Trads vs. Indies: Will This War Ever End?

0601161425Traditional publishers will probably never embrace independent authors as equals. They will be loath to admit that the terms of engagement in this ongoing battle are changing, that the combatants are becoming more equal, and that some authors even find a way to go “hybrid.” It’s becoming increasingly clear that the trads are losing the high ground they once held in the area of editorial standards.

Examples of bad editing crop up more and more in the traditional world. For example, there are few authors more successful at traditional publishing than Anne Rice. She also specializes in the hottest subjects in fiction, vampires and werewolves. Yet Floyd Orr, editor of the long-running review site PODBRAM, and a rabid Rice fan, reports: “Anne Rice’s 34th book contains more errors than I have ever seen in a top-selling, traditionally published hardback! There are errors of every kind: repeated common words, misused spellings of words that are real words that actually mean something else, misuse of tense, and various other types of boo-boos. What do these errors all have in common? They are the sort that appear in books because human eyes did not read and reread and proofread the text before publishing it. There was an obvious reliance on computer programs to find the errors. Was this by Ms. Rice, her editor, or Knopf in general? Who knows?” Floyd kindly goes on to point out that the error count of Rice’s book easily surpasses those of several of the self-published books he has reviewed, including my own Handmaidens of Rock.

Trads were guilty from the start of not fighting this war honestly, but things have progressed to the point that self-published authors don’t have to suffer the same nonsense anymore. They can take or leave “friendly advice” from self-appointed arbiters of what deserves to be published. No doubt these experts will persist in warning us against “vanity” publishers, a term that should have been deep-sixed years ago. We can now call out websites that masquerade as help for the self-published, but are actually designed to discourage us. Certainly there are bad self-published books, but the argument that we’re all equally bad doesn’t hold water, any more than the argument that traditional publishing guarantees quality.

Several years ago, I sent my 2007 novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming, to a site called “The Self-Publishing Review,” a blog run by an author who’d had a fair amount of success in publishing non-fiction. Some speculated that her generic-sounding name might be a pseudonym to protect herself from backlash. Certainly the name of her blog was misleading. Once I had read a sampling of her “reviews,” it became clear to me that these were something else altogether. By any fair standard, a reader who purports to provide a review must, at the very least, read the book. Her object was to throw cold water on authors by subjecting them to the kind of treatment they would receive if they sent their manuscripts to a “legitimate” publisher. Admittedly, that might be a useful service, but it was not what she advertised.

To be fair, she warned us: “I’m an editor, and expect published books to be polished. I’m going to count all the errors I find in spelling, punctuation and grammar and when I reach fifteen I’m going to stop reading. I’ll work my way through up to five pages of boring prose or bad writing before I give up.” Despite that stern warning, I felt okay about sending her my novel, although it had to be shipped overseas at some expense. I’ve been something of an editor myself during many years of technical writing for the Federal government. I knew I had gone over my novel carefully and that it had been edited by professionals.

My book, like almost every other that this hot-shot editor “reviewed,” was discarded after about seven pages because of alleged mistakes. I was sure there were not fifteen errors of the type she warned against in the whole book, much less in the first seven pages. When I asked for an explanation, she admitted that there was nothing wrong with my “spelling, punctuation and grammar” per se. My sin was “exposition,” apparently a common complaint against self-published authors, and a handy one if the arbiters can’t find more obvious mistakes.

What does this sin consist of, exactly? Wikipedia defines exposition as “the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc.” The article quotes fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton on the importance of “scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information.”

My problem with this criticism, legitimate though it might be, is that famous authors do it with impunity. I pointed out that two of my favorites, Pat Conroy and Gail Godwin, tend to not even start their stories until the scene is thoroughly set. If any arbiter tried to impose rules on them, about exposition or anything else, they’d laugh in that person’s face. Ah, the arbiters say, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. All I conclude from this is that it’s always wrong when self-published authors do it.

What about the credentials of these arbiters? Despite their successes in the non-fiction realm, they tend to be sitting on piles of unpublished novels like everyone else. Ironically, that’s where they’re offering their harshest criticism. Since self-publishing is for losers, they disdain that route—although they might admit to putting excerpts of their novels on the Internet, as if that were not a form of self-publishing.

We’ve all heard plenty of those traditional “success stories,” touting the efforts of authors who kept writing and rewriting the same story for fifteen or twenty years, submitting it to numerous agents and publishers, revising and starting over to suit each new critic, perhaps even trying to re-envision their stories as plays or screenplays. Sometimes two decades of effort and perseverance are indeed “rewarded,” but that’s not my idea of success. How many other stories could these authors have been writing during those endless years spent twisting their original vision a hundred different ways to suit one critic after another? Was the original inspiration even recognizable by then? Fortunately, no one has to settle for this kind of treatment any more. The fight rages on, with one of the combatants, in my opinion, looking increasingly desperate.

27 thoughts on “Trads vs. Indies: Will This War Ever End?

  1. I’ll read anything you write; it’s obvious from your blog that you’re a writer’s writer. The hardest part of the business is the marketing and that’s where, I think, a trad is most useful. I’m currently negotiating a sale (fifty copies of The Obeahman’s Dagger) with a library and it’s going to be uncomfortable to put out the cash up front and wait for reimbursement. I wish I had a marketing budget to work with.

  2. I agree that a trad deal can provide validation and marketing assistance, but I’ve also heard that mid-list type authors these days are expected to do much of their own marketing. Best of luck with your library deal–I hope the outlay will be well worth it!

  3. Great blog! The traditional publishers are losing ground with more successful Indie Authors putting out professionally edited and designed books. The need for an agent and publisher is thinning.

  4. I chose to go the self publishing route rather than attempt to find an agent and go the traditional route to publication. I love the insights your article provided. Thank you.

  5. I couldn’t agree more. Sloppy writing seems to be another trad favourite (recently I read something from the blockbuster ‘so many worldwide sales a minute’ genre containing no less than twelve consecutive sentences starting with the same word), but I do think that the lack of a decent edit always takes top spot (at one point another blockbuster favourite of mine – this time, of the ‘so many million sales worldwide’ genre – completely deflated a promising moment of high tension by switching the protagonist’s and antagonist’s names). Thanks so much for yet another fascinating post, and best wishes from the UK.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly! Thank you for the follow. Would you mind if i shared a link to this on my blog? I think it’s an interesting read that should be shared as widely as possible! TR xx

  7. I am in the process of fishing and editing my first Novel. I am choosing not to go the traditional route, because I have recently read many good books published by indie Authors. I have also seen books full of errors, but traditionally published books have them too. This pretty much sums up how I feel about traditional publishing. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you as well. I too have seen errors in traditionally published books, enough to make me wonder if the trads are hiring fewer editors these days. Best of luck in your indie publishing endeavor!

  8. Interesting. I’m constantly back and forth on wanting to have something published traditionally, really just to help get my name out there, yet wanting to stay independent for all those good reasons to stay independent. Thanks for more insight on the matter.

    1. You’re welcome! I understand why many authors still crave the validation that traditional publication can provide, but an increasing number are embracing the benefits of independence.

  9. I would not be an author today if I had waited for acceptance from a traditional publishing house. As a self-publisher, I strive to give my readers the very best book I can produce, and let them decide what they like and don’t like. Editing takes time and many sets of eyes, but it serves to remove roadblocks which get in the way of enjoying the story I spent months writing. Self-publishing is not for the faint of heart, and it takes time and resources, but I retain control of the end product. The buck stops with me, and I like it that way.

    1. I like it that way too. I find self-publishing wonderfully liberating. At the same time, I agree that editing, preferably from a fresh and unprejudiced set of eyes, is vital.

  10. Wonderful writing, here and elsewhere on your site. I’d like to repost this piece, if that’s OK with you. I thought the comments on “exposition” were extremely interesting. There is a style of contemporary writing which is taught in Creative Writing classes especially at Masters Degree level with a series of largely invisible criteria now the “law” for writing professionals in the trad pub world. A writer who has not done a formal degree will not even be aware of these. I had some work looked at by a professional editor (Masters in Creative Writing from a very reputable course) and although she had trouble putting her finger on exactly what was wrong with it, she “knew” it wasn’t quite “right”. It was flawless in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar but those invisible markers which agents and publishers are looking for weren’t there, and other things were, which she just didn’t like. Readers don’t miss them, and are probably just as unaware of them as “untrained” writers are. This is one of the reasons why so much that is published as “contemporary writing” today is so boring and tedious, honed down to uniformity by the style police. But be assured, you won’t be picked up by a traditional publisher without a high level of conformity to the code. “Editing” is a complex matter and reframes the writer’s thought and intention in multiple ways. Who, in the end, really is the writer?

  11. I have also found that proofing is lax on both sides of the fence. And as for exposition…as you said, that’s a lazy excuse. When I review a book I look for: character development, plot, pacing, and voice, more than grammar, spelling, and punctuation. (These are also what I ask Beta readers to look for when reviewing my books.) It’s only if the grammar, spelling, and punctuation consistently interrupt the story that they become a problem.

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