January 2, 2017
Early in the self-publishing revolution, before social media had become a major thing, it was possible to make contact with like-minded authors through e-mail exchanges, congenial websites, meet-ups, and word of mouth. My first attempts to read self-published books were often painful, especially when I could see that the authors themselves were good people. They were, after all, the ones urging inexperienced authors like myself to band together in the face of traditional publishing intransigence, with appeals like “I’ll read yours if you’ll read mine.” It all sounded friendly and encouraging.
Still, the movement clearly had a long way to go. The first self-published book I ever bought was a natural for a longtime baseball fan. I read an article about the author in a community newspaper, and couldn’t wait to purchase and read his book. It was an account of several baseball franchises in their last year of existence, including my beloved, lamented former team, the 1971 Washington Senators. As it turned out, the book was a case study in how poor editing can ruin a great idea. It seemed the author barely took the time to reread his own work before sending it to the printer. Almost every page contained some egregious spelling, grammatical, or formatting error. To make matters worse, when I passed the book on to my dad, a man with a baseball memory dating back to the 1920s, he found many factual errors as well.
I’m not claiming that I was much better or smarter at that time than the average self-published author. However, I was just smart enough to know my books needed a thorough going-over from objective eyes—a developmental edit or two, followed by a line-by-line edit or two or three, and a final check for formatting issues. Some good, well-meaning people were writing horrendous books, but they were not stupid people. They weren’t even bad writers, so much as inexperienced ones. One author whom I read at that time dazzled me with his writing skill, and also befuddled me totally. He seemed intent on muddying his plots just for the heck of it, with clever tricks such as withholding important information until the last page.
The kindest thing I could do for my self-publishing “friends,” when it was all too plain they had by-stepped the editing process, was to not review their books. One such novel featured a feisty but unlucky heroine, a theme which would ordinarily attract me. She encounters all the perils of Pauline in the space of a month, while suffering from panic attacks through it all. Her husband dies in a car accident, she discovers she’s pregnant, and then she gets raped by a prominent lawyer and nearly miscarries.
She bounces back with spunk and determination. She starts dating the ob-gyn who saves her pregnancy. The ethics of this is never questioned. Not only does the heroine seem to forget about her dead husband at the drop of a hat, but this hot-to-trot doctor isn’t above leaving a waiting room full of patients in order to have a tryst with her. Their attraction to each other is presumably so strong that it overrides every other consideration. I’m not saying the heroes and heroines of a story can never behave this stupidly and self-destructively, but the consequences of such behavior must be shown. Would it be worth it if one of the doctor’s patients filed a complaint, and he had to fight to keep his license? A real story could be made out of that.
Nor do I mean to make fun of this well-meaning author, since I’ve committed my share of whoppers too—or plausibility issues, as a member of my critique group more politely puts it. Here and there the author hit on sparks of ideas that could’ve resulted in a decent book if she hadn’t been in such a hurry. The heroine’s success at bringing the rapist-lawyer to account are a case in point. Although he’s supposedly a prominent man in the community whom most people would never believe capable of committing such a crime, she wins the case easily. Everything about it—jury selection, testimony, deliberations—gets wrapped up in record time. The entire jury goes for her story after a few minutes’ deliberation, apparently finding her honest face and manner a stark contrast to his. Too bad, because this really could have been the basis for a compelling story: the heroine’s long fight for justice, during which she discovers how strong she is, panic attacks notwithstanding. Instead, the resolution must come with breathtaking speed, so that the author can get done writing one day and publish the next.
I read another book at the request of an author. Again the editing was spotty, which was a shame because the story itself was haunting and tragic. It centered on a man with promise and ambition, whose alcoholism destroys his own and others’ lives. He goes to prison for a fatal drunk driving accident. The author’s description of the prison experience, especially the despair that envelops the new inmate, stuck with me long afterward. The real tragedy, however, took place after the book was published, when a predatory marketing service took advantage of the naïve author. Apparently believing this outfit’s promises to make his book a best-seller, the author borrowed money from relatives and went into debt to pay for this “service.” Needless to say, the book didn’t sell, and the money might as well have been thrown down the drain.
Sadly, I don’t see much evidence, from a quick amazon check, that most of these authors have done much since their early efforts. Maybe harsh criticism deterred them. That’s a shame, since every author is much better than his or her first draft. If I could go back in time and advise my fellow neophytes, I’d say take your time with both writing and marketing. Realize that instant success is a one-in-a-million thing. Study real life, and do the research. If your primary aim is to get rich, you will almost certainly fail. Tell a good story, and make it as real as you can. Get as many reliable editors as you can on the job, so that in time mediocre can at least open the door to pretty good. The learning process in this business is agonizingly slow, but it does happen.