You may have read an interesting article in the Washington Post recently, entitled, “No, I don’t want to read your self-published book.”
This particular article evolved from a letter from the editor in Horn Book Magazine.
The context of the letter is to explain, essentially, to indie writers why publications that review traditionally published books can’t consider reviewing self-published books.
This is in spite of the big “BUT”—i.e. but there are a few outstanding indie books, yet there are also some bad traditionally published books.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
I think it’s great news for self-published authors:
- In the beginning, traditional publishers and professional book reviewers simply IGNORED self-published books.
- Self-publishing has grown tremendously. There are many millions of self-published books being sold and read each year, taking up a very significant market share.
- We’ve finally caught the attention of traditional publishers and, now, even editors who review traditionally published books. They’ve taken notice.
- It’s an article in the Washington Post about self-publishing. It’s angled so as to explain what’s wrong with self-publishing books, in a way.
- Maybe it’s not just a message to authors. I read it this way: They see more and more readers enjoying self-published books, and this is a marketing attempt to sell the perception that traditionally published books are better.
- It may be more than that, too. Traditional publishers not only want more readers to prefer their books, they also want the best indie authors to try to jump through the hoops via agents so that they will have more good material from which to choose.
But I’m looking a little beyond the actual context with my last couple of points.
What is clear is that we’ve seen many articles on various aspects of self-publishing in major publications in the past few years. Self-publishing is gaining more traction.
ART VS. BUSINESS
Writing is an art.
Publishing is a business.
Authors tend to prefer feeling like artists when they write.
Publishers tend to prefer to publish what they feel is more likely to sell.
Self-publishing opens up a fascinating possibility: Writers can write for art’s sake, not worrying if they may be sacrificing some business.
An author can choose to write for a smaller audience.
But there’s another side to this coin: Readers are paying money or, at a minimum, investing time to read books.
As a reader, if you pay for a book, you expect quality.
Unfortunately, not all self-published books have delivered on quality, which brands a poor image for self-publishing at large.
On the other hand, there are self-published books that have delivered on quality, which helps brand a good image for the possibilities of self-publishing.
And then there are traditionally published books that have failed to live up to readers’ expectations. This tends to make readers think about investing much less money on a self-published book next time.
STAMP OF APPROVAL
This brings up to an important question: How do you know what’s worth reading and what’s not?
An intuitive idea is some sort of stamp of approval; some attempt at quality control.
It might sound good at first, but it gets a bit tricky.
Traditional publishing would have you believe that their publishing label is the ultimate stamp of approval.
It may be true that most traditionally published books have better editing than most self-published books.
Nothing prevents self-published authors from hiring quality editors. There are, in fact, very well-edited self-published books.
But if editing is quite important to you, traditional publishing might be more likely to deliver on editing. Or if you can find a quality editor whose work you like, you could read books edited by that editor, traditionally published or not. There are many ways to go about this.
Some self-publishers would like their own stamp of approval. Those who believe their books are better in some way often wish to have some means of easily differentiating their books from what they believe to be worse books among customers.
Here’s where it gets a little tricky: There are many ways to judge what makes a book better. Editing is just one. Storytelling is another. There are several qualities that factor into this. And then there is more than one way to tell a great story.
To a large extent, customers judge what’s better. Sure, they can leave reviews (but let’s not open that can of worms just yet). They can also recommend books they enjoy. Let’s give the customer some credit: He or she is likely to check out the product page and Look Inside.
But there are various stamps of approval. You can get an independent review from Kirkus, for example. You can get review quotes. There are indie reviewers and publications that review indie books. There are author groups and reader groups attempting to identify quality as measured in some way.
WRITING AS ART
Imagine that we’re talking about painting, not about writing. Both are art forms, right?
Suppose we give the painters a challenge: They must paint a picture using a page from a coloring book.
Would it be fair to take all the painters who fail to stay within the lines and REJECT their chances to display their art in a gallery because they failed to meet this elementary standard?
We’d lose some brilliant masterpieces if we did this.
Staying in the lines is arguably not the most important talent that one can find in a painter. Though for some kinds of painting, this talent may be quite desirable.
Not everyone appreciate the same art. Some may prefer paintings created by artists who could easily stay within the lines; some may prefer paintings by those who couldn’t do this.
Following the rules of spelling, grammar, and style are, in a sense, like painting within the lines.
The analogy isn’t perfect though.
- A painter can’t find an editor to polish up the painting. A painter must perfect his or her own masterpiece.
- An author can hire an editor to polish up grammar and spelling so that more readers can appreciate the art, and so that readers won’t be distracted by hiccups along the way.
Saying that the art of storytelling is more important than the art of grammar isn’t an EXCUSE to completely ignore the latter.
RULES OF ENGLISH
Are the rules of English really rigid?
If you master the art of spelling, grammar, and style, you want credit for your strengths. These are important to you: That’s why you learned them.
You look around and see others making mistakes. You see a few immensely popular books making spurious spelling and grammar mistakes. Frustrating, isn’t it? But there is more to a good book than just spelling and grammar.
There really isn’t an excuse for books to lack spelling and grammar correctness, but, alas, it happens. Even those who are very good at these make mistakes, and those who self-edit often read what they intended to write instead of what’s actually there.
Some people believe that there is only one rule of English: To communicate your idea clearly to others.
If others can easily understand what you’ve written, then you’ve followed the rules.
Many will see an instant problem with this: As soon as most people abandon the rules of English, it will soon become a challenge to communicate clearly.
We do need some rules.
A painter must perfect every square millimeter of his or her canvas. And so a writer must perfect every character on the printed page.
IMPROVE, IMPROVE, IMPROVE
You can’t say that your writing is a work of art and therefore consider your book finished just because you’ve reached the end.
As an artist, you must work diligently to perfect your masterpiece.
As a craftsman, you must learn to master all elements of your craft.
Because there is much more to writing a great book than just writing a great story.
The way you choose your words, the way your story flows, the variation in sentence length, the choice of vocabulary to suit your intended audience, the way you present your ideas, the perspective from which you describe events, the way you develop characters—these and so many other things go into storytelling.
And, yes, spelling, grammar, and style do matter. Because when they aren’t right, they do detract from the story itself.
WHO WANTS TO READ YOUR SELF-PUBLISHED BOOK?
I do. Well, I obviously can’t read EVERY self-published book. But I do read several self-published books every year. I throw in a few classics, too, because I believe that reading these is valuable toward writing well.
I’m not the only reader out there who supports self-publishing.
There are hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of self-published authors. Many of these authors read books. Not all, but many do like to support self-publishing by reading other self-published books.
These self-published authors have families, friends, acquaintances, and coworkers who also support self-publishing.
There are hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of authors who have been rejected by publishers, agents, magazines, and newspapers. Many rejected authors choose to invest their reading money on self-published books. (Yes, those polite rejections do have a cost; and the not-so-polite ones, well, maybe that wasn’t such a good business decision. Exclusivity may have benefits, but it also has disadvantages.)
Many people view traditional publishers as businesses. Guess what: They’re right! Do these businesses have writing as their top priority? Or is the top priority financial? With these questions in mind, there are many readers willing to give self-published authors a chance, hoping to find writing that was written for art’s sake, not for the sake of business. (It’s not easy to find such books, but there are books written this way, and there are readers who’d like to find them.)
Many people don’t want to read what’s popular. Many do: Bestsellers sell an insane number of copies. Many people do browse the bestseller lists, expecting those books to be better. But there are millions and millions of readers, and so a significant number do prefer to read what’s not popular. They’ve tried popular books and didn’t, for whatever reason, appreciate them. Maybe they will like a book written for a much smaller niche audience.
The main thing is that readers want great books.
Self-publishing may have good potential, but readers need to be able to find books that they enjoy. Out of the millions to choose from.
How do you define ‘great’? One man’s trash is… you know how it goes.
But it doesn’t matter: As a reader, you want to find the kinds of books that you believe are great.
And you don’t want to find books that you can’t imagine anyone calling great.
When customers try self-published books and have a poor experience, they’re less likely to try self-published authors again.
Until they find themselves dissatisfied with expensive traditionally published books. Then they might reconsider.
There isn’t much that we can do about the worst of the worst at the bottom. Not all those at the bottom are bad books: There are some well-written books that simply have little audience, or just didn’t have the right cover or blurb to get attention. The problem with removing the worst books is the impossibility of efficiently identifying them. The other problem is that Amazon makes an amazing amount of money off even the books at the bottom, simply through huge numbers, and so it wouldn’t make sense financially for Amazon to remove them.
But everyone can help to improve the image. Small things go a long way:
- We can all do our best to continually strive to improve our own books.
- We can refrain from publicly discussing bad books, as that paints a poor perception that hurts even the best self-published books.
- We can find great examples of excellent self-published books and mention those publicly. The more people who read and enjoy self-published books, the more readers there will be who support self-publishing.
- We can offer tips for other self-published authors (indirectly, perhaps—not as unsolicited advice, which often has unintended effects).
- We can educate readers about ways to find quality books.
Copyright © 2014 Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers
- Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
- Volume 2 on marketability and marketing
- Boxed set (of 4 books) now available for Kindle pre-order
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