In heraldry, the “bar sinister” – a black diagonal bar across a family’s heraldic shield – proclaimed that the person was a member of the family but a bastard, or having no legitimate claim to titles, lands or fortunes.
[The English Duke of Grafton's shield with the "bar sinister" (Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Grafton, was the 2nd illegitimate son of King Charles II by Barbara Villers, Duchess of Cleveland)]
If Indie published (the new term for “self-published”) authors were to have a heraldic shield, they would have to bear this bar as a stain on their family tree because self-publishing remains a stigmatized form of becoming a published author.
I know, not fair. But why is this true?
First, let me give you some basic information. In 2008, for the first time ever, self-publishing overtook traditional publishing in volume. This was possible because of three innovations:
– the internet, because people had access to more information than ever before
– digital printing, allowing people to have access to magazines, news and, later, books
– print-on-demand publishing, eliminating the need to print and store books in massive quantities, enabling bookstores to reduce stock and the author to effectively publish on the internet and get smaller numbers of print books for sales.
These changes made Indie publishing more economical and immediate. And that’s when the need for the “bar sinister” arose.
You see, everyone has a story to tell. When digital and self-publishing became “easy,” so out came every Tom, Dick and Harriet author with every conceivable truth, lie, and fable imaginable, and the market began to see a huge glut of books in all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, no one told them that to be a professional, Indie author, you need to look the part, despite – or in spite of – the ease of digital and print publishing.
Yes, you heard me right. Indie authors glutted the market and most – not all, by any means – but more bad than good flooded the world. Because the world made it easy for every single person to write and publish a book. And it seemed like everyone did. And traditional authors – most of them – laughed in derision.
Hence the applied bar sinister. Editors of respected magazines who had upheld some very high publishing standards were appalled at the poor quality of published material. Agents were greeted with unprofessional, rude, uneducated-in-the-writer-ly- way letters and, thanks to the digital area, emails that curled hair and forced grunts of disgust. Publishing houses reeled in shock at the sudden and unwelcome glut of books that frankly, were poorly put together, with childish covers and without edits for grammar or plot, whose stories would never be considered in the traditional sense.
So, the self-publishing world earned a bad name. Words like “vanity” and “subsidy” publishing became the by-words for people who went their own way. Publishers, agents, editors and even college professors, jumped on the bandwagon to smash and bash the newly self-published.
And they – we – deserved it. We deserve it still. And that is why the Indie author must bear the bar sinister. Why? Because the quality of self-published books is still below what it should and could be!
I understand that you have story to tell and you want to tell it NOW. But having a tale to tell does not alleviate the need to tell it well, to understand the correct way to speak and to write, to take the hodgepodge of ideas and organize them into a coherent, mystical plot, to present your book in a customary format, established by respected guidelines and to finally put a carefully, thoughtfully, designed cover on that wonderfully worked book so that people will gasp and say, “oh I must buy this!”
Oh sure, you can publish that story of yours without all that I’ve mentioned. And what will that earn you? A sideways glance from authors everywhere as others – best-selling, award-winning, highly successful authors, agents, publishers, magazine czars – look at your work and proclaim quietly, “oh, another self-published book.”
That is exactly WHY Indie authors must bear the bar sinister, the bastard of the family! Because we, as a group, don’t seem to care enough to make our books the most well-prepared, professional things out there. When I set your book down beside a traditionally published book, I don’t want to be able to tell who is an Indie and who isn’t. And yes, right now, that matters a great deal. We are in competition!
If you want Indie authors to be able to have the same respect as traditionally published, best-sellers, we have to take enough pride in our work to study how to make a good book, no, a great book. Our books have to be formatted according to style guidelines, they have to have front matter, body, and back matter that is appropriate. We have to be sure simple things are done correctly (like not saying Forward when we mean Foreword), that our covers are high quality and our grammar and style is appropriate for our audience (don’t give me a 12th grade reader for an adult mystery-thriller).
When Indie authors everywhere adhere to things like the Chicago Manual of Style, when they study their craft and learn the correct way to format a story, write dialogue, develop plot and character, when Indie authors care enough to present covers that don’t look like cookie-cutters from someone’s family photo file, then we will achieve the respect that we desire and deserve. Then no one will ever put a bar sinister on our shields again!
We have a long way to go. It starts with you and me. Yes, it will be more expensive because you are going to pay for an editor or a book cover designer. Yes, you will pay for webinars and college classes to learn how to write. You will buy books which you will actually read and you will learn what you haven’t been doing. It won’t be easy, convenient or fast. But it will make you good at your craft – writing.
And only then you will publish your stories and we will sit back in awe, never knowing whether you were an Indie or not. We won’t be able to tell. The publishers won’t be able to tell. We’ll make them blink in surprise. And slowly we’ll stop labeling “us” from “them.” No one will be able to tell and they will stop trying to separate us.
Let it begin with, “I don’t want to look like I’m self-published.” That’s what I said. And I’m winning awards and garnering acceptance. I want the respect that comes with being a published author. I don’t want to have to label or classify myself. Do I say, I’m a white woman author? No, of course not. Neither do I want Indie authors to feel a need to identify themselves with a label.
Study. Learn. Strive to be the best, better than the others. Do not lower the standards by which we, the Indie, strive to achieve. Help us lift the bar sinister, the stigma, that comes from self-publishing.
When the Indie author will no longer bear the stigma of a digital, economical bastard, we shall stand as kings and queens, equals among all, but a proud Indie in an Indie kingdom.
For further reference on this opinion read:
The Chicago Manual of Style
How to Publish a Book by Guy Kawasaki, http://www.digitalbookworld.com
Joel Friedlander, award winning book designer and blogger, thebookdesigner.com, practical advice
What Your Friends Can’t Tell You About Your Self-Published Book, Deborah Plummer, Huffington Post, The Blog
10 Tips to Make Your Self Published Book Look Professional, Sarah Juckes, Alliance of Independent Authors, Nov 2013
10 Reasons Why Self-Publishing Books Don’t Sell, Kristen Eckstein, thefutureofink.com