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Freedom to Publish

Why publish independently? Why not query agents and publishers, try to enter the mystical world of the Big Five, those lauded arbiters of quality who made Fifty Shades of Grey an international phenomenon, catapulting pulp fan fiction onto the bestseller lists? These gatekeepers must know so much more about what makes for a good book than the rest of us.

And, of course, there are the gatekeepers’ gatekeepers—the agents who peddle manuscripts to publishing houses, people who imagine themselves scions of Maxwell Perkins, but who rely on twenty-something assistants fresh out of school to take a first pass at your work. If your story charms them, perhaps you, too, can hang with the cool kids.

Why not grab for the validation that only a New York Times Book Review can give you?

Because it’s a ruse.

To wit: in 1978, Chuck Ross retyped Jersey Kosinski’s National Book Award–winning novel Steps, gave it a new title, and submitted it to fourteen publishers and thirteen literary agents. None of them recognized it, and all of them rejected it—including Kosinski’s own publisher. Why would such a well-known, best-selling work by a famous author not be good enough?

Because the myths of the publishing industry are fundamentally American myths. We Americans hold on to the delusion of meritocracy. We want the “deserving” to succeed and the wicked to fail. Our national ethos is built on this notion; to say otherwise is to recognize the conquest and genocide that was our nation’s founding, to acknowledge how often the evil succeed and the righteous fail. “The cream rises to the top!” we scream. The truth is that it only rises to the top under the rarest of circumstances. Most of the cream, I submit, remains forever with the whey.

The hew and cry of some traditionally published authors tells us indies that our denigration of their status is just sour grapes; we would if we could. These authors must believe it to be so. Their very reputations are built on the idea that the best writers always, ultimately, get traditionally published. If merit were not the yardstick by which their work was judged, they would be lucky, not talented, and in America, success can never be based on luck.

So writers in the twenty-first century have a choice. They can hope in their hearts that a new college grad finds their work intriguing, that the grad is able to convince an agent to sell the book, that a publisher is willing to accept it and market it, and that the public will buy it. If that’s your thing, if you really believe so stridently in the American meritocracy, I bid you good querying.

If you really have something to say, though, and you see how clearly naked is the emperor, get your work out into the world, hire an editor, publish it yourself, and never look back.


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Stuart Baum
Stuart Baum
Jun 11, 2022

Hiring an editor should maybe be my next thing. Thanks for posting this rally cry.


Great article! Thank you for sharing your view on this.

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