Thursday, July 28, 2011

If You Think It's Easy, You're Probably Doing It Wrong

DISCLAIMER: I have not self-published (yet ... I know, I keep saying that). That said, I've gone through a lot of the necessary processes—practicing, if you will. I've played with designing covers, some of which you can also see by clicking the title tabs at the top of the page. I've done interior formatting and had proof copies made. I've made eBooks in both EPUB and MOBI formats (not just preparing my Word doc for some company's automated conversion process—I figured out how to do it myself).

So that's the headspace the following chunk of opinion comes from.

There's a lot of buzz lately about literary agents forming e-publishing wings. Some are set up more to facilitate their existing clients' self-publishing efforts, while others seek to be full-fledged publishers. The latest is over at Bookends, with lots of very passionate responses on both sides of the is-it-ethical and is-it-smart debates.

I'm not going to weigh in on those aspects. People far more intelligent and experienced than I are already doing that. But there's a particular idea in the responses that I've seen many times. Not just there—I've seen it in various writing forums whenever self/e-publishing comes up:

"Do it yourself. It's easy."

Okay, the physical act of uploading your manuscript to Amazon, B&N, or Smashwords is easy. But I've been scoping out the results, and it's clear many writers are missing the truth:

Doing it is easy. Doing it well is hard.

Forget the trials of marketing, getting anyone to even find your book among the many on Kindle. I'm just talking about the front-end job of getting it prepped for daylight. Let's look at the aspects that as a reader make me tear my hair out.

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Oh, my ... covers. My brother is a graphic designer. I don't know nearly as much as he does, but I've absorbed a few things through conversations with him. And I'm not saying my covers are super-fabulous—remember, I'm just playing and experimenting so far. (But an editor at HarperCollins did compliment my Fingerprints cover. *blush*)

Do you honestly have a good eye for design? Or do you think most things look "good enough"? Scanning the Kindle listings, it's not hard to spot a "homemade" cover. (And I will say, certain smaller publishers aren't much better with their cover designs.) If you've cut elements from different images and stuck them together, have you really made it look like one seamless whole that was meant to be that way?

In most cases, no.

So, what to do? Pay for a graphic designer? Maybe. But if so, beware. I've seen freelance graphic designers with credentials and everything who create crap cover designs. If you're paying far less than $100, you might get a very nice (but basic) cover, or you might get something my high school students could out-do during their lunch break.

If you want something really high-quality, that doesn't scream DIY from a mile away, you have some options. Invest some real money in it. Have/develop the skills and tools yourself. Or be lucky enough to know someone with the talent who's willing to do you a favor.

And for goodness sake, make sure you have the proper rights to use any stock images you need. Just because you found it on the internet and did a right-click/save doesn't mean it's fair game. Same goes for fonts. (You didn't know you can't just use whatever fonts you have installed on your computer? Go do some homework.)

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I've already done a full rant on this subject before, so I'll just reiterate a few things.

If you use a meat-grinder, you get hamburger ... not steak.

Maybe you like hamburger. If you do it very carefully and make sure the "meat" going in has everything just right, you might be able to get a five-star, gourmet burger out of it.

Personally, I have a hard time trusting automated conversions, even specialized ones like Kindle uses. I really don't trust an automated process that takes one file and spits out five or six different formats. You don't have to be a control freak like me, but triple-check your results in ALL formats to make sure the result is pristine.

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Oh, yeah, this is about a story people will (hopefully) read.

This is the biggest roadblock for many. To get the kind of intense, whip-it-into-shape editing my friends with Big-6 publishing deals have gone through, you would have to spend more than $1000. It's not just proofreading, though some of the errors and typos I've seen in self-pub'd works still make me shudder. Here's a little story to illustrate:

Once upon a time, there was a novel posted at an online writers' community. I read the first few chapters and thought it was marvelous. Surely this would be picked up by an agent. Surely it had a better shot than most at being published.

Alas, it did not happen. Eventually, the author decided to self-publish. I remembered loving what I read, so I gladly made the purchase.

As I read the whole thing, I was heartbroken. It quickly became obvious why it didn't make it on the traditional route. Nothing to do with the mechanics of the writing; everything to do with the craft of the story. Repetitive recaps every time a new character entered the picture. Disbelief that could no longer be suspended even by a reader eager to love the story (such as myself).

There are those who say you can edit well enough if you have a good critique group. I believe that can be true. But is your critique group tough enough on you? Do they know enough to spot overarching problems, or are they just good for helping you polish and tighten sentences?

If you can't afford a 4-digit editing bill (and really, how many of us can?) there are other options. Read with a critical eye, not just for the words on the page, but how the story is shaped and woven together. Look at some books on craft until you find some that work for your style, genre, etc. Maybe take a class or two.

And if you're lucky enough to find critique partners who really know what they're talking about and can tear your work apart in a way that makes you thank them for the torture ... dig your claws in and never let them go.

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I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of what goes into making a self-published book top-notch. It's NOT easy. (Neither is going the traditional route.) It doesn't mean you necessarily have to spend your life savings. It does mean you should work your tail off ... and put in some major time between finishing the "writing" part and putting the product on the market.

Is it worth it? After all, you're probably only charging around $1-5 for your eBook, right? Maybe you're embracing the concept of a pulp fiction revival and are glad to be a part of it.

That's great. But I say you should still respect your readers enough to make sure anything you put in front of them is nothing less than awesome.

Did I miss anything? Other pet-peeves in self-published work? Or am I just way too picky? ;-)


Riley Redgate said...

Wow. This is an AWESOME post, RC! And I'll say one thing, having published a short - the actual process is ridiculously easy. The temptation to put up an old novel (or anything that really isn't ready for daylight) is a strong one, simply BECAUSE it's so easy to click "publish". I can see how it's tough for people who suffer from chronic impatience - because there aren't months of waiting on queries, or even the days-weeks it takes to wait on awesome beta partners.

But whenever the word 'temptation' is readily available to describe something, it probably means we shouldn't be doing it. We've got to put quality control first, even if it does mean - shock - actual work. :P

R.C. Lewis said...

Thanks, Riley! :-)

Impatience and frustration seem to be at the heart of it. So many complain about traditional publishing being so crazy-slow. But good self-publishing should be a little "slow" too.

Have pride in your work, respect your readers, take your time and do it right.

Rebecca Hamilton Paranormal Fantasy Authr said...

A freaking men! so well said.

Anonymous said...

Too picky? Nope. Not very likely.