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?