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Having Your Cake and Eating It Too 11 October 2011

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Publishing Industry.

As I was doing a little bit of industry blog-hopping this morning, I came across an interesting post on the writing blog Nail Your Novel. Although there’s nothing overwhelmingly new in the post itself, the two points Roz Morris makes are good ones that can never bear too much repeating. While I’ve never agreed with the writing cops out there who think that every writing rule needs to be followed 100% of the time (you know the ones: “Aha! I spotted one instance of the passive voice and two said-bookisms in that story, context is irrelevant, shame on you!”), you’ve got to know the rules before you bend them. Ignoring basic cooking techniques altogether doesn’t create a gourmet masterpiece, does it? And while you’d think it would be common sense to revise any writing before sending it out, sadly that point needs almost more repeating than anything else.

But what really struck me was a theme that came up in the comments on the post.

The discussion turned, as it so often does, to self-publishing. Now, I have nothing against self-publishing — in fact, for the right kind of person, it can be the best choice (Robert Swartwood is a great example of a good fit for self-publishing; he’s confident, a strong self-promoter, willing to invest the necessary time and money for a quality finished product, and with a degree of notability from his work with hint fiction that makes him stand out). But self-publishing is a choice, and frankly, if you choose to go that route, you don’t get to moan about the downside of it, just as you don’t get to moan about not keeping all of the profits when you go with a traditional publisher.

On the subject of editorial and proofreading assistance, one commenter noted, “Many of us don’t have the money to hire someone to help us, so what should we do?” and suggested critique partners as a solution. Another commenter responded in agreement, adding that “many of us can’t afford big time editors”.

Ah, but if you want to keep all of the profits, you have to make all of the investment up front, and that includes any editorial services you might need, not to mention good quality original cover art, exterior and interior layout, proofreading, marketing expenses, review copies… all the things publishers take care of at no cost or risk to you, because it’s a publisher’s job to take on that risk and expense. It’s very nice if you can persuade people to do these things for free or at cost when you choose to self-publish, but it’s a bit rich coming from proponents of Yog’s Law — if money should flow toward the writer, why should the graphic designer, illustrator, editor, proofreader and promoter work for free?

Writing groups and critique partners are a great idea during the creative process. But be extremely wary of assuming that all good writers make good editors and proofreaders. Many fine writers do not have the objectivity to edit another writer’s style or separate themselves (and how they would tell the story) from what’s on the page, and then proofreading is a separate skill altogether.

Put it this way: we recently embarked on a semi-major home renovation project — we had a choice between a jack-of-all-trades handyman (who would do all the plumbing and electrical himself) and a professional contractor (with an experienced carpenter and labourer, and professional subcontractors brought in to wire and plumb and paint and tile). We chose the contractor, and everything has been on time, on budget, and left neat and tidy at the end of each work day, plus we have the confidence of knowing that the electrical and plumbing have been done properly and to code.

If you don’t want to (or can’t) put good money behind your writing to give it the best possible start in life, maybe self-publishing isn’t such a good fit for you. Maybe that’s what publishers are for. And now, I’m off to look at some portfolios and hire an illustrator for the cover of K.C. Ball’s novel. ‘Cause I’m a publisher.


1. rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy - 11 October 2011

Hello – thanks for linking to my post!
I was surprised at the turn the comments took as I was writing as much for those who want to be conventionally published as those aiming at self-publishing. But the self-publishing champions have monopolised the discussion so far. That’s a pity because I always encourage people to aim for at least proper agency representation, as it makes them set their standards as high as possible.
You raise some excellent points that all these editorial services cost money. I’m lucky because I’ve done most of these other editorial jobs in various nooks and crannies of my career so I can genuinely handle them myself. It means I also know that they are specialised skills that take years to acquire – which is why they are expensive.
Proofing and copy editing can’t just be done by your friend who is good at spelling. Laying out a book is fiddly and mind-numbing unless you have the temperament to read automatically for widows, orphans, bad breaks, inconsistent styles, typographical glitches and so on. Doing it properly can easily be a week’s work. Would you work free, using your professional skills, for a week? I wouldn’t.
Anyway, I could rant on. Thanks for developing the discussion.

robert - 11 October 2011

“But the self-publishing champions have monopolised the discussion so far. That’s a pity because I always encourage people to aim for at least proper agency representation, as it makes them set their standards as high as possible.”

To each his or her own, of course, but I’m a writer who is actually represented by a major agent at a major New York City agency and find myself less inclined to ever sign with a major publisher ever again. My agent understands the reasoning behind this too; some of his other clients have even begun to self-publish. It’s very old school thinking in a new school marketplace to assume that writers who want to self-publish are doing it as a last resort. Yes, it takes a lot of work for writers to self-publish, a lot more work than most writers realize at first, and even more pressure falls on those writers’ shoulders. This isn’t to say many writers don’t self-publish because they can’t sign with an agent or publisher; the work isn’t good enough, they can’t quite accept that, and so they decide to do it themselves which isn’t the best idea as they don’t yet understand how that will affect their chances with future readers. Recently I self-published a very short collection of very short stories; an academic friend of mine had asked me previously why I would want to do such thing, as she said, “That makes no sense to me. The book’s good enough to be published by a publisher.” And I was like, Um yeah, exactly.

Anyway, thanks for the shout out, Camille. If you need another artist to consider, my new designer is quite a pleasure to work with: http://jeroentenberge.com/

rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy - 11 October 2011

You’re right that self-publishing isn’t necessarily a last resort of failures, Robert. I’m probably in a similar boat to you. I’m represented by two London agencies. I’ve ended up self-publishing so far because although these agents champion my work, it’s too unusual for mainstream publishers. My agents see themselves more as career managers and facilitators, offering advice for the long haul, and taking my new work out to the market.
I also ghostwrite and it’s much better to do that with an agent on side. Publishers treat you very differently if they know you have proper representation.

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