A big way in which traditional publishers create the perception that they are necessary is the myth that they are raising up the downtrodden and giving a voice to people who would otherwise would not have the monetary means to put their work into the world. There was probably a large element of truth to this in 1980. In 2020, there are two big problems with this statement.
Matt's two problems are this: 1) today, self-publishing is effectively free, and 2) the need for commercial publishers to satisfy their bottom line and their thin profit margins is always going to outstrip their desire to cultivate creative voices. Both I agree with, but there's another argument thrown around to denigrate self-publishing that I also want to single out.
The graf I just chomped out is in response to an assertion by SF author Martha Wells (the Murderbot books), where she mentions "the People Who Would Be Happy if All Creative Art was Produced by Those Rich and Privileged Enough Not to Need to Profit From Their Work" (sarcastic caps in original).
I get why she's making this point. A common argument against self-publishing is that it's an argument for a life where you aren't obliged to make money from your work. You keep your day job, and you write because you want to, not because you expect to make money from it. This, so the thinking goes, makes writing-for-profit seem like a seedy enterprise. Why should it be a bad thing to want to make a living from one's work?
This would be more valid if the vast majority of conventionally published authors were in fact able to make livings from their work today. Most don't and can't. One of the more consistently successful fantasy authors I've known, with a loyal fanbase that followed him from work to work, held onto his civil-service job. He didn't want to be the victim of changing tastes, and end up starving. The vanishingly few who make it big and stay big are the winners of the cultural lottery, and playing the lottery (in any form) isn't a strategy. It's great if you hit it big, but it's best to assume you won't — and if you do, it's best to assume you might not stay on top. (I remember Spider Robinson being one of the unlucky ones: he went from being able to make a half-decent living in SF&F to pounding the pavement for a day job.)
Another way conventional publishing puts down self-publishing — and another way that makes for a more legitimate argument than this, IMO — is that conventional publishing provides access and marketing, at a scale self-publishing can't compete with. This is true: most of us don't have a hundred thousand bucks to blow on a marketing blitz. Reaching people at scale is expensive.
But marketing at that scale also means you're forced to market that much more shallowly. So you're faced with a tradeoff: you can take the marketing muscle, but it means whatever it is you have to offer up is going to need to be reshaped to fit the expectations of the marketers. Not the expectations of the audience, the marketers, who make a business out of second-guessing what people want. Even marketing to "niche" audiences is like this: you're not actually marketing to those people, but to your idea of what those people are and what they want.
Some people have no problem with this, and so are only too happy to take a contract when it's offered. God love 'em. I'm not one of those folks. My work is there for those who want it, and while I do mean to find more aggressive (but not obnoxious) ways of getting this stuff out there, it's not because I think there's any more legitimacy to be had than I've already achieved. To my mind, growing as a creator is more important than growing as a marketer.
One more point to be made. I've said in the past that one of the advantages of a larger fanbase, by way of marketing at scale, is a larger pool of feedback. Publishing, too, can afford to hire people who have proven track records of knowing how to shape material. To my mind, this means we should take the lessons we can learn from the latter and use them ourselves. Those lessons are not proprietary knowledge; they can be had by anyone who's willing to listen and learn. As for a larger fanbase, I'd rather take the advice of a few people who know me well and understand what I'm trying to do, than satisfy a whole bunch of people who at that scale are only too ready to see me as a commodity. ("Finish the book, George.")
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