Friday, 25 November 2011

Really, Really Wanting It

I find it worrying how many times you hear on reality talent programmes how the contestants really want it, it being whatever the prize is. They really, really want it. Really, really, really want it. You see this on X Factor and America's Next Top Model and - oh, anything that involves a judge deciding who to pick and who to drop. Sometimes the judge even says approvingly, 'A really wants it'.

I must admit my reaction is 'So what?' Sure, if A really wants to win, they'll perhaps work harder, spend more time on whatever it is they're trying to achieve, and that's good, but just wanting it? Is that supposed to out-weigh talent, and ability and skill?

I worry that 'wanting it' leads to a feeling of entitlement. 'This is what I want (and I really, really want it), therefore I should have it.' If you want to be a singer or a model then you're not going to get far without the support of people already working in the industry. Really wanting it, in real life, doesn't get you far unless you also have talent, ability, skill, persistence etc.

Until recently, that's been true for writing. You write a novel and yes, you've always been able to self-publish, but before e-publishing finances dictated small print runs and limited access to distribution networks. Now, e-publishing has taken those barriers away, and for good measure, Amazon and the rest will deal with all your invoicing and payments. All you have to do is the formatting, marketing and spending the money received.

I think e-publishing is great. I think it's creating opportunities for writers (although there are also some worrying signs that it could be financially disastrous long term).

But I do worry that feelings of entitlement might lead writers rushing in to self-publish before their books are ready on the grounds that they want publication now. Just because you feel ready, just because you want it really really badly, doesn't mean you are in fact ready for publication.

When I started writing fiction I had no idea of the amount of work that went into bringing a short story, let alone a novel, up to scratch. And I'd spent the previous ten years writing and editing non-fiction for my living. I was genuinely surprised that my short stories didn't automatically get short listed for every competition they went up for. Gradually I learned...

But I was still convinced that the first version of Adultery for Beginners was amazing, and was equally amazed that no one wanted it. No one even asked to read more. After a long period of sulking, I re-wrote and ended up cutting 90%. Yup, that's how good that first version was.

I've heard that feeling repeated by other authors. They look at their first writing (often because they're thinking of e-publishing earlier works which are now out of print) which at the time they thought was brilliant and shudder.

Self-publishing blogs you can read comments like: I'm going to e-publish when I'm finished because I don't want to go through the hassle of submitting, or I don't like people commenting on my work, or I can't be bothered with rewriting it. And the response is sometimes things like: good for you, and go for it, and conventional publishing is dead. Luckily there are also people who comment saying, are you sure it's ready? Because a writer may really, really want it, and think their book is ready, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it is.

One of the great things about e-publishing is how easy it is to tell friends about a great book you read. It's also very easy to tell someone about a bad one. You and your book may be ready, but is the readership ready for your book? The question isn't about how much you really really want it. It's about how much the readership really, really want it.


Lorna F said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Sarah.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have self-published three books so far and the proof copy of my next novel is due back from the printer any day. I started before ebooks had taken off and self-publishing was still frowned upon and looked down on. Of course self-publishers will reel off all the wonderful books that were originally published at the author’s own expense and the fact is there have been some wonderful books that were usually ahead of their time that were only going to see the light of day that way. There has also been a load of crap published. I bought one of the early self-published books produced by Xlibris and the production standard wasn’t very high. The writing was decent enough that, had the author persisted, he likely would have found a traditional publisher—it was a poor man’s Catcher in the Rye frankly—but I never inquired as to why he went down that route.

Since then the whole indie scene has exploded of course.

I belong to a couple of Facebook sites where independent publishers, as they like to be called these days to try and distance themselves from the stigma attached to self-publishing, hang out and I have to bite my tongue all the time. Well, most of the time. There was a thread bitching about reviewers pointing out typos in reviews as if this was bad form. Now, granted, the high standards of the traditionals has slipped a bit but that’s no reason to take an ‘it’ll do’ attitude towards the work we produce. In this instance I did speak up and said that because of the stigma that was rightly attached to so many self-published books be needed to hold ourselves to “a higher standard” even than traditional publishers. And I do see things changing. Writers who lack the necessary skills to produce professional-looking covers are farming the work out to those who know what they are doing. Professional editors must think their boat has come in because the more self-published books there are the more work there will be for them. And this is how it has to go. There will still be those who don’t think that any of that matters but then there were traditional publishers who published pulp fiction who had a similar mindset. Some readers would hardly notice a typo or a spelling mistake and they’ll be happy with 99¢ ebooks forever.

The quality of self-published books is improving. I don’t review many because I get too many ARCs sent to me from traditional publishers but I’ve reviewed a couple recently and they held their own; had they not I would have said so. Too many new authors seem to feel they need to write in a genre and I’m not really interested in genre fiction. I like literary fiction and I was bouncing all over the flat yesterday when I got my reviewer’s copy of Solzhenitsyn’s last book: that’s my kind of book.

Why did I decide to go it alone? Health. When I started this I was quite an ill person but I needed to keep busy and this was a project which took the place of a job. I treated it like a job and still do. I’m better than I was four years ago but I’m not the man I was and probably never will be. I don’t have the stamina to go out to book readings and to do all the promotion that a traditional publisher would want from me. I am also lucky in that I happen to be married to a good editor who has the same work ethic as me. Besides I write literary fiction: I was never going to make a fortune writing that but I can’t seem to write anything else nor do I see why I should.

I read a blog a few days ago where someone was advising ebook authors to put out four books a year, more if they were shorter works. I commented and said that even the most prolific authors never did that. How can you write a novel in three months and maintain quality? She came back with a simple sum showing how it was possible. Yes, of course, it’s possible even leaving time for editing and rewrites (yes, she had those factored in) but I just shook my head. Yet there are those who are doing it, who want it badly, badly enough to churn the stuff out and get it out there to the clamouring masses … not.

AliB said...

Hi Sarah
This is the conundrum of the age! Anyone can 'go indie' but how can you tell if your book is truly 'ready' unless it has been accepted by a commercial publisher/agent?
Or do you just ignore previous criteria and throw yourself on the mercy of the market?
Very hard to change the mindset of a writing lifetime.
Great post - I may have to Tweet it again!

Giles Diggle said...

And then there is luck - great book but you need your book to land on the right desk at the the right time and find the right gap in the list - as critical as a Mars landing, but there is little science to it for the agentless author.

Self-publishing ebooks. It's as exciting as Bonfire Night, but remember you are pointing your little rocket into the night. You are not even aiming at a planet.

Philip C James said...

I see e-publishing as an analogy of the internet as a whole; the internet is chaotic, no-one 'in authority' has 'vetted' the content for quality or even accuracy and it's up to the surfer to apply their own standards of assessment, critical judgement and so on.

Apart from the financial issue, and it's good to remember that a disruptive technology often expands an economy (unless you are too firmly wedded to the old way of doing things), the main area of unease with e-publishing appears to be that the 'old guard' don't understand and therefore fear it.

Not that I'm claiming I understand it any better; I have not thought any more deeply about where it is going...

But one thing I find frustrating, is that two of my far too many projects consist of publishing themes of related photographs and haiku and clerihews I have written to accompany them, and there appears no straightforward equivalent in cyberspace to the old-fashioned coffee table tome!

If anyone knows differently, I'd gladly hear it.

Philip C James said...

The perils of self-publishing. I've just noticed a superfluous comma in my last post.

Apologies, but I can't be bothered to delete it and start again :-)

Sarah Duncan said...

What wise comments. There are many, many valid reasons for going the self publishing route but impatience is not one.

Someone else commented directly to me that after many rejections they were contemplating the indie route - and then the publishing deal landed in their lap.