Knowing it’s “good enough”

Okay, one more post on self-publishing and I’ll stop. (I can’t speak for other Spec bloggers.)

I’ve been thinking about points raised by commenters in the last week that essentially get at this: how does an author know the work is “good enough” to self publish? How does an author know that her manuscript isn’t going to be just one more entry in the “aren’t they awful?” morass that represents the vast majority (still) of self-published books?

And why ARE so many self-published books bad, anyway? As someone pointed out, indie film-making and indie bands get respect; the indie publisher doesn’t. At least, not if only one person is involved.

And I think that’s the key. Even the smallest film requires a minor army of actors, camera folk, editors. Even an individual indie musician has a producer, a mixer, maybe a separate songwriter, and probably some audience members somewhere along the line who were encouraging — if not a full band with a vested interest in every member’s quality. True indie presses are usually the efforts of multiple people. But a lot of self-published books are written by one person, with input from maybe a spouse or at most a few other relatives, friends, or other people not in a position to be very objective and who are often as blinded by love as the author is blinded by authorial myopia.

To complicate matters, it really is so subjective. I’ve read a couple of books now by a small but acknowledged, mostly paperback publisher you’ve all heard of that made me think, “Really? Somebody really thought this was good enough to publish? Wow.” And I’ve heard an agent speak disparagingly about this publisher, too, for similar reasons. But obviously at least a handful of people there disagree with us both and were willing to put money behind their opinions.

Still, the more people involved, the more likely a consensus will be reached on marginal books. I think. And personally, I don’t think I’m any more objective about my own work than your average author, and I’m sure I’m less so than some.

So here’s a minor suggestion for authors to consider: If we think that one of the important roles of the publisher is to serve as third-party, objective discriminators who decide what’s really “worth” publishing and what isn’t, but we want to sometimes publish work without the benefit of a publisher, for whatever reason, there’s no reason on earth we can’t play that role for each other. Suppose authors formed in groups of five or six or 10 and agreed to vette each other’s work prior to (self) publication? Even tough critique groups may not pull their punches enough on the details of a critique — and this is a role that would probably be better served by a group of peers who are NOT as familiar with a work as crit partners become, anyway. But if it’s just an up or down decision, not actual feedback, it should be possible for groups to work out a system — with anonymous ballots or some interesting techie solution — where they could essentially say to each other, “you know, I don’t think this one is ready yet, ’cause you’re going to embarrass yourself — and us, too, by implication.” (The latter might be especially effective if the “Sanction Group” is identified on/in the books they give the thumb’s-up to.) Or, “yeah, go for it.” Or even rank it on a scale of 1 to 10 — 10 being “NY is crazy not to pick this up” and anything under, say, a 6 or 7 being a “no, don’t do it!”

That would be an interesting function for an SCBWI region to formulate, for instance. Or a longtime critique group with multiple published members. Or a writing school/class program. Or…?  I’ve talked a little with a couple of different people in the last few months about authors essentially forming publishing collectives along the same lines as we have marketing collectives (e.g., the Class of 2k7). This fits the same model, though it wouldn’t need to be quite as extensive in terms of scope.

Think something like that could work? Or would personal feelings, friendships, and other biases be impossible to set aside?

— Joni, who’s just thinking out loud now

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5 responses to “Knowing it’s “good enough”

  1. I’ve worked in indie film and one thing to remember is most indie films are bad, too. (So are many bands who press their own albums, for that matter.) One thing indie film has is the festival circuit to help good films rise to the top. Sundance gets over 5000 submissions every year but even the film savvy among the general public rarely hear of more than a dozen. The festival programmers and then the awards juries act as gatekeepers even though they’re not distributors. I wonder if something similar could be instituted in the world of books?

    • I suppose some of the difference is in the audience’s ability to discriminate. I’ve listened to CDs passed out for free on the city corner and been pretty impressed, both with the musician’s talent and the technical production values. I can’t say the same for a lot of the SP books I’ve looked at.

      The festival circuit idea for books is interesting… though one of the big reasons people SP is because they’re impatient — I don’t think most of the worst offenders would bother with a year-long circuit to build an audience. But maybe if it really DID build an audience, they would…?

  2. Parker Peevyhouse

    Joni, I think you are trying to form that YA Mafia everyone is talking about!

    No, I actually think you have an interesting idea, but I don’t think it would work. People who self-publish have likely already been told “no” by a publisher or agent (or lots of them), which is WHY they’re going to self-publish. They’re not going to listen to yet another gatekeeper.

    It would be cool to have a self-published book award. Do they already have that? They should have one just for MG/YA. But honestly, I pity the judges who have to slog through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff–self-published dreck is a lot worse than regularly published dreck.

    • Yeah, I guess you’re right. Those who would actually listen to peer opinions are probably less in danger of publishing dreck anyway.

      And yeah, there are SP book awards, mostly, I think, the IPPY and the Writer’s Digest awards, though I think the only category is “kids’ book” in general.

  3. Winter Hansen

    I think peer review is the best way for writers to be gate keepers if self-publishing is the goal. Your collective idea is a good one, especially if it were set up as a barter service; being a member means the opportunity to submit material as well as duty to review. It would be best if one submitted & reviewed anonymously, and if you recognized the manuscript from previous exposure, there should be an obligation to recuse oneself. Of course there are lots of possibilities and no reason why it shouldn’t work if proper guidelines are established. It’s an exciting era in publishing, and about time writer’s took a little more control of their collective destiny.

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