Exposing The Grand Illusion: Part 2 – The Evil, Arrogant Publishers


Part 2 - The Evil, Arrogant Publishers

Evil, Arrogant Publishers

In my seed article writing as Chief Editor of IFWG Publishing, I hypothesized The Grand Illusion, a state where many self-publishers created a bubble around themselves, constructed of beliefs and views that were not necessarily based on fact.

In Part 1, I discussed eBooks and how, among many in The Grand Illusion, there is a belief that there is a connection between the new technologies and being a self-publisher – when there isn’t, and that there is some disconnect between new technologies and traditional publishing.

While traditional publishers (actually, the top-end publishers) are fighting over business and legal issues, like any big business, you adapt and work with what works – eBooks still represent a minority in sales. Still, it is rapidly catching up to print, and by all accounts, it has already passed hardcover (which has been in decline in a slow death since the advent of paperbacks and trade paperbacks in the 40s and 50s).

In my discussion in Part 1, I also introduced the idea that the ‘in’ and ‘out’ group behavior, eloquently described by George Orwell, is well and truly alive and well among many self-publishers.

In and Out Groups

This is the core dynamic of this article. One of the most powerful factors that sustain the idea that ‘I am a member of a group, identified by common interests, and those who are not part of my group are somewhat, if not fundamentally, inferior, or in some other way, opposed to me.’

George Orwell described this well (citations in Part 1) and referenced Nationalism and Football Hooliganism as extreme examples of how the dynamics work. This does not mean that every person in a particular group has this attitude, and of those who do, it does not mean that all participants are extreme.

Still, by succumbing to this dynamic, an awful distortion in perception occurs to some degree or another. A typical symptom is to abandon research and believe what anyone says who is identified as a group member.

Now we come to the subject at hand. Many self-publishers have not personally met or have had only fleeting exposure to traditional publishing companies and their personnel. When they have, it is usually at the periphery, where portals are deliberately set up. Namely, a professional reader sending a rejection notice to an aspiring writer. Sometimes an editor will take on this task. This, in itself, is not a positive way to view a publisher, and for some, it can be upsetting, and for others, who have had rejections piled on them for literally years, it can be much worse.


When someone is faced with a tsunami of rejections, they can choose to approach it in one of three ways:

  1. Carry on and strive to gain acceptance;
  2. Give up; and
  3. Become bitter and twisted (and possibly make up a whole lot of stuff about the publishing industry based on invention and hearsay).

I do not suggest, by the way, that self-publishers are represented by category 3. Still, I propose that there are enough people in the self-publishing supergroup who are in this category that they represent a solid glue-like foundation of The Grand Illusion. These people will paint traditional publishers in amazingly broad brushes as evil, mercenary, unscrupulous, ignorant, conspiratorial, behind the times, etc.

I don’t know how many people work in traditional publishing, but surely it must be in the tens of thousands – and is it appropriate to make generalizations about all these folk?

Additionally, a side effect of The Grand Illusion is to fail to separate broad strata within the traditional publishing field: for instance, editors, artists, and other trained, often highly qualified and experienced folk, versus management in the large companies; and distinguishing between small, middling and large companies.

I am the Chief Editor of a small company – we publish a little over a dozen titles per year, and we have close relationships with most of our authors. We help them, and they, within their capabilities, help us. We represent the lower rungs of the publishing and writing ladder. And we enjoy the work and get giddy when our authors get published and praised.

I have other small and middling publishers in my circle of friends and acquaintances, along with editors, and the vast majority have the same views as our company.

They want to make a living from their business, and they want to help their authors. More often than not, if there is a conflict between those two urges, the authors are given the benefit.

I know some authors and editors of the larger publishing houses, and guess what? Within their fields, the technical and editorial staff are professional, qualified, and work in the best interest of the author and their company, and 99% of the time, they can achieve this with hard work.

Remember, of course, that working for a large company has the usual pain and misery associated with working for any large company, but that does not mean that the editors, proofreaders, format designers, cover designers, artists, slush readers, etc. etc., are automatically aligned with the more unsavory aspects of business management ethos, etc.


The nice thing about running a small concern is that we don’t have to be bullied or take part in big business machinations at all. Instead, we work to the best of our capacities and often stay monetarily poor but creatively rich. And we dream.

What gets me is that in The Grand Illusion, not only do the irrational assume that the editors and artists, etc. of the large companies are all those ugly, awful things I listed earlier, but the smaller players are no better.

Of course, if the irrational do distinguish the small/middling publishers from the large, they will question the fore-mentioned credentials. My answer is straightforward: there are small publishing houses that shouldn’t run and are managed by amateurs. They exist. Many industries are plagued by the unscrupulous. What is reassuring is that their track records will see them out for what they are with a little bit of research.

I strongly advise any writer who wants to approach a publisher to do that legwork first. Middling publishing concerns are more likely to be legit, because the unscrupulous will, on average, find it hard to earn a buck.

The majority of traditional publishers, small, medium, and large, are legitimate concerns, and it is up to the author to choose where they want to enter the business.

While I believe I can safely say it is easier to get published by a smaller concern, it should be noted that many small publishers offset their costs by producing less, which in turn makes it hard to get accepted. Some great small publishers, like Ticonderoga Publishing, only produce 3 or so titles a year. And good for them, because they win awards.

There is nothing but straight out professionalism in the everyday interaction between an author and a traditional publisher. A common myth among The Grand Illusionists is that editors are out to take over creative control. Bull shit. To start with, most publishing houses are only interested in work that has already progressed in maturity that getting the work to reader-ready is a matter of polishing, not an overhaul.

Most editors look at working with an author as a partnership, where most changes are a mutual effort to improve the work. I personally edited over 2 million published words, and even the best authors need guidance – not because they are bad authors, but because novels are large works.

It isn’t easy to sustain the same quality over 80, 90, or 200 thousand words. Additionally, both the author and the editor get too close to the work and cannot see the forest for the trees – proofreaders who have not been exposed to the work at any stage are best suited to help in that arena. I repeat, however, that we are talking polish here, not overhaul.

Self-publishers will often take exception to those who criticize them for not having the capability to polish a manuscript to production quality. In an ‘us and them’ mode, they will often react by stating that most or all traditional publishers are not qualified either.

This is an unadulterated myth. Most publishing staff who get paid to do their work, and keep their company afloat with quality material, are good at what they do. Most self-publishers aren’t. It’s that simple. There are exceptions in both cases.

Bursted Bubble

I have friends who are publishers and editors, and they have families, are kind, reasonable people, and have as many failings as anyone else. Meeting them face to face confirms their humanity, their professionalism, and tears down the illusion that they are arrogant, untalented, and care nothing for authors.

It’s a bit like getting any folk who are divided by race, nationality, language, religion, politics, sporting teams – and getting them together to talk – in no time, there is an epiphany – and it can, in fact, burst the bubble called The Grand Illusion.

  1. Avatar of Elizabeth Lang
    Elizabeth Lang says

    An excellent article about those few, either in self- or the publishing industry who drag down the rest and either create or foster this image.

    I’m sure there are some defensive self-publishers who will insist on claiming that you’re against all self-publishing because you are criticizing the bad apples among them.

    I’ve been to more than a few fan conventions and met authors (trad, indie and self), publishers, editors and agents and I’ve always found them to be unfailingly passionate about books and authors. The ones I met are people who have a love for the written word and those who write them. Sometimes they’re like fan boys/girls. They are not ogres who like to dump on an authors work. They are invested in their authors and want them to do well because when their authors do well, they do well. It’s only logical. Do you really think editors are there to create trash so that it won’t sell and so that it ruins their business and they won’t make any money? Let’s try to use a little common sense, shall we?

    It just makes me laugh at the newbies who ignorantly attack anyone who rejects them, whether they are editors, publishers, BOOK BLOGGERS, the hapless REVIEWERS who bought a book only to find they wasted their money on something that needed another year of work before it should be inflicted on the buying public.

    Face it, writers are the worst people to know if they’re book is better than the 100,000+ that are out there. They all believe their stories are good because the ones in their heads are so great, but whether they can translate that interest and excitement on a page, that is what makes a great writer and all writers think they have, because they see far more than what they put down on the page. Only the reader (whether editor, blogger, reviewer, reading public) can truly tell if you have done it successfully. If you haven’t and they reject your book, it’s not their fault, it’s your lack of experience and skill as a writer and it should be taken as a wake-up call to improve yourself before you continue to inflict your work on the buying public.

    This is one of the panels that is at WorldCon this weekend:

    Why Editors Are Your Friends
    A discussion of editors as quality gatekeepers. The important role editors play in helping writers succeed. We’ll deconstruct the sense of animosity some writers feel about those who reject their work. Look at editing from the editor’s point of view. Why rejection is the last thing editors want to do and how discovering great stories is their greatest joy.

    Some writers take rejection or criticism personally, especially those who are newbies (and this applies to self, indie or trad published authors) and have not developed the professionalism or maturity in this industry, but unfortunately, because of the rise of vanity press the last few years, the majority of those newbies are self-publishers. It’s just basic statistics, nothing personal.

    Even book bloggers are increasingly complaining about the immature, rude and self-serving behavior of some self-publishers, even those bloggers who are dedicated to helping only self-publishers. That should tell you a lot.

    Many are afraid to say anything about the bad behavior of these self-publishers because the immature have a tendency to strike back irrationally, taking things out of context, being rude, and try to apply everything they say against all self-publishers even though they are clearly only speaking about some, and the others blindly support them because they band together as one homogeneous group without realizing it is these bad apples who are destroying the reputation of the rest.

    A good editor isn’t like the amateurs who’ve popped up the last few years to take advantage of the ‘gold rush’ of self-publishers that are desperate for the services that will make them as good as the ones by publishers. Good editors will not change the essence of your work, they will usually only enhance it and point out flaws in spelling, grammar, flow, logic, etc. Sometimes they might point out major flaws that require more fixing but these people are the experienced objective eye that friends and acquaintances will rarely ever be.

  2. Avatar of William Ockham
    William Ockham says


    What if “most self-publishers” who you believe “aren’t good at what they do”, aren’t trying to do what you think they are trying to do? Have you ever considered that you are using the wrong criteria to judge them?

    Let me tell you a story. There was a ballroom dancing event held every evening at large hotel. A big band played and it soon became so popular that the dance floor became too crowded. Even after the hotel raised the cover charge, there were more dancers than dance spots. So the event organizers rented another room to hold tryouts for new dancers. There was a cover charge for the tryout room, but the winners of the tryouts only got a spot in the main ballroom when a spot opened up through an injury or retirement.

    Soon there was a line of people waiting to get into the tryout room. One day, a new business opened up across the street. It was a rock and roll dance hall with no cover charge, just a tip jar for the band. The rock band started playing and most of the people waiting in the ballroom line came over and started dancing. A few were doing their ballroom moves, but most were just free form dancing.

    A couple from the main ballroom looked out the window and were horrified. They couldn’t hear the music (the hotel had great soundproofing), so all they saw was the worst ballroom dancing ever. From their perspective, they were right. But in the bigger picture, they were sadly mistaken.

    1. Avatar of Elizabeth Lang
      Elizabeth Lang says

      Ugh. Seriously. This logic is like comparing oranges to race cars and concluding that it’s going to rain on Friday.

      In this scenario there are good ballroom dancers who will be good enough to dance in the main ballroom, some who will never be good enough (those who who failed), some who have never been tested (some of whom will be good and some of whom are not good enough) and some who aren’t interested in ballroom.

      This means that in the ballroom are those who are good enough because they have passed the tryouts.

      Outside the ballroom there are a greater percentage of dancers who are not good enough to pass the tryouts. That only makes sense. Why? Because the outside group is not only made up of the good people who have not been tested yet, but also those who failed the tryouts, those who have never been tested but who are destined to fail the tryouts, as well as those who are not ballroom dancers and are only interested in free form. So in the outside group, only one out of those four groups are actually good enough dancers. The rest are not, either because they’ve already been tested and found lacking, or they are free form dancers who don’t know ballroom and are thus not good ballroom dancers, and those who are not good regardless of whether they have been tested or not.

      This use of the scenario is far more logical than the one you presented.

      1. Avatar of Gerry Huntman
        Gerry Huntman says

        I agree with Elizabeth, William, I think your logic isn’t quite up to scratch.

        I stand firm that that majority of self publishers aren’t up to scratch.

        There are ways that self publishers can get up to scratch, but I don’t believe that even they can materially outweigh the multitude that can’t or wont make the grade. No different in the art or music worlds, except that in the book publishing world we have the Amazon created flood.

        There are and should be dance halls for these folk who don’t have what it takes, don’t care, or are up-and-coming, but they shouldn’t be the same dance halls for intermediate dancers and the professionals. Obviously, what we are all after are effective ‘promotion’ pipelines, including fast track.

  3. Avatar of Andrew J. Sacks
    Andrew J. Sacks says

    Allow me to put in my two cents. We know the old saw about vanity publishers. Of course there is a lot of truth in it. If no one will publish you, pay to publish it yourself. Just on the face of it, without any research or stats necessary, the suspicion will always be that self-publishing of any type will be suspect, and although there will be some fine work, the majority will be worthless and self-serving. Logic dictates.

  4. Avatar of jezri
    jezri says

    I find it interesting that at the beginning of this you say: It is these people who will paint traditional publishers in amazingly broad brushes, as evil, mercenary, unscrupulous, ignorant, conspiratorial, behind the times, etc. I don’t know how many people work in traditional publishing, but surely it must be in the tens of thousands – and is it appropriate to make generalizations about all these folk? And then further down the page you do to indie authors what you don’t want indie authors to do to you: Self publishers will often take exception to those who criticize them for not having the capability to polish a work to production quality. They will often react, in an ‘us and them’ mode, by stating that most or all traditional publishers are not qualified either. By the way, I consider you indie. I checked out your publishing company and you are author owned and have only existed for a few years. You are an indie publishing company. I don’t know why you are trying to seperate yourself from indie publishing.

  5. Avatar of Gerry Huntman
    Gerry Huntman says

    Not sure where you’re coming from jezri.

    I avoid the term ‘Indie’ because it has been hijacked by self publishers for some time, to refer to self publishers. IFWG Publishing is a traditional publisher – that is, it asks for no money from its authors and it end-to-end publishes (edits, proofreads, commissions art and cover design, publishes in print and ebook form, distributes – including making print runs and selling through limited outlets, and pays the authors royalties – all these processes via contracts). If that isn’t traditional publishing, then no one knows what it is. We are also listed among the ‘preferred publishers’ with Barnes and Noble. I would hardly use the age of our company as a criterion for being traditional or not. If you mean ‘Indie’ as being ‘Independent’, that is, not connected to the large conglomerates of traditional publishers, then yes, we are ‘Indie’ as well as ‘Traditional’ (the trick here is not to use the two terms as contrasts, because they are apples and oranges). “Author Owned” is a byline we use, because all owners are also authors. A few of us have published through the company, but that represents less than 5% of our titles (look at our catalog), and we went through the same strict guidelines for acceptance.

    Just to add spice to what I have outlined above, we have been mentioned by a number of commentators in this, and other sites, as being traditional publishers, and have been included in statements of criticism about traditional publishing – which is, by the way, the discussion topic of this article.

    So, to summarize – we are traditional publishers, by strict definition, and trad publishers come in small, medium and big sizes, and some are young, and others are very old. We are also “independent publishers”, which can be termed, “Indie”, but only in that very strict sense. We are NOT “Indie” publishers if you mean self publishers, which many people now associate the term with.

    Hope this helps clarify this for you.

  6. Avatar of jezri
    jezri says

    I think when you say self publishing, you are refering to vanity presses, which is not indie publishing. Vanilty presses will publish anything. Indie presses, which is defined as publishers that are not part of large conglomerates, do everything trad publishers do, but on a smaller scale. Many indie authors, including myself, have published through indie presses. Indie meaning independent. Some of my work I have submitted to indie presses. I like the support I get from them and also the freedom I get in the decision making that I more than likely would not from a larger publishing company. Often the royalties are better… though not always, and you don’t lose your rights. One press that I am pubished through gives you your rights back after they have published. On the down side anyone can start up a publishing company. There are examples out there on the web that show how some have taken advantage of authors. Does this mean that indie authors should avoid small publishers? No. But they should do their research. Ask authors that have been published by them about their experience. Were they paid their royalties as promised? Were they shown sales reports? Did you have trouble communicating with the publisher? And small presses should be willing to share their credentials. Indie authors should not go into an agreement blind.

    On a lot of this I think we agree. My dispute is that you seem to generalize indie publishing with bad writing or authors that are too lazy to do the work. This isn’t always the case. You do have valid points about indie publishing. There are those that don’t take it seriously, but I think the majority of authors, indie and trad, just want to practice their craft.

  7. Avatar of William Ockham
    William Ockham says

    Wow. There are none so blind as those who will not see. I will try one last time. Your industry is in the middle of a technological disruption. The driving factor is the fact the marginal cost of producing an ebook is zero. Read that again. The marginal cost. I know about all the fixed costs and marketing costs. But the difference in the marginal production costs between print and digital is significant. That difference shifts the cost balance towards development (writing, editing, etc.) and away from production and distribution. That is what has allowed the growth of self-publishing and the “Tsunami of Swill”.

    I come from the tech world. I have seen what is happening in your industry happen over and over. It always plays out the same way. The traditional powers (that’s you and all other traditional publishers) dismiss the change because the new entrants are flooding the market with cheap, low quality goods. And they, like you, are correct about the low quality.

    But here is what they almost always miss. There is a market for low quality goods. And that market is always big enough to allow a few of those new entrants to make money. And then those new entrants learn how to improve their quality while keeping their cost structure low, thanks to the new technology. Soon enough, the new entrants are producing good enough quality for the whole market while maintaining that low cost structure. And the traditional market powers are either out of business or irrelevant. See Kodak for the classic example.

    The first traditional companies to fail are the smaller ones who ignore the changes, but the smaller players who get it can become the new powerhouses. That is what I am trying to tell you. You can wallow in your innate superiority over those disgusting self-publishers and go out of business. Or you can learn from them and adapt. You are absolutely correct about all your opinions about the quality of self-published work and that is completely irrelevant to your company’s future.

    Stop worrying about the grand illusion. Remember that good old advice about how it is better to remove the 2×4 from your own eye before helping someone else with the mote in their eye. Start thinking about what the changes in your industry really mean. There are many different ways to win. None of them involve sticking your head in the sand or standing around complaining about the quality of self-published books.

    1. Avatar of Gerry Huntman
      Gerry Huntman says

      WIlliam, the evolution of your discussion thread is interesting. It started with my article about a subset of self publishers who view traditional publishing in a rather conspiratorial, bleak way. You followed up with an analogy of ballroom dancing (focusing on the self publisher’s motivations etc, not my article), and now you are scoping wider than my article about technological change and how traditional publishers must adapt (still not directly addressing my article).

      I think your last response is certainly better than your first, as the ballroom dancing analogy (as most readers here will interpret) was very poorly constructed. At least you have a hypothesis worth discussing. However, I don’t buy it. It is undoubtedly true that technology has had a profound impact on all layers of society, including business, and in many cases it in fact engineered change to such an extent that businesses had to adapt or perish (and in some cases, had no choice, just perished). But assuming this generalized effect will automatically be applied to traditional publishing *in the way you briefly mapped it out* can be fraught with danger, and is certainly debatable.

      I think the music industry is a more fine tuned comparison with regard to technology. With the profound effect of the Internet, digital recording, video music, the transition from vinyl to various tape formats, to cd, to mp3 etc etc, and with the opening for any artist to record music and post on sites such as Youtube — have listeners (and viewers, since video is so important now) changed their minds about how they want to consume music, in terms of quality? No, they don’t suddenly want to dilute their taste in what they consider good music. How many crap musicians actually get heard by the general listening public? More than before, but not many in the scheme of things. Can a, say, blues fan, get to the good musicians easily, and sidestep most of the crap? The answer is ‘yes’. It works. [NOTE 11 Sept 2102: I should note here that this isn’t a statement about how the Record Industry will progress, rather, how LISTENERS/VIEWERS have had to adapt – and I stick with my position, Youtube or CDS or MP3s, the vast majority of listeners can easily drill down to the music they want to listen to, and can sidestep the amateur and crap.]

      As I stated before, ad nauseum, the key difference between book publishing and any other form of creative production is the flooding effect. When people want to listen to music, watch movies, view art, they want some sort of control in the process and they want to avoid crap. The immaturity of this process for book readers, mainly caused by flooding, is key to my hypothesis.

      Right from the start I have tried to view what the future will bring, and I really don’t think technology per se is the driving force. It is the way businesses handle the technologies. What is constant are the readers — in time they will settle this all for us, because entrepreneurs will work out what they want (improved controls to easily find good books). *That* is the way to win, and it will largely be generated by readers *complaining* about the quality of self-published books (which they already are – just spend time in reader sites all around the world).

      The more I think about it, the less technology features in this issue. While technology is integral to the deployment of titles it isn’t technology per se that is at the heart of the problem. It is the flooding of the market, by the Amazons of the world. A business decision. And as I said, readers will respond in one form or another. Everyone will adapt or die. One of my next articles covers that subject in more detail.

      I personally don’t give a hoot about where technology is going (since my main job is an IT strategist, I have enough there, for one thing), because people clearly want to read. Still. There was a time when ‘futurists’ said that the book (text based, print or ebook) will die out — another technology driven prediction that hit the dust, at least in our, and the next, generation. What I care about, as a reader, is being able to read good work (‘good’ defined as something that inspires, excites etc).

      This comment thread is getting a bit stale – shame it isn’t addressing the original topic.

      1. Avatar of William Ockham
        William Ockham says

        I have been responding to your article all along. I give up. I do want to explain that the ballroom dancing story wasn’t intended to be an analogy (it would indeed be a lousy one). I was telling a parable. The point of a parable is to draw the listener out of their current mode of thinking by turning something upside down. Your business is about connecting storytellers with their audience. Why do people tell stories? Why do people dance? For the joy of it. The ballroom dancers in my parable had lost the joy of dancing. You have lost sight of the joy that you can bring to people and are obsessing over other peoples problems. You have convinced yourself that it matters that some people have these illusions about your industry.

        Your industry is not a special snowflake. The music industry, to use your example, thought that all the crap flooding them from Youtube was their problem about 5 years ago. See this article I link to below.

        You point to all the complainers on readers’s sites. Count them up. How many are there? A few thousand? Tens of thousands? Now, compare that to the numbers of people who have bought self-published books that your industry never would have published. That’s millions of people. You are on the losing side and you can’t see that. That is an illusion that is dangerous. But I know a lost cause when I see it. I wish you all the best. And I intend to put you out of business.


  8. Avatar of Gerry Huntman
    Gerry Huntman says

    WIlliam, you didn’t give up. You went on.

    On to the next article.

  9. Avatar of Branka Cubrilo
    Branka Cubrilo says

    Good article – Boils down to:
    “Most publishing staff who get paid to do their work, and keep their company afloat with quality material, are good at what they do. Most self publishers aren’t. It’s that simple.”

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