Monday, May 9, 2011

There oughta be a warning

I had something wonderful happen this weekend. I was at a party talking to someone, and I told her that I had a children's book coming out next year.

She said, "Is it ... did you ... um, did you do it yourself, or, you know ...?"

"It's being published by Viking," I replied. Then she hugged me and said congratulations. And, I was pretty much over the moon because that NEVER happens.

Here are the usual responses that I get when I tell people I have a children's book coming out:

"Oh, my best friend/sister/coworker's aunt/ masseuse's three-year-old son wrote a book!" And, it's always something that person has self-published. Always.

Or this:

"Oh, I have a great idea for a children's book. It's a cute story about my cat/my grandmother/a preachy morality lesson ..." Then they stand there and wait for me to react. I'll talk about this comment more next week, but for now, all I can say is "ideas are cheap".

Back to the self-publishing issue.

I know that there are many, many arguments for going that route. It IS hard to get traditionally published. They DO take a huge chunk of your money. You STILL have to self-promote. And, these days you can create a pretty slick-looking book and hire your own editors and PR people.

But, here's the thing.

I have never personally read a self-published book that's any good (with one exception--Cheryl Klein's SECOND SIGHT--a compilation of her conference talks on writing). That's not to say that those books aren't out there (yes, I've read all about Amanda Hocking), but I've never happened across one. Normally, people self-publish because they've gotten a few rejections and see an easier and quicker way to get into print. It's ego driven, and people who are ego driven are usually people who don't like to take editorial advice (or they often seek advice from friends who don't have the dagger-in-the-heart ruthlessness needed to whip a manuscript into shape).

And, what is most shocking to me is how much of the general public has NO IDEA that there's a difference between a self-published and traditionally published book. They don't know that there's a difference between beating yourself against the shore for years, reworking and reworking your manuscript, submitting and submitting--until finally you get THE CALL saying that someone believe in your work enough to pay you for it; and in writing a book, getting some people to read it and give you feedback, and sending in a large check.

My wonderful literary book club just finished reading two exceptional books written by local traditionally published authors, Curtis Wilkie and Tom Franklin, and the authors came and spoke to us. Next month, my book club is reading a book by another local author--a self-published one--and most of the group didn't even realize there was a difference. I, of course, enlightened them.

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure that there are some really great self-published books out there that didn't make it in New York because of the market or fickle editors. But, as it gets increasingly easier to flood the market with self-published books, I think a big yellow warning label on the cover makes sense.  Just kind of a "read at your own risk" label indicating that this book hasn't been through any kind of jury process and it may or may not have been professionally edited.

So, okay. I'm pretty sure I've offended some of you. What say ye, bloggers?



  1. Were I to self-publish my books, they would simply not be as good. (My stick people could not hold a candle to the work of my illustrator!)

    The hand, mind and heart of my editor(s) are woven through each page. Creating a good book is more than just writing a good story. I can write a good story all by myself. But with the help of my editor(s), I can create what I hope is a great book.

    There is a difference between good and great, I think.

    But I can only speak for my own writing.


  2. I have been thinking about this a lot of late...and here's the thing: there is a difference within self publishing between putting out a professional level of quality and simply throwing something togeher. Were I to ever self-publish, I'd have the book professionally edited, have the cover professionally done, etc And yes, I'd much rather go the traditional route and let someone else source all of that for me :D

  3. So true!! If my book hadn't been fiercely edited by my agent and editors (several rounds of edits!), it would have been sub-par at best.

    With a self-published book, you have no idea what level of editing has gone into it--to quote Forrest "it's like a box of chocolates".

    And, I'm surprised by how many people don't know that there's a difference between a self-published book and one that is traditionally published.

  4. Each of us needs a critic to point out those flaws we are blind to due to our closeness to our work. After going through the filters of the perceptions of agent, editor, and beta readers -- our work cannot help but be more refined.

    That said, I have Kindle published some of my novels. Each one is more polished in format due to learning as I go. The great thing about eBooks is that you can go back and re-format and edit your earlier work to make your novel even better. The same cannot be said for your printed work. You cannot go back once printed.

    I wish you much publication success. Roland

  5. Sarah, you said it perfectly! Thank you, thank you!

    As a bookseller, I get local authors coming in all the time, each with their self-published "book" which is usually about their dog or their grandchild or whatever and they want us to sell it in the bookstore (we take them on consignment and usually only sell copies to their relatives).

    Nearly every self-published picture book is dreadful. They all make the same mistake: too dang long! Huge chunks of text, accompanied by excruciatingly amateurish pictures. You don't need a warning label. The book itself is the warning! The whole thing just makes me sad. And especially because, as you said, they don't seem to realize the difference! In all the years I've been a bookseller, I've seen only one decent self-pubbed picture book.

    As for novels, from what I understand, ERAGON started out as a self-published book, which was then heavily edited when it was picked up by Knopf.

  6. Thanks Joanne! My local book store has the same problem. Ick.

    And, Roland, it bothers me that you say being able to go back and re-edit your earlier work is a good thing. You shouldn't put anything out there that isn't as polished as possible. Maybe it wasn't ready to be published yet if you think you need to go back in and rework it.


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