I am all for self-publishing. It gives writers a viable alternative when publishers say things like ‘We’d like to publish your work but…’

But it’s too risky.

But it’s too hard to market/we don’t know how to market it.

But it’s not fashionable right now. 

There are a lot of buts, but… the one thing they have in common is all these type of answers imply (or expressly state) the quality of the work is good, and there are other commercial considerations in play. We all know publishers have acted as gatekeepers in the past, and sometimes they were gate-keeping excellent work for business reasons, and self-publishing neatly solves this problem. 

BUT.
 
If the publisher no longer acts as gatekeeper, for any issue, including quality control, it falls to the writer to act as their own gatekeeper for their own poor quality work – self-regulation is required.

Now I know what you’re likely to say next – but publishers do publish badly written books. There are a couple that spring to mind at the current time, and I bet you’re thinking their names right now.

Twilight.

50 Shades of Grey.

Both hugely popular books that, from a technical standpoint, aren’t all that brilliantly written. And yet they were published.

But there is just as much a business reason behind publishing these books as there is behind the excellently written books that weren’t published. Because a publisher is, first and foremost, a business. A commercial enterprise. We as writers, as artists, like to conveniently forget this fact when it suits us. But they are. And if you’re a self-publisher, you are now a business.

Usually what makes money is good books, and a good book is a well-written book with a good story. Excellent writing won’t make up for a bad story. But publishers also know that sometimes a really good story will make up for mediocre writing – although not really bad writing. And if you think either of those books is really badly written, go check out the first draft of a first book by someone who has just picked up a pen to write fiction for the first time, then come back and we’ll talk. I still remember my first book. It made Twilight look like a Pulitzer Prize winner.

So in the traditional model we get mostly well-written books and some mediocre books which, for reasons that are hard to finger, really set fire to the imagination of readers and go viral.

In the self-publishing model, each writer gets to decide what he or she will publish.

The problem with this is the Four Stages of Learning.

The Four Stages of Learning is a model for learning suggesting individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence – in more colloquial terms ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ which I’ve always considered to be a fairly inarguable piece of wisdom.  

Unconscious Incompetence
The first stage is when a person doesn’t understand how to do something, and doesn’t even know they should be doing it. If I go back to my very early days of writing, this includes just about everything. I had an idea about plot and characterisation, but I didn’t even know what POV stood for, never mind what they were, how they differed, or how to use them.

Sometimes this stage is characterised by the person denying the usefulness of a skill if it is pointed out to them. Again, an excellent example is POV. May new writers head-hop, and use defences like ‘But I want to know what everyone in the scene think’ or ‘But Stephen King does it’.

Well, I wish I could do what Stephen King does, but I can’t. Most of us can’t. Most of us never will.

At this level of ignorance, the person doesn’t even know enough about the skill (POV) to know why it’s important, or how to intelligently break the rules (like King does) or why intelligently breaking the rules is even different to just breaking through them like a bull at a gate.

Conscious Incompetence
The second stage begins when the person begins to realise there is something they need to know – and don’t. There is some self-awareness that the person’s work isn’t particularly great, and a writer is more likely to learn from their mistakes.

Conscious Competence
At the third stage, the person has learned how to do something, but the process is laborious and requires concentration. The skill may need to be enacted in conscious steps.

Unconscious Competence
At the fourth and final stage, the person is so good at the skill it has become ‘second nature’ and can be performed easily, or even while carrying out other tasks. The person may even be able to teach it to others.

So, what has this got to do with self-publishing? I believe it affects the quality of what is self-published.

Not many writers in the fourth stage will be self-publishing, except for business reasons. Most of these writers can (and will) be traditionally published – and in fact the process of getting traditionally published is a learning process in itself, equipping the writer with a thick skin. Not many writers in the second stage will self-publish either, because they are painfully aware of their own shortcomings and don’t wish to expose them to the light of public scrutiny.

Some writers from the third category may self-publish, some may be working to improve further (into stage four) before they publish under any model, and some will still be pursuing traditional publishing.

Which leaves us with the first stage. People who don’t know what they don’t know. I’m betting a lot of people in this group are self-publishing, and what they are publishing is bad.

I’m not criticising their ignorance. I remember how great I thought my first book was. And my second. And my third. And hey, even my fourth. I didn’t have the lure of self-publishing to tempt me, for which I am grateful, because I look back at that work now and I cringe. I cringe, and no one but me can see it. How much more would I cringe if it had been made public?

But I wonder, how many self-published writers will look back at the first book they published and regret it? I know one or two who have pulled books from the market for exactly this reason.

So if you’re thinking about self-publishing, maybe stop a moment, consider which stage you think you’re at, and ask yourself seriously if this work is something you’d be embarrassed to admit to in the future.

If you missed it, check out the latest in my Mythical Creature series – the truth about the vampire myth.

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