I frequent a lot of writers’ forums and blogs and such, and I very often see comments that go like this:
“I’ve written a book, but I don’t know if it’s any good. How do I know if it’s good enough to self-publish?”
On that topic, someone sent me this post by Newberry Honor winning-writer Shannon Hale on self-publishing and asked what I thought about it. Specifically, I suspect my correspondent wanted my opinion on this bit:
1. When you buy a professionally published book at a bookstore, you know it’s been vetted by industry professionals. A publisher has said, “I think this is so good, I’m willing to bet a significant amount of our company’s money and of my personal and valuable time that readers will love it too.” With a self-published book, it’s the author vetting him/herself, putting her/his own money on the line. There’s understandably going to be more consumer confidence in the professionally vetted book.
2. Publishers hire the best people in the world at their jobs. A team of professionals puts in significant hours and hard work on every single book they publish. I read that an average of twenty people are vigorously engaged working on any book from a professional publisher. Many drafts, copy edits, care for the best cover, how best to promote, etc. Some self-published books represent years of hard work by the author. However, many (I would guess most) are first drafts. I worked a slush pile once. I read a lot of hideously bad stories that the writers believed were good enough to be published. Bless their hearts, they were wrong. Sometimes we’re not our best judge, especially when first starting out.
3. Editors go through the slush pile so we don’t have to. The slush pile is the stack of unrequested manuscripts that hopeful authors send to a publisher. Most (over 90%) are rejected. A small percentage catch an editor’s eye, and after further work on the author’s part, with advice and support from the editor, the book turns out great and ends up published. Self-published books are in many cases simply the slush pile for sale. No one has gone through them, selected the best, helped the author make them better, and marketed them to their best audience. If e-publishing had existed when I was starting out, I would have been tempted to self-publish. The rejections were hard, and I just wanted to share my work. But now I would be mortified by what I thought at the time was good enough. [EDIT: I should have also included AGENTS in this process! Agents wade through more slush nowadays than editors. They're a vital part of the chain.]
Some of you will be offended by this post. Some of you will be surprised because I think in general my opinions steer away from an elitist view of what is quality in literature, and this post might seem elitist. I’m sorry for that, and I really hope you will read what I’m actually saying, not what I seem to be saying. There is a difference between self-published books and professionally published books. If the market doesn’t value the professional hard work that publishers do, they’ll go away.
How does this connect to whether or not your book is “good enough” to self-publish?
Basically, this is a description of how the world should work, but it doesn’t. It would be nice if the policeman on the corner was always your friend, if politicians acted in the national interest, if you left your iPhone on the bus some good Samaritan always returned it, and if publishers always published the best, the most-hard working writers after carefully polishing their works to a brilliant sheen.
Except, it doesn’t. It sometimes does, but often it doesn’t.
I’m thinking of the last two traditionally published books I read (both of which, I should hasten to point out, were not written by Ms. Hale, whom my correspondent assures me is an excellent writer). I won’t name the books, since trashing strangers on the Internet is not nice. But I did a little research on these two books. Both were represented by high-powered agents. Both were selected by editors at major publishing houses. Editors, copyeditors, and marketers worked diligently on both of the books.
And they were both terrible.
The first one started strongly, but devolved into a tedious exploration of a writer writing about a writer who was having difficulties writing. It was metafiction for the sake of looking cool and ironic. (One of the Amazon reviews characterized the book as “onanism”, a crude but apt description.) The second had an interesting concept, but was badly marred by the main character, an army officer who was also an unlikable idiot. In the first half of the book, the main character disobeys direct orders, resulting in dire injuries to one of his subordinates, and then a few chapters later, loses his temper and accidentally kills his father (himself a tedious stereotype of the ignorant Baptist evangelical), and then kills one of the sheriff’s deputies sent to apprehend him. After that, the character continues to grasp the Idiot Ball on a regular basis, all the while reflecting that he is a better person than the ignorant bigots who want to lock him up so he doesn’t keep killing people. The character never grasps that he is simply a selfish jerk (and nor does the writer, alas – I think the Marty Stu phenomenon may have been in play).
The thing is, both books had very interesting concepts and good bits in them. If the books had been professionally edited instead of self-published, perhaps the strong parts could have been polished and the weak parts improved.
Well, they did both have very nice covers.
Every writer has a moment when they read a book and think I could do so much better than that. Stephen King writes about that in his ON WRITING memoir, when he discusses reading an old pulp SF novel and realizing that he could do better.
So if you’re wondering if your book is good enough to self-publish, do this: think of the worst traditionally published book you ever read. The worst book ever selected by a professional agent, vetted by a publisher, polished by a professional editor, and promoted by a professional marketer. Odds are that you can think of a book like that (and it may even have been an international bestseller). Odds are that you can think of more than one book like that.
Then ask yourself this question: is my book, honestly and sincerely, better than this book?
If the answer is yes, it is good enough to be self-published.
Because this is the dirty secret: storytelling is subjective. No matter how “good” the book, some people will like it, and some people will hate it. One man’s “self-published crap” is another man’ s “OMG I MUST BUY THE SEQUEL RIGHT NOW!” And the two books I criticized above? There are people who think both books are awesome. Why is my opinion more valid than theirs?
In the end, writing something for other people is an act of confidence – confidence that what you are writing is good enough for other people to read. And it is difficult to find that confidence. Clicking the “Publish” button, whether on a blog or Amazon Kindle Direct, is sometimes nerve-wracking.
Is your book good enough? Are you confident enough in it that you think complete strangers will pay money for it?
That is a question you have to answer for yourself. And then people will leave reviews to let you know exactly how they would have answered that particular question.