Sunday, July 1, 2012

Which of these words don't you understand?

As often happens, reading someone else's writing sparks my own thoughts, and I suppose that's not unusual in a community of writers and readers.  Writers were, after all, readers first and still read.  Readers read what the writers have written.  There will always be cross-pollination.

So I'm going to start this rant with a link to Sunita's original blogpost here which was further disseminated via Dear Author here and explain that the subject is titled (by my predecessors, not I) "When I bought your book, I didn't sign up to be your beta reader."

I added several posts of my own to the Dear Author thread, so I'll only briefly here restate that I think it is very wrong for authors who are digitally self-publishing to engage in this particular practice, which consists of:

1. E-publishing an uncorrected, unedited, unproofread rough draft of their "book" and charging cash money for it, without noting in a prominent way so the reader is aware before purchasing that it is in fact a rough (or very early) draft.

2.  Revising said work based on reviews and/or comments made by people who have purchased said work, such revisions to include but not be limited to fixing typos and other mechanical errors, revising plot lines to improve logical progression, altering characters and/or character motivation, changing the ending to make it more popular with readers, adding or removing significant events from the story.

3.  Re-publishing the work as a new edition and charging new readers for the privilege, with or without notifying previous purchasers that a new edition is available.

Those are the basics.  There are other corollary things the author can do to make the experience even worse, but those will wait for later enumeration.

I'm also going to offer a couple of qualifiers to the three main points, one of which has already been mentioned in #1.

If the author makes it clear that the publication is a work in progress that's one thing.  Then the reader knows that she should not be expecting a polished product.  It's probably still bad form to do this, but at least the author is being honest and the reader can make an informed decision whether to buy or not.

Offering the work for free is not an excuse.  Again, if the author makes clear that the work is unpolished, that's one thing, but merely offering it at no charge without such an announcement is unfair to the reader.  The reader expects that the product, free or not, is finished.  A rough draft is not a finished product.

I can't stress this enough.  The reader buys expecting a finished product, ready to read, to all intents and purposes it's DONE.  In essence, it's ready to provide a reading experience in which the text becomes invisible (see my blogpost about invisible words here) and the reader is immersed in the story.

But what appears to be happening more and more often is that the reader buys something that's not finished.

Here's a review of The Duke's Reform by Fenella J. Miller, in which the reviewer laments:

Spoiler alert: I hate to write a bad review so I will start out with the good. This was a good story. Could have been a much better story. It was poorly told, punctuation and vocabulary and missing words and words added in that did not relate to the sentence they were in combined to make this a very difficult read. When I read a story, I want to read what the author wanted to tell, I don't want to have to guess and fill in the story every other page.

. . .

This could have been a good read if only they had had an editor. The Kindle version has some serious formatting problems with new paragraphs beginning in the middle of sentences, some paragraphs in bold and other in italics for no apparent reason. Commas and other punctuation are just, willy nilly throughout the book. A stilted and unbelievable dialogue. I wanted to like both the H and the h. I really did.

I am left wondering why I read this book to the end except that, I really wanted to like the H and h and I wanted them to have an HEA.

But if you must, get a dictionary and keep it handy, you will need it. This is a long read and by the end I just wanted it to be over
Then there's The Taming of the Hart by Lorraine Burgess which was uploaded to Amazon sometime prior to 22 June 2012 based on the date of the earliest review.  Selected comments from the reviews:

Didn't anyone take a look at this book before it was uploaded to Amazon? This is a good story. It deserves better.

I don't only not recommend it, I caution against it because it literally gave me a headache while trying to read it.

Please use a proper dictionary and check the spelling of even small words like seem and such. It is a large hindrance when the technical parts of writing get in the way of the story.
A few days later the author issued an apology and stated this was her uncorrected version written for herself and she would have a corrected version uploaded "within 24 hours."  Three days later, that corrected version has not yet appeared.

As you can see even in this not-very-clear screen shot, the version Ms. Burgess uploaded contains errors in the very first sentence.  The bold italic font continues through the entire text, sometimes Times Roman, sometimes Arial or a similar sans-serif font.  She claims this uncorrected version was uploaded "by accident," and it's obvious from the text of her apology that she's still having problems with spelling, sentence structure, and punctuation.  None of her friends told her of the problems, which suggests either her friends never looked at it or they weren't skilled enough to recognize them or they chose not to tell her; but none of those explanations explains why she herself didn't take even the quickest glance at what she uploaded.

When she did upload a "revised" version a few days later, most of the problems remained.  A few of the usage and spelling errors were fixed, and it's no longer in Italic font but the bold text continues throughout and it's a mess.  It's a horrible mess.

Now, allow me to throw this out here:  Yes, I uploaded a slightly imperfect version of Firefly to Amazon, an error I related here, and had I purchased a copy and checked it all out, I probably would have discovered the problem.  However, I did at least make sure I hadn't uploaded a version that contained numerous spelling errors.  I also made sure the version that was uploaded was reasonably well formatted, and in fact on my Kindle for PC app, the font was a standard Times Roman, not "ugly courier" noted in the early reviews.  The courier font and font-related glitches only appeared, as far as I'm able to determine, on the actual Kindle device.  It did take some extra finagling for me to get the right version to show up on the Kindle, but at least I did check somewhat before I put the thing live.  Yes, I could have checked more, but as I have learned since then, even purchasing a copy might not have revealed all the problems.

And regardless, I would never have uploaded something that had such appalling errors as "belt of lightening."  Come to think of it, I would never write "belt of lightening" when I really meant "bolt of lightning" in the first place.  My fingers wouldn't let me.

Sometimes these books have many, many, many five-star reviews that rave about how wonderful the book is and how the reviewers just can't wait for the author's next book.  There may be a few that point out errors and only grant one or two stars, but frequently the author (or their surrogates???) counter these negative reviews with staunch defenses of the wonderfulness of the story, or they attack the reviewer personally.  Often the errors cited are never addressed, or even admitted to.  It's as if the authors are in absolute denial of the problems in their books.

When I did my original analysis of self-published books that had garnered a bunch of five star as well as one star reviews, I was specifically looking for titles that had both because I wanted to try to get some sense of whether the five-star reviews had any suspicion of being planted by friends, family members, the authors themselves, or "shills" who were actually paid to write glowing reports whether they had liked or even read the book or not.  As I expanded my data base (if you will) of these titles, I did indeed begin to see a pattern with the works that were original to the digital self-publishing platform.  In other words, the books by authors who had never published in print prior to uploading their books to Amazon.  (And of course the qualifier here is that I had not looked at any other e-publishing format.  More about that later.)

Secrets of Moonshine, by Denise Daisy is one of those books with a lot of five-star reviews but is still very badly formatted.  Although the author claims she paid an "editor" $900 to turn this into a "squeaky clean" product, typos and punctuation and syntax errors abound.  I feel like telling Ms. Daisy it wouldn't have mattered to me if she had paid $9,000 or even ninety million dollars for that editing job: The book remained a pathetic mess.  Telling the reader that it was edited does not make it so.

Asking -- or worse, expecting -- the reader to fix the errors is grossly unfair.  Remember what that reviewer of Fenella Miller's The Duke's Reform wrote:  When I read a story, I want to read what the author wanted to tell, I don't want to have to guess and fill in the story every other page.

It is the author's job to tell that story.  That is what the reader has paid the author to do, with payment being made sometimes in cash but always in time and in trust.

Many years ago, in an article published in Writer's Digest magazine, authors George Scithers, Darrell Schweitzer, and John Ashmead reiterated what they called "The Ultimate Rule," which was an expansion on instructions laid out by Robert Heinlein.  I personally took that Rule to heart, and I have passed it along, always with attribution, to every aspiring writer I have ever come into contact with.

1.  You must write.
2.  You must finish what you write.
3.  You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
4.  You must put your work in front of an editor who might buy it.
5.  You must keep it on the market until it is sold.

Obviously, with the rise of digital publishing, #4 and #5 are no longer as "ultimate" as they used to be.  And given how my attitude toward traditional publishers has soured, I'd have issues with those orders anyway.

But how does Heinlein's dictum apply to today's publishing scene? 

First of all, #3 specifically refers to the traditional publishing professional who, as the middleman between writer and reader, is trained to acquire those properties most likely to turn a profit for the publisher and is trained to put those properties into publishable shape.  Unlike the random reader who looks at the free sample of a book digitally published on Amazon and who may or may not know anything at all about writing, about editing, or about the factual accuracy of the book and whose suggestions may be completely wrong, at least under the traditional publishing model the editor is probably going to do much more to improve the work than make it worse.  What the shift to digital self-publishing has done is to split the gatekeeper function from that of purchaser by eliminating that editorial middleman.  And that means that the author must now take full responsibility for all of that editorial function, while purchasing is directly in the hands of the final user.

Second of all. Heinlein's #3 never meant the author should complete the roughest of first drafts and immediately start schlepping it around to the top editors and agents.  It does mean that when you have a clean and polished version of your work, stop messing with it and get it out there.  It does mean that you need to develop the professional writing skills that will allow your prospective reader -- whether that is an agent, a publishing house editor, a small e-press editor, or the person who downloads your digital book from Amazon -- to read your story as if it were ready to be set in type.  It does mean only listen to the complaints and criticisms and orders from those who are competent to voice and demand them.

Third of all, the writer must understand what #4 really means in the age of digital publishing.  Again, that "editor" now becomes any potential reader, and just as the traditional publishing industry demanded that the author deliver a manuscript as spotless as possible when trying to land an editor, today the digital shopper fills that role, not as editor but as acquirer.  The author must take on the responsibility that formerly fell to the publisher: making certain that the product is ready for the consumer to use.

Unfortunately, so many of the people putting out digital books are so lacking in even basic writing skills that they should never get past #1.  And they don't understand that #2 doesn't just mean writing "The End" after the first draft is cranked out.  "Finished" means ready for real people to read it.

Essentially, self-publishing means that the author has to take on all the roles of the publisher, and that doesn't mean foisting them off on an unsuspecting and perhaps unqualified reader.  The author must either be qualified to be editor, proofreader, copyeditor, line editor, cover artist, publicist, accountant, and legal specialist, or she must find and pay other professionals to perform those tasks.  Self-publishing is not just uploading a text file to Amazon or Pub-it or Smashwords. 

Nor should self-publishing be a vehicle for authorial deception.  We've already seen too many instances of authors just plain stealing other people's words and trying to sell them.  Whether it's Janet Dailey or Cassie Edwards, Cassandra Clare or anyone else, plagiarism/copyright infringement is just plain wrong.  Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.  No excuse, no defense, no forgiveness.

But also wrong is this ongoing business of posting deceptive reviews to self-published books.  The reader who browses the Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Kobo or Apple catalogue should not be bombarded with bullshit "reviews" that are nothing but the author's friends and family members and paid ad copy writers posing as unbiased reviewers.  Of course your mother is going to give you a good review!  We know that.  As readers, we want to know what other real readers thought. 

However, some authors are now turning to another tactic, and it's not being done to make their books better but rather just to sell them.

Among the intial group of novels I analyzed back in March was one that, as I began to read the free sample, struck me as having enormous potential to be a really, really good book.  Unfortunately, it was riddled with errors of just about every type: typos, wrong words used, historical inaccuracy, bad formatting.  And I noticed that while there were a whole bunch of kind of generic five-star reviews, there were also a lot of one- and two-star reviews that cited those problems. 

Now, if I were an author whose book received numerous detailed criticisms about specific errors, I'd be sure to consider those issues very carefully, research to find out if perhaps the critics were right, and then I would do my very best to fix them.  And as a matter of fact, the few reviews I've received on Firefly have brought up the issue of that Arizona ice cream -- but there's nothing historically wrong with it!  And I addressed that in the Afterword.  No, of course Del and Julie didn't take Willy to the local Baskin Robbins or Coldstone Creamery, but ice cream was not anachronism.

What I wouldn't do, however, is ignore a slew of criticisms and just remove the book from Amazon, then republish it as is on Smashwords, with a new title and a new pseudonym, with no reference to the original on Amazon and no correction of the errrors, which is what I discovered the author had done.  I only noticed it because she republished her book almost the same time I published Shadows by Starlight at Smashwords, and I saw hers as I was checking the status of mine. 

When an author does something like that, at that point the whole operation becomes nothing but deception and a ploy to make money off the gullible.  That, too, is wrong.  It's even more wrong when she chooses a title identical to that of another historical romance and a pseudonym very very similar to that of the author of that book.

Once again, self-publishing means the writer takes on the responsibility of fulfilling all the tasks traditional publishers would have done.  As far as I know, that never included making the reader do the work or intentionally deceiving the reader.

Now, self-publishing authors, what about this don't you get?

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