Archive for May 7th, 2012

Where will self-publishing get quality control?

Last week I posted on Terri Giuliano Long’s site The Art and Craft of Writing Creatively and in the comments got into discussions about where indie publishing is heading. One of the commenters was Daniel Marvello, who afterwards sent me this email …

You said, ‘2012 will be the year we organise ourselves with quality control’. I love that! And I’d love to know what was in the back of your mind when you wrote it. What do you see changing in 2012?

(As you see from Daniel’s picture, he’s fond of the crystal ball.)

What was in the back of my mind? No big plan, unfortunately. I can see this is what we need, but I haven’t a grand solution. But there’s no better place to talk about it than on my blog with you guys.

For those of you who’ve sat down late, 2011 was the year when many high-profile fiction writers with respected followings went indie, and gave good reasons for doing so. Before then, if you self-published fiction you risked nuking your credibility. But it’s also led to a rash of people uploading to Kindle or CreateSpace or Smashwords but not taking care about quality. Result? It’s raining slush and nonsense. Readers who’ve bought unreadable books are muttering ‘vanity press’ all over again.

Not good.

Where does quality control come from in traditional publishing? From skilled professionals. Authors don’t do it on their own. Here’s Daniel again:

Most authors ignore advice to get an editor now. What might change that? What will prompt authors to let another set of eyes look at their manuscripts before they click “save and publish”? Can something be done to make such resources more appealing or easy to acquire and use?

The way I see it, there are two issues to address with quality control:

  • production – putting out a book with no grammar howlers, formatting glitches, funny typesetting or misprunts
  • whether the content is good enough.

One problem is very much easier to solve than the other, but let’s eat this elephant one bite at a time.

Production quality

Why do indie books fall down on production quality? Several reasons.

1 – Indie authors may not know what’s done to a book in traditional publishing.  They might have heard about the artistic side of editing – the developmental work to strengthen the story and literary quality. But they frequently don’t know about all the other trades who wade in once the words are right – copy editing, proof reading, text design, cover design, ebook formatting. Take any debut author who blogs and at some stage they’ll pen a gobsmacked post about how much checking and polishing goes on.
What might change this? We tell people, as often as possible, how much work goes into a published book. You don’t always need separate experts, but these jobs all need to be done. They’re not an optional extra.

2 These services cost money. Personally if I was new to publishing and someone told me I needed to pay for all that my reaction would be ‘pull the other one’ – especially as publishing on Kindle and Smashwords is free. But even when you do decide you’re going to invest, how do you find a reputable pro? Authors have always been easy targets for scammers. Not only that, there are hordes of people setting themselves up as editors when they haven’t the experience.
What might change this? Writers need to find out where the professionals go. A good start might be author groups – for instance, at Authors Electric we’re setting up a list of people we’ve used and would happily use again.

3 Some people simply refuse to be told. If I go into the reasons we’ll be here all day, but there are a lot of those. (You, my friends, are not, or you wouldn’t be reading this blog.)
What might change this? Confiscating their laptops, probably

Now that last remark may seem facetious and unnecessary, but it underlines a point. As indie authors we have to do everything we can to rise above the trigger-happy Kindlers, because they make it hard for the rest of us to be taken seriously.

Not just presentation

So we can lick production quality. That, as I said above, is the easy part. What about the content, the artistic merit? In traditional publishing, the lame books are rejected and the good ones go through a developmental stage. (Yes terrific books are rejected too, but the author is usually made well aware that they were good.) This brings me to another interesting question that Daniel raised.

If people won’t use editors, can we realistically replace them with critique groups and beta readers?

ie, is it possible to get all this input free?

Sorry, guys, I don’t think it is. In the real world that doesn’t come free. Agents and publishers do it as part of their job. Critical feedback of that type takes experience and judgement.

Critique groups and beta readers will give very valuable input, and should definitely be used as well. But they aren’t a substitute for professional critical help – they cannot give your book close, considered attention. I’m not advertising myself here, but when I critique a manuscript the work takes two concentrated weeks at least, with plenty of time taken to consider what the writer wants to do and how I’ll teach them what they need. (In fact, if you imagine your normal rate of pay for two weeks’ work, an editor’s fees start to look cheap. And it’s also why you can’t expect anyone to do it ‘on the side’.)

And another thing

There’s another issue we need to address with quality control. It’s letting good work rise on merit.

If you can have buyers’ markets and sellers’ markets, indie publishing is a marketers’ market. If you’re good at marketing, your book rises higher. But a lot of cool, exciting and original books aren’t getting the exposure they deserve.

Indies are starting to tackle this in author collectives – groups to curate the good authors. And proper, critical review sites where indie books are expected to be as good as anything traditionally published. Authors are already taking this into their own hands – Tahlia Newland with Awesome Indies, Authors Electric with Indie ebook Review, Multi-Story, Underground Book Reviews, The Kindle Book Review.

But each group or review site is only as good as its critical scruples.

Does this look familiar? It’s a system of gatekeepers. But hopefully, ones motivated by editorial integrity.

Here’s what we really need to do. Ultimately we need to reach readers way beyond our own little blogosphere of indie publishing. We need to win the respect of the major book reviewers, because right now we’re preaching to the choir, and this is not sustainable.

Thanks, Daniel, for kicking off a great discussion. Pic credits to Zeptonn & Troy J Morris (no relation). Guys, what do you reckon? Share in the comments!

It seems a natural moment to mention that my novel is up for the Summer Reads awards at Underground Book Reviews. The winner is decided on a vote, so if you’d like to tip the balance in my direction I’d be very grateful.

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