Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Amazon Slushpile?

Some quite interesting news this week, as first-time indie author Traci Hohenstein has signed a four-book deal with the Amazon mystery/thriller imprint Thomas & Mercer. David Gaughran has more info on his always-interesting blog.

As I said, this is an interesting development. Unlike the majority of authors Amazon has approached and signed deals with, Traci Hohenstein is truly a newbie fiction author. Burn Out is her first novel, only published to Amazon in April, and she has no backlist and no traditional publishing background. In addition, the novel is short (clocking in at 170 pages), and has some mixed reviews, the bad reviews mainly a retread of what you often see with new authors: poor editing, typos and grammatical mistakes, lack of development.

First of all, let me make myself crystal clear: this is not a discussion of the merits of Ms. Hohenstein's book or her writing ability. I haven't had a chance to read the book yet and will not comment on it until I have. (And as far as the discussion of reviews, we all know to take reviews, either good or bad, with a grain of salt.) In fact, I wish her a hearty congratulations and great success in her career. (Really, Congrats!) This post is strictly using the basic known facts of her deal as a jumping off point for discussing what we can possibly extrapolate about the coming future of self-publishing, specifically as regards Amazon.

If you've read David Gaughran's piece, he lays out a lot of the specifics as to who's being "published" by Amazon. Mostly somewhat well-known writers with a strong following, a history in traditional publishing, and a backlist of books. Ms. Hohenstein doesn't have any of these indicators. What she does have is sales. She has been kind enough to share her numbers on David Gaughran's blog, and they're quite impressive for a new self-published author (selling 10,000 books in August).Kudos!

After reading David's blog and checking out Ms. Hohenstein's Amazon listing and her blog, a thought popped into my head. Since Amazon announced its new imprints and began approaching authors to sign with them, a lot of people have wondered about what Amazon's designs are in grabbing a bigger piece of the publishing industry. As with any news about Amazon, a lot of the details are shrouded in mystery. Smart authors know that it's great to come to Amazon's attention; it can do great things for an indie author's career. But you can't query Amazon for a book deal. As an indie author, you also can't take advantage of a lot of the marketing possibilities available to big publishers: you can't set up a pre-release sales page, you can't offer a short story or book for free. (Amazon does list books for free, but no one really knows how or why they make those decisions. First, you have to have a book listed for free on another site, but beyond that it's all a black box.)

So how do you get Amazon in your corner? Previous to Ms. Hohenstein's success, it was a general consensus that you had to have an established name and a history to build on, and a stable of books to go with it. In other words, no first-time authors need apply. But that applecart has been, if not overturned, pulled around a corner really fast so that some of the produce has spilled onto the thoroughfare.

So this is my theory. If Amazon does want a bigger piece of the traditional publisher pie and wants to establish a cadre of authors to promote, but doesn't want all the dreary work of the query-go-round and the slushpile, what better way than to have their self-publishing service work AS the slushpile, and let buyers work for free as readers? In a mercenary world where a publisher wants at least a semi-sure product, this is a brilliant strategy. You buy a property that's already selling. You don't need to agonize over whether a brilliant author is marketable or rely on the whims of an editor. You already know that the property will sell and all you have to do is HELP IT SELL MORE.  Amazon can wait until any author hits some internal limit in sales, and then offer them a deal. I have no idea if Amazon offers any kind of advance. I've only heard that they offer very a very favorable split, help with mechanics (such as editing, formatting, covers), and great publicity. So they really have very little to lose if an author tanks, unless they are eventually known for publishing bad books.

Should that be true, it's both horribly depressing and wildly exhilarating. Horribly depressing in the sense that you may be a great writer and a terrible salesman, and Amazon will keep their thumb on the scale to help great salesmen while great writers languish and are further shunted aside and kept in the basement. In other words, nobody at Amazon is going to say, "I read this wonderful book absolutely nobody knows about, let's make it a bestseller!" Instead they'll say, "This may be a mediocre book, but look at those sales! Let's make sure people see it!" (And you find that grumbling already -- just read the Kindle boards and any number of indie blogs).

But conversely it means that Amazon may be more willing to help first-time authors who can do a lot of the heavy lifting themselves. If you believe in yourself, get out there and find readers (as Ms. Hohenstein has apparently done quite successfully) get your sales, and you too can get the key to the executive washroom. At least now instead of a few mercenary editors being the gatekeepers, readers will be the thing that pushes you up the ladder to success, which, after all, is what indie writers have been arguing should be the paradigm all along.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Finding an Editor Part 2: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In my last post, I talked about the importance of being edited. Here’s a nice post by David Gaughran that backs that assertion up.  I also identified the two hurdles that self-publishers (or really any aspiring author) will run into in the quest to be well-edited: the cost and the difficulty of finding a good editor. Today I want to tackle what makes a good editor and how you can find one to match your needs.

All Editors Are Not Created Equal

There are three flavors of “bad” editors. The Editor Who Only Thinks He’s An Editor, The Editor Who Thinks This Is a Seventh Grade English Class, and the Editor Who Thinks He Should Write Your Book.

If you look around the Net, you can see a plethora of sites suggesting that “You, too, can be an editor!” According to them, all you need is a passing acquaintance with English and a website. I cannot count the number of people I came across who thought they knew how to edit. Some of them have touted their experience as getting good grades in high school English. I’ve gotten into knock-down virtual fights with people who were not fighting about the relevance of the Oxford comma, but who didn’t even know what an Oxford comma was. Or an em-dash. Or passive voice.  People who, when asked if they used the AP Style Guide or the Chicago Manual Style, replied that, “Hey, those are expensive. I just use common sense and what I remember from my college composition class.” Make no mistake, editing is hard. It takes skill, practice, continuing education, experience, and a shelf full of reference books. Fortunately, these are the easiest bad editors to pick out. Their samples (we’ll get to that later) are terrible. They have no track record or references. Their correspondence is riddled with mistakes. Steer clear.

Editors in the second category know proper grammar, usage, and punctuation, but they know it too well. They are trapped by rules that kill good writing, and can’t see beyond the bars of their self-made prison. They want everything to turn out like a freshman English paper. Usually they’re not up on the fluidity of style, because they’re still traumatized by the time Sister Mary Ignatius smacked their knuckles with a ruler and told them to never start a sentence with “but” or to never, ever to use a contraction. Again, these are pretty easy to pick out once you have a sample of their editing style.

The third type of bad editor is harder to recognize at first blush, because it’s a very small space to navigate, especially for writers who are also editors. You see, a good editor will help you to see your mistakes and will also point out where you can improve your voice, characters, plot, style, etcetera. Occasionally, you’ll find a good editor that goes too far, and starts to step all over YOUR style and insert their own. Sometimes this is a passing aberration, and you and your editor will be able to work through a back-and-forth and find the happy medium. If you can’t find that happy medium, then you’ve either got a good editor who just isn’t right for you, you’ve got an editor that really should just stick to writing their own books, or – gasp -- YOU are the problem. Which brings us to….

Don’t Be THAT Writer

We are creative, driven people, gripped by vision, in the thrall of our art, pounding out a masterpiece that….well, you get the picture. Despite the fact that we are sometimes racked by our insecurities, we still like to think that we know what we’re doing and if people would just give themselves over to our genius, why, they would see our tremendous talent. Whatever.

There’s a point where you’re too close to see your work. In fact, you’re almost always too close to see your work, at least in the way it needs to be seen. I’ll say it again, you need outside advice. And you need to be able to discern when it’s good advice and when it’s bad advice. This is brutally hard. This might hurt you and make you curl up in a ball and weep uncontrollably. But every sentence you write is not a special little snowflake. Some things you write are, shall we say, less good than they could be. Some things you write are crap. Some things you write might be an abomination that will blind someone. (Okay, maybe that’s hyperbole, but you get the idea.)

If you’re going to hold on to every adverb, every lovingly written flashback that interrupts the forward flow of the narrative and delivers nothing, every flowery description of the grocery clerk’s honeyed locks, well, there are going to be problems. If you’ve found a good editor, for dog’s sake, LISTEN TO WHAT THEY’RE SAYING. This in no way means that you should roll over and accept every suggestion. But make sure the things that you’re fighting for are worth fighting for. And if you determine something is worth fighting for, fight hard. But you will often find, even after a long-drawn out campaign to save the word “stealthily,” it really was telling and not showing and not worth the millisecond it took to type it out.

There are writers who can’t be edited. Not because they’re brilliant, but because they won’t listen. And in truth, even if they’re brilliant, they most likely won’t get very far and they’ll end up insane in a basement somewhere, scribbling out would-be masterpieces that’ll never be read.

So, Where is This Good Editor You Speak of?

Aye, there’s the rub. The best way to find a good editor is through word-of-mouth. Find out who edited writers you admire or self-pubbed books you fell in love with. There’s one giant problem with this. These editors are often backlogged well into the future. Still, ask around, you might get lucky. Networking is a great way to find editors, proofers, formatters, cover artists that you can trust are professional.

No, luck? Search the Web. Steer clear of obvious noobs and charlatans. Look for professionals who have experience, a track record, a good presentation. Now comes the important part. Never hire an editor without a sample. Even if an editor comes highly recommended, you need to see how they’re going to edit you. Conversely, they need to see how you’re going to take to being edited. Different editors will offer different sample lengths, but you want something representative. A full chapter, 10 pages, a decent part of a short story. You’re entering into an important partnership, and you need to know you’re going to get what you need out of it. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for references.

And this is equally important: not every editor, no matter how skillful, is right for every writer. You need someone you can work with. You need someone who understands your genre, if  you’re a genre writer. You need someone who is a personality match. You need someone who is willing to tell you the hard truths, but who is also willing to listen to your side and admit when they are wrong and you are right. (Which does happen, more often than you would think.)

You also need to have clear goals, on both sides of the equation. You need to work out payment, deadlines, expectations, level of service. Work these details out beforehand, and it will save a lot of grief later on. Most editors I know work in Word with Tracking Changes. This allows an easy back and forth where you can accept and reject changes effortlessly and easily read and make comments. Inquire if you have other expectations or methods you would care to use.

Lastly, don’t despair. You may have to kiss some frogs, dance with some uncoordinated llamas, whatever  analogy you want to use. But once you do find an editor that works for you, magic can be made.

(Standard Disclaimer: I am an editor. I am also a writer. I think of myself as a writer first and foremost, but have worked for many years as an editor to pay the bills. I take on new clients sparingly, and I do know some other editors whom I trust. Please feel free to email me with questions or comments at jacypods(at)gmail(dot)com.)  

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Finding an Editor Part 1: Don't End Up In the Digital Dustbin

The old saw says “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Well, the same concept goes for writers: a writer who edits himself has a fool for a client.

Since leaping into the indie publishing field, I’ve met a lot of great writers and read (or at least sampled) a lot of indie books. I will guarantee you right now that, with better than 98% accuracy, I can tell you pretty damn quick which of those books were professionally edited and which weren’t.

See, the thing is, you can be a fantastic writer and a terrible editor. And even if you’re a fantastic writer and a pretty good editor, you’re still going to run smack into hidden blind spots and camouflaged pits full of sharpened stakes onto which you will impale yourself and wriggle helplessly. And even if you are a writer who falls into that fraction of a percentage point who is both a fantastic writer and a fantastic editor and you spend hours looking out for your poisonous little darlings, your book is still not going to be as good as it would be if you have independent eyes looking over it.

If you think that’s not true, I can’t help you. But most any writer worth his or her salt knows that a finished story can’t exist in a vacuum. I’ve harped over and over again about the importance of beta readers and editors and proofers. In the halcyon days of publishing, if you were accepted by a publishing house of a magazine or an anthology, you didn’t need to worry too much about dealing with editors. Having your work edited was part of the contract. You shipped your baby off and someone somewhere worked their magic on it. And unless you were a prima donna and apt to get in screaming fights about your art, that was that.

Times have changed. Publishing houses are increasingly getting out of the editing business. Unless you’re incredibly fortunate, it’s terrifically hard to get someone to pay you for an unpolished work. Agents and publishers are looking for professional, ready-to-publish manuscripts. Self-publishing is no way to get around that fact, either. If you want to be a successful writer, either in traditional publishing or indie publishing, you need professional help.

For the indie writer this poses some problems. One, editing is expensive. It’s a job that takes a very high skill level and is time-intensive. Two, all editors are not created equal, and it can seem near impossible to find a good one.

First of all, let’s tackle the money problem. What does editing cost? I would say for a baseline you’re looking at minimum around a penny a word or a couple dollars a standard page or $25 to $60 an hour. (Keep in mind, those measurements are not equivalent to each other, just a baseline from looking at different service packages).   For a full-length novel (a minimum of 55,000 words), you’re looking at around $500 as a base price. Wow, you say to yourself, how many books do I have to sell to recoup that cost? A lot, but at least with a properly edited book, you have a chance to recoup your cost. An unedited book is going to die a quiet and unmourned death. Don’t believe me? Ask any writer who’s selling well. Good editing won’t make a bestseller, but no editing will ensure that you’re consigned to the digital dustbin.

There are ways to lessen your costs. Join writer’s groups, network, make friends. Trade manuscripts with other writers. You can learn a lot about making your work better, and if you’ve been practicing your craft long enough and hard enough and you find compatriots who have a high skill level, you can get a lot of the heavy lifting done before you get to the final editing/proofing stage.

Sometimes you can trade services. Your strengths may be someone else’s weaknesses. You may be a whiz at web design and find an editor who needs a website. Barter when you can. Ask about payment plans. Many editors will take a deposit and collect the balance when the job is finished.

Remember the old Christmas Clubs at the bank? Sock away your spare change in a book fund to pay for editing, proofing, cover design, and formatting. Save up until you’ve got what you need. Put $10 in a jar every time you finish a chapter or hit your weekly goal. As trite as it may sound, it’s an investment in your future. And I do mean that. Every time you work with a good editor, you learn things that you can apply to your writing going forward. A good editor will make you a better writer, and that will carry through your career.

Okay, you’ve accepted the cold, hard fact that you need editing. But bear in mind, a bad editor is just the same as having no editor at all. If you’re going to shell out your hard-earned clams for a professional service, you need to make dead sure you’re getting your money’s worth. In the next post, I’ll go over what makes a good editor (and what makes a bad one) and what makes you a good client. (Hint #1: Always get a sample! Hint #2: You are not James Joyce.)