Friday, December 20, 2013

Self-Publishing, Traditional Publishing, and forcing yourself to edit

When I tell other writers I plan on self-publishing, I get an interesting array of responses: "Oh, I'm thinking of that myself" to "Your book isn't bad. Why?" Mostly the former, but still some of the latter.

I expect this variety. The world of publishing is changing so rapidly that writer culture is being left behind--our collective memory is filled with the experiences of people who published several years ago; our mentors are all traditionally published; even the few people who are famous for having made profits self-publishing did so in a system that's already outdated. The only truth is that no method of publishing is a good get-rich-quick plan.

The most common question I've heard is this: "If you're not going traditional, how will you be able to force yourself to take feedback and make the changes your editors suggest?"

I hear authors asking it of themselves as they try to decide between paths. But it's a very misdirected question, and an insidious one. Are you considering self-publishing? Have you asked yourself that question? You shouldn't. Let me rephrase it, and you'll understand why: "How are you going to be able to behave like a professional if there's no one around to force you to act professionally?"

Also, a good cover is a book's suit and tie.
(image by Kristian Bjornard,
from Wikicommons)
Being professional means being able to improve yourself, to seek advice and implement it, to study your field and follow the best practices within. In the case of authors, one aspect of professionalism is accepting feedback, from beta readers and critique partners and writing groups. It means getting an edit, either from an assigned editor or, in self-publishing, an editor you hire.

Do you need the extra push? If no one twists your arm to take their advice, can you make the good judgment and take it anyway?

Let's look at the assumptions behind this question:

  1. There is nothing holding self-publishing authors accountable.
  2. A person will only behave as a professional if forced to.
  3. Traditional publishers will force you to make the edits suggested.
  4. Traditional publishing forces people to act like professionals.

To be professional as an author, you must be able to listen to critique both grammatical and developmental, and to decide with good judgment which feedback will improve your book. You must put your ego aside and make changes. You cannot assume you know more than everyone else around you, and you must trust that the people giving you feedback genuinely want your success. This means you cannot take offense to the feedback you have asked for (note: this does not include situations in which the person is being genuinely offensive and unprofessional themselves--although in those cases, it's usually a bad idea to let them see you being offended). Whether you publish traditionally or independently makes no difference in this attitude.

The first assumption is that there is no one holding self-publishing authors accountable for their product, no pressures to provide highest-quality product (i.e. well-edited content) in self-publishing. That is untrue--the stakes are higher, actually, as the final judges are the readers themselves. There are no middlemen giving you stamps of approval (/publisher names) on the spine of your book, and so there is no one else between you and the consumer (the reader) that the reader will trust to vet you. Thus, the readers become the experts; they may give a traditionally published book a little leeway (well, I don't like it, but it's traditionally published, so I guess someone does) that they won't give you (well, I don't like it, so it must be a bad product). So if you produce less than a professional work, you're hurting your own sales, and your reputation.

But no outside person is forcing you to listen to your editor--indeed, to even get an editor. It's up to you, as a person, to choose whether or not you want to be professional. Most of the successful self-published authors you see? Like most of the successful traditionally published authors, they've chosen to be professional. Readers are attracted to professional-quality books, and the more professional a self-published author is, the more likely the author is to be successful. (Of course there are no guarantees, just an improvement of statistical odds).

From traditionally published authors I've spoken to, life isn't much greener on the other side of the tracks. Yes, they are assigned editors. But many note that not all editors are the same, that some traditional publishers can or choose to only provide minimal editing (and why not? The publishers would rather only accept books that don't need much editing in the first place), that sometimes editing windows are so narrow that the edit will be rushed into being sub-par, and that often the company relies on the author's best judgment in terms of applying edits, with forcing authors to make all edits being relatively uncommon (and typically involving contracts that are not favorable for the author). And since editors make mistakes, too, that's for the best.

Publishing houses prefer making contracts with authors who act professionally. They have professional authors not because they force their authors to be professional, but because they choose authors who already are professional, and end relationships (contracts) as quickly as possible with those who are not. Thus, they expect their authors to exercise good judgment without arm twisting, and as such rarely need to twist arms.

If you have a professional attitude, you are more likely to be accepted by a publisher, because they will prefer to work with you over someone who is unprofessional,and you are more likely to succeed as a self-publisher, because you will probably put out a higher-quality product.

If you decide to self-publish, there is no contract holding you accountable--just your own ethics, your own desire to establish a career and gain readers, your own good sense, and possibly your peer group of fellow self-published authors, your beta readers, and your support network. 

Meanwhile, traditional publishers still do occasionally twist arms, because you know what? It's not possible to force people to act professionally. The choice, in the end, up to you.

So if you ask yourself if you're capable of accepting feedback, you're asking yourself if you have confidence in your ability to have a professional attitude towards your writing career. It's a self-undermining question. The answer, if you plan to succeed, is yes

If the answer is no, you should probably stick to writing just for the fun of it, instead of trying to make a career of it. You'll have more fun, and you won't waste years of your life getting rejection after rejection, or seeing near-zero sales. Writing is fun. There's nothing wrong with writing for joy, with saving stories and sharing them with family and friends who enjoy them, with creating elaborate worlds because doing so is just plain wonderful. Don't ruin that by making it "work."

What does being a professional mean in your other careers? 


  1. I love your astute analysis! I totally agree with you! Companies can attempt to coerce an individual to act professional, but ultimately it is the individual's choice.

    I think the reason the issue comes up is because many people have a hard time taking on responsibility if there is not an outside force directly encouraging it, even if they know that in order to succeed they'll have to take on that responsibility anyway. Like studying a subject in college even if all the textbooks are available for free at a public library or online. You know you'll have to learn all that material if you want to do it professionally, but some people just don't discipline themselves enough to follow something through unless someone else is at least somewhat forcing (or encouraging) them. I.e. deadlines and grades in college.

    So in this sense, I understand *why* people could feel like it takes being traditionally published in order to be motivated enough to finish or edit a book, but I still agree with you. If someone does not discipline and motivate themself, they will not get very far in a challenging career, for the reasons you stated; whatever route you go, you'll have to hold yourself accountable in order to improve.

    As far as being professional in other careers, I'm a digital 3D artist, and that totally holds true for my field. Being responsive to critique and not taking it personally is imperative. And the technology changes rapidly enough that it takes diligence to keep up with current standards and new techniques. The most successful artists are the ones who are always making efforts to improve, often by researching the industry and working on personal projects outside of work. If someone sticks to the bare minimum, eventually their work will start to look pretty outdated, and they will have a hard time finding or keeping a job.

    For my field, being willing to learn and improve because you want to, not because you have to, is pretty crucial. I suspect that holds true for writing, and for most creative professions.

    Thank you for the insightful and thought-provoking post!

    1. I agree, any artistic field requires self-motivation! And digital art is a competitive field, so you've always got to be on your toes and open to improving if you want to survive.

      I suppose learning to set your own deadlines is a skill not everyone picks up, and although everyone has big dreams, you've got it right--not everyone teaches themselves the discipline to fill those dreams. Good intentions, but it takes more than good intentions to succeed.

      Thanks for commenting, and good luck in your work!

  2. I self-published and am about to do my second novel -- after I'm done with the copy edits notes I have from a Beta reader who is also a librarian. I'll do the next list from my editor soon. I wouldn't leave home without out them. I want my novels to be the best. It's hard work, but I'm seeing the results already.

    1. Hard work indeed--I'm working through edits right now, too. Worth it when I think about how much I'm improving, though. Good luck on your edits, and I wish you luck and many sales when you're ready to print this one, too!