Honor and Self Publishing

Hey! I’m posting again!

My personal swear word, Chuck Wendig*, has a new blog post up about dealing with the impact self-publishing has on discoverability. It’s a long post. My takeaway is that discoverability is hard in the age of self-publishing, it’s only going to get harder, and people celebrating the lack of gatekeepers are actually celebrating their own gruesome literary deaths in the cesspool below Respectability. He also suggests some guidelines that, if adopted by self-publishing culture, he believes might help.

I know about how discoverability is hard. Oh, I know. It’s hard even if you’re not self-published (my Senyaza books are small-published rather than self-published). My mapmaker likes to talk about the ‘discoverability gap’, which is the Grand Canyon you have to jump between sinking in the cesspool and acquiring actual readers. Is that too many metaphors? Maybe. But I think my mapmaker likes it because it implies that once you jump the gap (these days) it stays jumped. Possibly true. I hope it’s true!

Anyhow. Chuck’s been posting a lot about self-publishing and how to control the onslaught. It’s a quest, maybe. A life quest. He’s not going to get much traction on his own. He’s gotta know that. I believe he’s trying to kick off a revolution, which will sweep across self-publishing like a cleansing fire as more and more voices pick up the cry.

Or maybe he’s just tilting at windmills? I can’t tell. But I’ve watched self-publishing since before it was a Thing, and I am chock-full of thoughts about, oh, all sorts of things and my wacky weird brain, it draws connections between them, and I like to share them.

So let’s talk about honor.

To an outside observer (as much as a modern Western woman can be an outside observer on the subject of honor), ‘honor’ is a code of conduct artificially imposed on the dangerous, to regulate their behavior for the good of society. Traditionally ‘the dangerous’ comprises two broad categories: armed men and nubile women. (Man, those groups could totally destroy society if they weren’t indoctrinated young with a whole bunch of rules to stop them from running amuck with their guns/swords/sexuality.)

I read Chuck’s post, and what he was calling for, and I thought about codes of honor. Is self-publishing a threat to society, or at least the fragment of society that fiction readers comprise? Chuck thinks so; his posts have a lot to say about respecting and doing right by the reader. I… don’t know. I think self-publishing is mostly a threat to itself. I think it would benefit from a widespread adoption of a code of honor. It might, over time, help. So would standards organizations. Codes of honor didn’t just maintain themselves. Historically I know the most about Regency England, and while ‘honor’ was taught to ladies and gentlemen of quality from the cradle, organizations formed to informally enforce it. Clubs like Almack’s; gatekeepers like its patronesses.

But two things to consider in inventing a code of honor for self-publishers:

First: no code of honor is going to stop crap from being published. Opinions vary, and rules are, in the end, just rules. Many people have internalized the concept of honor deeply, and that’s useful. But the rules are bars on a prison and there are always going to be those who pay lip service without believing in the spirit of the code. Sometimes that kind of thing even becomes a standard kind of dodge: consider the idea of paying a debt of honor– but letting other debts, to those who aren’t on the same code of honor, slide.

Second: Scale is a problem. Scale is the problem, in so many situations. Scale is what we’re constantly relearning how to deal with. All sorts of systems that work perfectly with a certain number of participants absolutely collapse when the number of participants grows exponentially. With something like this, you can’t have clubs where everybody is involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in monitoring everybody else. You can’t have a club where members vote on new members, or members have to be referred by a large handful of other members. Or rather, you can but the club will remain extremely exclusive (and thus not have any impact on Chuck Wendig’s volcano). If membership is self-determined– well, a lot of people will do their best and more will just tell themselves they’re doing their best and again, it will have only a minor impact, if any, on the volcano.

I don’t actually have a solution right now, although you can bet I’m thinking about it. But I wanted to present this ‘honor’ paradigm for looking at the problem, in the hopes that it helps. And also to join my voice to Chuck’s, in encouraging other people to also think about what can be done to help that old saw become a truth: that literary cream floats to the top. Because right now, it doesn’t. It can’t, not without a whole bunch of luck or money.

(I’m always thinking about it. What about using a standards organization with lax standards to set up _extremely detailed_ book genres. Erotica, which is always a front-running in embracing new technology and certainly deals with massive churn, finds its audience with super-detailed genres but they usually have to put the category in the title somewhere… Often so does category romance… An idea for helping with discoverbility, maybe, but it’s not exactly a pretty one. But maybe a standards organization could come in there with indexing tools…)

*true story: he always either warns about using naughty language in his posts, or somebody complains in the comments. And I never notice the bad words when reading.

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