Friday, August 24, 2012

Beautiful, Difficult Change

Photo courtesy Flickr's  Orangeya

When Maggie invited me to guest blog with the Girlfriends Book Club this month, she mentioned that the theme was transitions. One topic that’s been on my mind lately fit that theme: a transition in belief, from authors seeing traditional publishing as the most attractive option for writers, to believing self-publishing may be as attractive—if not more attractive—an option.

I strongly support options for writers, and self-publishing is definitely one of them. Several author friends have found success through self-publishing new works or re-releasing books on their backlists. And I think self-publishing is a smart option for writers who either aren’t interested in traditional publishing or who have tried the trad-publishing route only to be told their work—while quality—would be difficult to define and/or place on a shelf. Traditional publishing is notoriously blind to books that don’t fill a specific niche, and self-publishing may be an ideal option for square-peg books, which are some of the best reads, in my opinion.

I’m all for self-publishing, but do you sense a but? Here it comes.

Last month, I spent an afternoon browsing titles at a local indie bookstore, positively in my element, because I collect books like some collect recipes. I picked up a beautiful-looking book and thumbed through the first few pages. Then an error leaped out at me. This wasn’t a typo, but a wrongness of speech—one of those I-know-you-meant-the-opposite-of-what-you-just-said type of errors.

I might’ve been on page three.

Disappointment filled me, and I’m not proud to admit that my first thought was, “I wonder if this is a self-published book?” It was.

I know that errors can be found in even traditionally published books—books that have been poured over by an editor and copy-editor; books that have been written by multi-published, NYTs-best-selling-superstar authors. It happens all of the time. So what is my problem? Why did I put that beautiful-looking book down and walk away?

Because the author-reader trust broke in that moment, and my faith shattered.

When you plunk down your money and commit to buying and then reading a book, you are allowing a writer to take your hand and guide you through a story. A tale that’s riddled with the literary equivalent of potholes is going to make for a jarring journey. Maybe it isn’t fair to judge an entire book on one early—if glaringly obvious (to me)—flaw, but life is too short and the TBR pile too teetering for meh reads.

“It wasn’t ‘meh!’ It’s a masterful story!” that author might have argued. “You didn’t give it a fair chance!”

And here’s where I’m going to sound a little bitchy, maybe. I don’t *have* to give any book a chance. It isn’t my responsibility as a reader to give any author a three-strikes read or consume a novel with one blind eye just to be nice.

The responsibility for quality lies with the author.

I know there are many, many writers out there who have self-published books, or who are considering self-publishing, who are doing their utmost to ensure polished prose. To those authors I say, “Thank you,” because here’s some truth, fair or not. Self-published authors have it harder, in some ways, than traditionally published authors—and I don’t mean the fact that they’re in charge of their own publicity and marketing. I mean they are claiming to be a Pro in writing AND in editing; that’s the pact they make with readers when they put a cover on a book and say it’s for sale. It’s done. Perfectly baked. Ready for consumption. They have that much more to live up to when they make that claim—that they’re expert in both writing and editing, that they’ve managed to conquer not just one but two huge mountains all alone and are ready to take readers on a tour. Early or frequent story errors injure that tenuous reader-writer/editor contract, and may be enough to cause someone to close the cover; they reveal a writer who didn’t do his/her due diligence, who didn’t take that contract seriously enough, who assumed maybe it would be just fine to be a decent writer but only a half-mast editor.

Here’s my truth. I don’t ever want to wonder if someone took a manuscript that didn’t work for craft reasons, that wasn’t ready for primetime, and decide to self-publish it to see if it might make money anyway. I don’t want to be slapped with the thought on page three that self-publishing was for that writer an excuse for settling on a lesser standard. I don’t ever want to think that self-publishing became for that writer the equivalent of stuffing an unready manuscript under the bed or in a drawer.

That may seem harsh, but the reality is that a self-published writer represents him/herself in all ways—and his or her story can fail in all of those ways.

Unless they don’t fail, of course. Unless they do their due diligence, and put in the hours, and revise and edit (and hire someone to help if necessary) until all of the splintery bits of their manuscript are memories. Unless they do everything in their power to make the difference between the level of craft in a traditionally published book and their novel insignificant.

Change can be beautiful, but it’s rarely easy, and this era of publishing is anything but easy.

What I’d like to see during this time of transition is for writers who decide to self-publish to become ambassadors for all self-publishing authors. I’d like to see a host of shining examples of how to do it right, with due attention to craft and a high level of respect for readers. That book? I won’t put down. I buy. I read. I love. I add to my keeper shelf.

Write that book.

What are your feelings about self-publishing, both as a reader and a writer, for worse and for better? 

Therese Walsh is the co-founder of Writer Unboxed and the author of The Last Will of Moira Leahy. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.


  1. Therese, thanks for guesting. I love Writer Unboxed. I remember a while ago there was a blog called PODDY mouth that used to review only POD books. Seems to me she had to sift through dozens that she could find ones that were actually readable. My guess is that probably still holds true today. She was a brave woman to take on the task.
    I think novel writing has a long learning curve, just like any craft, and probably takes 10,000 hours or ten years of practice for competence. Greatness might take even longer. Yet it’s such a rich and satisfying process. I fear writers are cheating themselves when they skip learning the craft just to be published. If you’ve only been writing for a few months, it’s kind of like asking people to buy your finger-paintings.
    But if a writer has earned his chops, and finds that New York isn’t responsive to his work, it’s exciting that he or she now has the option to self-publish.

  2. Karin, thanks for having me and for your kind words about WU. I believe what you've said here about 10k hours for competence, more for greatness. In talking to writer friends, I often hear them say they're grateful they didn't know how long the journey from newbie to published author would take, because they may not have felt they could handle it.

    A friend of mine worked on a high-concept story for several years, polished the hell out of it, got an agent, but didn't sell. After a few more years, she withdrew the story and self-pubbed. For me, she's the definition of an author who earned her chops but was never embraced by the industry; I'm glad she made her own path.

  3. I've had that happen to me, too: the break in reader-writer trust because of an error that would have easily been caught by an editor or even a stellar critique partner.

    A good story is a good story, but mistakes in a text are distracting. Multiple errors have the effect of catapulting me out of the story into critical reading/editing mode. And that's not the mode I want to be in when I'm reading for pleasure. I'm in that mode enough, in both my day job and in my own writing!

  4. Susan, you're so right. Writers are probably especially sensitive to errors. Our inner-editor kicks in when we see them, which kicks us out of the story.

  5. I too am leery of self-published works even as I consider self-publishing. I love that authors have options. I just wish authors believed they needed to do more, not less, if they choose the self-publishing route.

    I've read some good self-published stories. But 99% would have benefited from a professional editor. When I come across the errors, I have to make a decision, to push past because the story has intrigued me or give it up because the story hasn't grabbed me and now, with the technical flaws, I've lost interest.

    Of course, as others have said, writers may be more sensitive to these types of errors, but if that's true why do we see so many of them? Writing is NOT a solo experience.

  6. Writing is NOT a solo experience.

    This. You are spot on, Patricia. It takes a village.

  7. Therese,
    It's wonderful to have you here with us!!
    I'll be forever grateful that my first manuscript never sold...I just wasn't ready to be a professional writer then. The text itself is free of almost all typos (I was proud of that when I reread it this year), but it's the *story* itself that's the problem, LOL. There are just a lot of different craft elements that need to be learned in writing a novel and, for most of us, they don't come quickly.
    Hope you have a great weekend :).

  8. Marilyn, always great to see you! I look at the first draft of the first scene (of the first version )of my debut occasionally and cringe. It's a good lesson in humility. :-) I hope you have a great weekend too.

  9. Love Writer Unboxed, and I'm so glad you shared with us.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Christa. Pleasure to be here!

  10. Great points, Therese, and what you've pointed out is the reason why conventional publishing makes such a fuss about getting details right. If you produce a book that looks a little wonky it destroys the reader's trust.

    But what many writers don't realise is how much is done to manuscripts, and how long that process takes. (I'm an editor as well as a writer, so I know!) The nitpicking that editors have to do is on an absurd level. Long after they've finished dealing with story questions - and that process is rigorous in itself - we are asking did this word have a hyphen the previous time or not? Is this line too short for the top of a column or will the design accommodate it? Has the kerning left white rivers through the paragraph?
    All these details are probably not even consciously recognised by the reader when they're right. But when wrong they add up to a feeling of unease. And that's before we even get to outright errors!
    But I'll just add that some self-published writers do know...

    1. But when wrong they add up to a feeling of unease.

      That's it exactly, Roz. Unease. You sort of hold your breath for the first few pages until the writer does something--displays some form of mastery--that makes you realize you can trust them. And then you do.

  11. When I was reviewing books for Reader Unboxed, I had a self-pubbed book that was riddled with errors, the first occurring on page three. I started keeping track of only the most blatant (giving the writer the benefit of a doubt on iffy grammatical errors), and I think I came up with 14 or so. I noted the errors in my review. The author actually came back at me, citing a traditionally published book with nine errors. For me it was like refereeing soccer, giving a yellow card, and having the player complain that they'd seen the higher-paid pros commit worse fouls. So what? We're talking about your book. Don't you want it to be the best it can be? Do you want to trip your readers up?

    I have long sensed Roz's point, that I don't even realize just how much goes into the editing process, even after I get the story right. And I'm paying a pro just to help me get to that level (getting the story right). I worked too damn long and hard to not subject myself to the most rigorous vetting process. I may get to the point where my goal will change, but for now, the best way I know to get my work to the level I think it deserves is to pursue a traditional deal.

    Roz is also right that some self-pubbed authors do get it, and have gotten it right. I just finished my friend Dee DeTarsio's book, Haole Wood. I know she hired an editor, and I know this is not her first rodeo. I also know her work is tough to classify (it fits in no one genre--one of Therese's square pegs). I'm happy to report I didn't find one error. The format was as professional looking as any Big 6 eBook. It can be done right, but the author must adopt a professional attitude.

    Thanks for perfectly summing up my feelings about this issue, Therese! Great post!

    1. I wonder if it's smart to hire both an editor and then a copy-editor for a self-pubbed work? They do different things, but they're both important. That hyphen business Roz mentioned above, for example, would more than likely be caught by a copy-editor. Keep the wallet at the ready, right? But they're expenses a trad publisher would bear.

      I agree with you and Roz that some self-pubbed author do get it, and I am so grateful to them. I'll have to check out Dee's Haole Wood; thanks for the tip. Another self-pubbed book I enjoyed was Erika Liodice's Empty Arms.

  12. Great post, Therese. I feel the same way about distracting errors and sloppy writing. But I have to wonder if we writers are in tune with the pulse of the market on this issue. Witness the Fifty Shades phenom. Virtually all the professional writer reviewers slammed the prose, yet the author is now a gazzillionnaire.

    1. I've wondered the same, Mari. All I know is how I respond to sloppy work as a reader. I have to believe there are other readers out there who are not writers who feel the same.

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  14. Distracting errors and sloppy prose are pet peeves with me. I've managed to ignore bad writing through a few books with fantastic stories. I have also cringed and limped my way through books that have sold millions of copies because I hoped to see why. Most of the time, though, I put poorly edited books back on the shelf and walk away. I also remember the author's name, but not in a good way.

    Self-publishing can be done right, but it shouldn't be an excuse not to do the work it takes to make a manuscript as perfect as possible.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kim. You know, I've probably limped through those same books. We'll have to talk...

  15. "I know that errors can be found in even traditionally published books—books that have been poured over by an editor and copy-editor . . ."

    Pored over. Funny considering the general, tongue-in-cheek rule that one will inevitably make an error when either discussing errors or commenting on one.

    "What I’d like to see during this time of transition is for writers who decide to self-publish to become ambassadors for all self-publishing authors."

    While I like this idea and agree to some extent, I think it's problematic. I certainly try to be an example to all authors, independent or otherwise, taking craft seriously and publishing the best books--by myself and others--I can. The thing is, though, that because it's independence, and because we're independent of each other, one can't hold one author responsible for others.

    There already exists a host of shining examples of independent authors who are producing quality work well. Often, they're the ones doing it quietly. They're likely not the Lockes and Hockings. The woman who commented here as dirtywhitecandy is one shining example. Martin Lastrapes is another (disclaimer: I published one of Martin's short stories through Exciting Press). They're there if you look for them.

    Which is my feeling as a reader: I've found more examples of more quality independent work in the past few years, since I purchased a Kindle, than I found quality work from big corporations in previous years. I remember I used to pick up books and read a handful of pages and then move along, again and again and again. I still do that to some degree, but there's so much more access to so many more options that I find I more often move along to something good. I've finished more books in the past few years than ever before. And I've been reading more independent work, lately, mostly because it tends to cost less, so I can try more. I think I tend to expect more or hope more from a book that costs $10 than a book that costs $4, which is probably why I'm so often so disappointed by the former and surprised by the latter.

  16. Pored over.

    Ha! I could claim I did that on purpose, to see who'd catch the error, but you'd be too wise for that I'm sure.

    one can't hold one author responsible for others.

    Agreed. I'm not suggesting that, though; I'm saying be the self-published author worthy of being referenced in a post like this. Be a Roz Morris, Dee DeTarsio, Erika Liodice. Aren't we saying the same thing?

    Good luck with your press.

  17. I agree that self-published writers should make their work as polished as possible. I plan to self-publish and I had five beta readers read my work and also will be hiring an editor to look it over soon.

    BUT I never get why so many people obsess over the tiny things, like,"Wow, this person used a few too many exclamation points or this person misspelled a word." Why do those tiny mistakes you find on page three catapult you out of the story?

    I've read self-published novels and been drawn out of the story as well, but I was able to easily ignore any of those little mistakes. It was the plot holes and the bad research, so on and so forth that bothered me.

    It's not that big of deal, in my opinion, when someone forgets to put a period or something small like that (although I'm trying very hard to have none of those mistakes). Especially if it's only a couple of times that they forget. What I hate is the bigger mistakes. Those drive me up the wall because they're actually super important.

    1. Terry said what I would have. And it goes back to what Roz said above too--that feeling of unease.

      Maybe it's simply that every reader's threshold for quality is unique; it likely is. What I need to see on the page to feel comfortable, to believe that I'm in the hands of an author I can trust with my emotions (because it is an intimate experience), is different from what others need. To each his own. But, as an author, don't you want to appeal to the largest pool of readers, including those readers who care about the details/typos/wrong turns of speech?

  18. Mahalo to Vaughn for his kind words about Haole Wood, which had an amazing editor, Dave Malone (@DZMalone) (referred by the awesome @Porter_Anderson) (so heck, yeah, I was scared)! Having a professional editor was the #1 best thing I’ve ever done (though I am working on a sequel filled with all the good stuff Dave cut out!). I also used a copy-editor after that. (And then uploaded two more versions as those pesky edits/errors kept coming.) Great post, Therese!

    1. Dee, thanks for confirming what I wondered over -- the value of editor and copy-editor both. And bravo to you for demanding the same quality control for your book that any traditionally published author should have with their work.

      That Porter. What a good guy.

  19. In response to E.B.'s question of "why the little things matter," I'd say it's because when you create a book, you want readers to be involved in the story. A good writer will want others to think that he/she has mastered the craft.

    If you were buying a new car and found one on the lot that looked wonderful with the exception of a few paint chips in the hood or maybe a small crack in the windshield, would you still think as highly of it as you might the one next to it with no chips or other blemishes. Mechanically, the cars are identical, but the paint chips make you wonder, what else might be wrong? And, the process of stopping to wonder what else might be wrong detracts from your appreciation for what otherwise might be a beautiful piece of equipment.

    Also, I'd agree with Vaughn. Dee gets it. The fact that she hired an editor says that she's investing in her craft. Too many authors (self-pubbed as well as traditionally published) think "good enough" is good enough. I'm one of those who would disagree and wouldn't want to buy the car with the paint chips.

    1. Love this car example, Terry, and I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks for your comment.

  20. Thanks for the shout-out, Will!
    Therese, you're right that every reader has different sensitivities. Some will forgive the missing inverted commas if the story rocks along, because that's what they bought the book for. Some find those errors unforgivable because it meant the publisher didn't care enough. Some can't stand split infinitives (you won't believe how many hours are spent in editorial offices discussing whether split infinitives are acceptable). But a book that has all of those things right will not offend anyone. Good production, like good writing, is invisible and doesn't get in the book's way.

    Of course it's time-consuming - which means it's expensive. Editors know this very well, but how are authors to know? An author who is published traditionally never sees the production bills and would be shocked at how they add up. An author who has never been published has even less reason to understand why they might spend hundreds of dollars on 'cosmetic fussiness'. Especially when there are a lot of sharks who want to make money out of self-published authors.

    So bravo for this post, Therese, and bravo to the writers cited here who are setting themselves high standards.

    1. Good production, like good writing, is invisible and doesn't get in the book's way.

      This. Yes, yes, yes.

      If you were tackling a huge painting, you might draw grid marks on the page to help keep everything in perspective. But when you're finished, you erase those lines, you tidy the whole thing up, refine it. In the writing world, un-invisible errors are like a work of art that still has grid marks all over it. They prevent you from appreciated the work as a whole.

  21. If I were to ever have a reason to self-publish, I'd want to make double-danged sure my book was "perfect" --- I do that now, even though I'm trad published - even before I send it to my editor at my publishers, it must be as perfect as I can get it. I do multiples of edits/go-throughs/re-writes - until I am at my deadline's back door! I have at least two readers read it - one of whom I know will catch things I may not catch - before it goes to my editor. And once at my publishers at deadline, it goes through copy editing and proofing and I look at it again before the final is sent to the printers. And even though I am also an editor, I know that I can't always see my own forest for the trees.

    What I worry with some self-published authors is that they are publishing "too soon" -before the novel is quite ready, before it is proofed, or edited, etc. I remember that feeling of "I just want this published so I can move on!" And that's where it can be tricky.

    By the way - love the image of you browsing in the store - ah book love! :D

  22. Kathryn! You've hit on the moment, I think, when self-publishing authors will have to make a choice -- when they hit the "god, let this book be finished already" stage of writerly fatigue. It must happen to everyone, right? It definitely has happened to me. And depending on the book, how much it asked of you along the way--both in time and in pure marrow--you may feel you cannot do another bloody thing for it. That's not the time to publish it. That’s the time to call in fresh eyes, to help you see the eraser bits you’ve left all over the page but can no longer see because you’re wiped out. While the fresh eyes are poring (not pouring) over your pages, you rest, then retackle that sucker when you’re refreshed.

    I think we should call it double-danged editing in your honor, Kathryn, because it's so charming maybe the process would feel less grueling!

    1. *laughing~* Let the double-danged editing movement begin!

      But you are correct - the constant reading and re-reading and reading again can have us going "ungh! Enough all ready!" I will say that happened more before I was published than after - because that need, that drive, that GOAL of having your first book Out There is so strong, it's difficult to have patience - much easier for patience to come once you have a book or two or more out!

      I will also add: for me personally, if I am sick of my book too soon, then it's a sign I need to fix it better. The "sick of it" has to come at a certain point in the editing process, and I know where that is. If it comes before that, then I have more work to do.

    2. I will also add: for me personally, if I am sick of my book too soon, then it's a sign I need to fix it better.

      Love this, Kathryn! "Fix it better." I'm going to remember that one.

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  24. So happy to have discovered this blog and all you wonderful writers! Thanks for all the wisdom! cindy

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  26. "Write that book." I got goosebumps. That's the real goal-- right? The idea/premise, the talent, and the soul, sweat, and tears that go into mixing those qualities in right measures are for nothing if the polishing is sub-par. I have not considered the "trust" as an unwritten code, but it is. It absolutely is.

    As usual, you have placed your very articulate typing fingers right on the heart of an important issue. It's not just the purchase price, but, as you say, the investment of precious time that is given to each read. I might stumble over style, but fundamental errors of craft are unacceptable.

    And, if I may?-- This also extends to traditional publishing. Too many celebrated and beloved authors are "given their head" (a horsey term) once established. I will not name names, but it is also a breaking of trust for an established author, once having earned that trust with the aid of a qualified publishing team, to, in future publications, assume his popularity supersedes the necessity of his team's advice.

    I have spent many hours investing in epics only to walk away because the structure has fallen apart and the story has become a weedy path of uncertain destination.

    Thank you for another insightful and well-crafted post, Therese. Your gift for the written word is a well-honed tool whether for entertainment or teaching.

    1. And, if I may?-- This also extends to traditional publishing.

      Oh, it does, definitely. When my sister falls for an author, she buys all of their books. She's mentioned being let down by a former favorite more than once. It's hard to know what's behind that drop in quality. It might be overconfidence or complacency on the author's part, but it could also be a hungry industry (and fans) pushing the author to turn in work ASAP, before it's truly ready. But I know it's a problem.

      Thanks for your super kind words, Denise. Much appreciated!

  27. Therese,
    Thank you for putting into words exactly what I've been thinking. I'm all for self-publishing, but wish more writers wouldn't hit the publish button until their book was well and truly ready. There's no denying that a lot of self-published books are released before they should be. You can’t run before you learn to walk and it feels as if short cuts are being taken by a lot of writers who choose the self-publishing route. What they don't understand is that they aren't doing themselves any favours, nor are they helping the credibility of the self-publishing industry. It saddens me that some incredibly talented self-published authors might get passed over because there’s so much noise out there and so much competition. Sub-standard books only fuel the self-publishing stigma. With so many books fighting for attention by both traditional and self-published authors, why wouldn’t writers want to make their books the best it could possibly be? Self-publishing is a business, and for a business to succeed, some investment is needed. In the case of publishing, this investment comes by hiring editors, designing a professional cover, and producing the best possible work they can. Thank you to those who do! The problem is it's getting harder and harder to find those books in a mass of poorly produced books. As a reader, I get a bit fed up with having to slog through a dozen self-published work to find one diamond in the rough. Like you, my to be read list is already toppling over. For that reason, I tend to rely on word of mouth and reviews (although I even find it hard to trust reviews any more). Yes, there are traditionally published books that are full of errors, plot holes, and seemed rushed, but in my experience, those are fewer and far between than in the self-publishing industry.

  28. Sub-standard books only fuel the self-publishing stigma.

    So true, Heather. Those ambassadors can help to lift that stigma. We just need more of them!