Traditional Publishers Still Needed – So Must Change

I just had a meeting with a very old friend who unknown to me, self-published and illustrated a delightful little book, but has wasted two years trying to sell it and is a about to go bankrupt. He’s paid at least two ‘editors’, and it still needs a serious edit – but only after an author re-write.

I’ve come across the same thing many times in various internet writers groups, and recently asked a correspondent why was she putting so much effort into paying editors and critics to help her with one of her stories – as opposed to writing another one?  All authors write stories that don’t work, so you get on with other work, returning to the offending piece when you’ve totally forgotten about it.  Nobody gets it right all the time, and it takes a lot of goes before you get it right that first time.  And if you’re getting confused with what others think, that’s because you shouldn’t be seeking their opinions, but applying your own rigorous criticism, which you need to develop until it’s far more critical than anyone else could possibly be.

This whole ‘market’ for critique’ing anxious would-be authors makes me sad – and at the moment cross.  My friend is just one victim.  He’s wasted his money and two years on something that his own critical faculties should have told him needed more thought and work. Instead he’s slipped into the hands of the non-commercial, so-called ‘vanity’ sector, where people told him what he wanted to hear, took his money, and he’s sold just 400 copies.

His book could be sorted out;  he’d find it useful to read a few ‘how-to’ books in his genre, then lots of examples in that genre, then apply this to the story line, writing style and characterisation.  But relying on another person as he did, for that vital criticism means you only get that other person’s opinion, and writers are writing for all of humanity, in their own unique and compelling voice.   It’s the sum total of opinions that count for a writer – not those of either friends, or somebody whose being paid.

But artists (and fiction writers are certainly that) can only develop their own voice, by themselves.  You can learn from books and courses how to write in different styles and so on – the craft; and you can communicate with people in huge numbers of ways these days.  But getting your material read by others means it has to be relevant to them, and readable, engaging and so on, which must come from you.  I can tell you how I’d write your story, but that would not work for you.  Whether I charged you money or not, would make no difference…

If you write fifty-thousand words, irrespective of whatever they might be about, you’ll learn something.  A 120k novel would teach you far more, but the time-effort investment for that suggests reading around the subject a bit before starting.  But being art, you do it for its own sake, without thought of remuneration…. Your time if you are to be a writer is best spent writing, and the vital part of that job is self-criticism – like a photographer taking his days work home and deleting everything except the handful of frames that are really good.

Let’s be clear about publishers and their editors; they are investors of money, with the editors ensuring that this investment is maximised.  The commercial (as opposed to self-publishing) author – editor relationship is a business partnership;  both working to ensure the book sells and is read – the publisher primarily concerned with the latter, and me as an author concerned with both.  This can  be sometimes be a tense relationship – because the editor is always protecting the publishers’ investment by ensuring the readability of the book.

The whole self-publishing industry does not seem to me (as an outsider to it), to contain this imperative.  But to make things much worse (in my opinion), self-publishing is run by people selling services to the vulnerable – ambitious, anxious and sometimes desperate people (the desperation of needing to write is something we all understand),  of which the ‘critique’ing’ industry seems to me to be the most questionable.  If as an editor, I lose my job if I commission works that people don’t want to read, I’m going to take very great care with my selections. If on the other hand I get paid by the hour for reading and editing, with a bonus for persuading an author to pay another $6000 to have the work printed, then my author selection and subsequent criteria will be rather different…

A very small number of authors progress from self-publishing to commercial authorship.  Some self-publishers sell books – mostly those with an already defined readership, niche subject or after truly stupendous marketing efforts.  But writers write, editors edit, publishers publish and book sellers sell, each being a full-time job for one person.  In the self-publishing world, people are either trying to do all these things themselves, or paying others who are not good enough to be editors or publishers in the commercial world in the hope that paying will create some kind of a short-cut to success.  It’s this ‘paying for your dream’ aspect that upsets me.

For the same reason, I didn’t like Disney World either.

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