From the moment estributors like Smashwords.com opened its e-doors, the world of publishing changed forever ... we all know that ... but I'm NOT talking about the decline of the Big 6 or the obliteration of the "agent-acting-as-gatekeeper" model here. I'm talking about the loss of a QUALITY STANDARD in literary publishing.
Before these platforms were around, people could publish their own written works, but the process was arduous, time-consuming and costly ... and there were limited opportunities for the end result in terms of distribution. Meanwhile, publishing to paper was transformed a bit by print-on-demand, but there were hurdles to leap for POD in terms of cost, which acted as a barrier-to-entry for most.
There were still people who self-published prior to 2008, but they were relatively few and far in-between. The quality of their published works varied greatly, and for the most part, no one cared because they didn't represent any respectable percentage of books sold. It's also worth mentioning that back then, most of the people who self-published were those rejected by TRADPUB - this is especially true for works of fiction - and I think this still holds true today.
So what did the average self-published work look and read like back in the day? Bad grammar ... bad punctuation on cheap paper with shoddy printing wrapped by a cover design that looked like a young child created it. Notice, I'm not speaking about storyline, prose, characters, theme, settings, etc. Those are components of the ART of writing. What this article is about is the CRAFT of writing.
As I've mentioned before (and will continue to mention) ART is subjective, but craft is OBJECTIVE!
Jump to today and now you have quality paper and printing, but what about the rest?
Let me get to the point ... a point I'll continue to talk about and hammer at into the future, because I think this point will be a DEFINING ISSUE in this New World of Publishing revolution ...
There is a NEED for a QUALITY STANDARD in self-publishing!
It's apparent to this Pub owner that in doing away with the old TRADPUB query/proposal process, we've thrown the baby out with the bathwater! What do I mean? Well, let's look at the old process ... and when I say old, this process is still utilized today and will continue to be, at least for a time, but to a much less extent - primarily because nowadays people can circumvent it and just SELFPUB:
In the old days ... say, last year ... a writer like me would write a manuscript. Because I've never been published before, I'd have to adhere to a very narrow window of length - say @80,000 words for a full-length novel. So, manuscript length acted as one of the first barriers-to-entry. If my Ms. was much shorter than that, it wouldn't be accepted as a full-length novel by most agents (read: publishers). If it were much longer, it could very easily be tossed without being read, just from the "151,000 Words" written on the top of the cover page. Even if it was a masterpiece and somehow was read by an agent/publishing editor, the response would almost always be "great but you need to condense it" ... the frustrating call for a re-write.
Length was just one of the rules - yes, there used to be rules to publishing. Some were age-old, some were self-imposed by the particular agent or editor, but there were always rules. Manuscripts had to be flawless grammatically and punctuation-wise, double-spaced and adhering to a bunch of other specific guidelines. All that was BEFORE your prose, voice, characters, settings, etc. The gatekeepers wouldn't even get to that good stuff because of a typo or poor use of commas.
Two years ago, before I shopped my first manuscript, I spent about a year just trying to learn the rules. I went online and read about the query and proposal process. I purchased the _Writer's Market Deluxe Edition_ and the _Guide to Literary Agents_ and I read both cover to cover. Other than their lists of agents and publishers, there was a volume of rules, guidelines an advice in each of those books. I looked at countless samples of manuscript formatting, delving into such micro-topics as 'acceptable fonts' and 'chapter titling and spacing.' Then there was the query formatting ...
I YI YI ... before you were supposed to even create a query, I was taught to create an entire proposal - a much longer document which including everything from the 'back cover blurb' to a competitive analysis. I had to create a 1,500-word summary, a 500-word summary, a one-paragraph summary and a one-sentence description.
The query itself had to be impeccable - short and to-the-point, but it also had to include all the pertinent info. I studied dozens and dozens of examples and continually refined my queries until they were perfect, tight, squeaky-clean works of art!
And what did all that work produce? Just a dozen requests for full manuscripts and ultimately over 90 rejections. Ouch! I'll tell you what though - not one person who read my Ms. critiqued the quality of the writing ... my craft! They tossed me for the subjective reasons, "I didn't fall in love with your main character ..." or "I didn't fall in love with your storyline ..." Ya know what I'm thinking? There's a lotta LOVE-STARVED agents out there!
"Yo, agents ... if you're lookin' for love, there's a whole bunch of websites out there ... if you're looking for a little escape and to be entertained, my novel fills the bill!" That's what I wanted to say, anyhow.
But what did that query process really do? For the industry and the readers, it separated the workers from the chaff. I know of a host of writers who simply never attempted a second manuscript after going through the old query process only to be rejected. When the quitters quit, that only left the workers ... the "strivers" ... the folks I call the WINNERS - because the definition of a winner to me is a person that doesn't give up! What did it do for me personally? It made me examine, analyze and continually improve my writing craft ... and it still does because I still utilize the same process, even though I now SELFPUB!
My point: That old query/proposal process acted as a filter and a barrier-to-entry and since the only alternative in the 'old days' ... say like in the year 2008, was the costly and complicated self-publishing process, those filters were most effective in weeding out the chaff. Did they also weed out some talented folks and brilliant works ... yes and no, for in my experience, WINNERS never quit. So, in the worst case, the old process just delayed some of the worth-publishing writers and works.
What about nowadays? Well without any dam (read: any barrier-to-entry), the global population of readers are now faced with a DELUGE of garbage-laced slush that comes at them like a TIDAL WAVE of brown, smelly muck!
For the most part, the average reader can still count on a TRADPUBBED work to have a consistent level of quality. There's a certain polish ... a certain je ne sais quoi to a TRADPUBBED book or novel. You know what I'm talkin' about!
Now think of the average SELFPUBBED work.
Yeah ... I rest my case.
If we, (read: SELFPUBBERS) think most SELFPUBBED works are sub-par - what do you think the folks think?
I'll talk more about the old TRADPUB process in subsequent articles - mostly because as SELFPUBBERS, we NEED to save the baby! The bathwater we can flush down the drain - stuff like unqualified agents rejecting us because THEY think they know what will sell - or making subjective criticisms about our work and calling for re-writes. Excuse my old neighborhood mentality but "... who the bloody hell died and made YOU friggin' king or queen, Mr./Mrs. Kiss-my-butt-'cause-I-call-myself-an-agent?!
I feel better now ... I'll continue ...
In the last few years everything's changed. Here's a news release by Smashwords, just a couple of weeks ago on May 23rd:
"Smashwords achieved two special milestones in the the last few days. We reached 50,000 original ebooks published by over 20,000 authors [emphasis mine]. We're on track to surpass 75,000 titles by the end of year, up from 28,800 at the end of 2010, 6,000 in 2009 and 140 in 2008."
So, 140 titles in 2008 has turned into over 75,000 titles in 2011, and if the writer-title ratio holds up, there will be @30,000 authors writing those 75,000 works!
My opinion ... virtually 100% of those 30,000 authors WOULD NOT have been published by TRADPUB (in 2011) ... and that includes this Pub owner. Hey, you can't shoot a man for his opinion especially in his own establishment, so there it is. Now you know what TRADPUBBERS meant by their slushpile ... 75,000 titles and that's just the ones that will be published via Smashwords this year!
Getting back to the topic - I'll pose a question: Focusing only on the Smashwords 2011 titles/authors, how many of them do you think would pass a quality standard that just focused on rudimentary grammar, typos and punctuation? And for those of you who've started yackin' about an author's voice and prose and yadda-yadda-yadda - I'M NOT TALKING DIALOG!
I'll use myself as an example. For my debut novel, _The Watchman of Ephraim_, my editing process included three different people - yet, when my 12 year-old son Jared read it for a book report, he found 14 typos. <sigh> 14 typos may not sound like a lot in an 86,000 word novel, but to me it's 14 typos too many. Why? Because I wouldn't tolerate them from any TRADPUB novel I bought - and here's my ultimate point - there should be NO DIFFERENCE between the quality of a TRADPUB and SELFPUB work!
Listen, I count myself as one of the Patriots, just a rank-n-file member of the working-class SELFPUBBERS, which means I'm ecstatic with all the changes that have taken place in the literary publishing industry in the last couple of years. Nevertheless, I'm not a literary anarchist!
Does everyone have the ability to self-publish nowadays - YES; BUT should everyone publish every single jot and tittle of what they write without so much as spell-checking it? The answer, my answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!
Every time one of us self-publishes a literary work of inferior quality, we have diminished ALL self-published works! Why? Because people ... you know, the folks for which we supposedly write our works (and for which we expect them to pay their hard-earned $$$) look at SELFPUBBED works as a type of BRAND! A single brand. Honestly, whenever I read a SELFPUBBED work, I do so with a critical eye. I'm looking for the errors. I don't do that with TRADPUBBED books.
One of the first questions I'm invariably asked whenever speaking to someone who just learned I'm an author is, "Who's your publisher?" I hate the look people give me when I say, "I published myself." The look I get is usually whimsical and condescending.
What they reply is, "How nice!" What they mean to say is, "Just what the world needs, another poorly edited, sloppy pile of trash!"
What really hurts is the fact that for the most part, I agree with them.
That has to change.
Next in this QUALITY series - let's talk about the difficulties, challenges and potential pitfalls of establishing a quality standard in SELFPUB.
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Dean Wesley Smith