Told by an idiot, No. 6

The self-publishing industry has allowed anyone with a computer and a small amount of money to call themselves authors. Not long ago, I read a fascinating article in the New York Times (unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it when I did an Internet search) that questioned whether self-published authors should be called published authors. Rather, the article suggests, they are book writers who have their books printed. There is, I believe, a significant difference between authors published by traditional houses and self-published books in that the latter lack the processes that we can count on to ensure a minimal level of quality, both of content and style.

—Dr. Jim Taylor, ‘Are Self-published Authors Really Authors or Even Published?’

How glad I am that a sane, sensible, and official person has weighed in on this important issue. It is manifestly obvious that a self-published author is no author at all, and that a self-published book is not published. And since a book must have an author, it is surely evident that a self-published book is not even a book. What it is, I cannot say: a new variety of spam, likely.

Now, it is trivially true that self-publishers ‘lack the processes that we can count on to ensure a minimum level of quality’. This is why, for instance, Fifty Shades of Grey was worthless drivel when E. L. James self-published it, but the very same book was a work of high-quality literature when it was released by Vintage Books. All the products of the publishing industry are high-quality literature, of course, and anything not published by the industry is obvious drek. This logically means that every book published goes from the one category to the other on the date of publication.

Now, Fifty Shades is high-quality literature, for it meets the standards of the Industry; and so is The Da Vinci Code, and so is Mein Kampf, and so is Shore Thing by Snooki: for they all have the seal of Industry approval — a real live publisher’s colophon! On the other hand, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not literature, but a vile, inferior, self-published product. It was published by the author, the reprobate Samuel Clemens, under the transparently phony name of Charles L. Webster And Company. Webster was Clemens’ nephew by marriage, and did not know as much as a cow: Clemens told us so himself, in his autobiography. The company was established by Clemens to publish Clemens’ books and nobody else’s; it was therefore a perfect example of a self-publishing concern, and as such, lacked the processes that we count on to ensure a minimal level of quality, both of content and style. To support me in this assessment I appeal to the collective wisdom and judgement of the professors of English and American literature. They will agree, in the main, that whatever quality Huckleberry Finn possesses, it is not minimal.

It follows quite naturally, then, that Huckleberry Finn is not a published book, and Clemens was not an author, and since (as we have seen) there is no book without an author, Huckleberry Finn is not a book at all. What is it? The figment of a diseased imagination, I suppose. Besides, it has a naughty word in it — repeated several times. That alone proves it cannot be a real book.

Now, after Webster & Co. had been a going concern for a few years, Clemens branched out and began publishing other people’s work as well: first and most notably, the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Now, since we already know that Webster & Co. was not a real publisher, but a low, vile self-publishing operation, Grant’s memoirs were not published either; ergo, Grant was not an author; ergo, Grant’s memoirs are not a real book. Neither were any of the other hapless non-authors’ non-books that Webster published.

On the other hand, Huckleberry Finn was published in the United Kingdom by Chatto & Windus, a perfectly reputable publisher and a respected part of the Industry. This proves that Finn is a real book — in England — and Clemens a real author — in England again; but not in America, where his name is forever besmirched by his descent into the mephitic sewer of self-publishing. This, however, will not save General Grant, for his memoirs were not published by Chatto & Windus; they appeared only in America in the first instance, and while they were later reprinted in other countries by members of the Industry, it was too late. Grant could have been a contender; he could have been a legitimate author; he could have sold his book in the trade, at a ten percent royalty payable promptly on lawsuit, and left it up to the inestimable expertise of the Industry to release it without fanfare, without advertising, without support. In that case it might have achieved a lofty sale of four or five thousand copies, instead of languishing on the bookshelves of the nation in a paltry edition of 350,000 two-volume sets — all sold in advance of publication! (Excuse these tears.)

Now, if only Random House had existed in those days — for Random House is one of the pillars of the Industry, you see; or half a pillar, since the merger with Penguin; or maybe the two companies are conjoined pillars; I don’t know. I am ordinarily infallible, but some mysteries are beyond even my mighty comprehension. Random House was founded by the brilliant and worthy Bennett Cerf; and Cerf had the best credentials in the world to become a publisher, for he was not an author or anything near it. This is easily proved by the fact that he self-published a number of books with his own firm, and since Random House could not very well reject him, they slid through the works without any of the processes that we count on to ensure a minimal level of quality, both of content and style. As a self-published writer, he was not an author; ergo, those books were not published; ergo, there were no such books; which is a relief to me, because one of Bennett Cerf’s non-books has some claim to be called the worst joke book ever non-written. And that is saying something.

I think I have just proved that Random House is not a publisher either, but just another of these low, wildcat self-publishing schemes; which means that all the deluded souls whose books have been published by Cerf’s firm in the last eighty-odd years are not authors, and their books are not published, and ergo not books either. I believe I could go on to prove that there is no such thing as a publisher, or an author, or a book, and that these words you are reading are not there to be read. I think I can state without fear of contradiction that reading, as a pastime, is utterly impossible, since there is nothing to read, except for waste paper with self-publishing cooties all over it instead of words; and that you, Dear Reader, having got this far, ought to be cursing the day your parents sent you to school to learn to read, since nothing has ever been written, and you are amusing yourself (or not) with optical illusions or sheer hallucinations. If it would console you in your wild grief, I think I could prove to your satisfaction, from the premises given, that you don’t exist either. Certainly I don’t; which must be a comfort to a good many people. And there, for the moment, the matter lies; as do I.

    H. Smiggy McStudge


  1. Such profound reasoning.

  2. Voltaire lives again.
    I am laughing myself sick, all the way over here in Switzerland, (which may or may not exist, as my New York pharmacist behind the Duane’s counter always mixed it up with Sweden.)

  3. Fantastic stuff. Brilliant. Just the extraordinary laugh I needed. Thank you so much. I mean, not only am I a self-published non entity, I repeat myself endlessly while at it. Do I fit right in or what?
    Seriously, great job.

  4. Wonderful satire, made my Monday morning.

    I suppose as there is no publishing team standing behind my shoulder when I press “post comment” that I haven’t truly authored this comment? Oh the fun we could have not writing stuff everywhere.

  5. Somewhere, Twain smiles and says, “The fellow has potential.” I particularly enjoyed this little sparkler:

    “I am ordinarily infallible, but some mysteries are beyond even my mighty comprehension.”

    Absolutely pitch-perfect.

    • Jamie Wilson says

      I, too, was thinking that Mr. Clemens would be quite happy with this little gem. Mr. Simon, beautifully done and with the perfect literary tone.

  6. I have no real right to say this, since I am an unpublished author (although I was once published by New American Library, but now that doesn’t count because I have sunk into unpublishedness), so I am now once-was-but-now-am-not-a-published author, or perhaps an un-unpublished author, or a reverse-published-un-published author.

    I apologize profusely, at any rate.

  7. Nice. We like such logic. And conjuring the ghost of Mark Twain is always wise. We thank you profoundly for proof of our non-existence, so we can once again ignore the Industry and get back to the non-business of not publishing more non-existent books…

  8. Genius.

  9. Tom, you must have deliberately not left a link to this PhD’s article, so I won’t either – but I must point out that the basis for his insipid opinion is oft-repeated and horribly out-of-date information. The man appears not to be aware that ebooks exist.

    He also has a bit of thin skin.

  10. Thank you for this!

  11. “Self-publishing cooties.” – My newest favourite saying! Hilarious and wonderfully biting. Thank you!

  12. Thank you. I’m sending a copy of this well-reasoned non-article to the IRS. I used to have to pay real income taxes on the income I received from my real published books. Now, however, I don’t have to pay real taxes on my non-real income from my non-real ebooks. That’s quite a relief, because that non-income would be quite a sum if it were real.

  13. Wendy S. Delmater says

    You really ought to have a warning label on this piece. Keyboards are in serious danger of sprays of various liquids imbibed through the mouth but set free via the nose.

  14. I like this so much I’d ask you to marry me, but I don’t exist.

  15. Brilliant piece of writing. I love your style and your tone – let those ‘real’ authors get off their high horse.

  16. This is brilliant, though I agree there should be some kind of keyboard-protection warning.

  17. Somebody says

    Dear Dr., according to a dictionary an author is a writer of a book, article or report.


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