Monday, February 13, 2012

Why Your Debut Novel Shouldn't Be Self Published

What sustains writers in the start is the naivety that allows them to believe their work is brilliant and their story must be told, against all obstacles.

What sustains the career of an author is the ability to swallow your pride, identify and learn from past mistakes and grow as a writer.

I've had to think about this a lot lately, for a number of reasons. For one, I've worked with a lot of aspiring writers, and sometimes, they've still got the blinders on. They can't see through their love of the ideas and their own words to correct common mistakes. Another reason is that I recently re-read my debut novel, to format it for trade paperback publication.

Suspicious Circumstances was not self-published, yet the re-read was a critical learning experience. I've talked to authors who go over their books with a red pen after they received the published copy.

Serious writers understand that, considering the volume of words in a novel, mistakes can slip past us all. Professional writers also understand, as I've learned over the years, that sometimes the mistakes come in after you've finished with your part of the editing process. Barry Eisler is a serious writer who makes every effort to get his books right. He takes corrections so seriously that he has a whole section on his website devoted to explaining mistakes. Personally, I think that's commendable, and realistic. Authors who try to pretend they never slip up will probably continue to make mistake after mistake, because they're unteachable. In Barry's case, I do recall questioning a point of confusion in my review of The Last Assassin. On his website, he explains:

Four times on pages 22-23 of The Last Assassin, Delilah thinks of her first love, a man called Dov, but the text says Dox. A proofreader screwed this one up after I'd signed off on the final pages. It's fixed in subsequent printings.

Yes, sometimes the author isn't responsible for the mistake. It's not uncommon for people to try to squeeze things in, change a word that they think is wrong (and as a result, as in the above case, become responsible for a mistake that affected thousands of printed copies). And yes, there have been times when I've read something of mine that's been published, and checked against my files, and realized something was changed after I'd signed off on it, making a mistake in some cases, or making the text more confusing.

At the end of the day, the author stands or falls, and this is why having the best team of professionals behind your book - particularly your debut - is critical. Typically, the greatest part of the learning experience for writers is over the course of the first few books they write and publish.

And part of that learning experience happens when you work with an editor who can identify weaknesses in your writing style and text and help you improve.

I did not start out as a self-published author, but I did have such a small press, it no longer exists, and inexperienced editors. In particular, they lacked genre experience necessary to help shape the story into the best story for the genre audience. They were okay with a story being over-told. On my own, with guidance from another author as a major motivator, I cut over 20,000 words from the text.

Did I cut too much? Not enough?

I also learned a lot from the review process after publication. I learned what worked for readers, and what didn't.

The entire process was a learning experience, and remains such.

In re-reading Suspicious Circumstances, I came to a lot of conclusions. One is that I'm glad that I can look back and identify weaker spots in my writing that I know I've improved since. I may wince a bit when I read SC, but it isn't necessarily because what I did was bad or wrong. I can just see how my own writing has matured.

I can see that Lara was a bit more smart-mouthed than I really thought of her being. And I can see how my use of past tense and present tense was one of my critical weaknesses.

As I reviewed the master files, I realized that in some, the issues had already been addressed, but in the print file I needed to use for the trade paperback version, there were mistakes that hadn't been corrected.

Since all these files were made from the same Master that came back from the publisher, I don't know how that happened, but it did, and at the end of the day, I take the credit or the blame for what went right and what went wrong.

I'm my own worst critic. I can look back on just about anything I've written and consider a different way to say what I wanted to say.

Part of being a professional writer is knowing when what you're working on is a mistake you need to keep revising, and knowing when what you're tinkering with is subjective, and you need to let go.

In the end, re-reading Suspicious Circumstances was ultimately reassuring. I was afraid it would be humiliating. I liked the characters, I liked their development, and I believed in them. I'd started that manuscript with only a few specific goals.

1. To finish a manuscript.
2. To see if I could make a book about the kind of people who really could live next door, that would be interesting to readers.

Literally thousands of readers later, I can say I succeeded with both goals.

My goal each time I go back to my computer to work on a project is to write a better book, to tell a more compelling story, to try to stretch myself as a writer and grow, and I don't think I would have grown at the pace I did if I hadn't worked with a number of editors from book two on, who not only pushed me to do my best, but explained things to me about story development, character development, dialogue, etc.

I didn't get to book 5 on my own. The writer I am is the result of years of good teachers, who actually did teach grammar in school, a school system that rewarded students for perfect spelling, English teachers who weren't willing to say that better than everyone else was good enough, but pushed me to do my very best. Thanks Mr. Denomy - I may have been frustrated by you in grade 11 but when I got As in your class in grade 13, I knew just how much I'd improved.

Yes, I've made mistakes. That isn't a news flash. Nor is it a reason to ignore an assessment by me if I'm asked for a critique. It's because of the mistakes I've made along the way, and learned from, that I can give constructive guidance to writers who don't know what mistakes they're making, or how to improve. I've heard authors talk about their first book being a fluke, they didn't know what they were doing with it and it turned out to be a success, and they go on to try to write a second book with the fear that they won't be able to match that first book. It's why some authors talk about the 'sophomore slump'. Some don't even know what genre they've written in and then find out about reader expectations and try to juggle those pressures along with the demands of writing another novel, knowing that you have editors and readers waiting to see if your efforts will measure up.

The best writers know they still have things to learn, and continue to push themselves. The best aspiring authors don't put the cart ahead of the horse, and seek guidance from people who are going to push them to tell the best story they can.

Nobody wants the first impression they make as an author to derail their career. The end of your first book needs to sell your next book.

I said that I'd been thinking about this recently, for a lot of reasons. One is the writers I work with. Another was my own experience of going back to the beginning. And another was seeing a writer posting about another round of corrections they were making on their self published title after readers had contacted them about mistakes.

At least they were fixing them, but we should all be trying to ensure when our work is available to purchase that it's worth paying for. I had this happen as a reviewer once. I was offered a review copy. After I'd started, I received an email from the author, stating that due to comments received from reviewers they'd re-written the first chapter and attached it to the email and wanted me to print it and consider it with the rest of the book instead.

I stopped reading and didn't review the book. I wasn't asked to edit it for free. I was asked to review the printed review copy I was given, and I was annoyed.

Readers are going to be even more annoyed if they pay for a book that has a lot of issues. That doesn't even mean 1 star reviews on Amazon are a fair indicator that the book is bad. Some readers are impossible, and sometimes it's a question of taste.

But what you put out under your name reflects on you. Even as an author, I know - and other author's know - what it is to discover mistakes that weren't yours that ended up in your text, so this isn't about perfection.

It's about making it as good as it possibly can be and not getting ahead of yourself. In the early days, we're too close to our work to see through it clearly, and the temptation with the ease of self-publishing today is to press 'publish' before the work has been finished.

Surround yourself not with cheerleaders but with motivators who want to see you reach your potential as a writer, and put the time and work in before you make your work available to the world. Yes, work. Writing can be a hobby, writing well can be a talent, but if you're writing to be published and expect people to pay for the privilege, you have a job to do, and you need to take it seriously if you want people to invest in your career, not just buy one flawed book that will turn them off forever.


Thomas Pluck said...

Thank you.
This does not mean you are beholden to the Big Six. Please, self-publish. But hire an editor. A good one, who charges money and is not your friend. Or a friend who likes hurting your feelings. A frenemy.

Think of how long it takes *you* to edit a novel. Imagine paying a professional for that number of hours. It will be worth it.
I've read self-published books by traditionally published authors that showed the need for professional editing. Consider it a learning experience. A training session. It will be worth it.

Steven J. Wangsness said...

Too late, since I just self-published an ebook a few weeks ago. (However, I wrote two novels in my twenties that never saw the light of day, thankfully, so this is really my third novel.) Besides my beta readers and having suggestions from one agent and the services of a professional book editor -- for free, since she's a friend -- there aren't likely to be many errors. Though I did find one. Even after all that, it went to "print" with "in Western Turkey" instead of "in western Turkey." Fortunately, with ebooks, you can make changes if you feel like it.

Not that I'm going to bother turning that into a lower-case "w." Not yet, anyway.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thomas, that really is the dividing line. If you're going that road, take it seriously. I mean, there are people who can self publish and be as clean as anything put out from a NY publisher... but they're rare. In far greater numbers are the ranks of those who rush it out prematurely.

Steven, you had your book vetted and screened. Hopefully, you did catch everything. It really was seeing someone talk about gaping plot holes that had caused them to pull their book down for another - in other words, not the first - round of rewrites. That's just not a good idea.

Peter Rozovsky said...
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Peter Rozovsky said...
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Peter Rozovsky said...

I’m reading a lot more short crime fiction than I did before e-books hit in a big way, and that’s good. But I’ve also found far more careless proofreading and line editing than I find in printed books, even in this degenerate and sloppy age. Even e-books that I have enjoyed immensely have been marred by spelling, grammar, word-choice, syntax, and continuity errors that a cursory pass by a capable copyeditor/proofreader would have caught.

I will tease out of your post a plea for authors to surround themselves with good copyediting and proofreading if they are going to publish their work themselves or with a small press. And I'd feel the same way even if I were not a copy editor myself.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Unknown said...

I'll disagree with you totally. You make the assumption that the writer is going to get "professional level editing" from a publisher. Most publishers have cut back so heavily that they no longer employ enough staff to be able to give the beginning writer that sort of edit.

They might as well self publish. With a bit of help from their friends, they'll get just as good an edit, as they would from the so called professionals.

If they get a small press publisher like Wayne Borean Publishing (myself), they'll get every bit of help I can give them. Everything I put out reflects heavily on me. I'm not selling widgets.



Sandra Ruttan said...

Peter, if this post makes even one person re-read first, it's worth it.

Wayne, it's a free country. I don't actually assume anything about the editorial process. But the thing is, when you go through the process of a more formalized publication, there's a lot of time involved. A lot of time for you to get past the excitement, and then start to get nervous, and actually want to go back to your book and make sure it's as good as it can be. Behind the scenes, I can't count the number of authors who've done the, "Holy crap, oh my god, I have to re-read it," reaction after the reality of a publishing deal has settled in. It isn't whether an editor will or won't have to say anything to you.

And frankly, my agent edits me more than anyone, and if you surround yourself with good people, you'll get your ass kicked well before public consumption of your book.

I have still never purchased a book by an author who's strictly independent. Some who've shifted from publishers to self-publishing, yes, but nobody who's gone this road 100%.

My husband's bought a few in the 99 cent category, and told me he just abandoned another one with issues.

There are undoubtedly exceptions out there... but they'll be rare. And that's why the majority of the time, starting off on your own probably isn't the best option, unless you're willing to invest in professional editing.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Sandra, at bottom we agree that authors are at risk of not getting the editing they need. I know this is the case on the proofreading/copyediting end.

Like Wayne, I believe this is the case with traditional publishers, but the problem is certainly more noticeable with self- and small publishers.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Unknown said...


I'd like to refer you to some blog posts by Dean Wesley Smith. Dean's been in the business a long time, and he makes damned good sense. I'd suggest reading in this order:

The New World of Publishing: Agents and the Future

The New World of Publishing: One Last Agent Note

Then go back to the start, and read this entire series:

New World of Publishing

I disagree with Dean on some minor points. Not with the information he is giving out, but with how he presents it. But hey, I used to work in sales. That gives me a warped view of everything...