Although I am an Independent Author, I still think of myself as a publisher. Actually, I wear several hats: Publisher, Art Designer, Editor, and Author, among others. I don’t edit my own books, I edit others, including non-fiction. But it does help that have worn the editor’s hat, when it comes to judging how well the work is being done on my own books.
I’ll come back to that in a minute. I told a fellow writer recently that I had decided when I started out that I wasn’t self-publishing, I was opening a publishing house. It’s a tiny one, and only a handful of people will ever even be eligible to be published by it – one of them I am married to, and two of them gave me life, if that helps you understand my intentions, although to date none of those three have finished anything – but it is, nonetheless, a business. The goal of a business, as I see it, is to make money. Period, full stop. What it then does with the money is a different kettle of fishies.
Having established that part of my business mission, I then looked at how to go about making money. Well, in my books the only way for a publisher to make money and still respect themselves in the morning is to deliver a quality reading experience to the people who buy books. Here is where it veers from very simple – make money – to very complicated.
I realize that most people are not going to be inclined to wear all the hats that I do. I only attempted it because I had already been running a business for more than a decade, so I had a clue (or so I thought) about what I was getting into. I’d had some graphics design training, and rather a lot of sales & marketing. Most folks don’t. Which is fine. There is nothing wrong with knowing you need some help to put out the best possible product. It’s why I rely on a team of beta readers and editors to get my books in shape when I’m done writing them.
When it becomes a problem is when I see authors simply hand off their manuscript to someone else with no real idea of what’s happening behind the scenes. Even if you aren’t planning on doing all the things, you need to know all the things, so you know when they are FUBAR.
This post was brought on by my receiving an ARC from a friend and fellow author. The book in question is a sequel, I enjoyed the first one, and it’s put out by a small press. The story is a fun one, and I’ve been enjoying the chance to read it, knowing I can say kind words about it. However… it’s badly in need of editing, and I am sad because I know it’s not going to get it. The first book, which I read when it had already been out for some time, was also badly in need of editing. Actually, thinking about it, the second one has shown some improvement and I know that’s because my friend is becoming a better writer (you hear that? Yes, you are! I’ve edited some of your non-fiction and I know) not any outside interference. Also, I know that the cover for this book (I haven’t seen it yet) is likely to suck eggs, because, well, the first one did (although it was re-covered at some point with a marginally better design).
It’s not just that I feel like ranting over this, even though it’s a crying shame that my friend’s book will get out of the gate with two major handicaps. It’s that this is a good example of what can happen if you turn your work over to someone who isn’t going to handle it well and turn out a good product: readers won’t blame the publisher, they will blame the person with their name on the cover of the book. So before you let the publisher touch your work, you need to check them out.
No, I don’t want to hear that your options are limited, you have to take what they give you, and like it or leave it. We’ve talked before about how the publisher/author relationship is often parallel to an abusive marriage. The only way that is ever going to improve is for the authors to stop bending over and taking what’s given them with ‘please sir, may I have another?’ on their lips. The first step is to walk away from the abuse. The next step is to make sure you don’t tumble right into another abuser’s clutches.
Before you submit a manuscript, even, you need to do your research. You wouldn’t, for instance, send a romance novel to Baen. Baen treats their authors right, and it’s worth you looking at that relationship as a guide to what you want for your books. You want great editors – not just for piddly little typos, but content, structure, and that rarest of birds, a development editor who will help you grow. How can you tell if a publishing house has these? Easy… if you know something about editing. Which is where I come back to having worn the editing hat. If you know what you’re looking for, you can see by sampling the product if that publisher is actually editing. They don’t all. Some of them don’t even bother with typos, but that’s a whole ‘nother rant.
Even before the editing, the covers will tell you how much the publisher cares. If the covers suck, run. If the editing sucks, run. If you google the company and find that they have a reputation as a scam, or authors are suing them for royalties, run. Ask around discreetly of your fellow writers and see what sort of reputation this publisher has. Do your homework. Don’t do the equivalent of a three-day bender in Vegas, Elvis was involved, and now you don’t know your own last name.
I hate to break it to you, but you’ll never just be able to write. If you want to be a full-fledged author, you have to treat it like a business.