Self-publishing, editors, and having skin in the game

Since having attended the local writers symposium last month I’ve become increasingly aware of the world of self-publishing, or at least more aware of the extent of it. It’s a wonderful thing that so much can be available to so many so easily. Writers who might never otherwise been heard are getting heard.

But I still have to question whether, on the whole, this is an improvement. While it’s quite true that literature is subjective, and that many editors are putting books out there I don’t care much for, at least I know going in that certain standards will be met. The writing will be solid, and largely free of spelling, grammatical, and clarity errors that might make the book difficult to read. I’ll at least know what genre I’m getting, even if it’s not always what I’m expecting or what I enjoy within that genre.

I’m for the idea of independent publishing, but not necessarily for the results of independent publishing.

My biggest complaint against self-publishing is that I don’t always like more choices. With only a handful or a dozen publishers to choose from I can at least keep the brands somewhat straight. I learn which brands to avoid and which ones to keep watching. I know the writers within those brands, and between the two I can usually tell if I’m going to like a book.

With self-publishing there are a million brands. I can’t possibly keep them all straight. I can take a chance, read a book, and if I like it I have another brand I recognize and may trust. But that leaves 999,999 more brands (and growing every day) left to explore. While I like taking the occasional chance and finding the occasional “Discovery”, I don’t have the time or the money for much of that. For every Discovery, there are at least five “Can-I-Have-That-Time-Back?” experiences.

I like the “Gate-keepers”, because they do a lot of filtering for me. Yes, they may deny me great experiences I might otherwise have had, but the sheer volume of self-published novels out there almost ensure I’ll never find that one-of-a-kind, life-changing book.

The second complaint I have is the quality. Even if the writer/publisher manages to get a good-looking cover, there is still no guarantee the writing will be clear and error-minimal. There is little reason to believe the story will be revised as deeply as it may need. So many books could have been better if there had been a committed editor.

I know the model is shifting to try and compensate. I currently have contact information for at least a handful of private editors who are happy to edit your book for a price. And they may very well be some of the best in their field. But it’s like the joke about ham and eggs for breakfast: The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. Freelance editors are not committed; they are merely involved.

If your freelance editor suggests a bunch of changes to make it a better story you are under no obligation to implement them. You can still go to press with the book you originally handed them—and it’s no skin off their nose if you do. There is no way for them to keep you from releasing a book that isn’t really ready. They can’t stop you, and there’s no reason for them to try. They still got paid, whether you make a dime on your book or not—or whether you even trash it and write something else.

That’s where the traditional publishing model still provides value—their brand and the author’s brand are intrinsically linked. If you put out a bad novel it reflects on them. If the publisher mishandles a writers book it reflects on the author. It’s a partnership that is very much committed to getting the best book into the hands of readers as possible.

That’s really hard to duplicate in the new self-publishing world. The only structure that comes close is essentially a reworking of the traditional model to where you have a publisher releasing book electronically instead of in print. All the other value-adds of a publisher are still there. It’s harder to break in, certainly, but the rewards are potentially higher, also.

Self-publishing puts the burden of editing on the writer. It can work, but it’s difficult. The person who created the work is usually the least qualified to judge the quality of the work. They’re too close to it. It’s only their self-awareness or humility that moves them to hire a freelance editor in the first place, and it takes an even greater level of humility to listen to them.

As I said before, I do like the idea of self-publishing. There are writers and books out there that could be popular if they could just get in front of the right people. For every novel that a traditional publisher puts out there are at least a dozen that, to some people, would have been better. If a self-publisher can find those people they could be set for life.

But I do think self-publishing still has some inherent flaws in the system that need to be addressed. The paradigm is shifting, but the move is just beginning. There is still a fair way to go.

2 thoughts on “Self-publishing, editors, and having skin in the game”

  1. I don’t recall saying we should curtail self-publishing in any way. What I perhaps failed to state clearly was that “self-publishing” to this point has been synonymous with “if it were any good it would have found a publisher”. The current proliferation of self-published work does little to change that, and I think things will have to change further if the perception of poor quality is going to change. Churning out sub-par work faster is not the solution.

    That’s one reason why, to this point, I have refused to take the self-publishing route. So you could say that this article is just self-justification. But it’s also building toward something that will come out in a future post. I think self-publishing is becoming a viable option, but it’s still got a way to go. It’s at least to the point where you can get your work out there with very little personal financial risk. That’s a step in the right direction, certainly.

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