell you why the traditional publishing methods are best, and why they think your method isn’t workable.

    I wouldn’t worry about it too much; the more you do your work, and gain acclaim, the less people will try to tell you how you should be doing it. It’s a self-correcting problem 🙂

  3. Thank you. I always get a warm feeling when I get a typo alert from you, as you’re something of a pioneer in the field of (viable/professional) online literature.

    Sometimes when somebody is really critical of my approach I’m tempted to start rattling off all the professional authors, editors, etc. that I know are reading, but I figure that would be really defensive. (Apart from just being rude.) Instead I just smile and tell myself I must be doing something right.

    I’m starting to attract polite interest from “reputable folks”… even if it doesn’t go anywhere, I think it might be the end of my defensive phase.

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    If you decide you want a blurb from me, btw, I’d be happy to provide one (either for one of the MU books or to be used on a non-MU book). Also, if you want an e-mail intro w/recommendation to an editor at Tor Books, I’d be happy to do that. I know a few.

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