Friday, 8 May 2009

Two Excellent Posts About Self-Publishing

A couple of days ago Nicola Morgan blogged about some of the problems which self-published writers face; and today Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware discussed the growing trend for self-published writers to call themselves "indie" publishers.

Read both posts. They are excellent. I wish I'd written them.

(Apologies for my relative silence this week: I hope you don't feel ignored. I'm just a bit busy with work right now, but it shouldn't last too long.)


Daniel Blythe said...

Yes, this "indie" business really boils my piss, if you'll pardon the vulgar expression on a Friday afternoon! And it's insulting to genuine independent publishers.

They've got it spreading like some kind of meme. It's an old trick - get the people on the other side of your argument to phrase things in your terms, by repeating it often enough, and the battle is half won. We need to prevent it catching on.

(Word ver: 'eradocal'. New Eradocal kills all known germs!)

Henry Baum said...

I'm going to get pissy again, but the fact that you actually agree with those two posts shows that you shouldn't be running a self-publishing review blog. It shows you have contempt for self-publishing before you even pick up a book. That you agree with the stigma.

The idea that self-published books are naturally bad and just weren't good enough to get published is antiquated. The fact is most books are bad. That most self-published books are bad as well is not a great revelation. But both those posts make the assumption that self-published books are naturally worse than traditionally published books, which is a grave oversimplification.

Jane Smith said...

Dan, you wash your mouth out with some Eradocal right now, you filthy successful AUTHOR, you. You should be ashamed of yourself, talking like that over here.

Henry, my agreeing with those two posts doesn't prove that I am contemptuous about self-publishing: all it proves is that I think the posts are worth reading.

Having said that, I agree with both posts; and I don't think anyone would disagree with me when I say that the huge number of bad self-published books that are available reflect badly on the few good ones that must, I'm sure, be out there somewhere (although I've not seem many, despite being ready and willing to review just about any that are offered to me).

My bias isn't against self-published books, or the writers who decide to take that route: it's against the publishers which persuade writers with little or no talent to spend their time and money publishing books. It's exploitative and vile.

If writers know exactly what they're getting into, and are fully prepared to take that risk, then that's fine. But if they're led to believe that it's the path to riches and so invest time or money that they simply can't spare, that's clearly wrong and we should all be against that. No matter whether we're mainstream, self-, or vanity-published, or any of the many variables inbetween--including "indie".

Henry Baum said...

Yeah, this is the thing I don't understand. The criticism that self-publishing services are "taking advantage" of lowly writers. I have no numbers, but I wonder about just how many self-publishers are naive enough to think that they're going to be an overnight success. I imagine a lot of self-publishers know that they're probably investing money they're never going to see again. So the attitude that subsidy publishers are scamming people out of their money just doesn't seem accurate.

Jane Smith said...

Henry, I don't have numbers to hand: but I've lost count of the writers I've heard about, directly and indirectly, who have been taken advantage of by vanity publishers.

Some of the stories I've heard (and here I'm talking about stories which writers have told me about themselves, which I checked out for myself) have been heartbreaking: I've known writers who have lost their cars or houses thanks to giving vanity publishers their money; I've known writers who have lost their jobs because they've missed work because they've been promoting their books--and when I checked those books out they have been virtually unreadable, with no chance of commercial success.

I've met one woman, a widow in her sixties, who invested her savings in publishing her book hoping it would allow her to help her children have a better life and instead, she ended up having to choose between heating her house or eating in the winter. Would you feel happy if your mother, your aunt or your sister was that woman? No? Neither would I.

That's the sort of thing I don't like. Vanity publishers which masquerade as reputable self-publishing services; which mislead the writers who consider their services; which take advantage of the naive and ill-informed. That's what I object to. Not self-publishing: it's a good, valid route to publication for some writers, so long as they know what they're up against when they start.

Incidentally, I'd love to be able to feature a successful self-published writer in my Trios series (if you can point any in its direction I'd be grateful).

I do think that writers should know the problems involved in ANY route to publication, no matter what that route is; I try to point those problems out here. If you want to be published by a mainstream publisher then you're going to meet a lot of rejection prior to publication; if you self-publish, you're unlikely to sell many copies. These are realities. I see nothing wrong in acknowledging them: and I'm not going to pretend that things are different when I know that they are not.

Daniel Blythe said...

Henry - I don't think that's what Jane is doing. She is reviewing self-published books by professionally-published standards, i.e. by the standards of the books with which these publications aspire to compete.

The fact that she is prepared to run a blog reviewing whatever is sent her way - when most self-published books are ignored - is surely indicative not of contempt but of interest.

Henry Baum said...

Well, this may seem totally self-defeating - as I'm an advocate of self-publishing - but I think it's an unfair standard to compare self-published books to traditionally published books. I challenge you to pick up a traditionally published book: you're going to find many flaws. If it was self-published, the instinct might be to put it down and say, See, it's not good enough.

I know this won't do a lot for self-publishing's stigma - to say that they should be held to a different standard - but when you're coming to a book assuming it's going to be flawed, you're going to find mistakes. And criticizing one book after another might not be totally positive.

Jane Smith said...

I think it's an unfair standard
to compare self-published books to traditionally published books.
Why is that, Henry?

I'm sorry to single out this part of your comment: but really, it intrigues me. I'd love to know why you think this.

Henry Baum said...

This is where I run into trouble. I wrote a post on SPR recently. The book I was reading was a mess in many ways, but if you were able to look past that, you'd see that this was a really interesting writer - a writer to watch - who just didn't edit his book properly. But if you put down his book b/c of editorial problems, you'd be missing out on an interesting book overall.

I'd love for self-published books to all be professionally edited, but I think self-publishers should have some leeway, given the enormous expense of getting a book edited. Should people who can't afford editing not release a book at all? It's a tough call, I think they should still have a platform. I don't think people should be limited by what they can afford. I know this could hurt the reputation of self-publishing by basically stating, s-p books don't have to be as good, but perhaps a self-published writer should be forgiven some editorial problems.

catdownunder said...

Oh miaou, miaou! At the risk of being a purrsistent pest I will repeat my previous growls and snarls...if it is worth publishing someone else will be interested in publishing it. There will be a few, and very rare, exceptions to that. When I think of all the other things involved in getting a book out (that I know nothing about) then I think I would prefer to keep my paws on the keyboard, not pounding the pavements. Being a naturally lazy cat I would prefer others to do that sort of work!

Jane Smith said...

The cat has a point, but at the risk of offending my more regular visitor I shall now return to Henry's points.

The thing is, Henry, that the most of the self-published books aren't in need of editing: they're just very badly written, and no amount of editing could change that. There's a big difference.

I've got reviews for two books coming up in my Self-Publishing Review where the books failed on the editing front, and so I didn't read them to the end: but I've still recommended them because the writing is GOOD. Regardless of the issues with punctuation, or the occasional lapse of POV or an intruding blob of exposition the writing works, the voices were intriguing, and the books, consequently, are very readable.

The problem is that because they've been self-published and the writers don't have a platform, or any evidence of marketing ability, the books are very unlikely to attract many sales or readers. So the writers aren't going to enjoy much success, no matter how good their books are.

Do you really think this is the best route through publishing that they could have taken?

(Forgive me if this comment is full of errors: it's very late here, I've had a horrible and busy day, and I know I'm not at my best right now; but I didn't want you to think I was ignoring you just because you were being critical of my view.)

Henry Baum said...

That's great that you're reviewing those books. POV shifts are an overwhelming problem in self-pubbed books. The thing that concerns me is your statement: "I'm going to count all the errors I find in spelling, punctuation and grammar and when I reach fifteen I'm going to stop reading."

I was just imagining you looking at somebody substituting "its" for "it's" and writing off the book. But if you can look past that stuff, then great.

Nicola Morgan said...

"I think self-publishers should have some leeway, given the enormous expense of getting a book edited. Should people who can't afford editing not release a book at all?" Er? It's not about who can afford to be edited - it's about who can write a book that someone else believes in sufficiently to invest money in, in other words that someone else (other than the auther and his children) thinks others will want to read. Every author believes in his/her own ability (it's essential), and most of us believe a hell of a lot too much (probably also essential) - we need some experts in publishing to sort us out. To say that most published books are bad, and then to say that for some reason they need to be judged differently from s-p books, doesn't hold water.

Jane is doing a huge service offering to review s-p books and no one would know better than a reviewer what the general standard is.

Jane Smith said...

Henry, first you wrote, "you shouldn't be running a self-publishing review blog", and now you've written, "That's great that you're reviewing those books." Which comment should I believe here?

Joking apart, if you go and read the reviews I've written AND the comments that have resulted, you'll see that I've always referred to the quality of the writing and not just to the editing issues. Sure, those editing issues play a part, because a good writer should be at least be roughly literate (and I speak as a dyslexic: I've worked incredibly hard to overcome the problems that dyslexia has posed for me, and so treat with disdain the suggestion that punctuation etc. is difficult and so allowances should be made). But overall, it's the talent--the voice, if you will--that I look for. And of the books I've reviewed so far, only ONE WRITER has had even a hint of talent or compelling voice.

(I've got a couple of reviews scheduled for books which are good, but you'll have to wait to read those. One is particularly surprising.)

Jane Smith said...

Oh, and yes--what Nicola wrote. I should have said that too.

Henry Baum said...

Nicola Morgan, I admitted the difficulty of holding books to a different standard. All I mean is that readers should look past some editorial problems in s-p books. Good writing shines through, whether it's self-published or traditionally published.

And I'm a novelist and reviewer of self-published books who doesn't see "some experts in publishing to sort us out" as doing all that good a job. But that's another issue.

Jane, as I said, I thought your guidelines were much more strict. Looking at spelling errors before the quality of the writing. But if you have some allowances, then good. Self-pub reviewers should.

Jane Smith said...

So, Henry, you've made assumptions about me and my viewpoint, and have been very critical of me as a result. Which is exactly what you accused me of doing with self-published writers and their books, isn't it?

I'm sorry to point fingers at you now, and hope you'll forgive me for holding you up as a sacrificial lamb here (and I realise I'm not doing any of this in a particularly elegant or erudite way, as it's so late here now, and I'm so tired): my point is that the self-publishing world is so often hostile towards the mainstream publishing one, and vice-versa: and it does no good.

If people would just read, and consider, and THINK about what they'd read instead of reacting to what they assume has been said, then we all might move forward instead of bickering endlessly about stuff like this.

It's true that self-publishing is full of potential; it's also true that mainstream books tend to be much better than self-published ones, and tend to make a lot more money for their writers; and that there are some very exploitative vanity-publishing companies out there. Why do writers have to take sides, depending on how and where they publish? Why can't they admit the flaws in ALL the various routes into publishing? Why do sides have to be taken? It perplexes me.

Jane Smith said...

(And now I'm going to bed, as it's nearly midnight and I have to be up at six tomorrow morning. Expect no more from me until Sunday, and then I'm bound to be grumpy as I have a long day ahead of me tomorrow.)

Henry Baum said...

Jane, I have evidence, it wasn’t an assumption. To repeat: “I'm going to count all the errors I find in spelling, punctuation and grammar and when I reach fifteen I'm going to stop reading." What you’ve written here is basically contrary to those guidelines.

“my point is that the self-publishing world is so often hostile towards the mainstream publishing one, and vice-versa: and it does no good.”

Exactly, and that’s what got me started in the first place. Victoria Strauss’s post - and her other posts - is so dismissive of self-publishers. What does she care if self-publishers call themselves independent? It’s like she doesn’t want self-publishers to have any clout for some reason. It’s mysterious.

And I agree, a lot of self-published books are bad, bad, bad. But it shouldn’t be automatically assumed that they’re bad. And that’s the prejudice in a lot of the criticism of self-publishing.

Anyway, I enjoy a good debate and sleep well.

Maggie Dana said...

I've been a freelance book designer and typesetter for 30 years, in both fiction and non-fiction, working for publishers in New York, Boston, and London. I'm also a published author (childrens' and women's fiction), have produced and sold a regional publication for New England horsepeople, and am active in numerous writers' and publishing sites ... which is my way of saying I've pretty much been there, done that, and seen most of it.

Yet every time I pick up a self-published (or vanity-published book), I'm appalled at the low quality, not only of the writing and editing (or lack thereof) but also of design and typesetting, to say nothing of the covers.

The word 'publishing' used to mean something rather special. It meant a writer had worked hard at his craft, had honed his voice, and had produced a book worthy of someone's hard-earned money.

Today, agents are swamped with submissions, and editors at major houses will no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. There's a reason for this: the demise of the typewriter. Think about it. How many people owned a typewriter back in the 1970s (or before)? Not a fraction of those who, today, own a personal computer, which means there are hundreds of thousands more people writing books (or attempting to) than in the days when a typewriter or a pen and pad were the only tools available.

Publishers, such as Random House, Penguin, Hodder, etc., for the most part, get it right. They're not perfect, but if they weren't there to act as gatekeepers, the amount of dross between cardboard covers and on the Web would be even more overwhelming than it is already.

Henry Baum said...

My suspicion is that people like the gatekeepers because it makes them feel like more legitimate writers. As if their writing is automatically better because it's been traditionally published. That's my suspicion about most of the criticism of self-publishing: they want the gate to keep meaning what it does. There's got to be a reason that so many traditionally published writers criticize self-publishing, when really it's something to welcome, not to disdain.

But I should get off of here. Yep.

Jane Smith said...

Henry, you've quoted that extract from my self-publishing review twice now: it's part of a piece which appears on the front page of the blog. By merely quoting that part, and insisting that it means I focus on copyediting issues alone is misleading. To put the record straight I'm going to quote the piece in full.

"Here are the rules. You send me a copy of your self-published book, and I'll read it. If I like it I'll review it here, and will be generous with my praise.

"What's the catch? I'm an editor, and expect books to be polished. I'm going to count all the errors I find in spelling, punctuation and grammar and when I reach fifteen I'm going to stop reading. I'll work my way through up to five pages of boring prose or bad writing before I give up. And I'll list on this blog every single book I'm sent, including the books I've not completed, along with how far I got through each one."
I've bolded a part of the text that you seem to have repeatedly overlooked. I hope that's a help.

Now, onto this criticism of self-publishing. I wouldn't dream of speaking for Victoria, but my stance comes primarily from seeing writers taken advantage of by companies which offer self-publishing services: they're often misled, and relieved of a lot of their cash in the process. I want to see an end to such deceptive practices. I also would like to see an end to the hyperbole that a lot of self-publishers fall back on, and a reliance on unbiased statistics and fact.

I don't feel that mainstream publishers criticise self-publishing because of this elitism that you suggest, either: I am one of those mainstream types, after all. I think it's more a question of us being frustrated by seeing misinformation repeatedly presented as fact, and by self-publishers insisting that mainstream publishing has this elitism at its core.

That is just not the case, and it's insulting to mainstream writers as it dismisses the work we put in. I didn't have famous friends when I started writing, or any connections: my father was a cab driver, so it's not as though I had any social status to rely on to pull me through, either. What got me here is hard work, talent and persistence. It's a route that is open to anyone with a modicum of talent who is prepared to work hard enough to try it.

Maggie Dana said...

No famous friends or connections here, either Jane. Just patience and hard work. I began my novel 10 years ago. Since then it's been cut to the bone, rebuilt, then cut again and rebuilt from the ground up, including half-a-dozen complete rewrites with a different tense and a different POV; it's been stuck in a drawer more times than I care to remember, only to be hauled out again; it's had 3 different titles; has been represented by 2 agents; has come close with 3 US editors, and it finally found a home a last year with an editor at Macmillan in London.

All this tells me that first version wasn't nearly good enough for publication; nor was the second, third, fourth, and the fifth as well. In fact, I've lost track of how much surgery I've performed on this manuscript. Did I ever contemplate self-publication? Did I consider approaching PublishAmerica or Lulu?

Not even once.

Jenny Woolf said...

We self published a book and made several thousand pounds out of it, but the circumstances were fairly unusual. Our book had a small potential readership of specialists and enthusiasts, and it had genuinely new material. We only did a small print run. It sold via word of mouth and as it was also of academic interest via an announcement in a magazine that goes to university libraries.

It was picked up by media and got local press publicity, a couple of pages devoted to it in the TLS and a radio programme all about it. That was entirely because it was a new take on an interesting subject. But I wonder if we sold ONE SINGLE extra copy to the general public out of all that, though!

The experience gave me a profound appreciation of the realities of self publishing. No way would it be worth it financially without some kind of a captive audience.

But it is not impossible. For instance, Jane, since you are interested in successful self publishing, look at Peter J Murray with Mokie Joe. Fantastic books, very successful and he's a highly gifted teacher who spends his time going round schools and working with kids who then naturally buy his books. I am told he got out of a major deal with a big publishing house because he could do better on his own.
And I only heard about him because a school librarian was raving about him.

Maggie Dana said...


Your book sounds like a perfect fit for self-publishing: a niche audience that is probably grossly under-served by mainstream publishing. I believe Jane has, more than once, praised this brand of self-publishing, and so do I. Without it, many great books would never reach the people who need them.

Anonymous said...

Thought you might be interested (though you've probably already seen it) in this:

Would love to know your thoughts on that, Jane!


Jane Smith said...

Ella, thanks for that. The article is titled "Self Publishing Takes The Lead In US", and starts off like this:

"The number of print-on-demand titles published in the US has exceeded the number of traditional books produced for the first time ever, according to bibliographic data provider Bowker."

Books which are printed via POD rather than offset aren't necessarily self-published: mainstream publishers use POD technology for backlist titles (for example, I think there's a Faber imprint which reprints classic OOP books and uses only POD to do so).

Consequently, on the data that's provided, the headline is misleading, isn't it? All the Bowker figures show is that a higher number of books published in the US are printed via POD technology than are printed via offset. If it also provided sales figures for those books then it would be a bit more useful in showing a trend in sales; if it provided numbers published via mainstream vs self-publishers, that again would show a real trend. As it is, it's just confirmation that (as we all know) POD technology is gaining ground, and nothing more.