The Grand Conversation on ebooks: Testing yourself as an author

Shane here. While this isn’t a guest post, I’m including it as part of the Grand Conversation series.

In a bid to further understand the wonderful world of ebooks, I joined a couple of the more popular message boards. I have to say, I was warmly welcomed, but when the opportunity came up to weigh in on the subject of ebook quality – specifically, the notion that much of what is currently self published is sub-standard – I couldn’t help myself, and so I added a couple of cents to that discussion.

I said:

“It’s a golden age for self publishing, and I think too much of that shiny golden glare is getting into people’s eyes and causing them to have delusions of competence … I’ve tested myself against the market for years (although I operate largely in the shorter forms – stories and novellas), working with editors to learn, improve, and eventually, master my craft. Sadly, I think too many other self publishers out there don’t test themselves – or if they do and fail, many don’t take the hint.”

On a board full of indie self publishers, this went down like a lead balloon. One reply in particular caused me to really ponder where I was coming from as an author (but more on this later).

When it comes to discussing self publishing ebooks, there are some clear lines – the self publishers believe in themselves and their books (and good on ’em) and the traditional publishers, agents, and editors believe their approach is best (i.e. to act as gatekeepers and dictate what the reading public consume). There are a few unclear lines, too, such as the bewilderment a lot of print-published authors currently feel, and of course, the reading public, who are kind of going with the flow until publishing settles into a new long-term stable model.

In reading through the indie message boards, I gleaned that a lot of the indie authors object to the traditional ‘gatekeeper’ model. Some have tried that route and failed. Others have bypassed the gatekeeper model altogether.

I’ve always viewed those gatekeepers as the people against whom I should test myself. When I write a short story, for example, the first thing I do once it’s ready for publication is to submit it to a paying short story market (magazine or anthology). It’s a tried and true method, and although there are factors such as the editor’s tastes and the parameters of that particular market, the editors of such publications are fairly astute. They’ll reject stories that aren’t up to scratch because they’ve just read hundreds of other stories in the slush pile. They see the best and worst stories – and everything in between.

Taste aside, I believe many editors will acknowledge quality. If your story isn’t right for their publication, they will often say so in a rejection letter. Personalised rejections, often with helpful tips or praise, are one of the best tools a writer can possess. Even better, if your story is bought by the editor, you then benefit from the process of working with that editor to prepare the story for publication. The editing process exposes writers to the back end of publications – you see galleys and you’re part of the process. It’s a learning process, a building process, and it strengthens you as a writer.

Or as one commenter on the forum put it:

“Sometimes I think about the amazing opportunity this whole self-publishing gives us. There are no agents, no acquisition editors, no story editors, line editors, proof readers. There is no one to tell us that this book is flawed. There are no censors to tell us that you can’t publish that.  Or worse, to politely decline our work without telling us why. It’s liberating, but it also should give us pause.”

Now, back to my original point. The response to my forum comment that started me thinking was this:

“This is a golden age for writers and readers and world culture as a whole. Forget worrying about quality or spending a minute writing about it; the self-sorting nature of the web pulls the good to the top much more efficiently than paper publishing ever could.”

I’ve tested myself for years against the gatekeepers. I embraced the process and learned more than I ever could on my own. I think what many traditionally published authors find unsettling and bewildering is that they’ve spent years testing themselves against the gatekeepers, and they’ve spent years building their careers as published authors. They clawed their way to the top of the slushpile, only for that slushpile to be effectively reset to zero.

Now, traditionally published authors are competing with indie self publishers, some of whom have tested themselves and failed against the gatekeepers, and some of whom bypassed the gatekeepers altogether, not testing themselves at all. [Note: I’m leaving out of this equation self publishers who come from a traditionally published background – i.e. those authors self publishing their backlist]

These print authors have the advantage of an established reputation, but as the current ebook boom has proved, you don’t need a reputation to sell very well (or in some cases, extremely well).

They presumably have the advantage of quality (and by that I mean flawless or near-flawless execution of punctuation, grammar, spelling, flow of ideas, paragraphing, weaving of plots and sub-plots – the ‘technical’ component of writing a story – as opposed to simply spewing words forth and going with your gut on what’s right and what’s not), but it’s been my observation that the majority of the reading (as well as the writing) public don’t really care about the nuances of grammar and punctuation if there’s a good story on offer.

I’m not arrogant enough to say quality doesn’t matter, but I am asserting that story is more important these days (otherwise, how would Stephanie Meyer be the bestseller she is?), and a never-previously-published indie self publisher is just as capable of writing a good story as an established print novelist.

So with no gatekeepers to test their quality, and the technical quality of writing itself becoming less of an issue with readers (as evidenced by the prevalence of poor quality writing in some bestselling books), how then do indie authors test themselves? As my correspondent on the message board pointed out: “the self-sorting nature of the web pulls the good to the top.”

I read that statement to mean “good quality books will sell well and poor quality books will not”. I guess this is the new form of testing one’s self as a writer. Put your book out there, and if word of mouth results in lots of people buying your book, then write another! I guess this would eventually weed out the self publishers who were soundly rejected by the traditional gatekeepers for being, basically, crap. Sales cannot be an iron-clad guarantee of quality, but at the end of the day, does it matter?

This is the paradigm shift I’m struggling with. To me, the delivery system of stories (ebooks, print books, audio books, etc.) does not matter. It is quality sales that counts. Yeah, I’m really going to struggle to come to terms with this one as I was raised with the concept that quality is paramount.  Sales as the new indicator of quality feels too simplistic to me, but I’m scratching my head trying to come up with something better.

Part of me feels like I’ve wasted my time all of these years trying to hone my craft when I suspect ‘good enough’ will become the new ‘good” (in terms of the craft of storytelling, not story). Another part of me thinks I’m just being ridiculous (I’m struggling with a paradigm shift, remember?).

Regardless, I’m looking forward to testing myself as an author through sales, but it’s a big scary world out there, so wish me luck, okay? 🙂

[Edit: It occured to me that award nominations are a form of quality control, but from first hand experience, I know awards are very much a couple of years behind the ebook revolution, but I’m interested to see how awards adapt to ebooks in the coming years, and what affect, if any, awards will have on ebook sales. Presumably, they may help with word of mouth but I’m not convinced.]
The Smoke Dragon is available for FREE in all ebook formats from Smashwords.

All eight of my ebooks are available from Amazon and Smashwords.


The Grand Conversation on ebooks will run here at www.jiraiya.com.au until February 28. If you’d like to contribute a guest blog post, email me at shane@jiraiya.com.au.

18 Comments

  1. […] via The Grand Conversation on ebooks: Testing yourself as an author | Shane Jiraiya Cummings. […]

  2. A. M. Harte says:

    This is an excellent post. You’ve given me some food for thought.

    I’ve sold a few short stories to magazines, but for the most part I’ve bypassed the gate-keeping system entirely. Perhaps it’s overconfidence on my part (although I do have editorial experience and make sure to read rather widely in order to improve my craft).

    I agree with you in that there *are* many self-published titles that lack polish and proofing. But I’ve also read trad published books with similar issues — the only difference is that they are harder to find as no brick & morter shop will want to stock them!

    I suppose with self-pubilshing, instead of testing ourselves against the gatekeepers, we are testing ourselves directly against our readers.

    • Shane Jiraiya Cummings says:

      Hi AM, thanks for dropping by!

      I know where you’re coming from about the overconfidence. I felt the same way before I began submitting stories to editors. Now when I look back at my earliest pre-testing-the-gatekeepers work (including the novel I wrote ten years ago), I cringe at the mistakes.

      I’m not saying its the same for you or anyone else, but certainly for me, testing myself by being an active submitter to magazines and anthologies of professional quality (and pay rates) was the best thing I could do – and the greatest teacher a writer could receive.

      But yeah, I think you’re right. It’s about testing ourselves (our popularity, perhaps?) against readers, not editors and publishers. This stirs up a whole other issue – that of author as ‘brand’ – but I’ll save that for another post

  3. “Part of me feels like I’ve wasted my time all of these years trying to hone my craft when I suspect ‘good enough’ will become the new ‘good'”

    Yeah, but would you really ever be happy with ‘good enough’? I know I wouldn’t and I think I know you well enough to know your answer 😉

    • Shane Jiraiya Cummings says:

      Yeah, Andrew, you’re right. I have the experience and the benefit of a good circle of peers and an in-house editor in Angela to keep my work on track, and I couldn’t abide being judged by any sub-standard work of mine that people might read. But back before I began submitting, I didn’t know the difference between a ‘good enough’ manuscript and a truly polished one.

      In the looming climate of self publishing, I suspect readers (on the whole) won’t mind, and some may not even spot the difference, which is why I say story is king. What I need to do now is come up with better, more captivating ideas for my work and find better ways to market myself as a ‘brand’.

      Gone are the days where authors (if they want to make a living, anyway) can simply write. It was largely a fallacy anyway, but it was a comfortable one. Authors as self publishers need to be professional publicity and business people, too!

  4. Elfwreck says:

    (as evidenced by the prevalence of poor quality writing in some bestselling books)

    Anyone who thinks there’s poor writing in any traditionally-published bestsellers, you haven’t spent enough time at Smashwords and Lulu. (And probably the self-pub section of Kindlebooks, but since I won’t deal with Amazon’s software, I don’t have access to those.)

    Even the most unpolished popular novels (*cough* Deathly Hallows *cough*) have, as a whole, good grammar (enough that the exceptions are annoying, not constant), decent plotting (story goes from A to B to C, and even if weird MacGuffins show up halfway through to fix things, their effects aren’t erased in the next chapter), and consistent tone (books written in YA style don’t suddenly veer into graphic murder mysteries).

    And the grammar. The spelling. The punctuation. Mygods, the punctuation. You can’t truly appreciate the gatekeeper function, as limiting as it is, until you’ve seen a 3000 word story with emdashes (double hyphens, because nobody knows how to make emdashes) in a third of its sentences. Or the atrociously-formatted PDFs at Lulu where the author went crazy with fonts and colored text.

    I’m a big advocate of the Konrath self-publishing method–write good stuff, get good covers & descriptions, sell cheaply without DRM in several venues. But the “write good stuff” part is certainly the most overlooked point; too many people think “I have a great story idea” means “I can turn it into a good book.” And that’s before touching on the ones who think “vampire in love with a werewolf” is a terrific and unique story idea.

    I expect that, in the long run, we’ll see a lot of tiny niche publishers, rather than a huge market of self-publishing; gatekeeping is just too useful to readers to vanish. I think the best of the self-published books will have opportunities that didn’t used to exist, but most ebook readers will avoid them, and learn to think of the publisher as an intrinsic part of the book. The publisher’s name will be a statement of quality, style and story range, and people will compare favorite publishers in addition to favorite authors.

    • Shane Jiraiya Cummings says:

      Very, very true, Elfwreck,

      Perhaps I was being unfair to the bestsellers. I’ve read a fair few self published efforts, and many of them were supremely awful. However, I want to keep an open mind because I haven’t read much from the current wave of indie ebook bestsellers.

      I like the idea of small niche publishers cropping up, particularly if they embrace more favourable royalties for authors. That would go a long way towards addressing my quality concerns when there’s no gatekeeper involved.

  5. Merrilee says:

    It’s the lack of readability that puts me off most self-pubbed works. I read quite a few cozy mysteries, where the writing is fairly pedestrian, but at least it doesn’t pull me out of the story with bizarre word choices, lack of grammar and, most appalling, the complete inability to plot.

    Most of the self-pubbed work I read suffers from the very basic beginning writer mistakes; too much information, no logical sequence of events, overwriting, poorly placed exposition.

    I personally don’t care if the writer doesn’t know what an em-dash is. I care if they can’t write a sentence without one, or overuse ellipses.

    But as you say, if the writing is clear and the story told clearly, then many readers are satisfied. Not everyone has high expectations of a book, or even the ability to recognise good writing over bad.

  6. Merrilee says:

    Wait, what was my point? Oh yes. Merely good books can find success in ebooks, where previously they might have been passed over for better books. Ebooks open the market for readers and writers.

  7. Marty Young says:

    Good post, Shane. This whole ‘The Grand Conversation’ is very thought-provoking.

    • Shane Jiraiya Cummings says:

      Hi Marty,

      Thanks for dropping by, mate. By the end of the month, there’s gonna be PLENTY to think about!

  8. Hannah says:

    “Part of me feels like I’ve wasted my time all of these years trying to hone my craft when I suspect ‘good enough’ will become the new ‘good”…”

    What is good is subjective, it always has been. It’s not like me to speak in definitive terms but there it is.

    Maybe the experiment that needs to be undertaken is, ‘It’s all about PR, baby!’

    I know I will be taking on a couple of PR and marketing units toward my degree.

    I’ve enjoyed reading about the different perspectives on the ebook debate, even though the white font on a black screen has been an eye killer.

    • Shane Jiraiya Cummings says:

      Hi Hannah,

      Thanks for popping in. While it could be argued that everything is subjective, I’m afraid I have to largely disagree with you about the concept of ‘good’. I was specifically talking about the quality of the craft of writing – and the vast majority of that comes down to technical aspects such as grammar, punctuation, etc. I know a lot of writers may disagree, but in my experience as an editor and author, the craft of writing can be seen in almost mathematical terms. It’s very easy to spot an author with a loose handle on the craft.

      However, when it comes to the story itself (and the ideas that form the story), well, it’s a different ball game. That’s where the subjective nature of life comes into it.

      I agree with the PR comment, though! Part of what I’m doing is following the Smashwords Marketing Guide almost to the letter, so I can factor that into the dissection of my Grand Experiment.

      As for the colour scheme of the website, I know it can be a pain for some people, but if you have an RSS reader (like Google Reader for instance), you can punch in my RSS and read it off there with a less eye-straining colour. My RSS URL is at the bottom of the bio box on the right side of this page (or on my Contact page).

      I hope you enjoy the rest of the Grand Conversation series!

      • Elfwreck says:

        A friend set up an RSS feed at Dreamwidth to follow the conversation, but your RSS settings only show the first sentence or two, not the entire post.

        And I agree that, while some aspects of quality are subjective, there’s a level of basic skill-with-written-language that publishers have always required, and isn’t required for self-pubbed ebooks. There are some *terrific* self-published ebooks… and a huge and growing swarm of manuscripts that should’ve been set aside until the author could write a coherent paragraph.

  9. There’s an interesting duality of thread here, I think.

    First, the gatekeeper function of “quality” has always been a code word for “sales.” Publishers value authors who *sell* and the “quality” of the work is now and always has been secondary. The characteristics they name as quality grow directly out of their experiences in the marketplace. Many of the comments here and elsewhere about the dreadful work that appears in self-pub point out the things that keep books from selling in any format, in any publishing model. I think what we’re seeing today represents nothing more than confirmation of Sturgeon’s Law – 90% of everything is crap. With the barriers to entry lowered, there’s just a lot more of it readily available.

    Second, the supremacy of story over execution points to a major flaw in the gate-keeper mentality and in a marketplace where entry is controlled by so few points of entry. The kinds of stories that get through tend to be the kinds of stories that got through in the past. The search for the next break-out novel founders on the very agent/publisher system that seems designed to prevent anybody who is not writing in the current hot market from being discovered. Publishers “know” what sells. They train agents to forward those things that fit that pattern. Those that fit the pattern get passed on, pushed out to consumers, and get sold because that’s all consumers can buy. The cycle repeats.

    Once in a while something strange happens and you get a Stephanie Meyers or a Steig Larsen or a J K Rowling. I maintain they hurt the system rather than help it by focusing attention on finding more stories like that rather than causing the field to examine why these anomalies happened.

    From my perspective, and it’s a limited one to be sure, the real driver here is not the technology that allows un-tests authors to enter the marketplace. The true driver is the pent up demand for new and different stories – stories that are “not commercial enough” to get past an agent, stories that don’t fit neatly into established marketing genres, stories that aren’t like the rest of the market.

    There’s one last point that needs making. There’s a corollary to Sturgeon’s Law that the virtual marketplace underscores. While 90% of everything is crap, one person’s crap is another person’s treasure.

    When shelf space limits selection, only those titles predicted to satisfy the largest audiences can be produced. In the virtual market, there are no shelves, nor are there inventory costs. In the ebook virtual market there aren’t even significant distribution costs. What matters is whether or not there’s a market for a particular story and the controlling factor in this virtual marketplace is not some arbitrary imprimatur of “quality” but rather the crushing weight of obscurity.

    I believe that what we’re seeing at the moment represents a fundamental shift in the way we test quality. We’re not longer testing against an indirect standard imposed at the production level, but rather testing directly against the consumer. Those works that find a place may fail to find critical acclaim, but will satisfy the basic criteria of quality that publishers have always held most dear. They’ll sell a lot of books.

  10. Sibel Hodge says:

    At the end of the day, a good novel is a good novel. Whilst there are probably many bad self-pubbed novels out there, the readers will ultimately manage to weed those out and decide for themselves what they want to read. Ebooks have brought sampling into the mix, which is an excellent way to check out a writer’s style before you buy.

    There are some fantastic indie published books out there that have had the opportunity to publish whereas before the ebook revolution, they wouldn’t have. And hanging around on places like Kindleboards shows that the vast majority want to write an excellent quality novel. They spend time on money on editing and critiquing to make it the best it can be.

  11. […] has been plenty of feedback on my post the other day about testing yourself as an author. One of the comments was from indie podcaster and author Nathan Lowell. Nathan’s comment was […]

  12. I am hoping that to some degree market forces will even things out, that the good will float to the top eventually.

    It’s still early days yet.

    As for sampling, I find that I am not using it so much as taking recommendations from other authors, or finding a quality sources like small press publishers and relying on their judgement. Perhaps we will see the rise of ‘culture guides’ rather than gatekeepers?

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