An American Editor

August 31, 2018

The Value (or Not) of Beta Readers

Carolyn Haley

Many novelists enlist the aid of beta readers after completing the first draft of a book. A beta reader, according to Wikipedia, is:

  • a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software), giving feedback with the angle of an average reader to the author about remaining issues . . . . so that an uncolored opinion of an average reader can be obtained. Usually, a beta reader will be unpaid. The feedback is used by the writer to iron out remaining overall issues with plot, pacing and consistency. The beta read also serves as a target audience test to see whether the book has the intended emotional impact and feel.

Beta readers usually precede professional editors in a novel’s path to publication; sometimes they replace professional editors for self-publishing authors on low budgets. A few professional editors offer beta reading as one of their services. I don’t, preferring to offer manuscript evaluations or developmental edits for work in its early stages.

Beta reading, in my opinion, is more subjective and freestyle than professional editing should be. I engage in it only with my writers’ group, whose members return the favor. Through long-term, piecemeal, opinionated back-and-forthing, we help each other convert our messy first drafts into manuscripts coherent enough to be professionally edited.

While beta reading can be immensely helpful to authors, it can also throw them off course or even change their progress to regress. The old adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth” might come into play. The following two cases illustrate the possible effects of multiple contradictory responses to a person’s first novel.

Case #1: Counterproductive Overload

One of my clients, whom I’ll call Henry, has been working on his book for several years. It is the first volume of a science fiction adventure series aimed at young adults, set in an alternate world with lots of action wrapped around a social injustice theme.

Henry hired me for copyediting and paid his deposit. In the weeks between scheduling the job and its start date, however, he had an unknown number of adult friends beta-read the manuscript. Their feedback knocked him from self-assurance to quivering uncertainty. He decided to postpone sending the manuscript to me so he could recast sections in response to the beta reader commentary.

Good idea, in theory. Copyediting is supposed to come at the end of a book’s development, giving it the final polish needed before sending it out the door. Henry was discovering that his story needed more development than he’d thought. His initial two-month postponement stretched into two years.

Eventually Henry finished the book to his satisfaction and delivered the manuscript. Since he didn’t want to change our original scope of work, I copyedited the novel. I thought he was still a long way from his goal of being traditionally published, but you never know, so I gave him my best effort and wished him the best of luck.

Two years later, he came back for a second copyedit of the same novel. Not only had my editing inspired him to make significant revisions, but also, while I had been editing, he’d been having another crop of people beta read the book.

Because of that response overload, Henry spent months revising in different directions. The conflicting information caused him to lose sight of his original vision and eroded his confidence. He started to wonder why he had bothered trying to write the book in the first place, and despaired of ever succeeding.

Eventually he bounced back, reaching a point of satisfaction and deciding to self-publish. That’s when he hired me for the second copyedit. But history repeated itself: During the weeks of waiting between hiring me and the job start date, he took in yet more beta reader feedback, which thrust him back into indecision. This time, he postponed copyediting for six months. (And this time, I inserted a cutoff clause into his contract, so if he bailed out again, he would forfeit his deposit.)

Luckily, I was able to fill the holes in my calendar caused by both of his postponements. It distresses me, though, to see an author get undermined and derailed by an invisible crowd of others whose opinions outweigh my professional observations, explanations, and encouragement.

This author is willing to pay twice for a service he doesn’t seem to believe has greater value than unqualified people’s feelings. He’s also willing to possibly lose a substantial amount of money if he can’t set priorities and boundaries, and hold tight to his own vision, before the time limit on his deposit runs out.

I question whether he will ever be able to own his work and find the courage to expose it to the world through publication, never mind acquire the storycraft skills to convey it. As well, the money he has already laid out would have covered a professional developmental edit. Had we done that in the first place, perhaps by now his book would be several levels farther along and he’d still be excited by its prospects. Even if I’m not the ideal editor for him, he would be making progress rather than riding a merry-go-round, trying to satisfy all readers in all things.

Maybe his time on the merry-go-round will ultimately result in a finished novel. Sometimes that happens, as it did with a member of my writers’ group.

Case #2: Productive Overload

This author, whom I’ll call Henrietta, has also spent many years on crafting her first novel. Unlike Henry, her book is a stand-alone story, set on contemporary Earth. Instead of action and adventure, it presents a deep character study written in a literary style.

Henrietta is trained in the commercial graphic arts, which gives her a seemingly infinite capacity to reformulate a concept. Like Henry, she’s new to creating personal art through words and is insecure about its validity. Also like Henry, she can’t resist the temptation to gather opinions. Thus, she’s had beta reader after beta reader, and goes through much psychological hand-wringing in trying to decide whose opinion matters, seeking to accommodate all of them in her work.

My opinion holds extra weight for her because I’m a professional editor. I provide my services gratis in this case, because in this writers’ group, we all volunteer skills in mutual support. Our personal creative works exist on spec — no guarantee any of us will publish, or earn a dime if we do — versus professional services provided under contract, where performance and delivery are part of an economic exchange. In the writers’ group, we are friends exchanging favors.

Regardless of my professional status, Henrietta routinely ignores my opinion because it disagrees with her vision. In this regard, she differs from Henry, who struggles to hold his vision at all. Her professional training enables her to weigh and measure and ultimately assimilate diverse opinions, while my professional training lets me leave her free to do it (copyeditor’s mantra: “It’s not my book, not my book . . .”). I serve instead as sounding board and devil’s advocate, with my real contribution being copyediting and proofreading.

Henrietta’s willingness to consider options kept making her book stronger — until the day came when she had incorporated too many opinions, and both the story and her writing voice began to unravel. That not only added months to her writing time, but also burned her out on the project. I invested a lot of time in pushing her to embrace her work and believe in herself.

After many more revisions, some of which brought sections of the book back to where they’d started, her manuscript was ready for submission to agents and, in my opinion, worthy of being published by a Big Five house. (I also believe that if she wants to skip the agent and submit directly to smaller publishers, she could sell the book in five minutes. If she chooses to self-publish [an option she is rejecting because she understands the huge and long-term marketing work involved], she could probably make some serious money.) But she knows what she wants and is staying her course.

Problem is, she can’t stop collecting beta reader opinions. Even as I was mechanically editing the “final” version, she continued to run every little late idea past multiple people. It took coercion to get her to send out her first query letter, after which she immediately started second-guessing how an agent would react to dialogue and scene details, and sneaking her fingers back to the keyboard. I’m hoping her future agent and house editor can manage this tendency, so the book can make it to publication.

Positive Outcomes

Most of my clients claim to use beta readers, without providing details. Occasionally they also refer to a writing class or a previous editor. A recent author mentioned using all three resources. He, like Henry, had signed up with me and paid his deposit, then suddenly postponed for two years. But when he came back, both his book and his confidence were strong. Like Henry, he’s launching a science fiction adventure series. Unlike Henry, I expect him to be a self-publishing success.

Another self-publishing client revealed that his novel, volume two of a historical fantasy, had been through developmental editing with a high-end professional I recognized. The investment showed, in that the manuscript I received for copyediting needed nothing more than token spit-and-polish.

I do not know if this client ever used beta readers. Possibly not, because unlike many authors, he has the wherewithal to spring for pros at each stage. He went through the same developmental-editor-to-copyeditor sequence when self-publishing his first volume, which came out beautifully and has been well received. I expect volume two will build his audience.

Yet another client seems to have the complete writing skill set hardwired into him. He cranks out one or two novels a year without help, and all of them are exciting, well-crafted stories ready for copyediting. He’s another self-publisher, and his sales are growing.

In general, whichever publishing path my clients choose, the newer they are to writing and publishing, the more beta readers they’re inclined to use. I believe there has to be a limit, though. As Henry and Henrietta show (and I can confirm from my own creative-writing experience), beta readers can be helpful or harmful. It’s important to restrict their numbers, and select readers who can couch their personal opinions in writerly terms. Otherwise, the author is just getting consumer reviews too soon.

Reviewing only should occur after publication, just as copyediting should only be done on a manuscript ready for submission or production. It’s tough enough for an author to weather a storm of diverse opinions once the book is finished; being hammered by that storm while still writing can impair an author’s creativity and zeal — right when those attributes are most needed to give a book its voice and vision.

Voice and vision are what make a novel unique, and, ultimately, draw the audience that defines an author’s career. Beta readers, like editors, may not be the book’s target audience no matter what their relationship to the author. They can inhibit or confuse authors by pushing them to satisfy the readers’/editors’ personal tastes. Beta readers and editors alike need to remember whose book it is, and work within the author’s frame of reference. Their collective goal should be helping authors achieve their individual goals.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

February 16, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part Two — The Author Factor

Carolyn Haley

Part One of this essay discusses the baseline of establishing an indie editor’s house style. Part Two expands to discuss examples of why, when, and how to apply house style vis-à-vis author variables.

In the main, my choice to allow, disallow, or discuss a given point is driven by the author’s attitude and writing technique. The majority of my clients care more about their story content than the nuts and bolts of their sentences; they want their manuscripts “cleaned up” in a generic way, and leave it to me to decide what that means.

A handful of my clients, however, care ferociously about the small stuff, and this group divides into two. The first group wants me to follow all the “rules” precisely (without specifying which authority to follow), and the second wants me to follow their rules precisely. The latter are the trickiest authors to work with.

In a recent episode of working with a technically focused author, my sample edit saved us both a lot of trouble. The author’s response to my sample edit made it obvious that our “rules” differed, but, since we liked each other’s personality and attitudes, we had many lively conversations defining scope of work before starting, and I extra-customized his contract to reflect our joint decisions.

My standard procedure, when it comes to spelling, is to follow Merrian-Webster (MW) online unabridged and correct an author’s variant spellings to MW’s main listing of a word. The author I was working with, however, used more variant than standard spellings, so we agreed that as long as MW allowed his spellings at any level of preference, they would stay in his book. This gave him his preferred axe instead of MW’s preferred ax, and the like.

Our agreement also allowed him odd spellings for lingo in his characters’ dialogue, particularly two he was adamant about: looki and pardn’r (as in “Looki here” and “Howdy, pardn’r”). To my surprise, MW contained both these terms, but included no variants matching the author’s spellings. MW had lookee with looky as an option, and allowed pardner as an alternate to partner. Had MW not included these terms, I would have had to spend quite a bit of time searching them out elsewhere to validate (or not) the author’s use, which I didn’t care to do because we were on a tight deadline with a lean budget. Since the author’s meaning was clear with his own spellings, and he was self-publishing his book, I felt no need to challenge him. What mattered to both of us was that his historical facts were accurate, he got to keep the tenor of his story intact, and I was able to provide a clean, consistent manuscript that aligned with generally accepted authorities.

We also had to negotiate some punctuation details. My house style generally follows Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), which treats the possessive for singular words ending in s the same way it does singular words ending with any other letter; thus, James’s horse instead of James’ horse. The author, however, flip-flopped between styles, so we discussed this, and he accepted my house preference. That worked fine until we came to Four Feathers’s shirt. I was all set to accommodate the author and drop the second s on this one, creating a single style inconsistency in the book with Four Feathers’ shirt, or else to suggest recasting the sentence to avoid the construction, but then he solved the problem himself by changing the character’s name to Knife Blade.

How Authoritative Are Authorities?

Sometimes my house style disagrees on points where the authorities I consult agree with one another, and I don’t happen to like their choice for fiction. An example is capitalizing God in the exclamation “Oh God!” In most instances, this is an emotional outburst that has nothing to do with deities, and to me, spelling it with a lowercase g is appropriate in the same way terms like godforsaken and goddamn have become accepted in lowercase.

Other times, when I can’t find a majority agreement among the authorities I consult, or the authorities don’t take a stand on a particular subject, I apply my house style. Common examples occur in dialogue, such as all right versus alright, and okay versus OK, ok, O.K., o.k. I prefer all right and okay and correct all manuscripts to those spellings. To date, no client has objected. Similarly, when authorities disagree on abbreviations, such as Ph.D. versus PhD, or U.S. versus US, I go with my preference, which is the version with periods.

Sometimes my core references don’t take a stand on a point, leaving me to choose. This occurred when I searched for a guideline on whether to capitalize endearments and pet names like sweetie, honey, darling, and sugar, which crop up frequently in dialogue. I couldn’t find a guideline on this in half-a-dozen reference works, or in online searches using half-a-dozen search keywords, until I consulted the FAQ section of the online CMoS, which declares: “Chicago’s preferred style has always been to lowercase pet names, but you can’t go wrong unless you’re inconsistent, since the issue is guided by preference rather than rule. Please see section 8.39 of the 15th edition. (The issue is not addressed in the 16th.)” There is nothing further in the current edition — the 17th — either.

Ah. That explained why I couldn’t find an answer in one of my core references. At the time, I was using the print copy of CMoS 16 and never thought to go to an older edition. The exercise showed the value of keeping old editions as well as having both the online and print versions of a resource. I wasted time I didn’t need to waste, but did finally get the information I was seeking. It helped me decide that lowercase would be the DocuMania house style for endearments.

Then there are occasions when no reference resource can answer the question. This occurs often in science fiction and fantasy (SF/F), where authors make up their own vocabulary. For example, a recent manuscript contained a special author-invented metal, which he spelled xenite, zenite, and xynite on different pages. There was no contextual difference to warrant variations, so all I could do was query which spelling he preferred, then make sure it was used throughout the story. (In case you’re wondering, it was xynite.)

A common occurrence in SF/F where I choose my own solution is when leapt, dreamt, and burnt arise. These -t constructions of past tense, instead of the conventional -ed version, are deemed archaic or obsolete in American English according to my core references, and thus should be corrected. Their persistent appearance in client material, however, gives me pause. Do those authors use -t spellings because their SF/F novels are set in environments, cultures, or worlds modeled after ancient Europe or America (a common scenario in the genre)? Or because the authors were influenced by other novels in the genre that were published in different eras or countries? Or is it merely a coincidence that a batch of SF/F authors who happen to be my clients use different dictionaries than mine, or their word processors’ spellcheckers are set to a different version of English?

It only matters because I edit to first-preference standard, so I have to choose whether to impose my standard on the clients or accommodate their style(s). My choice usually depends on the author and the book. As an example, one of my prolific clients, who is several volumes into both a science fiction and a fantasy series, uses leapt, dreamt, and burnt in all of them. He does so intentionally to achieve a certain tone. Once I understood this, I made sure that all his manuscripts use these spellings. Conversely, he doesn’t give a hoot about hyphenation or commas or other mechanical minutiae, so I correct to my first-preference standard at will for everything else.

(Interesting aside: The same authors who use the -t constructions of past tense usually reverse style when it comes to the past tense of kneel. With that word, first-preference spelling is knelt and second is kneeled, yet the authors prefer kneeled. Go figure.)

Defaults

As an American editor who works predominantly with American authors, I default to American language preferences as expressed by my core reference resources, unless it’s clear from the project that other versions of English (British, Canadian, Australian) are at play. Thus, in American manuscripts, I change grey to gray, colour to color, whilst to while, travelling to traveling, cheque to check, and so forth. I also remove the terminal s on words such as towards, backwards, and upwards, and remove the hyphen on prefixes, such as non-profit, re-engineer, counter-measure, and multi-colored, making them all solid. I call out any exceptions out on the style sheet.

With punctuation, I use the American system of double quotation marks around dialogue instead of single quotation marks (ditto when words appear in scare quotes; for some reason, many of my American clients put dialogue in double quotes, but use single quotation marks when calling out words in scare quotes). I also put commas and periods inside close quotes of either type, and employ the serial comma in series ending with “and” (e.g., red, white, and blue vs. red, white and blue). I feel strongly about these practices and only deviate from them if the author expresses a strong preference to the contrary.

When it comes to spellings in transition (words that are still spelled one way in my core references but are transforming through common usage), I let context be my guide. Examples of transition words are electronics-related terminology such as those mentioned in Part One (e-mail to email, Internet to internet, cell phone to cellphone) and the vocabulary of modern institutions (health care to healthcare), along with words like duffel bag (which I’m betting will become duffle bag first-preference spelling in MW within a few years) and Dumpster (a trademark succumbing to genericization like xerox, google, and photoshop).

(Another interesting aside: Genericize hasn’t made it into MW online unabridged yet, but I can find it all over the Internet and hear it in conversation. If I adhere too closely to my core references, then I can claim a word doesn’t exist!)

Mechanical Minutiae

House-style decisions involving italics, dialogue, dashes, and ellipses come up so often that I’ve standardized my practices and keep a checklist on my style sheet template to remind me to address them every time.

Italics

I follow CMoS for italics use in general, which in fiction occurs commonly in media titles of complete works, ship and aircraft names, foreign languages, words as words, letters as letters, sounds, and emphasis. What I encounter most often, though, is silent speech: thoughts, remembered or nonverbalized remarks, dreams, and telepathy, all of which are conventionally italicized. It only gets problematic when telepathic communication goes on for paragraphs or pages. That much italic text is tough on a reader’s eyes, yet nonverbal communication must be set off from the main narrative by some system or other for the reader’s comprehension.

Before desktop word processing, authors only had underscore and all-caps available, later bolding, to indicate what would end up as italics when the book was typeset. Nowadays, if they use those styles for emphasis, they announce themselves to readers as amateurs whose work is not yet ready for submission or publication. I therefore ensure those styles get stripped from the manuscript and replaced with italics, or otherwise set off for clarity.

Direct thoughts can be handled in different ways, such as:

What’s that all about? (no tag; speaker identified by context)

What’s that all about? he wondered.

What’s that all about, he wondered.

What’s that all about? he wondered.

“What’s that all about?” he wondered.

I favor using italics and dropping the tag where possible. The important thing about thoughts is that they must be in first-person voice, regardless of whether the voice of the narrative is in first or third person. If not, then they are considered indirect thoughts and kept in roman (e.g., What was that all about? he wondered).

A recent project challenged my standard italics practice. The main character had long psychic dialogues with an alien entity on another planet light-years away, and we needed a way to make it clear who was “talking.” In these dialogues, the characters were disembodied, so the usual gestures, actions, and expressions that make speakers obvious weren’t available to use. The option of inserting “he said” at changes got intrusive.

After experimenting with different combinations of italics and quotation marks, none of which worked gracefully, I recalled a trick I’d seen in a short story I’d edited the year before, where the author distinguished between an individual character’s thoughts and his psychic dialogue with another character by using European-style quotation marks, guillemets (« »). I ended up putting these around the alien’s communication. They instantly and obviously distinguished his words from the human character’s words, providing a visual break in block italic text while enabling readers to follow the story.

Part Three continues with examples of when and when not to apply house style, and a summary of the benefits of having a house style.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

February 5, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part One — Establishing Parameters

Carolyn Haley

Managing independence is the biggest challenge of being an independent editor who works with independent authors. There’s no rule book, no boss to tell you what to do (aside from certain “musts” pertaining to conducting business legally and ethically).

I feel the absence of rules and bosses when editing dilemmas arise between technical correctness and creative license, as often occurs in fiction. Although numerous style guides and editorial forums exist to advise editors and writers, these resources don’t all agree on how to handle the complexities of language and context. In addition, publishing is an unregulated industry, so there is no official set of rules that all participants must comply with. Instead, publishers and independent editors are free to establish their own editorial criteria, with no one looking over their shoulders.

These editorial criteria — the “house style” — are built upon whichever dictionary and style guide a publishing house prefers, then are customized over time by staff preferences. For example, a house’s dictionary of choice might spell “e-mail” with the hyphen, but the company prefers it solid and adds “email” to its internal style sheet. Similar distinctions might be directed for capitalization (e.g., Internet vs. internet), one-word/two-word spellings (e.g., cellphone vs. cell phone), and when and how to use italics, ellipses, and en- and em-dashes.

Freelance editors working for publishers usually receive house style information and are required to adhere to it during the edit or be able to defend why an exception should be made. Independent editors working with indie authors, however, can choose which guidelines to follow for which kinds of jobs.

Building a House Style

After years of swaying in the opinion winds, I followed the publishing company lead and developed my own house style. Although I am not a publishing company, I am a business serving the publishing industry. Being an independent editor makes me the CEO, accounting and contracts departments, managing editor, and “chief cook and bottle washer” of my own enterprise, DocuMania. Why not create my own, official, DocuMania house style?

I was already halfway there, according to my style sheet template, which carries from job to job the conventions I’ve established for items that turn up routinely in client manuscripts. Despite the variability that characterizes fiction, some patterns have emerged that I now prepare for instead of waiting for them to surprise me. In these areas, I’ve decided to treat all manuscripts the same unless deviation is appropriate in an individual situation. More on this in Parts Two and Three of this essay.

In general, I set up macros and datasets where possible to help flag and fix terms and expressions that appear in the majority of client manuscripts. These relate mainly to Americanisms and personal preferences. More on this, too, in Parts Two and Three.

In some situations, it’s faster and easier for me to work with hard copy, so I have created a “cheat sheet” for items that refuse to stick in my memory. It lets me check certain items at a glance instead of wasting time looking them up again. For example, with light-headed or lighthearted — which one takes the hyphen? Same with V-8 or V8 — which one is the motor and which is the brand of vegetable juice? Is the word wracked in such expressions as wracked with pain spelled with or without the w? In which cases are awhile and a while one or two words?

My cheat sheet, style sheet template, and datasets, combined with my core reference works (discussed below), create a framework for operational and editorial consistency while leaving room for the flexibility my job demands. Flexibility is important because fiction is a freestyle form of expression. Like all writing, it has to be coherent, consistent, and credible, and the language essentially correct to connect with readers. Within those boundaries, however, the fiction author has total creative freedom.

Editing fiction can be like the proverbial herding of cats, or juggling plates and forks and beach balls at the same time. For indie editors like myself, each client presents a different writing style, voice, technical ability, education, and story type and subject; each has different publishing goals and opportunities, and understanding of the marketplace; and each has a different budget and priorities. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to editing client work, so it’s up to me to decide the rules of engagement. By establishing a house style, I can reduce the number of moving parts and focus on a work’s individualism.

Core References

Step one of establishing my house style was choosing my core reference sources. This amounted to deciding which editorial authorities I should I base my work on.

That was easy, because I’ve been following the same path since I took my copyediting certificate course way back when. In that course, I was taught that Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (MW) were the “industry standard” style and spelling guides in book publishing, with Words into Type as a supporting resource. I duly acquired and studied them, found them sensible and palatable, and willingly embraced them.

I swiftly learned through my early work, which was anything I could coax in the door, that different arms of the publishing industry favor other dictionaries and grammar/style/usage guides. Newspapers and magazine publishers, for instance, tend to follow the Associated Press Stylebook, whereas some textbook and journal publishers lean toward the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association or the American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style. There are many more across and within each subject area.

For dictionaries, some publishing houses and independent editors like the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Others prefer the Cambridge Dictionary of American English, the Oxford American Dictionary, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English — or all of the above, or any other. Specialized fields have their own preferences, such as Stedman’s Medical Dictionary for medical editing. A library’s worth of subject-specific reference works exists, and, like most editors, I keep adding to my collection.

Once the Internet arrived, many reference works expanded to offer their material online as well as in print, and new resources came into being. Editors and writers now add electronic bookmarks to their pool of resources, and make good use of Google and online versions of major style guides — as well as quickly and easily accessible Q&A services for those guides.

It amounts to an embarrassment of riches that I find, simultaneously, a boon and a burden. The boon should be obvious: Whatever information one needs for making editorial decisions is almost always available at one’s fingertips. The burden comes from having too much information available, and no lodestar to follow when navigating a path through it. In the absence of some authority dictating a dictionary/style guide pairing specifically for fiction, I decided to stick with the ones I’m most familiar with, that is, MW and CMoS. No publisher I’ve edited novels for has directed me to use anything else, nor has any independent author asked me to comply with a particular dictionary or style guide. Consequently, the MW/CMoS pairing provides a solid foundation for me to build upon.

To round them out with grammar and usage guides, I floundered until a colleague informed me about Garner’s Modern American Usage. (Since then, a new edition has come out, with the name slightly changed to Garner’s Modern English Usage). That has proven to be a boon in itself. If I can’t find guidance for a conundrum in CMoS, or need expansion on that guidance to reach a decision, I almost always find it in Garner’s. This resources dovetails with CMoS through its author, Bryan Garner, who not only is a contributor to CMoS but also wrote The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation.

In a manner similar to how Garner’s and CMoS reflect each other, Merriam-Webster offers multiple dictionaries and associated resources. Their online unabridged dictionary includes condensed access to medical terminology, French and Spanish, and citations, plus a thesaurus and a style guide. On my bookshelf I keep MW’s Biographical Dictionary and Geographical Dictionary for people and place names. Between the MW and CMoS families of reference works for spelling, grammar, and usage, I find most of what I need to look up during fiction editing.

These resources don’t cover everything, of course, which is why I and other editors need the broadest library we can compile, along with Internet access. But using MW and CMoS as core resources gives me a frame of reference to support my editorial actions and authority, and minimizes the time I must put into addressing variables.

The Deviation Factor

My house style comes into play most often on points where, as Garner’s often says, “authorities are divided.”

For instance, when it comes to capitalizing the first word of a sentence following a colon, CMoS advises, “When a colon is used within a sentence . . . the first word following the colon is lowercased unless it is a proper name.” This general guideline is followed by advice on how to treat other, specific instances. The Associated Press Style Stylebook, conversely, says, “Capitalize the first word after a colon only if it is a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence.”

Garner’s, meanwhile, gives many examples of when to cap or not after a colon, and the rationale behind them, plus an overview statement: “Authorities agree that when a phrase follows a colon, the first word should not be capitalized (unless, of course, it’s a proper noun). But when a complete clause follows the colon, authorities are divided on whether the first word should be capitalized.”

Garner goes on to exemplify how experts might come to choose their own preferences, concluding, “The first three bulleted examples in the preceding paragraph follow the prevalent journalistic practice: the first word is capitalized. But the other view — urging for a lowercase word following the colon — is probably sounder: the lowercase (as in this very sentence) more closely ties the two clauses together. That’s the style used throughout this book. It’s also the house style for The New Yorker . . .”

After studying all that, and comparing it to the seemingly endless ways that novelists can construct sentences, I decided that the DocuMania house style would take the simplest route: “Capitalize the first word of a complete sentence following a colon” (except when an individual situation calls for a different practice). That gives me approximately nine occasions out of ten when I don’t have to stop and review exceptions, ponder their relevance, compare different authorities’ opinions, and decide who’s right. In fiction, whether a colon is followed by a cap rarely disrupts a reader’s attention or changes a sentence’s meaning. The colon’s purpose in narrative is to signal that the following thought closely aligns with the first (or, as Garner puts it, “promises the completion of something just begun”).

What matters more than the cap is that the colon is used appropriately. Garner includes a helpful summary of when the colon is used inappropriately. That occurs more often in my clients’ material than situations where the fine shades of capitalizing after a colon influence reader comprehension.

With these core resources established, I have a framework in place to address the many variables that occur in fiction. Parts Two and Three explore some of those details.

The bottom line is that I now have a house style for my business that makes my editing fiction life easier.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

May 4, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Where to Find Fiction Work

Where to Find Fiction Work

by Carolyn Haley

There’s no shortage of novels being written these days, along with a growing number of novellas and short stories for the ePub sector. So there’s no shortage of opportunity for fiction editors.

While staff editors in a publishing company receive work through established channels, independent editors must pursue it — especially when starting their careers. Happily, work comes from many places.

Most traditional publishers now contract out copyediting, proofreading, and production, and sometimes line and developmental editing. To get this work, freelance editors must either know somebody who can refer them to the appropriate staff editor, or locate and contact that editor and ask to be added to the freelancer list.

Either way, there are five possible outcomes: (1) Immediate success. (2) Your contact letter and résumé will be filed for future reference, and you’ll need to follow up regularly to ensure that it remains at the top of the pile. (3) The staff editor will send you a copyediting test, either in response to your inquiry or when the editor processes a batch of inquiries at her convenience. (4) Assuming you pass the test, you will either be filed for future reference or start receiving work in the next few days/weeks/months, depending on the company’s workload. (5) You will get no response, no matter how many times you follow up.

These options may occur with publishing companies large and small. It is much easier to get on the lists for smaller and newer companies, especially those that publish ebooks only. Likewise with author-services (aka “self-publishing”) companies. These put out many books rapidly and need a team of available editors capable of fast turnaround. All such companies can be found through Internet research.

Then there are independent authors, who surf the Net looking for independent editors. They find us through our websites or through organizations we’re affiliated with. First, they usually try word-of-mouth, which for editors is one of the most valuable means of obtaining clients. Satisfied authors refer their friends; overloaded colleagues, or those solicited for jobs outside their specialty, need someone to pass projects to, or to cover their workload while on vacation. The best way to build a network is to attend editorial conferences, such as the annual Communication Central event in Rochester, NY, and join e-mail lists and forums, such as Copyediting-L and the Editorial Freelancers Association. These organizations also post job opportunities.

As the world of solopreneurs expands and invents its own enterprises, packagers and private networks are increasingly common. Some offer full publishing services, others are editorial only, but both draw in work through a specific channel(s) then distribute it to a stable of associates or members. Entry into these groups is via networking or direct approach, as with publishers.

Even bookstores now offer editorial opportunities, through the Espresso Book Machine. Originally intended to provide print-on-demand books to customers, the Espresso system also allows independent authors to publish themselves. Espresso providers usually include related services, such as editorial and design, and maintain a database of local people who offer them.

Bidding sites like Elance abound with opportunities (though competition tends to focus on low prices and fast turnarounds). Publishing-industry job boards like Mediabistro post work opportunities for freelance as well as staff editors. Even some review organizations, such as Kirkus, have established editorial/publishing arms and periodically advertise for editors.

In every case, indie editors must make themselves known to the organization. Almost without exception, work does not magically arrive on one’s doorstep. The exceptions include random and serendipitous encounters through one’s personal activities that lead to paying work.

This sort of luck is facilitated by carrying business cards wherever one goes and handing them out liberally. Also from introducing one’s occupation in any conversational opening. The magic of networking is never knowing from whence a new connection might come.

Regardless of source, the indie editor must decide what to accept and how to handle it. When traditional publishers are the client, especially the “Big 5” houses, there is usually little choice about what reference works to use, what style or style sheet conventions to follow, and what pay rate and timetable are involved. In compensation, the manuscripts are usually well-groomed, enjoyable reads, and the work goes smoothly.

All bets are off when working for indie authors, but the compensation for the editor is that the editor is in control. You can set your rates and timetable, define your services, and establish the communication flow and conditions. No middleman between you and the author.

With so many channels to choose from, and the publishing industry going through so many changes so quickly, editors are challenged to find a single steady stream of well-paying work. As far as I can discern, the best-dollar option is developmental editing direct for serious indie authors with stout incomes. The lowest-dollar option seems to be copyediting and proofreading for e-only presses, author-services companies, and individuals found through bidding sites and general classified ads. But new freelance fiction editors have to gain experience somewhere (if they’re not top-tier pros who got laid off from a traditional publishing job), so the low end makes a great training ground.

For freelance editors, in general, the more people in the chain between you and the author, the more dollars that are dispersed to others before you. Conversely, the more channels you draw from, the more secure your workflow and income will be over time. Which you choose depends on what work you want to do, how much you need to earn, what you’re good at, and your marketing savvy. Self-employed editors have the advantage of being able to shift with the winds of fortune.

Those winds are gusty today, and likely to be more so tomorrow. The one thing that will never change is people wanting to tell and share their stories. Editors who can tap into that will always find work.

Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

July 7, 2014

Worth Noting: A Great Book Deal at Smashwords

Do you like to give indie authors a chance? I do and I’m happy to say I have found and read a great many excellent books by indie authors, some of which I have reviewed here on An American Editor (see, e.g., “Worth Noting: Daisy’s War by Shayne Parkinson,” “On Books: Eden by Keary Taylor,” “The Book of Adam: Stimulating Thought Via a Novel,” “On Books: Ice Blue,” and my favorite indie author, Vicki Tyley, “On Books: Murder Down Under“; other reviews of indie books can be found by searching An American Editor).

I usually wait until the summer and winter sales at Smashwords to buy indie books because of the significant discount that many authors give. Sometimes it is a coupon to get the first book in a series free, sometimes it is a coupon for 25%, 50%, or 75% off the usual retail price. Regardless, I usually find a few books to add to my to-be-read pile. In addition to the discount, all of the books let you read a significant portion for free, either by downloading the sample or online. You don’t have to buy and hope.

The Smashwords July Summer/Winter Sale has begun and it runs through July 31. Use the filters or just start browsing all of the on-sale books. (NOTE: Books purchased at Smashwords can be downloaded in all popular formats and are DRM free.)

Additional books are generally added throughout the month so it is a good idea to make a couple of trips to the Smashwords sale to see what new books have been added (they appear at the beginning of the lists).

I suggest bookmarking Smashwords and visiting it regularly throughout the year. It is an excellent place to find indie authors. Also, titles that appear at Smashwords also often appear at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online ebook sellers.

If you buy some books at Smashwords, please be sure to let us know what they are. Other An American Editor readers may well be interested in the books.

Smashwords July Summer/Winter Sale 2014

Richard Adin, An American Editor

(Neither Richard Adin nor An American Editor receives any compensation of any type for promoting Smashwords or the July sale. I promote it because I think it is of great value to readers and to indie authors.)

January 19, 2014

Worth Reading: Lifting the Ladder

Mercia McMahon’s essay, “Lifting the Ladder,” is well worth reading, especially if you are interested in targeting the indie author market. McMahon offers an interesting idea, writing, “Instead of trying to lift the ladder up from the working classes, these middle class authors should seek their validation in a simpler and more traditional answer; establishing a publishing house.”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 18, 2013

Author Lamentations: eBook Week Sales

Filed under: Books & eBooks,Indie Authors — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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The week of March 3-10 was “Read an eBook Week,” which is a week that I particularly look forward to each year. It is the week when many authors put their ebooks on sale, with discounts ranging from 25% to 100% of the normal price. Smashwords is a major promoter of this event, and is usually where I go to buy more ebooks for my to-be-read pile.

In past years, I have spent several hundred dollars on indie ebooks during this week, and I have also “bought” a goodly number of 100%-discount ebooks. This year I bought 3 ebooks plus a dozen of the 100%-discount ebooks. I simply could not find more ebooks from indie authors that interested me; I did find several that I am interested in buying in the future, but I felt no rush to buy them now because they were not on sale. If I’m going to pay full price, I’ll pay it when I am ready to read the ebook, not before.

On some of the fora in which I participate, authors were lamenting that “Read an eBook Week” didn’t boost sales. One complaining author noted that before eBook Week his sales were at zero and during eBook Week his sales remained flat at zero. In his case, I think three things were at work: first, he didn’t discount his book at all during a week when readers expect to find a discount; second, the subject-matter/genre of his ebook was not one that draws readers like bees to honey; and third, whether his book had ever seen the helping hand of a professional editor was doubtful based on the sample.

Other complaining authors noted slight upticks in sales, but not anything to boast about.

This year, unlike past years, authors seemed to be quiet about “Read an eBook Week.” I saw very few pushes to get the word out by these indie authors, which made me wonder how they expected to get readers to notice their books. Many of them also opted for the smaller discounts. I admit that I didn’t even bother to look at books in the 25% discount category and only once spent a little time in the 50% discount category. Most of my browsing was on the 75% and 100% discount categories, and based on comments made in response to the complaining authors, it appears my browsing was typical.

It is clear to me that authors with low to middling sales during eBook Week made several fundamental errors. First, they did little to no self-promotion so potential readers were not made aware of their ebooks. Stores like Smashwords promote the week itself, not individual ebooks; it is up to the indie author to promote his or her ebook, which means the author needs to make sure that tags are appropriate and numerous, that descriptions are well-written and targeted, and that the correct genre(s) are associated with the ebook. For example, I do not like books about vampires or the Harlequin-type romances or “gothic” novels. Consequently, when I see tags that identify an ebook as fitting in one of those categories, I pass it by. Of course, other readers cannot get enough of those categories, so they would be attracted — if the ebook is properly tagged and described.

The second error was that they had a bad combination of too high a retail price and too low a discount for their book. Many ebookers are like me — reluctant to spend $5.99 on an ebook from an author with whom they are unfamiliar and a 25% discount is little inducement. Authors need to think about the promotion. Many of these same authors joined Amazon’s exclusive program and offered their ebook for free at Amazon for 5 days. So why not offer a steep discount for the 7 days of eBook Week?

The third error that a number of authors made was to offer the steep discount on the second or third book in a series, rather than on the first book. I cannot imagine what thinking lies behind that decision. Once I saw that the ebook was the second or third in a series and that the first book was not being discounted, I just moved on. I suspect many readers did the same.

The fourth error was in offering the same ebook this year as they offered last year and even the year before. I would think that by now most readers who are interested in the offered book have already obtained it. One of the purposes of eBook Week is to not only introduce your ebook to new readers but to reignite interest in you in readers who have some familiarity with you but who do not view your ebooks as “must” reads.

The fifth error was the failure to take the opportunity to rewrite the blurbs. Poorly written blurbs can kill a sale. If you haven’t been selling a steady stream of ebooks, perhaps it is time to rewrite the blurb — give the ebook a fresh coat of paint, but paint of a different color.

The sixth error is really not an error except in broad terms: It is the failure to recognize that it is possible that the subject matter of your ebook just doesn’t have broad appeal or that if it does fall into the broad appeal area, that perhaps other books are better written (and better promoted). In other words, this isn’t like A Field of Dreams where “if you write it, they will find it”

or “if you write it, they will buy it.”

Readers tend to be a bit fussier than that.

I’m sure that only a few authors not guilty of all six failures, but every author who had disappointing sales during eBook Week is guilty of one or more of these failures. As an indie author, it is the author’s responsibility to fix these failures, yet I am sure that many will take no corrective action and will find other excuses for why eBook Week was a failure for their ebook.

I have said this before, but it is worth repeating: There is a natural progression to getting someone to buy your ebook. It begins with the cover, runs through the story’s development to the editing of the manuscript, and ends with the promotional efforts made by the author. A weakness in one area can be devastating. The indie author needs to be sure that current weaknesses are identified and addressed so as to pave the path for success. Authors who were disappointed by this year’s eBook Week have a year until the next eBook Week and so can work toward making next year a success.

February 11, 2013

Why Some Indie Authors Fail

Notice

I recently finished reading a series of books by an indie author and I wanted to buy more of the author’s books. Apparently, there aren’t any more of the author’s books available, but the next volume in the series is due … sometime. My questions are: How will I know when the next book become available? Will I care when it is finally available?

There are certain authors who I occasionally check to see if they have published another book. I check at Barnes & Noble and Smashwords; I do not check at Amazon because I can’t use an Amazon-formatted or DRMed ebook on either my Sony or Nook. (Yes, I am aware of Calibre and know that I can format shift DRM-free ebooks using it, and even that there are plug-ins that will remove some DRM — but many, if not most, ebookers won’t go to the trouble or don’t know how to do it, and I do not support authors who go the Amazon-exclusive route.)

So how does the indie author who wrote a decent enough book that I am interested in the author’s next book (a) let me know the book is available and (b) keep my interest? What I have discovered is that many indie authors provide no way for a reader to say “please e-mail me when volume 2 is available.” Too many indie authors think that in 1 month, let alone in 6 months, I will still remember who they are or that I want to buy and read their next book.

The truth, of course, is otherwise. Yes, I will remember the exceptional authors — the ones who I rate 5 or 5+ out of 5 stars, but there are very few of them. I will not remember the author whose book was a good, not great, read — the 4 out of 5 stars (and possibly even the 3 out of 5 stars) ebook.

Every indie author should have a live link in their ebook that lets a reader signup to be notified when the next book by the author becomes available. Not a signup for a newsletter or for anything other than a single e-mail that says “you read my book XYZ and asked to be notified when my next ebook became available. It is now available at these stores/places: (here insert links).” Very few authors are memorable, so readers need an easy way to add their name to a remember-me list.

I should point out that this is a major failing of Smashwords and Barnes & Noble, too — perhaps even Amazon, Apple, Sony, and Kobo, but I am not familiar with their systems as I do not shop at their stores. Smashwords and B&N should allow me to go to my purchases and click a button to ask to be specifically notified when an author (of my choosing, not all authors whose books I have purchased) publishes a new book that is available at their bookstores.  In the case of Smashwords, this option should also be available even if I have not purchased the ebook from it, because Smashwords is both a bookstore and a distributor and I may well have bought the book at a different retailer.

Disrespect

As important as it is for an author to let me know that the author has a new book available, that failure to provide me with a means to learn of the new book is really a secondary reason of failure. The primary reason is a disrespect for words and language, which is really a lack of respect for the reader.

This disrespect takes many forms and ranges from not caring to ignorance. For example, I just read an ebook (no, I didn’t finish it and will not finish it) in which the author repeatedly refers to people/person(s) as that instead of who, uses wonder when wander is meant, and uses common when c’mon is meant. There are also numerous other poor word, punctuation, and grammar choices, which poor choices make me wonder if the author has ever read a book he didn’t write.

Words are an author’s weapon of choice. They must be carefully chosen and used correctly to ensure that the message is sent and understood as intended. I’ve said this before numerous times: writing must communicate the author’s message accurately and understandably.

Consequently, if nothing else, every author should have a good grasp of two fundamental legs of writing: grammar and spelling. If an author wasn’t a brilliant grammarian in school, perhaps the author should invest in a grammar book. Note that I said a grammar and not a style book. It does not matter whether the author writes one hundred or 100 — that is a matter of style but in neither instance will a reader misunderstand. But it does matter if an author uses due to when caused by is meant, or uses that when who is meant, or a sentence is confusing because the first clause is in the present tense and the second clause is in the past tense.

As you know, I think every author needs a good, professional copyeditor, and oftentimes also needs a good, professional developmental editor (for the difference between the two, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). A good editor would prevent embarrassments like common for c’mon and give the author some credibility that perhaps the author doesn’t deserve. It is this disrespect for language, whether intentional or unintentional, by some indie authors that causes them to fail.

The Editor

Recently, I had a discussion with an indie author about some editing suggestions I had made. The author was livid, believing that my suggestions — and it is important to note that what an editor proposes are suggestions for the author to accept or reject — distorted her writing. To no avail, I tried to point out that you cannot have the heroine arrowshot in the left shoulder on page 10 and a healer fixing the arrow-made wound in the right shoulder on page 12, unless you indicate between pages 10 and 12 that the heroine was arrowshot a second time in the opposite shoulder.

There were many of these types of mistakes in the text but even more important, I think, the author kept writing sentences like “Justine, that was shot by….” I kept suggesting that “Justine, that” should be “Justine, who” but the author knew better.

Needless to say, we parted ways, but I found the discord instructive. An author should be hiring an editor to fill a gap in the author’s knowledge and skills, not for the sake of being able to claim that the book was edited — especially not if the author intends to discard all of the editor’s suggestions. Yet a number of indie authors are unable to recognize their limits and thus cannot make good use of the professional editor’s skills. Viewing your editor as your enemy rather than your friend is asking to fail.

Some indie authors fail because they do not provide a means to notify readers of future writing; some because they disrespect the language of writing; some because they view their editor as their enemy and not their friend. Each of these failing ways is correctable; it just takes effort and determination.

July 9, 2012

On Books: The Agony of Reading Franz McLaren’s Clarion of Destiny

One thing I hate about article titles is that they are length limited and thus tend to sweep with broad strokes. Such is the case with this title.

This is the partial saga of my encounter with an 8-volume fantasy series called “Clarion of Destiny,” written by Franz S. McLaren. The series begins with Home Lost, which is available free at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble, as well as at other ebooksellers. I admit that I enjoyed Home Lost. I found the characters interesting and the story engrossing. Alas, I also found the repeated misuse of words distracting and annoying. But given that the book is free, it is still worthy of 4 stars.

The agony arises with the second volume, To Save Elderon. As soon as I finished Home Lost, I logged into my B&N account and looked for the next book. I found To Save Elderon, but was a bit taken aback by the price — $3.99. It is not that the price is high; rather, it is that it is high if this volume suffers from the same problems that the first volume did. The higher the price of the book, the less tolerant I am of fundamental spelling and grammar errors, errors that would have been caught and corrected by a professional editor.

Yet I had enjoyed the first book enough that I really did want to continue with the story, so, after hesitating over the price for a few seconds, I took the plunge and bought the book. After having read the second volume (which I rate at 2.5 to 3 stars), I was simultaneously sorry and pleased — the all-too-often agony and ecstasy of the indie book. Again, the story is intriguing, the characters interestingly developed, and I want to go on to the third book — yet I am not. I have decided that at $3.99 I should not be continuously insulted by language misuse.

How do I know I will be so abused? Smashwords offers sample previews of each of the volumes. Every volume suffers from the same illness: an author who seems not to know what either a dictionary or a grammar guide is for or how to use it. The only thing that could make this worse is if it turned out that McLaren was a public school English teacher.

How many times can I accept, for example, forth for fourth, there for their, were for where, then for than? McLaren writes disburse when he means disperse, to long ago when he means too long ago, that when he means who, cloths when he means clothes. And the list goes on, almost without end. I’m not convinced that he knows what purpose the apostrophe serves, because so many possessives lack one (e.g., the mornings work rather than the morning’s work) — perhaps a better way to say it is that too few (what should be) possessives include an apostrophe. And let’s not delve too deeply into the missing hyphenation in compounds or the missing commas, both of which ensure a struggle for readability and comprehension.

I need also mention that the author does a sloppy job of remembering his own characters’ names. The fairy Uwi becomes Renee before returning to Uwi; Niki becomes Nike and then Niki again. This problem of getting character names wrong happens several times with several characters throughout the series.

This is a case study of a good series that desperately needs attention from a professional editor. The story is intriguing and for a fantasy buff like me, even compelling, except for the necessary slogging through illiteracy. For free or 99¢, I can accept a lot of insult; for seven volumes at $3.99 each, my tolerance is very limited.

I grant that for a good story, $3.99 is not a lot to pay. I wouldn’t hesitate to pay it, but there has to be a convergence of good writing, good editing, and good story for me to shell out $3.99 seven times just to get a complete story. (It is not that each of the first two volumes cannot stand on their own; they can. Rather, it is that each tells only a part of the adventure and all eight volumes need to be read to get that complete adventure.) Those of you who have been reading An American Editor for a while know that I praise the writing of some indie authors, such as Vicki Tyley, Shayne Parkinson, and L.J. Sellers. I would not hesitate to buy one of their books at $4.99, let alone at the $2.99 that they charge, because their books are well-written, well-edited, and well-told stories. They use the correct words and understand the importance of punctuation.

It is the well-edited that is the missing leg in McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” series, which, when combined with a “high” price, causes the discerning reader to agonize over whether or not to read indie books. Unfortunately, it is books like McLaren’s that give a bad reputation to all indie books — at least among readers who care about grammar, spelling, and word choice. The most common statement I see on various forums regarding indie books is that the commenter won’t buy them because the quality too often is poor. I buy them knowing that of 10 indie books, only one or two will be readable or worth reading. I don’t mind having to separate the wheat from the chaff, but that is also why I won’t spend more than 99¢ on an introduction to a new indie author and I prefer that the first book from an unknown author be free.

What I do mind, however, is to find an author who spins a good story — a story worth reading and recommending — but who is so careless with language, yet wants a higher price for his or her stories, that the story cannot overcome the barrage of insults the reader needs to absorb. The point is that the lower the price the author asks, the more tolerant the reader should be; conversely, the higher the price the author asks, the less tolerant the reader should be!

So, now I am in a quandary over McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” series. I am inclined to reward the author for writing a good story, one that holds my interest. Simultaneously, I am disinclined to reward the author for his apparent indifference to the fundamentals of good writing — correct language use and grammar. The asking price of $3.99 is probably the fulcrum point where the competing inclination and disinclination are at balance. I am certain in my mind that were the asking price $4.99, I would not have even considered buying the second book in the series; at $3.99 it was an OK gamble, albeit a gamble that I lost as the misuse got worse. It is also clear to me that because the story is as good as it is, were the price $1.99, I would hesitate but I would buy.

I am aware that $2 is not a lot of money in the scheme of things. For me, it is not so much about the $2 as it is about the message I send when I spend that $2. Buying the seven books at the $3.99 price tells the author that his misuse of grammar and language is OK. Is that really the message I want to send?

As I said, $3.99 is, for me, the point of balance between inclination and disinclination. I am undecided as to what I will do. For now, I will set aside McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” and move on to other books and series. In a month or two, if I still remember the series, I’ll revisit the issue. If I remember the series, it will be a sign that I should spend the money; if I forget about the series, my not spending the money was a wise decision for me.

Regardless of what I ultimately do, I think the time is rapidly coming when indie authors who do not want to simply give all their work away for free need to encourage readers to buy their books by ensuring that they are well-written, well-edited, and have a compelling narrative — the three legs that form the support for success.

May 23, 2012

On Books: Are Indie Authors Doing the Best They Can?

I know the question seems odd. Of course, indie authors are writing the best books they can. This seems an obvious answer, so why ask the question? Perhaps because the answer defines the problem: writing the best book they can is not enough in this age of self-publishing.

In the 1990s, I ran a small publishing company. I had to find the authors to publish, arrange for editing, hire the designer, and take care of all the production details — including arranging for a print run and warehousing of the printed books. This was before the age of ebooks. My biggest challenge was distribution: If the book didn’t appear on bookstore bookshelves, it was more than a guaranteed money loser — it was a sure disaster.

In the days before ebooks, it was a delicate balancing act to determine the correct print run and the retail price of a book. Too small of a print run and too low of a price guaranteed a loss even if every book was sold at 100% retail. Too large of a print run and/or too high a retail price also was problematic.

The age of ebooks has changed the dynamics. I wish I were running that small publishing company today because ebooks and the Internet have solved or reduced many of the problems of print publishing, especially those of finding books worthy of being published and distribution. But the eBook Age has changed an even more important dynamic because it has made self-publishing by indie authors viable.

Yet I wonder if these indie authors are really doing the best that they can.

All of the jobs that the traditional publisher performed in the 1970s and 1980s now need to be done by the indie author. Some do the jobs very well; others seem to miss the boat.

One of the first lessons that every indie author needs to learn is that they must always be selling their writing. You can’t just write and hope someone else will pick up the sales ball. I know that seems obvious, but it is the scope of what constitutes selling that I think gets missed. Even such simple things as how the ebook is designed is selling. Choosing the right typeface and font size is selling. Providing metadata for running heads for those devices that will display a running head is selling. Participation in forums of readers and constantly mentioning your writing is selling. A well-done cover design is selling.

For many people, selling themselves is the hardest thing to do in the world. It is why in law firms the “rainmakers” are considered more valuable than any other attorney in the firm; it is the rainmakers who bring in the business by selling themselves and the firm. The indie author has to be his or her own rainmaker.

The point I am trying to make, and probably not well, is that it is not enough to write a fabulous story; the indie author must constantly sell it to get people to read it and talk about it, and the selling can’t be just at their own website. In addition, indie authors need to learn the lesson that everything they do should be geared toward selling their writing.

The other day I complained about authors who write series but provide no synopsis of what happened in previous books in the series. This is a failure of not thinking through who one’s beta readers are. If you use as beta readers only people already familiar with your work, you lose the perspective of new readers who stumble on your books and choose the newest release rather than the oldest release to read. Authors should not assume that even devoted fans will remember plot details that are essential to understanding the current book in a series but which occurred in prior books. A good publisher (even a good editor) would/should identify this weakness; consequently, the indie author needs to be able to step back and identify it as well.

Here’s something else: I am a fan of several indie authors and I look forward to reading the next book they write. But my failing is that I do not keep a list of these authors and do a search at B&N or Smashwords to see if they have released a new book. Their failing as an indie author is not finding a way to get my e-mail address and not only telling me that they have released a new ebook and here are the B&N/Smashwords link(s), but not sending me an e-mail every three to four months to tell me that they are still working on their next book and hope to have it available by x date.

If I had to recommend one particularly good source that every indie author should emulate, it is Baen Publishing. Not its website, but its monthly mailing. Every month I receive an e-mail telling me the progress its authors are making on forthcoming books. I am told when a book is quarter done, half done, in review copy, and published, among other steps. By the time a book is published, I have received at least a half-dozen e-mails that mention the book, thus keeping the author and the book in front of me — that is, selling the author and the book to me.

I have read a good number of indie-authored ebooks that should be selling significantly more copies than are being sold. Certainly, I think that every indie author whose ebooks I have reviewed and rated 5 or 5+ stars should be selling thousands more copies than they are. That they are not indicates to me that they are exceptional writers who feel uncomfortable creating a business plan for selling their ebooks. Thus, the answer to my question is, “No, indie authors are not doing the best they can!”

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