Just because you can publish a book doesn’t mean you should

I can’t wait to start reading my friend’s first novel. I happily empty my wallet to buy an autographed copy. I inhale the new book smell and flip through all those pages looking forward to what I expect to be a wonderful experience. I brew a cup of tea, settle into my comfortable chair with the dog at my side and turn to Chapter One.

That’s when I realize the writing is bad. Really bad. By page three, I still don’t know what’s going on. My critique group would tear it to pieces. Bill would say he doesn’t get it. Dorothy would cross out most of the pages, saying it’s not interesting, it doesn’t go anywhere. I’d ask for scenes, for specifics, and for dialogue that sounds the way people really talk. I would note the many grammatical errors, the mismatched modifiers and the typos. We would send the author back to his computer to start over.

But it’s already a published book. It’s going out into the world as is. Book-signings, publication parties and readings have been scheduled. It’s too late. Where was the editor? How could he or she let this book go out into the world this way?

Another author sends his book to me via Kindle, asking for a review. By the end, I’m so frustrated I’d throw it across the room, except I don’t want to break my Kindle. It has bad characters and bad dialogue. It raises questions that are never answered. I vow to never read another book by this author.

The next one, also an e-book, has good content, but the writing and the typos make it painful to read.

I turn to an old classic for some literary relief. I have two more new books to read and review, but I can’t stand it anymore.

You know what makes me even more nuts? These authors get their friends to offer five-star reviews that make them sound like Pulitzer Prize winners. I read them and think: Did they read the same book that I read? Do readers just not know the difference anymore?

These books are self-published. They give self-publishing a bad name. After a while, even though I have self-published some of my own books, I check the copyright page, see that a book is self-published and don’t want to read it.

The problem is two-fold. First, everybody needs an editor. No matter how good a writer you are, you can’t see your own mistakes. You can’t back away from the story and see the big picture. Your brain is programmed to see what you want it to see. Start with a critique group. It hurts to have people point out your writing flaws, but it helps so much in improving your writing, so get your work critiqued before you publish it. Run it by some non-writer readers, too. See if they react the way you hope they will, laughing at the funny parts, loving the characters, getting wrapped up in the story. If they don’t, you need work on it some more.

Before you self-publish a book, get it professionally edited. It can cost quite a lot—over a thousand dollars in some cases—but it can make the difference between a well-written book and one that needs work. As I read recently in a brilliant article by Russell Blake called “How to Sell Loads of Books,” “If you’re too cheap or too broke to pay an editor, barter something of value to get someone qualified to do it, or (gasp, here’s an idea) save some money so you can do it right. Skip these steps and you won’t sell much, if anything. Or if you do, it won’t last very long, because word will spread, and then you’re dead.”

Of course, not everyone who calls herself an editor is a good one. Ask for recommendations from writer friends, get referrals from the acknowledgements of books you admire, or check the Editorial Freelancers Association.

The second problem, a deeper and more difficult one, is that people are putting out books when they haven’t laid the groundwork for a writing career. It’s like some guy who wants to be an electrician expecting to rewire the White House without having taken any classes or served an apprenticeship. Good writers spend years working on their craft. They take classes and workshops, earn degrees, read the works of the masters, and write reams of prose or poetry that never gets published. Like pianists practicing their scales, they practice their craft and never stop learning. They don’t dash out 60,000 raw words and start designing the cover. They spend years revising and polishing.

Yes, with today’s technology, anyone can write a book and publish it. You can do everything yourself or pay one of the many companies offering to give birth to your book—no matter how bad it is or how unready it is for publication. Years ago, I talked to Donald Maas, agent and author of Writing the Breakout Novel, about print-on-demand publishing. With POD, all the rage at the turn of this century, companies like iUniverse and Xlibris would publish your books but not print them until orders came in. They offered marketing help for extra fees but no editing. What you sent them was what got published. Now with e-books and Amazon’s CreateSpace program, you can put out your books for free. There’s nothing wrong with that if they’re truly ready for publication.

Maas said most self-published authors don’t take the time for that last much-needed rewrite. There are a lot of good reasons writers avoid the big publishing conglomerates these days. The competition is fierce, and it can take years for a book to be published, but for God’s sake, don’t jump into print (or cyberprint) until your book is the best it can possibly be. Don’t make me want to throw it across the room.

And if you haven’t developed your craft or gotten your book edited, please don’t ask me to review it. No matter how pretty the cover is or how much I want to say good things, if I see problems with your book, I’m going to tell the truth. You have to earn your stars from me.

Now go write.

 

 

 

 

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3 Comments on “Just because you can publish a book doesn’t mean you should”

  1. Sandy Ellston says:

    Hi, Sue–good piece. I especially like the comment, “Do readers no longer know the difference?” And of course, that’s where my job comes in, helping to create educated and discriminating readers. I was in a writers’ group where one member had a good story and had written it up as a novel. She self-published, and I read it. It had commas splices on every page, and that was distracting from the really interesting story she was trying to tell. I mentioned it to her tactfully and offered her a free session on how to fix those–it really is a matter of one concept and two or three punctuation options–and she refused. She rejected my expertise (me, as a literary professional) and said that “The commas won’t matter to the kind of people who read my book.” What an insult to those readers! I gave the book to a friend of mine, not a literary professional, who read it and said it was “So-so. Very amateurish.” So those readers are indeed discriminating. Later she asked Philip Margolin about fixing comma splices and he said, “You absolutely must. It makes a better-quality book.” HIM she believed–the power of the dollar, I guess. When you recommend an editor, do you mean copy editor or compositional editor or some combination thereof? You can fix up all the grammar and punctuation and still have a terrible book. In my younger days I worked as an editor at a big press, and let me tell you, making your way through a ms. that needs a lot of structural help is worth every penny one pays for it. It’s tedious, exacting work. And this was in the day before stick-it notes!

    • Thanks, Sandy. You are so right. It does matter to the reader. We should never put out junk. As for what kind of editing, you need the works, starting with an editor who will look at the big picture, the story, characters, dialogue, themes, organization, plot, etc., as well as a copyeditor who will fix your comma slices and grammar goofs and proofread for those sneaky typos that are real turnoffs.

  2. Eliza says:

    I remember in the early days of ebay it was such a novelty that people were selling random nothing like a jar of dirt and people would bid on it. Let’s hope the ebook and self-publishing world stabilises into something respectable.


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