To say that the internet doesn’t always bring out the best in us would be an understatement. It’s so easy to hide behind a keyboard and tell it like you think it is, or how you want it to be, presenting your opinions and perceptions as “facts” in support of your point. Many people get a tremendous sense of empowerment by doing so as viciously as possible. A great deal of this so-called snark is seen by its creators, and their fans, as devilishly clever and loads of fun. Fan or creator, it’s an exercise in keyboard courage. It’s so easy to boldly overstate a point, and with a venomous flourish, when you don’t have to look the other person in the eye and see the harm you’ve done, or the anger you’ve unleashed. When you do this to deliberately provoke people into a response, it’s called trolling.
I’ve encountered this sort of poisonous nonsense many times, since allowing myself to be swept up in the digital age. I first encountered it on a gardening forum, of all things, where my evident fascination with the science of horticulture and plant biology was met with constant, trollish snipping from anti-science pseudo-intellectuals. I was so put off by this that I was a while giving the internet a second chance. I toughened my skin and learned to sift the valuable stuff from the sewage. My selectivity does not change the fact that keyboard courage remains the rule, though, whether you’re reading a weblog, comments following a news article, or conversations on Facebook. It’s annoying, and it’s kept me from being more addicted to the online experience than might otherwise have been the case.
The independent publishing movement has given rise to plenty of its own snarkiness, and you don’t have to try hard to find it. One theme that comes around all too often is the constant harping on the impending demise of the traditional publishing industry. “Trad” publishing has been having problems for a long time, troubles that predate digital self-publishing. When the flood tide of indie books was first unleashed, matters quickly grew worse, and gleeful predictions of the end of publishing as we know it became as commonplace as they were often ill-informed – the collapse was always seen as right around the corner, but never actually came to pass. Although these predictions seem to have declined in number over time, you still see bloggers recycle the theme on an all-too-regular basis. Curiously, the time when the alleged demise of traditional publishing will be at hand has increased from a couple of years to a decade or more, so even internet trolls can learn a little caution when repeating predictions. Two related motives seem to be behind the persistence of blog and op-ed pieces predicting that the end of the publishing world is at hand: a need to draw attention and simple spite.
As an attention-getting ploy, I can understand writing a weblog piece on the subject – after all, I’m after something of the sort even now, writing this essay. I’ll even read the piece if the author has done some research and provided a sound basis for his or her conclusions. Unfortunately, most of these “Hey! Look at me!” blog pieces do little more than reiterate the common knowledge that the publishing industry has hit the rocks and is in danger of sinking. While it’s true that traditional publishing is in trouble in this digital age, simply restating this current state of affairs doesn’t exactly make your blog stand out. “Hey! Look at me!” becomes “Me, too!” Now your blog is just part of the crowd.
On the trollish side of things are those giving vent to self-righteous anger as they dwell on the demise of the “gatekeeper” mentality of traditional publishing. Most (if not all) writers of such pieces are people who tried to become published by way of traditional means. I’m one of that crowd. I wrote and submitted my first novel to Del Rey Books in the late 1970s. My last attempt was the novel that ultimately became the foundation for The War of the Second Iteration, submitted to and rejected by DAW Books in2001 (to the best of my recollection). In the quarter of a century or so in between I wrote a lot of fiction, none of which saw the light of day. And yet, I take no delight in seeing the gatekeepers who sent me packing having a tough time of it. They did their jobs and gave me honest opinions based on the realities of life in their business. I surely didn’t care for the answers, and was troubled and terribly frustrated by it all. While I was not always graceful about it, somehow I came away disappointed, but not angered by these rejections. I take no satisfaction from the current troubles of traditional publishing.
The recent revolution in self-publishing has changed many things. I’ve taken advantage of this opportunity, and many thousands of would-be authors are doing the same. (Sheer numbers are creating their own challenges to book discovery, and in effect have made the elimination of gatekeepers something of a moot point). There are, in this growing crowd of author wannabes, no small number who took rejection from traditional publishing personally. They see the ability to do an end-run around the gatekeepers as a sort of personal vindication, proof the big publishers were wrong about them. They write of traditional publishing and its troubles as if the problems are well-deserved. Never mind for a moment how many of these people should have been rejected by competent editors. When someone with that attitude writes about the fate of publishing, their righteous indignation and keyboard courage combine to create some truly cringe-worthy material, often full of overstatements and wishful thinking.
Unfortunately, most of them have missed an important point. The freedom to self-publish that we now enjoy is in no way a validation of anyone’s status as an author. The ability to hit the “publish” button for Kindle Direct Press, Nook Publishing, or Kobo’s Writing Life does not mean the professional editors were wrong about you. The editors may well have been correct – about most of us – all along, and so dancing on their professional graves as if they deserve to see their careers come to an end for honestly looking after their company’s best interests, and telling you “No,” amounts to nothing more than trolling. You have accomplished very little, really, hitting that button. You’ve proven nothing. The real work of doing so comes afterward.
Now and then I peek inside a book published by such a blogger, and it’s no surprise I usually just close the sample and move on. Sometimes I do so with a shudder. I can’t help wondering how many of these purveyors of anti-traditional publishing troll pieces will still have books available ten years from now, the currently popular estimate for publishing’s demise as we know it. How many will have succeeded, and how many, in spite of their self-righteous zeal, will have been rejected by that ultimate and unavoidable gatekeeper, the world of book readers?