Monday, June 25, 2012

Quality Checks and Balances

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As always, the hot button topic of indie/self-publishing versus traditional publishing has generated lots of comments in recent days here at TKZ and one issue that comes up time and time again is the 'gatekeeper' concept - basically agents and editors acting as a 'quality sieve' for what comes into the publishing pipeline. While I agree this is an imperfect system - there's no doubt that agents and editors can get it horribly wrong - there does need to be some system of quality control. Doesn't there?


Nowadays on the indie front,  this typically comes from readers who are just as well-equipped to judge what makes a good book as anyone else. But from the standpoint of a writer who relies on her agent to raise the bar for her work -  I do wonder how these quality checks and balances will get made in the new era of indie publishing. As a reader, I don't want to troll through a plethora of e-books that were dashed off prematurely in my search for books to read. Though social media and reviews certainly help, the sheer number of releases makes my head spin and  I still fall back on buying e-books from traditional publishers as I know the system of quality control (though imperfect) is at least in place.


As a writer I have a group of beta readers who help me enormously - but though their feedback is invaluable, none of them ever quite bring the perspective my agent does. For all the tough love I get from them, my agent manages to point out ways in which I can improve the manuscript that they never even considered. So my worry is that if I went the indie route the books I put out there would be good but not as good as they could have been....Because my agent's 25 years of editorial experience in publishing adds a level of input that, quite frankly, none of my other beta readers can match (and they are an amazing group of people whose input I value enormously).


Many members of my writing group have used freelance editors to help polish their manuscripts but with mixed results. Many of these editors aren't looking to dissuade a writer from publishing a manuscript and so, given that they get paid to edit, aren't necessarily going to be as upfront about a manuscript's shortcomings - not if it means putting themselves out of business.  I'm sure they are all professionals and do their best but do they act as an objective assessor of 'quality' - I'm not sure they can. 


Now many of you will argue that this assessment is best left to readers (who will vote with their pocket books as well as airing their online opinions) but it exhausts me to think of all the half-baked e-books that might end up out there, just as it worries me that aspiring writers are becoming ever more impatient to release material before it has been crafted into the best possible shape.


So who do you turn to for editorial guidance? Do you rely on freelance editors to give you much needed input? Are you convinced your own circle of reviewers give you the tough love you need? 


Despite being published, I admit I still lack the confidence and experience to know when a manuscript is really, truly, finally ready. Most of my 'final' manuscripts end up being revised and reshaped based on input from my agent before they get shown to publishers, and as a result they become significantly better than the 'best' I originally could do (okay, so this might say more about my lack of talent...). In a world where we acknowledge the traditional system has many shortcomings, how do we view the concept of 'quality control'? If that is still even relevant, how do we achieve it?







18 comments:

  1. For me, the "gatekeeper" pleas don't work. Unlike others, I LIKE sifting through books and getting to judge for myself whether they are good or not.

    That comes from years of not finding what I wanted to read on the traditionally published shelves (if you're wondering how it could possibly be that it's hard to find books that interest me, try being a reader of non-romance historicals and finding a wide selection to choose from).

    I'm willing to give anyone a chance. I don't view indie published any different than traditionally published. Either way, you're taking a chance on their work.

    That said, I do see how indie-publishing can entice you to jump before you're ready. I recently read two indie-published books. One was good quality stuff. The other had potential, but you could tell they pulled the story out of the cooker before it was ready. It just screamed at you "I'm not done yet!".

    But even if you have the best editor in the world, the question of when a story is "done" still has to be made by the author, and that's always a difficult choice to make, no matter how you publish.

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  2. Clare, you hit upon the single biggest challenge (and expense) a self-publishing author faces. I go into detail in my book about this, but you are quite correct that a good agent is invaluable to the creative process. The question then is how to fill that hole if you're indie. A few suggestions:

    1. Find that one person who knows how to critique and offer to exchange manuscripts or pay for the service. Yes, it can take time to find such a person, but then again it takes time to find a good agent. But once found, you've got gold.

    2. Continue to refine the beta readers. Weed out those who aren't so helpful. Nurture the ones who provide the best feedback.

    There's also an assumption to re-consider. We sometimes get it in our minds that there is only ONE right way to do a book, and that we'll miss it if we don't have the one right editor. But there are actually many right ways to do a book. One editor's suggestions may not always be the exclusive way or even the best way. Another editor's notes may be better. A beta reader's critique could be the best of all.

    A writer could clench up thinking there's only one bullseye and wondering if he's hit it. At some point you've got to trust your own gut, too.

    And no matter what you do, there will be readers who respond to it and readers who don't. And if you were to write a different book, those groups could be reversed.

    Thus, we can burn up a lot of time worrying about matters largely out of our hands. Just write the thing, fix it, learn from it, get editorial feedback as described above, and then get the thing to market. That's where you going to find the most valuable feedback of all.

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  3. Timely post, Clare. Like you, I use beta readers, too. A couple of them are fellow authors, but I would suggest considering using non-writers as well. One lady that I’ve relied on for years has never written a book nor does she want to. But she is a voracious reader and usually goes through a couple of novels a week. I would also suggest a mix male and female readers.

    Try to choose beta readers who are not acquainted with one another. Beta readers do not have to be your best friends. In fact, casual acquaintances could work better since they might worry less about hurting your feelings if they don’t like what you’ve written. There’s also a good chance they’ll take the whole process more seriously than a relative or close friend. These tips have worked for me, and saved my butt many times.

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  4. Clare, you hit upon the single biggest challenge (and expense) a self-publishing author faces. I go into detail in my book about this, but you are quite correct that a good agent is invaluable to the creative process. The question then is how to fill that hole if you're indie. A few suggestions:

    1. Find that one person who knows how to critique and offer to exchange manuscripts or pay for the service. Yes, it can take time to find such a person, but then again it takes time to find a good agent. But once found, you've got gold.

    2. Continue to refine the beta readers. Weed out those who aren't so helpful. Nurture the ones who provide the best feedback.

    There's also an assumption to re-consider. We sometimes get it in our minds that there is only ONE right way to do a book, and that we'll miss it if we don't have the one right editor. But there are actually many right ways to do a book. One editor's suggestions may not always be the exclusive way or even the best way. Another editor's notes may be better. A beta reader's critique could be the best of all.

    A writer could clench up thinking there's only one bullseye and wondering if he's hit it. At some point you've got to trust your own gut, too.

    And no matter what you do, there will be readers who respond to it and readers who don't. And if you were to write a different book, those groups could be reversed.

    Thus, we can burn up a lot of time worrying about matters largely out of our hands. Just write the thing, fix it, learn from it, get editorial feedback as described above, and then get the thing to market. That's where you going to find the most valuable feedback of all.

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  5. I believe quality is more important now than ever before, especially for indie-publishing. If a work is to stand out, it must be of higher quality than the stuff around it. And for the reasons we discussed this past week, the indie-author who wants to succeed will have to work even harder to rise above the perception their work is not good because it is indie-pubbed.

    The responsibility for that quality belongs solely to the author who self-pubs. They must instruct their beta readers, whoever they may be, to provide honest feedback. They must evaluate that feedback and accept or dismiss it, but with their ego in check. I think editing and beta readers are critical.

    I've said this before, but I believe once the newness of indie publishing dies down those who are posting sub-pro level stuff, with slapped on covers, unedited and unvetted work, crappy back cover copy, they will tire of the low sales and drift away.
    The pros will continue to put up quality work, with great covers and enticing back cover blurbs and well edited sampling so that readers will find new authors the same as they always have; having heard about an author from a friend or seeing them mention in a blopg or on a writers site or panel, maybe an online review, They'll "pick up" the book that looks attractive and interesting, check out the description and maybe reading the first few pages.

    If they like what the see, they'll try it.

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  6. When I finished my first unpublished manuscript, I was hungry for "real," professional-level feedback. I got that by going to a writing conference and submitting to an editor. I also won an auction for a critique by a couple of well-known mystery writers. Winning the critique cost me $900, but it was worth every penny! It gave me the confidence back then to look for an agent. Nowadays I trust my own instincts better, and I rely mostly on my beta readers.

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  7. Here is a quote from Lee Child taken from a back-and-forth between him and Joe Finder:

    "Rewriting? September’s book, A Wanted Man, had a sentence starting, “In the center of each panel was stenciled a design . . . ,” which I’m sure meant something to me when I typed it, but on the read-through it didn’t seem to make much sense, so I changed it to “Each container had on its side a stenciled design . . . .” and that was it. Seven words out of 112,000. Because for me, with no plan and no outline and no overarching theory, I feel when it’s done, it’s done. I believe very strongly that a book is a kind of snapshot of who the writer was during the months of composition. I can’t change who I was last year, so I shouldn’t change the book. And—weird, but you’ll understand—this stuff is kind of real to me. Sometimes an editor will say, “Wouldn’t it be better if this happened before that”, and I’ll think, “Yeah, probably . . . but it didn’t.”"

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  8. Well, I would suggest that if you value your agent's input, you should continue to get it, even if you're going indie. There's nothing that says you can't share a percentage of your sales with your agent in return for this service.

    What I did with Trial Junkies was give it to a writer friend I respect, who pulls no punches and offered me terrific notes. She served as my "editor" on the piece and did every bit as good of a job as any of the editors I've had in the past.

    As for readers weeding through the crap—THIS is why I insist that your cover art had better rival what's coming out of New York. If the product looks solid and professional, people are more likely to give it a chance. It takes about five minutes on Amazon to know who doesn't care about presentation, so, to my mind, they can be discounted immediately.

    As for the rest, that's what the sampling feature is for. I do the same thing for traditionally published books. I sample the wares and if it looks like something I'd like to read, I buy it.

    And to be honest, during this sampling, I've found just as many indie published books that interested me as traditionally published books. So I'm not sure the "gatekeepers" are doing any better of a job at winnowing out the chaff.

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  9. David DeLee said, And for the reasons we discussed this past week, the indie-author who wants to succeed will have to work even harder to rise above the perception their work is not good because it is indie-pubbed.

    While I don't disagree with the spirt of what David is saying in his entire post, I have to wonder, do most readers even KNOW when a book is indie published?

    How many times do we look to see who published the books we read? Before I got into this game, I rarely, if ever bothered to look. It simply didn't matter to me. All that counted was that I saw a cover I liked, read a back blurb that was interesting, opened the book and read the first few paragraphs and if the book spoke to me, I bought it.

    So while I agree that indie authors will need to work harder, I don't really think that most readers care, as long as they find value in the words they read.

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  10. While I rely on beta reader and agent input I obviously have to be responsible for when the book is declared done - and I am sure as I gain more experience I will feel more and more comfortable with my own instincts. As JSB said there is no one way to write any book - but I do think someone with publishing experience provides unique input. As for quality I hope this will shake out but writers have to put aside their impatience in their rush to publish. I do take into account who published it when I make a purchase and often it shows that the work has not been edited thoroughly when it's an indie offering...just saying!

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  11. A timely post for me. I am near final revision of my WIP.The work is an approximately 100,000 word novel of mystery suspense("Nerve Damage" first page reviewed on TKZ).

    In conferences and from other writers I hear of the use of independent editors/book doctors. They can be quite expensive. Any experience or suggestions on this practice? Value? Regrets? Recommendations?
    Thank you

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  12. I haven't used one but might be good to get recommendations as I think it's a bit of a mixed bag out there!

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  13. I'm going to go out on a limb and come down firmly . . . in the middle.

    I am all for self-pubbing and believe the market will reward the professionals.

    However, I just got back a set of edit notes on a work going through a small e-press and I'll be damned if the editor didn't ferret out a writing tic that I didn't even know I had.

    It wasn't huge or fatal, but I certainly appreciate the chance to polish one more fingerprint off the chrome before I send my tale out into the world.

    So, I'll also say that detached editors matter.

    And the conversation continues . . . Terri

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  14. Clare, I must respectfully disagree with your praise of agents. I'm sure your agent wants your material to be as polished as it can possibly be, but if she truly represented your best interests and not those of the publishers, she would get you better terms in your contract, including a higher royalty rate.

    I will also say this (again, respectfully disagreeing), and I've said it many times: just because a book is traditionally published is no guarantee of quality. Contrary to what you are implying, the "gatekeeping" process is not a quality control process. The purpose of "gatekeeping" is the vetting of books for maximum sales potential, a very different concept.

    I would also agree with Rob Gregory Browne when he says that in general, readers don't care who publishes a book. All they care about is a compelling title and front cover, an interesting back cover description, and an irresistible first few paragraphs of text.

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  15. I have always used beta readers, but at times they've not always been as critical as I'd have liked.

    I've had two different agents in the past 6 years. One, a known Hollywood agent with several big titles, sucked and tried to literally suck money out of me. The other, a brand new agent with serious experience as a Simon & Schuster editor for English books sold in Europe, did a ton for me both in editing and proofing and so on, and got me on the table at a couple of the big-6 before getting sick and dropping out. I felt bad but hey, that's the way it goes.

    After those debacles I hired a pretty good free lance editor out of pocket for my stuff, did the best I could with what I had and jumped into the self-pub pool with both feet. Things have gone pretty good for me doing it alone. My next book, due out in a couple months, has been edited by the same editor for a reasonable fee and will be self-pubbed as well.

    Without those checks and balances, either the agents or the editor, or even the betas I don't think I could've made my books as readable as they are now.

    By the way...Yesterday I learned that somehow, somewhere word got out on a freebie I ran for the weekend and nearly 14,000 copies of my ebook 65 Below got slurped into kindles world wide...most of that in 1 day.

    I felt pretty good about that...

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  16. Rob, I agree with you completely and I think we're saying the same thing (you just did a far better job of it than I). Only writers notice publishers, the average reader does not. I meant indie writers had to work harder to ensure our products look as good as what trad. publishers put out, cover art and graphics, blurbs, typo- free samples, etc. If we do that, the general public will not know the difference.

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  17. TJC --
    If you aregoing to self-publish, I would recommend you get a good freelance editor to work with. They can be expensive and finding a good one can take some work. Check them out. what is their experience? Who are their clients? Will they do a sample for free? How long will the edits take and how much do they charge? I would be wary of anyone calling themselves a book doctor. I recommend against paying them a percentage in exchange and pay only a one-time, agreed upon flat fee for the service.
    For me, this is the most expensive part of self -pubbing, but critical.

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  18. So far, my editor and agent have supplied invaluable input for my manuscripts. They ROCK!!!

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