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OMG, I didn’t just read that! Did the author really write that?

by Amanda S. Green

I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to decide what to blog about today.  I could write about the ongoing kerfluffle between PublishAmerica and J. K. Rowling.  If you aren’t familiar with it, PublishAmerica has offered — for the low price of $49 — to get your book to Ms. Rowling.  Needless to say, Rowling’s attorneys were quick to issue a cease-and-desist letter.  PublishAmerica, in return, has had their attorney send their own cease-and-desist letter.  You can read about it here.

Or I could write about how much contradictory and often confusing information there is out there about what it takes to be considered an author worth taking a risk on.  No, I’m not talking about the submissions process.  Nor am I talking about the quality of the writing or the originality of the story.  No, this has to do with numbers and the game of Russian roulette the publishers are playing.  Only, it’s the authors who are being handed the gun and, instead of there being only one round in the chamber there are six.  In other words, it’s a no-win situation for mid-list authors.  Basically, according to one industry insider, if you have several titles out and they haven’t sold at least 5,000 – 8,000 units each, publishers won’t sign you.  The problem with this is that more and more mid-list authors are finding that their first print runs are no more than 5,000 units.  Between that and the fact that most books aren’t on the shelves more than a few weeks and that there is no push for them, there is no way this magical sales number can be met.  The real problem with this scenario is that, while it may mean the mid-lister can’t get new legacy publishing contracts, it’s the publishers who will eventually suffer.  The mid-lister can publish on their own now or they can go with a non-legacy publisher.  But for the legacy publisher that has shoved them out the door, gone is a guaranteed money-maker.  I say guaranteed because those mid-listers have a built in fan base that can be counted on to buy each and every title put out by that author.  Best sellers with over-bloated print runs that don’t sell through and new authors who don’t connect with the public will not keep the houses afloat for long.

Each of these is worthy of a post, but something caught my eye on one of the boards I read last night that started me thinking.  The poster wanted to know what she could do to become an editor.  Her qualifications?  She’d read lots of books, many of them by “indies”.  Now, I’ll admit my first reaction was to roll my eyes and laugh.  To be a good editor takes more than reading a lot of books.  Believe me.

Then I started thinking about why she might have posted the comment and other posts I’ve seen recently came to mind.  One of them was about an “indie” who had proudly proclaimed that their work was so good it didn’t need an editor.  Another commented that if an author knows grammar and the basic rules of composition, he wouldn’t need an editor.  Then there was the one that posited that authors don’t know how to edit, period and end of discussion.  All of that reminded me of the book I was reading when I posted last week…a book that was in dire need of some good editing.

The problem, at least part of the problem, with each of those statements is that they don’t necessarily apply to “editing”.  They apply to proofreading and copy editing.  In other words, to the formatting, punctuation and spelling but not the content of the piece.  Editing deals with the meat of the story, the organization, the flow, the word choice and voice.  All are important and all are needed, especially by the self-published author.

So, what has brought on this sudden awareness of the need for editing and proofing and such for books, especially e-books?  Part of it is that even the legacy publishers aren’t putting as much effort into proofreading and copy editing as they once did.  Finances and a lack of business foresight have forced them to cut back on their staffs and much of this has been left to authors and agents to do.  I don’t know about you, but asking me to proofread something I’ve written is asking for trouble.  I KNOW what should be on the page.  That makes it hard to see that it isn’t there.  It’s a lot like Pam was saying in a comment earlier this week about how difficult it is to be sure you, as an author, have put in enough of your character’s thought process and emotion because you know what that character is thinking so you assume the reader does as well.  As for formatting, authors are used to standard manuscript format — although, as I see more and more slush come across the email transom, I’m beginning to doubt they know even that.  They aren’t used to formatting for print or e-books.  Worse, too many take the conversion tools at face value and run their manuscript through them and then upload to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Smashwords without ever checking to see what the converted manuscript looks like.

When an author proofreads his manuscript, too many simply rely on spell check.  It’s so easy to do.  The only problem is that spell check doesn’t point out if you are using the wrong word.  It only tells you if the word is spelled wrong, and that assumes it knows the word in the first place.  My recommendation is to turn off spell check — and it’s evil cousin grammar check — and actually focus on the words and sentence structure.  You may have to do like me and print out your short story or novel, but it’s worth it.  Especially if you know your publisher doesn’t do as good of a job as they should in the proofreading/copy editing department or if you are self-publishing.  Believe me, there are readers out there who keep score and will stop reading a book — and post very harsh comments — if they find more than three misspellings, etc., in your work.  So it is worth making sure everything is as clean as possible before it goes to press.

The change from print to digital also plays a role, at least for me.  There’s something about reading a book on the kindle or my tablet or laptop that seems to point out the errors.  It’s almost like they jump off the page at me.  Kate and I were talking about this the other day when we were comparing the differences in basic formatting between several e-books from the same legacy publisher.  These e-books, all published within a two or three month period, had different paragraph indents, different fonts, etc.  One of them had no paragraph indents at all.  Another had a glaring error on the “Other Titles” page in that the title of a series by this particular author wasn’t capitalized when it should have been.  Another e-book had a glaring misspelling in the first sense.  All of these errors should have been corrected before the title went live and, with the exception of the title with no paragraph indents, all will appear in the hard copy versions of the books.

Why do I say the paragraph indent won’t appear in the hard copy version?  Because there is a dirty little secret about e-books every author needs to be aware of.  You can strip out the html coding that is the basis for most formats without any problem and see what programs were used to create the file, who did it, when it was done, etc.  Which is exactly what I did.  I opened the offending title in an epub creation program and read the html.  That confirmed what I suspected.  The e-book was built by simply running the pdf that had been created by for the hard copy through another conversion program.  No one took time to check the final output in all formats.

And THAT, my friends, is the problem.  It is so very easy to convert a document into an e-book that everyone is doing it.  There are a number of very good free programs you can use.  But the job doesn’t end there.  You have to check each and every format you convert to and you need to check them in a native viewer or e-book reader, not just the built in viewers these programs provide.  For example, when NRP converts a title, we check it on a kindle, kindle for PC, Adobe digital editions, the nook app for my tablet and usually one or two others.  Does it take time?  You bet.  But it is worth it.

So, this has been a meandering and probably confusing post that basically comes down to this:  readers are more demanding these days about what they are willing to pay for and much more vocal about letting other readers know if they don’t like something about a book.  As the author, we can no longer just worry about writing a good story.  We have to worry about all aspects of the publishing road, even if we are going through a legacy publisher.  We have to make sure the manuscript is as clean as possible before submitting it.  So find not only your beta readers but one or two people you know who can act as first editors.  These people won’t go ballistic over a misplaced comma or sentence fragment.  These are those who read with a critical eye for flow and consistency and organization.  If you are going through a publisher, when you get the proofs back, go over them and have someone else do the same.  It’s amazing what you can find.  When the e-book comes out, if you haven’t received a copy from the publisher, buy one and go over it again.  Let the publisher know if there’s a problem.  Hopefully, if the problem is a big one, they will correct it.

If you are going the self-publishing route, consider hiring an editor if you don’t have someone to edit for you.  Most authors can’t edit themselves because, as noted above, we know what is supposed to be happening and so we assume the reader will as well.  You need fresh eyes on it.  If you do the conversion into the different e-book formats yourself, check them and then check them again.  The indie author relies on word of mouth for most of their promotion.  So the last thing you want is for that word of mouth to be about how poorly formatted/edited/proofed the title happens to be.

As we’ve said many times before, the publishing industry is changing and no one knows where or when the dust will settle.  The sudden influx of self-published e-books and the explosion of micro-publishers and publishing co-ops are changing the face of publishing.  It is also showing that there are some steps in the process that shouldn’t be skipped.  Editing, proofreading and copy editing are three of the most important.  They are steps that a good publisher, no matter what the size, will provide.  For those going the self-publishing route, they are steps that must be considered and addressed. Otherwise, you run the risk of, as one person said on the boards “shooting yourself in the foot”.

Cross-posted to The Naked Truth.

22 Comments
  1. Sadly, the new technologies have led to a situation where ANYONE can call themselves a writer and even brandish printed books (bought and paid for through print-on-demand, but never mind) as proof.

    This has led to the rise of the wannabe writer or hobbyist, who believes him/herself to be on equal par with the literary greats; these cloth-eared morons actually think their semi-literate, barely edited drivel is timeless. And should anyone try to disabuse them of their faulty thinking, hoo, boy, watch the thin-skinned wannabes shriek like scalded cats.

    Of course, when your literary heroes, the folks you emulate, happen to be horrible romance writers, vampire hacks and other denizens of the bottom of the barrel, you really don’t have to aim too high, aesthetically speaking.

    For some years I have argued that those of us who have chosen to go the indie/DIY route should have some kind of critical community that helps spread the word re: good authors, assisting in the separation of wheat from the surrounding chaff.

    Hopefully that will happen soon.

    Good post, in depth and provocative.

    August 21, 2011
    • Cliff, welcome to the insanity that is MGC. Technology is our friend and our foe as writers and as readers. It’s our friend because it does make it easier not only to create our work — I’m old enough to remember actually TYPING my first story — and our foe because it makes it so easy for everyone and their dog to call themselves a writer. I think we’re going to see a lot of wheat and chaff for the next year or so. But then the novelty of being able to put a book or story up for sale will wear off for most of those who aren’t serious about their writing. Sure, there will still be a few, but I think the influx will slow.

      One thing I do think we will see — in fact we are already starting to see is — is that outlets like Amazon and B&N will start an “indie” page. Amazon already has this. The fact that their own people are choosing the “top titles” to showcase. Until that gets more established, we’re going to see a lot of the separating of good from bad happening on different fora like the Amazon’s kindle board and their Meet the Author board.

      Will it be an easy ride for the next few years? No. But I do think it may be easier for those of us going indie or, more especially, small and micro press than those going the legacy route.

      August 21, 2011
  2. Thanks for sharing that, it helps 🙂

    August 21, 2011
    • Welcome to MGC, Jeyna. Pull up and chair and join the madness.

      August 21, 2011
  3. 'nother Mike #

    What’s the rule about every post about spelling, grammar, etc. must include at least one glaring error? I think:

    Another e-book had a glaring misspelling in the first sense.

    Might have been the first sentence? Although it has a certain charm as it is.

    August 21, 2011
    • Mike, no fair pointing out my mistakes on a post I typed pre-coffee.

      August 21, 2011
  4. Converting from MS word to Mobi . . . Holy Moley! I feels as if I should appologise for sending you and NRP the story and novella that were formated for, well, _not_ being converted.

    I’ve decided to kick my ugliest child out to Kindle . . . oh my. I had no idea how many hoops had to be jumped through, how much of my deliberate formatting was exactly the wrong thing to do for e-book conversion. And just when I’ve gotten the %^&* active Table of Contents to work, I glance sideways at it and _another_ typo leaps off the page at me. And the kindle for PC isn’t enough, I’m going to have to buy one. And maybe some other reader(s) as well.

    And change all of my automatic formatting habits.

    Just in case I get brave enough to do it again.

    August 21, 2011
  5. Stephen Simmons #

    Why would I *possibly* think an editor was important, having just submitted my attempts at correcting the glaring story-structure errors that the editor pointed out to me? lol

    Beta-readers can tell me if the things I tried to say reached the audience or landed somewhere off-target. An *editor* can tell me that the things I’m trying to say aren’t what the audience NEEDS me to say. That difference can only come from someone who really knows ahwt they’re talking about.

    August 21, 2011
    • Steve, the other thing to keep in mind is that some beta readers don’t realize that you want — and need — them to be honest. The problem with a lot of beta readers is they start thinking they need to read like a grammar teacher instead of as a reader. That said, as the editor you sent your corrections to, I’ll let you in on a secret: you are a talented writer. You just need a bit more seasoning — but then, don’t we all?

      August 21, 2011
      • Brendan #

        David Brin once said about his betas that if they couldn’t find anything to critisise he didn’t ask them to check any of his manuscripts anymore. He wasn’t giving them the book for egoboo but to see where he screwed up so if they couldn’t help him it wasn’t worth his time getting them copies.

        August 22, 2011
  6. Pam, contact me privately about the conversion process. It’s tedious — or can be, especially as you’re learning it — but very doable. And, yes, there are a number of hoops to jump through.

    Now, for the question of whether you need to buy an e-reader or three, don’t do it unless you want one as a reader. We have different platforms because it is our business. There is something else you have to think about if you are getting an e-reader. The kindle, the nook, etc are e-ink displays, which means no color. The color nook, the iPad, etc., are color-capable. So, covers have to look good in both grayscale and in color.

    As I said, email me and we’ll talk about what you might need to do that you might not have thought about.

    August 21, 2011
  7. Amanda,

    Yeah. I already did the “OMG! Gonna have to redraw that cover with a whole lot more contrast!” It looks a bit gaudy in color, now.

    I’ve got it all converted, but I can’t get the kindle emulator to see the guides for the cover, TOC and first page. But I get an error message on the emulator–it doesn’t like my version of windoze, which the Kindle place said it wouldn’t. So I don’t know if I’m doing it wrong or if I found the glitch. The HTML marks are there, &*(^ it!

    Computers, can’t live with ’em, wouldn’t want to live without them.

    Something useful to you might be a blog sometime on what formatting you really want now, that until last week I’d not thought of. Automatic paragragh indents instead of tabs, for instance. Inserting Page Breaks at the end of chapters. Active tables of content–and how to do them. Unless it’s less work to do them yourself instead of undoing something done wrong. 😉

    August 21, 2011
    • Pam, all I want as editor for NRP is standard manuscript format. That means one inch margins, double-spaced, page breaks at the end of chapters. Formatting for submission for consideration is very different from formatting for publication. We don’t need nor do we necessarily want an active table of contents. For one thing, not all of our editors work from MSWord. For another, that active content might not be what we need for our formatting. What you have to remember is that requirements to submit to Amazon are different from those for B&N and very different from those for Smashwords.

      I’m not trying to discourage you, but if you can’t view the file in the emulator and you haven’t looked at it through K4PC or some other program that lets you see the file natively, don’t take it active. Again, contact me off-list and maybe I can help you.

      August 21, 2011
  8. When I put my novel up on the net for free (available at http://www.scottjrobinson.com) I spent 3 solid days working on the epub conversion. It still isn’t perfect (there seem to be spaces between each of the entries in the TOC for instance) but it’s pretty clean.

    A thing that caused a lot of the problems is the fact that you can format it exactly like the conversion program asks (Calibre in my case) and it just goes and adds random fonts or takes some chapter headings nicely and ignores others that are formatted in exactly the same way. Argh. So after converting it with Calibre I went and checked it in Sigil, learning a bit (but not much) about html while I was at it.

    I’m not sure how many people have downloaded it (in any format) but it could be up to up to 120 if one of the stats programs is to believed (which I’m not sure if I do– that would be nice) but nobody has complained yet…

    August 22, 2011
    • Scott,

      From someone who knows HTML – make sure you’ve got whatever you’re using to preview before conversion and check after the conversion configured to show all the special characters. It’s amazing how sensitive layout can be to that.

      August 22, 2011
      • Kate, you’re absolutely right. The other issue is that how it looks in preview in mobireader is different from what it will look like on the kindle and what the epub version will look like on the nook and then there’s the conversion for microsoft reader — yes, there are still folks who use it. And don’t get me started on the lack of control you have with layout when it comes to running something through the meatgrinder at Smashwords.

        August 22, 2011
    • Brendan #

      So many of the e-pub or HTML converters create such ugly and unnecessary code. For instance, why bother naming fonts when most e-readers are either not going to have yours installed or are going to ignore it anyway? And don’t get me started on the pain that is converting PDF! For the moment anyway, ebook codes really need to strictly adhere to the KISS principle, since most of the wonderful formatting you do will be stripped by the reader so it can select its own fonts, text sizes, kerning, borders, ect, ect(most people tell me that they can’t read what is on the screen when using my prefered iPhone reader setup)

      August 22, 2011
      • Brendan, KISS is the best rule for e-book conversion. The one rule I’ve learned is not to try to convert from pdf to any standard e-book format. It’s more trouble than it’s worth. As for how the different e-readers show each e-book, that’s why we do as much cross-checking between different native e-readers/e-reader programs as possible. Believe me, I’ve gotten much more proficient in html coding that I ever wanted to be.

        August 22, 2011
    • Scott, Calibre is good for a lot of things. However, as the base converter, we’ve found there are other programs out there that seem to work better. We use them for the epub and mobi files and then use Calibre for lit and lrf files. There are two things I’d recommend you do. The first is what Brendan said — keep it simple. The second is to get a good text editor program and learn basic html coding. It really does make the conversion process easier.

      August 22, 2011
  9. Personally, I suck at editing. And so as I look at what to do with my recently “completed” novel and with self-publishing being on the table, I have to look at getting editing.

    Few writers, I am told, are good editors, and fewer still are good at editing their own work. As I said, I’m not one of them. That means hiring an editor. The problem is finding an editor for hire that is 1) competent, 2) not priced completely out of my league, and 3) after taking my money is going to do an honest job, including being willing to say about the story “trunk it and try something else” if that’s really what the editor thinks. Of those, #2 is the easiest to find.

    There are lots of editors for hire, a quick google search turns up tons of possibilities. And I can quickly enough determine whether they are “affordable” (criterion 2 above), but how does one determine #1 and #3? How does one know that the editor in question is competent and willing to do an honest job, even to telling me things that the editor might think I don’t want to hear. (Well, I don’t want to hear “it sucks and there’s nothing I can do” but I’d rather hear that than either hear “it’s good but we can make it better” when it’s not nor even “it’s wonderful, you don’t need me” when it’s not that either.

    So how does one find . . . how do I find . . . the editor that will do the job I need done?

    August 22, 2011
    • Brendan #

      You could check with the local writers guild/association. They will normally have a number of people they could suggest. Then there is word of mouth. Are there any other writers around you could ask for advice?

      Once you find someone – check their resume. Have they done editing for the sort of material you produce? Have a look at their past projects.

      Finally, you may want to interview them. No matter how good their past work has been if you don’t click the chances are they won’t produce what you need/want.

      If you think this is a lot of work, well yes you are right. That is one of the reasons why I don’t think publishers are goon to die off quite as soon as some people think.

      August 22, 2011

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