As I read and participate in discussions among independent and self-publishers, I've noticed that we spend a lot of time and energy distinguishing ourselves from each other—and not in a positive way. Some of us remind others that we are true self-publishers as opposed to those who have paid a subsidy publisher to publish our books—and we make it clear that we see ourselves in a higher category because of this. As an author who owns my own publishing company, I'll admit to having made this distinction myself. But the more I think about it, the less I like this point of view.
It starts to remind me of a disturbing play that I saw a few years ago. Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith, the controversial play, Yellowman, depicts prejudice within the black community based on darkness of skin color. The playwright shows lighter-skinned characters feeling superior to and being treated better than darker-skinned ones. Reviews of this play point out that lighter-skinned blacks have indeed been more advantaged in our society, while at the same time being taunted from within for not being black enough. In other words, the hierarchy—which was largely promoted by whites—drove a wedge among blacks.
As authors whose publishers who don't fit the traditional model, I think it is to our disadvantage to separate ourselves out into better and worse categories based on the publishing model we've chosen. Writers make choices about their mode of publishing for a variety of reasons. Just as it is not true that all self-published authors have tried and failed to have their book published by a traditional publisher, neither is it true that all authors who choose to pay a subsidy publisher to publish a book don't care about the quality of their books. We know it's not true that all books published by mainstream commercial publishers are better than those published by small independents or self-published. We need to also acknowledge that some very good books have been published through subsidy companies.
One bit of evidence comes from a former blog, POD-DY Mouth, which was written for two years (ended March 13, 2007) by a traditionally published author. She and some of her friends had made a contest out of looking for the worst of what they called POD books but were primarily from what we call subsidy publishers (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Lulu and others). Then to her surprise, she came upon one of those books that she loved. This led her to start her blog reviewing what she called POD books and giving awards to the best of them. Admittedly she said she had to wade through many submissions to find the few good ones. She called her awards the Needles, a reference to finding the needles among the hay. But she did find books she really liked.
Now a bit of personal evidence. My mystery novel Too Near the Edge won a 2007 IPPY silver medal for best regional fiction in the west-mountain region. The gold medal in that category was won by Stan Lynde for his novel, Summer Snow, published by iUniverse. His writing credentials include being the creator of two nationally syndicated cartoon strips. I don't know why he chose iUniverse to publish his book and I haven't read the book, but if it was judged better than mine, I have to take notice.
Why do authors go with subsidy publishers? I don't think we can assume they are mostly naïve writers so hungry for author status that they'll do anything to get published. From what I've read on discussion groups, these writers want to get their books out there to be read. They want reactions from readers, reviewers, contest judges. But they don't want to take on the business side of self-publishing.
I'm not saying that most books that come out from subsidy publishers are well-written and/or well-edited. My daughter, Laurel Osterkamp, who teaches creative writing and is a writer herself, reviews books on her blog, Bookin It My Way, and for some online review services. She's seen a bunch of subsidy-published books and tells me that as a group they are bad.
My point here is that setting up a hierarchy among ourselves is divisive. We will fare better in our struggle to compete in the marketplace if we don't fight amongst ourselves. How about in 2008 we focus on the books themselves rather than on how they were published? I think I'll resolve to read a few of those iUniverse books next year and make my own judgements.