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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Garrison Keillor: Technophobe

Garrison Keillor showed his true colors in his column in the Baltimore Sun. By falling into that ever-so-cliched and offensive trap of the big-name writer, he not only lost a fan in me, he also revealed even more about the problems with the industry. What did he do?

He bagged on about all of the evils and horrors of the rise of self-publishing. No, I am not kidding. He claims that when everyone can publish their own work, no one will ever read it, it will all be poor quality, the publishing industry is going down in flames and oh my god people can publish their own books!

He has perfectly illustrated the mindset that so irritated us youngsters when our grandparents chided us for wanting cars to go to school. "Back in the day," he says, "we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshiped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats." As though writers who go the self-publishing route have no love of language, no obsession with the telling of stories, no desire to succeed at all costs -and self-publishing, my friends, is costly.

He writes that 'back in his day,' authors had to work for their publishing deals -practically write in their own blood and sacrifice their children at the altar of the great god Literature. "Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries," he tells us. Nobody likes a martyr anyway, so I'm failing to see how that's a bad thing.

Additionally, the very fact that big names in the traditional industry whine about self-publishers as though we are out to get them and destroy literature is a huge contributor to the failure of that very industry. Instead of working with self-publishers and self-publishing outlets to help improve the quality of writing and the access of writers to editors (who Keillor clearly assumes are an endangered species), the publishing industry runs around flapping its hands and refusing to adjust to the new model of the writing world. Technology marches on, you guys. Get on board and make it work for you, or become obsolete. People once thought the pen would be the downfall of academia. While academia certainly has its issues, none of them are pen-related. Stop hand-flapping and learn about the technology before you bash it.

But let's get on to to the meat of my complaint:

Not all self-published authors are the same.

By tarring all self-pubs with the same brush (namely that self-pubs are ignorant of the market and the conventions of writing, lacking the sense of martyrdom Keillor says is required for a proper author, and clearly holding the idea that not having to go through the exact same process he did means that whatever a self-pubber produces is obviously going to be garbage), Keillor discredits thousands of authors -like my friend Renda, to name just one -who have worked their way into the market, fighting tooth and nail every step of the way.

Yes, there certainly are people out there who will write a book, slap it up on an ebook site with no editing, no design knowledge or marketing tools and sell very few copies, mostly to blood relatives. Maybe that's what some people want -to share a book, perhaps a family story, with, you know, family. Other authors will simply lack the knowledge to market and design a book, and they will fail. But that is not the entirety of the self-publishing market, although Keillor would desperately like you to believe that it is.

There certainly are quality control issues with self-publishing. It is entirely possible to miss something in the editing process. I have done it myself, much to my everlasting embarrassment. It's a steep, steep learning curve, this self-publishing thing. It's a lot harder than traditional publishing, because the individual is writer, agent, editor, marketer, designer, type-setter and publisher all in one -and it all comes out of the author's own pocket. With traditional publishing, you polish and polish and hire an agent and work with that person to navigate a deal, and then maybe do some of the marketing to help earn back the advance that self-publishing writers sure aren't going to get.

This technophobic attitude is infuriating, because it is narrow-minded and ignorant of what it actually means to self-publish. Writers who are serious about the process often hire an agency -like DuoLit, who also did a blog post about the hatred directed at self-publishing writers -to help them during the process. And it's expensive. Upwards of $2,000 for a single book. That's not something that a hobbyist is going to go for. To get the services you need to make a good, professional, well-edited book, you have to be serious about it.

And the people who aren't -the people Garrison Keillor assumes make up the entirety of the self-publishing world -won't get read. If they don't learn the skills they need, or pay someone to provide them with those skills or knowledge, then their book will sit in obscurity on a digital shelf, unsold. Rather like books produced by, oh, say, the traditional publishing industry that don't sell well because they're terrible (it happens, although Keillor would like us all to believe that every traditionally published book is a triumph of literary and philosophical prowess).

To be a self-published author -a good one -takes time, it takes skill, energy and dedication; this is something most authors who succeed at self-publishing have in spades. They simply chose to go a different route. And different, according to Keillor, is bad. Very bad indeed.

Keillor protests that he is not an elitist at a couple of points throughout the column. And yet, his attitude is unmistakable: Oh say it isn't so -the philistines can publish books now. Wherever are my smelling salts and fainting couch? Verily, it is the downfall of all things literary. Nothing good can come of this. We are your readers and your paycheck, Keillor, we of the self-publishing market, and we are not pleased to be so disparaged.

We are simply choosing to earn our literary keep in a way that allows us to ride the wave of technology. If you fear that, fine. Cling to the old, dying model and shake your fist at us dang kids as we ride by in our shiny new ebooks, continuing to tell stories and spread them to those who need and want them, just as real writers have always done.


  1. It's often dangerous, and always unwise, to generalize. Of course not everything self-published is literary genius, but the same can be said of traditional published works. I don't really see how it could be hurting the publishing industry. People are still going to want their Stephen King's (just an example).

  2. Exactly. False generalizations are a major issue when someone is writing off all self-published works instead of examining the merits and shortcomings of the process as a whole. That kind of panicking and fear-mongering from well-known writers hurts everyone. There's room for all types of publishing -the market is just evolving along with the technology.

  3. Eliteism sucks.
    His point is meaningless anyway, there is so much tripe published by the traditional industry.
    Just because the authors prostituted themselves to get a deal doesn't make a book more readable.

  4. It always boggles me that people can unreservedly praise the traditional industry. It produced Twilight -give me a break. Sure, it made more money than I can even imagine, but that doesn't mean it's good. There will always be bad books, and there will always be amazing books. How we produce them just changes with the times.

  5. That's what it comes down to, isn't it? Money.