The argument that self-published books are always inferior has got me thinking about the ways in which common and widespread views are not always the correct views. This may have been brought up before enough times to make my take on the issue a tad too little, too late, but I want to address the main sticking point that has been chewed over time and time again. This will probably piss people off, but I got the notion that the playing field had been so completely dominated by the views of one camp that a balanced view was needed.
First off, I am gonna separate the fiction from non-fiction, because they are completely different beasts. I’ll ignore the fiction at the moment, because there are enough self-published fiction authors out there who will argue the quality issue endlessly. I’m not interested in that debate. The question of quality, in regards to works of fiction, is one which has many opposing viewpoints, and it would take a foolish man indeed to stake a claim that self-published novels were all as brilliant as the best novels from mainstream publishers. I’m no fool.
Non-fiction, on the other hand, is an area where many of the usual rules fall away. The standard viewpoints are irrelevant, and we have something tangible to base our opinions on. With non-fiction we are able check the veracity of any claims, analyze the words for their worth in relation to comparable texts, and see that there are many layers to the ‘self-published vs. large publisher’ argument. There should be checks and balances in this argument, yet simplistic views are thrown around with nary a thought for the details we should be considering.
Let’s get started.
Non-fic self-published books have been around a long time. A very long time. Before the advent of publishers, and before the notion of paperbacks as a commercial success, there were non-fiction books being published by ‘amateurs’ in their specialist fields. I’m going to be looking at specialist fields from the realm of pop culture when I make my defense of self-publishing in a moment, but this is as good a place as any to define ‘amateur’ for you, because the word is not a negative. Plenty of Victorian science texts were written by amateurs.
In the modern vernacular we look down on amateurs, because of misconceptions as to the nature of degrees and awards. Lemme tell you this – a degree means nothing. What does mean something, and always will, is research. Any moron can get a degree. That’s an argument for another time though… And I’m sure it will be a heated one. The matter at hand is self-publishing, and I’ll stick to one battle at a time.
Never ever divide your army into two and never fight on two fronts at the same time.
Sun Tzu’s work, of course, wasn’t published by a mainstream publishing house… Given that none existed at the time it’s not really surprising, but that isn’t the dumbest reason I’ve read in defense of self-publishing so I’m not retracting that little pearl of wisdom.
The Battlefield Of Self-Publishing- Official Vs. Unofficial Guides
The biggest salvos were fired during the mid-nineties at the height of The X-Files success. Some of the books which appeared as tie-ins were completely worthless fact-counting books which muddied the waters rather than clearing up any questions. There was serious money to be made as fandom feverishly bought up everything remotely related to the show. The big-hitter was the official series guide written by Brian Lowry, though it was less impressive than many of the unofficial (and some self-published) guides written at the same time.
Numerous errors, omissions and unclear statements made me think twice about trusting HarperCollins’ non-fiction works. It isn’t often that I am completely underwhelmed by the lack of research in a non-fiction book, but this stands as one of the definitive examples of a large publisher dropping the ball when it comes to a tie-in. The more recent Firefly tie-in, which has the self-destructive tendencies that would put Mission: Impossible documents to shame, is another. Is quality really so low on publishers priorities for tie-in books?
Fan publications, on the other hand, obsess over details. This is the main difference in terms of content. You would never find an unofficial book confusing character motivations or history, but I have seen some truly, outstandingly headdesk moments in sanctioned tie-in books. This is largely a matter which concerns shows and films which are still in production, though the holders of large franchises tend to protect their interests with bland and unappetizing books which tow the party line.
So that’s the tie-in area covered. We still have guides and reference books to look at.
A Minor War Of Words In Self-Published Reference Books
Looking through the specialist geek books of the past twenty-odd years throws up a handful of essential texts that no large publisher could have published with a straight face. The outstanding moments of genius which transcend self-publishing and slip into the category of standard texts.
Green’s Guide To Collecting TV, Music & Comic Book Annuals by Paul Green & Laura Taylor, which is indeed self-published, stands as the finest publication to ever list British annuals. I’ll say it again if you are having a hard time accepting that a self-published book can be essential – it is the best book on the subject available. Feel free to try and find a comparable book by a large publishing house, but I’m sure you will find that I am correct. If self-publishing was an automatic admission that a book isn’t worth reading, then this is the book that breaks the rule.
But it isn’t alone. I’ve already said how good The Complete Directory To Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Television Series is, and it is no surprise that such a comprehensive and well-researched book is self-published. The book could have emerged from a big name publisher, but it didn’t. Is that any reason to dismiss it? The lesser book
The Sci-Fi Channel Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction not only has the blessing of The Sci-Fi Channel, but is published by Warner Books. It is much sparser in content, and feels rushed in places.
While I’m busy showing my geek roots, as if that’s a bad thing, I might as well bring up The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. You can’t go into a comic-book shop without seeing a copy of Overstreet, and rightly so. It has grown into the most widely consulted reference book for American comics, and stands as an illustration of the heights that a small, and rather ugly, self-published book can turn into once enough attention is paid to its’ merits. It may be currently published annually by Gemstone, but it has its roots in self-publishing.
If anyone wants to disagree, add other definitive self-published non-fiction books, or just flame my opinions, then feel free.