My friend and fellow author Gabirel Squalia recently had this to say:
So often — from Margaret Atwood to the recent crop of YA authors — we're presented with characters the author clearly dislikes [
because the publisher is demanding they write those characters despite this dislike] [see below]. And we're not talking about creating stories that readers want, because readers are interested in the offbeat and Gaimanesque; we're talking about creating stories that editors want to sell to readers, and both the types of acceptable stories and their methods of telling are shrinking, both.
Those who sell movies and books and whatnot to people know that the easiest way to do that is to find out what's already selling and associate their product with it in some manner. That also includes the commissioning of work to explicitly satisfy such requirements: why dig for what you know you want when you can just have it produced to fit? Why not save yourself that step?
In theory all of this cultural shortchanging should be imperiled by the ability to self-publish: what could be more terrifying to publishers than the ability to cut them entirely out of the equation? What everyone forgot was that publishers, for all of their aesthetic timidity, serve a valuable function: they have the scale and the budget to connect vast numbers of people with the things they think they want. And yes, most of those things happen to be undemanding and "mainstream", but that's how it becomes possible to operate on that scale in the first place.
One of the most dismaying things I see in self-publishing — and I know I've commented on this before, but it always bears repeating — is how many authors taking that particular detour do not do so because they have some truly striking and original artistic statement to present to the world. They're doing it because they think they can create something in the vein of what they saw on the bestseller lists, and get it out to audiences without having to deal with the annoyances of satisfying an editor or a marketing manager. They see writing not as a craft to be practiced but as a shortcut to something else — fame, credibility, money, whatever. It's bad enough that self-publishing allows people without a shred of skill, talent or discipline to pretend they're authors; it's even worse that their aspirations are in the Dan Brown, Lee Child, or E L James veins.
If we can't trust the big-name curators to show us anything that isn't simply a tarted-up commercial concern, and we can't sift through the flood of independent voices out there, what's the answer? The only third option that seems remotely workable is crowd feedback a la Goodreads, but even that runs the risk of becoming just another system to be gamed by the sly and the quick, where it becomes impossible to tell the difference between a genuine grassroots effort to get an author known and a bit of lab-grown AstroTurf.
The only answer I see is for the author to find some way to stand up and speak for himself in a way that has relatively little to do with his books. He has to become a known quantity first for reasons entirely apart from his writing. Then, and only then, will he have the luxury of calling attention to something that close to his heart.