Why Self Publishing Can’t Work, Part 94

Writers have a notorious sensitivity to criticism. I’ve seen the flustery suppression of rage on the faces of people whose books I’ve critiqued; sensed it in myself while having my own fiction critiqued by others. I think the sensitivity comes from the act of writing, because when you’re writing something good, you feel like the greatest human being in the universe – and how can anyone else not see that?

That kind of attitude is no good for negotiation, and yet the ego has to be there to justify your love and enjoyment of the hours that the world finds useless and may not amount to anything. The good writer walks around with a rock-star arrogance and also a sense of his or her cosmic insignificance. The paradox is a twisty wire at the centre of your chest.

The peerless Jane Smith defines the author’s big mistake as ‘replying to a review with anything more than ‘thank you for your time’. Jane points to this book review and comment thread as ‘the author’s big mistake in action.’ It’s not just a big mistake – it’s a masterpiece in petulance and pretension.

I first saw the piece highlighted on my morning book trade email. In Britain we love a good online breakdown – it’s like a Newgate hanging – and within a couple of days the review had made national newspapers, Stephen Fry had retweeted it, the link was all over social networking nights and the author’s name a comic internet footnote and a shorthand for unprofessionalism and stupidity.

The first thing to notice about the review is that the book blogger is quite complimentary about the novel – he says that readers will ‘find the story compelling and interesting.’ However, Big Al has some criticisms: ‘the spelling and grammar errors, which come so quickly that, especially in the first several chapters, it’s difficult to get into the book without being jarred back to reality as you attempt unraveling what the author meant.’

Despite the nuance and kindness in Big Al’s review, the author jumps straight into the thread and begins shouting at him, accusing him of unfairness, posting positive Amazon reviews, demanding that he take his own review down, calling him ‘a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom’ and insisting that her writing is ‘just fine’. Big Al responds:

I’ll also point out that in the first two chapters alone I found in excess of twenty errors that ideally would have been caught in editing and proofing. Some were minor, but all have the potential of disrupting an enjoyable reading experience, depending on the specific reader and their sensitivity to such things.

Here are a couple sample sentences from the first two chapters that gave me pause and are representative of what I found difficult while reading.

‘She carried her stocky build carefully back down the stairs.’

‘Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.’

I understand what both are probably saying. I do question the sentence construction.

To which the author of the book under review, in the face of heavy criticism from an increasingly busy thread, shouts ‘Fuck off!’ a couple of times, before leaving the forum altogether.

This is an old story, I know, but I would like to make a few potentially career-saving points:

1) The book’s flaws are not centred around lack of story, unbelieveable characters or cliched prose but, rather, very basic things like spelling and grammar. You pick up this stuff very quickly if you read a lot of fiction but it could be that this particular author, like so many aspiring authors, does not read for pleasure.

2) Still, the spelling and grammatical errors could have been flagged up by an agent or editor if she had gone the route of commercial industry publishing, which for all its faults does select on talent rather than the author’s ability to pay. 

3) Conversely, self publishing has no quality control, no critique and therefore doesn’t help writers develop. There is no obligation to make the writing flow, and to put effort into making an effortless reading experience. This is also why self publishing appeals to people who want to smash the paradigm, and who don’t realise that you have to know the rules before you can break them.

4) I haven’t read The Greek Seaman but it’s possible that the story is so strong a publisher would take it on despite the flaws. Therefore, it is possible that Jacqueline Howett tried her luck with an actual publisher, she would now have a good novel, a respectable contract and a loyal readership, rather than a silly Google profile and the knowledge that she has made a fool of herself in front of actual millions of people.

Which raises a couple of further questions. How come no one, at least in the mainstream media coverage I saw of this, highlighted the problems in the self publishing model that led to Howett’s humiliation? And if traditional publishers and the corporate media are challenged and frightened by the daring new paradigm, why is it that self publishing gets such an easy ride in the mainstream book pages, even to the extent that literary journalists will encourage people to get into it?


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