Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Unspoken Danger of Self-Publishing

When people talk about the "dangers" of self-publishing they tend to point to con-artists, vanity publishers promising things they can't deliver, naive authors who don't understand marketing, etc. However, there is another danger for the self publisher that people tend to overlook. And for the literary landscape of 21st Century America, it is probably one of the most serious: Compromised literary quality.

Okay, before all you self-publishers get out whatever is the cyberspace equivalent of tar and feathers let me make clear that I am not opposed to self-publishing per se. In some ways the advent of e-books and print-on-demand publishing has re-democratized publishing. Like someone once said, "Freedom of the Press belongs to those who have one." Now, just about anybody with a modest investment can get a book "published."

One can also argue that with an increasing number of people purchasing books online, the fact that most self-published books don't see the inside of a bookstore, is not as important as it was in the past to the sale of the books. Thus, the success rate of some self-published titles can be impressive.

Others will also contend that for certain niche markets self-publishing is virtually the only venue for publication. A good example is the Christian speculative fiction field. Neither the Christian mainstream publishers nor the secular ones are much interested. So, self-published works dominate the field. In fact, in today's economy, some argue it is about the only way a new genre can get a foothold in the marketplace.

That brings me back to the real danger of self-publishing: poor literary quality. Recently, I've been reading several speculative fiction books. In fact, right now, I'm reading one published by a traditional secular publisher and one which is self-published. When I switch between the two, the first thing I notice is a difference in polish. Both books have interesting characters and plot lines. There are memorable passages and no so memorable ones in each. But the one published by the traditional publisher just seems a bit more "finished."

Let me put it this way, when I am reading most self-published novels I feel like I'm reading one of the early drafts of one of my best writing students. The ideas are good. The characters are well drawn. The story line is moving along, but.... as it is, it's still only a B+ paper. It's good, but not publishable. It still needs work to take it to that next level of polish the reader deserves.

It doesn't mean the writing is bad. In fact, the writing may be generally good. It's just that it needs to be better. In traditional publishing, there is an editor or agent who says, "No, this isn't quite right, yet. and sends it back for a rewrite, the one last rewrite most of us as writers wouldn't do on our own. It's the rewrite which is not about selling the book, but the one about making the reader's experience just a little bit better.

But when we are self-publishing (like this blog), we are more likely to let things go a bit. For a blog, that's not too bad, because blogging is supposed to be a bit more spontaneous and it doesn't produce something that can sit on a shelf and be read for generations in a physical form. The reader expects, and has a right to expect, a level of writing more polished in a book than in just about any other medium.

So, does this mean everyone should publish through traditional publishers? I've already said that there are good reasons for going with the self publish option. Here are a few more:

1. You are writing for a specialized market too small to interest a traditional publisher.
2. You are writing in a genre which has yet to establish a foothold in traditional publishing.
3. There are significant financial incentives to "go it alone." For instance, a conference speaker who speaks to thousands of individuals a year, might make more money publishing her own conference materials than trying to sell them to a traditional publisher.

Notice one of those reasons is NOT because my writing isn't as good as the "big boys/girls" published by those companies. If you are not getting published by traditional publishers because they aren't handling your type of literature, that's one thing. It may even be a legitimate reason to investigate self-publishing. However, if you are being rejected because quality of the writing isn't there, then you need to go back to the manuscript, edit, rewrite, read more, take classes on the craft of writing, hire a writing teacher, tutor or coach, learn more then improve your writing.

Even if you feel after an honest appraisal of the situation that your project has promise and your writing is solid, before putting your deathless prose in print, find yourself an editor. I don't just mean a proof reader. It important to get the mechanics right, but that's not the type of polish I'm talking about. Find someone who has published in your field to give a thorough critique of your book. Then let that person decide - and not you - when it is ready to be published.

If cost is a factor, a good second best option is a critique group. Let them tear your work apart and t hen let them decide when it should go to print. But the editor is a better option.

Self-publishing does have the potential of revitalizing the publishing industry, giving a voice to worthy authors who might not otherwise have one, developing new genres, and serving small groups of enthusiasts who would be ignored by Random House. However, the self-published author also needs to exercise enough patience to not go to press before the book is ready.

3 Comments:

Blogger chrisd said...

I couldn't agree with you more. It's hard work to get a book ready. Even when you feel it's ready it may not be.

I'm going to post a link to this on a group I'm on.

Regards, Chris

April 14, 2007 at 9:39 AM  
Blogger kmfrontain said...

Yeah, you think you got it right and gave your work that extra polish, and one year later, you've learned a new trick(s). I have an compulsion I call the endless edit. All my self-pubbed books are suffering from a relapse, and they will be yanked, one by one, get put onto the screen and edited again. But since I control the publication, I can put out new revisions whenever I want. I suppose it's not so bad to have my little compulsion.

May 19, 2007 at 9:24 AM  
Blogger Paulette Harris said...

I enjoyed your pov on this subject Terri. There are so many opinions out there. I can think of only one company that I believe does a good job as a self-publishing company and that is Vineyard Press in the Northwest. However, the marketing is still up to the author. You can get a professional edit,market help,IBN# etc. but each subject costs more.

I think that we should always have someone who is a better writer/editor look at our work before pitching it.

I like your blog. It's hard for me to sometimes keep up all over the place.

January 19, 2009 at 9:19 AM  

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