In the olden days–maybe 20 years ago–it was hard to get a book published. It could take years to write the book. Then you had to query, submit the best work you could produce and pray that a publisher would some day call or send that precious letter saying, “We’d like to publish your book.” I’ve had a few of those calls and letters, and I can tell you it’s the best feeling in the world. Yes, it is better than sex.
There used to be a form of a self-publishing known as “vanity publishing,” but only the foolish indulged because it cost a fortune, and nearly everyone knew those pretty hardbound books were tainted with the stink of vanity, an ego trip. They weren’t necessarily any good; if they were, a real publisher would have printed them. Bookstores would not sell them, and individuals could not afford to buy them.
Then came the computer, print-on-demand, and e-books. Suddenly, for very little money, anybody could publish a book. You, me, the guy down the street. And they did. Because it cost nothing to produce an e-book and not much to publish a paperback with a company like Amazon’s CreateSpace, you could offer the books practically for free. Wahoo! Finally the business was democratized, open to everyone.
Yes, but wait. In those not-so-long-ago olden days, writers trained to be writers. They worked for newspapers or magazines. They published short stories, poems and essays. They took classes. They wrote and revised and revised some more. Because publishing a book was a big deal, they made sure they were ready.
Show of hands: How many of you have read a new self-published book that was terrible? The sentences were lame, the grammar flawed, and the plot unbelievable. Maybe you got it for free, but that’s all it was worth. Yes, I see you waving your hands.
I’m not saying all self-published books are bad. Some are wonderful. Sometimes self-publishing is the best way to make a worthy book available to people who want to read it. But don’t leap into book publishing before you’re ready, and for God’s sake, hire an editor. You’d be amazed at the magic a good editor can perform on a so-so book.
This rant was inspired by an article I read online called “The Vanishing Apprenticeship” by E. Stevens. The author laments the loss of newspapers and other publications as training grounds for writers. Hemingway, Twain, Orwell, and many others learned their craft writing articles every day. They learned to produce clean, readable copy on deadline. They learned how to please their editors and their readers.
I benefited from that kind of apprenticeship, too. I started writing poetry and fiction at a young age, but honed my skills writing for newspapers and magazines. Not only did my work have to be good enough for the editors to publish it, but I had to face angry readers if I didn’t get my facts straight. I learned to write whether I felt like it or not and to revise what I had written until it was smooth and correct.
I’m not saying everybody should go work for a newspaper. As Stevens points out, newspaper jobs have decreased at an alarming rate, from 455,600 in the U.S. in 1988 to 253,500 in 2010. I’m just saying don’t leap into publishing a book until you become a good writer. Practice, learn, do your apprenticeship, earn your journeyman status. Then give your readers something worth reading.
Now go write.
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.
For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about book publishing. Posts have covered making the decision to write a book, how to approach a traditional book publisher or literary agent, and how to self-publish with a print-on-demand company. Before we move on to e-books and other forms of self-publishing, let’s take a minute to talk about why we might want to publish a book.
Dick Lutz, an author/publisher, notes that publishing a book is like buying a lottery ticket. One’s chances of winning the big jackpot—fame and fortune–are small, but we love to try because there’s always a chance that this book is the one.
In a recent column, he wrote something that got me nodding my head and writing “Yes!” “Success at book publishing can be measured in many ways. It’s not only whether or not you make money. Many a book that didn’t sell well enough to break even is still a success in that it served a purpose or fulfilled a need.”
Lutz goes on to list reasons to publish a book besides getting rich, all of them valid. Most of us don’t write just to get rich and famous. We also write to tell a story that needs to be told, to inspire, inform, educate, or entertain. We might do it just for fun or as a stepping stone to building a career.
I’ve been thinking about all this as I try to figure out how to explain to my father why I just spent $2,500 to print copies of my new book, Childless by Marriage. I’m sure I’ll spend more to publicize and market it. I hope I make money at it. I believe that I will at least match the modest but steady income that I get from my other books.
I daydream about a major publisher picking it up and zooming it to number one on the bestseller lists. But even if that doesn’t happen, I needed to tell this story. I needed to open the discussion of what it’s like to be childless because the man you marry is unable or unwilling to have children with you. If I never make a cent, I’ll still be glad I published this book.
Childless by Marriage has been available as a Kindle e-book since Mother’s Day. Yesterday, I picked up nine boxes of the paperback version. I’m not sure where to store them yet. I could have used the print-on-demand method, where the book is stored in digital form on a computer somewhere and copies are only printed as orders come in, but I’m an old-fashioned writer. I wanted books I could hold in my hand, carry in my car, sell at talks, meetings, fairs, conferences, etc. I didn’t want another company to come between me and my readers.
This book took more than a decade to see print. I will spend years marketing it and talking about it. Like a child, a book becomes a permanent part of your life. Before you commit to such a project, know why you’re doing it. If money is your only object, think again.