Resistance against self publishing has been steadily crumbling. Last week a writer friend of mine who had been vehemently opposed to such ideas no more than a year ago even mentioned that she’d consider self publishing. I never expected to hear those words from her, and it’s a powerful illustration for me of the mainstream acceptance self-publishing has begun to receive.
However, it is still impossible to have a discussion about self publishing without bringing up the question of quality. How will readers find the good books in the mountains of soul-rending slush? How can a writer ensure she is releasing a quality book without a publisher’s stamp of approval?
Well, Kris Rusch hits the answer out of the park in her blog entry last week, so I’m not going to repeat everything she said. In a nutshell, there have been huge numbers of books published for a long time, so the needle in a haystack problem is nothing new and has solutions (or at least aides) firmly in place. Having something come out from a publisher is not a guaranteed mark of quality. And it is possible to hire outside help when self publishing, thereby ameliorating the quality problem.
But it occurs to me that the question we are really asking ourselves as writers is, “How will I know when I’m good enough?”
The answer is, you won’t. You might never be sure you’re good enough, even if you’re traditionally published. Especially if you’re a newer writer without the benefit of years of practice and experience. You just might not know.
I’ve known writers who think they’re seriously good, and I can barely read their prose. I’ve known writers who have won multiple awards and still aren’t convinced they’re any good at what they do. I’ve known writers who were doing all right but got complacent and their work suffered. And I’ve known writers who fall everywhere in the middle.
Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s a cognitive bias wherein people who are less competent overestimate their own abilities. When in doubt, people tend to rate themselves as above average…way more people than could possibly actually be above average at a given skill. It turns out that when people aren’t competent at something, they also lack the knowledge to correctly assess their skill level. On the flip side, people who actually are above average suffer from false consensus effect: the false assumption that their peers are performing about the same as them, as long as they don’t have any evidence to the contrary. So they tend to underestimate their own abilities. This explains why sometimes in a conversation about a subject, the loudest person is someone who obviously doesn’t know what she’s talking about, while the quiet person listening in the corner might really know her stuff.
The problem with these phenomena is that you can’t necessarily tell if they’re happening to you (although if you’re worried about being good enough, that’s probably a positive sign). You can’t know for sure that you’re good enough. And you know what? You can’t know for sure if your novel gets picked up by a small press run by one editor either. And you can’t know for sure if your novel gets picked up by a big house…and then flops. And you can’t know if you sell a story to a big market like Asimov’s because after a few months, you might wonder if you’ll ever write another story that’s good enough.
And at some point in this cognitive tail chase, you have to decide if you are willing to stand behind your work. The answer might be no, and that’s fine. Then you wait and learn and practice and slowly become a better writer. Until the answer is yes, at which point you’re going to have to take the plunge, regardless of your method of publication, without knowing for sure if you are good enough.
And you know what I think? As long as you’re producing the best work you are able, that is good enough for right now.