Thursday, September 25, 2008


There are few things that irk me more than bad writing...okay, maybe bad writing and bad editing. You'll find plenty of both in self-published books.

Wait, you shout! I know someone who knows someone who self-published! They're fantastic! Maybe. It certainly is tempting, as a would-be writer, to spend some coin to put all that hard work into a print-on-demand book that your friends, family, readers, and maybe - just maybe - strangers will read. It's tempting, but unless you are a professional or are affiliated with some professionals, don't succumb. (I fully anticipate some hate mail over this one).

You see, I've bought a few self-published non-fiction books lately, and they're killing me. One is about a particular mental illness that has struck my family and the other two are about the Chiari malformation in my head. Since both topics are not common, I figure it's fair that big publishing houses wouldn't be interested. I can tell you from experience that unless they think a work is going to be profitable, they will pass on it - even if it is very good! It all depends on what the public wants at the moment, which editors see it, and how the planets are aligned that day. A good agent helps, too.

Each of these books is awful in its own way, however. The mental illness book...well, I'm grateful the man wrote it, and it does have some helpful information. It's just very densely written, not as well organized as it could be, and not indexed. I can't find what I need to find.

One Chiari book is by a couple of doctors who specialize in it. It is a hybrid book, halfway between a long academic article and an Internet article geared toward the layperson. As such, it is well written and even well formatted; it's also dry and brief. You can tell that, as doctors, they didn't want to disclose too much, lest they have a bunch of self-diagnosing readers or lest they take away the authority of the doctor the patient will actually see.

The other Chiari book is written by a scientist-cum-patient who tells his story very eloquently but whose format is terrible. The top margin is very slim, maybe a half-inch, if that, and not equal to the other margins on the page. Sometimes the space between paragraphs appears, sometimes not. There are grammatical errors, typos, and other miscellaneous errata scattered throughout. (In fairness, I have tried to reach the author, but the email bounced). I am very grateful this man wrote his story, however, because suddenly I feel much less alone and a lot less crazy.

This alone is reason enough for there to be self-published books. I just wish that the authors would spend a little extra of their hard-earned cash to hire a freelance editor who has some experience with layout using the tools available for the self-publishing company they select.

There is a reason that self-publishing used to be (and sometimes still is) called vanity publishing. Anyone can fancy him- or herself a writer. He or she may even be pretty good at stringing the words together and organizing thoughts. The problem is that there are very few jacks-of-all-trades in the book business. Great writers are often not great layout artists. Great editors are often too busy to let the creative juices flow (unless they are writing about craft and technique and the art of editing). In other words, it's not only vain to fancy yourself a writer even if the publishing experts don't agree (and I'm on the fence on this point), it's also vain to think you can do a good job at all aspects of the publication of a book.

In fairness, I don't know a writer who hasn't considered self-publishing, particularly when there is a seemingly unending supply of interested people out there on the support boards who would potentially buy the book. These writers also have to be their own marketing department, too. They end up hawking their wares on the boards (nothing wrong with that) and maybe never recouping their outlay of cash, because a fraction of a percent of your potential market will actually buy the book. The rest of the world only finds out about you through word of mouth or because your book shows up in the search results while the potential buyer was looking for something else. You may just end up in self-publishing hell, drawing down a negative salary for your trouble.

One of the saddest cases of self-publishing hell I have ever seen is a that of a local woman who wrote three books, a trilogy, and self-published them. I met her while she was doing a book signing at a local bookstore in the mall (which has since gone out of business). I like to support my local writers, so I bought her first book and had her sign it. When she found out that I was a writer, too, she asked (pleaded really) for me to email her with my thoughts on the book, tips, suggestions, and so on. I got through exactly one-and-a-half pages, because I'm an elitist, literary snob (not really...but close).

It was bad. I'm sorry...bad, and she wrote three of them, a trilogy. Poor woman (probably literally, after spending all that money to have all those copies printed). She actually - up until the store breathed its last gasp - had significant shelf space. It must have cost her a pretty penny. I felt really, really bad for her. An agent, a publisher, even a freelance editor could have saved her a lot of money by being honest with her. Sometimes we have to let go of our pride and vanity and just trust the experts.

We, as bloggers, are self-published though, are we not? However, I don't ask for a penny for this privilege of having you read my ramblings. And I don't pay a penny for the privilege of writing them and throwing them into the ether. That's the kind of self-publishing I like, the free kind.

When my next book is finished, I'm hoping for a great agent who finds me a great publishing house with a great editor. Some institutions just don't have a DIY equivalent, in my humble opinion.

Peace - D


the walking man said...

RP...The self publishing route is a tempting one. I considered it to be sure, but then common sense took over. Common in the same vein as you're saying, no one is an expert in all areas of this writing, layout and editing business.

Now that I am actively not looking to publish there has been an unintended benefit which is, I no longer have to ask myself if what I write is appealing to anyone but myself. What I write can sit in the archives and fade as the memory of me fades. The editing can be done by someone else at some future time. For now this realm of blogburbia is enough. And, as you note, it doesn't cost me anything but the one commodity I have in abundance...time.


Employee No. 3699 said...

I'm not a writer, but I totally get what you're saying. I understand how an editor could help save an author money. On the flip side they save readers from wasting money on bad books.

Jay said...

We are self-published, as blogger, yes, and I regard it as excellent writing practice!

As to self-publishing, I have one project which (if and when I get around to it) will probably be self-published because it is a family history book. Not a general 'how to' book, but a book about the history and genealogy of my particular family, with person details, personal stories and photographs and, of course, our family tree.

It will have very limited appeal, but I'd like to do it, because it would be a wonderful heirloom for anyone in our family who is interested in genealogy, and if you just do a tree, all the detail is lost. I can also lodge a copy with the Norfolk Family History society to help other people with their research.

Not so much vanity publishing as desperation publishing, that one!

Suzanne said...

One way to look at self-publishing is that it is similar to people who set up booths at craft fairs to sell whatever hand-made wares they have crafted. It reflects a desire to share or make a profit from their creativity. For those who self-publish because they have been able unable to find another venue for their books, it may be the only way to see the realization of a dream.

They could choose to use that same money to go on a cruise, or do some plastic surgery, go back to school, or update a room in the house. How we choose to spend our money depends on our own priorities. So, I applaud those who have the courage to self-publish, no matter how bad the writing or how low the sales. While I might make the same choice, I admire their courage.

Don Mills Diva said...

I have to kind of agree with you on this. If you're not able to get it published, there is a fairly good chance it is not publishable.

And yes blogging is self-publishing but it is pretty democratic as well. If you aren't well organized or aren't a good writer you won't attract readers...

So self-publishing in any forum is fine, but you need to hold your expectation in check.

Mine? Firmly in check.

RiverPoet said...

WM - And your stuff is fun to read! The fact that we're sharing all this free creativity is awesome...

3699 - How true! Of course I generally sit and read excepts of a book before I buy it. It's hard to do that with the author staring you down, though. Oy!

Jay - Right. That's not exactly what I had in mind, but I think Akelamalu is doing something like that, too. One of my hubby's cousins did a family history book like that through Creative Memories. We enjoyed looking through that at his uncle's funeral.

Suzanne - Well put! It does take courage. I think I've just been a frustrated book consumer lately! :-)

DMD - That's true. Hmm...wonder what I could do to get my readership up? ;-)

Peace - D

Moannie said...

As ever you present a good and fair argument and the comments here make for a good debate.
I have been tempted to look into Vanity Publishing but drew back fairly sharpish when I was bombarded with emails after not responding immediately to the reply to my first request for info.When I finally got nasty and asked them to 'please stop' I received an email saying 'don't forget that you contacted us...good luck.'

I do understand the need to see ones work in print...and that is perhaps why I am finding blogging so satisfying, as DM Diva said, if your work is no good, no-one will read it. And it is a wonderful forum for our addiction...writing.

Bless you for saying you will try the's a hug XO.

Gwen Henson said...

You make valid points. When a writer chooses to self-publish, the editor is her first audience, her vetting resource, and that alone makes the investment a smart idea. In addition, writers groups offer feedback opportunities.

Ideally, when the author changes her writing hat for a publishing hat, when she decides she is going to self-publish, she will search out resources like local publishing associations, which can help prevent many first-timer mistakes.

Self-publishing is a viable option. As you stated, for more narrow topics it can be an especially good choice. However, it makes sense to do the job well by investing in the project to ensure its good quality.

ed said...


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