Sunday, 24 July 2011

Edited to add: why the best thing about self-publishing is NOT editing your books

Go on Whisper it. Self-publishing is becoming almost respectable. And it’s hardly surprising. Mark Edwards and Louise Voss’s 6 figure deal with Harper Collins (who, after the pair occupied the number 1 & 2 spots in the Kindle charts, admitted they might be onto something) is only the tip of a growing iceberg (one which I’m lucky enough to be somewhere at the base of, with my thriller The Company of Fellows selling 5000 copies and getting me invited to take part in a Rising Literary Stars panel at Blackwell’s bookstore).

But it’s a very particular (and inevitable) kind of self-publishing. And whilst I welcome it, it also makes me sort of hang my head in despair (the bittersweet ironic smile kind of despair I feel at the honour of being supported by Blackwell’s for my thriller two years after self-publishing my debut, the literary coming of age novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, that got stonking reviews wherever it *was* read but didn’t even make half a column inch in the local paper).

The warning signs were there a while back. Self-publishers are a marmite-y kind of bunch. Half of us are belligerent “dead tree books are screwed and legacy publishing’s dead” types. The other half are desperate to show we’re just as good as regular-published books (and half of those say it because they want a regular contract, whilst the other half want to control the process but compete for the same market).

But what almost all seem to have in common is an insistence that their books are just as good as regular-published books. And just as good almost always means edited to the same standard (most aren’t, of course, but their authors are buying into the game that they should be). And they have a point. 99% of books are better if they’re edited professionally. Because 99% of self-published books would like to be like regular books.

Now when it comes to self-publishing statistics matter. Every media essay I’ve seen on the subject of self-publishing has been about a number – copies sold, Kindle chart position, size of advance when the author went mainstream. I’ve yet to see one that talks intelligently and critically about the quality of a self-published book (oh, wait, there was a particularly dumbass piece somewhere sniping at John Locke’s books). But in the world of dumb-ass number crunching (I may need a bigger thesaurus because when it comes to the media’s treatment of self-publishing I find myself wanting to say dumbass a LOT), ignoring that 1% takes the dumbass-ness biscuit.

Because that 1% of books is what self-publishing was made for, and what will, ultimately, once Amazon has squeezed the regular “indie” authors back into the New Model Mainstream, be the ultimate reputation-saver for self-publishing.

Editing is the making of a commercial product and the breaking of art

That’s the simple thesis, and I’m not getting into a “what is art” debate.
Now editing in art can be a whole spectrum of things. At one end you have the watercolour painter who goes into the field behind their home and paints them, then sells or hangs the pictures as is. At the other end you have Phil Spector producing records with the unmistakable wall of sound signature stamp. Editing falls somewhere in the middle. On the one hand there’s copy-editing that’s rather like hiring a studio complete with sound guy so your download sounds polished (I hope even that simple analogy will show the flaw in the assumption that editing is always good – the “in your front room” acoustic or “on a dodgy amp in a grotty pub” plugged-in sound is different from studio production and *some*times people prefer it – depends what they’re looking for). On the other hand a great editor working on your book with you can be like having Mark Ronson produce your record.

The thing about spectrums is that for any given genus, there are usually species at each point on it. And that’s what I want to say about writing. There are works that are right at the watercolour end. Writers who are so distinctive and original that editing their work is like giving it lithium – you knock off all the troughs, but you take away the peaks with them, and it’s impossible to do one without the other.

On the Guardian Books Blog this week, John Self started a fascinating debate that went so viral it spawned a popular twitter hashtag #famousforthewrongbook. The piece, which asked for examples where an author was famous for a piece of work that actually wasn’t their best, confirmed what I’ve been saying for a long while, and what’s very pertinent here: when you get a game-changer of a writer, their best work tends to come later in their career, but their “great” work comes at the start. The numbers of diaries and letters included in the 600+ comments on the post further gets the underlying message across. Editing polishes what’s there, makes it “sing”. But the actual step-change, what *is* there to start with that a person spends their whole life perfecting, that is most visible when the editorial hand is most distant.

And this is where self-publishing can do what regular publishing can’t. Regular publishing is a business and can’t be run other than as a business (don’t even get me started on Arts Council grants for small publishers). It’s not just inevitable that it will dole out large doses of cultural lithium to pull things towards accepted norms, that’s its job. Self-publishing doesn’t have to. It doesn’t have to make money, and can do pretty much what it wants on a zero budget.

So not only is it not obligatory for self-publishers to edit “to professional standards”, I would say we should positively embrace not-editing, and where we find great art in the self-published ranks that’s full of flaws and fragility, rather than seeing what could be done if it was given a good polish (I’ll tell you what will happen – you will discover that inside every great book there’s a very good one waiting to get out), we should celebrate it as it is.

And I can’t help but finishing with a note to the cultural media. I understand why you talk about the numbers with self-publishing. That’s not dumbass. Talking *only* about the numbers *is* dumbass.

And here’s what’s really dumbass. The cultural media portrays itself as wanting to make the distinction between commercial art and art that has no commercial reference. And yet it will only review books from regular publishers. Discussions of merit will range as far as obscure and forgotten *regular published* works and no further. That’s all fine and I’ve heard the arguments about how you *have* to talk about “event” books (I don’t buy the argument for a minute but I hear it and I’ll run with it) – just don’t pretend you’re talking about the fullness of art if you’re going to run that way.

An addendum. I’m going to do something that will shock and disturb. I’m going to say congratulations to the Guardian for opening up the First Book Awards to *all* books, however published. Fantastic. I really hope they follow through by offering reviews of the merits of the books readers suggested.

So please, stop judging self-published books on how well-edited they are, and start judging them on how good they are. The two are not always the same. And in rare instances they can be opposites.


  1. The last paragraph nails it. Stop writing things I agree with, it means I can't sound controversial when I comment!

  2. Have you ever read Hopkins' poem Pied Beauty? To me it sums it up

    GLORY be to God for dappled things—

    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

    Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;


    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

    All things counter, original, spare, strange;

    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:


    Praise him.

    Of course, that comes from my own place, but even so, I feel that the things that are fickle, freckled etc, shine more than the polished and perfect.

  3. Sorry, James :)

    Viv, I absolutely agree - I'm sure there's some philosophy or psychology behind why we don't really respond to perfection well, but to me it's the fact it's not real, it means nothing to me on a personal level - the whole courtly tradition makes no sense to me

  4. I'm very pleased to hear about the Guardian initiative. Regarding whether a self-published book needs to be 'properly' edited, well, it depends.

    If you're writing for a niche readership who knows in advance what you are trying to achieve, or part of an avante guarde movement pushing the boundaries of literature in the internet age, fine.

    But, think of the unwary reader browsing on-line or in a bookshop who picks up and pays for a book with a flawlessly written description on an attractive cover. When he/she comes across more than a handful of typos, they may be entitled to feel just a tad cheated.

    So, I guess it depends on who you're writing for. If it's for people who are part of your own small literary movement and who agree that editing can stifle creativity, fine. If you're writing for the general public, then publishing a book with many typos is not fair to the readers who are paying for and expecting a properly edited product.

    I'm an indie writer who chose to publish on Kindle. My book will be also be available in paperback later this summer through one of those very publishers supported by the Arts Council that Dan doesn't want to talk about. I know I would be utterly humiliated if anyone wrote a review about my book on Amazon or anywhere else and said that their enjoyment of the book was spoilt by careless editing and a profusion of typos.

    Dan says'...So please, stop judging self-published books on how well-edited they are, and start judging them on how good they are. The two are not always the same. And in rare instances they can be opposites.'

    To some extent, I agree. I've bought and read Dan's book, 'A Company Of Fellows'. I even wrote an Amazon review on it. Talent shines through even a badly edited piece and it would be foolish to deny this. But how much more pleasureable for the reader if someone had taken a little time and trouble to edit out those irritating typos that take the reader right out of the narrative, often at just the wrong moment.

    Elizabeth Jasper

  5. I've read plenty of "properly edited" books from mainstream publishers that were littered with typos and plot holes. Can't say it bothered me beyond noticing them.
    In practical terms finding a proof reader who can spot every error if you are not paying them to(and even if you are) is hard, and for someone like me, who has no money to pay for such services, impossible without the kind help of friends. The fact that typos appear in "real" books shows how hard it is to get every one. If the publishers can't manage it, then why be surprised that amateurs can't.
    If fear of ridicule or disdain from the mythical reader stops people from publishing work, then it brings into question just what the covenant between writer and reader actually is. Do we as writers need to produce something polished and perfect to avoid pissing off readers with cruel eagle eyes?
    Don't know.

  6. Liz, apologies if it came across differently, but I think that was pretty much the point I was making - I'm talking about an aspect of self-publishing that applies to a very small number of books, but one I think *is* important and has been lost in all the talk about recent self-publishing.

    I would absolutely not put The Company of Fellows into the category I'm talking about (I hope it didn't come across that I was talking about my own work - I certainly wasn't) - many of the editions it went through had way too many errors, and any and all reviewers who picked me up on it are absolutely right to do so. I only really had one book in mind when writing this - Sabina England's Brown Trash. I think The Company of Fellows is a good book that with more editing could be, maybe, a very good book. As such it falls firmly within the bounds of regular books that should be judged by the standards any other thrillers of the kind are.

    The three eight cuts gallery books are sort of in this category. Not typo-wise. They've all been copy-edited and the mss are very clean. But they would all be very different books if they'd been edited - much more polished, but not the great works they are. I can't think of a book full of typos that shouldn't be touched - I guess I'm thinking of zines by and large. But I think the possibility is a point worth mentioning, and that the musical analogy is worth making.

  7. I assume Dan's referring to editing of content rather than copy editing. There are several syntactic errors in The Company of Fellows, which can knock the reader momentarily off course and in my experience, are unusual in paperback fiction (although surprisingly frequent in academic and reference books), but if lack of editorial scrutiny means we occasionally have to scratch our heads, I'd still rather have this situation than one where the major publishing houses alone dictate what we get to see.


  8. Viv, I see my part of the covenant (maybe there's more when I write commercial fcition because I realise people will have certain expectations, so it's more complicated - but I'm not talking about that in this post) as "telling the truth". I could put it more vaguely as "doing my best", and that may be more useful, because it sounds as though "doing my best" includes editing out typos and inconsistencies and so on, but I'm not always sure it does, which is very hard for people to get their heads round because "surely it would be possible just to take out the errors" - but it's not always that simple (as I keep saying, and to avoid ambiguity, almost all the time it *is* that simple, but not always). A book that's polished but disingenuous is doing far more of a disservice to readers than one which slaps my soul on the page but is deeply flawed

  9. Neil, I wasn't talking about my book - I am well aware there's a "should have done better" in regards to editing in a couple of places. If I have a book that would be relevant it would be The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes. I'm not claiming it's any great shakes, but it is the book by which I'd probably most like to be judged (if not by my short work). It's absolutely riddled with errors and flaws, it's sprawling, chaotic and has loose ends and non-sequiturs. But it hangs together. And if I started tinkering with any of those things the balance may get lost in the process

  10. Hi, Dan

    I agree and I disagree. I ask for a well-edited book because to me it's like a house painting job. If a painter is asked to paint the house I wouldn't be happy if he left out a room or painted all rooms only half way or if it's sloppily done in the corners. A book is a product we want readers to enjoy. I agree on certain aspects, which means you can defy writing rules, you can be experimental, all that what many trad. publishers won't allow you to do, and that's the real art.
    I see editing as part of the job as a writer, at least to a certain standard. How much would you enjoy a book that has so many plot holes, flat characters that act illogical? I'm not talking about typos, they happen, but they should be down to a mininum. But plot-editing and character development is what's missing in many self-published novels.
    And how wonderful would it be if you have a book where talent shines through, not being distracted by the many times you have to stop and think, do the author's work by piecing together where this character went when the author didn't do his or her job?

  11. Dan, a fascinating post and one that stimulates the old synapses, at least mine. My first reaction was to disagree, but having read through I'm in two minds. That structural editing may harm a work is an almost seductive proposition; after all every author believes they know best. And yet, if writing is about 'truth' -- and I believe it is -- then surely it should be the author's truth. Damn you, Dan, you've done it again.

  12. I've just written a very long comment, and the computer ate it. Will return later. Maybe it will be kinder to me then. Need to go away and be grumpy.

  13. 'That structural editing may harm a work is an almost seductive proposition; after all every author believes they know best. And yet, if writing is about 'truth' -- and I believe it is -- then surely it should be the author's truth.'

    Any author worth his/her salt would make a stand against a structural or any other edit that would take the 'truth' from their work. That 'truth' is so integral to the story that it would not be worth publishing without it. BUT, if an author wants their 'truth' to stand out and make a difference to readers, the work has to be readable and comprehensible.

  14. Jo, blogger can be a - well, a bit of a blogger. It does that to me way too regularly - and always when I've forgotten to press "copy".

    Stella - as with Liz, i don't think we disagree really. I'm talking about a very few books, and I've only read single figures number that fall into the category - the post is more about the hypothetical - if a work of brilliance comes along that's riddled with flaws I think a publisher would lessen the brilliance, whereas self-publishing leaves it intact. Of course everyone and their dog thinks *their* book is the work of genius I'm talking about. And they're almost certainly wrong. So we get a flood of really awful unedited pretentious dross. But it's a price worth paying (for me)

    JD - yes, I think you've nailed it with the reference to truth. It's the only way to let the great voices sing out in all their clarity

  15. thoroughly insightful post. I agree with the first commenter that the last paragraph says it all. well done.

  16. As writers, I think we tend to put too much stock in editing and copyediting. Look at Amanda Hocking. Sure, people have complained about the lack of editing in her books, but at the same time, look at where she is. And in all honesty, I think a lot of her success is because her fiction is much more raw than a lot of what's out there (especially in a genre as highly commercial as hers).

    I think a fine line needs to be struck, though. Typos annoy me (blame it on my job as an editor and copyeditor). Wording that doesn't make sense annoys me (especially when it's so bad that I can't figure out what they're actually trying to say). But I don't expect perfection in the books I read. I like it when they're rough around the edges and really show us who the author is.

    I'm afraid, though, that new writers will look at the above article and think that it's a good idea to self-publish the first draft of their first novel and scream at anyone who bitches about the lack of quality as not understanding their "art". Any writer who's been at this long enough knows that your first draft, and especially the first draft of the first thing you ever write, has a snowball's chance in hell of being any good. Or even of being readable.

    Not everyone is a perfectionist when it comes to their own work, and not everyone can look at it with an objective eye and say, "this is good despite the rough edges" or "this is good because of the rough edges". Instead, I think a lot of people refuse to see the roughness at all.

  17. Okay, trying again.

    This is an interesting dialogue between polishing and art. I think the problem lies in the reality that most unpolished books fall into the 99% category - and I include my efforts in that. I simply don't write well enough - tell the story well enough - without someone pointing out the pitfalls. (Gap Years is so much better for having a mentor upending it - the old version was solid and dependable, and made it as far as an acquisitions meeting. The current submission is edgier, but much more fun! And I shall still get it proof-read.)

    I do think there is a risk in pushing the 'great writing doesn't need an editor' message when so much self-published work isn't great writing, and the writers are too close to their material to acknowledge that. On top of that, there is a worrying trend of people insisting they have nothing left to learn, that editors and mentors are simply there to earn money and interfere with individual genius.

    Yes, there may be avaricious editors (tho I suspect they are far less common than corrupt journalists on the NOTW). But most have much to offer.

    Having said all that, I think the plethora of MA courses has led to a format for modern novels and short stories that seems to exclude the truly different. It is more difficult, now, for something really original and wonderful to find its way through the publishing quagmire, and self-publishing is the only option. (I say that as one who is beginning an MA in the autumn. I plan to be the bloshy student in the back row, forever saying, 'yes, but . . .' I'm doing it because I feel I have so much to learn.)

    So - I can see both sides to this. And maybe the real challenge is finding a way to uncover work that is truly original and wonderful, and giving it an airing. Work that should escape and editor and sing by itself. Work that, at the moment, risks drowning in the 99%

  18. Thea, thank you :)

    Cameron I agree completely about Amanda Hocking - it's a point I made in my review of Hollowland. It's riddled with typos but I was never lifted out of the story once.

    I think, as I said on Facebook, purely as an art lover and without referring to anyone here or anyone we know, there is enough "really good writing" in the world. I would be quite happy for a whole shedload of good writers never to become really good if it means that even one great writer gets left alone to do what they are capable of. That's purely me as audience - as a writer who wants to support other writers, some of whom want or need to make a living from their writing, I realise it's not that simple.

  19. Dan - I see myself as a 'good writer' and hope to become 'really good' - and know I need support from as many quarters as possible to manage that.

    And I don't see that as being exclusive of writers like Emily Harrison and her exciting poetry having their voices heard. I hope she challenges every attempt to make her use orthodox form, confine herself to the expectations of modern poetry. (But then she's so feisty she'd be quite a challenge for any editor to work with!)

    But neither should I allow her extraordinary talent to get in the way of being doing as well as I can. And that means accepting I need help from editors, mentors - and yes, people like you, Dan!

  20. Jo, you've coined a wonderful new word there - far better to be bloshy than bolshy :) And very very best with the MA.

    I do agree we need to be careful in pushing the "no editing" message, but to be honest I've only ever seen it deployed in a "two fingers to legacy publishing" way - and I have no interest in that approach - I think there's a real pressure on people to get their books edited "properly" that crushes talent (it's odd - many people will happily say that the education system teaches creativity out of children whilst being unprepared to acknowledge what I would have imagined was a much less controversial proposition) - a lot of it comes from the results of prestigious short story prizes and the consensus way of doling out awards (the winner being someone everyone thinks is good rather than someone a few think is great). I think there's a place for someone trying to reach the 1% - as I say, as a consumer, that is the number 1 priority

  21. Jo, I'm really looking forward to seeing Emily read - do you think she'd be interested in reading at Blackwell's in October?

    And as I say - I know it's more complicated than this post allows - but sometimes we need pieces to put one point forcefully rather than always seeking balance :)

  22. I'll run it past Emily, see what she says. It's just after she starts uni - no idea if she'll take that into account.

    Looks like we'll have plenty to chat about on Thursday.

  23. :)) It'll be lovely to see you!

  24. Hmm. I just read the first few chapters of an indie thriller I bought based on the huge numbers of 5* glowing reviews on the pace and tension etc etc. For me, it was unbelievably slow - full of unnecessary backstory and riddled with clunky descriptions. I forgot what the actual plot was in chapter 2 as there was so much info-dumping, character history and irrelevant detail. It read to me like a first draft of what had the potential to be good thriller. I stopped reading as I was bored.

    I can't review it. I'd get lynched if I was honest and I can't be dishonest. This is a book that *so* needs an edit and a 20% cut.

    To me that seems a shame. But hey - it's got dozens of great reviews, so what do I know?

  25. That's exactly what I was trying to say, Deb :)

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