Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A word to the why's -- A rant with no links

So I was sitting there in the coffee shop this morning, composing another writing lesson, and a friend asked me why I was doing it.  She's not a writer, but her comment echoed an often-voiced sentiment from my days in RWA.

"Isn't that like training your competition?" she asked.

Well yes, and no.

Let me backtrack a bit.  During my dozen years or so of active RWA membership, I gave my share of time and energy to helping the unpublished become published.  I gave workshops.  I belonged to several critique groups in which I was the only published writer.  I judged manuscripts in contests open only to the unpublished.  I worked with several writers on their contest entries, finding the tiny flaws that might have kept them from winning, and two authors who followed my advice not only won Golden Heart awards but ended up selling those books to print publishers.

Could I have spent my time and energy more profitably on my own writing?  Probably.  But part of the business of writing is cultivating an audience and a market.  I believed wholeheartedly that by encouraging other writers I was creating good will with them, with their friends, with their eventual readers, and so on.  Call me naive and I won't disagree:  A few of the authors to whom I gave more than I should have ended up stabbing me in the back.  I won't name them; they know who they are.

But that never really diminished the teacher/helper in me.  Even though yes, I knew all along that in the day when print publishing was the only viable game in town, I was indeed training my competition, I still did it.  And most of the time I enjoyed it and took great satisfaction in seeing their triumphs.

As I wrote in an early blogpost, some of the authors whose manuscripts I judged did not take my advice and those books never sold.  Instead, they have ended up on Amazon (and probably elsewhere) as self-published e-books or as print-on-demand trade paperbacks.  They've sold a few copies, but that's about it.

My intention is not to give you the impression I think I'm an infallible judge or editor;  I know damn well I'm not.  As has been said often enough here and elsewhere, even the editors at the big traditional publishing houses make mistakes all the time, either passing up books that eventually become best sellers for another publisher or paying big bucks for and then promoting the hell out of duds.

But because of the major shift in the book industry to digital publishing the past few years, many books are coming on the market that would never have reached traditional publication.  The reasons these books failed to find publishers are numerous -- weak stories, bad writing, unlikable characters, whatever -- but they were always competition for those of us writers who weren't locked into secure and lucrative contracts.  We always had to take our chances with the rest of the manuscripts in the slush pile.  Having an agent or having even a minimal track record helped a little, but it didn't necessarily give us an advantage.  In fact, having a record of publishing with less than stellar sales numbers could be a distinct disadvantage.

So now we're all competing against each other on a sort of level playing field.  Why would I want to help my competition?

Well, because we're all up against another competitor, one who has a lot more clout than we do:  The Traditional NYC Publishing Houses.

The traditional houses have the editors, the proofreaders, the formatters, the artists.  They have EVERYTHING, and of course they extract a price for it.  Amazon pays 70% royalties, with no advance; a traditional publisher pays 10% royalties and maybe gives $2,500 advance.  Of course, traditional publishers charge readers $7.99 and up for a paperback, and there's often little to no discount for the digital edition.  The paperback can be traded or sold; the digital version can maybe be lent once -- unless of course the buyer wants to (illegally) strip the DRM and convert the digital file to something transferable.  A self-published e-book frequently runs $2.99 or less, and many can be picked up for free by the careful shopper.

The complaints from readers, as voiced in reviews, are that self-published books just don't measure up to the quality of traditionally published books (TPBs).  Stories are weaker, formatting for e-publication is often messed up, typographical errors abound, and on and on and on.  The mechanical problems of grammar, punctuation, spelling and so on are usually non-existent in TPBs simply because there are enough editors and others to go over the manuscript prior to publication.  If the SPA can't afford to have her book professionally edited and professionally proofread and professionally formatted, those errors are going to slip through.  And if she herself isn't a good enough writer, a good enough editor, a good enough proofreader, a good enough formatter, those errors are going to be numerous.

The big question, then, becomes whether or not the reader should be obligated to accept without complaint the lower quality on the self-published book.

Read that last sentence again:

The big question, then, becomes whether or not the reader should be obligated to accept without complaint the lower quality on the self-published book.

The authors who end up having public tantrums because someone dared to give their book a bad review are almost always self-published.  Just Google "author meltdown" if you don't already know enough about the subject.  And most of the meltdowns are precipitated by bad reviews.  One star on Amazon.  Criticism of anything about the book, whether it's the author's poor grammatical skills, a borrowed plotline, inaccurate research, whatevah.

And all too often these melting authors defend themselves by castigating the readers for not giving them and their books a pass because they're self-published and self-published books shouldn't be held to the same standards.

In other words, a reader who downloads a self-published book should not only expect lower quality but should accept it as is and not complain about any flaws.  The fact that the author wrote the book and had the courage to self-publish it (but not the courage to withstand any criticism at all) is supposed to be enough.  Bad grammar?  Pay no attention to it, Gentle Reader.  Misspellings galore?  Ignore them, Gentle Reader.  Can't make heads or tails of the syntax?  Pretend you can, Gentle Reader.

But the readers aren't so gentle, and they aren't buying -- in the figurative sense, more than the literal. 
Many readers and reviewers have adopted a "Do Not Read" attitude toward self-published books.  They've become so disgusted with the lack of quality assurance that they just won't waste their time on the SPBs at all any more.  These are readers who are knowledgeable enough to check the identity of the "publisher" on the book's listing before they buy it.  Or maybe they read the free sample to determine if there's even a chance that the rest of the book will be readable.  But more and more often there are comments on blogs and discussion boards and even on the Amazon discussions that readers simply will not bother with self-published books.

Obviously, if a well-known but traditionally published author moves into self-publishing, she has a certain amount of name recognition and can build on that.  But as publishers hold onto digital rights -- and pay diddly in royalties to the authors -- and authors are emotionally bullied into continuing with their traditional publishers, self-publishing becomes more and more of a wasteland.  That means even the traditionally published authors are losing out.

Yes, you traditionally published authors, the bad SPBs out there are hurting you. 

The only way to break the chains of literary serfdom is to make self-publishing truly viable.  That means the authors who are taking that route, myself included, absolutely must put out a quality product.  No more making excuses.  No more hiding behind lean budgets. 

And no more tantrums when a reader or reviewer points out "The book is garbage.  It's unreadable tripe.  The author can't spell, the heroine is a doormat and the hero is a dunce, and there were no zippers in Regency ballgowns."  Any author who engages in this sort of pathetic, infantile behavior is not worth of the title.  Go away.  Grow up.  You're not the "special snowflake" you think you are.  You're a fraud and a phony. 

No more paid shill reviews, no more friends and family and sock puppet reviews.  No more fan-girl attacks on the truth-tellers.  No more take-downs of legitimate websites, no "Stop the Bullies!" campaigns.  The people who are telling you your book is crap are only telling you what you already know:  If you're defending it on the basis that it shouldn't be compared to "quality" writing because self-publishing means it's of lesser quality, then you're admitting you know it's crap and should just smile and say to the reviewer, "I appreciate that you recognized my work for what I intended it to be. Thank  you so very much."  And then SHUT UP.

And that's why I'm offering my little free lessons on how to write.  Some writers may pay attention.  They'll have just the slightest bit of advantage over those who don't.  And if all of us build on that advantage, then maybe, just maybe, we can swing the royalty pendulum more our way.

Whether we sell it for $2.99 or $9.99 or give it away free, we need to make it the very very best we can.  We need to go back to the tried-and-true techniques of the critique group and critique partner, the qualified editor and proofreader, the professional cover art designer.  We need to hone our skills with grammar and syntax.  We need to make sure our digital books are as perfectly formatted as they can possibly be.  Merely uploading a Word .doc file isn't enough. 

So to answer my friend at the coffee shop, I'm doing this to help other writers because I firmly believe it helps me, too.

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