Quality of self-published books, revisited…

Recently, I wrote about the issue of quality in self-published books when compared to traditionally published books. I’m not the first or only person to have written about this (see here and here and here and here). I have also written about it on this blog many times.

On my latest post on this subject, a commenter wrote: “Writing fiction well is incredibly difficult. There are many areas that need to be mastered.” Truer words… Writing anything well is hard; writing fiction is much more so. Good writing is almost invisible to the reader. It allows the reader to slide effortlessly into the story. Errors trip the reader up like stones in the path; too many of them throw the reader right out of immersion.

The good news is that writing, like any skill, only gets better with practice. Perhaps this is how we should look at self-publishing: as a place to practice. As long as both readers and writers are aware of this–and readers who don’t want to spend their time or money on books that aren’t ready for prime time aren’t excoriated for that–I see no problem.

By the way, readers get better with practice too. The more you read, the easier it becomes to lose a connection with a poorly written book.

The self-published arena is mind-bogglingly huge. I’m not saying that every self-published book was written by someone just learning how to write. I am not talking about writers who have been doing this a while and who have established a readership. Their decision to self-publish is primarily a business decision. Their readers will find their books wherever they are. They don’t need me telling them how to produce a high-quality product.

Who am I talking to? I’m talking to writers who are learning and who aspire to become better at what they do so they can reach more readers.

If, as a writer, you want to be favorably reviewed–not by Joe Schmo book blogger, but by professional publications whose recommendations you can use to help sell your book–then you need to worry about quality. If you want to be considered for prizes, then you need to worry about quality. If you want to get your book into libraries–and libraries are a primary market for many children’s books*–then you need to worry about quality. If you want to attract readers who primarily read traditionally published books–who are looking for a great read and nothing more–then you need to worry about quality.

If you have such aspirations and you decide to self-publish, then you need to make your book the best it can be. You will be up against not only all of the barriers that all writers face, but also the stigma of self-publishing in general. Rightly or wrongly, self-published books in general have a reputation for low quality. Even if you in particular are an outstanding writer who pays scrupulous attention to crafting your books, you still have to contend with the fact that the majority of self-published authors do not. By some counts, up to a million books are self-published each year. Think about that.

In future posts, I will talk more specifically about common mistakes I see and how writers can improve the quality of their work. This is meant to be advice, not prescriptive. Take it or leave it. Note that comments are moderated and I do have a commenting policy here.

*Please, if you write for children, please use correct spelling and grammar. They are just beginning to learn the language. They deserve competent teachers.

As a review, here are my ten markers for a minimum baseline of quality fiction writing, slightly updated:

  1. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage are mostly correct. 
  2. Verb tense is consistent. 
  3. Point of view is consistent. 
  4. Character names are consistent. So are other facts given in the text.
  5. Sentence structure has some variety and complexity.
  6. There is a balance in dialogue, exposition, and action.
  7. Exposition isn’t given primarily through dialogue. 
  8. Characters have some non-stereotyped development.
  9. There is some plot and plot points make sense.
  10. The story is not overly didactic; the author’s voice does not noticeably intrude.

Become a friend of your library

Following on my last post, I agree with Neil Gaiman that libraries are of vital importance to our society. Like many readers, I grew up in a library, basically, quickly graduating from the kids’ section to the adult books. I remember systematically reading my way through every Agatha Christie (she wrote something like 85 of them). For a kid like me, the library was my refuge.

Libraries are frequent targets for budget cuts by government officials who don’t understand the vital link between reading and developing minds that can think, imagine, and innovate. Many children don’t have access to books and computers in their homes, and libraries are the only place where they can foster a love of reading. That’s why it’s vitally important for those of us who love books and reading, and who understand just how important they are, to support our local libraries as much as we possibly can. A good way to start is by joining the library’s Friends group. Take part in library activities. Support events featuring writers or aimed at improving children’s reading experiences. I recently joined the Board of our Friends of the Library group, and it has been a wonderfully enriching experience for me as I take part in supporting library programs and our local literary scene.

Books and reading are my primary passion in life. Even though almost everything I read now is on the Kindle, I believe the need for strong libraries is greater than ever. Libraries are the repositories for our culture, the archives of our rich wealth of information, and increasingly, librarians are the experts who help us navigate it all. Libraries create future readers, and they in turn become the thinkers and innovators that make our civilization strong. What could be more important?

Neil Gaiman’s manifesto on reading

“I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.”

This was actually published in 2013, based on a lecture Gaiman gave to the Reading Agency, but it so wonderfully expresses why reading, and especially reading fiction, is absolutely critical for the future of our society and why we all need to support libraries as much as we can, that it bears reading and rereading and constant reinforcing: Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming | Books | The Guardian.

My Little Free Library project…

I’m going to be sponsoring a Little Free Library in our neighborhood. “Take a book, return a book.” I enjoy looking at the pictures of all the little free libraries people have built. Here’s one repurposing a pay phone booth, which is extinct now, of course.

Littel Free Library in a pay phone

It would be nice to build the equivalent of a Little Free Library using e-books, but giving the restrictions placed upon them by publishers, that doesn’t seem likely. Fortunately, paper books will be with us for a long time. Just because I have and enjoy a Kindle doesn’t stop me from buying paper books. My urge to share books, as well as to support community meeting places like our local bookstore, also keeps me buying them.

New uses for libraries…

In this rapidly changing world, you must reinvent yourself or die. While I am thinking about how to reinvent myself, I am inspired by how others are doing it.

Take, for example, libraries, which will always be an important and relevant part of the human community, in my opinion. Here are two ways in which libraries are reinventing themselves in this age of the e-book: opening makerspaces, or space within the library where people can come together and learn how to make things; and loaning out seeds, much as they loan out books, for planting local gardens. Isn’t it interesting how, as our culture becomes increasingly digital and “in the cloud,” libraries are preserving old ways of doing things, such as making things with our hands and growing our own food?

Our library just got these cool self-checkout devices that look and act like something out of a sci-fi movie (they even glow blue!). I worried that they might put the librarians out of a job, but they said they would have more time to introduce new programs and services if they didn’t have to check out books. I’m excited to see what they will do. If you haven’t checked in on your local library lately, why not pay them a visit and see what they’re up to? Show your local library some love!