Tag Archives: self-publishing

Confronting the Demon: An Experiment in Self-Publishing

An Experiment in Self-Publishing


You could be forgiven for being surprised that I’m about to self-publish – you might have the impression that I’m against the indie movement. 

You could be forgiven, but you’d also be wrong.

I have been outspoken in the past about self-publishing, but less against the concept of self-publishing, which I think is a fantastic opportunity for talented writers, and more against the execution of the idea. Which is to say, it is a fantastic opportunity for talented writers, but many (though not all) of those writers take short-cuts. Self-publishing is too often perceived as a reason not to do the hard yards, a way to circumvent the long arduous toil that is the pursuit of publishing, while failing to recognise that we learn from the hard knocks.

Nothing makes me cringe more than the biography of an author announcing this is their first book. Not their first published book. Their first book. There are a handful of exceptions – perhaps they’ve been working on it, rewriting and revising for a number of years, or perhaps they’ve written others, but came back to, and revised and polished, their first, for example. But many of them literally mean their first book, and all too often, the first draft of the first book.

Confronting the Demon will be my debut book, but like many of the self-published authors I respect, it’s not my first book. Previous to it I have written eight novel-length stories, and there are excellent reasons none of those have been published – or ever will be without significant rewriting. I’m also not self-publishing it because I’m pissed off with the traditional model for refusing to publish me – in fact, I will still pursue traditional publishing on other projects.

Many of those authors publishing their first book may be talented, but many are also yet to learn their craft. Like we wouldn’t seek medical advice from a first year medical student, or ask a first year law student to defend us in court, all too often those books fall short of the standard set by true professional writers – and I don’t define professional as ‘traditionally published’ here. A professional writer is someone who has gone about the business of writing with a professional attitude, who has done their study (by whatever route – it doesn’t have to mean university or an MFA), who seeks constant improvement, who doesn’t treat it like a hobby, and doesn’t expect the consumer to pay for a sub-standard product.  

So if I was to self-publish, I was determined to do it right. That meant editors, because a story that hasn’t been edited is like an uncut gemstone; it has value, but with a bit of cutting and polishing, it will really shine. Ideally you need three – a content editor, a line editor and a proof-reader. Many writers use the one editor for all three jobs, or at least to content edit and line edit, but it’s difficult for the one person to do all three jobs, or even two of those three jobs, for the same reason it’s difficult for a writer to edit their own work; eventually the editor becomes close enough to your work that they also can’t see their errors.

It also meant a quality cover artist, because let’s face it, readers do judge a book by its cover. It’s the first thing they see, the writer’s first opportunity to hook the reader, and if you miss that chance, all too often you don’t get a second chance.

More than both of those things, though, I needed the rightproject.

For a number of years now, I’ve only had the one book that I considered might be of a sufficient standard to publish, and I wasn’t prepared to commit my one quality work to self-publishing at a time when I was undecided what direction the publishing industry was taking, least of all a 100,000 word book with six sequels. I had too much hard work in it to casually decide its fate – if I was to ever self-publish it, then it would happen after due consideration, and then probably not until I had written the first two sequels. In short, it wasn’t happening any time soon.

Then I wrote a fantasy short story determined to be something more, and my first novella was born.
A novella, to my mind, was a better candidate for a first foray into self-publishing. It’s shorter, so there’s less time invested. A traditional market exists for novella, but not a very big one, so this story had very limited opportunities to be traditionally published. The story is self-contained, so while hopefully my readers will want more, they won’t specifically be waiting for a conclusion to this story – which suits me, since I work full-time, and have two children under three at home. I can only commit to so much.

And so Confronting the Demon began a rather fast, hectic but ultimately short journey to publication. Interested to know more? Here’s the blurb:

The gates to hell are thrown wide when Alloran is betrayed by his best friend, Ladanyon, and framed for forbidden magic. He is pursued by the guards and the wizards both, tormented by the gruesome murder of his friends and loved ones, and crippled by fear for the living. Now Alloran must face his demons, or lose the woman he loves.

Confronting the Demon is due for release in mid- to late-September.


The Four Stages of Learning and What This Means In the Era of Self-Publishing

Four Stages of Learning
I am all for self-publishing. It gives writers a viable alternative when publishers say things like ‘We’d like to publish your work but…’

But it’s too risky.

But it’s too hard to market/we don’t know how to market it.

But it’s not fashionable right now. 

There are a lot of buts, but… the one thing they have in common is all these type of answers imply (or expressly state) the quality of the work is good, and there are other commercial considerations in play. We all know publishers have acted as gatekeepers in the past, and sometimes they were gate-keeping excellent work for business reasons, and self-publishing neatly solves this problem. 

BUT.
 
If the publisher no longer acts as gatekeeper, for any issue, including quality control, it falls to the writer to act as their own gatekeeper for their own poor quality work – self-regulation is required.

Now I know what you’re likely to say next – but publishers do publish badly written books. There are a couple that spring to mind at the current time, and I bet you’re thinking their names right now.

Twilight.

50 Shades of Grey.

Both hugely popular books that, from a technical standpoint, aren’t all that brilliantly written. And yet they were published.

But there is just as much a business reason behind publishing these books as there is behind the excellently written books that weren’t published. Because a publisher is, first and foremost, a business. A commercial enterprise. We as writers, as artists, like to conveniently forget this fact when it suits us. But they are. And if you’re a self-publisher, you are now a business.

Usually what makes money is good books, and a good book is a well-written book with a good story. Excellent writing won’t make up for a bad story. But publishers also know that sometimes a really good story will make up for mediocre writing – although not really bad writing. And if you think either of those books is really badly written, go check out the first draft of a first book by someone who has just picked up a pen to write fiction for the first time, then come back and we’ll talk. I still remember my first book. It made Twilight look like a Pulitzer Prize winner.

So in the traditional model we get mostly well-written books and some mediocre books which, for reasons that are hard to finger, really set fire to the imagination of readers and go viral.

In the self-publishing model, each writer gets to decide what he or she will publish.

The problem with this is the Four Stages of Learning.

The Four Stages of Learning is a model for learning suggesting individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence – in more colloquial terms ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ which I’ve always considered to be a fairly inarguable piece of wisdom.  

Unconscious Incompetence
The first stage is when a person doesn’t understand how to do something, and doesn’t even know they should be doing it. If I go back to my very early days of writing, this includes just about everything. I had an idea about plot and characterisation, but I didn’t even know what POV stood for, never mind what they were, how they differed, or how to use them.

Sometimes this stage is characterised by the person denying the usefulness of a skill if it is pointed out to them. Again, an excellent example is POV. May new writers head-hop, and use defences like ‘But I want to know what everyone in the scene think’ or ‘But Stephen King does it’.

Well, I wish I could do what Stephen King does, but I can’t. Most of us can’t. Most of us never will.

At this level of ignorance, the person doesn’t even know enough about the skill (POV) to know why it’s important, or how to intelligently break the rules (like King does) or why intelligently breaking the rules is even different to just breaking through them like a bull at a gate.

Conscious Incompetence
The second stage begins when the person begins to realise there is something they need to know – and don’t. There is some self-awareness that the person’s work isn’t particularly great, and a writer is more likely to learn from their mistakes.

Conscious Competence
At the third stage, the person has learned how to do something, but the process is laborious and requires concentration. The skill may need to be enacted in conscious steps.

Unconscious Competence
At the fourth and final stage, the person is so good at the skill it has become ‘second nature’ and can be performed easily, or even while carrying out other tasks. The person may even be able to teach it to others.

So, what has this got to do with self-publishing? I believe it affects the quality of what is self-published.

Not many writers in the fourth stage will be self-publishing, except for business reasons. Most of these writers can (and will) be traditionally published – and in fact the process of getting traditionally published is a learning process in itself, equipping the writer with a thick skin. Not many writers in the second stage will self-publish either, because they are painfully aware of their own shortcomings and don’t wish to expose them to the light of public scrutiny.

Some writers from the third category may self-publish, some may be working to improve further (into stage four) before they publish under any model, and some will still be pursuing traditional publishing.

Which leaves us with the first stage. People who don’t know what they don’t know. I’m betting a lot of people in this group are self-publishing, and what they are publishing is bad.

I’m not criticising their ignorance. I remember how great I thought my first book was. And my second. And my third. And hey, even my fourth. I didn’t have the lure of self-publishing to tempt me, for which I am grateful, because I look back at that work now and I cringe. I cringe, and no one but me can see it. How much more would I cringe if it had been made public?

But I wonder, how many self-published writers will look back at the first book they published and regret it? I know one or two who have pulled books from the market for exactly this reason.

So if you’re thinking about self-publishing, maybe stop a moment, consider which stage you think you’re at, and ask yourself seriously if this work is something you’d be embarrassed to admit to in the future.

If you missed it, check out the latest in my Mythical Creature series – the truth about the vampire myth.

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The Writer’s Long Road

I made a comment this week that newbie writers are not ready to publish.
So we’re clear, when I said ‘newbie’, I meant they have literally just picked up a pen for the first time to write a novel. This may not have been clear on Twitter, where 140 characters doesn’t allow room for such caveats and disclaimers, but I was surprised when someone tweeted me about the comment.

This person found my statement so disheartening they felt they should stop writing altogether. I must confess, I was taken aback by this sweeping statement. Why should someone be disheartened by such a comment? Don’t people already know this?
Apparently, people don’t know this. Which is perhaps a reason for me to say it more often.
But we should know it. We none of us expect to ride a bicycle perfectly the first time – that’s why we have training wheels. My first day at law school, I was not ready to be a lawyer. Hell, my first day in my current job, I was not ready to be a lawyer, and yet, eight years later, I am a senior lawyer. These things take time. Is there anything that anyone can expect to do well the very first time they do it?

If a writer expects to succeed immediately, I would suggest they need to think again. The very act of writing is a lengthy process, even if you can devote your full attention to it, and most of us need to have day jobs as well. I have been working on my current WIP since January 2008. Granted, there was a long time in there when I did nothing, but if we break it down into actual active time it looks something like this:

• Four months to write a first draft and revise;
• Three to six months receiving feedback from critique group;
• Six months revising and editing (three times).
Now that’s very nearly eighteen months, and I haven’t even finished the last set of revisions, nevermind written a synopsis or query letter. Even if I was to land an agent, it would take time to find a publisher, and then it’s something like two years for the book to land on the shelf. We’re talking four years minimum from go to whoa. It can easily be more.
Granted, it’s much quicker if you self-publish. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. But you can see my earlier post on indie publishing for that particular rant.
The reality is a writer’s first ever manuscript is unlikely to be publishable without significant revisions. I won’t even try to rewrite my first manuscript. Or my second. Maybe – maybe – my third. The fourth I will.
Even well-known and best-selling authors were rejected multiple times before being published. Here are a few of the ones I know:
  • John Grisham’s ‘A Time To Kill’ – rejected 45 times;
  • Dr. Seuss – rejected 46 times;
  • Tom Clancy’s ‘The Hunt For Red October’ – rejected 12 times;
  • Patricia Cornwell’s ‘Postmortem’ – rejected 7 times;
  • Mary Higgins Clark’s ‘First Story’ – rejected 40 times;
  • William Stevenson’s 80’s bestselling thriller, ‘A Man Called Intrepid’ – rejected 109 times; and
  • James Lee Burke’s ‘The Lost Get-Back Bookie’ – rejected 111 times over a period of nine years, and upon publication was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the Edgar.
If it took these authors this long and this many rejections to be published, then why should anyone expect to pick up a pen and immediately be worthy?
  
I’m not trying to be pessimistic. I suggest writers be positive, which I distinguish from optimistic. Optimism is believing the best will always happen. I’m sorry, it won’t. Being positive is believing you can make the best happen, with hard work if necessary. Optimism allows no room for realism, being positive does.
Realism is important, because if you aren’t realistic, you will only be disappointed when the things you expect don’t happen.
Writers, the hard, real facts are, if you want to be a writer, you must be in it for the long haul.
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Indie Publishing: Traditional Publishing’s Competitor – or Slush Pile?

This is probably not a post which is likely to make me very popular but, you got it, I’m going to say it anyway. To avoid pointless arguments about what I’m not saying, I’d like to be clear upfront. I am not saying that writers should never indie publish.
But… What is indie publishing?
I expect there are as many different definitions or concepts of what indie publishing is as there are for each genre and subgenre of fiction. We could probably argue about it until the cows come home. So I’ll tell you what I think it is. Then you can argue about it, and I’ll just watch.
I consider indie publishing to be an alternative to traditional publishing for writers who have submitted to traditional publishers and/or agents and received responses along the lines of ‘It’s great but it’s not for us’ or ‘You’ve got a fabulous story but it’s not commercial’.
In other words, indie publishing is an alternative for writers who are skilled in their craft but can’t get an editor or an agent to take a risk on them for reasons that do not relate to the quality of their work.
How about what indie publishing is not?
·         It’s not an excuse to cut corners on your WIP. A lot of them exist for a reason. If the response you are getting is that your WIP is not interesting enough, engaging enough, well-written enough, or suffers from other technical problems, indie publishing will not magically solve them;

·         It’s not the ‘easy option’ for the ‘lazy’ writer. Good writers are not born, they are made. They are forged in the crucible of reviews, critiques and, yes, rejection. Only when we are told what is wrong can we make it better. If you have just penned your very first novel or story and indie published it (particularly without an editor, or review or critique by someone who knows what they are talking about) I am sorry, but it’s probably more useful as toilet paper.

And yes, I say that as a writer. I have one of those ‘first novels’ lying around. Like most writers who have been around the traps a bit (and after nearly 20 years at this, sorry to say I am old enough to be one of them), I pray to god or anyone else who might be listening that no one ever sees it. How embarrassing. As a matter of fact, I can’t even tell you where it is right now. Probably on a floppy disk for which there will shortly be no means to read it. I can hope, anyway. Maybe I am lucky enough for it to have been the broken one I found the other day.  

·         It’s not publishing for ‘vanity’. In the old days (which I remember, crivens), writers had to pay other people to have their book vanity published. Now a writer can epublish their book, even if it’s absolute drivel, and expect other people to pay them. If you are providing a product to consumers, it should be a good one, and not just to stroke your own ego.  People pay for a good product or service. Money spent by a consumer just to make you feel good is not money well-spent. Unless maybe it was spent by your mother.

·         It is not an excuse to drop standards. If you are indie publishing, I expect you to know how to spell, and have good grammar, as the most basic tools of your craft. You don’t need to know the names (I can never remember what a preposition is) but I expect you to know how to use them. I also expect you to know good dialogue, to not infodump, to weave backstory carefully, to have interesting plots, believable characters with depth… The list goes on. In short, everything I would expect from a traditionally published novel. I’m sorry, but the method of publishing does not change the ingredients in a good book. Yes, I have high standards, but in my defence I will say I never held someone to a standard to which I did not hold myself;

·         It’s not an excuse to break the rules – without good reason. In traditional publishing, as an unknown author, we are told all the time that breaking the rules will land you in the slush pile. Not so in indie publishing. What slush pile? Well, that may be true, but rules exist for a reason. If you break a rule, and it doesn’t somehow add to your story or advance the plot or somehow make it better than if you had abided by the rule – then breaking it is probably detrimental;

·         It’s not an excuse to not know the rules. If you want to break rules meaningfully and intelligently, you need to know what they are. Learn them, please. Study your craft.
I recently heard the question asked ‘are you regarded as having achieved less because you indie publish?’ I don’t hesitate in saying ‘you betcha!’. We all know the odds against traditional publishing. Ergo, if you are traditionally published, you have achieved something of heroic proportions. You beat the odds. Even if your writing is not great literature, you still beat the odds.
That, however, does not automatically mean that an indie book is bad, because we all know plenty of good work doesn’t get traditionally published. Unfortunately, a lot more of what doesn’t get published isn’t good work, which brings me to my next point.
I recently heard suggested that we should do away with one star reviews because they are ‘not fair’ to the writer. Really? Why not? If the quality of your work is that poor, why shouldn’t you get 1 star? Because your fragile ego can’t bear it? I’m sorry, but if you can’t take negative criticism, you are in the wrong line of work.
Granted, there are bound to be a number of undeserved 1 star reviews. But then, as discussed in my last post ‘What Price Your Honour?’, there are also large numbers of undeserved 5 star reviews floating around. Maybe we should also do away with 5 star reviews?
But then, now 2 star reviews are undeservedly harsh, and 4 star reviews are coveted. I know! We shall have 3 star reviews only. Now you are all the same. Is everyone happy?
I expect not. That was a very exaggerated example, but most of you probably got the point. A review system is, by its very nature, designed to distinguish between good and bad. Any scale, no matter where it starts and finishes, will have a lowest point and a highest point.
As a reader, I can say that I have seen enough false reviews that I don’t bother looking at the star rating of a book anymore. It is meaningless data. Worse, I have started discriminating on the basis of price point. Two bad experiences with (traditionally published) 99c books, and I am ready to swear off them. If I won’t buy traditionally published 99c ebooks, what hope do indie books have? Not much, I’m afraid.
I have in fact never bought an indie book. I have read free excerpts of various indie ebooks, designed to entice and lure the reader into purchasing the complete work. Sad to say, none has yet been of sufficient calibre, or sufficiently intriguing, to induce me to do so (though some clearly had promise). What a sad state of affairs.
I like the theory of indie publishing, but as you can see, so far the practical reality is disappointing me. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that all indie authors are bad, I am saying that inconsistent standards and unreliable reviews are demotivating me to look for the diamonds in the rough. I am sure they exist, but where to start looking? It is the proverbial needle in the haystack. I am time poor, so I must choose the books I read carefully.
If indie publishing wants to be taken seriously, and to provide a viable, commercial and, ultimately, profitable alternative to traditional publishing, writers need to hold themselves to some kind of quality standard in the work they choose to self-publish. Otherwise, indie publishing will be doomed to be nothing more than a very public slush pile for traditional publishing. I would think that a tragic waste of something that could have been so much more.
Fellow writer, I implore you – always strive to improve yourself. Take workshops. Join a review group. Use beta readers. Pay an editor. Listen to the feedback you get. But please, don’t publish anything less than your absolute spit-polished best.
Hold yourself to a standard and be proud.