Friday, May 25, 2012

Missing those very special words

A conversation with a friend this morning got me to thinking about why it is that so many authors who enjoy the benefits of digital self-publishing are so seemingly unable to accept criticism.  The accounts of major author meltdowns are too numerous to list here and are easily found with your favorite search engine.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized these reactions aren't a new phenomenon.  One of my very first writing pen-pals, back in the early 1980s, was so furious over a rejection letter from a publisher who had held her manuscript for  several months, that she threatened to throw her typewriter out a second floor window and never write again.  How dare they!

About ten years later, another acquaintance of mine was so furious about requested revisions to her contracted manuscript that she threw temper tantrums on the phone to her editor.  Her refusal to change a single word resulted in the publisher taking virtually unheard of action:  Not only did the editor make all the changes herself, but the publisher cancelled the second book on the contract before the first had gone to press.

Neither of these writers was unfamiliar with the pain of rejection, the sting of criticism.  For some reason or other, however, they reacted excessively to any negative comments.

But their actions were not the norm; most of the writers I knew, whether published or unpublished, knew that their artistic vision sometimes had to be compromised.  They also knew that their prose might or might not be deathless; it might need the deft hand of an editor.  More important, we knew our work would be edited whether we wanted it to be or not.  Dealing with an editor was part of the process.

We also understood that once published, our words were cast in stone.  Or at least in wood pulp, which was almost as permanent.  If the back cover copy listed the heroine's name as Amber and the text had her as Allison, well, too bad.  If the hero was clean-shaven on the cover painting but he is noted for his luxurious mustache throughout the story, oh well, them's the breaks.  When we got our page proofs for final corrections, we may have pointed out the typesetting error on page 220 where Queen Victoria's husband is identified as Prince Alfred, but if no one actually made the correction, it's going to be on page 220 in every single copy printed.  Tough luck.

All of that has changed.  The whole process of writing, for many people, has changed.  Instead of write, rewrite, revise, polish, share with critique partners, enter contests, revise, rewrite, polish, send to agents, send to editors, lather, rinse, repeat; it's now just write and upload.  Oh, maybe some authors hint that if they get enough complaints about the bad grammar and dozens of typos per page, they might go back and revise.  Many, however, just don't care.  Some might decide to pay a professional editor AFTER they've sold enough copies to justify it.  And the real-time nature of digital publishing allows them to do that.  Nothing is carved in stone any more.  So the first digital "edition" is full of typos and grammatical mistakes; the second has been professionally proofread and most of the errors are cleaned up.

But another thing that has changed is that digital self-publishing offers no visible mark of quality assurance.  The reader who goes to a bookstore and sees shelf after shelf after shelf of paper and ink books knows that most of them have been through sufficient selection and editing to be halfway decent.  Oh, the occasional clinker slips through, and virtually no book is without at least a couple of typos, but if the story was good enough to be accepted by a publisher, then it was good enough for the publisher to make sure the final product was clean.  In many cases, the manuscript had to be reasonably clean just to get the editor to read it, but in all cases, the expectation of a clean final product was the norm.

Another thing that has changed is that the author can't carry around a copy of the book -- or even the contract or letter of acceptance -- as evidence of quality.  I'm a romance novelist, and throughout my tenure in RWA, there was a strict division between the published and the unpublished, even though RWA admitted the unpublished writer -- even the person who thought maybe she might someday want to write a romance novel but hadn't yet actually done so! -- to full membership.  That began to change in 1989 with the formation of PAN (Published Authors' Network) and in 1994 when I started PASIC (Published Authors' Special Interest Chapter).  And believe me, there were a whole lot of unpublished members of RWA who absolutely hated that the published members had something extra.  (Never mind, as I pointed out routinely, that a published author was FOREVER excluded from the Golden Heart contest.)

RWA still maintains strict requirements that an applicant must meet to claim that "published author" status, and the sad truth is that most of the current crop of write-it-and-upload-it self-published authors are not going to meet those requirements.  Digital self-publishing does not carry the same weight as the message from an established publisher, whether it comes as email, phone call, or letter, "We'd like to publish your book"

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