It used to be difficult getting a novel published. Aspiring writers would slave over their legal pads and later computers for months, even years, writing and revising and rewriting until they had something they could call “passable.” These hopeful scribes would then draft query letters, synopses, resumés, and other proposal items and submit them to agents, filing away rejection letter after rejection letter until the fateful day one brave literary agent would take a chance on them.
It hasn’t stopped. This still goes on for writers who want their Scrivener files turned into volumes, covers displayed proudly face forward on store shelves. They know the agent is the person who takes a decent manuscript (once it’s been edited, and edited again, and finally edited a third time), and turns it into a great one that can be pitched to publishers. The agent has the connections and is working on an author’s behalf to get a book published.
But ebook readers, starting with the Amazon Kindle, have changed publishing, first gradually and now at an increasingly rapid pace. Writers who thought self-publishing meant finding a printer and spending thousands of dollars on copies they’d give away to family and friends can now publish their tales in Amazon’s Kindle store for a few dollars. With a little more effort, they can distribute their ebooks through Apple, Barnes & Noble, and dozens of other virtual stores.
Self-publishing has matured considerably in only a few years, but there remains a stigma that has kept me from taking that route with my own work. In an interview for LouisvilleKY.com, mystery author Sue Grafton was asked if she had any advice for young writers. Her answer:
Quit worrying about publication and master your craft. If you have a good story to tell and if you write it well, the Universe will come to your aid. Don’t self-publish. That’s as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work.
Not everyone who self-publishes is lazy and not every self-published book is “amateurish,” as Grafton asserts later in the interview. Authors have their reasons for independently publishing, including rights management and editorial control, but a good many self-published books are of a lower quality than those that go through a more traditional process. Read the reviews of any number of 99-cent Kindle titles and you’ll notice a running theme of poor writing, paper-thin characters, and tired dialogue.
Agents don’t just pitch novels to publishers sight unseen. They read a manuscript and suggest editorial changes to the author who then edits or even rewrites sections of the book. Only when the draft is in an acceptable condition does it get pitched to the necessary publishing-house bigwigs. Agents watch the markets. They understand what’s currently selling and what’s not doing so well. They know what to look for in a draft and how to punch it up so publishers and future readers will be interested.
Once a book has been optioned by a publisher, it is sent to that house’s editorial staff for copy-editing so it matches the style of the novel’s particular market. A copy editor may also check the work for continuity and logistical issues so the story reads coherently. After the editorial process is complete, a cover is designed, jacket copy is written, and the various marketing tasks are taken care of by the publisher’s team so the book can be sold to millions of customers around the world.
Self-publishing removes many of those experts from the process and, as a result, much of what is uploaded to the Kindle store lacks the thoughtfulness and editorial oversight that puts books on bestseller lists. There are independent editors who will read over a manuscript for a fee and help an author fix sentence structure, plot holes, grammatical mistakes, and anything else a publisher’s in-house editor would do, but there’s a big difference.
The agent and in-house editor know the market for which the book was written. They work on behalf of the writer and their respective companies to get a manuscript up to snuff and they do not charge fees for their work upfront. The agent typically takes a percentage of the manuscript’s sale and the editorial staff is paid directly by the publisher. The for-hire editor, however, may work in several genres and not know any of them particularly well. That individual works for a fee, which could amount to several thousand dollars for a complete draft workover.
And not every self-published author will get his or her work professionally edited. When the first draft is complete, he or she might do a quick edit of some key sections, then upload the file online. Once any editing is completed, the book will need a professionally-designed cover, which can get pricey. As much as we like to lie to ourselves, we do judge books by their covers.
After the novel is formatted (another cost that an author may cheap out on) and published, there’s the task of figuring out an acceptable price and marketing it via social media, word of mouth, and even the online store’s own promotional services. This is time-consuming and doesn’t guarantee success. Not everyone can be Amanda Hocking. Not everyone can be E. L. James. And just because these authors are successful doesn’t make them good writers, either.
Don’t assume I believe all self-publishing is nothing but ego-stroking hackery. There’s a time and place for it. I support writers who know what they’re doing, have gained some mastery of their craft, and want to avoid the DRM and copyright dramas that come with traditional publishing.
Some self-published authors choose to distribute their novels DRM-free, meaning the ebooks lack the software locks that prevent readers from easily loading them on any device of their choosing. Self-published authors also enjoy the freedom of owning the copyright to their work and their characters by not signing anything over to traditional publishers. But there are fewer careful, deliberate, and dues-paying authors than there are novices looking to make names for themselves by writing 50,000-word pulp novels about vampires and ghostly teenagers. (Some publishers sell DRM-free ebooks, but precious few.)
I won’t self-publish my work because I want to know what it’s like to be rejected; I’ve had a dozen rejections for my first novel already. I need feedback from those who have been in the game a long time to tell me what I’m doing right, and more importantly, what I’m doing wrong.
Writers get better by writing more, more often. If we’re writing more and we don’t realize it’s bad, then how will we get any better?
Harry is an aspiring novelist, the author of CuriousRat.com and a co-host on the weekly technology podcast, inThirty.net.