Writing and Defamation

defamation suitsI haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been engaged in a horrible torture which I hadn’t at all expected. No, it’s not another medical procedure, it’s a legal issue, and it’s resulted in weeks of inability to move forward, more drastic editing, and the emergence of a totally new and unexpected project which I can say nothing at all about here, now or ever, well, for the forseeable future anyway.

I have to thank Karl Ove Knausgaard once again.

220px-Karl_Ove_Knausgård

Karl Ove Knausgaard 2011

I’ve said before how important his work has been to my thinking about my memoirs, but lo and behold, his amazing final book, appropriately titled The End, appeared at the exact moment that I finished the first round of edits of my first memoirs book. I thought I was long-winded, but this book is 1100 pages or so. I’ve only managed to read 250 so far and I am desperate to get on with it but because it’s only in print (no e-book format) and because it weighs so much I can’t read it in bed at night which is when I do most of my reading, so I have to read it sitting up in a well-lit room, a few pages at a time. It also has no chapters, breaks or internal subdivisions so if you lose your place it’s damned hard to find it again.

It was published in Norway/Europe in 2011/2012 but English speaking readers had to wait until now – SEVEN YEARS LATER – to read it.

This makes the whole experience very bizarre because he is writing in the present of what is now a long-ago life. A little research reveals that after The End was published he broke up with his wife Linda who has been or still is suffering from a mental illness, he sees his four children in Sweden for a week at a time and lives mainly in London with a new wife, where he is lionized and presumably now very wealthy. All of this is not just aimless gossip, it goes to the heart of what he reveals in Book Six about his entire writing project and where it leads him, how it makes him reconsider who he actually is and what it means to be a writer, and even though he doesn’t know that this will be the outcome while he is writing the words you are reading.

There is so much to say about the Knausgaard effect, about truth and recollection and representation and writing and publishing in the twenty-first century but the thing I have to thank him for is making me truly aware of what can happen when you write about living people using their real names. As is famously known, his Uncle Gunnar, who he thought loved and supported him, went ballistic when an early book in the series appeared. Uncle Gunnar threatened to take him, his publishers and his mother as well to court. It is still not clear to me whether the court case actually took place or only existed in his own imagination, or whether he responded by radically changing his text to meet Uncle Gunnar’s objections. In any case, it was a traumatic irruption of another person’s truth into his creative project which he continues to call a “novel” even though he never claims the people he writes about are fictional and there are no disclaimers at the front of his books.

I have spent weeks now looking into the legal situation of writers of memoirs. The outcome is very sobering. Although laws are different in different countries, there are many commonalities. People who are written about by name in a memoir can object to the publication of the work on various grounds, including the invasion of privacy. “Truth” is not necessarily a defence. Writers are told they should send pre-publication copies to everyone who appears significantly in the book and ask them to indicate in writing that they agree to appear in it. If they ask to be left out altogether, or have their names and identities changed, the author apparently needs to go along with that or face potential consequences. I have been looking at some  recent cases to see how the law has been applied. I understand now why so many apparently autobiographical writings are labeled “fiction” and have vigorous disclaimers at the front.

One of my motivating factors in writing my memoirs has always been to be as much aligned with “the Truth” as possible. Of course I know everyone’s truth is different, but it has seemed to me that writers have not just the right but the duty to avoid the constant hiding-away and dissimulation and self-indulgence which accompanies so much personal narrative.  I am amazed to discover that it’s more or less a legal requirement and my mother was right to say “If you can’t say something nice about someone don’t say anything at all”. Who knew?

Then I found out that defamation suits are being brought against writers of  fiction. Dan Brown is famous for his world-wide best-seller The Da Vinci Code. In his latest book, Origin, he suggests that an Irish cult-monitoring group took money to fight a sect of the Catholic Church. His publisher is being sued. It’s a fascinating case, and also highlights that the mere fact of publication can result in a court case, even if the book was written somewhere else altogether by someone of another citizenship.

Dan Brown Defamation

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/anti-cult-group-sues-over-claims-in-da-vinci-code-author-s-book-08c3t9pnn

So what are you supposed to do? I guess the best thing is to write about life forms on interplanetary galaxies with no resemblance to humans. But I suppose your great-aunt could still take offence and claim that pus-dripping hydra-headed monster you wrote about was “really” her. As if copyright isn’t enough of a nightmare!

Hydra-mythical-creatures-28582631-1134-709

A two-speed economy: How traditional publishers are benefiting from Amazon.

I’ve mentioned before the way Amazon publication has entered new territory since the Big Five managed to get their own way about e-book pricing. It’s become increasingly apparent that conventional publishers have worked out how the maximise their gains from e-books and distributors, and while still bemoaning their existence have seized on the new opportunities now available.

There is no doubt that a traditional publishing deal remains the aim of most writers. Other than genre fiction of a certain kind (explicit erotica, shape-shifters, Space Opera romance and so on) every serious writer still wants a deal with a “real” publisher. But a lot of readers don’t want to buy physical books, and want to buy e-books online.

Now the traditional publishers have worked out that they can offer e-books at the same time as they publish print books, and preserve the powerful traditional ecosystem. By ensuring the price of the e-book version is not far from the print version (which may indeed be available in bookshops and will receive traditional marketing, recognition and publicity) they can make profits from e-books which are virtually cost-free since they only need to prepare the files once, there are no publication costs, distribution costs, warehousing costs or any other costs to speak of. The writers meanwhile have presumably signed contracts for the standard royalties, like 10% or whatever, and the publishers are pocketing the difference. And keeping the e-book costs high for the readers.

So a newly published book, like Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers (2018) is selling on Kindle for $14.99 and in paperback on Amazon.au for $16.00.  And Sydney-based author Shirley Barrett’s The Bus on Thursday (2018) – a most unusual read about a woman who has breast cancer by an author who learns that she does in fact have breast cancer after she has finished writing the book – is published by well-known Australian publisher Allen and Unwin on Kindle for $14.99 and in paperback at $22.99. I have no idea whether these authors have made special royalty deals with their publishers regarding the e-book version, maybe they have and good luck to them.

This process is pushing the distinction between self-published books and books from traditional publishers further and further apart, so most indie books on Kindle are $2.99 or even less and the trad pub books are now well above $10.00.  Do readers know, or care? Well, they probably don’t care about that, as such, but they DO get to hear about the books because the publishers have established methods of publicity which benefit the e-book sales in a way that the randomised chaos of Amazon Kindle at present cannot equal. So the traditional publisher sells lots and lots of e-books but makes the reader pay almost as much as they would for a paperback even though they don’t get to actually “own” the book, can’t lend it to anyone or do anything else with it. But somehow still think they are getting a good deal because it costs less than the paperback they saw in the store.

What a mess it has become. I wish some clever statistical analysis was going on right now to clarify what the effects of all this are. You can glean a bit from services like Alex Newton’s K-Lytics and Data Guy at the Author Earnings Report, but I haven’t found anyone who is tackling the divergent effects of the way traditional publishers are now using the e-book market to enhance their reach while re-consolidating their influence over publishing and pushing independent authors back down to where they think they belong. Is genuine independent publishing doomed? Does anyone know of any updates on this?

Is there really a future for independent publishing in Australia?

Ever get the feeling that independent publishing, which promised so much, is heading down the vortex, especially for Australian authors? When it all started rolling it seemed like writers would be able to reach readers without all the intermediaries deciding who and what would be allowed through the hallowed gates of author-dom.

selfpub diagram wikiIt looked as if new technology would link writers and readers all over the world and open up the artificial geographic zones which for half a century had been creating unnecessary boundaries around the best new writing. Readers were forced to pay absurdly high prices in some areas, including Australia, to accommodate the outdated business model. You might have thought the response would have been to change the business model, but no, that didn’t happen, and now things seem to be in some kind of weird spiral.

In the US E-books are still selling, and selling well. In number they far outweigh trad pub titles, and just recently they have superseded print books in dollar value. Of course many of these sales are for traditionally published books from established publishers, who bring out an e-book edition along with their print editions. It is very hard to get accurate figures separating the different market components out.

US eBook_Sales_to_Surpass_Printed_Book_Sales_in_2017_n

When Indie publishing took hold, a network of new support mechanisms evolved to help authors bring their work to an eager public. Traditional publishers went on doing exactly as they had been doing (but added in e-book versions) and everyone else was free to try things out in all kinds of ways while Amazon  provided the all-important technological platform.

For a while Amazon set the prices of the e-books from the traditional publishers. But after a legal case spear-headed by global giant Hachette Amazon was forced to raise the prices of the e-book versions  so they did not  compete with print books: take a look at the price box next to the Big Five published book you want to buy on your Amazon site and you will see “The price was set by the publishers”. This has pushed e-book prices higher for “good” books from all the global players who have eaten up the smaller niche publishers at least in the English-language market.

BigFivePublishers

Meanwhile millions of other books are left wallowing about at the lowest possible end of the price scale in the hope that someone, anyone, will buy a copy. The unregulated indie market has turned out to be a ghastly place full of bad writing, creepy fantasies, idiotic space-nonsense, buff six-packs and bizarre arrays of erotica. There are many notable exceptions, of course, but anyone who takes a close look at what is going on in the Amazon indie market better not be a serious reader who thinks books have something to do with improving society and culture.

In Australia, the e-book revolution hardy took hold although Australians are known as early adopters of new technologies. Try asking around among friends and workmates and see how many actually have and use a Kindle. The answer, if you are an indie author, is super-depressing. It seems everyone longs for the olden days.

old Angus and Robertson

But there’s more to it than persistent nostalgia. It’s not just that people like going to physical bookshops, or buying physical books (often as presents for others), it’s that the guardians of Australian culture mounted an incredibly successful campaign against Amazon among booklovers. They were readily convinced that anything coming out of a corporate US giant like Amazon was automatically going to be a Bad Thing. This impression was shored up among the writers’ groups, in publishing circles, among academics and general literati, the local press, the network of book clubs and whatever other areas of public communication had anything at all to say about books and writing. Indie authors did not appear at Writer’s Festivals. Nobody mentioned them on the TV book shows (all now defunct); everybody interested in books and writing in Australia knew that good writing only appeared through a reputable publisher. The books by Australian authors hailed by the literati sold in modest to low numbers. Books written by Australian indie authors had to succeed in the US market, or not at all. There has never been an identifiable market for Australian independent authors in Australia.

Now things are even worse. Amazon won’t let Australians buy e-books – or any books for that matter – from it’s American site. This is supposedly because the Australian government didn’t like it that e-books were being bought by Australians who weren’t paying GST on them. Now the reader is forced back to the .au site, no option. Add the GST to the cost of the e-book and it looks a lot more expensive than when it was $2.99 on the US site. Previously, readers who wanted to order a print version could do so from the US site and pay horrendous postage. It seems that hardcover versions of Big Five published books are available through the Australian site, but still have to be sent at a high postage rate from the US. So guess what? You might as well buy a print copy of the book from your local bookshop, or by ordering online. Who needs Kindles and e-books after all? Somehow all this seems to have shored up the ultra-conservative elements in the Australian book world.

E-book author earnings are still very substantial, and when you consider that many authors identify themselves with a self-managed publishing imprint, the result is even more impressive. But of course this is happening in the US, not in Australia.

ebook-author-earnings-1m-201605

Australian authors often made print versions through CreateSpace and ordered fifty or a hundred or whatever copies to distribute themselves in Australia, sell through their own website or send out as freebies. Now CreateSpace has closed down and everyone is supposed to use KDP for their print books. But nobody, not even the author, can order print books from their US-based Amazon account, and Amazon is not going to be printing books in Australia anytime soon. You can’t even order a proof copy of your new e-book from KDP, apparently, because that would involve sending it at the US price. I believe this issue is currently being looked at by Amazon, but the bulk print copies will never be available again. So it’s back to the Australian traditional publishers.tradpub cartoon

Several correspondents have asked why authors don’t just have their own books printed locally, instead of worrying about the whole Amazon/e-book experience? Well, there are three good reasons. Firstly, local printers quote for a paperback version around two-three times the cost CreateSpace used to be able to supply them at, even with shipping from the US. They can look a lot better with much nicer paper but the price needs to be set very high if the bookseller gets the 40-50% discount they expect. The author may finish up getting even less than the miserable payout from a book priced at $2.99 on Amazon. Second, local bookshops are very reluctant to stock books from independent authors unless there is some local reason to do so – like a book about riding bicycles along back paths here in the Blue Mountains, which sells well from just two or three bookshops. The author supplies the copies personally when the bookshops run out. But if you are trying to sell more widely it means you have to keep stocks of your printed books somewhere – in your garage, or in your bedroom, or in a warehouse-type space, then you have to post or send or courier copies to whoever wants them, then pick them up again if they aren’t sold.

There is no simple answer, obviously.

BTW I  want to thank Anna Castleton for her recent comment (August 31st) which prompted me to write this post sooner rather than later. I also should mention that my e-books, such as they are to date, have been illustrated and cover-designed and the interiors formatted by a well-regarded professional (in Mexico, as it happens) and the colour shift problems  I had with my children’s book The Priceless Princess when print copies were made on Ingram Spark were the result of the Ingram Spark presses not “reading” the PDF files correctly.  Ingram Spark seems much more responsive these days and  is making a significant push into the space being vacated by Amazon. And it prints in Melbourne.  More on this in a later post.

 

 

 

 

 

The Perils of Publishing

It’s been a while and I’ve gone through a lot in the writing and publishing world lately. I’ve been thinking about new strategies, doing a lot of re-editing, and working on the Memoirs. This has led to a long silence on the blog, for which I apologise.

But I was moved  to write today by yet another story about a writer who wanted to be published and parted with a lot of money thinking it was to a “real” publisher, only to discover that although her book – an illustrated children’s book – was lovely, no bookstores would stock it.

Ever since I launched myself into this world I have become aware of the many people who want to be writers and are determined to do it. Social media has made it so much easier to get in touch with these people and get to know them online. So many are looking for support and advice, but almost everything they can learn about the process leads them to part with their money. Advice to self-publishers is everywhere but so much of it is motivated by someone offering a service. It is obvious that a huge market exists and a lot of writers have discovered that there’s more money to be made by “helping” others publish their books than by publishing their own.

IF YOU ALREADY KNOW ALL ABOUT THIS STUFF, DON’T BOTHER READING ON. But if you are pretty confused about what is involved in getting your book out into the world, you might find a bit of clarity here. It is based in part on my own experience, as well as looking into the minefield of services on offer to would-be authors which are getting more difficult to understand by the day.

engraving publishing

You can get your book published entirely by yourself, if you have the skills. You start with a manuscript you have written. It will have to be written on a computer in a recognised program such as Word which is the standard. If you are still writing by hand on a yellow note-pad, you’ll have to pay to have it typed up.

What you need at the end of the day is a set of files in multiple formats. In theory you can do all of this yourself and it will cost you nothing, or almost nothing (some distributors such as Ingram Spark require a payment for each book being uploaded to your account). The files have to be laid out in particular ways and conform to certain requirements. If you only want ebooks they can be loaded one by one to different distributors or you can use an aggregator service. Your ebook can become a print book using Amazon’s Create Space or another print on demand service. Once the files are ready and in an acceptable form, you have a book all ready to go, it has cost you nothing to produce, you load your files onto the sales site and sit back and wait for someone to buy it online through Amazon, Kobo, I-Books or some other site.

You may have ordered some print copies for your friends and family and be happy to hold your real printed book in your hands. Does it look as good as the book you paid $30 for at the bookshop? Probably not. The paper will be thinner, the interior layout may be boring or clunky, and looking at the cover it doesn’t look quite how you expected. But still, it does look like a book and you know it’s great. But it won’t get into the bookshop, it won’t be reviewed in the paper, and nobody will get to hear about it unless you yourself undertake a crash course in Internet marketing because that is the only way it will actually exist for your readers.

Some people think that bookshops won’t take books printed by POD technologies. Print on Demand (POD) means a copy is made only when it is ordered. This is a huge advantage since there is no need to print multiple copies in advance, to store and ship them. Traditional publishers may use POD technologies for books which do go into bookshops, and it is not use of that technology which makes it unacceptable to bookshops.

Caxton self publishing

It is the fact that the book has not entered the circulatory system of traditional publishing which was designed a hundred years ago and has hardly changed since.  This requires a manuscript to pass through multiple selection channels. Most publishers won’t take a book unless it has been referred to them by an agent. Even where they will accept a submission, it will be read by someone very low down the totem pole. Some say that 90% of manuscripts are rejected by the end of the first page, and 98% by the end of the first chapter. There is a network of connections which create mutually agreed standards or expectations for what kind of book is worth publishing, when and by whom.

Self-publishing has been seen as a way to get around the archaic and outdated structures which still prevail. But it’s damned hard to do on your own. Not surprisingly many authors seek help to get their manuscript into an acceptable form. There are all kind of services to help you. They may offer to edit, to create your book cover, get all the files into the correct formats and then they may actually upload the files for you. You can engage and pay a different professional to help with any of these tasks, or you can find a single company who outsources the work or does it in-house. Most of them offer several options, or packages, which get more expensive as they include more items. It’s easy to see why many choose to go with the company which offers a comprehensive service even if it costs them up to several thousands of dollars.

But when you do it this way, you are still a self-publisher.

Hang on! That’s not what you had in mind. You want a publisher! Here is where the real danger lies. There are an increasing number of organisations which call themselves publishers and will accept your manuscript for publication. They have a name, Suchansuch Publishers or Ifonly Books. They will produce print and often ebook versions as well. They advertise on the web, you will find them whenever you Google “Publishers”. Wow, you think, I have a publisher. The catch is, they will ask you for money. A lot of money. They may produce a near-perfect book, far better than the book you can produce on Create Space or through Ingram Spark. They may even offer to market your book for extra money. But still your book will not appear in the bookshops.

Because you paid for it. The entire structure of book publishing prevents these kinds of books from entering into commercial circulation. The publisher has to pay you – usually what’s known as an advance, which used to commonly be between $5000 and $10000 (if you are lucky). You don’t get any royalties back until that full cost has been recovered by the publisher. If a publisher offers to publish you for money they are by definition not a “real” publisher and you won’t ever get your money back. Most people who publish this way finish up with a garage full of printed books which they cannot sell.

360_hoarders_0423

The rise of self-publishing has meant that anybody who wants to publish a book can do so. But that does not mean that anybody can be a recognised author whose books will be found in a bookshop. The many inexperienced writers who don’t realise this are easy prey for those who can convince them otherwise. Almost all the books by self-published authors are sold on Amazon, mostly for $2.99 or less. Some cover their costs and make some profit but many don’t. Becoming a best-selling author on Amazon has become ever more difficult. There are two or more million titles now and each year thousands more are added.

A recent phenomenon is the way traditional publishers issue expensive ebook versions of their conventionally published books through Amazon Kindle and others. At one time, the Kindle versions only turned up a year or more after the print books came out. Now the are issued more or less at the same time, but the publishers set a very high price, way above anything normally found on Kindle. This happened after a bitter court case brought by international giant Hachette against Amazon. The authors of the books don’t make any more out of it than they do from the print book – say, 10% in royalty payments – and the publishers keep the rest. So a two-tier structure is emerging in the e-book market where self-published ebooks are super cheap, or even free, while Kindle versions of recognised publishers’ print books are available at grossly inflated prices, often around the same price as a paperback. Meanwhile buyers who go to bookshops or order through companies like Booktopia are purchasing conventionally published print books since the ebook version won’t be much of a saving. This reinforces the power of traditional publishers and makes self-published writers very much second (or third? or fourth?) class citizens.

Without extensive marketing using all the bells and whistles of the Internet (Facebook groups, Good Reads, BookBub, paid review sites, email groups, increasingly Twitter and Instagram) very few self-published authors make it. There are spectacular exceptions which I will write about in another post. But the thousands of would-be authors who don’t know better, especially older people who don’t have much idea of how the new digital landscape works, are easy marks for those who offer the hope of authorship, especially the dream of “real” publishing.

So no matter how much you want to be an author, don’t part with any money until you fully understand what is being offered. Just because someone says they are a publisher and can send you good quality printed copies of your masterwork does not mean you are on an even footing with those who have benefited from the system of preferment and patronage so common in the publishing world today. You still won’t get into the bookshops, or be distributed to libraries, or reviewed in the newspaper, or invited to speak at a Writer’s Festival. If you want to get your work into circulation somehow, anyhow, you’ll do best to DIY or find someone you can absolutely trust to do the technical stuff for you.

 

 

 

 

Createspace vs Ingram Spark: Print/Ship Shocks, Body and Consciousness

In recent posts I have been lamenting the problem of not being able to get printed copies of books from Createspace produced in Australia. If you want your own copies eg to sell from your website (or car boot) or to use for publicity you have to ship them in from the US.

seriously

So I thought I’d try Ingram Spark since they print in Australia.

Good idea – but the Createspace files were not compatible. Resave in a different PDF format please! OK, but you can’t do that yourself unless you are working on a PC. On a Mac, you have to do it through Adobe. So long-suffering Keith my illustrator did it for me but when it was loaded to Ingram Spark the colour went red, the result of saving in the PDF X-1a format and/or their colour and printing machines. Sorry, they said, you’ll have to modify the files. But the problem doesn’t show up when we open them!

So being a strong supporter of “act local” I found a printer and asked for a quote to produce  the same product but on better paper and in the original colour format using the Createspace PDFs. It has taken more than a week and still I haven’t found a way to get the original PDF for the cover to go to this printer. I send the file by email and it turns into a jpeg. I send it in what I think is the original PDF version from my Mediafire site and he says it won’t let him access it. I change the settings on the Mediafire site and send directly from that and he still doesn’t get it. How much more of this can I take?

rage on computer

So I go back and take another look at the costs of ordering the books from Createspace vs Ingram Spark. And guess what? For The Priceless Princess the printing cost from Ingram Spark is higher than the cost from Createspace. Ingram Spark printing cost per unit is A$3.47, CS printing cost per unit is US$2.15 = A$2.91. So the saving as a result of lower shipping costs is undercut by the higher printing costs. Mind you, if the covers were as good as the Create Space ones it would still have been a worthwhile saving.

Going nuts, as I really need print copies in my hand, I just decided to order from Createspace and pay the extra shipping costs. At least the covers will come out right. And I’ll press on with the local printer and see if he can come up with a better better quality book for around the same total price. If I could just get the damn file to him! The problem is, I thought I was supposed to write all day, not do all this whatever you call it. My body, my feelings, my consciousness … now I’m dreaming about PDFs.

about writing

Nightmare on the Red Spectrum

Red Priceless Princess small

THE PRICELESS PRINCESS IS RED-FACED

The Priceless Princess has been available for sale through Amazon for several months now. It was my first venture into self-publishing and I knew it would be a learning experience. And how! As I lamented earlier, I enrolled it in KDP Select, which means the e-book can’t be distributed outside the Amazon Kindle environment. Because it was in Select it meant that people with a subscription could download it as part of their service. All good, except that now authors are paid by the page read and the book is only 106 pages long – it is after all a children’s book. Quite a few readers have chosen it but being paid by the page it’s made almost nothing in dollar terms. Books stay in KDP Select for 90 days and I missed the deadline to get it off there so now I’m stuck with it until June and can’t use any other e-book distributor.

What about a print book? Would anybody buy that? I had a Create Space version printed and it came out beautifully. No sales, because it was free in KDP Select I guess, or maybe it was too expensive. Nobody in Australia would pay the postage. I ordered 50 copies for my own distribution purposes but that cost a small fortune in freight from the US which is the only way to get the books to Australia.

Amazon’s Create Space has no presence in Australia: you can’t get books printed here. If Australian readers want a print copy they have to pay the exorbitant cost of postage from the US. Amazon’s Australian Site: Authors Beware

Why didn’t I know this? It is obvious that most people in Australia, especially when buying children’s books, only want printed copies. Nobody here buys their kids a Kindle for Christmas (they do in the US apparently). I wanted to be able to distribute the print version through my website, put copies into schools as donations and do various other things so people in Australia could buy it.

So I followed everyone’s advice and went with Ingram Spark since they print in Australia and I could get print copies from them in bulk for a lower freight cost. And they distributed everywhere. But they wouldn’t use the same Create Space PDF files, the files had to be saved in a different PDF form, the very early x-1A or whatever it is. Finally got Keith to redo/resave the files, they were accepted by IS, then I had to pay $15 to get one copy to examine (by courier – what is wrong with using Australia Post?) and then I discover that the front cover in printing has shifted to the red spectrum and the Priceless Princess’s gorgeous face is now extremely flushed.

So I ask IS why this is since the art work is identical with what went to CS and I receive a prompt reply saying all printing machinery is different and they cannot guarantee any particular colour outcome or that it will match that printed elsewhere and I have to get the files redone to compensate for their machines.

But how? Nobody can see what the problem is on the artwork files, which look identical on both PDFs.

So now I have a very red-faced Priceless Princess circulating around the world, a very frustrated illustrator who doesn’t know how to help, and a particularly irritated author who is now trying to find a local printer who can use the original Create Space files and hopefully provide a better quality paper at the same time for a reasonable price so I can do my own local distribution.

Online technology obviously doesn’t combine well with legacy printing. The online world doesn’t mesh with traditional reader behaviour. A lot more work needs to be done to find some better alternatives. Meanwhile everyone under 30 is reading free books on their mobile phones. Is this a losers’ game or what?

Authors, Editors and the Ethics of Publishing

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.

ReaperIt 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?

services hired

Source: Digital Book World- Team Publishing 1

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?

only one left

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”.

literary cocktail party

A literary cocktail party at George Plimpton’s Upper East Side apartment, 1939.

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!

sodhanis

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!]

House-of-Purgatory_03

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?