Back in the late 1980’s, when I entered the workforce as a secretary, I was told that it was somehow demeaning to refer to myself as a secretary. I was an “administrative assistant” or “office assistant.” Some days, I was a “member of clerical support services staff” or a “word processing technician.” It was supposed to be all about taking pride in my work and demanding respect as an equal, sort of along the lines of not getting the coffee for the men in the office.
I went to a training seminar in Grand Rapids, where the instructor told us it didn’t matter what we called ourselves as long as we left out one very important word: Just. As in “I’m just a secretary” or “She’s the VP, and I’m just her assistant.”
That did more for my self-respect than any of those inflated titles, and I’ve held onto that lesson through the years. In later career moves, I never referred to myself as just a hairdresser, just a stay-home mom, or just a lunchlady. My ex-husband was never just a maintenance man, and in all his years on our local fire department, he was never just a volunteer firefighter.
That’s a big part of why, all these years later, I bristle when people ask me if my books are just self-published.
It’s true that anyone can self-publish a book these days. It’s estimated that there are between 600,000 and 1,000,000 new books self-published every year. It costs nothing to slap together some pages, create a cheap cover, and upload it to Amazon or Smashwords. Anyone can do it with any book, good or bad, but that doesn’t meant that all self-published books are slapped-together garbage.
Okay, some of them are. Let’s be honest. There are an awful lot of discussions in writers’ groups about a need for standards and gatekeepers and ways to improve the perception of self-publishing in general, but I feel that the change in that perception begins with how we refer to ourselves. It goes without saying that we need to produce the best work we possibly can, but it goes beyond that. If we want to be respected, we need to start by treating ourselves with respect.
If I agree that I am just a self-published author, I am quietly agreeing that all self-published books are in some way inferior to those that are traditionally published. I’m apologizing for not being traditionally published. I’m dismissing my own accomplishments as unimportant. If I say, “My books are just self-published,” it sounds an awful lot like, “They aren’t good enough for traditional publishing.”
It is an insult to say that a book is just self-published. Here’s a backhanded compliment I saw in a review not too long ago: “It’s self-published, but it was actually good.” As though the reviewer was surprised! Just a wee bit condescending, don’t you think?
As writers, if we want our books to stand out from the flood of self-published works out there, it starts with how we treat ourselves and our work. If we want to change public perception, we have to set an example by treating ourselves right. We are not just self-published.
For that matter, we are not just romance writers or just science fiction authors. Short story writers, do you tell people you just write short stories? What about those of you who write children’s books — do you say that you just write kids’ books?
I have a challenge for all of you. For the next twenty-four hours, wipe the word just from your vocabulary. Don’t be just anything. Not just an indie author, not just an aspiring writer, not just a beginner.
You might be surprised to discover how many times each day you dismiss your own importance, your own accomplishments, with that one little word: just.