Hard Worked but Still Wrong

booksYou might loathe me at the end of this post. You might lob a well considered retort or two, noting my officious attitude and undeserved position on this soapbox. You might hate me out loud with a snort but silently nod your head in acquiescence. You might wonder how to turn around the situation to face a better outcome. But if you are writing a book, as I am, you need to read to the end.

This is a rant and a plea and a question, based on the probable certitude I’ll end up like the writers whose recently read books I didn’t like. That is, work that was self published. The category of books bulled through by hard working but unrepresented writers. No agent. No editor. No professional artist or photographer. No publicist. No well regarded publishing company. No New York Times book review. No order sheets from a brick and mortar emporium. Nope, just a paperback book with an ISBN to make the product officially registered. Not in the same category as merchandise rolled out from traditional publishers.

A book is a book is a book, but we all whistle admiration at the genuine cachet blazing from the catalogs of Random House, Simon & Schuster, Little Brown. Don’t know about you, but I drool. The names on the spines of self-published books are catchy and clever but forgettable. Name one, go ahead, just one. Yeah, me either.

It’s not even that all the self published books I’ve recently read, a half dozen in the past two years or so, are undeserving of traditional publication, it’s just that the lack of a full house behind the cover is obvious. Rampant grammatical and mechanical errors proving the obvious lack of oversight and guidance afforded by professional book shepherds. Underdeveloped characters, predictable plots, misplaced scenes, boring dialogue, cardboard antagonists, incorrect details – they’ve shown up in every self published book I read. Frustrated and irritated me, and I’m just the reader.

I wonder how the authors feel, their work exposed by its amateur slipcover. Because I’m certain that every author had better in mind – better printing format, correct spelling, more challenging story arc, accurate historical and cultural details. A better, more worthy presentation.

None of us set out to write a sloppy book. We work like nutcases, recalling and applying the gems from every workshop, college class, seminar, and how-to book, then toss every common adage off the dock on our way to iconoclastic literary glory with our story babies, the offspring of our guts.

I always thought I’d be a writer. All the other stuff I did was just a sideshow on the way to the important career of my life. Thing is, I started the serious part of my writing late in life. To get started on time, I’d have to be in my early twenties, fresh out of an esteemed writing program. I missed my chance, had I ever really had one, with the distractions of marriage, jobs, and children, then with pursuit of a career that actually paid bills. I dealt with family issues like the aging of parents, my health, and investment in the lives of our adult children. Nothing extraordinary, not the stuff of dreams, (well, my dreams, some of it) but the baggage of an ordinary life. Yet behind my ordinary life looms a mind, my mind, teeming with observations and wit, crawling with scenarios and confrontations, occupied by folks like you and me and no one you’ve ever met.

All over the Internet and lodged in every book and magazine dedicated to the craft of writing are articles about why we should choose the self publication route. The money is better. The control is our own. Agents are full of themselves. Writers have to do most of their own promotion anyway. The traditional route is arduous, unpredictable, without guarantees.

But the evidence, if what I’ve read these past two years is any indication, is that self published work is sloppy and poorly written, especially in the fiction field. Though I know that’s not entirely true, some self published work is exceptionally well done, plenty point in the direction heading to the compost pile. Don’t know about you, but I don’t aim to go there willingly.

Over the last 16 years I’ve written three complete novels, stories I tore from my heart and soul. This summer I edited each of them for a final round, and am now writing queries. At least two more story ideas nag my waking and sleeping hours: start writing me. I am an old dog but I’m vigorous and driven. I won’t give up till I’ve been rejected by every possible agent because I want to be a writer published by a traditional house, because I believe in my work, and because I won’t let myself down with lazy printing companies who make sloppy errors unless and until there are no other options.

I hope you believe in your work enough to motivate yourself to try the traditional route, try again harder, and give it as much effort as you’ve given to writing the book itself. It’s time agents took a look at my stories – I worked like a madwoman to write them, now I intend to work like a maniac to get an agent to take note of my stories. You will like what you read.

Wishing all of us success.

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18 thoughts on “Hard Worked but Still Wrong

  1. I think every point you make in this article is strong and accurate. But I can also sense frustration in it. And I get it. I’ve certainly read the self-published books that are formatted and error prone like you’ve described. But I’ve also read many that are truly fantastic and well done. Perhaps the thing is that you need to have a professional editor on the book and then self-pub it. Perhaps it’s about beta readers. Perhaps it’s any number of things. But if I’m being honest, if I’m not in a bookstore and I’m just buying a book on Amazon (as I do 99.9% of the time), I don’t have a clue if the book is self published or traditional published. I don’t look for the name of the publishing house. I simply look for a book that looks interesting, just as I used to do (and still occasionally do) at bookstores. I’m cursed (or blessed) with a complete and total lack of ability to remember names. It drives my wife insane because I don’t remember author names, actor names or anything like that. So when I’m looking for books, I don’t bother with looking at the name of the author or editor or anything like that. Outside of a few Big Names (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Douglas Adams, Dr. Seuss and a few others), I truly have no idea if I like or liked an author. I look at the cover. I look at the blurb on the inside cover or on the back cover to see if the story looks interesting.

    Yes, I get frustrated when I’m reading books with poor editing or typesetting. That has been the case since I was a kid, long before self-publishing was a thing. The beauty and the curse of self publishing is that anyone can publish a book now. So I get where you’re coming from because the reality and/or perception might be that if you’re one of the select ones who “make it” in a traditional sense, you’re definitely special. But I choose to look at it from the standpoint of time, too. How long will it take to get an agent to even give you a look? How long will it take for the agent to get you a book deal? How many changes will they require you to make? By the time it publishes… how many months/years will have gone by that your book could have been out there?

    Clearly I have no answers at all. I just think that the self-published world is real and legitimate now and perhaps what is needed is to find a way to get some of the benefits of traditional publishing (like good, solid editors) via a different route. Perhaps that’s the area that still needs a good bit of work in the self-publishing arena.

    • Thank you, Rob, for a well-considered reply. This is nearly a post on its own.

      What I meant about names is trying to recall the publishing house name of a self pubbed book. The author gets to make one up and it’s the first clue. I know of one author who has done a terrific job with a niche market. Her work is outstanding, engaging, well researched and written, and by the second volume of her series, it had attracted a traditional publisher. She had gotten the attention of far more readers, well into the hundreds of thousands, than anyone initially expected, and her obviously marketable books were, and are, worthy of traditional publication. Still, I had to go look up the name of her first publishing company because it was a forgettable name.

      Traditional publishers do a broad faced job. They cover book design, (no pun intended) printing standards, complex business legalities, as well as make the author toe the line on exceptional writing skills. To be honest, none of the other self pubbed books I’ve recently read were actually ready for publication. It’s apparent in every first paragraph why agents passed. The stories are too rough, incomplete, poorly realized, and they are sloppy. Admittedly, some of the egregious errors are the result of printing companies whose standards are not strict enough. Traditional publishing houses work with printing companies who know and meet the professional printing expectations.

      However, much of what I’ve encountered are the product of writers who thought too much of themselves and their talent. What they needed was more time on the work itself, more effort to write well, more attention to “writing chops.” In at least three cases, the authors believed their past career credentials proofed their work, at least two of them having been journalists. Not so, unfortunately, and their fiction stories read like magazine articles spiked with clever sidebars.

      Another writer was a survivor of a horrific situation, but that still didn’t make him a good enough writer of his own story. All of these books could have been improved by professional editing, perhaps even a solid beta reader/commenter. But the author must pay attention to those critiques, something an agent can force but an independent writer might wave away.

      A self published writer must be the master of every aspect of her book. Most of us simply don’t know enough to be professional in all areas, not to mention, most of us don’t take criticism seriously, and we should. I don’t believe any writer should write to please an agent or editor, but I do think more writers should pay attention to issues suggested by others. If you’re getting lots of push back, the story might need more work. No sense putting a chicken with feathers on the grill.

      But if you’ve done everything right, and by everything, I mean your work is ready for the world in every sense, I think you should try for a traditional publication. At least, at first.

    • Thank you for your “rant.” I really resonated with and appreciated the seventh paragraph. Most writers and would be writers have minds which churn with ideas, descriptions, thoughts, observations, even if they only write air novels. I felt akin with you, although our stories are very different. Thanks. D

      • I’m glad this resonated with you, Daniel. Quite young, I really did have serious intentions of becoming a writer. My degree is in creative writing, and I began my writing career with three novels for children, middle readers. I belonged for a time to the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. After decades devoted to family affairs, and having put aside my writing, I returned with a passion for adult books.

        What are you working on?

  2. I largely agree with your assessment. One thought that always comes to my mind is that self-publishing just moves the slush pile from the publishers desk to mine. I’ve read a few self-published works. Some great, some okay and a few dreadful. For me the difference always seems to be how much effort the author has put into editing and design. One poetry book I recently read was clearly not edited and the author seemed to have the attributed that the world was wrong and he was right.

    Currently I am working through this dilemma myself. I have poetry book I’ve written. It’s not bad, but still needs a professional editor’s eye. Then I need a good cover and other design work that I know I am not skilled at. Then the real problem that, at best, I might, maybe sell 500 to 1,000 copies of the book (very narrow subject with a limited audience).

    So the question become, do I try to get a traditional publisher for this? (or a small press) or do I just self-publish and hope to recover my costs for hiring a designer, editor, etc… I have confidence that I can do the marketing since my audience is so narrow.

    I’ve been struggling with that for awhile.

    • I’m going through that same mental conversation, Andrew. I’ve come to think of writing as a hobby that exchanges money for happiness. Like other hobbies. We pay to go to movies so we can enjoy ourselves. To me, if that is the result of writing, I’ll be OK.

      • Yes, when I think of what I am doing, it mostly for me, but I hope that others will find the work meaningful. I want to present a high quality work and I know that will cost me some money. The question is how much and can I afford that or make my costs back by selling some copies. Still thinking through all that.

        • Andrew, have you considered getting your work into a poetry anthology? I have no experience here, but have read many and own several. Combined efforts might be the way to go with poetry. I wish you luck – let me know how it goes.

          • I’ve been submitting my poems to literary magazines, but no joy yet. Still, I’ve only been doing that a few months. I did find out about anthology that’s being put together that I might get something published in, going to send a query out for that this week.

    • I agree, Andrew, that poetry can be a niche market. Some poets I know do lots of public readings and build a core readership out of those followers. You seem aware of the areas you need to improve before you move on to the publication process.

      One great thing about a niche market is that it’s easy to identify, though I think poetry is a bit trickier than a market such as travel to waterfall locations, or cooking with almond butter. When you know your market, you can direct attention for your book to the very people most likely to want to read it.

      I wish you well on your poetry endeavors.

  3. I do think self-pub writers are starting to understand that professionalism is required–exactly the details you’ve pointed out.

    • I hope you’re right, Jacqui, because I remain surprised by the work of some folks I was sure would have gotten it but didn’t. Don’t know if that’s an inability to see one’s face in the mirror or too much arrogance to look.

  4. I both agree and disagree with what you’ve said, Sharon. I have two friends who are both writers. One of them had her first and second YA books traditionally published. She was not happy with the editor the publishing house supplied for her third book, so she went the self-published track for her fourth, fifth, sixth and her up and coming seventh book. She played smart and has a professional editor. I have yet to find a typo in her books. Her stories keep you on the edge of your seat and demand that you turn the page (I have both the paperback and e-book versions). They are a series and I’ve read them all several times – two of them at least six times. Yes, they are that good!

    Flip the coin and you have my other friend who is about to publish his first book and I just cannot get through to him the need for someone to edit his MS or at least proofread it for him. He said he can’t afford it. I’m willing to do it as a friend but he’s reluctant to even have me do this. He doesn’t understand the concept that when you read your own work, you see what you meant to have written rather than what you actually wrote. He would be much better off putting the MS away for a few weeks and then come back and read it with fresh eyes. Even having the text to speech software on your computer read the MS to you while you follow along with a marker pen is a far better option than trying to find typos yourself. Spell check is not going to point out that you’ve used the wrong word in a sentence even if it’s grammatically correct. The story itself is very good, but the lack of editing is going to kill it and I don’t know what I can do to help him.

  5. Thank you for pointing this out, Lyn. Friend One is an author already traditionally published. She knows the ropes professionally and has made a knowledgeable decision to self pub the remainder of her series. She understands the requirement of a polished work and will see to it that all her subsequent books retain the high standards her agent helped her achieve. Her experience will serve her well, and she’s obviously a talented and accomplished writer.

    Friend Two is the one I’m really addressing, the newbie who’s stubbornly refusing to get his work properly vetted. Unfortunately, he would likely have difficulty attracting the attention of an agent for exactly the reasons you’ve just pointed out. The writing talent is there but submerged under numerous errors, making his work shout, “amateur.”

    Part of my rant is to make authors understand that there may be legitimate reason for agent rejection. Writers must present production worthy material to an agent or to be self pubbed – and Friend Two is falling short. He won’t be able to count on whatever printing company he chooses to fix his errors; they’re likely to make even more.

    I’m in the same situation as Friend Two except I know I must have my work edited, and I will pay for it if I cannot get the attention of an agent. All the tricks and programs in the world cannot make a book look polished if the author refuses to scrub.

    Thank you for your contribution to this post.

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