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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

I is for Ignorant: How Sue Grafton Hates Indie Writers

As a political reporter, nothing is more tiring than watching a politician say something he or she truly believes, then issue a forced apology when the backdraft becomes too unpleasant.
But it is even worse to watch a bestselling novelist engage in that kind of behavior.
By now, many of you have already heard about mystery novelist Sue Grafton’s interview two weeks ago with the, in which she advised writers to avoid self-publishing at all costs and then proceeded to denounce any who have gone that route.
“Don’t self-publish,” she says. “That’s as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work.”
And that was just the beginning of Grafton’s obnoxious tirade. After interviewer Leslea Tash challenged Grafton, she opined further:
 “The self-published books I’ve read are often amateurish… To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. Learning to construct a narrative and create character, learning to balance pace, description, exposition, and dialogue takes a long time. This is not a quick do-it-yourself home project. Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops, you already did.”
Grafton’s comments sparked outrage from the indie author community who, quite understandably, didn’t like being called “lazy wannabes.”
But Grafton was just the latest in a long string of prominent traditionally-published authors to criticize the burgeoning indie movement. John Grisham, who once sold his books out of the back of his car in an effort to get noticed, essentially said indies are the scum of the Earth. Jodi Picoult, meanwhile, provided this piece of “advice” to writers (emphasis hers): “DO NOT SELF PUBLISH.”
As a result of the pushback, Grafton waited a week and then issued an apology: “I’d appreciate a chance to clarify the remark I made in the recent interview you posted.  I meant absolutely no disrespect for e-publishing and indie authors.”
She goes on at some length trying to justify her remarks by saying, a) she didn’t really know what she was talking about and b) she had incorrectly assumed indie publishing was the same as vanity publishing.
While it’s good that she felt the need to respond, it’s worth noting that this apology is actually missing a, you know, apology. She calls her remarks a “gaffe” and—much like every politician I’ve ever seen after they made a mistake—says she wants to “clarify” her remarks. But she does not actually say she was sorry or, more tellingly, that she was wrong.
Indeed, it seems likely that the non-apology apology was just a way to recover from the public relations problem her statements had created.
Her initial comments, meanwhile, say a great deal about Grafton’s attitude toward indie writers. In short, we are hacks. We don’t know how to write books, spend no time trying to learn, but take our crap stories to the market without regard to the basic rules of narrative, dialogue, characters or plot. We are, to use her metaphor, children who want our crayon scribbles on paper to be regarded as the same kind of high art she produces.
If we can actually write a good book, she says, the traditional publishers will find and promote us: “If you have a good story to tell and if you write it well, the Universe will come to your aid.”
The arrogance reflected in Grafton’s comments is truly awe-inspiring. It’s clear that she believes that: a) all good writers will get traditional book contracts and b) anyone who doesn’t isn’t a good writer.
Nothing in her apology in any way backtracks from those views. But they are clearly incorrect. Yes, there are plenty of bad self-published books. But there are awful books among the traditionally published as well. The idea that indie authors do not know how to “construct a narrative and create character” is demonstrably untrue.
I read mostly indie novels now and I’ve found some fantastic books, including “Mercury Falls” by Rob Kroese, “The Darkening Dream” by Andy Gavin, “On the Island” by Tracey Garvis Graves, “Devil’s Hand” by M.E. Patterson and “Wool” by Hugh Howey.
Those books feature great characters, interesting plots, and well-constructed narratives—and the “Universe” did not come to their aid. In all cases, they decided to STOP waiting for the Universe to come to them and seize their own destiny. Some of those writers have made it big, but others are still waiting to break through.
The idea that indie authors are “lazy” is also insane. If anything, we work harder than traditionally published novelists. When she’s done with a book—no matter how long she works on it—she has a team of people ready to edit, design a cover and plan a marketing campaign. Indie authors do all that themselves.
Candidly, I’ve seldom worked so hard as in the past year. I have a full-time job as a journalist that I must keep to support my family and—in my free time—I have tirelessly marketed my first book while simultaneously writing my second. During that time, I’ve mastered the art of the Facebook ad and spent thousands of my own money promoting the book. I’ve done blog tours, entered contests, been on radio programs, and found my way into the local newspaper. Trust me, that took work.
As for the writing itself, I slave over it. I’m not tossing off dreck and throwing it on to Amazon’s KDP. I’m not even writing a short novella and selling it, which I would do if I had any sense. No, I plot, write, edit and edit again. And while my wife (who also writes and edits professionally) is my editor, I guarantee you she is harder on me than Grafton’s editor is on her. There is not a scene or line of dialogue that we have not discussed how to improve. So I get pretty upset when Grafton essentially tells me that I don’t “read, study or do research.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity Amazon and other ebook publishers have given me. My novel has been downloaded tens of thousands of times—a thought that makes me giddy just thinking about it. But don’t for a moment assume it was easy.
And I’m just one many. There are thousands of indie authors out there working as hard as I am, if not harder, to find their readership. I see them all the time—on Twitter, Facebook, blog posts. The vast majority of writers I come across are pouring their heart and soul into it, trying to find a way to rise above the noise and get noticed.
Yet Sue Grafton dismissed all of us out of hand. We are, to her mind, beneath her.
In her apology, she says, “I am not arrogant or indifferent to the challenges we all face.”
Yet that is exactly what she seems to be. As noted in this Forbes piece and in the comments on this stellar Indie Reader take on the same subject, you don’t normally see other industries attacking each other in this way. Does James Cameron take time out of his day to slam indie directors? Does Green Day stop to criticize any band that made a demo in their basement? Of course not.
Yet Grafton and her ilk seem to think it’s okay to spit all over us.
What she doesn’t realize—but perhaps understands now—is that indie authors really are the wave of the future. The ebook revolution is the cosmos’ way of evening the score, of letting readers decide what is worth reading rather than a handful of large publishers.
We’ve got good stories to tell and finally the Universe—in the form of Amazon, Smashwords and others—has come to our aid.


  1. Excellent summation. Traditionally published authors have an element of luck also. Out of around 1000 books published 7 become successful!

    1. In her apology, Grafton makes it clear she failed with several books as well. Her conclusion seems to be that those books were bad, and she had to be better to get published. But I'm not so sure of that.

  2. Great post. I did a similar one about Mrs Grafton, looking at her comments and anaylsing them and I came to pretty much the same conclusion as you did. And I found her apology to be lacklustre at best. But it's interesting to note that her books seems to have plummetted in sales after this interview.

    I still think the title of her next book should be W is for What the hell was I thinking?

    1. Pandragon,

      If the book were called that, I might actually read it.And the word "lacklustre" is perfect to describe her apology.


    2. Have her sales really gone down? That's fascinating to hear. I knew this story had legs among indie authors; I had no idea it was reaching that many readers. Amazing. No wonder her handlers asked her to craft an apology.

      Too bad she didn't use the opportunity to apologize.

      Rob: I thought this was one of the better takes on her outrageous and offensive comments. Well done.

    3. Hugh,

      Thanks for the kind words. I loved "Wool." Thought it was an excellent example of an indie writer doing something different and cool. Read Part I and thought it was fantastic, but had no idea where you were going to go next. But each part got better after that. Good luck with Mr. Scott.


  3. FYI I am featuring you and this story on my blog tomorrow.

    1. Thanks, David! Appreciate it getting around...

  4. Great piece of writing! One of the things I love best about the "Indie world" is how supportive we all are of each other. We are not in competition here...there's enough room for everyone because readers can never get enough!! To feed the voracious reading machine, we seriously needed something MORE than what "the big six" were offering. Now we have it and still the appetite is not satisfied!

    Though it annoys me when people who have made it in the big leagues put down those who have not (YET)...I know they will have to answer for that someday. I totally believe "the Universe" will see to it.

    As you've said, the Universe has indeed answered the call and put out its offering of help to all the writers of the world (Kindle, Nook, iPad, and all the other devices that can now offer ereader capability). Thanks to the supersonic advancement of ereader technology, we writers can now share our stories unhindered by any self-proclaimed gate-keepers and the readers reading them get the choice to do so.

    We no longer live in a limited world. When people try to staunch the flow of what is being shared, well all I've got to say to that is, "Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!"

    Congrats on all your success, by the way!

    1. Thanks, Deborah.
      I definitely am always pleased when I pick up and read another good Indie book. As you say, we aren't competing with each other, there's a lot of demand out there.
      Looking forward to reading your book!


  5. I have never given credibility to any apology where the word, "but" appears either in actuality or in sentiment. One thing for sure, an apology is not what will follow. I do think, however, we need to be thoughtful about the we-they thing. I'd rather see us writers support quality writing wherever it comes from, and let it go at that.

    1. You know what's weird? I don't resent traditionally published authors. I still worship Stephen King, for example. I really don't see it as a "we-they" thing, but what I find strange is that so many of those big-name authors DO see it that way. It's sad, really, because a lot of these guys are our literary heroes and yet they tend to view us as unworthy upstarts.

  6. Great article. My first book has been available on Amazon since December as I couldn't find an agent or publisher willing to give me a second thought.

    I am gradually learning the art of marketing and promoting, whilst writing the sequel and holding down a full-time job to support my family. My children are still young and I spend as much of my spare time as possible with them; writing, editing, etc after they have gone to bed, into the early hours.

    I am such a lazy person that I have managed to do all of this whilst training four times a week to run a marathon.

    Oh, and I am such a bad writer that I now have an offer from a publisher!

  7. I waited for 20 years for the universe to find me and my books and even after 100's of queries, it didn't happen. That doesn't mean my books are no good - it only means that there are only a few spots open each year for new writers and only the lucky (or better connected) authors get those spots. After self-publishing all of my books last year, I've received many 5 star reviews from readers, and to me, that is all that counts. In the end, the readers will decide who is a bestselling author, not the publishers - and that is the way it should be.

  8. So, maybe Ms Grafton could have a little word with publishers who are only interested in taking on 1. Celebs. 2. New writers who are young/beautiful/have an amazing backstory 3. More celebs. I have been 'dropped' by Usborne because I'm not making enough money for them.So I've published an ebook. It's either re-invent myself as an Indie or stop writing. And I ain't ready to hang up my keyboard just yet.

  9. Agree with the comments above. When a traditional publisher pays thousands for a celebrity book on dieting, or a reality TV star's memoir, they've lost the right to complain about their flagging financial situation.

    In this new world, if you want to be a writer, be a writer. There is nothing to stop you anymore.

  10. In my opinion, there are truths on both sides. It's certainly often the case that getting advice and writing more books will make often them better. At the same time, publishers are so market driven that they reject 9/10 good books on targeting reasons (when really it should just be: is the book great). It's very hard to sell them anything that doesn't have a crystal clear demographic that fits into the current shelving arrangements.

    Plus, in my experience with hundreds of queries, I only twice received any snippet of actual critique (and one of those was only an offhand sentence). To say the system is broken and frustrating is an understatement. And I did eventually land a top tier agent. Which means another round of submissions and waiting!

  11. P is for Prove It.

    Okay Sue Grafton, try selling your next book independently and see how easy it is. You may well succeed. Crime writing sells. You will then be in a much better place to comment on how much or how little work you had to put in. And to make it a sensible exercise - write under a new and secret pen name.

    I take my hat off to successful Independents and 'published' authors. By my understanding you have earned your sales. Me, I'm still working at it. And no Sue Grafton, I am not lazy. Not that you could possibly ever know that.

    David Jarrett

    Author of Sean Yeager Adventures