Self-publishing is not a new phenomenon in the literary world; authors ranging from Marcel Proust to Beatrix Potter self-published books that are now integral parts of the popular and academic canons. But the increasingly widespread availability of self-publishing platforms means that this is quickly becoming a normalised route to publication.
As with any rising trend, self-publishing can prove a contentious issue. Some argue that simplifying the publishing process invites a greater breadth of writers, thereby diversifying the voices of the literary community, which might otherwise be more homogenous because of an inherent elitism in the publishing process. Others would argue that streamlining the route to publication is a shortcut that permits and excuses substandard literature in a way that the rigorous traditional publication process does not. However, the benefits of selfpublishing and the sheer volume of new writers it attracts shouldn’t be underestimated. Programs such as National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo” – an annual online event in which participants are challenged to write a 50,000 novel over the course of November, and successful participants receive free copies of their novel as self-published through Amazon – inspire thousands of people to write every month, and turn the process of producing a novel into a community based event.
And some of the books produced through NaNoWriMo have enjoyed popular success, including Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. But the event has its critics – it places too much emphasis on quantity over quality, and encourages people to bypass the editorial process. Above all, it seems to promote the idea that a novel can actually be written over the course of a single month. “Everyone knows it’s impossible to write a good book in a month,” says novelist and vlogger John Green, who does admit that the main goal of NaNoWriMo is actually to produce a first draft and get into the discipline of writing productively every day. But the promise of publication as a reward for those who hit the word count at the end of the month can make the event seem like a race, where once 50,000 words have been written, the novel is complete. Of course one can’t discuss selfpublishing without wandering into the realms of fanfiction.
Another phenomenon popularised by the internet, the ease with which fanfiction can be both posted and accessed creates a vast quarry of an entire subgenre of work that seems to exist outside the mainstream literary sphere. That is until publishers notice viral internet works and decide to publish them in the traditional way. Sarah J Maas’ Throne of Glass series begun life as a story the author posted on fictionpress.com, Christopher Paolini self-published Eragon before it was picked up by Knopf, and, most infamously, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy gained popularity as erotic Twilight fanfiction. The series drew criticism on many fronts – it encouraged plagiarism and spread toxic ideas about relationships. But most of all, it was bad. It’s been consistently ridiculed for its poor writing: as Salman Rushdie put it, “I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published.” But the onslaught of criticism doesn’t change the fact that it became the fastest-selling paperback of all time. With over 125 million copies sold worldwide, it has smashed records set by traditionally published books, and whilst that certainly doesn’t prove that Fifty Shades has more literary merit than most of the books it’s outsold, it does prove a point.
The freedom and ease of selfpublishing works with the “viral” culture of the internet, it allows people to share and access the kinds of new content that might be overlooked by traditional publishing houses. It’s not that these publishers should start publishing every manuscript thrown their way in an effort to stay ahead of trends – there will always be something to be said about the “seal of quality” offered by a traditionally published work, and it is their right, and responsibility, to be discerning. But as self-publishing becomes increasingly popularised, it would serve publishers well to notice the voices that gain popularity, and acknowledge that the works worth recognising are sometimes the ones that may never before have been allowed to see themselves in print.