Friday, April 20, 2012

A plea to indie authors and publishers

I've long been an advocate for indie authors and indie publishers. As a former president and current member of the MidAtlantic Book Publishers Association, I have worked to help improve both the quality of indie publishing and the recognition for those involved. As an organizer of the Cybils awards, I argue vehemently each year to continue to allow self-published books to be eligible. There are excellent self-published books, I argue, and we need to continue to allow them to be eligible to find the hidden gems. And indeed books like Angelfall, an excellent self-published ebook which was one of the finalists this year, prove the point.

But for every Angelfall, there are a hundred, maybe a thousand, substandard books that opponents of self-publishing can hold up as examples. As a blogger/reviewer I receive submissions of many interesting-sounding indie books, only to be disappointed when I try to read them. I want to like your book. I really do. I'm starting from a perspective of hoping to find good indie books. But I'm disappointed more often than I'm satisfied.

This is a plea to all the indie authors and publishers, and those thinking of publishing. With ebooks and POD, it's so easy today to make a book available to the public, but that's not the same thing as publishing. Publishing is hard work and time consuming, and includes the myriad of details necessary to produce a quality book. Before you jump into publishing your book, please consider the following:

1. Read, read, read.

Have you read widely in the genre you are planning to write & publish in? Each genre has its own requirements and conventions, and you need to understand them. For example, YA books are usually tightly plotted, have strong voice, appeal to teens without talking down to them, and use tightly controlled point of view. In addition to reading widely, it helps to participate in discussion groups (Goodreads is one place to do that) or to start a blog and review books, and read reviews by other bloggers, because you can learn a lot from the comments of other people.

I can't tell you how many times I receive a publicity email saying, "So and so wrote this book because there were no good books for children about..." and I think, "What about this book, or that book? Have they read any books in the children's/YA genre at all?"

2. Learn the craft.

Writing is a craft, and like any craft, it requires training and practice. Most traditionally published writers I know spent years learning their craft before they ever had a book published. On the other hand, I have met many indie authors who decided to write a book and then published it, with little forethought or training. Just because you can string sentences together, doesn't mean you can write a book. At least not yet.

I believe that writing is a skill that can be learned, and that most people are capable of becoming good writers, but it takes time and it takes work. This is not an indictment of all indie authors, because I do know some who have put in the time and work. But for anyone who hasn't, please don't skip this important step.

Do you understand point of view, how it affects a story and how to control it? Do you know what voice is and how to use it? Do you know how to write believable dialog? Do you understand the "Show, don't tell" rule?

Take writing classes if you can, and read books about the craft, particularly as it relates to your chosen genre. Join a critique group and learn both from others critiquing your work, and from the opportunity to critique others. Write many things, and understand that the first book you write may not be publishable. As with anything, you will improve with practice.

3. Produce a quality product

Once you have a book that is good enough to be published, it will still need work and money before it is a product ready for the public. No matter how good a writer you are, the book should be professionally edited by someone familiar with the genre. Really, there are multiple levels of editing, and ideally they should be done by different people, because someone can get too close to a book to be able to see the errors anymore.

Cover design is crucial and should be done by a professional cover designer. Just because someone is a graphic designer doesn't mean that they can design a cover. Cover design is a specialty with unique needs and requirements that not all graphic designers necessarily know. For a book that will be printed (even print on demand), plan to spend $500-$2000 for a professional quality cover. Books which will only be ebooks may be a little less expensive. Yes, that's a lot of money, but after you put all the work and time into writing your book, do you really want to wrap your baby in a substandard cover?

I highly recommend 1106 Design who did the cover design (but not the illustrations) for the Ratha series books. Here's an interesting post on their blog about the choices made in designing Clan Ground.

For printed books, interior design is also important. Microsoft Word is not a typesetting tool. Although I know people who use it, in my opinion it's not capable of producing professional quality typesetting. If you don't understand typography, find someone who does (or take the time and put in the work to learn it, just as you did for writing). For ebooks, interior design is not as much of a consideration, because ebooks are designed to be adapted to the device and preferences of the reader. However, even for ebooks, you want to make sure to have a good conversion.

Final words

With friends like me, who needs enemies, right? I'm a friend of indie publishing, and if these are the things I see, just imagine what the opponents are saying. Please, let's all work to raise the bar on indie publishing and help change the perception by creating quality books that we can all be proud of.

I'm thinking of starting to ask anyone submitting a self-published or indie book for review to elaborate on the book's writing and editing process, in an attempt to weed out books that are poorly written and poorly edited. What do you think? I feel like I shouldn't have to ask, but I'm just tired of being disappointed.


Natalie Aguirre said...

These are important suggestions for those who want to be an indie author. I think many authors who are coming to indie publishing after trying the traditional avenue are doing this. But of course there are others who aren't. That's great you are an indie book supporter.

Charlotte said...

I feel the same way, Sheila. I am less and less willing to accept self-published books, because I review so few of those I do accept. I'll add a specific plea for more editing--there's no reason to have obvious mistakes of grammer and vocabulary (like one book I read a while ago, that featured "plush vegitatation"). If there are mistakes like that, I just don't have the patience to try to find good in the story.

Unknown said...

Thanks for stopping by, Natalie. You're right that many who make the transition after trying traditional are doing those things, because usually they have more experience and understanding of how the business works. And of course, big publisher books can stink, too. But at least with a big publisher book I have some level of confidence that the book has at least been edited. This post stemmed out of my frustration with some of the review copies I've tried to read recently.

Charlotte: it isn't just grammar and copyediting that are an issue. For example, the book I'm reading now has sudden shifts in point of view which are disconcerting and yank you out of the story. A good substantive editor would have caught them and had the author fix them.