Friday 2 December 2011

Why you still need to be able to speak publisher

Things are a bit tricky here, so today I'm skiving my responsibilities and pointing you towards a post that helps you understand why you still need to be able to speak publisher. Read Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List by Edan Lepucki (and come back and tell me what you think, if you have the time). I don't agree with all of it, but there are some very important thoughts here. I particularly like that it draws on plenty of other intelligent blog posts to bring together its reasoning.

These are the bits I thought particularly pertinent:

  • You never hear readers grumble that traditional book publishing is too narrow and lacking in creativity. You only hear that from people who feel that their own book is being rejected because publishers are too cowardly and narrow-minded to see its true value.
  • Is it really possible for a self-published book to be rigorously edited? After all, the editor is in the pay of the author (which is a bit like putting the lion in charge of the lion tamer). If the editor thinks the book is too bad to publish, will they say so? Will the author listen? Or will the author just find a tamer editor if the first refuses the work? (And in a time of economic stress, the editor might not feel they can afford to turn down the work. Sooner or later, the author will come across an editor in possession of more desperation than integrity.)
  • What will happen when *all* the shit hits the fans? Publishers protect the public from the slush pile. The vast majority of rejected books are rejected for a good reason - they are rubbish. If all these books that are rubbish are unleashed on the poor, unsuspecting public, how will readers pick their way through the online slush pile? 
This last point is one I've gone on about for a while. Publishers have a very valuable role in protecting readers from having to look for needles in haystacks. How will readers find the books that are well written, well structured, use punctuation properly and are not full of spelling errors if they have to wade through all the unedited, unmonitored, unselected cheap e-books online? I don't just mean now - but when every wannabe writer has published their first draft in the belief that it's good as it is?

At the moment, at least in the UK, many of the people who are self-publishing are often at least on the fringes of the publishing industry. They have been writing for years, going to classes or writing groups, submitting books that are repeatedly refused, perhaps - but they didn't just start writing yesterday. They are not all putting up total dross - there is some good stuff there, too. But it won't be long before every (wo)man and her/his dog is putting up their first unedited ramblings. It's easier to self-publish on Kindle than it is to write a pitch to an agent or publisher. So why bother? Pity the readers then, when the ratio of rubbish:readable veers further to the rubbish side. Will the reading public just give up? Will they just go off reading altogether? Or will they - irony - flock back to printed books once they have spent 100 times 99 cents on crap?

It's often said that the good writing rises to the top, but that's not true - look at some of the bestselling titles so far! And I don't mean that the type of genre fiction that does well is crap per se, but that a lot of the successful books are badly written and full of fundamental errors (poor spelling and grammar, for instance). Readers may fall for this for a while, when their Kindle is a new toy and they're keen to give cheap reads a go. But for how long? We will see. Eventually.


  1. I see where you've coming from. And can only talk about my experience - I've written for years, going to writing groups, reading how-to books; getting occasionally stories published in magazines.

    Then I won a place on the mentoring scheme at Exeter uni. My mentor encouraged me to transform my travel writing from a rather tedious account of my trip (I went round the world on my own, in my mid-50s; and yes, there were adventures along the way) into something that includes much more of my personal experience. Then my mentor said that, 10 years ago - this book would have found a publisher. But no-one takes risks on middle-aged travellers any more, so I should do it myself. So I did - and I paid for a copy edit. The book (Over the Hill and Far Away) is now on Kindle, and will be a paper-book in the new year.

    I do agree with you that much self-published work is dross. But it has given hope to those of us who have struggled for years, only to see the industry (in travel at least) reject anything that wasn't from a celebrity or someone very young.

    So not all self-published work is dreadful. The task for the reader is trying to find the gems that still sparkle among all that dross.

  2. 'So not all self-published work is dreadful. The task for the reader is trying to find the gems that still sparkle among all that dross.'

    That's exactly what I'm saying, Jo. That as more and more people who have NOT - as you have - done their apprenticeship go straight to e-publishing, that task for readers will become incredibly difficult.

    Thank you for pointing out, too, that there are some markets from which traditional publishing has effectively withdrawn. There are niche markets in which self-publishing is (and always has been) the best or only way, too. But in a niche, it's easier to reach the right readers, so the problem is less significant. I'm not saying your book is in a niche market, by the way. I think it's very sad that travel memoirs have lost their position in the traditional market. And I wholly sympathise - I write a lot (have written a lot) for markets that are fast disappearing. It is a very genuine problem.

    It's mostly in mainstream fiction that there is a deluge of unedited gumph. Fiction bears the brunt of this as it looks (to the beginner) easier to write than non-fiction.

  3. I really don't think you need to worry. It's just as difficult to succeed as a self-publisher as if you go the traditional route.

    A bad book may succeed briefly if its hype is good enough (just as happens in trad publishing) but it will soon get disgruntled reviews and slip from view. Most indie books sell very few copies. Amazon is constantly tweaking its algorithms in order to recommend books to its readers that they will like.

    Like many readers, I read the sample before I buy - all it takes is one click.

    Re your first point - readers can't grumble about what they don't know they are missing. Were they saying to each other pre JKR, "What I really want is a book about a boy wizard, and I can't find one"?

  4. It's a bit like the time when paints began to be mass produced and suddenly painting was not just the preserve of craftsmen who knew how and where to get paint. Suddenly everyone was painting. Wasn't it out of this dross that the impressionists rose?

    I do agree that there will be a lot of crap out there, and i actually think the reading public once they've tasted of this free-for-all may well demand more filters to that output. But the cream will always rise - self-published or traditionally published.

  5. It's the last point I disagree with the most. First, I think that just as there's more than a little validity in your first point because we shouldn't try to put words in readers' mouths, so it's not really our place as writers to talk about what is or isn't "good" for readers. It's our job to write (with an eye to the market if we're writing for mainstream publication, sure. With even more of an eye to the market if we're self-publishing to sell). Of course we can say how *we* feel as readers. I think there's also an extent to which, as writers, we have to care about the body of work of literature.

    Which is where my opinion comes from. A while back I wrote a (deliberately provocative) guest blog called "We Need More Bad Books". It was tongue-in-cheek but had a very serious point
    The further point is this. In all walks of life we are presented with the same issue: do you seek to exclude all the bad, or to include all the good. I'm not saying one position is superior, but I do wish more people would be open about the fact that you can't seek to do both.

  6. Lexi: 'I really don't think you need to worry. It's just as difficult to succeed as a self-publisher as if you go the traditional route.' - I'm not sure what you think I'm worrying about, but it's certainly not about people succeeding! That would mean the problem is not there! I'm worried that it will become too difficult for readers (consumers) to find the good e-books - particularly the self-published ones - that some will give up looking. (Not all e-books are sold through Amazon.)

    Candy: The availability of paint is equivalent to the availability of typewriters. Everyone self-publishing everything is equivalent to opening the doors of the Royal Academy and saying 'hi, everyone, bring your doodles'. We'd soon stop going to the RA. I am *not* saying self-publishing is a bad thing. I am posing a question - how will the coming deluge of poorly written stuff affect the way the market in e-books works? Because while there are lots of good writers self-publishing, people who know they have to work at their trade and edit their books, there is an increasing number of total novices self-publishing. I think it will be harder for writers to make a living and for readers to find the good stuff - unless some type of filtering emerges. So it may be that traditional publishers (whether producing books on paper or digitally) remain the best choice for writers who want to make enough to live on.

    Dan: I have no wish to say what is 'good for' our readers! But some writing is bad. Writing that is full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, for example. Firstly, I'm not seeking to exclude anything, though it would be nice if we could exclude the incompetent and illiterate. This is not about exclusion - it's about how a professional/aspiring professional writer may be affected by damage to the market. Anyone who self-publishes well written books is in the same boat - will their income be eroded by people getting pissed off with the whole affair?

    Thank you for the link - I will read your post about bad books. I've always been a fan of getting students to read and criticise (in the real sense, not the slagging-off sense) writing of all types, good and bad. You can often learn as much from the bad as the good - sometimes more.