Who are the real gatekeepers?

Over the last couple of days, I’ve seen a number of posts by authors from both sides of the traditional vs. indie publishing discussion (yes, I’m being nice here. In most cases, discussion doesn’t exactly describe the content. Argument or even screaming hissy fit usually comes closer). This comes on top of a long thread in a discussion group I belong to where a couple of folks flat said they would never read anything not from a traditional publisher because anything else never rises above the level of dreck. Pile on top of that a blog post I read this morning from an agent discussing the role of agents in the current world of publishing and, well, my head has exploded again.

It still amazes me the number of “authors” who still foam at the mouth whenever they hear the words “indie” or “self-published”. These authors sneer at anyone who hasn’t “proven” themselves the same way they did. In other words, if you haven’t sent in your submissions and included your SASEs time and time again until you find an editor ready to accept your prose, then you aren’t a “real” writer. That’s right. SASE. I actually read a post this morning where an author castigated anyone who hasn’t done this and who might not know what SASE stands for. Let’s forget about the fact that most major publishers now allow for digital submissions and, even if they don’t, they often don’t require the SASE. But not having sent out your SASEs is a sticking point to becoming a pro according to this one author.

Then you have those who believe that those who go the indie route won’t have their work edited and proofread by “real” editors and proofreaders. According to them, indie covers are all hysterically bad and indies are all wannabes who have tried to cut to the head of the line without learning the trade and taking their lumps. To support this, they point out that the professional organizations like SFWA don’t recognize indie published books are real books and, therefore, indie authors can’t be pro authors.

Why do I have this image of an ostrich with its head buried in the sand?

Look, I’ll be the first one to admit that there are those out there who publish indie because it is the easy way. They throw together a book — and I use that term loosely — and put it up on Amazon or Smashwords or any of the other outlets that allow access to indies. But these are also the ones who, after a few times of doing it will realize that they aren’t making the millions they thought they would and who will go away to either perfect their craft or to another hobby that doesn’t take the time writing does and that might have a better payout.

But there are many wonderful authors out there who have tried going the traditional route and haven’t been able to break in. It has nothing to do with how well they construct a sentence, how good their understanding of punctuation is or how strong their story structure might be. It has everything to do with the fact that the vast majority of publishers require an author to have an agent to get through the doors to even be considered. Agents choose clients based on personal reading taste as well as on what they think publishers want. The problem is, they are looking at something written today that might not see its way into print for two years or more and that, by then, won’t be the next big thing in publishing.

But even if you have an agent, that doesn’t mean you are going to be published. It means you have a chance, better than without an agent but still small, to break into a traditional publishing house. Let’s be real here: there are more authors trying to get their work published than there are slots available for them. Publishers don’t accept every good book that comes through the door. They listen to their bean counters who tell them that the latest best seller is about dinos into bondage with aliens from Zunev. So editors go out looking for similar books. That means your incredible family saga novel is going to be passed over because it doesn’t fit the current best seller matrix. It has nothing to do with your skills as a writer, only with the fact it isn’t following the latest trend.

So, tell me again why I have to go through a traditional publishing path to be considered a “pro”?

Oh, yeah, because SFWA and other organizations don’t recognize me as one. SFWA, an organization that presents itself as the moral compass of the SF/F community and has no problems attacking members who don’t conform to whatever is the current politically correct stance du jour. SFWA, the organization that for years has said it can’t do anything to acknowledge indies and others who publish through non-traditional tracks (read no large advance) without changing its bylaws and constitution. Although, it now seems like they have formed a focus group or something similar to look into it. SFWA who is behind the times when you look at how quickly RWA adapted their rules to include digital, non-advance publishing credits.

Then there’s the allegation that indie’s don’t have their books edited. Excuse me while I go giggle in the corner. Okay, I’m giggling a bit hysterically but many of you understand why. You’ve seen the lack of quality edits that have come back to you, the author, from one of the Big 6 — now Big 5 — publishers. You’ve seen how your editors and copy editors have changed the entire meaning of a sentence or a paragraph, fatally flawing that paragraph or even entire scene, by using a modern term in your historical romance. You’ve had copy editors or editors tell you that your characters couldn’t be in X-church located at Y-location because that’s not where it is. Well, that might not be where it is today according to Google Maps but 100 years ago, it was exactly where you have it. How do you know? Because you didn’t rely on Google Maps or its alternative but you went to maps from the time or descriptions of the area written back then.

Still not convinced that editing can be as bad, or worse, in a traditionally published book than it is an indie book? There are authors who are just now starting to talk publicly about some of the politically correct changes they’ve been forced to make to their books. Characters’ nationalities and race have been changed. Their sexual orientation have been changed. Changes that have nothing to do with making the story better and everything to do with pushing the current politically correct stance of the publishing house.

Then there are the authors, some of them best sellers, who hire editors to go over their work both before and after their publishing house’s editor sees it. Why? Because the quality of editing isn’t, on a whole, of the same level it once was. When publishers started cost cutting years ago, the two areas hit hardest were publicity and editing. So tell me again how traditionally published authors have better editing than indies?

(As with most everything I have to say about legacy publishing, there are exceptions. When it comes to editing and how they treat their authors, Baen Books is the exception. Their editors actually read a book and edit it before it is published and they do treat their authors as partners and valued members of the team, not as an asset or chattel like some publishers do.)

So, how do indie authors get past this stigma others in the industry, especially their fellow writers, seem to have about them? First, indies have to quit worrying about what the so-called pros think. Many of those who were the loudest to condemn indies back when Amazon first opened the KDP program are now indie publishing. Those who still condemn indies are either parroting what their agents and editors tell them or they scared to give up that upfront advance and strike out on their own. They are like the folks in the discussion thread last week who see only the bad in indie and don’t recognize that there are a number of excellent authors out there, more and more of whom are starting to make a living from indie publishing.

But, as an indie, you do have to know the tools of the trade. You have to be able to write a sentence with proper grammar and punctuation — just as you have to know when to break the grammar rules. You have to know story structure. You have to make the commitment to have your work look as professional, or more so, than what is coming out of the traditional houses. That means getting it edited and proofread. It means having a professional looking cover. In other words, you have to be as professional as the naysayers think they are.

Does that mean you will become the next Stephen King or Amanda Hocking? No. But it means you have a chance to find readers who will enjoy your books and recommend you to their friends and family. And they, in turn, will recommend you to another group of readers. That is how you start building sales. As that is happening, you should be writing. Write the next book or short story. Set your own publishing schedule and keep to it. Make sure that when a reader finishes something and likes it, there’s something else of yours for them to buy. If there isn’t, at least have an announcement of when your next book will be out.

As an indie author, you are in the business of writing. That means you have to be your own bean counter and PR guru and editor. It means you have to find and use resources for not only research but for editing, proofing and cover creation. You have to keep up with what is being sold by the legacy publishers and how they are packaging it. Why? Because if your cover has the same basic look as traditionally published books in your genre then the reader won’t automatically go “indie!” and move on. It is a game of appearances.

Most of all, quit listening to those traditionally published authors who say the only way to break into the industry is to do it the way they did. The industry has changed since most of them sold their first book or short story. The rules they had to follow no longer apply. So choose the path you want to follow — heck, follow both if you want — but write and don’t worry about whether you qualify for “pro” status in the organizations or not. What matters is if you are writing books people want to read and are willing to pay for.

Don’t believe me, go to Sarah’s post yesterday at According to Hoyt to see an example of what I would have thought a joke last week but now know is a real sub-genre that is making money for the authors involved. There are folks out there begging for books, books that will never be published through traditional houses. The gatekeepers are no longer the agents or the editors. They are exactly who they ought to be — the readers.

29 comments

  1. a blog post I read this morning from an agent discussing the role of agents in the current world of publishing

    I have to say I had to restrain myself from posting something very sarcastic on that particular post. In the end, I decided that I really didn’t need to be rude and crude to someone I don’t know except 2nd or 3rd hand and who is at least sometimes sensible

  2. I know. I had the same reaction, especially when it came to the part of their agency having the digital publishing arm. I still have questions about how that is done without it becoming a conflict of interest.

  3. On the topic of quality control, does anyone have thoughts on or use a list of questions to ask beta readers? I had a proofreader and editor of sorts for my first one, but have 4 beta reader volunteers for the WIP, and it’s almost ready to go to them. I’m thinking of asking them the following, but am also wondering if it’s better to just give it to them and say “tell me if you see any problems. Feel free to circle typos.”
    1. Did you see any logic problems, gaping holes, leaps of faith, confusing stuff?
    2. Did you feel you didn’t understand why a character did or didn’t do something?
    3. Were there any really slow or dull stretches?

    These are all leading questions, of course, and maybe I don’t want to plant seeds? I could put the Qs at the end of the manuscript.

        1. You’re welcome. πŸ™‚ I really, really like that this website has a searchable archive. So many don’t.

          1. Those were good links. I even remember reading the most recent one, come to think of it. (Must remember search function). After reading all that, I think I’ll be very general up front (plot holes? confusion?) and save the specific, leading questions for when they are done.

            1. Laura, also aim those questions to the betas best able to answer them. You may have some who are great at grammar or punctuation but others who are excellent at spotting dangling plot threads. Learn where the strengths are and then exploit them.

    1. Personally, I wouldn’t have beta readers doing proofreading duties. For me, they are my checks to make sure the story makes sense, that I haven’t left anyone hanging off the edge of the cliff and that I haven’t bored them to death with infodumps. Still, I know some people who have pages of questions they have their beta readers answer. To me, that’s overkill and the last thing I want my betas to think is that reading my writing is work.

      1. Agreed. I want a little immersion. However, one of my folks won’t be able to stop herself, so I’ll take advantage of her eyeballs and the fact that she’ll be holding a pen in her hand.

    2. I gave a short story to a friend to read and she still hasn’t gotten it back to me because she decided to do an in depth edit “thing” without reading it through first. (We’re both in the same Editing class.) I finally told her to just read it and get it back to me, I just wanted to know if she liked it or not. (Not exactly true, but at this point that will do.)

      I had good luck having my son read a couple of short stories and I told him… “I’m not going to change this so what I want to know is if I’ve garbled it anywhere, if it makes sense, and if you can follow the action. If it’s boring, you can tell me that, too.” He pointed out that he missed how the guy got from the cafeteria into the hallway. Sure enough, I’d stuck “he left the cafeteria” right in the middle of a paragraph and then changed the subject. It took me five minutes to even find it back, so of course he missed it. Anyone would.

      Now, it’s not true that I wouldn’t change something that didn’t work, but it seems to me that when people figure you’re going to change it they focus on giving you suggestions about what should really happen. So instead of saying “the ending lacked punch” they say “you should have aliens show up and blow up the…. whatever.”

      1. I see where you’re going with this. Instead of inviting someone to tell you how he or she would write it, you let them know that you are done except for anything illogical or flat. Or just bad. That kind of goes against all sorts of management training (“bring me the solution when you bring me the problem”), but, boy, I don’t need to hear how to take my 9th draft in a totally different direction. Perhaps I should prepare a Powerpoint briefing. πŸ™‚

        1. I can’t let my husband read anything of mine *ever* because any time he gets interested in the ideas he’s all… “And then this could happen, and you could have that happen, and then…” and it’s not even the same story anymore.

          To my shame, I’ve done it to people too. But hopefully by now I know better. πŸ™‚

          I’ve told him that we might be able to collaborate if we start out intending to collaborate. He does have lots of really great ideas and they’re totally different from the way I approach things so a combo might end up far richer than what I do on my own. But that doesn’t help at all when it’s my story he’s beta reading and I’m trying to make it work.

          1. That’s funny. We figured out my husband shouldn’t read anything because he knew he would do that. He read it after I published it.

  4. The part about no indie book can have the quality copy-editing and proof-reading of a “published” work set me to giggling. Especially given the sheer number of decent-to-excellent copy-editors for hire out on the ‘net. Since several major writers have said they have to hire a copy-editor because [big house] doesn’t do it right (or at all) anymore, that should also raise eyebrows about using editing as a criteria for “real” writers.

      1. Yeah. Same as saying you always get a great cover from traditional publishers. I’ve seen some real dogs from the Big 5.

      2. Since I can’t afford to hire any outside editors I’m rather grateful for that, bad editing in trad publishing. The worse trad published books are, the less likely it is anybody will be all that bothered by the typos and bad grammar in mine, the more likely they will just take them as a matter of course, something you’ll now find in everything. πŸ˜€

        (But if I get the money I will pay for professional editing. One should sell the best possible product. Only it’s better to sell something than sell nothing, so I am not going to wait until I win in a lottery so I can afford the edits, that may never happen.)

        P.S. I have started to post sample chapters of the novel I’m writing now on my blog. First, raw version so I’m not sure how smart that is, but what the hell. (You can find the link to the blog by clicking on my gravatar picture)

    1. I agree but it still amazes me the number of authors who think they get quality editing and copy editing/proofing from experienced editors. The truth of the matter is that, as a general rule, they are being read and at least copy edited or proofed by interns. Publisher’s editorial staffs have been pared down so far it’s no longer funny.

  5. General concurrence. The idea that keeps nudging me in the back of the head lately with all the TOFKASFWA kerfuffles is:

    We need an indie SF/F writer org. You know, an org actually interested in writers and their trials tribulations and successes. One that would be interested in helping writers and that could be a resource for fans looking for new books. And a review service for writer services like copy editing, editing, cover work, etc. No need to exclude trad publishers from the rolls, but the focus would be on the independent.

    TOFKASFWA is not now, nor likely to be in the near future, serving writers. Time for some change.

    An aside: Amanda, currently reading Nocturnal Origin, digging it, thanks for getting it out there.

    1. Eamon, I agree about needing a new organization. The problem is finding a group of folks who have the desire and time to put it together. And thanks for the kind words about Origins. I’m on the downhill side of Nocturnal Interlude, the third full novel and fourth entry in the Nocturnal Lives series.

      1. Yeah, I know it’ll be difficult, but I think the need (and pressure) will increase and with luck the value of the project will increase as well. Then maybe we can get the right group together. Alas, not today.

        Glad to hear it, regarding Nocturnal Interlude! Looking forward to making my way through the series.

  6. As much as I like Baen, I have to say I have not been tremendously impressed with their editing either. Or rather I should say with their copy editing, I tend to see as many typos in their books as in other traditionally published books. Trad pubbed books tend to be middle of the road on editing quality, regardless of publisher, which means I can’t recall reading a trad pubbed book in the last several years that didn’t have some visible mistakes in it. Honestly both the best and worst editing I see is in indie, there is just a vast range of practically everything in indie, whether you are talking subject matter, editing quality, or just plain readability.

  7. I don’t completely shun the mainstream publishers (some decent stuff slips through the cracks), but I’m increasingly interested in the indies. Put it this way: if a mainstream publisher can put out something as utterly amateurish as Frederic Rich’s Christian Nation, they clearly have no monopoly on quality.

    1. But but Christopher! All the “Good Men” believe that Palin is Nehemiah Scudder!!!! [Very Big Evil Grin]

      1. It astounds me to see the vitriol being spewed at a vice-presidential candidate from five years ago . . . who lost. Talk about sore winners.

        1. Seriously, since Palin is still involved in politics they consider her fair-game for “vitriol”.

          Of course, the “Good Men” always need a Satan figure and since she’s still politically involved & religious, they think of her as the Great Satan.

          1. What really struck me from reading a few pages of the novel was that it was *exactly* the stererotype of a poorly-written self-published screed. From a mainstream publisher.

Comments are closed.