“I” is for Integrity: Sue Grafton and the Self-Publishing Blowback

One of those instant, internet explosions broke out this past week after the great Sue Grafton gave an interviewer some opinions on self-publishing. She said that self-publishing was a “lazy” way out. The interviewer pressed her on that, in light of indie successes like John Locke. Grafton responded:
Obviously, I’m not talking about the rare few writers who manage to break out. The indie success stories aren’t the rule. They’re the exception. The self-published books I’ve read are often amateurish. I’ve got one sitting on my desk right now and I’ve received hundreds of them over the years. Sorry about that, but it’s the truth. The hard work is taking the rejection, learning the lessons, and mastering the craft over a period of time. I see way too many writers who complete one novel and start looking for the fame and fortune they’re sure they’re entitled to. 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. Learning to construct a narrative and create character, learning to balance pace, description, exposition, and dialogue takes a long time. This is not an quick do-it-yourself home project. 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. Don’t get me started. Oops..you already did.
Then the indie blowback began. A good example comes from Hugh Howey, author of the hugely successful Wool:
Sue Grafton thinks I’m lazy. Yeah. Hard to swallow when I look at how many hours I pour into my writing career each week (and weekend).
. . . .
Why in the world is this interviewer asking a buggy whip expert about picking out a new car? What does Sue Grafton know about publishing in today’s market and with today’s tools? Judging by this response, she knows absolutely nothing. Less than nothing, in fact. What she thinks she knows is harmful to aspiring writers.
Ms. Grafton saw the coverage, and asked the blog that originally ran her interview for a chance to respond:
The responses to that quote ranged from irate to savage to the downright nasty  Indie writers felt I was discounting their efforts and that I was tarring too many with the same brush. I wasn’t my intention to tar anyone, if the truth be known. Several writers took the time to educate me on the state of e-publishing and the nature of self-publishing as it now stands. I am uninitiated when it comes to this new format. I had no idea how wide-spread it was, nor did I see it as developing as a response to the current state of traditional publishing, which is sales driven and therefore limited in its scope. I understand that e-publishing has stepped into the gap, allowing a greater number of authors to enter the marketplace. This, I applaud.  I don’t mean to sound defensive here…though of course I do.
. . . .
My remark about self-publishing was meant as a caution, which I think some of you finally understood when we exchanged notes on the subject.
Ms. Grafton went on to say she takes “responsibility for my gaffe and I hope you will understand the spirit in which it was meant.” She added, “I am still learning and I hope to keep on learning for as long as I write.”
Good on her for this gracious response. Sue Grafton has always been on the writers’ side, and her initial comments grew out of this advocacy. Indeed, she stated at the very beginning that she wasn’t talking about the “exceptions” who break out.
Which makes her remarks largely valid. Many (not all!) who self-publish do so too soon. For many (not all!) it IS the “lazy” way, as compared to the hard work of learning the craft, getting better, being honest with yourself about your weaknesses and doing everything you can to correct them.
In that respect her view is not harmful. Indeed, it may be the very thing that saves a writer from embarrassing himself, or striking out expecting indie gold only to find canyons of wet dirt . . . and a reason to sit around Starbucks for the rest of his life grousing over his damned bad luck.
No matter how you publish, you have to earn success, and it ain’t easy. When it comes to encouraging self-published writers, I’m not going to offer pie-in-the-writing-sky. I’m going to offer clear and hard-headed advice that has proved itself over time. Advice that gives you a reasonable chance to make a buck, and maybe a living, by writing.
But a big part of that is not to short change yourself by publishing the first thing you finish. Amazon is not the place to throw up your NaNoWriMo project on December 1 every year.
And that is what Sue Grafton was getting at. She is old school, yes. But it was a school with some classic courses, and there is wisdom there to be heeded.
H/T to The Passive Voice for coverage of this controversy. 

28 thoughts on ““I” is for Integrity: Sue Grafton and the Self-Publishing Blowback

  1. I don’t know Ms. Grafton, only of her and I haven’t read her work. While she provides a good caution–that writing is hard work and there is no shortcut, no matter how you ultimately publish, I would submit that she provides a negative example for another reason.

    How can any writer, who is encouraged to steep themselves in the workings of the industry, have their heads buried so far down in the sand that they are completely unaware of the current state of self-publishing or the origins of the recent rise in self-pub, even if they don’t self pub themselves? Makes her response sound even less viable, for I find that hard to believe.

    On the other hand, if publishing several books allows you to become so completely oblivious to the publishing world around you, it’s something to look forward to, as it would be nice to be able to just write and not worry about the rest of the tasks that gobble up so much of our time as present day writers.

  2. While I agree that some indie books should have waited — there are too many writers who think they have a best seller and rush to publish it — there’s another side I wanted to comment on. Sue Grafton and other writers like are in a different world. This is the first thing I thought when I saw her comments, because she’s already an established writer, and a best seller. That makes a huge difference in her viewpoint about what’s happening in the industry.

    There’s a writing message board where if I say I’m going indie, the traditionally published writers jump all over me. They tell me X, Y, and Z is not true (whatever happens to get brought up, like social media). The problems is that, because they are established, they don’t need to do some of these things. But to get the eye of an agent or a publisher, there are things the unpublished are having to do. Particularly, a lot of those writers do sneer at indies as failures. I went to a con where an indie panelist reported that she had set next to an established writer who did exactly what Sue Grafton did.

    Unfortunately, the true commentary on what she said now is that it came because of the uproar she got.

  3. Do any of these critics really read from the traditionally published menu? Do they see the multiple typos and errors offered from New York houses, from all publishers? Do they read the pulp fiction that often lands on the NYTimes Bestseller lists? Do they really think that ABA or CBA can brag anymore that “only the best writing gets published”? Give me a break . . . The junk is found everywhere.

  4. A writer like Sue Grafton is rare: the long established A-list scribe who got into a very exclusive club only after years of dogged work and rejection. This was also back in the day when self-publishing carried a huge stigma, one that required a warning to writers. So there is a paradigm shift going on that is disruptive to writers of this type. Sue Grafton, to her credit, did not react angrily when challenged, moderated her position, and now has been educated on the new reality.

    There are other traditionally published authors who do not react as graciously, perhaps feeling as though their admission into the Forbidden City has given them a special status they do not wish to see diminished. This is a position that cannot be defended anymore.

    As with any Hegelian dialectic, a synthesis is emerging. Part of it is made up of the cautions that Sue Grafton has issued, another part by the new reality, another by the hard work still required of writers wherever they publish, and another part beer.

  5. This is an interesting example of how comments can go viral and spark blowback. I’m sure Ms. Grafton had no idea that could happen. A cautionary tale for everyone–we need to edit what we say, as well as what we write!

  6. Jim, tough event to write about well here – and you did! This was an explosive ongoing rant last week. Thanks for promoting both sides of the coin, and how old school can discredit new school.

    At the same time ANY writer – self pubbed, small press, or Big 6 should turn in the best work they can (ahem, and we all know of some legendary authors who could use a good dose of editing).

    Publishing good books across avenues widens the reading pool with quality and lifts us all up, inspiring us to turn out even better books. And in doing that, perhaps one day the ride to being published wont matter – only the substance of the matter itself.

    (had to re-submit this comment as I had typos from fast fingers. Thought best to edit it, being what the topic is!)

  7. Why are self-published authors not granted the same respect as independent filmmakers and recording artists?

    Moreover, why are traditional publishers not comparable to movie studios? Film studios and influential publishers are huge conglomerates, traded on a stock market governed by profits. To uphold the value of these stocks, executives are reluctant to veer from formulas that have made profits. Why not make another Hangover movie or, since Stieg Larsson is dead, find a writer who can emulate him? There is nothing wrong with making millions on masses. But, conglomerates employ advertising agencies that work around the clock to make these movies and books desirable to the public. When such media driven tankers control the territory, an uprising is inevitable. The first round or two of opposition could put the rebels in retreat, but not for long. Self-published authors are gaining ground.

    I see myself as an independent filmmaker, driven to tell a story using a camera. From experts, I learn how to operate the camera, cut unnecessary footage, focus on what matters, and keep the storyline moving. The story is what I bring to the table. Learning to be a good filmmaker, or writer, is a process learned by doing, not sitting and waiting for approval from a programmed thinker. I did not know about your terrific books, Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth and Self-Publishing Attack, before publishing my professionally edited first novel. Now, after putting your advice to use, my next book will be better.

    Yes, lazy self-published authors and boring U-Tube videos exist. When no one connects to their books or videos, these artists-in-making will quit, be motivated to improve, or go broke. Such is democracy in action. We do not need gatekeepers, like big publishers and movie studios, to tell us what to watch, to read, or to think.

  8. Donna, you provided at least one more good caution for self-publishers: watch those typos. They are really buggy. One thing I’ve appreciated about the houses I’ve worked with is that the editing has been superb. This is one area where indies need to spend the dough.

  9. I’m embarrassed that it took me a while to figure out what the arrangement of books stood for in Hugh Howey’s blog post (grin).

    On a side note, one thing I would love to see on this general topic is more hard data. How many indie books are being produced, what is the income generated by them on average versus legacy publishing, what trends are emerging over time, etc.? It’s even tough to get understandable data on legacy publishing. I like to review as much data as possible before going out on a limb with opinion.

  10. “As with any Hegelian dialectic, a synthesis is emerging.”

    +10 points to Ravenclaw.

    And you nailed it as usual. The term “vanity publishing” which reigned when Ms. Grafton was coming up the ladder is disappearing fast. I only see it used for the truly profit-mongering parasites that still charge thousands to bring a badly formatted and edited overpriced book to the market (why, yes, PublishAmerica, I’m looking at you).

    Indie publishing had to overcome this stigma and it slowly is. I’m glad to see Ms. Grafton moderate her position, but even someone in her strata should know that when you call people “lazy” the blowback is going to be huge. I don’t consider even the poorest self-pubbed work to be lazy. They still completed the book. Uninformed and over-eager, yes, but lazy? No.

    Tough times at the country club. All the plebians are showing up on the links and tennis courts in jeans and t-shirts. And some of them are showing that they have some play in them.

    I love all the stats that are leaking out. Yes, few hit the big leagues. Yet, many are very quietly getting their work out and subdizing their incomes with decent work that slowly gains a following (as in the friend I mention from time to time).

    The caution here is actual to the established stable of writers. Feel how you want, but if you say it in public, be prepared for the response.


  11. And to add a minor horn toot only because I know there are so many lawyers in the group.

    Next weekend at the Killer Nashville conference I am speaking on a panel called “True Tales of the Courtroom.” It is a for-fun panel of attorneys with funny little war stories from our practices. Should be a blast.


  12. Thanks for the links, Jim! That’s just the kind of thing I was thinking about. Whenever my Dad and I disagreed as I was growing up, he’d say, “What hard data are you basing your argument on?” I still feel I’m not entitled to an opinion unless I can cite a ‘data source,’ lol.

  13. I have incredible respect for Sue Grafton. In Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul, Sue talked about her dad, Chip Grafton, and his legacy: “Follow your heart. Summon the courage to live out your dreams …” I think she’s just trying to pass on that legacy. So whether we seek to publish traditionally or go the indie route or both, we must summon our courage and do the work. No matter what path you choose it’s not going to be easy. Think about the legacy you want to leave.

  14. I haven’t read any of the comments here, but I do believe every writer needs to be edited, and if you are in a hurry to publish or have collected a spate of rejections and want to self-publish, you should still go through the editorial process. This is the only way to ensure a professional product.

  15. Wow! Tempers flared since Sue Grafton’s comments hit the internet. I chuckled over those who high-fived her comments to support their own biases of indie writers, and indie writers and others who vilified her based upon their own perspective. It would appear the swinging pendulum of opinions depended upon where one sat in that arc. I am glad that Ms. Grafton showed class by modifying and restating her opinion—a sign of one still seeking to improve in her own life.

    Writing is a process—no matter whether writers finds themselves on the bestselling list, mid-list or no list—and each of us must consistently seek to improve our craft.

    As writers, let us try to pour ourselves into each of our own works , learning and improving as we bump along this writing path without damping the spirits of others. Let us give each other encouragement along this arduous journey. And let us enjoy one of the best jobs around: telling stories, creating worlds and characters, inviting others to relive these new worlds through the eyes of their own experiences.

    Good article, Jim!

  16. I do think that writers are now getting to the stage where they’ll take offence at anything. Though Sue Grafton may have been unaware of the e-publishing industry (how, I don’t know!) she still makes valid points about taking the time to learn the craft and not rushing to self publish in the belief that fame and fortune will automatically follow. I wish this debate would focus on the ‘art’ of writing rather than the way in which a book is, or is not, delivered to the public. Sigh.

  17. Sometimes I feel like I’m building a boat in the basement, instead of books. As far as I’m concerned, people can say anything they want. It’s water off a duck’s back. I don’t sweat any of the opinions. Everyone’s got one, as the saying goes. I just keep slogging away: writing, editing, reading Jim’s writing books, making all sorts of story charts. I love all of it and someday soon, the beast will fly, no matter what anyone says about it. How far it will fly is another story. But it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. And when that one is done I’ll start another one. Hopefully, I will learn a thing or two along the way that will help me improve and grow. And if I make any money at all, I will jump up and down with joy. If not, I’ll still jump up and down. ‘Cause writing is what I wanna do and I’m doing it. Pffffst! Just to get the last word in.

  18. As a self-published author with several titles out there I politely ask my fellow indies to STOP WHINING! when mainstream authors say indies in general are unprofessional, you’re only proving their point.

    Rather than get the hackles up and crying like a baby with poopy pants burning your bum that you can’t figure out how to change, WRITE PROFESSIONAL QUALITY MATERIAL!

    If you want to recognized as a legitimate author in the market place, write at the same or higher as those who are there already. Want to make money like John Locke? Write constantly and consistently good material that people want. Want equal recognition with the Grishams and Graftons and Clancys and so on of the world? Write like they do.

    How to Succeed in Writing:

    1. Write good stuff (not good in your own mind, good in the mind of people who’ll give you money for it)
    2. Hire a pro editor (not your mom, or you cousin, but someone who doesn’t care about your feelings)
    3. do what editor says
    4. sell book (market heartily)
    5. Start over


    7. Repeat until you’ve got 500 titles for sale or death

    rant over.

  19. It’s interesting that I’m supposed to be an exception and an outlier due to my success, and this same article (an excellent one, btw) cautions against publishing a NaNoWriMo book on December 1st.

    The series that launched my career, Wool, has five parts. Parts 2, 3, and 4 were written during NaNoWriMo 2011. All three parts were published before the end of the year. Part 2 was published *in* November. *During* NaNoWriMo. The books have sold over 200,000 copies and hit the NYT and USA Today bestseller lists. Ridley Scott picked up the film rights and Random House is releasing a hardback in the UK in January. We’ve turned down the 6 and 7 figure advances from major publishers here in the States.

    The success of Wool largely hinged on my seeing the breakout of the first novelette and being able to satisfy demand with quality stories delivered swiftly. The delay encouraged by Grafton and the like would have destroyed my momentum.

    I point this out to support those who have had success with NaNoWriMo and who enjoy writing and publishing on whatever schedule best fits their work ethic. Holding me up as an exemplar of taking one’s time and the NaNo’er as the other extreme is ironic, since I am that NaNo’er. 🙂

  20. Hey Hugh, thanks for dropping by and adding to the mix. You’re talking to a NaNoWriMo guy, too. Two years ago, I had a contracted book to do for my publisher. It was almost November, and I thought, what the heck? I did 60k plus, but of course on Dec. 1 I was not ready to send it. I had to edit. A lot. BUT, it did become my novel THE YEAR OF EATING DANGEROUSLY, published as K. Bennett.

    This was a full length novel, not a novelette, so that has to be emphasized. I had to add material as well as make everything fit. Shorter form works may be perfect for NaNo…and I’m sure you edited your work! (Which, BTW, I look forward to reading)

    I am all for the benefits of writing fast, BTW. It helps the writer get the stuff out there.

    But I’m also an advocate of good, objective editing, by oneself (wrote a book on that) and from an editor or beta readers.

    Congrats on your option, BTW. Just keep your head and keep writing and remember what Pauline Kael once said: “Hollywood is the only town where you can die of encouragement.”

  21. Thanks, James. As I mentioned on my blog, I thought your writeup was sound and evenly measured. I point out the NaNo connection as much to make light of my own writing efforts as to highlight the irony of being a supposed exemplar of someone doing it the “correct” way.

    Agreed on Hollywood. Believe me, I have zero expectations. I tell anyone who will listen that nothing will come of the deal. I’m still trying to figure out this writing nonsense. 🙂

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