Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Some Unsolicited Thoughts on Self-Publishing

For about twenty years now I’ve been watching and (mostly) staying out of the debates concerning the viability of self-published books, and the way they are received by reviewers, booksellers, librarians, and other gatekeepers. There is a lot of anger out there in the self-published community, and there has been a lot of dismissive elitism on the part of traditional publishers and their authors. Conflict happens.

Much of the disdain heaped upon self-published books has to do with poor or nonexistent editing. Yes, most authors who self-publish have the good sense to hire an editor. There are many heavily advertised editorial services available. Some are good, some not so good. But even the best freelance editor might not be enough.

My experience as a reader has been that most self-published works need not just editorial advice, but editorial interventionas well.

Most writers, when they start out, have no idea what an editor does. I certainly didn’t. I did not expect, for example, that the editor of my novel The Mortal Nutswould suggest taking a minor character and making him the protagonist. I did not expect that he would tell me to make my second book “funnier.” I did not expect another editor to ask me to add 100 pages to a 200 page novel.

My first editor, Bob Asahina, once said to me, after listening to me argue against one of his editorial suggestions, “Well, you can do what you want, Pete. It’ll matter a lot more to you than it will to me.” I took his suggestion.

For my recent young adult novel Eden West—my twenty-eighth published novel—the first editorial letter I received from editor Deb Noyes was twenty-nine pages long. It took me three months to revise the manuscript. Her second letter was much shorter and I was able to address her concerns in a few weeks. I think the book turned out pretty good.

But suppose I had decided to self-publish Eden West. I could have hired an editor—maybe one as talented as Deb Noyes. But that editor’s job description would have been very, very different. For one thing, she would have a different employer: she would be working for me. That alters the author/editor dynamic in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle. A freelance editor working directly for an author has a vastly different mindset.

You can see this dynamic even in the world of traditional publishing. When an author becomes so famous and sells so many books that he or she has a significant impact on a publisher’s bottom line, the relationship between author and editor changes, subtly at first, then dramatically. 

A midlist or emerging author who sells a book through traditional channels usually regards his editor with some combination of awe, fear, and desperation. The editor (as perceived by the author) controls the purse strings, and has the power to make or break a book by means of cover quality, catalog positioning, marketing budget, and the semi-existent whisper line,* aka “buzz.” This spills over onto the art part of the deal—when editors suggest changes to a manuscript, they speak with a big stick in hand. This is largely a matter of the author’s perception, of course. The reality is that the editor is at the mercy of corporate and marketing forces, and while she can help a book, her power is not so great as it seems.

No matter what the reality, for most midlist authors in a traditional author/editor relationship, the editor’s word carries tremendous weight. For the superstars, not so much. Have you ever noticed how many superstar authors’ early novels are shorter, more powerful, and more elegantly constructed? And how their later work is often bloated, sloppy, and self-indulgent? I could provide many examples,** but I’m sure you’ll have no problem supplying your own.

Why is this? I believe the change in the author/editor dynamic is largely responsible. The editor-of-a-superstar has a little demon on her shoulder saying, “This guy is a genius! His numbers are fantastic! Don’t screw it up! If something doesn’t seem quite right, well, keep him happy or he’ll jump to Harper or Knopf. If he wants to go on a tangent for thirty pages on one of his pet topics, let him. The book is going to sell regardless.”

That same editor, working with an emerging author, will go butt ass to make that book the best book it can be. She or he will argue for and sometimes insist on changes—often big changes: Make the villain the hero. Cut four hundred pages. Write it over in third person. Make the main character younger, older, funnier, smarter, stronger, more likeable…you name it. And then, once the author makes those changes, there will be another round of edits, and another, and possibly even more. And that’s long before a copyeditor sees the manuscript.

How does this relate to self-published authors? Well, even a hard working, well-intentioned writer who digs into his savings and pays big bucks for an editor, and a copyeditor, and a proofreader, and a book designer, and a cover artist (You need all of them. Really, you do.), he will be working with folks whose mission is to make the customer happy. And who is the customer? The author.

It’s a minefield, and relatively few self-published authors—even those with decent writing chops and a great idea—have the time, the funds, the experience, or the disposition to negotiate it. Those few who do have my admiration and respect. Unfortunately, the vastmajority of self-pubbed books are a severely flawed, and that makes booksellers, reviewers, librarians, and end market readers chary of shelling out their time and/or money to look at them.

I have read dozens of self-published books, most them by friends or associates, or because the book dealt with some niche topic that caught my interest. I have enjoyed many of them, but in every case I encountered scads of wince-inducing moments that shrieked for editorial intervention.

That’s kind of sad. Because I know there are a lot of good books that need a little help, or a lot of help, but for whatever reason the author couldn’t—or chose not to—break into the business through traditional publishing.

Does this mean that self-publishing is not viable? Not at all. But the challenges faced by the self-published go far beyond marketing and distribution. Those who want to make a good book and publish it themselves should be aware of how much the editorial relationship matters.

*A little joke for you sci-fi geeks.

**Michael Korda’s memoir Another Life provides a fascinating look inside the editor/superstar relationship—particularly the section on working with Harold Robbins.

1 comment:

Kurtis said...

"Have you ever noticed how many superstar authors’ early novels are shorter, more powerful, and more elegantly constructed? And how their later work is often bloated, sloppy, and self-indulgent?"

Can we dub this The Goblet of Fire Factor?