I see myself as much a reader as a writer here, if not more so. I do intend, when the time comes, to self-publish what I write; I like the advantages it offers in terms of control, royalties and swiftness of reimbursement. As such, I want to see the self-publishing industry succeed, not just for my own prospects, but because it offers a variety to readers which traditional publishing does not – it contains books which might not be “marketable” or might be “too risky” to the traditional publisher, but which actually are very good, very enjoyable books.
The problem is that self-publishing’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: its inclusivity. It means that anyone can publish – good or bad. Finished or unfinished. And that’s what I want to address today.
Many of us with ereaders have at some point downloaded free ebooks. At Christmas, when I received my Kindle, someone committing fraud with my card meant I didn’t have access to my money so I downloaded several free fantasy ebooks. Each one proved a disappointment.
The only one I remember now, seven months on, began with a long conversation between two individuals while one was dying, about the state of the kingdom, naming various earls and counts and dukes who had some hand in the political troubles of the characters’ discussion. It was dull – nothing actually happened, I didn’t understand what was going on, I forgot the names of these earls and whatnot from one page to the next because they held no meaning. “Council” had been misspelled “Counsel”, a homophone.
As for the other books I downloaded for free at that time, I think in one I spotted several spelling and typographical errors in a short space and discarded it based on that.
And this isn’t a problem unique to the books I happened to download over Christmas. It is a problem with a lot of self-published books. They aren’t finished, they aren’t edited properly, they aren’t proofread. It has stopped me downloading free books except from authors I’ve previously heard of. In fact, it’s left me far more cautious of books in general, and now I tend only to read those recommended to me or which I’ve been asked to review.
Other readers will have become similarly cautious, though they might have decided instead of being wary of all books, to simply cut out self-published books and stuck with those which have undergone, and passed through, a gatekeeping system like a traditional publisher.
That’s a problem, because the more readers who turn their backs on self-publishing as a whole, the fewer readers there are that are willing to give self-published books a chance; the fewer potential buyers there are that a self-publishing author can sell to. It limits the potential of self-publishing, and the incomes of those who choose it.
There goal is to ensure all authors properly edit their books before publishing, thus presenting books to the readers which feel finished, which are devoid of obvious and avoidable errors, and which are competent. By properly edited, I mean at three levels: a structural edit examining plot, characterisation and so on; a line edit, focusing on flow, pacing, dialogue and word choices; and a copyedit, fixing typos, spelling and grammar errors and other minor oversights. Achieving this goal is problematic, though.
The kinds of authors who do thoroughly rewrite, edit and proofread their work are likely to be those who decided early on that they would do things right and sought out advice on how to ensure their ebook is the best it can be. They are the writers who read the blog posts, engage in discussions, ask for help, ask for beta readers, and so on. They understand they need more than a first draft gone over with spellcheck, and they seek out assistance and knowledge to aid them. They are likely to be more experienced writers, or at least have more experience of the online community of writers and self-publishers, and thus to have greater knowledge and understanding of what is required.
The kinds of authors that don’t add the spit and polish to their novels, the kind that publish something which is littered with errors or indeed is little more than a first draft, are probably the opposite; they haven’t spent a lot of time on forums or reading articles and blog posts about self-publishing or writing, so lack the knowledge that gets passed around and repeated and quoted and expanded upon within those communities.
They don’t have the experience to recognise that they are poor judges of their own work, especially if this is a first novel and they haven’t got anything from two or three years ago to look back at and blush over. Not knowing their own failings, they don’t seek help, but are convinced of the quality of their own book without having had a reliable second opinion (a best friend who rarely reads is not reliable; a mother who seeks to encourage more than she seeks to help improve is not reliable; someone, whatever their relationship to the author, who critiques honestly and with some degree of experience and understanding of what makes a good book, either through extensive reading or through themselves being an experienced writer, is reliable).
Now, there will be authors in both camps who edit thoroughly and authors in both camps who do not, who decide they are exempt because they have different goals – they don’t want to sell, they just want to share, or they need to meet a deadline, so they don’t need to or don’t have time to go further – or because they have more confidence in their own abilities than is warranted, or for whatever other reason. However, the categories outlined above are generalisations for the purpose of approaching the problem of poor quality self-published works.
It is far easier to engage with the kind of writer already predisposed to putting out the best book possible than the writer determined to get their book out as soon as possible, because the former seeks help and the latter doesn’t realise they need it. We are left, therefore, preaching to the choir, though might be overheard by the odd individual who was thinking of joining the choir anyway.
What is the solution? Well, I don’t know, not exactly. I think it requires a positive experience for those not yet anywhere near the church – if I haven’t stretched the metaphor enough yet, crazies on street corners telling passers-by they’re going to hell doesn’t tend to attract new converts. They don’t want to be told they’ve done it wrong, they need the benefits of doing it right explained to them.
Ignoring them won’t help much either, because ignoring problems isn’t generally a means to solve them.
Therefore, I think the answer might be, when you come across a book which has promise but lacks finesse or feels unfinished, to reach out and contact the author, offer advice but don’t give it until it has been accepted, or provide a link to a relevant forum discussion or blog post where the kind of advice you feel they need is demonstrated.
Then, maybe, one book at a time, one author at a time, the average quality will rise.