Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Those Awful Self-Published Books

A couple of weeks ago, on his excellent blog, Nathan Bransford asked the following question: Have You Ever Read a Self-Published Book? In addition to answering the question, he invited his blog readers to say whether they liked the book(s) in question and whether they would read more self-published books.

The responses, in the comments section, ran the gamut and include positive entries from people who have themselves self-published. I didn’t do a count, but I think most of the comments were negative. Some repeated the condescending putdowns that have become standard whenever self-publishing is discussed. Here’s a good example:

I read a self-published novel … once….

It was horrible.

When I shop for novels I look inside at the publisher, and if I don't recognize the name, I google it. If the book is self-published, it's a major turnoff.

Sorry, but I think gatekeepers are a good thing.

Gee. I’ve read at least one book published by a major publisher that I thought was horrible. I guess that means they all are.

We all know that major publishers ne-v-v-v-er publish bad books. “Bad” is subjective, of course. The prose in any book lavishly praised by literary critics will make some readers shake their heads and laugh at the abominable quality of the writing. The same is true of any bestselling book scorned by critics, although it’s probably truer for books in the first category than for those in the second. Based on my frequent reaction to books in both categories, I can only say that, in my opinion, well known publishers spew out great quantities of bad-to-abominable books.

In fact, I have read parts of self-published books that I considered very bad. It could well be that if I read a huge number of self-published books, I’d conclude that they are more likely to be bad than are books published by established publishing companies. But that’s because I’ve absorbed the same general standards of literary judgment that editors and most readers have. At base, those standards are simply matters of opinion. They can’t be justified in some objective way. They are not laws of nature, no matter how many people have been educated – trained, brainwashed – into agreeing with them. Moreover, they are transitory. They’ve changed greatly in the past and continue to change. Self-publishing – all those “bad” books – is blowing those subjective standards, those mere matters of opinion, to bits. Protest and condemnation will not stop or even slow this process. This is a tide that no one can stem.

I’ll return to this point in a moment.

What about the physical quality of self-published books? No doubt the appearance, layout, covers, and proofreading of the product turned out by big publishing companies are higher and more consistent than is the case with self-published books. Major publishers are far from flawless, but of course they have more people providing quality control than does a writer publishing his own book, and so their error rate is bound to be lower. If a low error rate is your main criterion when choosing reading material, then you should avoid self-published books. I can’t imagine why this would be anyone’s main criterion when choosing what to read, but there have always been people who prefer presentation to content, appearance to substance.

Okay, but what about covers? Shouldn’t the outside of the book at least be attractive? Look at any large number of self-published books, whether e-books or printed books, and you’ll see a few clumsily designed covers and a lot of beautiful ones. Moreover, you’ll see more imagination and originality than you will with books published by major publishers. Self-publishers may create they own covers or they may hire freelance cover designers to do it for them, but in either case, they’re not bound by the guidelines and limitations enforced by a publishing company’s marketing department.

Let’s return to the issue of editing, of the presumed necessity that a book’s prose be modified by a professional editor so that it conforms to the rules of grammar and spelling. This is done to increase the book’s chances of selling well. Editing is not done for art but for commerce.

Because of financial pressures and cutbacks at publishing houses, there’s less such editing being done now than in the past. Moreover, bestselling authors tend to be edited lightly or not at all. And yet they continue to be bestsellers. Why? Because the public likes their writing styles and the stories they tell, and the public doesn’t care about grammatical lapses. In which regard, those writers are no different from self-published writers who hit it big.

Some of the editing done at major publishers is very good. Some of it is quite awful, as many published authors can attest (especially after a few drinks). Even if it were all good, even if the published version of every book were far, far better than the version submitted by the author, that should bother you as a reader. It should bother you to think that, if honesty and transparency prevailed, the bestselling novel Catchy Title by John Smith would be listed as a collaboration credited mostly to the editors and with John Smith listed at the end of the credits under Story Idea by.

Excellent editors and cover designers aren’t limited to major publishing companies. Self-published authors can hire freelancers to edit their manuscripts and/or create covers for them, and many of them do exactly that – with generally better results, I’m convinced, than if the same work had been done for them behind the wall of a big publisher. Where will you find such editors and cover designers? You could start by looking here.

Don't assume that all self-published books are new books being put out by new and inexperienced writers. In fact, many of them are reissued books, revitalized versions of books that were previously published by mainstream, traditional publishers. The lifespan of traditionally published books is short. In the past, authors got the rights to their old books back and tried to find a small publisher to reissue them, usually without success. Nowadays, authors are turning to self-publishing to reissue those books that were previously languishing in a sort of literary limbo, often available only as used copies, which earn the author nothing. These reissued books can be put out either in e-book or print format, from places such as Smashwords and CreateSpace. Then they can earn the author much higher royalties than before, up to 80% of the cover price. This is especially appealing to authors like me whose careers receded into limbo along with their old books.

This is giving me and other previously published authors a great deal of new hope and energy. But what is at least as important is that the authors can now change the previously published texts to suit themselves, free from the interference and inferior judgment of the editors at the traditional publishing houses, who often took it upon themselves to change things as fundamental as the title that the author wanted. In my own case, I have been able to change the text of several of my books to bring them back in line with what I first wanted but was forced to change prior to publication. Not only is the new version the book I actually wrote, but also it’s superior to the version that was published before by the big publisher. The editing done by the publishing house didn’t improve the book; quite the opposite.

I have also been able to create my own cover designs, a process I much enjoy. You can find my creations thus far here.  

Free of all the old editorial bullying and restrictions, I am now getting the last laugh, as well as almost all of the new revenue from sales. I'm also selling many more books in e-book format than I had been selling in print format for the past several years.

Note, too, that many of the great literary classics of long ago were in effect self-published books, or at least author-edited ones. Who knows how much such works would have been harmed and diminished if today’s inspiration-stifling publishing establishment had been in place back then?

The post on Nathan Bransford’s blog to which this is a response was about self-published books in general, but because of the continuing explosion of self-published e-books, and because the rise of e-books has opened self-publishing to far more people than would have considered that avenue before, I look at his question and the commenters’ answers as really, or mostly, applying to self-published e-books. The e-book revolution, or tsunami, is upon us, and that’s the form of self-publishing that really matters now.

That tsunami will do more than destroy the publishing companies that dominate print publishing. It will change the nature of writing itself, especially fiction. This is the real importance and wonder of the great change now underway. This is also the subject of my own most recent e-book, a very long essay titled The Dead Hand of Mrs. Stifle. Check it out. By which, of course, I mean buy it.


Anonymous said...

As a writing student and aspiring novelist, self-publishing only exists as a desperate last resort. I would need to be a lot older and beaten down by the publishing world before I ever turned to self-publishing.

Leonore Dvorkin said...

To Anonymous: If you want to be taken seriously as either a good writing student or a novelist, you'd better learn to avoid dangling modifiers. You probably don't even know what a dangling modifier is, though. Hint: Yours is in your first sentence. Rest assured that we better, older, more experienced, and often much-published writers are very happy with both self-publishing and the e-book revolution. Many of us are selling more books this way than we did before, and we are delighted to be able to write whatever we want and then get it out to the public right away. After that, we also earn better royalties than from our books that were put out by traditional publishers. The joke is on people like you, all those who refuse to recognize that traditional publishing is on its deathbed. It will be a long, slow death, but it is coming. I hope you will eventually recognize that self-publication represents freedom and opportunity, not desperation.