"Are you looking for a Mentee? Because I'm looking for a Mentor."
--from a new writer in my local SCBWI critique group
The "quality of self-published works" is a topic so ripe for contention, it almost intrinsically qualifies as link bait. However, I'm going to take a stab at it, not least because I've stumbled across a few posts that have attempted to take a more serious stab at the true underlying issue: growing writers' careers.
First, quoted from Jane Friedman's blog post, Self-Publishing's Parallel Disruptions, and David King's blog post on "Creating a Masterpiece," are some thoughts from (Story Master) Donald Maass:
The 10,000 hours required to master the complex art form of fiction is a lot to ask. Most seek validation along the way, hence the trap (for many) of self-publishing...There are other ways to receive validation along the way. That’s why critique groups, professional mentors, independent editors, craft books, workshops, conferences and communities like WU are so important. They keep us going. The road to traditional print publication is longer today... recession battered retailers and readers don’t have the patience to see new authors through their early training novels. They want mastery, in the modern sense, right away. Especially for $25. In a way, who can blame them? The very conditions that make it so difficult can also be taken as a challenge. High mastery is expected of symphony musicians, ballerinas, Olympic athletes, brain surgeons and more. Why not novelists too?
And from David King:
In the days when many professions were controlled by guilds, your masterpiece was not your best or most celebrated work. It was your first halfway decent work – the piece you presented to the guild judges to show you deserved to be named a master of your craft. I’ve been thinking about this practice as I’ve watched clients go through the long, often disheartening, battle to get published. I so often want to remind them – your first published work is going to be your weakest. It is, after all, the first piece that shows you can write well enough to survive in the marketplace. It’s your masterpiece.
It’s easy to forget that the early work of every writer, no matter how gifted, is usually mediocre at best...(in the past) the publishing industry was a lot more receptive to writers who hadn’t yet mastered their craft... Writers tended to stick with a single publisher as well, so an editor like Max Perkins could nurse budding authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald through their early, less masterful works, knowing they would stick with Scribners once they hit their stride. Today even the most promising authors are competing against a huge and diverse entertainment industry, and acquisitions editors expect big success with every book they buy. It’s a tough market, and you need a much higher level of mastery in order to break into it.
So, let's unpack this a little...
"Readers don't have the patience to see new authors through their early training..."
Actually, it's publishers who don't have this patience (love Donald Maass, truly I do, but his POV comes squarely from inside the industry). Readers are quite willing to take a flyer on writers who have just published their first "masterpiece" - the novel that shows you can write well enough to survive in the marketplace - this is demonstrated by readers every day when they buy indie works. The difference is that low-prices make it easier to take the chance on a new author, early in their training, and see if they have not only a serviceable story, but the potential for more. Readers are the ones exhibiting this patience, and joy, in discovering new talent. How do I know this? Because I see it all the time in my reviews:
A recent review of Open Minds: "I got this first book in the series for free so I didn't have my hopes up very high for a great story but I was willing to give it a try. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised when I was completely hooked. I mowed through all three books. I am an avid reader to the extreme. Not easily impressed. But I want to throw a thank you to the author for a unique, fast paced, spot on series. I will definitely try more of your books in the future."
That key - I liked this, I will spend money on more of this, I will look for even more in the future - that is a reader discovering a writer (me) young in her career. I may have my 10,000 hours in now, but I didn't then - when Open Minds was published. When this reader tries more of my work, I hope s/he will find my work improving with every new story I put out (at least that's my objective).
"Most seek validation along the way, hence the trap (for many) of self-publishing..."
There is truth in this statement, as well as a bunch of hubris.
First, the truth: some writers publish too soon.
In my Indie Author Survival Guide, I try to tackle the issue of knowing when you're "ready." This isn't an easy question - some writers are phenomenal in wordcraft, but their storytelling is weak. For some the storytelling force is strong, but weak prose sucks the life from the story. Readers are more likely to forgive weak prose than weak storytelling. Slow sales can mean that your storytelling skills aren't ready for prime time... or they could be a sign of a small (literary) or non-indie-friendly (middle grade) market.
Here's the key: if it turns out you've published too soon, you can always pull back. Or push forward with new books. The learning doesn't stop with that first published novel.
Second, the hubris: that self-published authors stop striving to improve their skills once they publish.
I actually had this conversation with literary-writer-friend Bryan Russell, early in my self-publishing adventures. His (genuine and heart-felt) concern was that writers would short-cut their personal growth as writers by self-publishing too soon. At the time, I argued that you couldn't force any writer to strive to improve their craft - putting barriers to publication in front of them (like in trad-pub) only weeded out the ones who would have stopped striving anyway.
Now, I realize there is some truth in the idea that writers will stop striving to improve their craft once they've "made it" - but I actually see this more in trad-pub authors than indie authors. Because in trad-pub, authors HAVE received that stamp of approval from a publisher. They believe this line from King: "It’s a tough market, and you need a much higher level of mastery in order to break into it." They believe that they got that contract because of their "mastery" not their "marketability" - a dangerous trap in thinking, if I've ever seen one. Donald Maass himself obliquely refers to this in Writing 21st Century Fiction (which I highly recommend, especially for experienced writers):
"When I co-teach workshops with best-selling authors, they are sometimes surprised when I point out how closely their stories parallel their own struggles in life. In working editorially with my writer clients, I often ask, "What in this story makes you angry? What is it that the reader must get?" The answers always take us back to the author. One day I posed those questions to a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America. Midway through our work, he paused and said, "I just realized why I've been a mid-list writer all my life." It wasn't that his novels didn't reflect his interests and temperament. They did. Yet, while his novels had his stamp, they didn't have his heart - his deepest heart."
Once you've made it inside the golden gates of publishing, it's easy to think you've "made it" - if you're lucky, someone like Donald Maass will encourage you to continue to stretch yourself. If you're unlucky, you'll be just good enough, and just commercial enough, that no one will invest time in your career by challenging you. They will just keep stamping "approved" on your novels and publishing them. (Or perhaps not, as many trad-pub midlist authors are finding.)
By contrast, the only "stamp of approval" indie authors have is the deposits to their checking account, showing that people are willing to pay cold hard cash for their stories. There's danger here, too - if success comes easy for an indie author, there's the temptation to just write, write, write, not necessarily focusing on improving craft or storytelling. But that "trap" is self-correcting, because 1) producing large volumes of work is one of the best ways to improve craft, even without formal "instruction" - this is a craft after all, and 2) with close connections to their readers (rather than publishers), indie authors are the first to know if their craft is slipping. With the reinforcement of monthly checks, indie authors are well-motivated to keep their readers happy.
Which, in the end, is what it's all about, yes?
Forget about Readers; What about Literature?
I've never understood the disconnect between those two - if Literature is not mean to be read by Readers, then who exactly is reading it? Aliens? The hubris of this question is that the unwashed masses are no judge of Literature, and if everyone writes for the masses, then no one will create the Great Works anymore.
Insert wailing and gnashing of teeth.
In my opinion, this has nothing to do with self-publishing (unless you consider that self-publishing may have saved many authors-past "sick with hope long deferred" from "frustration, depression, and despair" not to mention suicide, like Miss Allonby's last attempt to garner publication for her seminal work). It's hubris to think that we know what works will endure. And literary works will continue to be produced, regardless of the publication path. In fact, many more literary authors may be encouraged in their art with the availability of self-publishing (and the lack of necessity of more drastic measures to gain publication). After all, most writers - even literary ones - will write more than one piece. They will have a long life, filled with words, if only they are given the freedom and encouragement and incentive to flex their literary muscles.
Growing A Writer
The Story Masters Conference I attended was all about craft. While there were many trad-pub authors in the room, there were also many self-pub authors (if the tables at the book signing were any indication - and BRAVO to the Story Masters for making that open to all). No matter how we are published - and there is much mixing of paths as well - we all need to strive to become better writers. All the time. Every step along the way in the journey.
That new writer I quoted at the beginning? She's a young adult science fiction writer young in her career. She is new to my local SCBWI group, a fantastic collection of trad-pub, indie-pub, and not-yet-pubbed writers. I brought my copy of Writing 21st Century Fiction to the group and encouraged them all to check it out, which resulted in mad scribbling down of the title (because my group is awesome... did I mention this?). Afterward, I went up to our newest member, because I always want new writers to feel welcome. To overcome that first hesitation to bring pages, because I understand the fear, but I also know the power of critique in helping writers in their journey.
We hit it off immediately - after all, she's writing YA SF - and I gave her my bookmarks (with my email address), encouraging her to contact me if she had any questions. That's when she popped the "will you be my mentor?" question. To which I enthusiastically replied, "Yes!"
I can't mentor every young-in-craft writer I know (although the Indie Author Survival Guide and this blog are both my attempts to reach more people). But when I find someone who is actively seeking a mentor, I know I've found someone who has what it takes. She wants to learn, wants to strive... all she needs is a little validation and encouragement along the way.
Like readers today, and publishers of the past, I'm willing to help someone like that through their early training. I have the patience, and want the joy of discovering a new talent - and even better, to be a part of helping to grow it.