We Can Do Better

Ally Writing 5 Comments

I read an article the other night that at first glance, made me so mad, I had to walk away. However, I know that growth often comes from discomfort, and so after a few minutes of steaming, I went back and read the whole thing.

Ros Barber is a traditionally published literary fiction author. I haven’t read her books, so I can’t speak to their quality. However, she writes well—at least from a stylistic standpoint. She states that she’s not making money from her traditional publishing contracts and that she’s been advised to self-publish because she’ll make more. From there, the article devolves into a lot of generalities and derogatory remarks that have a large kernel of truth to them.

The article makes some excellent points. Those points, though, are so dripping with disdain that many people won’t give them any credence whatsoever.

Since I do agree with many of her base points (though not how she delivered them), I had to respond. Her points, and my rebuttal, follow.

“You have to forget writing for a living.”

She believes that self-published writers spend 90% of their time on marketing and infers that traditionally published authors don’t. I don’t think it’s completely accurate, but it’s true that self-published authors must do all of their own marketing or pay to have someone market for them. But most traditionally published authors don’t receive much marketing support, either. They’re doing their own marketing most of the time.

“Self-publishing can make you behave like a fool.”

Can you see where I had to do some deep breathing exercises? She goes off on a rant about how self-published authors do nothing but tweet BUY MY BOOK with an endless stream of hashtags that aren’t even readable. Then, she linked to one of those tweets. Even if that poor author doesn’t tweet a single thing but BUY MY BOOK, she doesn’t deserve to be mocked on The Guardian.

Okay, back to the “fool” moniker and my raging. There are plenty of authors (indie and otherwise) who are terrible at social media. The analogies Ros uses are good ones. Social media should be about building relationships, not endless promotion. However, implying that it’s self-publishing that makes you behave this way is an exaggeration at best.

“Gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego.”

Ah, now here we get to a good point. Too bad it comes after she made self-published authors feel like gum scraped off the bottom of trad’s shoes. Traditional publishing stops authors from putting out total and complete crap. The agents and acquisitions editors in traditional publishing have a quality bar. If a writer’s query or first few chapters don’t make the grade, they’re rejected.

Self-publishing has no gatekeepers. And while I’ve read self-published books so good they made me cry, I’ve also seen authors who couldn’t string together two sentences without error. This glut of poor quality books in the indie space is a problem. How then is an independent author with a quality book to stand out? How can they convince others that they don’t share the same apathy about craft as the person who publishes something barely readable “just because they can”?

“Good writers become good because they undertake an apprenticeship.”

Another good point. Ros reveals that her first novel was actually her fourth. Very few authors should publish their first novel. When you start writing, even if you’ve got years of schooling under your belt, even if you’re a publishing professional, even if you’ve done everything “by the book,” you’re still new. You’re developing your voice. You wouldn’t perform brain surgery without an apprenticeship. You wouldn’t build a house with no experience.

While no one’s going to die if you publish a rough book, there’s harm done when you publish before you’re ready. Whether to your reputation or to the entire indie author community, publishing something that shouldn’t see the light of day is a problem.

“You can forget Hay festival and the Booker.”

Accurate, again. There are a number of awards that aren’t open to self-published authors. If submitting for certain awards is important to you, traditional publishing wins. But then she lost me. The implication in the rest of the paragraph is that genre fiction (chart music) doesn’t matter as much as literary fiction (opera). I’ll allow that some genre fiction is superficial. I’ll even nod along that some genre fiction does more harm than good. But ask a hundred people on the street to tell you the last book they read, and I’ll bet 75% of them will name a piece of genre fiction.*

“You risk looking like an amateur.”

She sings the praises of excellent editors and amazing cover designers, of marketing professionals who will think outside of the box and position you and your book well. I’m on board with all of that. Paying someone on Fiverr, or even worse, paying sweet Aunt Helen who taught English twenty years ago or Cousin Mark who likes to play around with Paint after football practice will make you look like an amateur. However, there are plenty of high quality professionals who can help turn a self-published manuscript into a masterpiece.

I didn’t have a problem with this point until the next to last sentence. “But if you’d rather be an author, why not practice your skill until you’ve written something a publisher will pay for?” Well, because sometimes, even if you’ve written a thing of exquisite beauty, you won’t get a publishing contract. Did you see the rejection letters JK Rowling tweeted out the other day?

I’m tired of ranting, so I’m going to skip the last point in favor of something a little different. A plea. One of the reasons this article made me so angry is that the author could have done so much good here. There are real problems in the self-publishing world. I perused some promotional Facebook groups frequented by indie authors tonight. Out of six books I checked out, four of them had so many mistakes in the first few pages I lost count somewhere north of thirty. Independent authors, this is a problem.

We need a stronger community to have any hope of chipping away at these problems. We need to support one another, not tear each other down. We need to focus on craft, on teaching, on encouragement. And yes, we need to be firm.

I’m a self-published author. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve made some of these mistakes. My first book shouldn’t have seen the light of day, despite hiring an editor (and listening to her). It needed to cook more. I needed to cook more.

The indie author community is in crisis, and without changes, we’re going to crash and burn. Articles like the one linked do nothing to help. By dumping on the indie author community as a whole, the author has done little more than make a toddler stamp his foot and scream at the top of his lungs at the unfairness of everything.

We need to talk about the problems plaguing publishing. We need to be open about the challenges new authors face. We need to hold editors, proofreaders, cover designers, and publicists to high standards, and we need to stop looking the other way when we find out someone isn’t qualified to do their job. But we need to do all of this without name calling, without malice, without vitriol. We should all strive to make our community a better place. Is that too much to ask?

*Note: Ros wrote a response to the attacking comments her article generated and stated she didn’t mean this sort of comparison. She meant that literary fiction had a much smaller audience. I can see that.

Comments 5

  1. I agree with all of your points. I doubt there’s anything to be done about the glut of terrible writing that’s shodily made. A lack of awareness often underpins such efforts. While faith in oneself is necessary to undertake writing at all, let alone finish a book, the is a problem with those too sure of themselves is that dissenting voices will be ignored, be they editor’s advice or a good friend trying to be diplomatic.

  2. That’s the main reason I haven’t pushed to self-publish any of my stuff. I don’t want to put out material that is need of serious editing. I am also open to working with a tradition editor-publisher if the chance arises.
    I do agree that working with an editor is essential for all writers, especially self-publishing. where there is no gatekeeper at all, Thus the writer must rely on a good editor.

  3. This is going to sound…heck, I don’t know how this will sound. I was thinking about the original article by Barber and the responses to it, and one of the things that struck me is that we’re starting with the premise that self-publishing authors want the same thing. Some people who self-pub are literally doing it for the heck of it. They’re popping out books because they can, and they have no interest in making a full-time living off of it. They’re like the guys who would approach me at the gas station when I was young and offer to sell me CDs or mixtapes. Not original ones where they’re trying to get their work out, but the ones that were copied from the radio and have the announcer’s voice over the song. They throw it up for $0.99 because Amazon doesn’t allow free unless it’s price-matched from another site, and let come what may. If they make money, great. If not, they really don’t care. They just wanted to say they did it. I wonder, when people discuss the plethora of self-pubbed crap out there, of which there is plenty, are they lumping us all in together?

    That’s not to say that there isn’t truth to the assertion that we need to do better. We DO, and we CAN. Those of us who ARE serious writers tend to do everything Ros says we need to do to make a professional book, one worthy of competing with trad-pubbed books. Not everyone, to be sure, and for that you’re absolutely right that we should do better. I take multiple courses during the year about the craft, I have a critique partner and a writing group and beta readers and all that jazz. And I save money to hire the professional help of an editor. That doesn’t make me special; it’s what I’ve seen numerous other self-pub authors doing. That’s my norm. My standards for what I publish are different from someone who’s doing it just to do it and I’m not going to knock that.

    1. You’re right, Jayce. I think many of the poor quality books out there are from authors doing it just “for the heck of it.” But we are all judged by the plethora of poorly written, unedited, and just plain irresponsible books out there. It’s not fair in many ways, as there are so many of us who do everything “right.” We work hard. We never stop learning. We pay professionals to help us with editing, cover design, and marketing. But we’re up against authors who can’t bother to run spellcheck and from my perspective, we’re woefully outnumbered.

      I’m not sure what the solution is, other than speaking up. We need to talk about these issues more, but also try to come up with solutions. Fostering community is one of the best places to start, but what else should we do? We’re not going to drain a lake with a tissue, but maybe if we all bring tissues and encourage our friends to do the same, we can, at least, make a dent.

  4. Thank you for sharing. I wrote a fiction book that is coming out later this summer from a traditional publishing house. The reason I decided against self-publishing is because I am not a professional writer or editor. I wanted experienced eyes to read my manuscript and make the necessary revisions.

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