My Guest Blogger this week is the irrepressible Anne Chaconas. Anne is an author, prolific blogger, phenomenal book reviewer and, though how she fits the time in I do not know, full-time mother. This is her thought-provoking take on who holds the reins in the book publishing industry.
As writers we are highly single-minded—our primary pursuit (as well it should be, I believe) is getting our works completed and out for public consumption. We obsess over main characters, mercilessly dissect plotlines, fret over dialogue tags, nitpick descriptions, panic over typos. And we write. We write, we write, we write. When we’re not writing, we’re thinking about writing. Or worrying about writing. Or feeling guilty about not writing. For a lot of us, that’s just the way the day goes (even when we’re at our day jobs, which many of us can—regretfully—not give up quite yet). And we love it.
We love the pressure, and the self-imposed deadlines. We love creating. We love playing with words.
Certainly, not very many of us slave away at manuscripts with the hope of languishing in obscurity for the rest of our lives. Sure, we may not expect to become the next Stephen King (or Nicholas Sparks, or E.L. James—pick your poison), but we hope to make a decent living from our craft. We want to quit that day job and devote ourselves full-time to what we love to do. We dream about that home office with the wide windows and comfy writing chair, about waking up early in the morning when they air is still new and the birds are only just beginning their chirps, and about knowing that we have the whole day to spin our yarns. No boss except ourselves, no hassles except those we put our characters through.
And, the thing is, our chances of doing that are at an all-time high. A wonderful thing has happened in the last 10 or so years—the true advent of self-publishing. Self-publishing used to be an incredibly costly endeavor, involving thousands of dollars and dealings with potentially (usually) shady publishers. Now, it’s virtually free. With e-readers flying into the hands of readers everywhere, getting your work out into the world is easier than ever. Just upload, save, and—blammo!—you’re there, published.
We all know it wasn’t always that way—the Big Six held the keys to the kingdom not that long ago, and its minions used their power to bat away authorial hopefuls from the citadel walls. We would finish our novel, our baby, our masterpiece—and then query. And get rejected. And query again. And get rejected again. Wash, rinse, repeat. No longer: Now, we are the gatekeepers. I say again: We are the gatekeepers. Oh, but that does have a nice ring to it. Very Tony Robbins: Take control of your destiny! And we are. In droves. Thousands of e-books are published every year now, in every conceivable genre.
We are the gatekeepers now!
Ah, but there’s a catch (there always is, isn’t there?): We are the gatekeepers. And when you’re the lord of the manor, it’s not all banquets and balls. Allow me to get trite for moment: With great power comes great responsibility. Sure, we don’t have to kowtow to some suit in New York, beg to have our book published, and then smile over paltry royalties—but readers still expect us to put out the same quality work as a major publishing house.
Let’s analyze why.
Readers have never much given a damn who published their favorite book. I have never met a single person who, in describing their current read, said, “Have you read the latest book by such-and-such? It was published by Random House!” (And, truth be told, if I did meet someone like that, I’d be a little frightened.) No, readers haven’t ever really cared who published a book, whether e-book or not. But they do care about the quality of the book. The formatting. The editing. The cover. Read any review on Amazon and chances are good that if there was anything negative to be found about the quality of the book it’ll be mentioned:
“There were frequent typos that distracted me from the story.”
“The formatting was weird and inconsistent on my Kindle.”
“The story line didn’t flow—wasn’t this book edited?”
And then—once they’ve started wondering how this book made it to market in the first place—then they might go and look at the publisher. If it’s not a big-name company that they recognize, they’ll pen those dreaded six words: “it’s just a self-published book.” And that’s how self-published authors—all self-published authors—get set back. It’s just a self-published book; that’s why the quality isn’t so great. It’s just a self-published book; that’s why it wasn’t edited. It’s just a self-published book; that’s why the cover isn’t that professional. Suddenly, being a self-published author is not a sign of entrepreneurship, independence, and self-sufficiency. Instead, it becomes a mark of poor craftsmanship, shoddy editing, and less-than-stellar performance. The focus is taken off the work itself, and is shifted dramatically to its flaws.
Here’s the problem: We, at our core, are artists. Some of us may not think of ourselves that way—I know I typicallydon’t—because we associate artists with paint and brushes, chisels and marble. But we are. Artists are good at creating. We’re not so good at making that creation good for public consumption. That’s what agents and publishing houses are good for. Now, before you all turn against me, let me say this: I’m not advocating that we give up our newfound publishing freedom and beg for the Big Six to take us on. On the contrary—I’m a big advocate of entrepreneurship, independence, and self-sufficiency. Heck, I’m self-publishing, too!
However, I’m also a big advocate of putting the absolute best version of my product out there. Writing does not exist in a vacuum. Well, good writing doesn’t. Good writing has an exceptional foundation, sure—but it also has beta readers, an editor, and a cover artist. It has a talented author at its core, but it also has people with proven expertise who have helped that author take his or her work to a new level. As writers, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as a single, lone entity—we’re not. We’re not just one person, typing away on a keyboard or scribbling away on a sheet of paper. We’re a cooperative of indie talents, all with the same goal: To lift out craft just one step higher, to increase the respect of our field just one tick more.
We don’t have the luxury of blaming errors of a third party: “Oh, I can’t believe my publisher used that cover!” “That is not the final edited copy of my work I approved!” Nope, nuh-uh. There is no third party. When you’re indie, the responsibility of presenting high-level work falls all back on you. And high-level work is what you must always present, lest a blemish start eroding your credibility.
Much in the same way that a series of missteps can bring down an entire career (Lindsay Lohan, anyone? Mel Gibson, perhaps?), a series of errors can bring down a literary work, no matter how good its foundation. Let’s be honest: A review which starts out “This book had so much potential,” is probably not going to end well. And the scary part is, they don’t have to be huge errors. Often, they are small, but cumulative. Consistent typos. An amateurish cover. Poor formatting. Any of these, or a combination of them, can turn your baby—that thing you’ve spent months, maybe even years, working on—into a slush pile of, “Naw, I think I’ll pass.” An accumulation of these errors over multiple works can ruin your budding career as a self-published author. And when multiple indie authors display these errors over and over again, they can tar all other self-published and indie authors with the same gunky brush.
Do we want the errors of a few to taint the hard work of many? Even worse, do we want to be the ones blamed not just for our own, but for the group’s bad rap? I sure don’t. I’m working too hard on my brand to let a few errors bring me down, and I don’t want a poor perception of indie authors as a whole to mess with all my hard work. Beta readers, editors, cover artists—all of these are in my future. I will make the investment in my work because this isn’t a vanity project or a lackadaisical endeavor; this is my life. And it’s the life of many of my author friends, too.
We are all in this together. We’re making inroads into the unknown. We are taking matters into our own hands. It’s an exciting, nerve-wracking, Brave New World.
But we must remember: With great power comes great responsibility.
We are the gatekeepers now.
Bio: Anne Chaconas was born in Central America, educated in the U.S. Northeast, moved to the Deep South for love, and is currently living on the East Coast (and spends most of her time missing winter). Her awesome husband, adorable daughter, three rambunctious cats, and two very adoring dogs keep her busy. Her debut novel, Salve Regina, will be available this fall. In addition to being a writer of things serious (and, sometimes, not-to-serious), she is also a snarky mommy blogger and a book reviewer extraordinaire. You can find her on her website, Facebook, Twitter, and entirely too many other social networking sites.