The Preciousness of Some Writers

Ros Barber has recently published an article in The Guardian on why she would never dream of self-publishing. I recommend it as a lively, interesting article that will do just what I suspect Barber intends: it will annoy the hell out of a lot indie authors. (Indeed, some might say that it is just an extended piece of trolling, i.e. it intentionally hopes to wind-up a large proportion of its readers.) After all, she compares the idea of her choosing the self-publishing route as akin to ‘Luke Skywalker [going] to the dark side’. In her view, ‘self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write)’. Elsewhere she obliquely compares indie authors to Donald Trump. You get the gist: Ros Barber really, really does not like self-publishing and indie authors.

Now, I’m an indie author, and one who loves writing and takes it seriously, which makes me a writer in my world if not in the world of Ros Barber. And I refuse to get (too) annoyed by Barber’s piece, mainly because I don’t want to feel as strangely irritated by other people as she evidently is. But I thought I’d consider some of her claims because they are actually quite revealing of a fairly typical elitist attitude towards indie authors (and which I doubt will disappear any time soon).

Claim number one immediately reveals the gimcrack nature of Barber’s argument. Self-published authors (notwithstanding the evidence of the books they have published) are not writing for a living, she says; they are marketing for a living. She suggests that they spend 90% of their time marketing, and a mere 10% writing. There are two obvious problems with this point. The first is the let’s-make-up-some-figures-to-support-my-argument approach. Barber has decided to assume these poor, pathetic indie authors must spend, at the most, four, five or six hours per week writing, with thirty to forty hours devoted to marketing; or just over one month per year writing, and nearly eleven months on marketing. I have no problem with inventing numbers (I’ve done it occasionally to support my arguments, although not ones I’d actually publish), but I’d suggest she might have tried fabricating something less wild and implausible.

Of course, what she really means is that self-published writers have to spend more time marketing than traditionally published authors. Which is obvious. But to suppose that this means they don’t make their living from writing is like saying that most self-employed and freelance work is really nothing other than marketing. If your work involves making something, the fact that you may have to market it doesn’t mean that the essence of what you do is no longer making things. The independent furniture-maker (to use one of Barber’s examples) who has to run a website and social media accounts, and manage advertising and promotion and sales, does not suddenly stop being a craftsman because of it, even if Barber may not buy any furniture from him on the grounds that to her eyes he is a marketer rather than a furniture-maker. (I imagine she likes furniture-makers who have a separate marketing department, such as Ikea.)

Anyway, it’s good for Barber that she doesn’t have to do any marketing or promotional work for her books. I imagine she has an assistant who updates her Twitter feed and her Facebook page and her blog (for that, after all, is self-publishing which ‘no way’ would Barber ever do) and whatever other social media she is on, and that she doesn’t have to bother with book signings, readings, talks, literary events, etc. By the sounds of it, she has found a wonderful publisher who demands so little from her in promoting her own writing.

Barber’s next point is that self-published authors behave like fools because they do nothing other than talk about their advertising blurb, the number of followers they have on social media and the reviews they have received. Of course, because the only bores and fools one will ever come across are indie authors, and it is a well-known fact that no indie authors can hold a conversation about anything other than themselves and their books… I will concede that some indie authors are likely to be self-obsessed bores; but then so too are some traditionally published authors—come to think of it, quite a lot of people are fools and bores irrespective of their profession.

Undeterred by the weakness of her argument, Barber ploughs on (though, sadly, it doesn’t get any better, only more determined to rile its targets). She makes the eminently sensible point that most first attempts at a book would be (or are) rejected by traditional publishers. She then presents an odd either/or choice. So, do you try to publish it yourself? Or do you try to write a better book? It’s beyond me why she thinks the two are mutually exclusive. (Nor why she thinks it is not an option to be both self-published and traditionally published. Nor indeed why she thinks that indie authors only ever write one book, which they presumably spend the rest of their lives marketing, it never occurring to them that they might try and write another, better book.) Perhaps the explanation is that in her world the only writing that matters is traditionally published writing; presumably she thinks one should just bin anything that publishers might reject.

I get where she’s coming from. She’s understandably proud of herself that she has found a publisher; she thinks it means she can now call herself a writer in a way that anyone who is not a published author cannot; she sees herself as a member of a special club; she is precious about the notion of a ‘writer’, and doesn’t like the fact that just anyone can publish anything and call themselves a writer. She may not be earning much money from it, but at least she has the compensation of being able to call herself a ‘serious writer’. So how dare others who do not enjoy her poverty-tinged success consider themselves to be writers? I used to be a bit like this when I was an academic: I considered my occupation and the years it had taken me to get to it qualified me to talk about history in a way that really should not be allowed to non-academics. For example, I tended, rather snobbily, to dismiss popular historians as not being proper historians. And then, eventually, I flicked the chip off my shoulder and got over myself.

‘You can forget Hay festival and the Booker’, Barber tells us. Fine, although I wonder for how long—Barber may not like it, but ebooks and self-publishing are increasingly going to be taken seriously. Anyway, Barber wants to be at Hay and wants to win the Booker, and good luck to her. Evidently literary acclaim really matters to her. Me, I just want to write because I love writing and I’d like people to read what I write.

She continues to be generous with her advice: ‘Traditional publishing is the only way to go for someone who writes literary fiction.’ (Notice the emphasis, Barber’s own: a bit like the 90% figure earlier in her argument, she always exaggerates and overstates her points.) It’s a point that is manifestly true unless one allows for the exceptions of William Blake, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Anaïs Nin, James Joyce, Upton Sinclair, Thomas Paine, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Ezra Pound, a few of the many literary authors who tried self-publishing.

Barber also suggests that the only way to have any success in self-publishing is to fork out serious money on cover designers, editors and marketers, otherwise they will look like amateurs. Maybe, but not necessarily. Some indie authors are quite happy to pick up the skills; some enjoy taking control of every aspect of the publishing process; some are even good at it. Sure, there are some terrible self-published books. But there are plenty of terrible traditionally published books too.

Rather sniffily she suggests that many indie authors keep afloat financially by helping other indie authors: ‘Which is all very well if what you’ve always wanted to do is start your own writing-related business.’ I thought, how lucky Ros Barber is: she is a full-time writer, kept afloat financially by her writing alone, although her revelation that she has earned £5,000 from writing in two years suggests somewhat frugal living. Then I checked: she is a lecturer in creative writing, which sounds suspiciously like a writing-related profession to me.

Now, Barber likes to present her argument using various imaginative analogies. Here’s one of my own. I imagine an alternative Ros Barber, a musician signed to a record label. She meets another musician, unsigned but planning on doing some independent recording and releasing a few tracks on Soundcloud, YouTube, etc. Ros Barber the musician is appalled, affronted perhaps that just anybody who likes to make music can actually record and release that music, and so proceeds to list various reasons why this does not really count as making music at all. In Barber’s world, I suspect, there would be no such things as indie bands, punk and garage are a horror that would never have happened, urban DJs and hip hop artists are just fantastical fools, fanzines and underground journals would be no more than a nightmarish vision of people with a creative urge trying to do things for themselves.

Alternatively, writers, whether self-published or traditionally published or, indeed, both (for that is possible), could stop the ‘my dad is better than your dad’ style of argument and just get on with the business and craft of writing. There’s room for everyone; there’s scope for choices; there is no single way that is better than any other way. There are good writers and bad writers, and some of the former are self-published and some of the latter are traditionally published. Getting precious and elitist about one form of publishing over another is closed-minded, boringly snobbish and a waste of energy. We should be encouraging those who want to write, not discouraging them.

Ultimately, a writer wants to be read, whether she is writing literary fiction or genre fiction. If Barber would rather leave her unpublished work unread in a desk drawer, that’s her choice; if she’s so concerned with literary acclaim that she will not risk publishing anything that her publisher doesn’t like, that too is her choice. Personally, if I believe in my writing I’m happy to take the risk of publishing any way that I can. And, whether Barber and others like it or not, in doing so I’ll be calling myself a writer.