Laura Lippman and the Great Debate

  • By E.A. Aymar
  • April 9, 2014

When it comes to successful self-publishing, being good isn't good enough.


The most recent issue of the 3rd Degree, the official publication of the Mystery Writers of America, featured a terrific essay by Laura Lippman that will probably make some people angry. In the essay, titled “Folks, we’re in this together…” Lippman made many notable points, chief among them the idea that writers, regardless of how they publish (self or traditional) are united in the same goal: to produce the best book possible. However, along the way to that point, she talked about the differences in publishing and, on a few occasions, took self-publishing to task. Not in a manner that could be described as angry or even unkind but, in the heated self v. trad debate, that doesn’t really matter. Flared tempers are rarely responsive to logic.

(As a disclaimer: I should mention that I’m a huge Lippman fan. Also, my novel was traditionally published, but I self-published a novella. Buy my books! Back to the essay.)

It’s not hard to imagine proponents of self-publishing bristling at certain elements of Lippman’s essay, even though she expressly wrote against this division. To be fair, she does seem to fall on the side of traditional publishing and, within this topic, the other side might argue that this smacks of sticking up for the 1 percent. She touches on the mistakes that often seem inherent in self-publishing, like the rush to publication: She cites an example of a woman who wrote her novel in two months.

It reminds me of an interview with one of today’s best writers, William T. Vollmann, when he said that a writer should write for 10 years before seeking publication, just to learn the craft. That’s great advice and is completely discarded in today’s world. Personally, I worked on my first (unpublished) novel for six years before seeking an agent, and it took me a total of 14 years of dedicated writing and two other novels before my work finally debuted in the marketplace. Other traditionally published writers have similar stories and usually claim they’re better writers because of this struggle.

They’re right.

Traditional publishing has, of course, a storied history of mistakes and poor decisions, yet the best books I’ve read have come from the Big Five. My favorite book of 2013, Alissa Nutting’s risqué and uncompromising TAMPA, was published by HarperCollins. That’s not to say there isn’t a better self-published book out there. As Lippman wrote, “There is absolutely nothing to prevent a masterpiece from coming out of self-publishing. So where is it?”

It will probably materialize, but here’s the thing. That book (let’s shorthand it to SPM — Self-Published Masterpiece) is going to have to be more than a masterpiece. It’s going to need to be accepted as a critical and commercial success and accepted as such in its time.

Commercial success is an important measure for our culture, and ending up on the New York Times bestseller list is usually accepted proof that a writer has “made it.” On the other hand, the New York Times bestseller list is often where quality goes to die. We’d all love to have a bestseller, and I understand that the market helps serve as a viable metric for success, but it shouldn’t be taken as a measure of quality. Coors isn’t the best beer, McDonald’s isn’t the best food, and Snooki (her novel ranked 24th) isn’t our best writer, or even our 24th best. So take commercial success with a grain of salt. It’s necessary for SPM, but it’s not everything.

The other half of SPM’s success is critical acceptance, and that will be much harder for our poor SPM to attain. Several professional writing organizations bar their doors to self-published writers, and some agents won’t consider their work. For that to change, our SPM will have to be good enough to blow those doors open. Its quality cannot be questioned, even in an age where snark is the norm and most people (looking at you, Twitter) relish dishing out condemnation rather than praise. SPM is going to receive some criticism, but it will need endorsements from established writers, consideration for awards, overtures from Hollywood, all that lofty stuff.

Those are the requirements of SPM. But there’s one other requirement, and it will fall to the writer: Once he or she has achieved this success, it will mean sticking to self-publishing.

One of my favorite figures in music is the rapper/producer El-P (I openly borrowed from his work for the title of my debut thriller, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead). El-P started his own music label, the now-defunct Def Jux, and has spent his influential career outside of major companies. His early motto was, in fact, “independent as fuck,” and SPM’s author is going to have to be fucking independent. To prove that self-publishing is a respectable path, he or she will have to turn down the inevitable approaches from publishers, ignore the millions of dollars they’ll offer, and continue writing and publishing in his or her manner.

After all, the best thing a publisher can offer a writer is distribution, and the Internet has taken care of most of that problem (the decline of bookstores will take care of the rest). This writer, after proving that self-publishing was the correct path, will soon have a movement. Others will follow his or her lead. The change will not only come from this writer’s art, but in how this writer chooses to present that art. This revolution will be both a change of content and delivery. After all, successful revolutions are like fires — they burn everything in their path.

E.A. Aymar earned a B.A. in creative writing and an M.A. in literature. He lives with his wife and son just outside of Washington, DC. This piece is his first installment of what will be a regular column for the Independent.

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