Getting it right vs. getting it 'out there' - Mari Biella

Where we'd all like to see our books, eventually ...
Image c/o Wikimedia Commons
One piece of advice that is frequently aimed at today's self-publishers is that we ought to write, and publish, at a pretty high velocity. Conventional wisdom (insofar as conventional wisdom can be said to exist in a movement that’s still in its infancy) suggests that momentum is everything. A single book is worth little; two or three books represent just a fraction of what has to be done. We need, in short, to have a vast personal bookshelf, stuffed full of multiple titles.

I can see the logic of this viewpoint, too. After all, if a reader has read and enjoyed one of your books, then they’ll be altogether more inclined to pick up another. However, I’d add a small caveat: this is only likely to work if the books in question are any good.

Over the past few years I've read a lot of self-published books. Many of them, of course, have been wonderful: well-thought-out, well-written, ambitious in scope and beautifully executed. I've often been tempted to seek out more from the authors of those books. They represent all that is best about self-publishing: the strong, interesting, brilliant voices that, for whatever reason, have either been bypassed or abandoned by the traditional industry.

However, a handful of those books have been stinkers: poorly-written, unedited, badly-formatted, riddled with typos and grammatical errors, and sometimes literally nonsensical. Frustratingly, I could sometimes see the germ of a good story beneath all of that mess: a story that, if it were honed and sculpted, could have been very good indeed. But a good story, while a significant advantage, is not all that it takes; a lot comes down to how that story is told. Needless to say, I won’t be in a hurry to pick up any more books by the second group of authors, regardless of how much they've published.

Books, books, and more books...
Image c/o Wikimedia Commons

I should stress at this point that I don’t expect perfection in a self-published book. No self-publisher has the resources of a major publishing house. I don’t object to the odd typo or mistake. I do, however, prefer books that are at least reasonably well-written. Above all, I like to feel that the author has given his or her all to the book, and has taken the time to get it right – even if, in the process, that all-important momentum was slowed down a bit.

This is not just a hypothetical issue for me. I currently have a novel sitting on my hard drive. I've been working on it, on and off, for about five years. It's been through numerous drafts, and has been polished to a reasonable degree. It currently runs to about 106,000 words, more or less, which makes it a veritable doorstop by my standards. There’s much about it that I like, too: I think that it’s an interesting story with an engaging protagonist. The standard of writing, I think, is reasonably good throughout. It’s not perfect, but I could, theoretically, publish it tomorrow.

‘Well, what are you waiting for?’ the momentum-is-everything crowd would no doubt be shouting by now. ‘Get on with it! Get it out there! Build your bookshelf!’

And, in a way, I’d like to do just that. I like the feeling of satisfaction that comes with knowing that something is finished. I like the curious feeling of resignation and relief that follows publication. I’d certainly like to build an impressive bookshelf. And yet . . .

There’s something about this book that isn't quite right. Infuriatingly, I’m not absolutely sure what exactly is wrong with it, which makes fixing it an extraordinarily laboured task. Something about it just isn't entirely convincing. The plot creaks a bit in places; one plot point in particular really doesn't make a great deal of sense, but for the life of me I can’t think how to change it. If I can see these flaws, I’m pretty sure that readers wouldn't be blind to them; and my strong feeling is that readers deserve better than that. I can’t promise them that they’ll enjoy my book, obviously, but I can have the satisfaction of knowing that I've given it my all and made it the best book I possibly could.

In short, I want to publish this book, but I won’t. Not yet, and possibly not ever. Not until, or unless, I can be sure that it represents my best effort.
I made this one as good as I could. Even if it took a while.
The freedom offered by self-publishing – the freedom to publish what you want when you want – is intoxicating, but I'm always wary of letting it go to my head. That wonderful freedom, after all, comes at a cost. The buck stops with me. There’s no one else to blame. If my book is bad, or not as good as it could be, that’s my responsibility, and mine alone. One of the merits of the traditional publishing model, perhaps, is that a book has to be vetted by objective, if not infallible, judges before it sees the light of day. In self-publishing, that’s just another task that is devolved to the individual author-publisher, and it can be the hardest task of all. Seeing your book in an objective light is hard, and perhaps impossible - but we have to try, don't we?


Jenny Alexander said…
I've been thinking about this too, but in terms of launch dates. A branding and marketing friend says I should delay publication on a new book on writing until Sept/Oct because of Christmas, but other writers say get it out now, as it's ready, to support sales of 'Writing in the House of Dreams' which has a similar 'brand' look. I'm thinking, is trying to tie launching in with market bubbles as important when you don't have a publicity budget to make a big splash anyway?
Bill Kirton said…
Your integrity is admirable, Mari. I say that as someone guilty in the past of submitting stuff which wasn't quite ready but had to meet a deadline - nothing serious, not a novel, short story or play, but bits and pieces which had my name on them and could thus be used to identify me as a not-worth-a-second-look writer.
I suppose some would say that the solution to the problem you describe is to get the opinion of a beta reader but that's never worked for me. They're invaluable for 'technical' advice and illuminating blind spots, but the essence of a work (especially of the doorstop variety you describe) is intensely personal and the feeling of 'rightness' comes from something other than smoothing out a narrative arc, softening or strengthening a character and so on.
One thing's certain, your approach will make it highly likely that if people read one of your books they'll want to read more.
Lydia Bennet said…
Some things take time and all credit to you for allowing the process Mari. However some of the shoddy self-pub books (and some best sellers too these days) are not the result of haste as much as hubris - writers who think they are so good they need not bother with much editing. Also of course it is possible to endlessly tinker with a book and edit it to death!
I don't go for beta readers either. Having tutored writing groups, I'm wary of the way there may be as many opinions as there are readers. But a genuine editor - a good one, not one who nitpicks for the sake of it - might be able to ask the right questions to be allow you to see the wood for the trees and make the necessary adjustments yourself. Mind you, they are rare! I was lucky enough to have one for The Physic Garden. She was doing the line editing, punctuation etc, and she loved the book. I knew something was still bugging me about the overall novel, but wasn't sure what it was. She put her finger on the problem immediately. The solution involved me writing another thousand words divided between a couple of places - clarifying something - but as soon as she pointed it out, everything else fell into place around it. Then I saw how obvious it was - but I needed her insight.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Very well said. I think that all self published authors have a duty, not only to the reader, but to themselves to make sure their work is as good as it can be.
Nick Green said…
The old maxim springs to mind:

'Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt.'
Mari Biella said…
Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Jenny – I’m afraid I’m absolutely clueless about marketing! I can see the advantages of both courses of action, but I wouldn’t like to come down firmly on either side.

Bill & Catherine – I have slightly mixed feelings about beta readers too. However, I have found on one or two occasions that they’ve given me a perspective that I wouldn’t otherwise have had, and have helped to make the final story much stronger than it would otherwise have been. I think I really do need a good editor who’ll know what I’m trying to achieve and can help me to achieve it. Finding such a person is difficult!

Valerie – I agree. Sometimes you can tinker with a book just that little bit too much...

Wendy – Thank you. I agree entirely; it really is our duty.

Nick – Just as the Romans employed slaves to remind them that they were mortal, so I sometimes think I need someone to remind me of this particular adage every time I’m about to say or write anything. :-)
Lynne Garner said…
None of my self-published books have been published on the date I set myself. I've always made it a policy to edit at least three times before I send to a professional proofreader/editor to read. When I have their feedback I then go in again and edit. I then get someone else to read for me before I publish. Even after all this there can be errors but at least I know I've tried to produce a product that has as few errors as possible.
Jan Needle said…
i'd quite like just to have a slave, nick
JO said…
I so agree with you - as self-publishers we owe it to ourselves to make our books as wonderful as possible. And sometimes, things just aren't good enough - I have a novel that will never see the light of day. I learned masses in the writing of it, and still feel strongly that the subject (fostering) is worth writing about. But this books is just not good enough.
Debbie Bennett said…
I have an awesome editor and an amazing beta reader. But I have to know it's right myself first.
Nick Green said…
Hold the front page: 'Jan Needle in pro-slavery shocker'.
glitter noir said…
For many of us, orchestration is the closest thing we'll get to any sort of master key. Certain sorts of books take more time to write because they are longer, denser, more complex. They also take more out of us. In the old days I wrote a few longish novels on unrealistic publishing deadlines. The books turned out to be much longer than I'd planned and the pressure nearly killed me. Now my 'action mysteries' average out at 45,000 words and my little thrillers end up at 38,000-40,000 words. I find it easier to mix and match these for a somewhat regular production schedule. But I also had a substantial inventory of things that I wrote in The Desert--those 25 years when no agent would give me the time of day. All this said, my rule for releasing is strict: I release when the Muse whispers, 'Turn me loose, babe.'

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