Recently my small publication company had offers from several sources to arrange reviews for its Kindle books for an unspecified price. “At least forty reviews” one promised. This is unconscionable. Reviews have become a major element in the success or otherwise of Kindle books, especially those of otherwise unknown authors. I’ve often wondered at the frequently inane and disconnected reviews that turn up for many new titles giving them five stars. Obviously these are not validated purchasers although who knows? When books only cost 99 cents it may work out financially in the end to get the recruited reviewers to buy the books while the author/publisher shells out however much they pay to the review company. No wonder there is so much rubbish around. But given the difficulties now with getting in front of readers’ eyes – why on earth Amazon decided to give up on the “Also Boughts” – it’s not surprising that people will come up with scams of various kinds. Book reviewing itself is a weird business. Check out the comments below by TIME reviewer Lev Grossman from a while back.
Came across a book yesterday which brought into focus something that has been bugging me for ages. Blake Atwood’s Don’t Fear the Reaper: Why every author needs an editor is squarely aimed at the new writer, especially the new Indie writer – although any writer who has an editor will be enlightened by it.
It is a seriously good book, with lots of recommendations about how authors and editors can get on better together. But it made me feel very weird.
There are hundreds of books on Kindle right now and maybe thousands of blog posts directed at the emerging author who plans to self-publish. All this advice should help the publishing process and make the written work as good as it can be and therefore produce sales and success. Two recommendations stand out: get a professional cover designer! get a professional editor!
Cover designer, for sure. Unless you are great with Photoshop or comfortable with digital design software such as Canva, it’s not easy to get a great-looking cover. Of course there are now many automated genre cover services, where you buy a standard design and put your title and name on the front. Fair enough, as long as everyone else hasn’t chosen the same design. As time goes by and the competition on Kindle gets more intense, authors are feeling pressured to hire more and more services. Is it really making a difference to the quality of self-published books?
Editing? It’s obvious that many new indie writers haven’t followed that piece of advice. I download and read book after book by new or unknown (to me) indie authors. It’s pretty clear that the book hasn’t been edited properly or at all. My first reaction is always irritation, even exasperation. A good premise self-destructs in an incoherent plot. Not just one or a few but scores of grammatical errors make the book unreadable. A few typos? OK. But one or two on every page? No thanks. This book joins the others in my library with the dreaded “30%” score (or less). Just couldn’t be bothered finishing it. Why does this happen?
There are three kinds of editing: developmental, which picks up on structural flaws and can result in a total rewrite; copyediting, attending closely to grammar, expression and sentence structure to make the work “correct”; and proofreading to pick up those last typos or whatever. Great! But soon the penniless hopeful discovers that an editor expects to be paid separately for each of these and some only specialize in one. Atwood is mainly a copyeditor. Editing costs seem incredible. Over a thousand dollars for just one of these edits is common.
But hang on a minute. Why aren’t the authors writing their books properly in the first place? Why can’t they edit themselves? Is it that many writers can’t in fact write? And if editors do as much on a manuscript as they claim to do, who is really the author?
I was amazed when I realized the extent to which fiction was edited. Having published around one hundred academic papers, I was used to a certain level of editorial intervention, usually to provide clarity or reduce jargon or introduce some additional analytic viewpoint in a footnote. But the idea that someone would virtually re-write your whole paper, changing your intention, re-organizing the flow of argument, removing whole sections, deleting punctuation marks and in effect taking over the construction of your work was unthinkable. You were the writer. Anyone who hired someone else to do all that made the work fraudulent. It just wasn’t your work any more. If your journal editor, having accepted your paper, chose to use an editor to make significant changes, that was an acceptable cost of being published in prestigious journals. But paying for it yourself?
The world of commercial publishing seems to take a high level of editorial intervention for granted. One of the first things in traditional publishing was to assign an editor to an author. Sometimes authors mention their editor by name, more often than not the existence of that person is completely hidden. Why? If an editor has had so much input into your work, then why isn’t that person acknowledged as a kind of author – if not a co-author, perhaps a writing associate? While it is obvious that proof-reading and minor corrections will always be required, how can the interventions of a copyeditor, let alone a developmental editor, entirely unacknowledged, be justified?
There are a set of conventions about writing which increasingly determine what will be accepted as “good” in its field. Genre fiction is one thing, literary fiction another. The hidden truth is that literary fiction is largely for people with a better education. Hundreds of Amazon reviews moan and whinge about “big words” or books being “too hard to read”. I just last night read a review which gave one star to a book because of the long words in it. The writer complained that it claimed to be a thriller but really it was a book for the “literary elite”.
Traditional publishing kept control over writing and reading by maintaining a reasonable level of quality control over what was published. And editing was key to this process. Even popular thrillers and romances were edited to maintain something like an acceptable standard of literacy. Indie publishing has thrown that out the window. Anyone can write and publish anything. This seems powerfully democratic. But is there a necessary standard for writing? Shouldn’t books be literate, even if they are not literary?
What if authors don’t agree with their editors? Blogs and forums are full of horror stories about new writers paying editors thousands of dollars only to find their recommendations unacceptable. If you have a contract with a publisher then the editors is likely to be the winner in a catfight. If the author is paying the editor directly, what then?
If you look closely at the advice to new writers, the people who write about how badly you need an editor are almost always editors themselves. It seems that they are right. Like Atwood, many have also published books on how to publish books. That is a good marketing strategy, especially with the bottomless pit of would-be authors filling up by the day. But new writers don’t want to spend money. They just want to write their books and publish them. Hmm. A problem: nobody wants to buy them. Read the forums where countless authors complain that nobody has bought their books. So they are encouraged to give their books away free, or almost so. What kind of product is this?
You can get ultra-cheap editing, of course. Thanks to the internet someone on the other side of the world can be your editor. So what if their English isn’t too great! They can do your “updation”, your Head-Noting and even write your blog!
It’s a minefied. I don’t want to read books which have been radically altered by an editor. I want to read what that particular author says, and to see exactly how she or he says it. It’s part of the fun of reading. If the writing is bad, so bad that I can’t enjoy the book, then I won’t buy anything from that author again. On the other hand, so many new authors write such bad books. They have awful holes in the plot or drag on too long or have blatant unexplained contradictions, and I know how much better the book could have been if someone had “edited” – in effect re-written – it.
I feel sorry for these authors. I don’t want to discourage them, so I don’t leave negative reviews. Neither does anyone else. Without an editor, or some form of independent feedback, how are authors to know their books are just not good enough? Then again, I feel sorry for their editors, if they are eventually hired. Working on badly written manuscripts, toiling over silly or boring or pompous or pointless stories and trying to make them better must be one of the most soul-destroying forms of employment imaginable – a marriage made in purgatory. [Hey, there’s a concept: a writer and an editor locked up in some horrific warehouse, in a remote derelict landscape (think Tarkovsky), going to suffer a gruesome fate if they can’t agree on final edits. If you want to develop it, let’s collaborate!]
Proofreading is another thing. Everyone needs a proof-reader. Errors creep in, typos happen and the malign influence of the spell-checker has to be remedied. I don’t know how necessary it is to hire a professional proof-reader. Maybe any two or three people who are good readers would do.
What do you think? Should editors be acknowledged, perhaps by name, when they have been hired to work on a book? Or should writers just learn to write better in the first place?
One of the real pleasures of the Indie publishing world is coming across new writers and publishers you might never have found without the burgeoning online community. I love hearing from new authors and finding out what they are doing, and really appreciate the amazing inventiveness and generosity so many show.
I just found a great post by one of my visitors, Joynell Schultz. Joynell writes speculative fiction, something I’ve never tried. In her most recent post she describes all of the techniques and strategies she tried to get her first Kindle book “out there”, what worked and what didn’t. Read her post here and take a look at her book. You can buy it on Amazon at the current price of $2.99 (she started at 99c) and you can download six chapters free – she will tell you where in her post.
I do want to make a bit of a demurral here. While publishing free chapters may be a good way to get readers interested in your work I am not so sure about the wisdom of selling books on Amazon for 99c, or worse, making them “free”. If you think that is what your work is worth, why would I want to read it? If you write purely to find readers, put your work on your website or one of the sharing sites such as Wattpad but don’t put it up on Kindle. Amazon is a commercial site where people who want to sell their work meet other people who want to buy it. I can see an argument for 99c short stories or novelettes – maybe – but novel length work which has been invested with love and care, edited properly, with a good cover and hopefully a good story MUST be worth more than one dollar or worse, zero. I guess the next step is to pay people to download your book!
At the other extreme, traditional publishers are getting way with murder, pricing their e-book versions at absurdly high prices to artificially prop up the print book market. Don’t think you are doing the authors a favour by buying their e-books – the contract will ensure that the publisher still gets most of it just as if it was a print book, even though it costs them nothing to make available in digital form, so it’s all more profit for them.
There are millions of readers in the world. A lot of them want to read for free, so good, let them, give it to them however you like but don’t call it a published book. Others want to buy books for their collection. I have bought hundreds and hundreds of ebooks for my Kindle collection over the years and I don’t plan to stop. But I’m not going to clutter it up with cheap stuff. Sometimes I’ve tried something for a couple of dollars and usually I can’t be bothered reading it past the first chapter or so. If it’s annoying enough I might delete it altogether. Until recently I didn’t write reviews of books I thought were bad, but I think the time has come when those of us who buy Kindle books call them out when they are terrible. Amazon reviews seem to determine which books succeed by getting noticed in the first place. Amazon itself has tightened up on the review process. Now they could tighten up even more by banning full-length books priced below $2.99.
If you’ve written a good book, price it properly to reflect that. Good on you, Joynell, for raising your price. You’ve got good reviews and your second book should have eager readers waiting.
While on the subject of Maralinga and the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Testing, I decided to put up a short extract from my novelette “Last Patrol”, which will be published in the story collection, Radiant Sands. You’ll find the extract by clicking on the “Fiction” tab on the front page of this website.
I hope the book will be ready for publication in 4-6 weeks. It will be published as an e-book on Amazon Kindle, available both through the Australian and US site.
Australian readers will be able to buy a print copy direct from this website using Paypal, or by ordering on-line. Print copies may be available on the shelves from good bookshops.
Once the release date is known, there will be some pre-release copies available free from this site. If you’d like one, contact the publisher at PO Box 3, Katoomba NSW 2780. Although there is of course no obligation, a pre-release review on the Amazon site would be super-welcome.
Read more about Radiant Sands, Last Patrol and the extract, here.
I don’t know if I’ve missed something people have already commented on in other blogs or forums – should I have known this already? – anyway, I have just grasped another big problem for Australian authors publishing on Amazon. If your Australian readers are in Amazon.com.au, buy your e-book and leave a review, that is where it will appear. Australian reviews will not appear on the US site. So unless you find a way to get readers to leave reviews specifically on the US site, your book will languish unattended in the world’s biggest English-language market. Why don’t the Australian reviews appear on the US site? Why has Amazon apparently co-operated in recreating the kind of geo-restrictions which global digital communications was supposed to end?
I am generally not given to conspiracy theories, but it does look to me like some kind of deal was done when Amazon first made a push to enter the Australian market. I recollect there was vast opposition from the regulation publishers and literary players – oh dear no, we don’t want that horrible Amazon behemoth here, we must preserve our national cultural authenticity – now it turns out that the only books available through Amazon here in Australia are Kindle versions. Since Australian readers have been brainwashed to believe that print books purchased through bookshops are far more worthy than e-books anyway, this ensures that traditional print publishers retain a dominant position in the market.
I worked this out just recently when I was reminded to get hold of the late Bob Ellis’s collected/curated writings, posthumously published in late 2016. It is a collection of previously published articles and personal memoirs, many going back to the 1970s, assembled by his wife Anne Brooksbank as a kind of memorial volume.
Googling, there were plenty of paperback copies available from different booksellers in Australia. The price was uniformly above $30.00. Booksellers’ sites listed only the print version. Kinokuniya in Sydney listed the on-line price at $34.99. At first I thought this referred to an e-book version but no, that was the price if you ordered the print book online as against through the bookstores “card members” price.
As far as I could see, there was NO e-book version available through any of the Australian booksellers. As I have a firm policy of never ever buying a print version if there is an e-version available, I thought I would try Amazon. I have always kept the Amazon.com US site as my main site. So there it was: Bob Ellis In His Own Words at $11.87. That is pretty high for a Kindle book, but way better than $34 or $35. And yes, there is a Kindle version on the Australian site, at $16.14. It is also available on Kindle Unlimited in Australia, for subscribers. But the US paperback is priced at US$34.99, which would make it over $40 for an Australian purchaser who would then also have to pay the very expensive postage.
So somehow Amazon is able to trade in Australia without significantly disturbing the traditional publishing ecology. Publishers and booksellers maintain the impression that there are no e-book versions. Amazon offers a Kindle version in Australia, but no print version, and in the US the print version is priced too high for any Australian purchaser to bother with it. A kind of cartel agreement, or just a happy accident to keep the Australian publishers happy? Whatever, the total effect is to disenfranchise Australian authors trying to write and publish outside the limits of the good-old-boys-and-girls publishing environment in Australia. So if you want to be a success at independent publishing, you really need to get up there on the US site and attract the US readers. Your e-book will turn up on the Australian Amazon site but only if the reader knows to look for it there. How this assists our national cultural authenticity I don’t know, especially when Australian publishers are unwilling to publish anything from new writers and are reducing their lists all the time.
by firstly deciding not to make any self-published Create Space books available in Australia