Publish and be Damned

An unfolding story has come my way, a morality tale of today. A Facebook friend posted a link to a blog where an author was being hounded to death. She said she had hesitated in publishing the link but of course I went straight to it. And now you want to know, don’t you? Well, sorry, I’m going to resist. The lass involved has had way too much publicity already and, really, it’s like watching a public execution.

This is the story. A young woman writes and publishes a novel. She contacts a literary blogger in the US who downloads the Kindle edition and writes a passably good review. He says it’s a compelling story which would have carried him to the end if her grammar weren’t so off and her sentences so badly composed that he had to untangle them to get the meaning. He gave a couple of examples and proved himself right. Obviously no editor had had sight of this book.

And then it begins. She is young, this author, and hasn’t learnt the tricks of good behaviour. She fights back and accuses him of downloading the wrong version. He denies it. She posts three good reviews from Amazon (which all sound strangely alike). He gets cross. Others wade in and tell her she’s being an idiot. And then it begins, the baying of the Maenads for the blood of Orpheus.

Not that she is Orpheus, of course, and nothing like him, but she had a story in her she wanted to tell, obviously couldn’t find a mainstream publisher and either published it herself or with what is loosely being called an ‘indie’ (more anon).

Now I know the grammatically correct like to snap at your errors. We’ve all experienced it, and probably from both sides: snapping and being snapped at. What made this so awful was that it was a mob of the grammatically correct, all snapping at once. It was like watching a fox – not a good fox, but one who had just eaten a flock of sheep, but a living being nonetheless – corned by the hounds and then torn to pieces. This young author was eaten alive.

She fought and fought and every time she made a comment, she proved the blogger right for she could not write a sentence without a mistake in it. When it comes to English, she hasn’t a clue. But language can be taught whereas story telling cannot. The only thing she lacks is the humility to recognise her need for help. And she has died for it, metaphorically (I hope it’s metaphorically).

I had read down the scroll of comments for half an hour before realising that the scroll bar had barely moved. I fast forwarded. Nothing more seems to have come from the author after a two-word expletive  in capitals addressed to everybody. But the baying went on and on and on for days. It went ‘live’ on Twitter and Facebook and the author’s reputation lay in ruins before the blogger was persuaded to call a halt and stop the thread. One of the last comments told the author that she would be ill-advised ever to write under her own name again.

Now, the girl was in the wrong, and we all love to see pride take a fall, and aren’t we all just weary of the flood of bad books? But what was it like for her? Putting myself in her shoes, I wondered how I would cope with what one person described as a meltdown. All dreams and aspirations vanished in an acid bath of truth. So publicly. I would find it very hard to go on living.

So then I started to worry. Why did she go silent suddenly? No ego, no matter how vaunted, could self-justify to the extent being required of her. Was she jumping off a bridge right there and then? Was someone filming it for YouTube?  Of course, given the peculiarities of our modern world, the other version of what happened next is that she is now a star, or at least a celebrity, and for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps we shall hear.

A few words on indie publishing… I think the word is being misused. As I see it, there are four types of publishing:

  1. mainstream
  2. independent
  3. self-publishing (including assisted publishing)
  4. vanity publishing

(Print on demand can happen in any category and is not a separate one in itself). When it comes to the third-party validation we all crave, mainstream publishing is the best option, given that some stranger likes your work enough to risk money on it. What could be better?

As I understand it, an indie publisher is a small, probably new concern which does not belong to anyone else, i.e. is not part of a conglomerate. It doesn’t have the clout of mainstream, or the publicity budget, but it offers the enthusiasm and personal attention the big guys often don’t provide. Lindsay Clarke’s recently published The Water Theatre comes from Alma and is doing very well.

Self-publishing is when the author prepares his own book for publication, right through to print and production. To do it properly, the author may need to hire an editor and proof-reader, a cover designer and typographer. This is expensive, obviously, but the author has total control over text and cover, and takes the lion’s share of the sales profits (well, perhaps not the lion’s share if Amazon is involved). This is not so expensive if the writer dots her own i’s and crosses her own t’s and knows what a book looks like (if you think this is silly, everyone knows what a book looks like, read on…). When the professional approach is bypassed, the results are often risible, and this is giving self-publishing an otherwise unjustifiable bad name.

The poems of Devon-born Ray Kidwell Q.C., collected by his wife, Carol. Cover painting by his son, Nicholas.

Many people going this route opt for professional assistance. This is where you have to be careful or you will stray into the last category, but there are firms around that really will assist you and you need to look for them (relying perhaps on personal recommendation). We have an imprint of Godstow Press (a legitimate indie) which is ‘author-funded’ in which we do all the editorial and design work in association with the author. We know we’re the real thing because we retain – and exercise – the right to refuse books and only accept those which have passed our literary standards and fit our list, same as in mainstream. I’m not going to name it as we’re already too busy but here’s our latest, Ray Kidwell’s A Murmur of Surf, put together with the love and at the expense of his family and selling well.

Which brings us to the last: vanity publishing. This is the shark in the water, and the one which is bloodying the names of indie and self publishing. Vanity publishing is when you pay someone to do your book and they offer you the world: an ISBN! listing in all the main databases! sales in the trade! You name it. They offer everything except what an author really needs: an unbiased opinion and a good editor.

So, what does a book look like? I’m hastily writing a short guide on this very important topic. With the sudden rise of Kindle, and its indiscriminate offer to ‘publish’ (i.e. make available) anything anyone downloads on to it (which makes Amazon the largest vanity publisher in the universe), it is becoming imperative that the world’s population has a quick lesson in what a book looks like.

The first book I downloaded from Kindle was a 75p version of War and Peace. OK, you get what you paid for, but I got an awful lot of free white space because the book was laid out like this blog, with double lines between paragraphs, which looks preposterous when it comes to dialogue.

And last week my husband paid nearly £40 for a text book from the hoary old publishing firm of Routledge which begins on the left hand page. Call me old fashioned but…

I am just plain TIRED of the amateurism now abounding in publishing since the cursed computer made my generation of professionals redundant round about the turn of the century. The world is awash with early retired editors, researchers, designers. If you need to publish your own book and need help, it should be quite easy to find one to assist you. It will cost, of course, but be worth every penny.

Sorry, said it was a morality tale, but it ended  up like a sermon! Nevertheless, the moral is, never answer a critic back, especially if he’s right.

Happy writing – and get help when you need to!

13 thoughts on “Publish and be Damned

  1. I followed that thread too – not the first spectacular author-critic meltdown, there have been some doozies on Amazon. This was a classic case of how not to handle criticism on an internet forum, or anywhere else.
    I also review books, when I have the time – and I honestly would have passed on that book, based on the sample chapter. And I didn’t see that she was young, either – mid-fifties, which is old enough to definitely know better.
    But you are right – there are the resources out there to bring a self-pubbed book up to standard, especially editing. Heck, there are even software packages that are supposedly the bees knees when it comes to grammar and punctuation.

  2. Have you ever tried one of those software packages, Celia? I wouldn’t be able to trust it and would have to check every word. I’m already getting into quite a ratty dialogue with my Mac about its completely stupid suggestions for improvement. ‘Wife’ apparently is gender specific (doh!) and I should use ‘spouse’. So, chastened, I return to my essay on Chaucer and his Spouse of Bath, comparing it fancifully with Shakespeare’s Merry Spouses (spice?) of Windsor.

    The latest book of a friend of mine was ‘edited’ by such a package (used by the publisher in place of a person) and 71 errors were introduced into a clean text as a result. The publisher neither apologised nor put them right.

  3. No, I do it the old-fashioned way … my business partner in the Tiny Publishing Bidness is an old-time editor, with an absolutely eagle eye and of a merciless disposition. I joke that she has been married three times – twice to mere mortals and once to the Chicago Manual of Style. I hate to think of what she would have said to the hapless prospective writer under discussion.
    It was one of the other IAG writers (I belong to this self-help group for indy authors – it stands for the Independent Author’s Guild) who had used it. Lloyd Lofthouse swore by a package called Serenity Software. But I think he ran his MS through the software, and then did a hard-copy edit himself. My impression from what he said in the discussion group is that it isn’t just a case of ‘run it through the edit-o-matic’ and all is well and good. The Serenity software is a way to ‘catch’ the errors that you wouldn’t have seen, in editing yourself.

    • I’ve had a look at that package and am going to try the 10 day free trial. Used as your friend uses it can only be a good thing and personally I need all the help I can get, mechanical and human. It sounds like it gets very up close and personal with your text which I’m looking forward to since the book is now ‘finished’ and is resting (like pastry).

  4. Lloyd swore by it – and he has two books out, HF about Sir Robert Hart, who was sort of the power behind the throne of late 19th century China. IIRC, he said Serenity would also help you adjust the reading comprehension level … if, for instance, you wanted to pitch your book more to a middle-school level. As I said, he was very pleased with what it could do.

  5. I had a damning e-mail from someone, years ago, complaining at all the typos in my book The Kingmaking – I was annoyed because it was purely my publisher’s error – they had printed from the proof file, not the corrected version.

    There is also a poor review of Sea Witch on Amazon because there are some comma’s in the wrong place (again though this was an early proof copy that had got printed. So in some cases an author’s annoyance can be justified. There are ways to “complain” though
    (and we all know that many reviews on Amazon especially by vanity published books are written by friends & doting aunts!)

    which brings me to the difference between mainstream, self publish, indie publish, assisted pubish – vanity publish.

    For those authors who cannot – for one reason or another – be or remain Mainstream the choice is either give up writing and go out of print or produce books “yourself”

    My option would be a reliable “indie” publisher who only accepts edited, well written work – maybe not the “best seller” make money stuff that mainstream only seems interested in, but the books that are the square peg in the round hole that do not fit neatly into designated marketing slots. I wonder if J.K. Rowling had had the money and the ability, back then, would she have given up looking for agents & publishes with Harry Potter & gone self publish?

    The moral of the story is – as I have been banging on a bout for a couple of years now, by all means “self” publish, but get an editor (not Aunt Flo) to thoroughly and professionally edit your book

    • Can’t help but wonder where JK Rowling would be now if she’d gone with an indie or self-published. Still in Edinburgh? And therefore can’t help but wonder what treasures we have unnoticed amongst us (apart from you lot, of course).

  6. I agree whole heartedly with you comments. I self publish and in the beginning (about 18 months back) fell into all the traps you describe. I made my own covers online, DID NOT have an editor and the result was rubbish. The Author Helen Hollick took me under her wing and persuaded me to use her editor and book cover artist and the result now is professional looking books that are getting decent reviews and some small numbers of sales.

    They cant make a terrible author good of course but if you are half decent (and I hope that is the case) they can make a heck of a difference. Self publishing does not have to equate with rubbish but to compete with the big boys you MUST have the same professional approach.

    • Well done Helen and Richard! I’ve looked into the Serenity programme which Celia mentioned and on Monday I’ll download the ten day free trial and run my ‘finished’ novel through it. Apparently it generates quite a lot of comment so I could be quiet for a while. I’ll let you all know how it goes.

  7. Have to weigh in here! I self-published Parting River Jordan after an agent wrote that she enjoyed my book but wouldn’t represent it because she preferred a single view-point character.

    I fell victim to the Screaming Ego–I’ve been a proofreader and copy editor forever, so I decided to handle that chore myself.

    I was so wrong, as the first printing turned out to have nearly 80 errors. An additional couple of hundred dollars later, I had an improved version–still not perfect, but nothing that would cause death by embarrassment.

    Pay for editing (or a professional proofreader) for the love of God!

    • How wise of you, Mari. Both on my books and others I’ve edited, it took at least four proof-readers (me, him, one professional and the typesetter) to do the job but even then things were missed. I think there is a law at work which states that mistakes only become visible once a book is bound! It is tedious and annoying and it would be nice if everyone could have our feelings at heart when they point the mistakes out to us. Nevertheless one should be grateful that they’ve taken the trouble and keep an ‘author’s copy’ to make note of everything reported. in readiness for the next edition (and, yea, there shall be another edition).

      In the old days, the good old days (which seemed pretty bad at the time), we had printers. We thought they were dingy men who smoked themselves to death in basements amidst the clatter of machinery. What we didn’t know were their gnomic ways of correcting all the mistakes missed by the hoity-toity lot called ‘editors’ on the fourth floor. They, the compositors, are sorely missed in this new age. They and they alone knew where commas should go. It was their arcane secret which they have taken to the grave.

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