Reader Respect


Last week I received a query from a self-published author who proudly reported that he’d made X number of sales despite the fact that his book had received neither the benefit of an editor nor a proofreader. This is a bragging point? Agent Rachelle Gardner, whose blog I highly recommend, wrote an article last year asking “What About the Readers?” It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and that I want to address here.

Already, the market is seeing backlash, a trend toward more awareness from readers about authors, publishers and pricing and what it all might mean in terms of quality. Let me start by saying that I’m not putting down all self-publishing. There are times when books just don’t get picked up by established houses that offer an advance against royalties, either because they don’t strike the right note at the time or publishers are unconvinced that they’ll sell in sufficient numbers to justify an offer. This doesn’t mean they’re not good books or that they won’t find an audience or even that the publishers are right. There’s no surefire equation for any creative endeavor that says if we plug in variable A (let’s say fangs) and add in B (let’s say romance) and multiply by X (a fast-paced plot) that a book will be successful or that in substituting J for A a book will fail. If we had that kind of equation at our fingertips, all of our books would be bestsellers. But I digress.

The point that I’ve set out to make is that in publishing, self or otherwise, you’re putting out a product. There’s a certain implied promise in this that says the work will be worth the price paid, either monetarily or in time spent reading (in the case of a freebie). While you might sell a book that is not all it can be, you’re certainly less likely to get repeat customers and build a career. The biggest seller is word of mouth, and if your readers are disappointed with the quality of the work, they’ll make it known (and probably not with their inside voices). Which means that if you’re going to self-publish, you have to behave like a publisher…and this includes editing, line-editing, copyediting and everything that goes into making a quality product.

A good editor will push you. It’s too easy, sometimes, to veer away from full immersion in a scene that will be difficult emotionally or otherwise. Or to take shortcuts. Or to assume something made it onto the page because it was in your head all the time. An editor (or an editorial agent) will point out flaws, make comments, and encourage you to rise to all challenges. I’ve been on both sides of this table, and can say with firsthand experience, that outside support is a godsend. The pros make your work look good. No, not good. They turn good into great.

Copyeditors also enhance the reading experience by helping to remove all of those distracting typos or convoluted phrasings that distract from the story. Something as simple as a “the” which was meant to be “they” can momentarily stop the flow of a read. Too many such ripples and a read is difficult, enjoyment impossible.

Behaving like a publisher means taking on all the roles or finding/paying someone to do that which you’re not in the best position to do for yourself. It’s about art, lay-out, formatting, editing, copyediting, copy-writing, advertising and promotion, search-engine optimization, etc. There’s a lot of sound and fury out there insisting that publishers are obsolete or that they need to justify their continued relevance. I think I just did. But if that’s not enough, a mainstream or traditional or legacy publisher (or whatever term the cool kids are using this week), pays the author an advance to live on while they write the book, then not only takes care of all of these things for the author, but covers those costs out of pocket. So yes, the publisher also shares in the rewards.

More than that, despite the sound and fury, e-books are still only about 20% of book sales in most cases (although it’s more like 50% in the case of many bestsellers), which means that print is still king at 80% of sales. Self-publishing can include print, but all of the above caveats still apply, and now you have the added problem of distribution. A local bookstore might consider carrying a few copies of your book on a trial basis, but without national distribution, sales reps, buy in from the chains, coop advertising, etc., it’s difficult for your books to have any visibility or to sell in significant numbers.

But I digress again. I’m going to leave you here with the question that started this off…. What About the Readers?


25 comments to Reader Respect

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  • Very well said, Lucienne. Thank you.

    Not trying to be negative here (so apologies if it’s taken that way), but another argument I hear a lot is, “Well, Bestselling Author X has been putting out less-than-stellar quality books for years and they’re traditionally published.” I’m guessing that’s for unrelated reasons, though.

  • Lucienne,

    I realize this is slightly off topic, for which I apologize, but you’ve opened the Pandora’s Box that is self-publishing and it raises a question I’ve been wondering about for a while now. If an author approaches you AFTER having already self-published an eBook version of their novel, what is your reaction as an agent? Is this the kiss of death (like it once was)? Is there a threshold of sales, below which it’s a waste of your time, but above which you sit up and take notice? I guess my underlying question is this: What are the realistic odds of starting out as a self-pubbed author and then successfully taking that same book into the mainstream of New York and landing a contract? And I don’t necessarily mean an Amanda-Hocking-sized $2M contract, but a regular and reasonable one?

  • Great stuff, Lucienne. I posted a while back about the reasons why I as an author still believe in the traditional publishing model, and covered similar ground, but didn’t have at my disposal your knowledge of the market and the industry. I worry sometimes that the poor quality and poor quality-control of some self-published titles could wind up hurting the entire industry and souring the public on reading when that public is already inundated with other, flashier alternatives to reading a book. Is that a fear you share at all?

  • Ed, It’s not the kiss of death. What will impress me (or not) depends on the book. If it’s not something I represent or that interests me, no amount of sales will incline me to request the work, though I may refer the author onto a colleague more up their alley. If it’s something that interests me, I wouldn’t necessarily ask for a sales record, knowing how big an issue discoverability is. Sometimes really wonderful books can be overlooked or really…not-so-wonderful books can skyrocket. Self-published novels are held to the same standard as everything else. They have to blow me away, and I have to feel that they’ll do the same for the publishers and appeal to their marketing departments. For publishers, they have to love the book and believe that it will appeal to their readers and distributors. I’d say that it happens for self-published books probably as often as it happens for unpublished books, assuming that the author didn’t stop at good enough or at I-don’t-have-to-please-anyone-but-myself because they chose to self-publish rather than seek professional publication.

    Laura, I think that when anyone phones it in or becomes too big to be edited it’s disrespectful to the readers.

  • Thanks, Lucienne. Makes perfect sense.

  • Hey, David! I don’t think readers will stop being readers because they’ve experienced some poor quality offerings. What we’re seeing instead is that readers are becoming more aware of signs that indicate what to approach and what to avoid. A stamp of approval, like a respected imprint or promotion by publishers and well-known bloggers rather than the authors themselves, is becoming increasingly important.

  • Lucienne> Really interesting post. I know I’ve stayed away from self-published stuff because most of it hasn’t been very good, and I’m not sure how to find the good vs. the bad. (John Hartness is the big exception, and I picked up his stuff after Faith and Kalayna both raved about his stuff–they were right.) I will say, though, the “I didn’t have it edited or proofread” really seems the wrong way to go. That’s like my student who hadned me a paper and said “It only took me an hour.” Oh, really? I’m sure it’s literary gold, then.

    I am curious about the ebook numbers: how many of the ebooks sold (I guess what percentage) are books that are NOT in print? (And if possible, not erotica, since so much of that is all e-book.) Because if most of the books sold are books in print from publishing houses, then they’re sort of just different editions, and don’t speak to the self-pubbed market’s success, really. Does that make sense?

  • As a new writer of I’ve made some interesting observations when putting my work up for critique. People who are very knowledgeable and experienced in the writing/editing/publishing world are often far more critical about everything, but particularly about the technicalities of language. This is very useful of course, and helps me to improve my writing, although they give less feedback on the story itself. But, those who are less experienced and more like the ‘average reader’, give more feedback on their interst in the story, and are not at all focused on the technicalities of the language. They’re usually much more positive too. I think it’s a good mix. I learn a lot from the former. But I trust the engagement ‘factor’ of the other. So I would agree with you, because of changes in the industry (self publishing) readers do and will have more choice over what they read and I think many established writers and publishers will be surprised. While traditional publishers still hold sway now, the trend doesn’t support their dominance into the future. So things will continue to change. However, you are also right that the vast majority of self pubbed books are considerably awful in terms of all those grammar errors and typos. So something has to change there too. I’m wondering if we’re about to see a new era of super reviewers who will filter the good from the bad. And if so I hope to be one of them 🙂 I’m on the look out for a self pubbed novel that I’m willing to give five stars. So if anyone can find one let me know 🙂
    Interesting post Luciene!

  • Aderyn> I have to say that it isn’t the typoes that are a problem for me in staying away from self-pubbed people. I read the first 5 pages of one before I had to put it down. There were about 30 exclamation points in those pages, including one combo if exclamation points and question marks. While this may sound technical, it bothered me because it amounted to telling, not showing. And the MC had made several nonsensical choices in the first few pages, too. It was content, not grammar. I admit, too much bad grammar (not including in dialogue) and I’m done, but that isn’t the main issue. Many of the self-pubbed stuff I’ve skimmed just aren’t good reads. And they are things that one or two good critiques could have helped.

  • WordTipping

    What about the reader? I think the reader is better off now than ever. Not only is there more VARIED choice in what to read, but there are a much greater number of tools to locate new books to read. Twenty years ago, the only source for books was a book store that carried a small selection. Publishing & retailing, being risk adverse, tended to stock that small selection with similar books and familiar names. If you wanted to find out more, you had a small selection of national magazines and local fanzines. There was not much choice.

    Now? Now we have enough selection that bloggers bicker endlessly about which particular sub-sub niche a book occupies. Readers can find many books in their favorite sub-sub niche even obscure ones like Appalachian Gothic, which I didn’t know existed until recently. Better yet, fans of these small, but rabid, communities have ways to communicate and share that never used to exist. The rise of Amazon reviews, Goodreads, Library Thing, Shelfari, and blogs have all provided near endless suggestions and critiques of books.

    All of this new competition and upheaval in the book industry ultimately means one thing, increased competition for readers. The worst this has managed to accomplish is providing too many options…and that is hardly a bad thing. To me the biggest risk to the book industry is outside competition. In twenty years, the quality and quantity of entertainment options have increased exponentially. The great challenge as a reader is simply finding time.

  • WordTipping

    I think the issue is less of an issue of quality as one of curation. With increased selection and a decrease in free time, people want to make a smart decision. So, the opinions of bloggers and what not becomes increasingly important. The same holds true to a publisher’s imprint. I gravitate towards Pyr & Orbit books because I know their editors pick books with a particular “flavor” that I like. Tor & DAW on the other hand, not so much. While this isn’t a complaint about the quality of their offerings, its more a complaint that the lack focus in their offerings. Tor & DAW cast a wide net and publish a lot of books and not all of them are my cup of tea. What I am getting at is that readers value brands because it reassures them that it is something they will like. The brand can be a number of things: blogs, a Goodreads group, or even an imprint.

    The worry over quality control in regards to grammar is overrated. Yes, for grammar hounds a misplaced comma can be very irritating, but for the average reader, I doubt they have a strong grasp on grammar in the first place. Unless you have a job, profession or training, its not a muscle most people utilize. Especially in today’s text centric, 140 characters or less world. The mind is incredibly elastic and can overlook grammar issues. As long as something is readable and interesting, there is a market for it.

  • It seems like the focus in comments has been on proofreading and how much of that is an issue for the average reader, but I’m talking about editing as well. Structural editing. I agree with Aderyn that you need both, and editors generally do both a content and line edit, then hand over to someone else for the copyediting stage, which is still more quality control. In other words, it’s not just misplaced commas, but those plot holes that drive you nuts in books and film, unclear motivations, inconsistencies, etc. that are pointed out and revised before a book ever sees print.

  • Thank you! I had a bit of a rant last night at my roommate about this very issue – something along the lines of “I sweat blood over this WIP to make it not just saleable, but genuinely good work, and then watch others sell their truly crummy, unedited, self-pubbed work and claim it’s the same thing.”

    The question isn’t electronic vs hard copy, its well crafted vs amateurish, edited vs not edited, revised vs thrown out there in the first glow of a new idea. And that’s still my problem with the self-publishing world, regardless of their chosen medium. Too many self-pubbers are using it to circumvent the necessary process of critique and development. How many times have we heard one of them on a panel at a Con make one excuse after another – NY is too cliquey, the process is corrupt, I’ve been to lots of workshops so there’s nothing an editor could tell me, my ideas are too avant garde, I have a really good beta group so I don’t need an editor, my mom edits her homegroup’s newsletter so she did it for me, etc, etc, etc. But in the end their work still sucks and that’s all that matters – is the work worth reading.

    A really talented and hard working writer will do better on their own than a poor or lazy writer, but give either one of them a good developmental editor and the work will get exponentially better in ways the writer couldn’t predict before the editing process. Heck, look at Lucas’ work. Episodes I-III should be proof enough that no matter how big you are, you need a good editor.

    Not every self-pubbed writer lacks a developmental editor – in fact, the roaring successes often are the ones who paid for a developmental editor. But the majority of self pubbed writers who refuse to submit to the editing process and use self-pubbing as a way to avoid dealing with critique are 1) lying to themselves about the quality of their own work and 2) selling shoddy goods to the reader. I’ve got no use for them.

  • I would like to believe in the relevancy of the traditional publication process, but my own reading experience suggests that copy editors are extinct and that developmental editors do not care one whit for quality. The inane plots, flat characters with unbelievable motivation, blizzards of typos, and the endless stream of abuse heaped upon English grammar in professionally published fiction nowadays makes me wonder just what publishing houses think their jobs are. It is easy to imagine that they have all been outsourced to English-as-a-second-language accountants. (Not that I’m remotely suggesting that self-publishing produces a superior product; the evidence clearly supports the opposite conclusion.)

    What bothers me most, though, is not the sorry quality of what is being printed these days but rather the fact that most readers don’t notice or care.

  • The Mathelete

    Great post, Lucienne! These are certainly unprecedented times for writers and readers alike, and I think quality is the defining factor in whether I ever purchase an item or purchase similar items again. I have read quality stuff that was well edited that was entirely the work of one individual(yes, I still think input from an editor can improve the quality in most if not all pieces, but at some point, diminishing returns do kick in). It can be done, but the effort involved and the expansion of skills means only the select few really can pull it off. And those select few could probably, unless their work is very niche, get a contract from somewhere else and have more time to actually do the fun bit.

    I do imagine that there is some correlation between a self-pub author with lots of sales and the commercial viability of that author’s future works. That seems especially true if the book sold on one of the sites that require huge previews (often 50% of the entire book). I often read 10 or more chapters before I have to make a decision to buy or not to buy. I’d never read that much while standing in the bookstore. That said, I can usually tell whether or not an e-book would work for me within five or six pages. Fascinating times — just what this Manic Monday called for.

    Just curious: were the misuses in your post intentional? A subtle jab at unedited pubs? I’m no grammarian or the much feared Grammar Nazi, but even I noticed “you’re readers” and “taking on all the rolls” — that particular one saw me imagining a butter knife wielding hero conspiring with a misfit band of peas to take on the dreaded croissant overlords . . . my brain. If so, I thought it was very clever. If not, forget I mentioned anything at all 😉

  • Razziecat

    WordTipping: With all due respect, I must disagree. 20 years ago I was buying books from catalogs that had a pretty sizeable inventory. I found books that way that I didn’t see in stores. I also spent a lot of time at the library, finding books not available in the stores near me. Many, if not most, books then had a few pages in the back with an order form for the reader to order books directly from the publisher. And bookstores would order things for you, if you asked. What the internet has done is made it possible to find things all in one place, so to speak. I’m not sure that the percentage of good to bad has changed, however.

    As far as editing, typos and the like, I’ve mentioned before that I came across a book by a well-known fantasy author. It was the most poorly-edited book I’ve ever come across. Ever. I’m talking typos on literally every page. Big ones. It was close to unreadable. If it had been my introduction to this author, I would never have read another of his books. I’m pretty sure this was a mistake on the publisher’s part, so I will continue to read this man’s work. What struck me was how unusual this was.

    Lastly, I agree, in part, with Wolf. Most books I read have few typos, But so many people these days do not care about grammar, spelling, sentence structure and so on. I agree that the story itself is important; but nothing will throw me out of the author’s created world faster than a mess of misspellings, incomplete thoughts, incorrectly used words, and so on. Someone here on MW (I can’t rememeber who) once said, “There is no art without craft.” Part of the craft of writing is good editing, and another is quality control. If a self-pubbed author can do everything a good editor does, more power to ’em, but personally I would rather write and leave the editing to the professional editors.

  • I appreciate all that the developmental editors, line editors, copyeditors, and the rest do in prepping a manuscript for paper print, but I’m beginning to wonder if the tools used to convert those books to e-books might be a bit buggy. I’ve re-bought and re-read a couple of novels in both formats, and while the paper copy was everything I’d expect from a Big House, the same e-version was riddled with typos, dropped words, odd characters, random line breaks, etc. For that reason, I’m a little more tolerant of those type errors in e-pubbed (even self e-pubbed) works. I’ll read through them, assuming it’s a conversion thing.
    In either format, whether from a NY Publisher, small press, or self-pub, a good story with no Deus Ex Machina, semi-truck sized plot holes, or other dumberry flubbits is expected. It’s what I’m paying for. Bad story will ensure I never pick up another with that author’s name.
    Maybe in the future the mainstream publishers will start using e-editors and up the game by catching the conversion errors before release.

  • Great stuff, Lucienne. Can you tell us more about the backlash against some self-pubbed titles. Manifested how? Motivated by what and how do we know? I’m really interested in this.

  • Rhonda

    That’s a lovely list of the value a publishing house provides.

    I’ve had arguments with self-publishing promoters about some of them, especially the promotion ones. Many people who say self-pub is the only way to go claim that traditional publishing houses don’t do any promotion for you, it’s all on the author to make it. Not being published myself, I have no first-hand experience with how much promotion they actually do, but I recently thought of one promotional activity that is dead simple for a big publishing house but incredibly hard for a self-published author: your book, in a catalogue, with a familiar and routinely used order form, to every bookstore on the continent.

    Of course I have a feeling that if I’d thought of that during the argument, the reply would have been something about e-books.

  • @ pea_faerie – Yes, of course I agree with you there! Content is also a major concern with self pub books. I guess we jump on the grammar wagon because it is oh so noticeable. You need to grit your teeth and read through all that bad syntax in order to grasp the content, which, as you have quite correctly pointed out is frequently nonsensical. Although, I have read a number of self pubs that, while they suffer from an atrocious lack of editing, have a good story to tell, many of them read like a draft rather than a finished piece. If only these authors stuck with the editing process and held off publication for a few months. Then we might see more quality self pubs.

  • Mathelete, ack, no! Those typos come from no proofreader and not enough coffee. Now I’ll have to go back and see what else I missed! Proof that editors are a VERY good thing. And yes, I absolutely agree that “there is some correlation between a self-pub author with lots of sales and the commercial viability of that author’s future works.” A very good point.

  • Lyn, I agree with you, the conversion process does introduce new errors, and I’m frustrated that the big houses don’t seem to have anyone proofreading their digital offerings. I’ve been making this same argument recently on behalf of my authors who’ve had fans come to them very aggravated with the errors.

  • AJ, this is what we’ve been hearing from many quarters for some time, most recently Digital Book World, which Deidre Knight (our founder at The Knight Agency) and Jia Gayles (our marketing specialist) attended. It seems that unless it’s in relation to an author a reader knows and trusts, free or $.99 is now saying self-published or not-of-value to readers. There are, of course, exceptions, but unless the low or no pricing is part of a special promotion, there’s a new avoidance of the product associated. Of course, too high a price can also turn readers off and also count books out of certain special promotions and opportunities. There’s a definite science to pricing.

  • I don’t read much (or anything) that’s self-pubbed as yet (don’t own the e-reader you’d need to make it worth the time to get those self-pubbed books), nor do I self-pub anything at this time – but I do fraternize and associate with a few writers who have taken the self-pubbing path.

    Most of those, it seems to me, actually are availing themselves of an editor – and their work is getting copyedited and in some cases even developmentally edited. It seems that it is increasingly recognized as an important step in the self-pubbing process. So I think it’s not really a lack of editing that is contributing to the large amount of less-than-stellar-quality stuff that’s flooding the self-pubbing airwaves.

    The problem I have with the editing is this: it’s author-funded. Author-funded editing has two downfalls. First, and most obviously, it costs the author money. That’s a financial investment that not every writer can afford. In some cases that means authors forego the investment. In some cases, they’re running successful Kickstarter campaigns or finding other creative ways to supply the fund. But in others, they’re clearly scrimping and saving and gambling on the success of their books. I think it’s sad.

    But the second problem is less evident. Author-funded editing (whatever source the author uses to generate the necessary funds) puts the author and editor in a customer/service-provider relationship. An editor being paid by the author owes the author exactly one thing: an edited manuscript. Services rendered for payment received. But such an editor has no investment in the success or failure of the book in question. They have no motivation to try to improve the manuscript, to make it better, or to nurture a talent, to make a good and promising author into a better one. There is no reason to offer the writer advice on their career, or to discuss the story in a more frank way about how to make it better.

    There’s a lot of criticism of traditional publishers saying they aren’t doing that. That’s debatable. But unequivocably, the modern editor-on-commission decidedly is not doing that. The relationship is not designed to allow that to happen.