Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

There’s No Such Thing As The Publishing Debate

Print versus digital. “Self-publishing” versus “traditional publishing.” “Plotters” versus “pantsers.”

Everything in publishing seems so binary lately and has a “debate,” and it’s starting to drive me crazy.

There seems to be this notion that everything is an argument. With a “right answer.”

It’s like believing that “good” means something, objectively, and to everyone.

It’s a fallacy, and while it may not be a dangerous one, it certainly seems to be tripping a lot of people up.

It seems like many people seem to think that people’s preferences are an affront to their own. Like, people who prefer reading ebooks on gadgets think that people who prefer paper are somehow holding them back, or something, while people who prefer paper think that people who prefer ebooks want to, like, abolish paper, or something.

It’s a strange mindset to me. Even though I taught it.


When I taught composition at USC, one of the very first things I discussed with my students was the idea of theses. We would define the term and then describe its characteristics: what is a thesis? What does it do?

For every class I had, we came up with a different definition, which makes sense, because just like there’s no one true anything, there’s no one correct definition: definitions are fluid, as must theses be.

We generally agreed that theses should be one sentence, at least for the purposes of a five-page paper. We also tended to think it served as a sort of guide for the paper. It demonstrated control and function, and in a clear, precise manner summed up the position of the paper.

Which was important. All papers had an argument. USC ensured that all writing prompts facilitated discussion, and so the papers took positions and argued it.

One of the very first things we noted about theses, then, was that a good thesis was some statement of a position with which any reasonable person could disagree.

Maybe that’s the crux of the matter, here.

“Digital publishing is great,” is a statement with which any reasonable person could disagree (probably beginning with, “Er. Define ‘great.’”).


Every day brings new options for just about everything. Milk or sugar? Stevia or high fructose corn syrup? Paper or plastic? AT&T or Verizon? iOS or Android?

Maybe all the choices with which we are constantly bombarded are making us believe that, for every choice we encounter, only one is correct.

Earlier this week, I encountered the term “panster,” which I was surprised to discover doesn’t mean yanking someone’s pants down. That’s what getting pantsed used to mean when I was in school. Especially gym class. I survived a Catholic education without ever once getting pantsed.

Apparently, “pansters” are people who write “by the seat of their pants.” As opposed to “plotters,” who outline and plan.

Neither way is “correct.” Both are useful. Both accomplish different things.

Lately, people have been discussing this “self-publishing” versus “traditional publishing” debate. Besides that the terms themselves are imprecise (technically, “independent publishing” and “corporate publishing” are arguably more accurate); the more important point, here, is that neither is “correct.” Both have certain advantages and disadvantages, and neither is strong enough in any given way as to render the other less useful.

Which is a statement that wouldn’t work as a thesis, because really, one couldn’t disagree.

Unfortunately, a lot of the writers who are writing about “self-publishing” and “traditional publishing” aren’t really taking a reasoned approach. A few of the loudest come out swinging, loudly proclaiming whichever side they’re on as a “right” side. The correct way to do things. The best way to do things.

It’s not growing tedious. It’s already there and back again. I’ve read people lament that they’re tired of the debate, but I don’t think they are: I think they’re tired of unwarranted claims that attempt to use volume to make up for their lack of support. They’re tired of each side spouting nonsense about how any one way is globally better than any other, usually while calling any dissidents names like “house slaves” or “untalented wannabes.”

True story.

The sad thing is, if only people moved past the idea of a debate and stopped flailing at each other, we might actually get some really great things accomplished. The more people argue about whether pantsing is more pure than plotting or digital smells better than paper, the less we spend actually creating great plots by the seats of our pants or finding great books amid all the myriad options available.

If only we could acknowledge that there’s really no debate about publishing, we could start really helping readers find new writers, and vice-versa, and really, isn’t that what books are really all about, anyway?


  1. I think one of the problems is that reasoned discussion doesn’t make headlines. We’re trained by television, politics, video games to think extreme is better and polarization is the norm. It’s a system of a societal-wide problem that if you can shout someone down, everything proclaims you the winner. Case in point: comments on an insightful and well-reasoned post like this, versus comments on posts that use “house slave.”

    You’re right, though, no matter how much the wingnuts shout. Writing should be about readers, not format or delivery. It’s not the big bucks or the awards or the signings or the conventions. It’s the ability to share insights into the human condition.

  2. You’re certainly right about extremism and headlines, Angela. In some ways, extremism is so effective if only because it gets people talking. Well. Shouting, probably. But then, what makes headlines is sometimes less a function of content and more a function of what people focus on. Sadly, right now, in our society, what makes headlines is soundbites and scandal. People attribute it to our short attention spans, but I often wonder just how true that really is and how self-propagating it is.

    “It’s not the big bucks or the awards or the signings or the conventions.”

    It took me years to realize that, and I’m so much happier for it.

  3. “There seems to be this notion that everything is an argument. With a ‘right answer.'”

    Yes! This is a serious issue, and not just just in publishing. As a society, we have somehow lost the ability to disagree respectfully. The art of debate is lost, and people go at each other over every issue without a hint of civility. I find it very sad.

    Fantastic post!

  4. Great post 🙂 Each writer has to do what’s best for them or what approach works out for them. Readers will decide what they want to read.

  5. I’ve been a rather unapologetic supporter of independent publishing, both in print and especially digital. But that doesn’t mean that corporate publishing is lacking any useful possibilities. My approach, gained mostly through a decade and a half of working, alternately, in both worlds, is more of a “do what you want and don’t sell yourself short” manner. There are lots of roads you can take and, to me, independent publishing provides many more avenues of possibility. It also includes much more personal risk, but that’s the way it is with any decision, there are tradeoffs. I just believe that whatever path people take, they should understand the nature of the choices they’re making. I also am very independently minded and entrepreneurial, so that helps. I wouldn’t recommend going the indie route to someone who doesn’t have those traits. But you’re right, there really is no debate, per se, but a changing system that provides more opportunities almost by the day. Arbitrarily ruling anything out because of an ideology is pretty short-sighted.

  6. Thanks, Elizabeth and Flora. Glad you liked it.

    And thanks for stopping by, Dan. And you’re right. Going through agents and publishers has different benefits than does remaining independent.

    For me, I think, the problem is that corporate publishing is something in which there’s no control over the process, and no real objective standards involved. I’ve seen several people argue for going a route that includes both “traditional” and independent publishing, but as I see it, the problem there is that one can’t simply choose to go through the traditional process; thousands of manuscripts are rejected every year, as it is “such a subjective business” (as most people doing the rejecting are quick to note).

    So yes, corporate publishing has uses and advantages, but the fact is that it’s not something one simply chooses, and I don’t believe that managing to get through it is really actually a guarantor of quality.

  7. Hello Will, incredible post! I just found it through the Red Dress Club and am so grateful I followed the link on a whim. Having been out of the loop for several months recently, coming back and finding your inspiring post felt like serendipity.

    Being an avid reader and writer myself, I have found all these incredible new choices both refreshing and, at the very worst? Awe inspiring. For me the blessing of seemingly endless variety is, yes, sometimes overwhelming. But I’m overwhelmed with awe. The kind of awe you got as a child when you went into the biggest toy store you’d ever seen… and suddenly your Christmas list was growing to enormous proportions in your head.

    I remember when that happened to me. At first glance I froze, unsure of where I should start. But I reached into my pocket and felt the worn edges of my oft-refolded Christmas list, and got my bearings again. I ended up looking for what must have been hours–what must have seemed like eons to my parents–but you know what? Instead of settling for a doll that was close to what I imagined, I ended up with the doll that was PERFECT for me, in my 7-year-old eyes.

    What you said about the current times in which we find ourselves also resounded deeply with me. Whoever thought that the word VERSUS would become such a staple in the American vocabulary? I won’t take it too far since this is not my blog 🙂 and I do not wish to offend anyone… but may I just say that there is infinite wisdom in both Luke 11:17 and Matt 3:25 where it says, basically, “A house divided cannot stand.” You don’t have to believe in the Bible to recognize the truth in that! I hope we all learn, as you have, to enjoy the miraculous myriad of options IN PEACE with one another. Thank you again and I’ll be back!

  8. I agree 100%. We seem to be wired to debate EVERYTHING. Why can’t people just accept the fact that nothing is all good or all bad? Do we have so much time on our hands that there’s nothing better to do than bash each other for making decisions we personally wouldn’t have made? I mean, I don’t see anything wrong with making a reasoned argument for something (not “argument” in the argumentative sense), but when we start proclaiming that “if you don’t do what I do, you’re stupid” it just muddies the issue and doesn’t help anybody.

    Great post. 🙂

  9. I enjoy a good debate, but the debates have to end (for me) when the name calling, personal attacks and death threats begin. Me, I like options. I like discussions of options because when options are discussed by knowledgeable people, that means real information. The more information I have, the better I can explore my options. All too often people consider an opinion a declaration of war. THAT gets tiresome real fast.

    Good post. Good reminder.

  10. Thanks for stopping by, Eden. It’s great to see that the post made it so far.

    And thanks Serena. That was exactly what I was trying to highlight.

    Jaye, you’re so right about options and information. When there are so many options available (and there are), it’s ever more important to really have a reasoned, well-informed position.

  11. Will, since it seems we could have a rational conversation without name-calling (I detest name-calling) perhaps you can help me out, because I’m genuinely missing something.

    Full disclosure: my 9 books were published independently, and I help aspiring authors do the same. I don’t work with anyone who is set on traditional publishing.

    Here’s my question: for the 99.9% or more who *aren’t* picked by traditional publishing, what was the benefit to them? In fact, for those who *are* picked, but whose books don’t become a big hit, same question: what are the benefits exclusive to traditional publishing?

    I’m with you about one-horse races. Just trying to understand the other side, because I just don’t get it.

  12. Sorry, Joel, but to be candid, on the other side of an MBA over here, I don’t get it, either. For me, the corporate model just doesn’t make sense.

  13. Most helpful, Will. Thanks muchly.

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