Dear Shannon Hale,
I hate having to write this to you. I doubt you would remember, but more than 5 years ago when I was a young, fresh-out-of-college aspiring writer, I wrote to you. And you wrote back with lovely, encouraging words. Since then, you’ve always been one of the authors whom I most like and admire. I’ve read and loved your books, and found sentences so beautiful they made me feel hollow inside. I’ve read every single one of your blog posts for the past 7 years. And I’ve always (though we’ve never met) somehow thought of you as a kind of ally. A fellow mama of very young children, down here in the crazy trenches of trying to mother little ones while maintaining a writing career. But I just can’t keep silent in the face of your recent blog post The self-publishing paradox; or, why I love my editor, in which you state your view that traditionally published authors are ‘professional’ while independently published authors are ‘amateurs’.
I personally am lucky enough to have landed (without previous self-pubbing experience) the big, fancy, six-figure traditional NY publishing deal. I’ve also, concurrently with my 3 traditionally published books coming out, independently published 5 more novels. And it’s from this perspective that I say: I really do not think this kind of divisive, line-drawing thinking or blog posting is productive or beneficial for anyone.
Yes, I suppose you could label the author who self-publishes the first draft of their first novel with a homemade cover slapped onto it an ‘amateur’. But why? Why bother? The poor guy/girl’s sales rank and reviews are going to make him/her feel crappy enough without the rest of us piling it on. And the independent authors who hire their own professional editors, copy editors, and book designers? Whose books hit the bestseller lists and earn them an extremely comfortable living? They are not nearly as ‘rare’ as you in your post imply–just among my own limited circle I know dozens. Widen that to the indie authors whose names I’ve heard of and there are hundreds–and probably thousands more whose names I don’t (yet) know. You would smack an ‘amateur’ label on them? Really? And to what purpose? “Neener neener, you still can’t be part of our ‘real authors’ club”? Dr. Seuss wrote a book called ‘The Sneetches’ about that brand of thinking. And frankly it is as childish and petty and just plain silly as Dr. Seuss made it sound.
I could also point out that by your line of thinking, certain reality TV stars whose names rhyme with ‘Cookie’ and . . . okay, actually I can’t think of anything that rhymes with ‘Kardashian’ . . . but anyway, by your definition, they are ‘professional’ authors because they ‘wrote’ (pardon my skepticism) novels and were or will be published by NY houses?
There is also–to descend briefly from ideals to the level of crass economics–the question of money. I can very, very gratefully say that my traditional publishing contract paid extremely well. My independently published books are on track to easily earn me far more. Independent publishing is, for the majority of authors, far more likely to allow them to BE professional authors than traditional publishing is. If, that is, one defines ‘professional’ (as my dictionary does) as ‘engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation’.
But the real question I want to raise is this: why make this an ‘us vs them’, ‘traditional vs. indie’, ‘professional vs. amateur’ adversarial issue? If you absolutely must draw lines, let’s at least draw one in the right place, the place where it makes a certain amount of sense: between good books and bad ones. The next definition of ‘professional’ in my dictionary refers to quality of work. Not to the route by which something was produced or the people you worked with to produce it. Good books are good books, whichever route an author takes to get their story before readers’ eyes. And professionally polished ones are professionally polished ones, whether indie or traditionally published.
I can’t of course guarantee that an author who pours her heart and soul into a book, edits and revises and then hires editors, copy editors, etc., will automatically turn out a great book. That’s the often heartbreaking and hard-to-accept fact of this business of being an author: we are judged on the quality of our work. Period. There are no grade-points for effort. Hard work is vital, but you don’t get a publishing contract or extra stars on Amazon reviews just because you worked hard. But since that’s the way it is, let’s embrace it and embrace a system in which books are judged on their quality. Not on whether they were produced by a New York publishing house.
I can absolutely understand your saying that you love your editor. I absolutely loved working with mine, too. She was gentle and wise and improved my craft in ways that I am grateful for every single day. But the landscape of publishing is changing. There’s no question about it: it is changing and those changes are here to stay. But if publishers continue to provide a vital service (as you say) they are in no danger; they will continue to exist. Like all of us in this new publishing world, they will need to change and adapt. But if they do, then they will survive and even thrive.
In closing, I’d like to (please bear with me for a moment here) direct your attention to the photo at the top of this post. I’m a contributor to Dolly Donations, which organizes doll drives to send handmade dolls to children all around the world–giving victims of natural disasters, orphans, and other children in need, a doll friend to provide desperately needed comfort during stressful times. (Those pictured here are the ones I’ve just sewn up to send to these sweet children in Rwanda). It’s my daily reminder–along with my faith and my family, of course–to grab some perspective and check both my ego and my own troubles at the door. I’m certain you have something similar in your own life.
This may seem like a digression, but my point is that the world quite simply has too many bigger, more important problems for us to expend our energy on than name-calling and drawing of lines where none should exist. Sylvester McMonkey McBean provided a pretty good illustration of the amount of time, emotion, and money that is wasted by that sort of thinking. As lovers of books, reading, writing, and the sheer magic of stories, we should unite, not divide. Whether or not we have stars upon ours.