Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Friday, November 22, 2013

The Quality of Self-Published Books

"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.


  1. I suppose my feelings have changed somewhat, though not completely. I mean, I'm sure there are some stagnant trad-pubbed authors out there, rewriting the same story and resting on their laurels, but most of the ones I know are simply continuing to write to the best of their abilities, always looking for new things to write and new ways to write them. Of course, I know piles and piles of indie authors doing exactly the same thing.

    I guess that's where I'm at now: people are people and writers are writers. And success is success. And success (however you might define it) is usually hard. I still feel that there are self-pubbing authors who won't push themselves because it's easier to just hit the button, and there are those with talent who will quit because their success isn't what they hoped for (because their talent has not yet been close to fully tapped). But people endlessly drifted away from trying to get traditionally published, too, after struggling over both talent hurdles and (sometimes unnecessary) industry hurdles.

    Which leads to more? I'm guessing the former, but that's really just an entirely subjective guess. It would be hard to measure, and I'm not sure the measurement is even relevant. Maybe there are a lot of indie writers who could push themselves more and write something better, but if they're happy writing their stories and happy with the audience they have, does it matter? Maybe we (as in: people like me) make too much of mastery because that's something we personally value. I'm very process-oriented. In a sense, I'm my own first reader, and I want to write something that I'm satisfied with. So I push. Then I'd like an audience. After that, well, I wouldn't mind making some money doing this, but it's not a big deal to me. That's a roll of the dice, and I can't control the dice once they leave my hands. But all this certainly isn't a necessary goal. A lot of people simply want to share their stories.

    These days, I have the feeling that the people that will endlessly pursue the elusive perfection of craft will simply be the people who want to do this, the same as always regardless of the path they take, whether trad pub or self pub or something in between. Success is difficult. And what is success? I think each writer will have to define what success is for him or herself. There will be obstacles. Probably a lot of them (I mean, time, time, time; can someone lend me a few hours? Minutes? I'd kiss someone for a week). Indeed, there will be a variety of obstacles to a variety of successes. Some will be able to overcome these obstacles. Some won't. I'm sure they'll find other things to fill their life with. In the meantime, there will be lots of stories to read.

    1. Maybe there are a lot of indie writers who could push themselves more and write something better, but if they're happy writing their stories and happy with the audience they have, does it matter?
      There is something to this. If writers are writing and readers are reading, who are we to judge that they should "improve." And, as you say, by what measure? And is that even relevant?

      I take this back to the individual writer level. Are you happy with where you (in terms of craft, sales, fans, awards, social-proof, publisher-approval, whatever your personal measure is)? If not, then strive for better - and I believe the pathway to "better" no matter what the measure can almost always be found in the basics: storytelling and craft. This is my leap of faith: that improvement in those leads to improvement in everything else - maybe it's because I personally value mastery, too, but it's also a steely-eyed look at the qualities of successful people and their works.

    2. Maybe we (as in: people like me) make too much of mastery because that's something we personally value. I'm very process-oriented. In a sense, I'm my own first reader, and I want to write something that I'm satisfied with. So I push. Then I'd like an audience. After that, well, I wouldn't mind making some money doing this, but it's not a big deal to me. That's a roll of the dice, and I can't control the dice once they leave my hands. But all this certainly isn't a necessary goal. A lot of people simply want to share their stories.

      And some people just want to make a living doing the work they love. :)

      Your view is squarely inside what Maass calls the "literary viewpoint" - as contrasted with the "commercial viewpoint". One of the great points in his book is the illumination of these different viewpoints, and how 21st century readers are making them obsolete:

      "On the one side of the divide are literary novelists, whose bases of operation are MFA programs and literary journals. On the other are commercial storytellers who... train in genre-specific organizations and bivouac in an online tent city of blogs... Literary novelists create art... Commercial storytellers want to spin stories that delight readers... Each champions different intents, processes, and outcomes. Both can produce good fiction, but when adhered to religiously, neither produce novels that reach a vast and diverse audience....We speak of "character driven" and "plot driven" novels as if they are mutually exclusive objects.... high-impact 21st century fiction is both."

      Maass key observation is that bestseller lists have become (vs. 10 yrs ago) populated with stories which are both literary and commercial... in the same work. Commercial is becoming more literary and literary is becoming more commercial. This convergence is why I keep going back to the fundamentals as key for success.

    3. I think our culture is weirdly obsessed with competition and ranking things in general. I shall have to write a 10 Most Troubling Facts About Competition and Ranking post for my blog.

      I think I'm kind of in the middle of the lit/genre thing. I read and write both extensively and I have published stories in journals and in pixelated screens rising out of that tent city. I have an MA in Creative Writing, but I submitted an epic fantasy novel for my thesis. And I have a nice little tent of my own in that tent city. My favorite books, whether considered "literary" or "genre," are usually hybrids, combining beautiful prose with strong characters and engaging plots. I like stuff that happens. And, interestingly, these books can often be found equally on both sides of the genre/lit divide.

      I think it's a matter of approach as much as anything. If I was writing a fast-paced thriller, I think I would still be writing it first and foremost for me. I'm in love with the process and exploration of writing, of trying to understand something and make it real on the page. If it works out, it's nice if some other people read it. If people want to give me money for it, I'll certainly take it. :)

      Writing, in the end, is kind of weird. It's personal and strange and idiosyncratic, and each writer has to find their own path. But it's nice knowing there are others out searching, too, and sometimes we learn about ourselves as much from our differences with others than from our similarities.

    4. Also, these are some honking big replies. I'm sorry if I broke any of your readers' eyes.

    5. I love the big replies. #biggestoffenderisme

    6. 10 Most Troubling Facts About Competition and Ranking post for my blog.
      I would totally read this.

      And I love everything in your comment. I'm actually a bit excited about his convergence of literary and genre. I think people hunger for stories but they also hunger for beauty. It's one of my personal objectives (and has been for some time) to lean into the literary side of things, even though I write solid genre/commercial. To me, there is a sweet spot where literary passages evoke emotion in a way that transcends the words and the action. But the action has to be there to provide the scaffolding, otherwise the literary touch is a beautiful feather that simply drifts away, unanchored to anything important.

      p.s. I'm still waiting to read one of your works that's longer than 250 words. ;)

    7. Well, I have three novels in various stages of revision right now...

    8. Well, you need to move one of those along to publication. ;) Unless you're offering to let me beta read before the rest of the world gets to see it, in which case, I'm all over that. #anytime

  2. And, I should say, the mentoring thing is big: sometimes people don't trip over obstacles because they don't have the talent to jump or climb, but simply because someone turned out the lights and they can't see the hurdles in their path. A mentor (or teacher or critique group or craft book or charming speculative fiction blog) can sometimes flick the light switch. A little illumination never hurts. I learned that from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: "We named the dog Indiana."

    1. Ha! And yes... which is why being a mentor, as well as finding your own, are key characteristics of people who succeed IMHO.

  3. Thanks for this. I tried to plod through Jane Friedman's blog post and couldn't. I'm am so over the trashing of independent author's quality and this blathering about the need for validation. I don't need validation from some publisher in NYC. I don't need validation from an editor. My editor works for me. I get validation from readers. I get validation when someone downloads a story, spends a buck on it, takes time to leave a review or when they send me an email. A guy in Turkey sent me an email about a story. A man in Turkey! Yeah, that was validation. And I know each story gets better. After all how does your writing get better if you don't write?

    As a side note, one of the things I've really gotten out of NaNo this year was it acted as a kind of benchmark for how much I've improved from last year. Hey, what do you know, more validation! Maybe the problem is the boys in NYC aren't feeling the love anymore and they need the validation. I wonder if that's how the gods felt when their temples were empty? Okay, back to writing. Thanks for this post!

    1. Don't you just love the global nature of ebooks now? Very high in cool factor!

      You are so right that validation comes from many places and in many forms. As Jane also pointed out, in the depths of her article, from Shatzkin, "As sales move online and concentrate at Amazon, a publisher can’t really make a huge difference in Amazon compared to what an author can do on their own. So, the publisher has to make a difference in a diminishing part of the market, which is everything else."

      I think publishers are struggling to demonstrate how they can make a difference. They're having to look at the temples anew, and decide why someone might actually want to come there. They have to compete just as authors have all along. The self-examination that requires can be painful, but I think it's entirely beneficial in the end.

      Thanks for the great comment!

  4. Wow, thank you for this stimulating discourse. My take on this is a bit different. As mentioned, several hundred years ago, very few writers were able, for a variety of reasons, to publish books. Currently fewer and fewer writers are among the 'chosen few' to be trad published and make a living (or part thereof) from writing. Where does that leave everyone else? Well, thankfully there are now more options for the millions of writers (myself included) who just love to write. I am happy and thankful when ANYONE reads a story of mine or buys a book. I write because I love to write. I constantly think of tennis playing as an interesting analogy to writing and publishing books. One hundred years ago, only a chosen few had access to tennis courts. Today anyone can buy a racket and balls and run down to play at a local court (or against a wall). Hundreds of millions play tennis (there is nothing wrong with that even when their performance is poor and amateruish) and millions dream of reaching the professional level (where people pay money to watch them play). Hopefully, such dreamers realize that becoming a professional tennis player requires talent, luck and 10,000 hours of practice. But for the rest, playing tennis is a pasttime, a hobby, a healthy recreational pursuit. So, I reckon is writing. Only a few of those with real talent, luck and perseverance are going to become real professionals. But the rest of us can still have fun and improve our skills and perhaps garner a modest community of readers. I believe that everyone from the age of six should be able to self-publish books for free over the internet (and I am working on it), and those who want can hone their skills with the help of loving and caring mentors (like yourself). Most e-books are bought and read by less than fifty people. So what? Most tennis matches are watched by less than five people. I hope that the world will become a place where more and more people will write and self-publish because they want to, improve if they want to, and where the growing paucity of readers does not diminish the fun inherent in putting your own words to paper (or bytes).

    1. Lovely.

      This reminds me of Hugh Howey's emphasis on two things: 1) encouraging everyone who loves reading, no matter what it is, because we simply don't have enough love of literature in the world, and more of that benefits EVERYONE, and 2) the emphasis on who is "professional" and "worthy" vs. "amateur" is a sport that may be lucrative for some (i.e. those dispensing the designations), but overall damages writers. And why do we feel a need to do that? Ego, primarily. There's nothing wrong with messing around with writing as a hobby. There's nothing wrong will trying to make a living out of it. There's nothing wrong with any of it. The need to criticize has more to do with a misguided sense of competition.

      I've long believed that writers are not in competition with one another. Yes, only a certain number can be on the NYTimes Bestseller list... this week. But no reader ever has said, "Hey, I discovered this great new book about mermaids. Now I will never read another mermaid book again. Or any other sea creature." Encouraging a love of reading, a love of writing, a love of literature, without getting our short daggers out for whoever doesn't meet our criteria of "acceptable"... it benefits everyone.

    2. I think we have a weird cultural concern with competition and with ranking things, even when such a ranking system is irrelevant or damaging. I mean, we're readers first. Don't we want more good books? Does this one have to be better than this one? Can't they both just be good? It's pretty weird, in a way, but it's everywhere, like all the 10 best lists on the interwebz. It's like my ambivalence about literary competitions. On the one hand, I like them because they focus people's attention on books, start literary discussions, and introduce people to interesting new books. But to say, in any realist sense, that this is the "best" book of the year is pretty ridiculous, as even the best read critics in a particular genre or form have read only a fraction of those written, and even then the decision process is hugely subjective.

      I like the idea of a mutually beneficial society of writers contributing to the great sea of stories much better. We can all grab a paddle when the urge strikes us.

    3. Amen! I'm going to start calling the writer community the Mutual Society of Writing Beneficence. *stroke!* *stroke!*

  5. Your new mentee is very lucky to have such a high quality mentor.

    1. Aww.. thanks James! I always learn as much from these things as I pass on.

  6. Yikes. I LOVE this, and it's so true. We should never stagnate as writers or we're not doing our job right--whether traditionally or indie published.

  7. Fabulous post. The fact that these discussions are occurring shows the extent with which the publishing playing field has altered. I agree that every writer (and reader) has their own goals and none of us have the right to dictate that our goals, our measure of success is the only way. The fact that a book that most people would argue "lacks talent" can sell tens of thousands because readers love the story, the world, the characters, indicates that the reader is always right. In my experience as a writer and reader, readers love to discover new authors and watch their career advance. That, and those emails from around the world praising our books ought to be enough motivation for an author to improve, fueling the ever-expanding cycle of better books and more readers. What a great artform we indulge in. :)

  8. I think mentoring is very important, Susan. Previously I belonged to two writers' groups; one wanted to charge for mentoring for perceived value, the other didn't charge but restricted it to members with 2yrs or so standing. I prefer the latter.

    Will you charge for your mentoring? Another member in my group wanted a payment for mentoring or she felt it didn't carry any value. This idea of charging for 'supporting new writers' seems incorrect. That's selling them something, that's not support. We established a time period of 10-12 weeks, and it took two matches to find a suitable INDIE writer. The first, trad pubbed female author I believe, did a poor job of mentoring, I complained and was re-assigned to the Indie published woman writer, who was fabulous.

    I applaud you if you are going to mentor. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts about the process further down the mentoring road. Good Luck!

    1. D.G, I'm ... horrified... by the thought of paying for mentoring. Seriously, there's something very wrong with that. This idea of "perceived value" is also noxious to me. I completely agree that that's selling them something, not support. I would RUN not walk away from any group whose values support that kind of thing.

      I'm glad you found someone who worked for you, regardless of the rather unseemly scruples of the organizations involved.

      As for my thoughts - I've already mentored other authors, in a variety of different capacities, depending on their needs. This is something that I see as part of our supportive writer community - one that shares my values of open communication and support.