Quality Not Quantity for Self-Published Writers

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

SignOne of the complaints the self-publishing community often hit traditional publishers with is that they license authors’ work and then hold onto it for 1-2 years before publishing it. I would agree the time taken to get books into the market is too long and traditional publishers can often be out of touch when it comes to reacting to what the customer wants right now, in a quickly changing market.

I also often hear from the more promotion-savvy self-published authors that writers should be getting their work out there, that the marketplace is the perfect place to test writing out. And not only in one genre, but writers should be trying multiple genres and seeing what or how many work for them.

While I appreciate the dynamism, particularly in contrast to traditional publishers’ more glacial pace, which is only now showing signs of change, this approach is of great concern. It moves away from the hard work, the perfectionism and striving for improvement that should be essential and provides an easy escape route at the moment the hardest work should begin.

One example is when I started my first publishing business Legend Press in 2005 (a traditional publisher). In some ways self-published authors are beginning their own micro publishing company when they launch their first book. I could have said I would try a few companies out first, test the market, maybe in a couple of different areas, see what worked and what didn’t etc. The result would be a certainty – I would currently be working for someone else to pay off the large debts from my non-starter business failures.

I had to start one business, put absolutely everything I had into it and learn from that incredibly challenging upward and winding road towards improvement. And nearly ten years on I am still somewhere just after the start of the same road still trying to improve.

Writing for publication is a business and it is positive that this is starting to be more openly realised, in part driven by dynamic entrepreneurial authors. But it is also an art. Can you imagine if Michelangelo had decided rather than spending four painstaking years on the timeless Sistine Chapel roof he would slap on it a quick fresco and move onto a new project. And you don’t often hear Beethoven’s Quick Playalong Symphony.

Before writers comment that this sounds elitist and before the cries of ‘genre fiction is different’ etc, it’s not. I’ve given advice to a number of self-published authors writing crime thrillers, fantasy and so on to be told ‘oh, I know there are flaws but I am just going to get this one published and I’m already working on a new book…’ My initial thought is that you may increase your number of works published, but you are never going to be a better writer than you are now.

I get obsessed over the minute detail in our businesses and I can’t fully comprehend how anyone can produce something so personal and important as their own work and be indifferent to perfecting it. It just sets them up for making no impact on the customer. And the wider point is the threat this attitude poses to the whole market. I don’t want readers seeing any work that an author (and publisher if traditionally published) hasn’t perfected, or they may well stop being a reader.

I say this not only for commercial reasons. Firstly, authors should show some pride. Anyone can put words in a sequence, but only a great writer can change the reader’s world very slightly by having written them. It is the existence of that ability that motivated me to start a publishing business.

It could be said in response that it depends on what a self-published author considers success for themselves. It is true that there is achievement in just completing a novel, but there is no reason why any ambitious writer should stop so far short of striving to meet their full potential. If all you provide to the reader is an ISBN number, you may as well give up being a writer and become a bingo caller.

In conclusion, the message is writers don’t need to be tied to lengthy waits for publication. However, more importantly, they shouldn’t confuse action with progress or shirk the hardest work of all. No one remembers who has published the most books or has written in the most genres. But when a reader finds a fantastic book it stays with them for a lifetime.

27 thoughts on “Quality Not Quantity for Self-Published Writers

  1. Keith

    Absolutely, 100% correct. Hugh Howey and others keep chanting “Publish, publish, publish,” as advice for self-pubbed writers. But alas, Tom is correct. In nearly all cases, more is not better. Quality writing is the most valuable outcome of any writing project, and volume of output, in most cases, is antithetical to that. Just because you can publish a lot, doesn’t mean you should. Only beneficiaries of the “more is better” approach are the self-publishing platforms.

    Reply
    1. Tom Chalmers

      Thanks Keith – yes, the ease with which work can now be published has many great advantages but also disadvantages. One of my concerns is potentially great writers will give up before they’ve really started by publishing work that wasn’t ready and then doesn’t sell.

      Reply
  2. MIKE KENNEDY

    Tom, this is the best essay I’ve read in a while. Yes, the story is born in the re-write. Of course, the term \re-write\ means various things to various people. In the seven years I’ve been writing, I’ve been struck by what I’ve learned about \the process.\ Nothing of what I’ve encountered was taught in college. I liken it to moving into a large, empty house to work. What I encounter when inside that \house\ is the soft side of my own human nature. The natural inclination is to get out of the \house\ asap. But the house is where I layer my work and the sooner I leave, the fewer layers. da Vinci laid up 40 layers with the Mona Lisa. Maybe all art is like that.

    Additionally, you are quite correct that putting out unfinished work hurts the entire industry. This is why modern fiction suffers from a crisis of imagination. I find nothing of interest in it since John Cheever with the possible except of Percival Everett.

    Reading your essay was good for me in the way of someone telling a person to \buck up & keep moving.\

    Reply
    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks Mike and really glad you liked it. Yes, another concern is someone new to buying and reading books picks up a work of low quality and then doesn’t buy another one, whereas had they been inspired they could have become a regular book buying reader.

      Reply
  3. Kristen Steele

    Thank you for this well-written essay. Publishing a book is certainly a noble achievement, but it always amazes me how many authors rush the process just to “get something out there.” As a marketing professional, it doesn’t make any sense to me that you would take the risk of jeopardizing your brand in such a way. If anything, my advice would be to pre-release a teaser chapter or excerpt of your book that you’ve meticulously edited and tweaked, even if the rest of the book isn’t quite finished. Give readers a sampling of your best work, but also give yourself time as the author to do yourself justice in the rest of your writing (and maybe to whip up a social media campaign to maintain the interest). The old adage that you only get one chance to make a first impression still applies here, and it’s a crucial point that I think many authors are glossing over.

    Reply
    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks Kristen and, yes, like you shouldn’t launch a business before it’s ready, you wouldn’t launch a marketing campaign before it’s ready and so you certainly shouldn’t publish a book – a hugely personal piece of work – before it’s ready.

      Reply
  4. Max Myers

    Indiepub has been both a boon and a bust for exactly the topic of your post. The irony, of course, is that the freedom and opportunity it’s provided to authors is now in danger of becoming the butt of the joke.

    Of the manuscripts that have been submitted to me, perhaps 5% are edited. Before I publish, each ms goes through 3 different editors; myself and 2 others. Only then does it go to the interior book designer. This process is similar to that of the Big 5 trad houses and that, in part, is why they’re successful, or at least used to be. Quantity does not, nor will it ever, outweigh quality. The larger picture is that the vast majority of indiepub should never have been and, as a result, has created a sea of ego flotsam that has made it much more difficult for great indie authors to rise above.

    Of the ms that I pass on, almost without fail when I ask if they’ve had their work edited, most will say no, or they’ll tell me that they did the edit. No matter how gently I point out that all great work is made in the rewrite and independent edit, again, most become indignant.

    I’m convinced that the bloom is off the rose in that so many that believed they could punch out some badly written nonsense and find instant success, have discovered otherwise, fortunately. This has seeped in the buying public that are now becoming more discerning and I hope with every fiber of my being that this only continues to grow. Not everyone can write. Not everyone can be a brain surgeon. You’ve either got the talent or you don’t. Long live indiepub.

    Reply
    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks Max – as per above one worry is that authors that have undeveloped talent will publish too quickly and that talent will never come to fruition through very hard work. But I agree that the reader is becoming clued up and the flood has reached it’s maximum and should start to come under greater control over the next couple of years.

      Reply
  5. Carol Buchanan

    Yes, yes, and yes!

    Only once, out of three novels, did I rush a book, because it was so dark I could not work on it any more. One of my reviewers warned me that it was riddled with errors, so I pulled it back, had it edited, and reissued it.

    Now I’m working on my fourth novel. I had a self-imposed deadline, which was impossible to meet, and after being diagnosed with a duodenal ulcer, I reminded myself that my motto has always been \I will sell no book before its time.\ (Apologies to Gallo Winery.)

    That motto brought me a Spur award and stellar reviews for my first novel, and a near miss for the second. Now, when The Ghost at Beaverhead Rock is as good as I can possibly write it, I’ll release it. Perhaps it won’t come out at the best time for selling books, such as this fall, but it will be my best work. I owe that to my loyal and encouraging readers.

    Reply
  6. Donnie Light

    I agree with the basic premise of this piece. Having worked as a print and eBook designer with a large Indie clientele, I saw books cross my desk that I had to wonder if even the author did any proofing prior to sending to me for publication. Basic spelling and grammatical errors were abundant and could not possibly be missed by a reader.
    Imagine my surprise when those same books seemed to sell. I have seen well-written books not sell at all, and what seemed to me to be first drafts sell thousands of copies.
    I think the basic idea in the readers mind is that they can overlook some small errors if the story can grip them and carry the book, while error-free writing and a poor story will likely not get any traction with readers.
    At least now the market (aka readers) determine a writer’s success. How the writer chooses to present themselves will, in the end, determine the degree to which they will succeed.

    Reply
    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks Donnie and I agree that there are many factors that make a book into a commercial success – there are many high quality works that haven’t sold as well as they deserved, sometimes due to publisher/self-pub author error and sometimes due to how many books there are in the market. But in that competitive market, authors shouldn’t put themselves at a disadvantage – like I wouldn’t go to a football trial with my legs tied together, I wouldn’t publish a book with lots of mistakes in that could easily have been corrected.

      Reply
  7. William Ash

    Exactly how long does it take to reach perfection? Important question. Is there actually a strong link to perfection and time? And how much time? Unfortunately, the author does not answer this, except for cherry picking facts. Is Dickens bad because he did not spend a lot of time? A Christmas Carol was banged out for the season. Are we to think less of Bach? What about Shakespeare? There are numerous stories of creative people suddenly inspire create a work in quickly. And certainly dwelling over a piece with endless rewrites can bleed a work dry. And there are numerous authors that procrastinate and suddenly have to hustle to meet a deadline, can we consider them taking time?

    But the self publisher, those that want to make a living out of their work, are at a disadvantage because it does take time to make a title. Publishers just have to call up a bunch of authors for their manuscripts. A writer is going to have to learn to write well and write efficiently. And naturally, it can be done and has been done. Even in the traditional publishing world there are authors that put out multiple books a year.

    Right now, there are a lot of people that have never written books that are doing it. Like most creative people, they will learn with experience. And if they don’t, it does not matter. But this is not a matter of time, but a matter of skill.

    Reply
    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks William and you’re right that there is no set time to go from average to brilliant – one of the great things about writing, and I imagine sometimes the most frustrating, is that there are no set rules to follow to be a top-quality writer. Though as well as having prestigious talent that made them capable of producing time-enduring works, one other thing Dickens, Shakespeare and Bach have in common is that history tells us they worked incredibly hard on their work, obsessed over it at key times. And this is more the point than time – that graft, while not glamorous, is vital to improving and writers should be able to take pride in what they publish. If I was putting something out that I was to be personally judged on, something that customers are unlikely to come back to if they don’t like it, I would want it to be as good as I could possibly make it.

      Reply
  8. Bill Gleason

    And perhaps most lacking in all is the Amazon \blurb\. The essence of the bricks/mortar store experience is the gentle opening of a new book, and attempting to capture the essence of the content stored within from the jacket cover. The good ones, the ones that really entice, are exemplars of our craft.

    The majority of the blurbs on Amazon, even for some fairly good titles, sound like bad take-offs of Netflix pop-ups – which until recently defined how poorly words could be juxtaposed and still called English.

    Poor copywriting on your Amazon page is simply inexcusable, but what novelist is also a trained copywriter? Ditto which novelist is a trained editor? I think both points bolster the author’s essential claim: \more time is needed to create great work\.

    But by whom? Research, writing, editing, and copywriting are all distinct skills honed over time with repetition. Rare is the individual who combines all.

    And rarer still is the jack of all trades who publishes a best seller without a great deal of help from fellow professionals. Indie or In-house…

    Reply
    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks Bill and you’re right – the blurb is also key and it amazes me when someone has gone to the huge effort to write a book and then puts up a blurb full of errors. I think it is key to know your strengths and weaknesses and be guided by that – if you are not a good copywriter then you should look into getting someone to take on that role – whether that is through a publisher or the author’s own network. There are tasks in our businesses that I wouldn’t be good at, and I would go nowhere near doing them as it’s vital to stick to your strengths.

      Reply
      1. Bill Gleason

        Tom – not only did you write a beautiful, concise post – you also took the time to acknowledge and comment on many if not all of the posts.

        My point is simple – from me and on the behalf of all above – THANK YOU for taking the time to comment.

        Bill

        Reply
  9. Lynn Isenberg

    Hi. I love this article. As an author and author-publisher I agree. I’ve been with traditional publishers, self-published, and hybrid published. I think that any author who embarks on self-publishing gets to walk away with a profound appreciation for the role of the publisher. While I agree with the premise and analogy of the Sistine Chapel, it seems the process of publishing a work of art can come about in the \speed-to-market\ book discoverability world in a sort of reverse manner. For example, a young writer wrote at fan fiction novel on a social reading platform and attracted 500 million reads and then signed a multi-million dollar publishing deal with a traditional publisher… the point being that in this case (and many like it), the work of crafting and publishing a traditional novel is coming after the millions of views (or \reads\) acquired in publishing direct-to-online. Generating a \celebrity\ following, even if content is not polished in a traditional book format may no longer matter; instead the high traffic creates the opportunity for an author to hone their craft–later- without a financial struggle. So technology is the great disruptor. And what we thought was the way of the world in paying dues and struggling to master a craft, can apparently exist in an inverted universe from previous belief systems… so perhaps it’s a matter of reframing our views… to get… uh, viewed .

    Even though I offer this inverted view, I believe in taking the time to go the distance and put out the best work you can. I spent a year and a half publishing my latest book (ok, I had a screenplay assignment in the midst of it and the Hollywood LIT Retreat to produce), but publishing this title took forever… getting hit with the perfectionist bug and the fear of anonymous feedback… especially for a book I believe is a game changer in publishing. I wrote it in 2011, then put it in a drawer until I saw Scott Turow’s NYT op-ed piece about The Slow Death of the American Author, and then felt compelled to rewrite it (to update it) and publish it. Publishing is a great sport for the detail-obsessed. And now who knows? Will it still be \timely\? (I hope so)… but I think that’s also part of being a writer… we see things ahead of the curve… our instincts, our research, tend to make us avant-garde and we can only hope that the time it takes to craft and publish coincides with the zeitgeist of the ideas we’re compelled to share or the characters who drive us to tell their stories.
    Best, Lynn

    Reply
    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks Lynn and a very good point. The main point I wanted to make was the hard graft to perfect work being an key aspect of learning and improving as a writer, a process there is no set time for. Particularly in promotion, immediacy can be key and very effective – there are some great promoters out there but I want the focus to also remain on the quality of writing.

      Reply
  10. Stephen Weinstock

    Excellent, thoughtful article. I love how you started the piece as if against the slowness of traditional production, but ended up arguing for slowness in the writing process – nice rhetorical device. Having crossed over from the musical theater world to self-publshing, I find a lot of analogy in this tension between ease of getting something out there in the market yourself and taking enough time to rewrite. In musical theater, the writing process is tied to the workshop reading or production. The down side of this accepted tool is that it can go on for years; for one musical I workshopped so many times that all the songs for the score were replaced twice over. On the other hand, writing teams can bring in producers to look at these workshops too soon, and usually you have one shot at a producer’s interest, so the work has to be ready. So I agree that an author must take time — the editing process at the very least requires time to put the book aside and wait for a fresh look. Perhaps the new self-pub, digital realm is like the musical theater workshop where you can try out before a ‘real’ publication, but it still requires care and thoughtfulness … and time.

    Reply
  11. Barbara Boudreau

    Hi there,

    Thank you so much for this. I have encountered so many of these who simply throw books out there. When I take the time to read from them, they are clearly not paying the required focus and commitment to the craft. Very sad. But it does reflect our culture very well, doesn’t it?

    B

    Reply
  12. Barbara Boudreau

    Hi,

    Thank you for this. It is oh so true. I have seen many books simply thrown out there, with no attention to the details, including respect for the language and the story. It is, I believe quite a reflection of our culture.

    B

    Reply
  13. Jenni Wiltz

    This is exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you for calming an inner demon that’s been really hard to silence lately. I’m an indie writer who’s spent the last two years working on a single novel. That’s an eternity in this marketplace. All day, every day, I’m deluged by the words of pundits and other authors urging me to publish as much as possible–irrelevancy is often defined as releasing less than two books a year. I guess that makes me irrelevant, but I’m hoping readers will appreciate how hard I work to give them a good book, the best book I can, and not a book I slapped together in a month or two. To paraphrase Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, You rush a miracle, you get rotten miracles.

    Reply

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