Buyer Beware

In Business of Writing, Craft, Musings on April 21, 2010 at 3:30 pm

A few days ago I wrote my thoughts about why I’m not 100% on-board with all aspects of self-publishing, the most selfish reason of all being that I (and many other readers/writers I talk to) need gatekeepers to help me sort through the already overwhelming amount of media available.

But this morning something else occurred to me that’s just as important. The self-publishers, especially vanity presses and some new e-publishing formats, can make a lot of false promises to the budding author that because she controls the work and gets “all the money” or most of it, she is therefore going to be able to make an enormous profit and build a huge fan base.

Remember: it takes money to make money unless you have a sudden, breakout, viral success which nobody could have predicted like The Shack (and he had an incredibly powerful church network that helped him achieve that).

So all I’m saying, to both the author and the potential reader on either end of this issue is: caveat emptor. Authors, know what you’re getting into, understand the expectations and the realistic returns, and do nothing less than give the audience the best possible product you can. Hire professionals to take you through the process. But don’t spend money you don’t have with the hopes that it will come back to you in spades.

Remember: Self-publishing works best when you already have an audience built from other sources: blogs, speaking networks, community groups, whatever!

A lovely writer and a former student of mine, Gail Larrick, weighed in on my thoughts re: self-publishing with her own experience.

Here’s a taste the of the post:

We all know how difficult it is to edit one’s own work–to see beyond what has already been done in a way that allows for constructive change. The wonder of the way a writers’ group can work together in critiquing a piece is what makes for growth in the power of the writing of all its members. As trust grows and the ability to critique deepens, creative revision becomes more possible, flexible, and effective. We as writers become more astute at “letting go” and remaining open to accepting fresh ways of seeing what we’ve written–and also more adept at recognizing what doesn’t work for us without any need for defense.

The same might be said of the exchange between writer and editor. Personally, as an editor and as a critic, my first rule is to remain true to the voice of the writer, which means that I first must recognize it, identify its qualities, defer to it, and, ultimately, enhance it. Second, I make sure that any client of mine is made clearly aware that any editorial change is a suggestion, not a compunction, and that often my change may not be the one the writer will adopt. Almost always, though, an editorial suggestion may point out that something is amiss, and it’s up to the writer to solve that issue in his or her own way. To my mind, observing those two rules is what gives value to the editor’s work. Not all editors are able (or more likely willing) to do that.

I toss Jordan’s piece into the ring of consideration not because I’m not a whole-hearted supporter of responsible self-publishing but because I think it represents a missing piece of the debate.

There’s a lot of crap out there, and a lot of it is self-published. When I first became involved in small-press publishing in the mid 60s, that wave was just beginning to swell, and it was exciting in every aspect. I was (in a support capacity as editor at Glide Publications) one of the organizers of San Francisco’s first small-press book fair, where the broad range of what was being published became visible to the public—and surprised the publishers themselves with both content and quality…


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