An American Editor

August 24, 2022

Thinking Fiction: An Open Letter to the Fiction Publishing Industry

© Carolyn Haley, Fiction Columnist

Dear authors, editors, publishers, and readers:

I think we can all agree that novels exist for entertainment, enlightenment, and education — ideally in balanced combination.

Authors, your job is to create those stories. Take your vision — whatever it might be — and write it out with all your heart and soul, in the best language you can compose.

Editors, your job is to help authors refine their vision and language so their stories are clearly and easily comprehensible to the people who want to read them.

Publishers, your job is to convert authors’ visions into consumable products aimed at the people most likely to be receptive to the content and appreciate it. (For authors who self-publish, the idea is the same.) Then help get the word out.

Readers, your job is to seek out the kinds of novels you enjoy reading, expanding your tastes and horizons now and then — and support the people who provide the works by purchasing and/or reviewing and/or referring their stories to other readers and influencers.

The one thing that none of you can rightfully do is stop anyone from expressing themselves and putting out their work to the public, nor stop any reader from selecting what they want to read. No book banning or burning. None of you are the thought police.

Here’s how it works instead.

Authors, who usually are readers first, don’t have to read or write about what doesn’t interest or compel them. Their best efforts arise from what does interest and compel them, usually resulting in their most powerful stories. Such stories might prove to be controversial, which can make or break a book’s sales or even an author’s career. If an author isn’t willing to accept that possibility, then they should not release the book.

Independent editors are under no obligation to work on manuscripts that don’t interest them, or that offend or repel them. Their business goal should be connecting with authors who are producing materials that do interest and excite them. If they see an incompatible book coming or receive one (whether unsolicited or discussed beforehand), then they should decline it. If they make the wrong call and end up with a project that upsets them, then they should get out of it by whatever means. Having contracts with escape clauses helps with handling this aspect of the project or interaction.

The problem is different for staff editors at publishing houses: To keep their jobs, they might have to work on material that upsets them. In such cases, they must act according to their principles. That means either sucking up and dealing with the upsetting book, or waving good-bye to their employer.

Publishers can reject manuscripts that don’t support their business or editorial positions. There is no moral obligation for them to publish everything.

Readers have the option of not buying a book that doesn’t work for them, and to close it midstride if they realize it’s the wrong story for them. They can also publicly diss or not recommend any book they feel is unworthy, just as they can praise and promote one they admire.

Designers have a role to play in this equation, too, by helping authors and publishers produce covers and descriptions that convey to readers what lies within. Done properly, this eliminates the need for “trigger warnings,” which in turn eliminates catering to political trends.

Everybody in the chain from first idea to product-in-hand has a responsibility toward the story content. Art — a broad umbrella that covers fiction — exists for people to view and respond to. It reflects the myriad qualities of the world, like it or not. Just because we disagree with an author’s work of fiction or find it uncomfortable doesn’t make it wrong or something to burn/ban or declare unpublishable.

It boils down to free choice in response to free speech in a free world. Unless the country you live in has a totalitarian regime, then writing, editing, publishing, and reading fall within the “to each their own” philosophy, letting us savor the vast and wonderful choice of creative works out there across the globe.

“Thinking Fiction“ columnist Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who 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 three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences. She can be reached at or through DocuMania.


May 3, 2011

Do You Reread Novels?

I recently wrote that most novel readers do not reread novels. One commenter challenged that assertion as odd, as she often rereads novels, even rereading some of them multiple times. So let’s do an admittedly unscientific poll of An American Editor readers.

Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when answering the questions.

  • First, this is limited to fiction in the novel form. Poetry, short stories, and other forms of fiction that are not book-length novels should not be considered when you decide on your responses.
  • Second, think about rereading over your entire adult reading life, not just in recent years. I’m excluding childhood and teen years because I think many of us did reread novels in those years. For example, my children read, for example, Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, and my neighbor’s children read Rowling’s Harry Potter books multiple times. I remember reading the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift novels multiple times in my youth.
  • Third, the questions need to be considered broadly. By that I mean if you have read 1,000 novels over your adult reading lifetime and have reread only a dozen of those novels, then you should consider yourself as not being a rereader and answer the first question no. I suspect all of us have a few novels that we have reread, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. To be considered a rereader, the percentage of novels that you reread should be a significant portion of the total number of novels you have read during your adult reading life.

Now, to the questions:

July 15, 2010

Aquiring Books for the TBR Pile: The Special Problem of eBooks

Avid readers are easily identified by the size of their TBR — to-be-read — pile: The bigger the list, the more likely the avid reader has crossed that fine line from avid read to avid hoarder. And ebooks are a special problem in this mix. But let’s begin at the beginning.

As my latest hardcover acquisitions were delivered by the post office, I decided it might be time to take a long, serious look at my TBR pile. The problem was that there were no spots available on my primary TBR bookshelf for these new books (only 2 this time, but I have several more due this month). My system isn’t scientific, but what it is, is this: When new books arrive, I put them on a top shelf because these are (supposedly) the books that are of most immediate interest to me and the ones that I think I will get to shortly. (Many, but not all, are added to my On Today’s Bookshelf articles, On Today’s BookshelfOn Today’s Bookshelf (II), and On Today’s Bookshelf (III).) But to add them to that shelf means that a book or two have to be moved from the shelf. Room is limited.

So now I have moved a couple of books off the primary TBR shelf and into the vast stacks of TBR. Perhaps I’ll get to the books moved, perhaps not — at least that is what I am finding. I currently have more than 200 hardcover books in my TBR pile and on my TBR shelf. And as I note, that is just my hardcover books.

Which brings us to the special problem of ebooks. Yes, ebooks are a special problem because they take up virtually no space — just a bunch of bits and bytes, digits if you will, on a disk that can store gigabytes of digits. And so that TBR pool steadily grows. I looked this morning and I have more than 300 TBR ebooks, and that pile keeps growing.

What happens is that I read an ebook from the TBR pile and discover that I really like the particular author’s style. So rather than picking up another book from the TBR pile, I go buy other books from this liked author and read them. Not only hasn’t my ebook TBR pile declined by more than the one book, it has likely grown as I’ve added more to it while reading the like author’s books. Of course, if I discover that the author is terrible (sadly, a not uncommon finding with ebooks), then I not only stop reading the current ebook, but I tend to remove the author’s other books from the TBR pile. But they don’t disappear; they are still in some ebook zip file on my hard drive, just no longer in my TBR pile.

But unlike the hardcover TBR pile in which each hardcover book was purchased for money — definitely, one would think, an incentive to actually open the book and at least try reading it — I discovered that a good 80% (and probably closer to 85%) of the ebooks in my ebook TBR pile cost me nothing — they were freebies. This represents another problem or two.

First, it means that I am relentlessly adding to my TBR because it doesn’t cost me anything to do so. But that also means that the author hasn’t received any benefit. The author can’t receive any benefit until I actually read the ebook and discover how truly great the author is (we can only pray and hope). But, second, it also means that what was at the top of last week’s ebook TBR list because it was the most recently acquired, is now lost somewhere down the list, and unless it has a catchy title, there isn’t anything about the ebook to move it up the list.

That is a distinct difference between an ebook and a hardcover in my two TBR piles. Even a hardcover that I haven’t yet read although I bought it 8 months ago has a good chance of being the next book I read from that pile. The cover can attract me as I glance over the stack or the title can catch my eye as I rapidly skim the pile. With ebooks, that is much harder. Covers are often so amateurish that they are a turn off rather than a turn on. And it isn’t easy to skim covers or even titles. Finally, let’s face it, few books — e or p — really have great, catchy titles. Titles are the last bastion of the great marketer and few of us are great marketers.

So when does the TBR pool become so overwhelming that one says “Stop!” It’s easy with my print books because they cost me money and require space to store and I can rationally (although I have yet to do it) give those books the old Clint Eastwood make-my-day squint and say, “Enough! No more buying of books until I read 50 of these books!” But that moment never comes with ebooks, especially with free ebooks. There is no cost and no storage problem.

Consequently, ebook authors are disserved by readers like me. They get rewarded if I actually read and like their book because I will then immediately buy and read nearly everything else they have written. But that is the problem — they need to get read in the first place, and the only way to do that is to be at the top of the list, which is itself nearly impossible. An ebook TBR is like the drowning pool.

I have to admit that part of the problem is the poor quality of so many ebook offerings. I want to hedge my bets and make sure I have plenty of choices because of every 10 ebooks I acquire, I am certain that 8 or 9 will be trashcanned within the first 30 pages of reading. (In case you wonder why, take a look at some past articles that can be found under the tag Professional Editor, such as On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!)

eBooks are a special TBR problem. I’m not sure how authors can solve it. It is truly a Catch-22: If you don’t offer a book for free, who will sample your work but if you do offer it for free, how can you know it will ever be read as opposed to hoarded? I suppose if you develop a reputation for quality that would help, but getting the word out that your writing is quality is tough. At least in my case, my ebook TBR pool is begging for a reliable solution.

February 11, 2010

A Modest Proposal V: Libraries & Indies in the eBook Age

Recent posts on some blogs and forums I visit have questioned the future viability of libraries in the future ebook world. These got me thinking about libraries and independent bookstores.

I think libraries are the repositories of knowledge; it would be tragic if they disappeared, removing a fantastic resource for learning and knowledge. Libraries are a great way to introduce children to the wonders of books and reading. When my children were young, library visits were a weekly excursion and I expect to repeat the same with my grandchildren.

But now libraries — and independent bookstores — face a threat of extinction through the growth of ebooks. I admit that my power in Washington is nil and that getting Congress to do anything to protect libraries in the digital age is beyond my abilities. So, instead, I’m offering a modest proposal that, hopefully, doesn’t take an act of overpaid politicians to accomplish. I admit that the idea is in the germinal stage, but I also think it’s one worth exploring.

I modestly propose that libraries and independent bookstores combine and create a new entity that I’ll call the Lindie for want of better imagination (shall we hold a contest for a better name?).

Currently, many communities have at least one large building dedicated to the local library. If there is an independent bookstore in the community, it usually is a very small affair and in precarious financial condition.

As things are presently constructed, libraries and indies work against each other’s best interests. Indies want to discourage readers from borrowing, preferring that they buy, and libraries want to encourage borrowing. Additionally, indies have to fight against online booksellers, the growing ebook market, and the chain bookstores — very daunting tasks. Libraries have to deal with declining numbers of readers.

But what if my local library became a book mall, a Lindie, a place where I can both borrow and buy? I would readily give up visits to Barnes & Noble and online book buying, and if not give up entirely, at least significantly reduce those visits and buying. The Lindie would be my choice for one-stop shopping for the reader.

No indie bookstore can carry on its shelves the variety of books that the library can; they simply can’t afford to. Many indie bookstores supplement their current books with “antiquarian” and specialty offerings. Think about a reader browsing the library shelves and then wandering over to the  in-library bookseller and buying a print or ebook version.

The indie bookstore would pay a rental income and perhaps a percentage of sales to the library, thereby helping the library fund its own purchases. The library would provide the shelf material, the inventory so to speak, for the bookseller. More importantly, the combined resources of the Lindie could enable the purchase or lease of an Espresso-type machine (the one that prints books to order, not the coffee type). Currently, this is cost prohibitive for most small indie bookstores.

Someone who read a borrowed book and really liked it or wanted to give it as a gift to a relative or friend could get a copy printed at a discount or purchase an ebook version on the spot. And because of lower business costs, the indie bookstore would be better able to compete against Amazon and B&N by offering  a comparable discount and still make money.

Suppose the indie had a book that someone was looking to read but didn’t want to buy and which was missing from the library’s collection. Why not have a system where the indie supplemented the library’s lending collection? Perhaps by directly lending for a fee or by allowing the library to “lease” the book on behalf of the borrower.

And don’t forget the marketing capabilities. Think about combined marketing and advertising, especially around holidays.

But, you ask, how does this help the library in the age of ebooks? By providing funds to the library to purchase and expand their pbook and ebook offerings, by offering a single place for book lovers to go and thus increasing lending, which is often the basis for financing, and by giving libraries a source of revenue they currently do not have. For the indies, the advantages are lower costs and a better ability to compete.

One other advantage to indies and libraries is that many libraries have community rooms, places to hold readings, signings, children’s activities, senior meetings, and the like. The indies could sponsor more community events to draw in community members and the libraries could offer those events at minimal to no cost it.

By turning into a book mall where one can both borrow and buy books in either ebook or pbook form, the Lindie offers a way to save two endangered species: the local library and the local bookstore. It’s a win-win, I think.

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