This post is about the alarming sense of entitlement I'm seeing out there among indies and would-be indies now that we've become empowered to publish. I'm sure I sound like a broken record (or damaged MP3) by now, but apparently I need to keep saying this:
Anyone who wants to launch a new business like a restaurant, widget manufacturer, accounting practice or pool service expects to invest a certain amount of start-up capital, both in terms of actual cash and sweat equity. Neither is dispensable. Yet plenty of would-be indie authors seem to think it's unfair for me, and even the book-buying public, to expect them to invest anything more than the sweat equity part of the equation. They expect the public to be able to look past a cut-rate cover, ignore the typos, bad grammar and the many other substantive flaws that can be eliminated by a good editor, and see the excellent story within. These indies are wrong, and they're hurting all of us by lowering the collective bar.
In a recent Facebook exchange, one indie author directed this to me:
Not all self published authors can afford to hire out for pro services. If that were the case, why not go with a vanity publishing company and all their promises.To which I responded, in part:
...if we self-publishers wish to compete head-to-head with mainstream books, we have to be willing to invest what it takes both in terms of effort and money. Hiring a pro editor and cover designer yourself is a far cry from going with a vanity press, which will usurp your rights and take a cut of your royalties. A pro edit, file conversion and cover design shouldn't cost most self-pubbers more than about $400-$600, if you check the freelancer listings on Smashwords---and many can beat even those prices by shopping around and calling in favors. Yes, it's a lot of money, but compare that to how many thousands of dollars a mainstream publisher invests in every book *it* acquires and releases. If we want a seat at the poker table, we have to be willing to invest at least a small stake.Another commenter replied:
I work as a handyman. I'm barely making it. $400 to $600 is half a months' wages for me. How would you suggest I scrape together enough to pay someone to edit my book and another someone to design a cover for it?My response was:
I'm sorry to say this...but the realities of launching and running a business are what they are, and I have often advised would-be indies NOT to publish until they can afford to do it right. The vast majority of authors, mainstream and indie alike, do not earn enough from sales of their books to live on. Virtually all of us still need day jobs.
The fact that the content is gold won't matter if all the reader notices is typos, bad grammar or spelling mistakes, and an amateurish cover. For years us indies have been saying all we want is the opportunity to compete against the mainstream on a level playing field---but that means we have to be willing to do (and spend) what it takes to compete. I'm all for DIY when the person has the skills, and for trading favors and doing whatever else one can to shave costs. But it's unrealistic to think one can go up against multi-million dollar publishers without spending even a few hundred dollars.
Hopeful Olympians pay for quality equipment, coaching and travel. Hopeful artists pay for quality supplies, professional framing and gallery space. Hopeful filmmakers pay for quality cameras and professional editing, or at least time in a professional editing bay to do it themselves. The fact that it's much easier for a rich hopeful to afford the necessities of his craft or sport than it is for a poor one doesn't make those things any less NECESSARY for the poor hopeful.
People DO judge a book by its cover, as I've learned firsthand. The cover for my novel Adelaide Einstein is much less slick than the one for my novel Snow Ball, and Snow Ball outsells Adelaide month in and out despite the fact that Adelaide has nearly three times as many positive reviews. I can complain all I want about how unfair it is that more readers won't give Adelaide a chance, but that won't sell more copies of the book.
And ebook fans DO post negative reviews based solely on bad editing and poor formatting. I've found most ebook fans to be very welcoming to indies, and even willing to cut them some slack to an extent in acknowledgment that we're not backed by a Big 6 publisher. But when poor formatting or bad editing gets in the way of their enjoyment of the content, they stop reading and let others know about it.
Remember: publishing was never meant to be fair. It's a business. Mainstream-published authors have the luxury of a whole staff of businesspeople standing between their delicate, artistic sensibilities and the harsh realities of commerce, but they pay for it pretty dearly in reduced royalties and the loss of control of their work. We indies have to be willing and able to play both sides of the net, art AND commerce, ourselves.
If you're not willing, or you're not able, you're not ready to publish.
UPDATED TO ADD: having seen comments on this post here and elsewhere, I'm kind of shocked that this is such a controversial stand to take. I mean, if I wanted to go into business making and selling any other product, and openly admitted I had no money for quality control (editing), packaging (cover design) or marketing (author platform) for the product, that I didn't have the skills to do all of those things myself at a level comparable to a professional, and I don't know anyone who'd be willing to offer those services to me for free, everyone would just say, "Well, maybe you need to wait till you've saved up some money, then."
But for some reason, to some people, when the product in question is a book, it's somehow a special case. To those people, suggesting the author delay publication till he can make his product---a book---the best it can be is elitest. I'm not saying that only the rich should be able to publish, not remotely. I strongly encourage controlling costs, acquiring as many skills as possible so you can do a professional job of things yourself, calling in favors and comparison shopping for services. And I'm not saying those who don't do these things should be barred from publishing.
All I'm saying is, if you're going to step into the spotlight and invite the scrutiny of a paying public, doesn't it make sense to put your best foot forward? If "good enough" is inadequate when it comes to the quality of your storytelling and characterization, why is it acceptable when it comes to the quality of your book's presentation?
Sadly, the necessities of presenting a professional-quality book are still eluding author publishers who look at self-publishing as a way to evade publishing expense rather than to incur it.
As I said myself a while back on http://www.occupy-publishing.com/:
"If publishing for its own sake is your motivation, get out there and publish something; I’ll be lining up to support your right to do it.
I may not, however, be lining up to buy your book."
A well-written and brave article. I just discovered your blog, and will be reading eagerly from now on.
One thing to bear in mind, if you’re long on sweat equity and short on cash, is that there are thousands of other authors in the same boat. A lot of the editorial and formatting services you need can be obtained by barter.
For instance, I have experience at editorial work, and I have a writer friend who is a trained professional illustrator and designer. She’s doing covers and layout for my books, and I’m doing editorial work for hers. That allows us both to reduce our up-front costs.
You are quite correct. Too many self-publishers demonstrate by what they have produced that they are indeed amateurs. Some months ago I attended a local writer's group. One of the members passed around copies of his recently self-published book. I browsed through it and found a large number of spelling errors, formatting blunders, and examples of poor grammar. The title of his work? "How to Self-Publish Your Own Book." His was in desperate need of an editor and designer, but he was pleased as punch that he had produced a book, badly done thought it was. The quality was not important to him. The fact that he could hold in his hand a colume with a glossy cover that featured his name was reward enough.
For too many writer's, self-publishing means throwing off the conditions of quality work. If independent publishers are going to gain respect, and maintain self-respect, we must turn out a quality product. Your advice is most critical. No book should be rushed to print. The cost may not be all that much if the author is committed to producing a quality product. We all have friends who will help and for many, simply taking more time to write and review will make a big difference. In the end, it does take capital to launch a business. Some will make it as respectable writers and others will be tickled just to be able to find their name somewhere in the vast reaches of the Amazon.
Right on. I'm grappling as we speak with the decision on whether to go back to a day job or try writing full-time. I put a lot of sweat and cash into my debut novel, and it's paid off. But I decided that I don't have the financial springboard to sustain myself on that full-time.
So I'm doing what a lot of entrepreneurs do: pursuing my business on the side while working a day job. It's slower, but it's still rewarding.
Thank you for writing this!
Your position seems to be predicated on the notion that there's something magical about professional editors and cover designers. There isn't. Editing in particular is a simple, straightforward, mechanical craft. Finding and fixing "typos, bad grammar and other substantive flaws" can be done well by anyone who spends the time and effort needed to learn that craft and practice it. Cover design is (or at least can be) an art rather than a craft, but that doesn't mean that you have to be Picasso or Chip Kid. With study and a little effort, anyone with a non-crippled sense of esthetics should be able to put together a decent cover.
Also, you stress the notion of self-publishing as being a "business decision," but I think in a way that's exactly what you don't mean. A business decision should be based on nothing more than "If I do such-and-such, am I likely to make a profit?" In other words, "good enough" is good enough, and "investing" in unnecessary frills is a mistake. Putting your absolute "best foot forward" is something you worry about if more is on the line than just making money -- if, for example, you feel that your identity and your sense of worth as a person is at stake.
Why are you---and everyone else who's trying to say quality editing and cover design are not needed---so invested in championing mediocrity?
I meant what I said in saying that self-pub FOR A PROFIT is a business decision. And yes, one must budget one's funds accordingly, but that generally means if you don't have enough funds to make the product top-notch AND market it, you don't have enough funds to go into business.
I never said ANY pro editor or cover designer is great, it goes without saying there are good ones and bad ones, just like IN EVERY OTHER PROFESSION IN THE WORLD. But a good editor makes a good book better, and a good cover designer can encapsulate the theme and plot of a great book in a single image. Why would you NOT want that?
Also, I suspected (and looked back over my post to confirm): I never said anything about a "pro" editor, I said some things about how a "good" editor can improve the quality of a book.
I also specifically mentioned trading favors as a means of getting needed services for no or little cost.
Nowhere am I saying, "You must spend X amount of dollars before publishing your book." All I'm saying is, whether you're investing time, money, or the effort to get needed services for free or at an affordable rate, you must be willing to invest in every aspect of your self-pub book if you hope to earn a profit on it.
Here's the sad point: denegrating professionalism. Editing is more than finding typos or grammatical errors. Cover art is more than illegally uploading a photo from the internet. Both require people with talent, who deserve to be compensated for it. People want short cuts, and they don't want to have to pay for quality. I've been an entrepreneur/self-employed since the 80's. You can be responsible in the way you invest, and you should be. But if you're trying to get something for nothing, you'll wind up with nothing.
Why would ANYBODY not be "entitled" to publish?
Is publishing some property of certain people or companies, and not a right of anybody?
If so, you should tell us how to figure out who's entitled to express themselves and who isn't.
BUSINESS mentality would generally suggest that it's not a good idea to put money into something that you can get done for free.
And that ramping into things and re-investing from black ink rather than saddling a project with unnecessary debt is a sound and responsible approach.
Indie publishing follows different models and logic than what publishing companies do and it's important to know that and keep them straight.
Where in this post, or ANYWHERE ELSE for that matter, did I EVER say anything to the effect that certain people are not entitled to publish?! NOWHERE.
In fact, I even go so far as to explicitly say in the post, "And I'm not saying those who don't do these things should be barred from publishing. All I'm saying is, if you're going to step into the spotlight and invite the scrutiny of a paying public, doesn't it make sense to put your best foot forward? If "good enough" is inadequate when it comes to the quality of your storytelling and characterization, why is it acceptable when it comes to the quality of your book's presentation?"
Interestingly, not one of the commenters who's come to argue against quality editing and cover design has acknowledged this remark, or answered the question attached to it.
I'm getting so frustrated with people who carefully parse or (seemingly) purposely misread my message that I'm not even going to respond to any more comments in which I'm misquoted or accused of saying or thinking something I have NEVER said or thought. All I'm going to say to such comments is, "You are mistaking me. Please re-read the post."
Linton and others - again, I invite you to ask yourselves: Why are you so invested in championing mediocrity?
As for cost savings being a business decision, read my first response to Esmeralda.x
OF COURSE you must make wise spending decisions and get services for free wherever possible, but that doesn't mean that if you CAN'T get editing or cover design for free, and DON'T have the skills to do those jobs yourself at a professional level, that you can just dispense with them entirely and still expect the book-buying public to embrace your book.
Go to Kindleboards sometime; the #1 complaint among Kindle book buyers is that indie books are poorly edited. Just see for yourself how many consumers there are saying they will NEVER give another indie book a chance because they've been burned by poor editing and poor formatting too many times already.
Then come back here and make a case that those things aren't necessary, and that dispensing with them isn't hurting the indie movement as a whole.
Your Indie Author Guide, as well as other self-publishing books and sites, were invaluable after an author-friend suggested I self-publish my novel a few years ago. Though my book had been edited by numerous friends and family, including a magazine editor and a college professor, and was a fairly "clean" manuscript, my friend convinced me to hire a professional editor. After considerable research, I also hired a Book Designer for the cover and interior of my book. In the past year since birthing and while marketing my baby, I have not once regretted either investment.
You're so right, April. Putting a product out in the marketplace for others to purchase is BUSINESS, whether people like to think so or not. If not, why do it in the first place? Surely if there's no mercantile element to anyone's thinking whatsoever, a writer may as well inscribe her words on leaves and let them blow away on the wind. There's the art part done, right? I think a lot of "artists" don't like to "sully" their work with thoughts of business...plus, it means a lot of extra thinking and planning. Much easier to just publish and be damned.
I have two editors (one bartered, one paid), and use a couple of cover artists (paid) and, while people may slam my books for their complexity, inanity, world-building, lack of world-building, compelling characters, insipid characters, (LOL) nobody has criticised my books on formatting, grammatical errors or typos.
Came here via Joel Frielander's blog and will be staying now that I found you! :)
"I never said anything about a "pro" editor"
I stand corrected on that point. When one speaks of "investing" in getting someone to do a job for you, that usually means hiring a professional. If you know of a "good" editor who isn't a professional and who will do work in exchange for pumpkin muffins, that's great; I hope you have a good supply of pumpkin muffins on hand.
"Why are you [...]-so invested in championing mediocrity?"
Here I have to correct you. I did not advocate mediocrity. I said that an author ought to be able to do editing and cover-design tasks themselves, and do them as well as most any (avoiding the word "professional" here) "good" editor and cover designer. To insist otherwise is to equate those skills with magical powers.
Perhaps your book will be better if you hire (or barter for) an outside editor and cover designer. Perhaps it would also be better if you hired someone to write it for you too. By your reasoning, if you don't hire someone to write it for you, you're "championing mediocrity."
Don't be ridiculous, Esmeralda. Not every indie author has the level of editing and cover design skills required to do a professional-LEVEL quality job of either task.
And in anticipation of your response...this isn't to say EVERY possible editor or cover designer one might hire will do the job better, either. You have to shop around, check references, ask others for referrals, etc. This also isn't to say that every mainstream-published book that DID employ a pro editor or cover designer is gold, but just because one can point to a number of mainstream clunkers, that doesn't mean all one needs to aspire to is that level of quality.
(Seriously, switching the discussion to absolutes is generally the tactic of the person who can't *honestly* debate the *real* issues at hand.)
As the oceans of amateurish covers, badly edited and badly formatted indie books out there prove, not every indie author can manage every aspect of his or her book him- or herself. Perhaps it's more accurate to say *most* cannot, but---in anticipation of your response, in absolutes---how can I say that for certain, given that I haven't seen or read *every* indie book out there?
Great post April. I'm in the midst of self-pubbing my debut novel and I've hired an editor and cover designer. I know my limitations. I could never make a professional cover and though I've edited the manuscript to the best of my ability, I don't see all of the typos anymore. I'm too familiar with the text and know what it's supposed to say, so that's what I see.
I have pride in my work and my name will be on the cover. I want it to be the best it possibly can be.
Esmeralda: editing your own work is very dangerous. As an author, you already have it in your head what you "mean to say." As you make your self-editing pass across the manuscript, your brain fills in the gaps, and misses the problems, that a third-party editor would likely have seen. The same can be said of many grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. The author often wrote it that way because it seemed good to them the first time - and it too often seems good the second time too.
"... too often seems good the second time too." Exhibit A. :)
Right on April, asking an artist to play a businessman is without a doubt one of the most difficult and unchique things to do. But that is precisely what it take to make it in this game.
As a bookseller who has been inundated with self-published authors asking me to carry their books, let me provide a bookseller's look at this problem.
These authors are understandably pleased with their book and eager for it to sell well and make some money for them. Because of that, they balk at allowing me to have copies on consignment. They want me to invest in multiple copies of an unknown product up front. AND they want me to host a signing for them.
Why should I pay for advertising, refreshments and all attendant costs for a proper author promotion when:
1- I don't know the author and the author has no proven track record of selling his/her books.
2-The author is not willing to share the cost of the advertising and promotion nor mail or email invitations to a list of his/her own guests to help promote attendance at the event.
I get at least five requests a week to sell and promote the book of a self-published author. I, too, operate a business for profit and such authors and their titles almost always do not increase my bottom line.
When I ask these authors to leave me a copy of the book to read or preview before deciding if it is something my store and its resources can help market, many will not. Why should I work with someone who will not work with me?
Having said that, we have hosted 89local self-published authors in the last three years. Only seven of those authors have a book that sold from the shelves after the signing. Those seven were marketable because my staff and I read the book, appreciated it and could hand sell it. (Authors: if you don't understand the term hand selling, find out what it means before you approach a bookseller.)
Authors- independent bookstores are struggling mightily these does to just stay open. Between Amazon, Kindle and other e-readers, and used bookstores, our market share is shrinking daily.
If we are struggling to stay open and make money when we have New York Times best sellers to sell, how realistic is it for you to expect us to invest in a dozen books by an unknown?
Brilliant post on the topic! I am speaking at an ebooks workshop on Saturday in Auckland New Zealand. I will be talking about professionalism and the fact that by ePublishing you are now a business. I will include a link to this post on my website links handout. This is very important information and it appalls me that people have so little care for their name and brand that they slap it on the front of a poorly spelt, badly formatted, incoherent mess and tell everybody about it. Thank you for saying what needs to be said! Tip of the hat to the bookseller...That also needed to be said!
This is a fantastic post for self-pubbed authors who want to have a competitive chance of making enough sales to have a successful self-pub career. I've concurred with all your points in my posts Seven Questions to Ask Before Self-Publishing and Sweat Equity in Book Publishing.
However, I can also see the other side, when there might be reasons to self-publish, but not an effort to "compete" with other published works. My teenage son completed a novel and we published it without professional editing (beyond what I could do myself) and he made the cover himself. He distributed it to friends and family, but he's gotten lots of downloads from other people as well. He's very proud (and rightly so) to hold that in his hands. The goal was not to compete or make a living, but to have a finished sample of his work to hold and share. He's a teen, but I can easily see this being true for adults as well - people who are driven by motives other than making a living off their works or making a profit back from them. There is nothing wrong with this, just as there is nothing wrong with wanting to make a profit from your work and treating it as a business so that it can sustain itself. It all depends on your goals.
Also, I think it's important to note that self-publishers putting out professional works do not compete with those who don't, and are not "tarnished" by unprofessional works. We compete with the full-time staff at a publishing company. That we can do that, admirably so based on the number of self-pubbers on the top100 charts, is a credit to those who treat it as a business and put the time and money into it.
Thank you for this post. I agree wholeheartedly. Having been published before by a traditional publisher, I am now preparing to self-publish my next novel. That means it is indeed a BUSINESS DECISION, and I'm treating it that way. I accept that I will be in competition with traditionally published books as well as other indie publishers, and I plan to handle things accordingly.
I'm with Susan Quinn on the idea that self-publishing allows people with different goals to see their words in print. I applaud her son and the many others who self-pub to enjoy the feel of their own book and having their friends and family read and love it, and maybe gather some new fans. I have friends who have done this, I own some of their books. I wish them all the luck.
But for me, I see this as the next step in my business plan. Like a friend told me, one musician grows up to be a Justin-Beiber-like mass market phenomenon playing the kind of music his recording company wants him to. Another grows up to play in the orchestra of the local symphony for the home-town audience. If both are happy with their choices, then I am happy for both of them.
@Tom Simon -- you beat me to it. I have that same arrangement with a graphic artist who is also a writer. I absolutely agree with Ms. Hamilton though, that one has to treat this as a "job" or "business. It's to be taken seriously and with great respect for one's product (because that's exactly what it is) and readers. But let's face it, Ms. Hamilton, we none of us are that damn rich. So, we make do with writing groups and bartering services. But your point is well taken and I do agree -- take it seriously, do the work, find professionals that will work with you in some capacity to make sure the story is in publishable condition, and then do what you must to make the rest happen. If that means working the crap out of a blog tour, bartering services, and busting your but on the cheap, the DO IT. But don't cut corners, don't leave out steps. It shows and it makes all of us look bad.
I very much agree with yo. I published through Writers Out Publishing and found that although I paid over $600 I made the money back in 2 months so it was worth it. If you are interested you should go to www.writersoutpublishing.com
I agree with everything the poster has said about thinking of this as a business. Anything else is just delusional. You might as well Xerox your manuscript and leave them on park benches.
But the one thing that your post doesn't touch is the quality of the writing itself. Part of what made the gateway system of traditional publishing important was to weed out the bad writing. Not that bad books don't get published by big or small publishers today. Publishing is a business, and agents and editors are looking for books that will SELL. Sometimes that means publishing literary candyfloss.
Part of the job of hiring a competent editor for your own work is not just to find the formatting or the grammar or the punctuation problems, but also to define the flaws in the writing itself. Does the plot flow? Are all the loose ends tied up? Is the dialog realistic? Are the characters three-dimensional? Some of this can be fixed with a good editor and AN AUTHOR WILLING TO TAKE THAT ADVICE. And some of it can't. Not everyone who can type can write.
I wish -- oh, how I wish -- every author out there who is thinking of self-publishing would read this post and take every word of it to heart.
No one -- allow me to repeat that -- NO ONE can successfully self-edit. Every author needs another set of eyes (and preferably two or three) to read through the manuscript and see what your eyes elide over after having been through the manuscript six or seven times during the writing of it.
As to professionally-made covers, agreed, with reservations. I've had some mediocre as well as some awful covers come out of NYC. But if you're self-publishing, you gets what you pay for, period.
3 years ago I teamed up with NY Times Bestselling author Bob Mayer to create Cool Gus Publishing (formerly Who Dares Wins Publishing). The first year every penny we earned went back into our business and it wasn't many pennies. We invested money and time. We both worked what felt like 2 full time jobs and often times we still do.
No matter what path we take in publishing we are a business and in order to be successful we need to treat it as such.
This is a feisty and enjoyable post. There's no question that a committed self-publisher must be prepared to commit themselves to preparing and marketing their work professionally. It's a hard slap of reality for an author that successful writing is more than the authorship itself. If you've spent months/years writing then surely it's only right to dedicate time, money and energy to making the best job possible. I have my own blog which offers help to would-be self-publishers at http://ebook-selfpublish.blogspot.co.uk/ but I'll recommend your blog which has some terrific advice.
I'm actually glad you wrote this. I haven't invested any money directly into my work at this point by employing external services, but I've devoted a lot of time and money to learning about cover design, studying writing, and learning computer lingo to get the formatting right. For me, I choose not to have others do the cover and formatting for me because I genuinely have a lot of fun doing it. However, I do have several beta readers who edit my language and grammar with me, and impartial parties who give me feedback on cover and format. If I loathed design and layout, I wouldn't hesitate to hire a professional or someone with more expertise than myself.
I come from the health care industry. I learned some time ago no matter if you are marketing health care or blue jeans - spend the money and do it right. We only get one chance to market our books. David Nelson
I think this is an excellent article, and not sure why so many are bagging it! I'm also writing my first novel at the moment, and as much as I'd like to think that it's *free* to self publish, I'm already saving up for a few things I'll need to pay for in order to give my little ol' book a good start in life (cover photography + design, website with shopping cart, media distribution).
The writer of this article didn't say that you HAVE to do this stuff... I guess it depends on your goals. If your goal is to publishing "something", then go ahead and do it in the timeframe you wish...
I fully intend to make writing my living - therefore, I can only live with my product if I do a damn good job and put out the absolute best product I can. As I have a professional background in marketing and public relations, there are a number of things I can do for myself (and if you don't, you can self-teach most of it anyway) - but what I am NOT is a graphic designer. In fact, I'm awful. I wouldn't want my book to suffer because everybody looked at the cover and said "that looks crap" :)
So right now, I'm saving money on a weekly basis to use closer to my intended publishing date; and I'm also already working on my marketing plan, my website, my social media, my video trailer script and anything else I think I might need to help me publicise my well edited and presented little novel!
In recognising the people who HAVE bagged the writer of this article, I will agree with you that the tone was pretty condescending... sometimes when things frustrate us, it can come out a little harsher than it was meant to...
That's my two cents' worth :)
Good luck with your books everybody! Let's be grateful that self publishing exists, and we can publish sometime in our lifetime!
Thank you, April, for your tough but accurate stand.
Who would want a house framed by a carpenter who refused to use a level and a plumb line? Or be attended by a surgeon who never washed his hands?
The right to do something does not equate with its being the right thing to do.
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