Friday, April 30, 2010

Thoughts on Self-Publishing and Writing Books

I'm vowing publically to never again do a book review on a self-published author. Well let me revise to say I will not accept any more review copies from self-published authors, no matter how tempting (because I've already accepted some self-published books that I should do reviews on).

I'd already made this policy but was tempted when I met an author in person. I was so excited for the project and I wanted it to work. I am so disappointed in what I'm reading. It is also not easy to write a review when I've met the person and liked them. It is not easy to deliver bad news.

I started out as a champion for self-publication because I feel that some very good information is not making it to publication due to ignorance of book publishers. They don't always realize that the public needs or wants certain information (I'm talking about non-fiction books for that issue). In some cases maybe the issue is the market is too small to justify publication expenses but that doesn't mean the information is not needed. Some would buy it if it was available, and self-publication may work best for those niche markets. An example is a book about homeschooling, something more specific than the general topic that can be sold at homeschool conferences where the speaker is a vendor.

The fact is I have read too many self-published books in the last two years that have serious issues. Major principals of good writing are ignored by these authors. The books can be boring, fiction can be poorly written, and non-fiction information can be repetitive, too detailed, or poorly organized. This is in addition to sometimes the books having poor English grammar and spelling mistakes.

The problem is perhaps that the self-published authors sometimes also are too emotionally attached to their writing and they don't want to hear truthful feedback. It is almost that they are blind to see reality. The problem is the original idea is a good one but I think the authors have not edited it and revised it enough to turn from it's infantile state to something good if not great. These books are in need of serious editing, not just to catch the spelling mistakes but they need the advice and wisdom of an editor to help the writer see where improvement is needed. "This idea needs to be expanded more, this area is unclear, this is repetitive, this section is dull, the book has an uneven tone" are some examples of constructive criticism.

Authors who are not self-published sometimes write for a full year before their book is finally complete. I have heard that some books have gone through twelve full revisions. Some fiction stories have been changed in major ways including new plots hatched and entirely different endings. Characters are killed off and other original ideas are nixed.

Perhaps some book authors are holding on too dearly to their original idea and fear editing and changing. They should instead remember they are creating a story or a non-fiction book that a reader will want to read and will enjoy or find useful. What matters is that the final state of the book is worthy. The reader does not know or care about the first and second draft, or how the original idea may have been different than the final version and the author should not care either. If in the end the book is great who cares that the ending is different than was originally conceived? Writers need to learn to let go!

Any author who writes for publication and wants to actually sell the books needs to care about marketability. A bad book will not sell well, or if it does sell, it will not be loved or even read through to the end by its owner. Some customers will feel ripped off and resent being duped into buying that author's book. After all that effort doesn't the self-published author want their customers to actually read the book and enjoy it? I'd think so!

Some self-published authors somehow get to delete customer reviews that they do not like. The fact that Amazon would do that surprises me because sometimes those reviews help Amazon customers remain happy Amazon customers (happy with Amazon overall).

Once I bought a "book" from Amazon that had flattering customer reviews. The publishing house had a name and I assumed it was a professional company. The book was not even a book, it was a print off of a power point presentation done on 20 pound computer paper printed on one side only and comb bound, and had a low page count. The printing quality was terrible. The writing was bad, the content jumped all over the place, and the graphics were horrible. It had a combination of digital photos, cartoons, and clip art and some of the artwork was not sized in proportion, so it was distorted, like a person's face looking like they were in a fun house mirror. Also the block of information was just one small part of the page leaving the rest of the page empty. Why wasn't it at least blown up to fit the page completely? I bet it was because the author didn’t know how to resize, since the way it printed was the default size! Some of the font was so tiny I couldn't read it in its small-size state. This thing was nonsense and a piece of junk, it wasn't a book.

I didn't know how I was duped into buying this for $18.95, so I revisited the product page on Amazon and realized the best "customer review" was the author's own review (but using some initials instead of his first name so it was not obvious). I realized that this "book" was self-published (and probably comb-bound at his kitchen table). The author attacked the customers who did negative reviews and some of what the author was saying was pretty scary and revealed a lot of anger and possibly some mental instability! I also learned right on the author’s own customer review that he lived about 45 minutes from me. I returned the book to Amazon for a refund (minus my postage expense). I was tempted to give this book a negative review to warn the other potential customers but decided not to as I didn't want to be attacked by the author.

In other cases I'd been asked by self-published authors to read their books then when I published a less than five star review the author had the review(s) deleted. This was frustrating to me because first I suffered through reading the book I'd committed to read and then I labored over how to write the review, trying to be objective by giving constructive criticism. I’d given concrete examples to justify my statements, and it was for naught. It is much more difficult and time consuming for me to review something I don't like than what I like or love.

Recently while reading a book "What's Your Story?" which I’m using to teach a class of homeschooled students, I read the author's statement asking the reader if they really want to write a book or do they want to have written a book. Read that phrase again and see if you see the difference. I love it.

I used to say I wanted to write a book. Right now, I'm still saying I want to write a book someday, but that day is not today. I don't have time right now to write a good book. So for now I'm not even trying. Having written a good book is not easy. A good idea does not instantly turn into a great finished book. The editing can and should take a lot more effort than the ease of having that original idea pop into your head. I don't know if I'll ever make the time necessary to write a book because I don't know if I'll ever choose to use my time in that way. At present I have other, higher priorities for how I'm choosing to spend my time.

There are tried and true components that explain what constitutes good writing. All writers should know these things. All students should be taught these things as part of learning to write (writing composition). The general rules of writing should be followed, period. Anyone who has decided to write a book should invest their time in learning these basic principals. Please for your reader's sake, learn these things before you start writing a book. Don't waste your time, don't spin your wheels, life is too short to spend your time trying to write a whole book then trying to get it published and to market it if it is not any good.

If you want to be a writing hack you can always just blog. It's free for the blogger, and it's easy to publish. You don’t need to know anything about HTML or computer coding. You don't even need to market yourself if you don't feel like it. Readers may or may not choose to read your blog, and since it's free for them to read they won't get too upset if they don't like what you say or how you say it, they'll usually just not return. You probably won't even know about their opinion of your writing (most people never leave blog comments), so your feelings won't be hurt either.

On the other hand, if you blog and use it for writing practice and you improve your writing along the way, and if you develop a loyal audience, it may fuel your fire to begin the arduous task of writing and editing a book and pursuing publication with a traditional publishing house! You may be the next J.K. Rowling or David McCullough.

P.S. My book reviews are honest. If you are a self-published author and I’ve praised your writing, it was my true opinion. If you have provided me with a review copy of a book and I have not yet published a book review you may be in the category of books I’m postponing reviewing due to not liking the book. Before you get angry with me for not yet publishing my review, ask yourself if you’d prefer a negative review being published or no review being published.


Steve Weber said...

Good post, Christine. You have high ethics -- too many people would go ahead and post a favorable review because they don't want to hurt the feelings of someone they like.

Self-publishing writers MUST have their work critiqued by a professional before putting it out there for the general public. That usually means hiring an editor, someone who's not your friend, who can give you some honest criticism. Even professional writers can't see the things that are wrong with their manuscripts.

honestyrain said...

i am a writer near completion of my first novel and i have no interest in self-publication for many of the reasons you've outlines here. i think all writers benefit from a third party editorial process. self-publication is self indulgent and i have yet to see it done successfully.

little light

love2teach2day said...

I agree. 'Nuff said. :)

WildIris said...

Thanks for link to "What's Your Story?"
I think writing on the internet is a bit like self-publishing. No one is there as fact checker or editor. The internet is filled with stuff that should not have seen the light of the computer screen.

christinemm said...

Wild Iris, Sometimes I think of blogging as a written form of thoughts that used to be shared via telephone or face to face with friends. Other times blogging is like writing articles on par or better than city newspapers and also worse, equal or better than some magazines. Some essays are better than we see in magazines.

I see Flickr like sharing your photo album with the world.

Bulletin boards and discussion groups are like talking by writing not orally.

The great thing is we can ignore any of this or join in at will.

I am happy to live in a country where expression like this is possible (freedom of speech).

Also the Internet allows creative people to share works that formerly were blocked as only certain people were allowed to share their work (if some party allowed them to such as an art guild approved a work for an art show).

I'm glad the Internet is here.

The parties that filter are still filtering. For example the writings that are approved for accuracy about a medical condition, websites written by doctor's organizations are skimpy and closed, they don't tell enough information, so they are least helpful. Those parties are still wanting to get paid for everything they do and want real consults with fees paid to share their expertise. The opposite are the open source people who are sharing much more free of charge and then the public can interact. These are two different models.

The bad thing is when amateurs share info that is incorrect (i.e. medical information) and the readers have to sort the nonsense and inaccurate from the truth.

luv2ski said...

Well said, Christine!

Shannon said...

Great blog! I think a lot of self-published authors need some real honesty about their work. I would caution against any absolutes though, not every self-published novel is bad, but the proportion of bad-to-good will always be largely out of whack.

- Shannon

M. Hart said...

I would agree that it is for the exact reasons that you mentioned that self publishing gets a bad name, but not all of them out there are like that.

To be completely fair, many of the manuscripts submitted for publication - by people who would not dream of self-publication- are just as bad.

I had a job reading manuscripts for a small nonprofit a few years back and most of what we got in wasn't up to par. Try writing rejection letters for a living.

If they self publish it, you are simply seeing it in book form, not manuscript form- and that is the only difference.

Most writing out there is bad, but the average person just doesn't get exposed to it.

I wouldn't shun the entire field of self-publishing just because of that. There are authors out there who are very good and do multiple revisions and get creditable feedback that they take into account before self-publishing.

I personally graduated from a Masters program that, in order to teach us the entire field of publishing, we had to write, edit, design, and print books. We wrote and designed our own books and edited the manuscripts of others. The books were 3 years if not more in the making and all of them turned out wonderful. We were forced to go through that process of editing and changing and taking consideration of what readers thought.
Even being people who took good writing seriously, the end book turned out very different from the initial manuscript that we thought would be the book.

Also, this year at AWP a panel of publishers and agents, told me that they wouldn't look down a self-published book that sold. They would be excited to pick it up and sell more of it.

That is the key. I think no matter how you do it, it has to be good.
There are some good self published authors out there.

My best advice is to not make personal relationships with the authors either way. It is always harder to stick to your principles as a reviewer if you like the person. (You may be able to tell them personally, but writing a public review is another matter.)

I appreciate your love for good writing though. :)