It's always a great pleasure to hand over my blog to the wonderful Jenny Twist and today she contributes to my debate on self- vs traditional publishing. This article is taken from her excellent collection of essays: 'An Open Letter to Stephen King and Other Essays'
In the modern world of e books and print on demand it is all too easy to imagine that conventional publishing will lose its raison d’être. It is now possible to produce your own book for nothing. Obviously this is a great boon for authors, especially the vast majority who were unable to get accepted by a publisher. But is it really such a boon? What do publishers actually do for their authors?
Having accepted an author’s work, it is the publisher’s job to put it into publishable form, i.e. make sure it is properly edited and provided with good cover art
Few, if any, authors are competent to proof their own work. No matter how good you are at proof-reading it’s very difficult to spot your own mistakes. You see what you expect to see, what you know to be there. You knew what you meant when you wrote that sentence, so may not realise that it doesn’t make sense to somebody else.
The independent author wishing to produce work of a professional standard has to, therefore, employ a professional proof-reader. One way round the cost is for authors to proof each other’s work. This is in any case often the way small press publishers handle editing, using their own authors rather than employing a professional.
Cover art is something else again. There are, of course, authors who are perfectly competent to do their own artwork. Perhaps more than you think. Creative people are often creative in more than one field. And there are packages available, free, for applying lettering to your original artwork. So it can theoretically be done at no cost. But my own experience has been that a professional cover artist is indispensable.
I came across this when one publisher I approached would not accept submissions without cover art. I literally spent weeks trying to find the definitive picture of an angel for my book. I wanted a carved wooden angel – the kind of statue so beloved in village churches in Spain. I couldn’t find a single picture that conveyed what I wanted. Eventually, I did my own drawing based on a stone carving. And I still hadn’t a clue how to do the lettering! Luckily I was rescued from this task by having my manuscript accepted by another publisher. But the experience made me realise that I, for one, was definitely not up to the job.
One of the things that you might think publishers do for their authors is promote their work. Wrong. The publisher’s job is to produce a product fit for the marketplace and make it available to the public and booksellers. It is not part of their brief to do promotion campaigns. Even the big publishing houses do very little of this. In fact, they are unlikely to do anything at all unless you are already a celebrity. It’s one of those Catch 22 situations. The chances are the only thing they will do is produce a monthly newsletter. So there is very little advantage for the author in using the conventional route as far as promotion is concerned. You have to do your own anyway.
You can promote without spending any money at all, using social network sites, writing blogs and newspaper articles, doing interviews on local radio and organising book signings. All this is free but very time-consuming and it is a constant cry from authors that they have no time to write because they spend all their time promoting.
There is actually no way round this. Even if you spend vast amounts of money on advertising, you probably still have to do a fair bit of promotion work. You could be the best writer that ever lived but no-one will buy your books if they’ve never heard of you.
There is, however, one major advantage conventional publishing offers the author. It confers respectability. A conventionally-published author has been vetted, accepted and polished by a professional organisation. Many new self-published authors have great difficulty being taken seriously. Some review sites actually refuse to review independent authors.
the distribution through booksellers. Booksellers are usually quite happy to deal with publishers since they take the books on a sale or return basis and have nothing to lose. In order to offer the same deal the independent author has to buy vast numbers of copies of his own book and negotiate individually with booksellers. The financial risk is enormous, not to mention the time spent approaching each outlet.
But what has this change in the business done for the reader? Well, for a start e books are much cheaper than printed books and there are literally thousands offered free every day as authors vie to get the attention of readers. Great, isn’t it?
Well, yes, it is, but we now have the problem of what to choose. Thousands of them! Where do you start?
I have gone from downloading anything that looked vaguely readable, to restricting downloads, even free downloads, to books by authors I know to be good, or people I have been wanting to read because I have come to know them on the social networks.
I have become jaded with free e books because so many of them are really badly-written. Sorry, but I’m afraid it’s true. Most independent authors produce badly-edited, if not unedited work. Many, if not most, have only a passing acquaintance with good grammar. And, I’m sorry to say this, but the vast majority have no talent for writing. I have read some truly awful books in the last few years.
For every great writer who never made it out of the slush pile in the publisher’s office there are hundreds who should never have been in print in the first place. Whatever you may think of conventional publishing, it at least operates as a filter preventing the really bad authors getting through.
Sooner or later the rush to get free books will die down and readers will begin to be more discerning. They will be prepared to pay for a book, provided they are confident they will be buying something of good quality. And this, surely, is where conventional publishing will come into its own.
If there is one area where conventional publishing can really justify its existence, it is in the provision of high quality books. I’m not talking about literature here. I’m talking about good, readable stories with well-constructed plots and believable characters, written in good, grammatically correct English.
Sadly too many publishers, especially in the small press, do not do this job very well. I am surprised at how many bad writers are being accepted and at how poorly their work is edited. In my opinion the only way the small press will survive is to maintain a rigorous standard of excellence, and that means no cutting corners. It means employing professional editors, rather than using their own authors to edit each other, a practice which only exacerbates the problem of taking on semi-literate authors in the first place. And maybe it means doing a bit more for their authors than just publishing their work, like providing proper marketing services.
Those publishers who do this will attract the best writers and will gain a reputation of excellence. And maybe conventional publishing will survive.