Why John Green Can Bite My Surname by Lev Butts

In the book section of June 6's Guardian, there is an article in which bestselling author John Green, speaking to the Association of American Booksellers, explains in no uncertain terms why he has no desire to self publish. I am not offended by his not wanting to self publish; he managed to find a good agent and a good publisher and is riding that train as far and as fast as he can, and good on him! I have no problem with traditional publishing and wish him and any other traditionally published writer all the success in the world. Who knows? If God/fate/ka wills, maybe one day, I'll even have the opportunity to publish traditionally.

Honestly, I cannot completely argue with his reasons for preferring traditional publishing, i.e. the input one receives from an agent and publishing house editors that help make a possibly "self-indulgent" novel far more readable and universal in appeal. I will say, however, that agents and professional editors do not have a monopoly on good revision advice. Anyone who reads extensively, has a good ear for quality literature, and is willing to devote the time it takes to read a book and offer constructive criticism on it can do so just as well (in some cases better) than agents and editors. 

Also, it's hard to dislike a guy who defends your other profession so well.

No, what upsets me most about Mr. Green's comments is the pompously offhand manner in which he dismisses self-publishing as a concept. In the article, he clearly implies that self-publishing consists of "widget-selling" and "profit-maximisation" (sic). Really, John Green? Seriously? Are you actually suggesting that independent publishing is too commercial? 

I don't even know what a widget is, so here's a picture of a cute puppy instead.

What really burns me up, though is his fear that self-publishing "threatens the overall quality and breadth of American literature." This is probably the most common insult hurled at independent authors: that we are somehow diluting literature by circumventing the divinely appointed gate-keeping functions of Random House and Simon and Schuster. Brad Thor, author of several techno-thrillers (that I will not list because screw that guy) claims that the role of traditional publishing is to "separate the wheat from the chaff" he continues: "If you’re a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract."

I won't even show a picture of Thor's books, but here's a copy of our anthology. It's a better read anyway. You can find it at discriminating Amazon.coms everywhere.

Well that certainly worked out for John Kennedy Toole, didn't it? For those of you who don't know this name, here's a recap. In 1964, Toole wrote what is often considered one of the "seminal" works in 20th century American literature.
Seminal: "highly original and inlfuential [...] central to the development and understanding of a subject" (abridged from the OED)
Anyway, so Toole writes this SEMINAL book, A Confederacy of Dunces. It was so good, it won a Pulitzer in 1981. Now maybe you think its odd that a book would win a Pulitzer 1981 if it was written 17 years earlier, and this is a good point. The fact is, though, it didn't get published until 1980. See, publishers kept rejecting it. Over and over. This Pulitzer prize winning novel was considered unpublishable in part because "it isn't really about anything." (Obviously, this was before Seinfeld  made stories about nothing marketable).

Well, you may be saying, Toole eventually got his book published, and it won an award: YAY! Well, not so much. Toole killed himself in 1969 (while it may have had nothing to do with his book being rejected over and over, I'm sure it didn't help). His mom found the manuscript, and several publishers turned her down, too. Then she hounded Walker Percy, an influential Southern novelist who happened to be teaching at a local college at the time, until he read it and convinced LSU Press that it was good enough to publish, and it won the Pulitzer the next year.

So much for separating wheat from chaff, Mr. Thor. At least in enough time for the farmer to reap the benefits.

Brad Thor, however, is at least partly genteel in his disparagement of independent writers. Sue Grafton, on the other hand, seems positively offended that independent publishing exists as a concept:
"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. … 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."

At least she was self-aware.
Well, I am absolutely abject, Ms. Grafton. Please accept my most humble apologies. I had no idea that my unmitigated audacity in publishing my little collection of short stories somehow disrespected your alphabet mysteries. Also, how foolish of me to think that all the time I have spent learning what kind of trees grew in Texas in the late 1800's, what superstitions revolve around poker hands, and what kind of firearms were available in the late 1800's in order to write my King Arthur Western was actually research, reading, and study.

Volume 1 of which is galloping your way this September.

The assumption, here, by writers such as Green and Grafton, is that good writers get picked up by publishers and bad ones self-publish. (Yes, thank the good lord and all that is holy that traditional publishing saved us from Twilight and Glenn Beck's novel).

In her defense, Grafton, at least, later recanted her statements.

If John Kennedy Toole is one example of how traditional publishing is flawed, let me introduce you to Richard Monaco, who shows how well independent publishing can work. In 1977, Monaco published his first novel, Parsival or a Knight's Tale with MacMillan. It became a bestseller, was a main selection of Quality Paperback Books, and was nominated for that year's Pulitzer Prize. It's sequel, The Final Quest, was also a Pulitzer Prize nominee and, oddly enough, lost to Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Throughout the 80's and 90's Monaco was a consistent bestselling author until, through a series of circumstances beyond his or anyone's control, he wasn't. Last year, when he decided to finally publish two new novels, he couldn't find a publisher for them. This two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee could not get a publisher to look at either of his two manuscripts, so he decided to publish them independently, and both have been generally well-received, and Monaco is now gaining a new generation of fans.

The point I'm trying to make here is not new. When I first set out to write this post, I came across it in a couple of places during my research, but David Vinjamuri of Forbes draws exactly the comparison I set out to make. You don't hear big-label musicians trashing indie bands. On the rare occasion you do, it is because of a dislike of the band's music, not because they had the audacity to not get picked up by a label. Everyone loves independent films (anyone heard of Kevin Smith?), but God knows there's enough crappy indie films to fill most of Calcutta. However, A-list actors and directors consistently work independently in addition to working with major studios (Samuel L. Jackson does about as much work for independent films as he does for studio blockbusters, for instance). This brings me to the great irony of this whole diatribe: It is sparked by statements given to a group of independent booksellers. I find myself wondering if Green followed up his statements by telling these people that they were threatening the overall quality of bookselling by not being Barnes & Noble?

Yes, there is a shitload of crap being independently published; however, there's also a crapload of shit being published traditionally. (That Fifty Shades of Grey began as self-published fan fiction and "graduated" to traditional publishing should serve as argument enough against Brad Thor's "wheat and chaff" comment). And just as there are a lot of horrible books published traditionally, there are quite a few independently published books that are well worth the time. Ever heard of these books?

The Adventures of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Ulysses by James Joyce
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Lady Chatterly's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Yep, all of these were worthless "chaff" written by "wannabes" looking for "short-cuts" and "profit-maximisation."

Seriously, I've read this thing a hundred times, and I still don't know how to maximize my widget profits. I thought this guy was supposed to be a literary genius or something.


glitter noir said…
Well done, Lev. Well researched and beautifully argued. Shame on Grafton, even if she did recant.
Lee said…
Yes, yes, and again yes!

And quite frankly, I'm tired of people like Green who have a lot more living to do before they can pontificate about what makes for a fulfilling life. (As to his novels, he's clever about pushing all the right YA buttons. Gets rather tiersome.)
Dennis Hamley said…
Welcome, Lev. A new, energetic and refeshing voice. I would have written that last month if I hadn't been stuck with a dodgy wi-fi connection in Provence. This is a great post. It says what we all believe on here but said it really eloquently with some wonderful examples of stupidity, so thanks. The 'Wheat and chaff' remark of the egregious Mr Thor both repelled and amused me. Does he seriously believe that one night I went to bed wheat and woke up chaff? Well, judging from his his reasoning, he obviously does. Prat.
Jan Needle said…
the man needs to kiss your surname, not bite it. well said, sir
Bill Kirton said…
Great stuff, Lev. Passion but with all the examples and references needed to support and validate it. The hubris and self-righteousness of Green and his ilk make me wonder what they write. With such literary omniscience and self-assurance, it's presumably something like The Bible.
Chris Longmuir said…
Brilliant post, Lev, and I can only uphold what everyone else is saying, plus I don't think traditional publishers are looking for literary genius, they're looking for something that's going to earn them money - the maximization of profit bit! So while the authors are fulfilling their lives, the publishers are maximizing their income! It's a pity Green hasn't twigged that!
Lydia Bennet said…
Great post Lev and welcome to AE! The anti-indies you quote use the same argument I've seen in US articles against equal marriage - gay people getting married will 'spoil' marriage for all the straight people. weird reasoning in both contexts!
Unknown said…
Great post. Really enjoyed that. You've taken the words out of all of our mouths there.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Loved the picture of the cute puppy. Much better than a widget in my opinion. Oh and the article was pretty awesome too. Well said and thank you
CallyPhillips said…
Go, Lev! (aiming for brevity here... but I'm sure all at the ebook fest salute you!)
Lee said…
OT, but couldn't resist:

Great, passionate post. We had just this debate at the Edinburgh Book Festival (the one IN Edinburgh, although I did manage to mention the eBook festival as well!) on Wednesday evening: three older and fairly formidable women writers of which I was only one - and believe me the other two were much more formidable - and a 'devil's advocate' in the form of a youngish publisher. We were discussing 'being a writer in the digital age'. It was very well attended. OK, so he was consciously 'putting the other side' and we three were very much hybrid writers, not anti publishing so much as pro choice and all three of us happily self publishing with some traditionally published work as well. And it was essentially a good natured debate. Except that somewhere along the way, he seemed to be saying that some deadly combination of Amazon, eBooks and the 'digital masses' would mean the death of culture. We were all girding up our loins to challenge him when a fourth formidable lady in the audience stuck her hand up and said 'excuse me, but who are YOU to decide what is and isn't culture?' I still can't quite bring myself to believe that he really meant it. Perhaps he didn't. (He WAS playing devil's advocate for the sake of the debate!) But it did make me think of a comparison. Edinburgh at festival time is packed with artists, musicians, actors, comedians. Most of them 'doing it for themselves.' Some are wonderful, some terrible, and there's a great shifting mass of people in between: experimenting, trying things out. You hear people complaining about the unmanageable numbers from time to time - but you hardly ever hear anybody suggesting that the buskers who sing and play on the streets in all our cities, the musicians who play in a million pubs and clubs - are going to cause the 'death of culture' by their very existence. They ARE culture. Culture isn't only for undoubtedly bright young men who believe that their personal taste is some objective cultural phenomenon to which we must all aspire - and which can be somehow killed off by the participation of the 'masses'. The sad thing is, I thought that belief had been pretty much demolished last century - by the likes of John Carey. Obviously not.
Leverett Butts said…
I'm sorry to have waited this long to reply to your comments, everybody. School is just starting back and I'm up for tenure this year, so I've been running around all week like a chicken with its head cut off.

As you can see, I am fairly passionate about this topic. I have entered my own self-published short fiction collection as part of my tenure packet despite the guidelines stipulating that creative work must be published by a reputable house (after all, whose house is more reputable than my own?) I have, however, also posted the several things I have done in my role as a professor of my institution to promote and encourage independent publishing from teaching several continuing education courses on independent publishing to being the keynote speaker at a local college's creative writing conference to assigning such texts alongside more canonical texts in my classes. We'll see if this holds any weight.

Thank you everyone who commented on the meat of my post for your taking the time to hear me out.

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