Thursday, November 30, 2006

Standards and Practices

So you're a writer. You've written a book and now you're wondering what to do with it. Is it worthy of publication? How would you know if it was?

Well, the easiest way to tell is to ask someone. A writer's group is always a good option. An amateur reviewer might be willing to let you know. Beta readers are also a possibility. Basically, you are looking for anyone who is able to give you solid, dependable feedback.

But wouldn't some kind of scale be helpful? Something you can use to measure your writing against? I propose that Teresa Nielsen Hayden's list of reasons that a book is usually rejected be pressed into service to cover this need. The full list is as follows:
  1. Author is functionally illiterate.

  2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.

  3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.

  4. Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, dire straights, nearly penultimate, incentiary, reeking havoc, hare’s breath escape, plaintiff melody, viscous/vicious, causal/casual, clamoured to her feet, a shutter went through her body, his body went ridged, empirical storm troopers, ex-patriot Englishmen, et cetera.

  5. Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.

  6. Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can’t tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension.

  7. Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.
  8. (At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)

  9. It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.

  10. Nobody but the author is ever going to care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.

  11. The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.
  12. (You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)

  13. Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.

  14. Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.

  15. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.

  16. Buy this book.
Basically, you want to fall as high on the list as possible. The basic cutoff line should be at least above number 8 before you even think about self-publication. Ideally, though, you want to be somewhere above number 11. The publishing industry may not have a reason to publish you, but if you can somehow come up with a good marketing plan, doing it yourself would not necessarily be a bad idea.

The important part here is to adhere to some kind of standard. Spelling, grammar, punctuation and coherent storytelling are all good places to begin, no matter who you are. It is possible to break the rules successfully, but it is easier to do so after you have proven that you understand (and have mastered) the rules in the first place.

If you are unwilling to do something as simple as write coherently, then you should probably ask yourself why your readers would want to do something complex, like trying to decipher what you have written.

Remember: self-publishing has a very bad reputation right at the moment, mostly because of people who couldn't be bothered to listen to (or even seek out) criticism. If you want to change that perception, it is in your best interests to present a product that shows your commitment to your craft. You can tell everyone who will listen that not all self-published books are inherently crappy, but you should also be willing to practice what you preach.

Flexing My Muscles

So I’m back from vacation, rested and relaxed from a week and a half of seeing friends, visiting foreign places and abusing the hell out of my credit card. More importantly, I’m still working through my list of submissions. I have identified a few good prospects and at least one person who is very obviously missing a comma in the first sentence of his novel.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine who used to review for a site that has since been shut down and he agreed (in principle) that it is better to simply review the good stuff than to waste time reviewing the bad stuff. True, it is worthwhile to tell readers not to bother, but when the author’s only true enemy is obscurity, it is easier to simply focus on what should be read than to distract yourself with everything else.

Which brings me to my next point. One of the links that I have collected to pass along came from someone that I tend to regard as having nothing good to say about self-publishing. Accordingly, I was going to use it as an example of that one viewpoint and then tear it to shreds. Having just reread it, I actually think that she has a lot of good points to make. Authors do tend to be delusional and often have no idea what exactly the publication (and subsequent marketing) process is really like. Read it for yourself and, as you do, check your reaction. Does it make you angry? Upset? Resigned? Then self-publication is probably not for you.

However, she does make one point that bears rebuttal. Readers are not interested in becoming slushpile readers. I would agree with this, except that standing in a bookstore without recourse to some kind of book review resource is not really any different than sorting through the slushpile. As a reader, you have no idea what you’re going to pick up and whether it will be any good. You have no idea whether it will really entertain you or whether it will simply make you regret your purchase. For all intents and purposes, you are buying on faith.

Still, our poster is talking about the readability of self-published books – the fact that they should conform to certain basic standards. I agree with this completely. If, as a writer, you find this somehow unfair or unreasonable, then you might as well stop reading this blog right now. The only way that self-publishing will ever gain any degree of respectability is if those people who choose to self-publish start being professional about the process.

Don’t believe me? Even those industries with a healthy attitude towards self-publishing are saying the same thing.

Finally, I give you a self-publishing manifesto of sorts. Again, I agree with this completely, with the caveat that if you are going to support the community, then you should be willing to start by representing yourself as a mature, capable, creator. That means learning from your mistakes and not whining when they are pointed out. That means acting like a businessman. That means treating the fact that your book will probably not be carried in bookstores as a challenge, not a conspiracy.

“If you want something badly enough, you make arrangements. If you don’t want it badly enough, you make excuses.”

- Hanif Kureishi

Don't make excuses.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Famous Last Words

Obviously, I can’t keep my big mouth shut, even for a week. Yes, I’m still going on vacation, but I had something else to say before I go.

Here’s the deal: I’m a science fiction fan. I’ve always been a science fiction fan and I probably will probably always be a science fiction fan. I’m also a believer in the power of the small press. It’s probably about time that I did something besides simply arguing my points; proving at least one of them would probably be a good place to start.

To that end, I’m looking to profile some good, solid, self-published science fiction here on this blog. New stuff. Original stuff. Who knows? Maybe even stuff that is outside the current mainstream of science fiction. It’s probably a long shot, but it would be great to profile authors who have taken advantage of the self-publishing opportunity and actually done something truly innovative.

Send me your elevator pitch. Pretend you’re in an elevator with me for five minutes and you have to explain what your story is about. If I like the concept, I’ll ask for the full manuscript. If I like what I read, I’ll profile you here. In addition to the books themselves, I’m also interested in when you published, how much effort you put into your marketing, and how many sales you’ve made. (Demographics make the world go 'round.)

Like I said, I’m going on vacation until the first of December, so don’t expect an immediate response. But I promise to get back to everyone, even if it’s just a simple, “You should really learn to use spell check.”

Go ahead and tell everyone you know: I’m a glutton for punishment. But at least I’m making an effort. What have you done for your fellow authors lately?

Saturday, November 11, 2006


I'm going on vacation next week and won't be back until the beginning of December.

However, I will leave you with a task - something to do while I'm gone.

I recently saw the following quote by John L. Schumacher and almost immediately disagreed with it.

I have no wish to impart to, or plant within, the younger generation any of my philosophical or psychotic teachings, for they speak the truth, and the truth being what it is, they are perforce seemingly bitter and cynical, and not meant for the young and tender soul.

Those few subjected to wise counsel and given to profound thinking will learn in due time, and the remaining soiled, sordid, sundry masses will have no need or gift for philosophy - for their minds are impenetrable.

I believe that this is entirely the wrong approach to take, especially with regards to those who are about to enter the publishing industry. Individual authorial success lies in making sure that the lessons are spread around as much as possible. It is important to dispel myths and crush nascent dreams. For a writer to achieve his financial goals, the fiction must stop at the page. Brutal reality must be imposed willingly or it will be imposed by fiat. There are many reasons to explain why you don't have any money, but they don't change the fact that you don't have any money. Either you come to terms with that or you starve.

Which leads me to my task for you. Go out and educate other writers. Explain three basic points:
  1. Constructive criticism is better than unrelenting ridicule.
  2. If you are willing to work your ass off, success will probably take up to ten years, regardless of publishing route.
  3. Blaming someone else for your marketing inadequacies does not make you look like a mature, credible businessperson.
The self-publishing revolution will only succeed if the individual authors are willing to accept realities of the business world. Interestingly, many successful businessmen live by the motto of "you make your own reality."Authors should be confortable with that - it's what they'd love to do on a full-time basis.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Denial is Not Just a River in Egypt

I was reading an interview with Geoff Manaugh about architecture and JG Ballard the other day. Buried in the middle of the interview, the question was asked, “Much of the discourse on Ballard springs from English critics. As an American, do you see him as an especially British writer?”

Manaugh’s response gave me pause. (Emphasis mine)

Actually, no. I think, aside from vocabulary and punctuation and spelling — and Ballard’s settings, of course — it’s not at all obvious that Ballard is English. You can make points about sense of humour and so on, but Ballard doesn’t strike me as a British writer in the same way that Ian McEwan does, or Iain Sinclair. Or even Iain Banks. Ballard’s book don’t sell well in the U.S., but that’s entirely a top-down problem. I think the American publishing industry is in a state of free-fall, marketing all the wrong books in all the wrong ways. Trying to market Ballard would never occur to them. They want to sell people John Updike novels in hardcover — despite the fact that no one wants John Updike novels, and hardcover books are completely obsolete as a format. So they ‘experiment’ by publishing 900-page hardcover epics about farm life in 1920s Nebraska — and then still seem surprised that no one’s reading fiction in this country.

Short, good, fairly priced, intellectually progressive paperback books — that’s all you need.

While I agree with Manaugh about what the industry should be publishing, I agree with him more about the state of the industry. The publishing industry is in serious trouble. The sales numbers from 2004 bear this out. The fact that most professionally published authors cannot sell enough books to earn out their advances bears this out. The fact that writing a good book does not automatically mean that you have a best-seller bears this out.

But somehow, despite the fact the industry is in serious trouble, there is still no significant reduction in the number of authors who are willing to bend over backwards to get published. It does not seem to matter to them that the final judgment of their career will be how many books they sold in the first four months of publication. It does not seem to matter to them that they will probably never make more than $20,000 in the course of their (short) publishing career. It does not seem to matter to them that in five years, their books will be no longer available. It does not seem to matter that in twenty years, nobody will remember who they are or what they wrote. It is almost as if the simple act of being published is enough of a reward to overcome the other indignities that are inevitably associated with the process.

Despite the fact that the end result has changed dramatically, the publication process has not. If anything, the publishing industry has become more conservative than ever in their selection process. Up to 15% of new books being published every year are new authors, we are told. Up to 15%! Is that supposed to give the prospective new author a lot of hope? 85% of books being published every year are from proven industry performers. That means more of the same. But if overall sales are going down, then it probably stands to reason that perhaps the book-buying public (you remember them) is getting tired of “more of the same.”

In her response to me, Karen Syed made the following point:

The publisher and the author do create the demand with every effort they make, from the cover to the text to the promo materials. It is like any other product on the market. You have to be clever enough to convince the consumer that they MUST have your product and that is superior to the other similar products.

Manaugh clearly disagrees and I’m right there with him. The point of selling books is not to tell the reader what he should be reading. The point of selling books is to find out what the reader wants to read and to sell him books that fit the criteria. Certainly, raising interest in other books that may have been outside the reader’s point of view is a good thing. But without a clear idea of what the reading public wants to read, it’s downright impossible to get a good grip on what should be published. Anything short of that is just guesswork. (Educated guesswork is still guesswork.)

Go back to that Nicholas Sparks essay I linked to earlier. There’s an important paragraph that you should keep in mind if you actually think that professional publication is the only way to go:

With that in mind, as a writer, you have to understand business factors that are important to the editors making the decision on whether or not to buy your novel: What's the genre? What successful books are similar to the one you've written? Why is yours better? What's the market for your novel? How can we get the word out to that market? And most importantly, will this book be recommended to others?

Note that the the publishing industry isn’t interested in doing their own market research that has somehow become the job of the author. As far as the industry is concerned, current book sales are as much market research as they need. What is selling now is what will be selling next year. It works now and it will work tomorrow. To accept this at face value is asking everyone to ignore the facts about book sales. And to ignore the facts about authors not earning out their advances. Oh, and the fact that an author has to spend quite a lot of time and energy and money in order to be successful, self-published or not? You might as well ignore that as well.

As far as the publishing industry is concerned, the Pope is not sick until he is dead and there is nothing at all wrong with the current state of the industry. More importantly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the current business practices of the industry. Any noise to the contrary just indicates that those of us who have been paying attention (as we have been instructed to do) have no idea what we’re talking about.

Remember that when you prepare your manuscript for submission: these are professionals and they know what they are doing. Just pray that you don't get told that you should have written a better book when your book fails to sell. Because that's not really their fault; after all, they took a chance on what was clearly a bad book. That's really your fault for not putting enough effort into your own sales and marketing. Any argument to the contrary merely underscores the fact that you have no business in professional publishing anyway.

It sounds very much like an argument that a scared fourth grader would make. But let's be honest change is scary. And if the industry is experiencing negative growth, that means that it's changing. There is no real way to predict where this change will take the industry as a whole, but change can also equal opportunity for those that are bold enough to take advantage of the flux.

For example, self-publication may not automatically equal profitability, but perhaps it's time to let the myth of the self-supporting author die. For the most part, the author that makes a living on his novels alone is the exception rather than the rule. Everyone should be allowed to publish — the first amendment of the Constitution hasn't been eroded that much (yet). But not everyone should automatically expect sales. Sales are a reward for hard work and until every author realizes that, self-publication will remain a small, comic-opera movement without a shred of credibility.

But clearly, that's just me beating the drum for my personal agenda. A potentially healthy alternative to an unhealthy system will never work because it is different. And new. And fraught with challenges and unknowns. There is no promise of a reward at the end of a lifetime of work — monetary or otherwise. The current system should be all that you need. Ask anyone. You can trust their answers. After all, why would a professional lie to you?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

What Quality Control?

One of the biggest accusations leveled at the majority of self-published books currently on the market is the lack of quality control. And the more you look at that charge, the easier it is to prove. Astonishingly, there seems to be no end to the number of people who believe that spellcheck is entirely optional. But don’t take my word for it – take a look at this poor specimen for yourself.

Now, many people would be quick to blame Publish America for this travesty. Personally, I feel that the blame should start with the author. She obviously made no attempt to seek external criticism of her work before she rushed to publication. A fair use case could probably be made for the copyrighted image on the cover, but the fact of the matter is that Publish America should have known better than to allow something like that to go through.

(And that pretty much sums up my feelings about PA – every time you try to give them the benefit of the doubt, they do something else to shoot themselves in the foot. But I digress.)

Still and all, my basic point about quality control stands: it is the sole responsibility of the writer to make sure that every published product is of the highest possible quality. Not every publisher will take the time to check for you. Not every agent will take the time to check for you, either.

And if you actually believe that this is somehow unfair or discriminatory against the spelling-impaired, can I just point out that the alternative is unrelenting ridicule? Personally, if my options are a solid, well-meant critique that is intended to make me a better writer and merciless laughter that does nothing for my self-esteem or my writing abilities, I’d prefer to go with the one that makes me look like I know what I’m doing.

This set of choices is not limited to self-publishers, either. Even the professional writing advisors are starting to recommend hiring an editor/writing coach to make sure that your submission is up to par. If the industry best practices are starting to lean in the same direction as self-publishing best practices, you might want to take note.

Or you could just do what everyone else is doing and forsake the quality control process entirely. True, you could sell some books, but it’s far more likely that you’ll end up as an object lesson, proving the thesis that self-publishing simply isn't worth anyone's effort. Trust me, taking the time to make sure that everything is spelled correctly (for a start) is worth the investment. The same goes for grammar and sentence structure.

You never know – if enough people start doing it, it might actually become a trend.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Discussion is a Good Thing

Recently, Karen Syed of Echelon Publishing ran across the most recent post in this blog and felt the need to produce a rebuttal of sorts. I enjoyed reading her response, enough so that I felt the need to rebut back. With any luck, this might actually transform into a conversation of sorts. Without these kinds of discussions, the industry will not change.

Karen points out that there is still an investment involved in printing “a couple thousand copies of one title.” Perhaps there is. But in a world where a couple thousand copies represents both an enormous investment and extremely optimistic thinking, wouldn’t a Print on Demand option make more sense? Lulu’s prices are very reasonable and there is no reason to believe that other small publishers couldn’t make the same kinds of deals with Lightning Source.

For the individual author, however, the price of publication is still essentially free. Not free, but close enough. With the right self-publishing company, the author does not have to pay a set-up fee for the book. Next to the marketing budget, this is often the largest expense.

Still, Karen is adamant about the fact that publication is not cheap. Unfortunately, some of the examples that she uses (editing, marketing) are not what I define as publication. In order to clarify my point, I made sure to define publication very early on – in the first sentence of my original post, in fact. Karen even reprinted that line: Publishing is the printing and distribution of bound books.

Karen disagrees with this definition and actually points out that I am “confusing the issues of production and publication.” To which I ask: How can editing, proofreading and graphic design be considered “only mildly important” to production? In my world, these are not just central to production. They are production.

It takes no especial skill or effort to turn a Microsoft Word document into a printed book. This is the lesson that Publish America has taught us and is a lesson that we should pay attention to. Publication is easy. The difficult part is publishing a quality product – hence the differentiation between publication and production. All of the important parts of the job fall under the heading of production, which is still technically pre-publication. (Marketing, not so much.)

Karen also takes issue (rightly so, I might add) with my suggestion that editors could be paid a bonus percentage of sales. True, the work of an editor is entirely behind the scenes. However, my experience with photography has taught me that if someone does good work that he can be proud of, he is more likely to promote that work independently of the main marketing push. If there is an incentive for the editor to do this extra marketing (a percentage of sales, for example), more editors might be willing to promote their work. In a world where self-published material often suffers from the perception of no editorial oversight, having an editor prominently bragging about his involvement might actually be a good thing.

In the same vein, every other professional in the production chain might benefit from a similar deal. It cannot possibly hurt the author to get additional marketing exposure. This is exactly the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that the publishing industry should be exposed to and that self-publishing excels in.

When I was reading Karen’s point about authors not earning out their advances, I thought for a moment that I had made a typo. On a reread, however, I remembered that I was trying to give authors the benefit of the doubt. I want to believe that there is a good chance that an author can earn out his advance. Unfortunately, that is probably over-optimistic and Karen pointed this out, making my case for me in the process.

She makes my points for me quite a bit more often as her rebuttal goes on, whether she knows it or not. It just makes me wonder if she had bothered to read the rest of my blog or just stuck with the single post. If she had, she would have probably run across my Nine Step Guide to Artistic Credibility, which makes some of the same points that she does.