Self-Publishing And ‘The Quality Question’: It’s Called Rigor


When A Wet Fish Slaps You

Bill Clinton used to talk about being able to see both sides of an issue. He’d talk about how, in certain situations, it could feel like a liability. Maybe a firm, decisive answer was needed on a political crisis and there he was with that “on the other hand” thing going on — we can all identify, right?

And surely any of us can identify with a self-publishing author’s complaint when she writes in a comment:

It would be really great if, for once, an article could focus on the good aspects of indie publishing, and not constantly flag up up typo and editorial problems. It’s all been said before. Let’s hear something new. Every time I read one of these articles that implies that majority of indies are incompetent and amateurish it is liked being slapped in the face by a wet fish.

I hate it when a wet fish slaps me in the the face, don’t you?

That comment appeared on my first article about The Bookseller’s all-new Independent Author Preview, just out today in London. As Caroline Sanderson, the presiding editor of this new arrangement with Nook Press tells us, “I do think that pretty much all the books I’ve included are good enough to be traditionally published, and by that I mean, well enough written.”

This is very good news, contrary to what you’d think from our commenter’s complaints. What’s more, in the “let’s hear something new” department, you just did. This new initiative is unprecedented in the magazine’s long history.

And Sanderson is talking about 18 new books. They’re in categories of Crime & Thrillers, Travel & Reportage, Romantic & Erotic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Memoir, History & Current Affairs, and Fantasy and Sci-Fi.

Encouragingly, there are some nice cover designs here, images that rise above the tendency toward amateurish book covers that many self-publishers are blamed for using. I’m dropping in a few here for you to see.

In a rousing #FutureChat session, The FutureBook digital community welcomed this new element of The Bookseller’s longtime service as a fixture in the industry for bookish discovery and news.

And yet, the commenter is right: it’s perfectly true that “the quality question” has been much, much, much discussed in and around independent publishing. As she puts it, “it’s all been said before.” Yes, it has. And guess what: it’s all going to be said again.

Probably the single most readily identifiable, potentially crippling difficulty the entire self-publishing community has faced is the fact that much of its output — not all but a lot — is rife with poor quality.

Let me head you off at the pass, please:

  • Nobody here is saying that everything traditional publishing produces is of the highest standard. Hell, no.
  • Nobody here is saying that all independently produced work is typo-ridden crap.
  • And nobody here is saying that there isn’t a place for what we might call experimental literature that’s produced by its own idiosyncratic rules of “hand-made” rusticity and wears its non-commercial aura with pride.

So sit back down. Because while in good Clintonian style we might all understand this commenter’s frustration in finding self-publishing’s “typo and editorial problems” so “constantly flagged up,” there are good reasons that the quality question is so pervasive.

And as the digital self-publishing movement matures, those pressures will increase, not decrease.

No, It’s Not Always Fair

We are suspicious of new technologies, new foods, new languages, new people…everything. This is not bad. This is good. This is how we choose the way we live, it’s how we select and expand our values. Maybe it’s neither fun nor fair, but it’s natural and it makes sense.

As glad as we are to see the strength of Sanderson’s selections on this first outing (there will be more such showcases in months to come), she came out, herself, talking “the quality question” — and we both were pleased to find the #FutureChat becoming a great big discussion about encouraging the best work.

Sanderson tells me that many books she looked at needed help in “structural” editing, which is also called developmental editing. This kind of professional attention may be comparatively expensive for independent authors but it can be pivotal to producing good work. The best in the field consider it indispensable.

Self-publishing authors may feel put-upon when asked to present books that are on a par with the standards with which traditionally produced books are credited.  But self-publishers are not entitled to a free pass. No one is. Considering many, many decades of establishment publishing are ahead of it, self-publishing as a whole — now only several years into its most active reality — is still a very new development on the major scale it’s being practiced today. And that scale is made possible because of digital publishing tools that can let your dad put out that lawnmower maintenance manual of his.

How big a scale is “major”? Well, if Bowker can track more than 450,000 self-published ISBNs being published in a year, there could be at least that many, if not more, self-published books moving without ISBNs. The US output alone of self-published books may — we can’t be sure — exceed 1 million titles annually.

And there’s another element of our good commenter’s anguish that needs to be addressed: the majority of indies may, in fact, actually, truthfully, honestly be incompetent and amateurish.

I mean forgive me, but we need to come to terms with this. The field is very, very, very big. Everyone and my mother thinks that she and he should be publishing a book. You know that. I know that.

Everybody Does Not Have A Book Inside Them

As long as we’re stomping around being candid, let’s grind this beloved old saw under our heels: It’s total rubbish that “everyone has a book inside them” — certainly not one that anyone else would want to read. If I can determine who said that first, I’m going to direct a wet fish to go slap him.

But the advent of the Internet seems to have made all but four people in the Northern Hemisphere think that he or she has a book inside.

Most of these good, earnest, lovely folks, truth be told, probably have no business in the book business. Not nice to say that, is it? That doesn’t make it less true.

Sanderson tells me that she saw books that had no “front matter,” the pages that normally precede the text of a published book. They just started on the first page. What’s up with that?

She saw some books that had no note of copyright which, as she very well noted, is something any author should want to invoke.

She saw books, she says, that hadn’t been proof-read, hadn’t been copy-edited: yes, the dreaded typo-fests that our commenter is tired of hearing about.

If anything, it’s interesting that Nook Press would have submitted to the new preview’s process material in this kind of shape, isn’t it? Nevertheless, we know it’s out there.

In all probability, the majority of self-produced books at this very early stage — remember, we are only on the threshold — is likely not up to par.

It has become popular when one’s work is rejected by agents and editors to say that it was turned down because it didn’t fit a too-tight genre definition: “They just didn’t know what to do with my kind of work.” In some cases, this is actually the case. I’ll bet it’s not the case in very many cases, though. There are simply many times when what’s submitted just isn’t good enough, period, and that can entail any number of issues.

As I say, we shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of independent work doesn’t pass muster.

The industry! The industry! is going through an historically unprecedented wave of aspirational interest, and as hard as good writing and publishing are, there is no way that most of our “aspirationals” can be, in fact, what we wish they were. Sanderson has told me that she would have found it difficult to select more books good enough for the inaugural preview from the selection that Nook Press provided this time. We’re delighted she found 18 titles to showcase.

Certainly, we all wish every independent author well. Why would we do otherwise? But it is not a criticism to also ask every independent author to learn what’s required and work for professionalism, exacting standards, brain-blistering care, and genuine talent.

Recent developments can help. Several of the new preview’s selected authors are members of the Alliance of Independent Authors, which has put into place its new Ethical Author Code and just announced a liaison with Toby Mundy’s agency to offer translation and other subsidiary rights support.

There’s always good news somewhere in the independent sector, sure. But no, we can’t stop “flagging up” the quality question. And for a very good reason.

Sinking Vs. Swimming: The Difference Is Rigor

What we’re talking about is the marketplace in which most books are and will be sold. It is a marketplace that has for many decades been almost entirely in the hands of major corporate publishers and some resilient independent publishing houses.

Think of that market as the place to which most readers will turn on most days to look for most books that might interest most shoppers, say, as holiday gifts for most people on their lists.

In terms of that marketplace and its long-established expectations, much — not all — self-published material just doesn’t measure up.

To understand the significance of the new Independent Author Preview, note that The Bookseller is a trade publication. It is read by agents, acquisition editors, publishers, authors, some readers, yes, but mostly professionals in the books business. And, as my colleague there, Philip Jones, has said well, its business for more than 100 years has been, in part, to “shout about” new books from independent publishing companies “and bring them to the attention of our audience.”

By instituting its Independent Author Preview, the magazine takes an unprecedented step of covering self-published material, as well, showcasing it to those industry players, who may, in fact, be glad to discover these books from our very young independent sector.

This cannot be anything but a positive step for independent authors, surely. It gives us a chance to praise the books that have been selected as its inaugural pics — congratulations to these authors.

But it also means we now have even more reason to press for clear-eyed reality and the rigor — the precision, the exactitude, the care for truly high-level efficacy — that will move independent publishing closer to the mainstream readership it deserves.

Let’s keep talking about it.