Author Chuck Wendig has written a long post about how self-publishing is turning into a shit volcano. Vast quantities of terribly written rubbish is being published, and this is damaging to everyone in self-publishing. He says (emphasis as original):
[…] one of the features of self-publishing is that the door is open to anyone. Everyone. Always. No bouncers at this nightclub door, which is fine, but that also means you get folks with no shirt and no shoes. You’ll get folks dressed to the nines in sharkskin suits and you’ll also get wild-eyed dudes who are eating goulash out of rubber boots and who are quietly masturbating in the corner. You let anybody swim in the pool and, well, anybody can swim in the pool.
He goes on to make a number of arguments as to why this is a bad thing, and asks what we can do about it. If you haven’t read it yet, do so, because Wendig makes some very good points.
I’m afraid I have some bad news for Wendig, and for everyone else in the industry, self-published or otherwise. The shit volcano is not going to stop erupting, and there’s nothing we can do about it. There are a number of reasons for my pessimism, but the main one is this:
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
Charles Darwin was dead on the money when he said that, and it’s now known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Wikipedia says:
[…] unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.
David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conclude, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”.
I’ve seen it over and over again in social media. People believe that because using Twitter and Facebook is easy, that producing a meaningful long-term strategy for a multinational company is therefore easy, and that their intern can do it. After a decade as a social technologist, I can tell you from experience that it’s really not easy, and no, your intern cannot do it.
You see it in web design, which is what I did before I moved into social media. Because anyone can learn to throw a bit of HTML together, they think that it’s easy to design a website. Again, from experience, I can promise you it isn’t.
The problem is that people are generally very bad at accurately assessing their level of skill in any given area, especially an area in which they are inexperienced. That’s bad enough in a field where there’s an objective measure of capability. You may think you’re the bees knees at tennis, but if you keep losing every game you play, that’s a fairly clear indicator that you’re crap. And it’s not just an indicator to you, it makes it obvious to everyone that you’re crap, so it becomes hard, though not impossible, to maintain the delusion that you’re good.
With writing, however, there is no such clarity. The factors influencing the quality of a book can be broken down into three categories:
- Objective factors: Spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors. Formatting errors. Inconsistencies. Issues that, no matter the reader, are obvious and should have been avoided. Much of this stuff could be picked up by a well-written algorithm.
- Subjective factors: Poorly drawn characters, unconvincing plots, poor dialogue, cliche-ridden prose. Problems that many people will find problematic, but that some people will be able to successfully gloss over when reading. More experienced and professional readers/writers will notice these more than those who are less experienced. A computer couldn’t spot these problems, but us humans can, although the extent to which we are bothered by them varies.
- Matters of taste: Tone, genre, aspects of plot or character. Other issues that really can’t be said to be good or bad, but which either fit your taste or don’t. Computers have no sense of taste.
The problem is that if you’re unskilled, it can be hard enough to spot the objective errors, but the subjective problems are well beyond your ken. Yet what often happens is that the unskilled are so overconfident that they try to classify subjective (and even objective) errors as a matter of taste, and thus something that they don’t need to address because hey, not everyone likes everything.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is intractable, because it requires the unskilled to develop a high level of self-awareness to counteract their tendency towards overconfidence, and self-awareness doesn’t come easily. Again, from Wikipedia:
Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
- tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
- fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
- recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.
So, according to Dunning and Kruger, in order to combat the massive shit volcano, we would need to train every self-publisher who produces shit, and hope that they realise that they aren’t as good as they think they are and need to try a bit harder. Well, good luck with that one.
Now, it’s true that not every self-published author is on the wrong side of Dunning-Kruger. Some are on the only slightly less wrong side: Good writers whose confidence is shot because they understand that they could be better, and are over-sensitive to the gap between the quality of the work they do produce and the quality they want to achieve. Those people are better than they think they are and will publish less than they should.
Of course, there are self-published authors who have an accurate view of their own competence, and others who are moving up the competence ladder and developing a better appreciation for their own skills and what more they need to learn. Here, it’s useful to think about the Four Stages of Competence (again, from Wikipedia):
1. Unconscious incompetence
The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognise their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
2. Conscious incompetence
Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
3. Conscious competence
The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
4. Unconscious competence
The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.
But if the quality of self-published books is anything to go by, most self-publishers are at stage 1. Very few have made it through to stage 4., though I think that’s true of all authors, even the traditionally published ones. It’s a very high bar after all. What we really need is more people getting as far as stage 3. Conscious competence is a perfectly fine place to be, but it is hard to get to with Dunning-Kruger in the way.
There is no intervention that I can think of that will help people, en masse, transcend the Dunning-Kruger effect and elevate themselves to a state of conscious competence as writers. Thus, we can expect the shit volcano to keep on spewing for the foreseeable future, and this without even beginning to think about the cultural reasons why there might be many people who are so eager to be authors.
Notes for commenters: I’m not talking here about people who just write for fun and give their work away on sites like Wattpad or in fanfic communities. I’m talking about people who are selling their books and, through asking for money for their work, presenting themselves as professional writers.