With great power comes great responsibility.
—Voltaire, by way of Stan Lee
As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I spent much of the weekend locked away at the NYC Sheraton for the Writer’s Digest Conference East. There was a steady blend of pro-traditional publishing mixed with self-publishing advice. Interestingly, what I felt to be the best programming on self-publishing did not take place on Friday during the self-publishing track, but on Saturday morning, when April Eberhardt (of the eponymous Literary Agency) gave her talk on “The New Era of Publishing.”
Ms. Eberhardt broke down the various publishing channels (i.e. traditional, small/indie press, partner publishing, hybrid and DIY/self-publishing), and she did so with a great attitude. Unlike some of the agents on the “Ask the Agent” panel, she was not against the alternative models of publishing, using the “rising tide lifts all boats” metaphor.
However, what she was most emphatic about was the quality of work being submitted via self-publishing. Just a few years ago, pretty much the only self-published books were bad self-published books. Now, with the advent of print-on-demand, there is the potential to publish your work with little to no financial investment. This means there is also the potential for zero gate-keeping (not even limitations of finances) on those bad books making their way into the marketplace.
What’s most problematic about crap on the cyber bookshelf is that it doesn’t raise all boats; if anything, it drags many well-crafted dinghies to the bottom of the sea of shit. By rushing a book into self-publishing waters, a writer who hasn’t done her/his work well is damning all the rest of us to obscurity and scorn. Yes, some self-published books are awesome compared to those that were self-published a decade ago, but hundreds of thousands more are a waste of kilobytes.
Now, I am the first to admit my prejudice about “writers” (note quotation marks). You cannot be a “doctor”. Or a “teacher” (homeschooling aside, and even there frequently states have specific requirements before a parent can homeschool). However, if you can type and push the blue (why are they always blue?) “publish” icon, you suddenly are a writer. While I’m not big on my own biography (I get paid to write about the craft brewing scene and my novel is a women’s fiction story with elements of BDSM… and the “B” doesn’t stand for “beer”), even I found that I held a certain cachet at the conference when mentioning the fact I have a Bachelor’s in Journalism. My training meant something to these professionals. I’ve already received positive feedback from the agents to whom I submitted my novel this week regarding my ability to write well.
However, quality is 100 percent in the eye of the beholder. There are many people who think Stephanie Meyer is a horrible writer. Hell, some of us thought J.K. Rowling didn’t get her Potter on until Azkaban. Stephen King is reviled by many, and he’s arguably the most successful author alive today. One woman’s trash is another woman’s 50 Shades of treasure.
That said, it’s far too easy to get caught up in the passion of your work to see whether or not it is truly ready for prime time. With the power of self-publishing comes the responsibility of making sure your work is as good as it can be.
I am reminded of my parenting, when my son comes home and tells me he got an 85 on a test and that, “No one got an ‘A’, mom!” To which I reply that I am not the parent of his friends, and I only care that he does his very best and an 85 is not his very best. He can do better.
If you have not vetted your manuscript through other people, you are not doing your best. You need not just a second or third set of eyes, you need a team. Per Ms. Eberhardt, your manuscript should at minimum go through three stages of editing:
- A General Edit – This might be done by yourself after your beta readers give you feedback. Or perhaps you are using a croudsourcing platform (e.g. via WattPad or some other online group). Use your platform to grow as a writer and really listen to what others are saying about your work. Or try this very cool “matchmaking” service to find a critique partner. Then you need to divest yourself emotionally from the text and make it better.
- A Line Edit – You will probably have to pay for someone to do this, but it’s worth every cent. There are a couple areas of self-publishing you do not want to scrimp on, and this is one of them (the other being the cover art). If you aren’t sure where to find a good editor, you may want to try WriterCube, a database of online resources for writers.
- A Final Proof – Regardless but especially if you are self-publishing, you need someone else to read your final proof. It is very easy to make mistakes uploading files. In fact, sometimes the self-publishing platform makes mistakes. You need a hard (i.e. printed) copy of your book and someone else to proofread it for obvious errors. If you have another writer friend, you may be able to exchange proofing each other’s work rather than paying a third party to do this for you.
Remember, it is your responsibility to create a body of work that is the best you can possibly create. Do not rush to publish and be an anchor on the industry. Be thorough and thoughtful and help raise the tide so that self-published writers can gain the respect they will need as the industry transitions further towards this new model.