Thursday, August 20, 2015

An Anecdote about Writers Judging Writers

It's pretty meta to judge judgment, and I won't say I'm above either. I don't have my head that far up my ass.

But through social media I can follow the ups and downs of fellow writers, and sometimes that voyeuristic interest in their careers leads me to the unusual position of seeing behind the internet comments and the human who said them.

A writer friend on my Facebook posted a status: “How many books do you publish a year?”

Answers poured in, and the responses were as diverse as, “I’ve really only done one once every five years,” to “Fifteen, bitches!”

And yes, I was a little surprised by the high numbers. When people said more four, I'm always a little skeptical. I have found many self-published books that are rushed, both in pacing and editing, even though I love indie authors and have found many diamonds in the slush, (Mixed metaphor anyone?) it is true that impatience has a great deal of influence on the indie process.

But one man just went off. He told the writers who were producing several books a year that by publishing many, they couldn't be publishing well:

“Quality over quantity!!!!!For those of you claiming you're writing more than 1 or 2, there's no way the quality of those stories would be the same quality as the person that goes over 1 or 2 stories a year. The people that take their time create stories much richer, and memorable that the person that just pumps them out. Take pride in your work, and take the time to perfect it. I've read books from these same FAST people, and I haven't been very impressed yet. Slow down, take your time, quality over quantity, kind of tired of people pumping books out, by saturating the market with mediocre stories, this is only making more book readers walk away from books, they want to be dazzled people, not read mediocre books that could've been so much more, but their authors had either, no patience, or just don't care. I'm one of you, and I've also read books from almost every author in here, so much potential, so little patience. Patience is the 10 years I've worked on my series. Maybe I don't have 50 books out, but the ones I do have out there, deserve to be there, do yours? Or could you have worked on them more, you just got tired of rejections? Makes a person wonder, quite a few stories could've been so much better.”

Me: “I agree with the sentiment, although I don't believe that the time taken is a direct correlation to quality. Sometimes you can think too hard and over work a piece and the sincerity of an uncensored, unthought out story is better. Or sometimes, obviously, you can underwork something and not be pushing it to its full potential. I am suspicious of books with speedy deadlines before they're even written—I believe you should publish because you feel the book's ready, not because you need to get something out—and the amount of time taken to even just be sure it's ready (getting beta readers, reading it for yourself a few times, leaving it alone for a while to get fresh eyes) is usually a while. But I don't think it's impossible for something written quickly to be better than something someone took their time with. Sure, I'm skeptical, but I have seen speedy writers I prefer over those who take ten years.”

I would also like to add that it is a mistake to refrain from sending out a book that you feel is ready just for time’s sake. I personally make that error all of the time.

He agreed with me politely, friended me, and went on with the conversation. As more people commented, he become more and more condescending:

It cheapens the market when the quality slides the way it has. Then people wonder why so many people have stopped reading books. The only way books will exist in a technical society is if the quality starts going back up. I'm now a published author (not self-published) and at one time that meant something. But the way the markets flooded by quickly written, unedited, not thought out, literary garbage, being a published author doesn't have the same meaning anymore. I could've self-published years ago, but if a publisher doesn't want your book, what the hell makes you think hard working people do?”

Two lines that I would like to point out: “Maybe I don't have 50 books out, but the ones I do have out there, deserve to be there, do yours?” and “I could've self-published years ago, but if a publisher doesn't want your book, what the hell makes you think hard working people do?”

We’ll get back to the first one in a minute. This idea of “people self-publish because no publisher wants their book,” is a misconception. People self-publish for lots of reasons, and I would say that impatience is a stronger factor than having been rejected. Many self-published authors didn’t even try the traditional path. Many were traditionally published and didn’t find it to their liking. As for if a publisher doesn’t want to buy something, obviously a reader wouldn’t, I strongly disagree. Many agents will tell you that they get good manuscripts all of the time that they won’t pick up—It’s not their thing, it didn’t wow them more than another one, or, though there wasn’t anything wrong with it, they just weren’t feeling it.”

The benefit to self-publishing for readers is that writers are less homogenized by the (albeit experienced) opinions of a third-party. We are given a larger variety of stories and ones that are willing to take more risks. (That isn’t to say self-publishers won’t follow trends.) We see more diversity in protagonist’s race, the portrayal of women, and the way that a plot unfolds. Self-publishing brings the choice directly to the reader, and many times readers act unexpectedly.

Keep in mind that my publishing credits are short stories in literary journals; my novels have neither been self or traditionally published, so this isn’t about defending my choice in either way. In fact, I would argue that I am one of those people who don’t do enough with my manuscript, and taking a chance on something either by seeking agents or producing it yourself is to be admired, no matter which path you choose.

After he friended me, he sent me a message asking me to buy his book. I went to the site and saw a horribly amateurish cover with a poorly photoshopped face and a Papyrus font on top. I looked at the summary and found a typo. Immediately I went to the website of the publisher, curious if by “traditionally published,” he meant “I started my own publishing company.”

It turned out it was just a small press. It was traditionally published in that they paid royalties and hired editors out of their pocket and claimed they got the books into bookstores.

While I knew of many author friends of mine who had started valid (but inexperienced) publishing companies, it hadn’t occurred to me before just how unhelpful a legitimate one could be. I realized, especially as I am about to submit a manuscript to agents, how much I need to question what I actually want in a publisher. If I am not going to get a team of experts to push me and do their job better than I could, I rather go it alone.

I haven’t read the book itself, and of course, maybe it’s just the outside that is screwy. But if I were to look at it without any background information, it would scream self-published.

I left the page and soon forgot about it.

Then one day he posted a message about how well his book was going.

Subsequently deleted, he was upset. He was going to quit writing, screw the sequel, and succumb to the obvious evidence that no one was interested in his book. Why?

He got a message back from his publisher with his first royalty check. Eight dollars.

Despite all of the people who had told him they’d read his book, he had sold less than four. No one gave reviews, to which he determined as proof that they didn’t like the story. Why wouldn’t they review unless they didn’t want to give a bad one?

I felt for him, but I was surprised. How can you condemn the self-publishing world when you are clearly so naïve to how publishing is these days?

General apathy towards our books is what most writers have to face. Especially in a day and age where stories are being made available to the public every second, combined with the billions already in existence, obscurity, disinterest, and a lack of response is to be expected. Any writer looking to get into the publishing business should understand what is typical, respect other people’s choices, and not assume to be the exception—whether you are self-published or not.

Yesterday I read a post of his saying he bought back the rights from his publisher. Something about their listing on Amazon didn’t work, and it was impossible for readers to buy ebooks. After struggling with them for a few weeks, he finally secured the books back under his name and is now going it alone.

The literary world is changing. It’s becoming more and more difficult to tell the difference between being traditionally published, self-published, vanity published, or outright scammed. The judgment we reign down on other people’s choices can’t be based on sheer labels anymore, otherwise we’re just opening ourselves up for hypocrisy.