Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A New Year's Resolution: All Books Considered

As I read and participate in discussions among independent and self-publishers, I've noticed that we spend a lot of time and energy distinguishing ourselves from each other—and not in a positive way. Some of us remind others that we are true self-publishers as opposed to those who have paid a subsidy publisher to publish our books—and we make it clear that we see ourselves in a higher category because of this. As an author who owns my own publishing company, I'll admit to having made this distinction myself. But the more I think about it, the less I like this point of view.

It starts to remind me of a disturbing play that I saw a few years ago. Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith, the controversial play, Yellowman, depicts prejudice within the black community based on darkness of skin color. The playwright shows lighter-skinned characters feeling superior to and being treated better than darker-skinned ones. Reviews of this play point out that lighter-skinned blacks have indeed been more advantaged in our society, while at the same time being taunted from within for not being black enough. In other words, the hierarchy—which was largely promoted by whites—drove a wedge among blacks.

As authors whose publishers who don't fit the traditional model, I think it is to our disadvantage to separate ourselves out into better and worse categories based on the publishing model we've chosen. Writers make choices about their mode of publishing for a variety of reasons. Just as it is not true that all self-published authors have tried and failed to have their book published by a traditional publisher, neither is it true that all authors who choose to pay a subsidy publisher to publish a book don't care about the quality of their books. We know it's not true that all books published by mainstream commercial publishers are better than those published by small independents or self-published. We need to also acknowledge that some very good books have been published through subsidy companies.

One bit of evidence comes from a former blog, POD-DY Mouth, which was written for two years (ended March 13, 2007) by a traditionally published author. She and some of her friends had made a contest out of looking for the worst of what they called POD books but were primarily from what we call subsidy publishers (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Lulu and others). Then to her surprise, she came upon one of those books that she loved. This led her to start her blog reviewing what she called POD books and giving awards to the best of them. Admittedly she said she had to wade through many submissions to find the few good ones. She called her awards the Needles, a reference to finding the needles among the hay. But she did find books she really liked.

Now a bit of personal evidence. My mystery novel Too Near the Edge won a 2007 IPPY silver medal for best regional fiction in the west-mountain region. The gold medal in that category was won by Stan Lynde for his novel, Summer Snow, published by iUniverse. His writing credentials include being the creator of two nationally syndicated cartoon strips. I don't know why he chose iUniverse to publish his book and I haven't read the book, but if it was judged better than mine, I have to take notice.

Why do authors go with subsidy publishers? I don't think we can assume they are mostly naïve writers so hungry for author status that they'll do anything to get published. From what I've read on discussion groups, these writers want to get their books out there to be read. They want reactions from readers, reviewers, contest judges. But they don't want to take on the business side of self-publishing.

I'm not saying that most books that come out from subsidy publishers are well-written and/or well-edited. My daughter, Laurel Osterkamp, who teaches creative writing and is a writer herself, reviews books on her blog, Bookin It My Way, and for some online review services. She's seen a bunch of subsidy-published books and tells me that as a group they are bad.

My point here is that setting up a hierarchy among ourselves is divisive. We will fare better in our struggle to compete in the marketplace if we don't fight amongst ourselves. How about in 2008 we focus on the books themselves rather than on how they were published? I think I'll resolve to read a few of those iUniverse books next year and make my own judgements.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Plea for Peace and Good Will Among Authors

Tis the season. At this winter holiday time we rejoice—whatever our beliefs—in the pleasure of fellowship of friends and family, in the simple joys of special food and music, and in the joy of giving. Perhaps in keeping with the season all authors and publishers could step back from animosity, take a look at what we share, and think about how we can work together to further common goals.

What do we share? A love for the written word, a respect for the craft of writing, and perhaps a profound awe for literature at its best. What do we all want? More people reading more books, enjoying and learning from their reading, and looking forward eagerly to new books coming out.

Is fighting amongst ourselves about who and who isn't a "real" author or writer likely to further our common goals? Is calling some authors wannabe writers who don't measure up likely to spread love of the written word?

Probably not. To see the futility of this sort of attack, we need only turn our gaze toward Iowa with its escalating political competition. Voters are tired of negativity and candidates know this. Surveys show the majority of Americans are disturbed by the level of personal attacks in political campaigns and that negative ads turn people off. Candidates have taken note of this and are focusing more on their own positives rather than on criticizing their competitors.

Do we need surveys to tell us that writers calling each other names, running down each other's work or trying to keep some colleagues out of the marketplace makes us all look bad? We should remember that most readers don't choose their books by the publisher or even know who the publisher is. Trying to exclude certain books based on who published them only raises alarms about books in general. Consumer confidence is likely to be the biggest casualty.

Instead of contracting by dividing ourselves and each other into star-bellies and non-star-bellies like the Sneetches (see my 11/15/07 post), why not expand into the joy and wonder of so many people caring enough about books that they take the time and trouble to write one? If—as Bowker reports--over 290,000 books were published in the U.S. in 2006, that's a good thing, not a threat. In fact, it's amazing in a time when we keep hearing that people no longer care about reading.

According to Wikipedia, "The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) monitors both the number and type of books published per country per year as an important index of standard of living and education, and of a country's self-awareness." So all of us authors and publishers are contributing. Not in the same way, and not at the same level. But we are all writing and putting our work out there to be read. And that's a lot of work and it takes perseverance and courage.

So let's share some good will amongst authors, applaud our collective effort to improve our craft, and enjoy the successes of our fellow authors as well as our own. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Speak Out About Self-Publishing

Last week I read a column by Clarence Page about religious prejudice and politics in which he pointed out that the roots of ethnic and religious prejudice often go back to people's tendency to be frightened by that which they know little about. I was struck by how this assessment also fits prejudice against self-publishing. In my reading of many online discussions, as well as in my live conversations with both aspiring and traditionally-published authors, I have seen a surprising level of ignorance of what self-publishing is all about. Mostly they seem to think it involves dashing off an ill-conceived poorly-written manuscript, and then paying a company to publish it. This may describe the process for some who use subsidy publishers. But for those of us who actually self-publish, publishing is a business which we have had to learn, and at which we work hard.

Inanna Arthen said it well in her response to my Nov 30 post. She commented:
"It’s most unfortunate that so many writers are just incredibly ignorant of what is really involved in publishing a book. Printing the physical book is just one step in a long, long process. … being the publisher means you have to know about business laws in your state, accounting, ISBN numbers, copyright law, Library of Congress numbers, book design, layout and typesetting, getting cover blurbs, meeting deadlines and protocols for pre-publication reviews, setting up sales parameters from price to shipping to distribution to the Amazon detail page, designing and producing promotional materials, targeting and querying post-publication reviewers, marketing, and paying all your taxes…and that’s just for starters." 

I've learned all this stuff and more over the 20+ years I've been writing and publishing. And I've shared my knowledge with other writers when they've asked. I've also noticed that self-publishers who participate in online discussion groups are very generous in sharing what they have learned. But we don't have so many opportunities to educate the old guard about what we do. Most of them don't ask, don't want to hear. And it's hard to break through their prejudices.

Last month I was part of a group of Colorado mystery writers doing a bookstore signing, which also included talks by a couple of the writers about their writing and publishing experiences. Not surprisingly, the speakers were not self-published authors. When an audience member asked a question about self-publishing, the speaker responded by saying it's not a good idea to pay someone to publish your book. Although I was reluctant to identify myself as self-published in an environment where I felt it would reflect poorly on my novel, I couldn't let that comment go by. So I jumped in and explained briefly the self-publishing process and the difference between self-publishing and subsidy publishing (see my 9/20/07 post). A brief discussion followed, in which we all agreed that editing is an essential part of the publishing process, and that self-publishers must have their books edited.

I have no idea what impact my comments had on the people there, or whether they now think differently about self-publishing. I do know it's not an easy conversation to have. When I'm talking with traditionally-published authors who don't know I'm self-published, it's tempting to try to "pass" for one of them. That way I don't have to justify my choices or deal with them seeing me as someone who couldn't make it the way they did. But I know I need to speak up for self-publishing to try to help others understand it. So I plan to push past my fears and continue to confront the old guard with the facts.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

An Author Is Just Like a Doctor, Except ...

In response to last week's post, Burl Barer, who on his own website proclaims himself to be a "brilliant author," commented:
"Self-published makes you an author in the same way that buying a stethoscope makes you a doctor. You don't fool anyone, not even yourself." 

Just how brilliant is Burl's analogy? And are we fooling ourselves?

The question seems to be, what makes someone an author and how does this compare to what makes someone a doctor. To begin, we need to define both author and doctor. I did some research on widely accepted definitions of these terms.

  • Author: "A writer of a book or article; a person who originates a plan or idea." (Oxford English Dictionary, 2005) "The original writer of a literary work; one who practices writing as a profession; an originator or creator." (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd Ed. 1992) Hmmm. No mention of who publishes the book or article the author has written—or in fact, whether it has even been published.

  • Doctor: "A person who is qualified to practice medicine." (Oxford English Dictionary 2005) "A person, especially a physician, dentist, or veterinarian, trained in the healing arts and licensed to practice." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (3rd Ed. 1992)

Key differences here are that a doctor needs to have qualifications and a license, while an author must create an original work and—if we want to use the strictest definition—practice writing as a profession. Perhaps it's the idea of practicing writing as a profession that Burl and others of the old guard believe differentiates self-published authors from "real" authors. So lets' look at definitions of profession and professional and see if we can apply them similarly to authors and doctors.

  • Profession: "A paid occupation, especially one involving training and a formal qualification." (Oxford English Dictionary 2005) "An occupation requiring considerable training and specialized study." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (3rd Ed. 1992)

  • Professional:"Engaged in an activity as a paid occupation rather than as an amateur; worthy of or appropriate to a professional person; competent." (Oxford English Dictionary 2005) " Engaging in a given activity as a source of livelihood or as a career; performed by persons receiving pay; having or showing great skill; expert." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (3rd Ed. 1992)

The specialized training and qualification thing certainly fits doctors. Do I want my doctor to be highly qualified? Absolutely. And I'm glad the government takes care of this for me by requiring physicians to be licensed. No way do I want some amateur surgeon taking out my appendix.

But we clearly don't hold writers to the kind of standards we require of doctors. It's hard to make a case that all authors published by traditional publishers have considerable training and formal qualifications. While some have studied creative writing or journalism, many have had no formal training as writers. And unlike academics and scientists whose articles must pass through peer review before being published in professional journals, nonfiction book authors can write and traditionally publish work that would never survive scientific review. As an example, take a look at some of the diet books out there.

It's easy to come up with lists of badly written fiction and poorly researched nonfiction books that have been published by mainstream publishers, many of which have done very well in the marketplace. And it's equally easy to generate lists of well-written fiction and bona fide informative nonfiction books that are self-published.

So where does that leave us? Unless we're prepared to set up licensing boards to make sure authors meet certain standards, we can't be comparing authors to doctors when we discuss who is entitled to the title. That's the problem with analogies, Burl. They don't prove anything.