OMG, I didn’t just read that! Did the author really write that?

I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to decide what to blog about today.  I could write about the ongoing kerfluffle between PublishAmerica and J. K. Rowling.  If you aren’t familiar with it, PublishAmerica has offered — for the low price of $49 — to get your book to Ms. Rowling.  Needless to say, Rowling’s attorneys were quick to issue a cease-and-desist letter.  PublishAmerica, in return, has had their attorney send their own cease-and-desist letter.  You can read about it here.

Or I could write about how much contradictory and often confusing information there is out there about what it takes to be considered an author worth taking a risk on.  No, I’m not talking about the submissions process.  Nor am I talking about the quality of the writing or the originality of the story.  No, this has to do with numbers and the game of Russian roulette the publishers are playing.  Only, it’s the authors who are being handed the gun and, instead of there being only one round in the chamber there are six.  In other words, it’s a no-win situation for mid-list authors.  Basically, according to one industry insider, if you have several titles out and they haven’t sold at least 5,000 – 8,000 units each, publishers won’t sign you.  The problem with this is that more and more mid-list authors are finding that their first print runs are no more than 5,000 units.  Between that and the fact that most books aren’t on the shelves more than a few weeks and that there is no push for them, there is no way this magical sales number can be met.  The real problem with this scenario is that, while it may mean the mid-lister can’t get new legacy publishing contracts, it’s the publishers who will eventually suffer.  The mid-lister can publish on their own now or they can go with a non-legacy publisher.  But for the legacy publisher that has shoved them out the door, gone is a guaranteed money-maker.  I say guaranteed because those mid-listers have a built in fan base that can be counted on to buy each and every title put out by that author.  Best sellers with over-bloated print runs that don’t sell through and new authors who don’t connect with the public will not keep the houses afloat for long.

Each of these is worthy of a post, but something caught my eye on one of the boards I read last night that started me thinking.  The poster wanted to know what she could do to become an editor.  Her qualifications?  She’d read lots of books, many of them by “indies”.  Now, I’ll admit my first reaction was to roll my eyes and laugh.  To be a good editor takes more than reading a lot of books.  Believe me.

Then I started thinking about why she might have posted the comment and other posts I’ve seen recently came to mind.  One of them was about an “indie” who had proudly proclaimed that their work was so good it didn’t need an editor.  Another commented that if an author knows grammar and the basic rules of composition, he wouldn’t need an editor.  Then there was the one that posited that authors don’t know how to edit, period and end of discussion.  All of that reminded me of the book I was reading when I posted last week…a book that was in dire need of some good editing.

The problem, at least part of the problem, with each of those statements is that they don’t necessarily apply to “editing”.  They apply to proofreading and copy editing.  In other words, to the formatting, punctuation and spelling but not the content of the piece.  Editing deals with the meat of the story, the organization, the flow, the word choice and voice.  All are important and all are needed, especially by the self-published author.

So, what has brought on this sudden awareness of the need for editing and proofing and such for books, especially e-books?  Part of it is that even the legacy publishers aren’t putting as much effort into proofreading and copy editing as they once did.  Finances and a lack of business foresight have forced them to cut back on their staffs and much of this has been left to authors and agents to do.  I don’t know about you, but asking me to proofread something I’ve written is asking for trouble.  I KNOW what should be on the page.  That makes it hard to see that it isn’t there.  It’s a lot like Pam was saying in a comment earlier this week about how difficult it is to be sure you, as an author, have put in enough of your character’s thought process and emotion because you know what that character is thinking so you assume the reader does as well.  As for formatting, authors are used to standard manuscript format — although, as I see more and more slush come across the email transom, I’m beginning to doubt they know even that.  They aren’t used to formatting for print or e-books.  Worse, too many take the conversion tools at face value and run their manuscript through them and then upload to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Smashwords without ever checking to see what the converted manuscript looks like.

When an author proofreads his manuscript, too many simply rely on spell check.  It’s so easy to do.  The only problem is that spell check doesn’t point out if you are using the wrong word.  It only tells you if the word is spelled wrong, and that assumes it knows the word in the first place.  My recommendation is to turn off spell check — and it’s evil cousin grammar check — and actually focus on the words and sentence structure.  You may have to do like me and print out your short story or novel, but it’s worth it.  Especially if you know your publisher doesn’t do as good of a job as they should in the proofreading/copy editing department or if you are self-publishing.  Believe me, there are readers out there who keep score and will stop reading a book — and post very harsh comments — if they find more than three misspellings, etc., in your work.  So it is worth making sure everything is as clean as possible before it goes to press.

The change from print to digital also plays a role, at least for me.  There’s something about reading a book on the kindle or my tablet or laptop that seems to point out the errors.  It’s almost like they jump off the page at me.  Kate and I were talking about this the other day when we were comparing the differences in basic formatting between several e-books from the same legacy publisher.  These e-books, all published within a two or three month period, had different paragraph indents, different fonts, etc.  One of them had no paragraph indents at all.  Another had a glaring error on the “Other Titles” page in that the title of a series by this particular author wasn’t capitalized when it should have been.  Another e-book had a glaring misspelling in the first sense.  All of these errors should have been corrected before the title went live and, with the exception of the title with no paragraph indents, all will appear in the hard copy versions of the books.

Why do I say the paragraph indent won’t appear in the hard copy version?  Because there is a dirty little secret about e-books every author needs to be aware of.  You can strip out the html coding that is the basis for most formats without any problem and see what programs were used to create the file, who did it, when it was done, etc.  Which is exactly what I did.  I opened the offending title in an epub creation program and read the html.  That confirmed what I suspected.  The e-book was built by simply running the pdf that had been created by for the hard copy through another conversion program.  No one took time to check the final output in all formats.

And THAT, my friends, is the problem.  It is so very easy to convert a document into an e-book that everyone is doing it.  There are a number of very good free programs you can use.  But the job doesn’t end there.  You have to check each and every format you convert to and you need to check them in a native viewer or e-book reader, not just the built in viewers these programs provide.  For example, when NRP converts a title, we check it on a kindle, kindle for PC, Adobe digital editions, the nook app for my tablet and usually one or two others.  Does it take time?  You bet.  But it is worth it.

So, this has been a meandering and probably confusing post that basically comes down to this:  readers are more demanding these days about what they are willing to pay for and much more vocal about letting other readers know if they don’t like something about a book.  As the author, we can no longer just worry about writing a good story.  We have to worry about all aspects of the publishing road, even if we are going through a legacy publisher.  We have to make sure the manuscript is as clean as possible before submitting it.  So find not only your beta readers but one or two people you know who can act as first editors.  These people won’t go ballistic over a misplaced comma or sentence fragment.  These are those who read with a critical eye for flow and consistency and organization.  If you are going through a publisher, when you get the proofs back, go over them and have someone else do the same.  It’s amazing what you can find.  When the e-book comes out, if you haven’t received a copy from the publisher, buy one and go over it again.  Let the publisher know if there’s a problem.  Hopefully, if the problem is a big one, they will correct it.

If you are going the self-publishing route, consider hiring an editor if you don’t have someone to edit for you.  Most authors can’t edit themselves because, as noted above, we know what is supposed to be happening and so we assume the reader will as well.  You need fresh eyes on it.  If you do the conversion into the different e-book formats yourself, check them and then check them again.  The indie author relies on word of mouth for most of their promotion.  So the last thing you want is for that word of mouth to be about how poorly formatted/edited/proofed the title happens to be.

As we’ve said many times before, the publishing industry is changing and no one knows where or when the dust will settle.  The sudden influx of self-published e-books and the explosion of micro-publishers and publishing co-ops are changing the face of publishing.  It is also showing that there are some steps in the process that shouldn’t be skipped.  Editing, proofreading and copy editing are three of the most important.  They are steps that a good publisher, no matter what the size, will provide.  For those going the self-publishing route, they are steps that must be considered and addressed. Otherwise, you run the risk of, as one person said on the boards “shooting yourself in the foot”.

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1 Comment

Filed under Musings

One response to “OMG, I didn’t just read that! Did the author really write that?

  1. Spot on, both about what good editors do (it’s far more than proof-reading, that’s for sure) and about why people need them. The points about the various formats needing to be checked are essential for self-published writers; yes, it’s time-consuming, but if you don’t do it, you’re costing yourself money. (This is one reason I have not yet gone the self-publishing route. I am not exactly technologically challenged, but I certainly am not cutting-edge, either. Michael, my late husband, would’ve been great at reformatting things and doing what you did in stripping out the HTML; he used to do that all the time with his Mobipocket reader (he’s been dead since ’04, but I saw him strip the HTML several times even though I can’t do it myself; perhaps if I see someone do it a few times, I might be able to, but I never asked Michael to show me what, exactly, he was doing. Now I wish I had.).

    The main point I want to reiterate from your post is this: as a writer, we cannot proofread our own stuff or edit in the same format, and certainly not just after we wrote the story. Carolyn See in her book MAKING A LITERARY LIFE suggests printing the story out and getting out some wine, then pretend that it’s not your story. (Putting someone else’s name on it, someone whom you really hate in particular, may also help you root out errors, though I’m not sure Ms. See said that. That might’ve been Anne Lamont in BIRD BY BIRD, another good book about writing and the re-write process. Or it even might’ve been Sol Stein in one of his two worthy books about writing and editing, the better-known one being ON WRITING.)

    This is one reason why Michael and I worked so well as a team; he could edit for me and I could edit for him. Then we’d both read it, and if there were places that were unclear, it could be much more easily fixed. (The process now is much different, much more time-consuming, and sometimes more frustrating. But I do my best to persevere, both with my own stuff and with his, because I believe it’s worth the time.) We both wrote and edited well and worked well together, but we had first readers we valued (I still do) and listened to, especially as far as flow and whether or not something made sense.

    I really and truly hope people will read your post here and take it to heart; at bare minimum, people need to set aside their writing for a few days to a week, then look at it with fresh eyes. I know that I’ve always advocated that you should read your work aloud to listen to how it flows, and not just the dialogue. Read it all. (Sol Stein goes further and says you should read in as monotone a voice as you possibly can, because that way it’s the words that will influence you, not the inflections. I try to get around this by reading it in a wide variety of inflections.) That’s the only way that you can do your work justice in the long-term or short-term.

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