Not every editor is the right editor

I’ve just been reading an article called “The Trouble of Rational Thought” by Miranda Popkey in The Paris Review about a writer I’d never heard of until today – Helen DeWitt. The subtitle of the article – “How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers” – caught my attention immediately, and by the time I’d finished reading the article, I’d ordered the book. (Which shows how someone writing a review or an article about your book can help sales.)

Quite aside from how intriguing the book itself sounds, the story of how it came to be published gave it an irresistible mystique. (“News of it traveled by word of mouth—and if that word reached you, it said something about the kind of reader you were: attracted to the recondite, undaunted by formal difficulty, unconventional in your tastes,” Popkey says.) Due in part to the challenges built into the structure and content of the novel, DeWitt had serious problems back in the mid-nineties trying to find an editor who was interested in what she was actually trying to do with her novel – who was willing to allow the writer to write her story, as opposed to the story the editor thought she should be writing.

It is clear that DeWitt’s novel was both unusual and ahead of its time – we’d be less surprised today to find different fonts and different languages in a published novel ostensibly in English than we might have been fifteen years ago. However, her story serves as yet another reminder that despite how important it is to have an editor (two, in fact – one for substantive editing and one for copy-editing) for your book, you also cannot just settle for any editor. The one you work with must appreciate that the book she is editing is your book, and not hers.

“My view was that the book benefits from the undivided attention of its author. And this turned out to be a scandalous… I mean it wasn’t even scandalous: it was so outrageous a point of view that it didn’t even cross anyone’s mind that one might think that: obviously what you needed was guidance.” – Helen DeWitt

As writers, we can always benefit from the knowledge and guidance of good editors. The authors of (almost?) every brilliant book I’ve ever read have acknowledged the contribution their editors have made to getting the manuscript into its final format. However, we also need to be aware that just as there are times when we need to listen, there are also times when we need to push back – even just a little, by saying “that’s not what I am trying to say,” or “That’s not how I want to say it.” And if we can’t get the editor to hear us, maybe we need to find another editor.

The story in The Paris Review led me to watch an interview with DeWitt herself, which is one of The Paris Review‘s “My First Time” series. In it, she recounts her problems with editors of The Last Samurai. Check it out:


Subsequent poking around the Internet has led me to discover that DeWitt’s problems with the publishing industry were not restricted to the experience of getting her first novel published. Her second novel, Lightning Rods, took ten years from completion to the bookshelf, and that experience also nearly drove her crazy.

I don’t know why I find DeWitt’s story reassuring, but I do.

Greedy Businesses Target Self-Published Authors

Sleazy salesman pointing

It is not difficult or expensive to publish on your own, but a lot of would-be self-publishers dont know that. As a result, whole nests of snake-oil salesmen have hatched to separate unwitting writers from their money. Most of these writers will never make back the money that is being bilked from them, and even those who do are often wasting their hard-earned cash.

As I prepared my presentation on self-publishing for The Writers’ Union of Canada’s cross-Canada professional development workshop, Publishing 2.0: Tips and Traps, I became aware that taking advantage of the naïveté of first-time self-publishing authors (or “indie publishers,” as we are also known) has become a growth industry.

Quite a few of the businesses involved in this field of endeavour used to be legitimate, contributing members of the traditional publishing establishment: printers, literary agents, book publicists and the like. With their incomes from traditional sources now eroded by the same technology that permits anyone and everyone to publish anything and everything, quite a few of these formerly upstanding companies have turned their attention to “helping” unsuspecting authors to get their books published… for a fee.

Many writers who set out to publish their manuscripts independently or to get their out-of-print books back on the market have no idea that it costs almost nothing to make their novels or non-fiction works available for sale as e-books, and that for about $500, they can get a respectable-looking paperback up for sale online. It is upon these unsuspecting souls that the newest incarnations of the film-flam artist have set their sights, offering self-publishing packages that can cost thousands of dollars. and promising little in return that isn’t available for free or at very little cost elsewhere.

These authors are being convinced by ads and on-line pitches that self-publishing is a technically challenging undertaking, requiring expertise. Paying for technological expertise is not, in fact, necessary because self-publishing sites such as Smashwords are extremely user-friendly. Nonetheless, from the beginning to the end of the publishing process, these highway robbers lie in wait — urging offset-printing services, for example, upon writers who ought to be printing on demand instead. (Offset- printed books are ones that are printed in large numbers on huge printing machines machines that are now increasingly sitting idle all over the country in the wake of the move online of so many magazines, books, catalogues and brochures. Print-on-demand (POD) books are printed on much smaller machines, one at a time, when the book is ordered. Single copies of books can be printed immediately, so no extra trees are wasted, and authors have no obligation to buy a certain number of books as part of the self-publishing option — or to warehouse those books in their basements. Today, the difference in quality between offset-printed and POD books is negligible.)

Other self-publishing authors are hoodwinked into paying companies to “promote” their books on social media ­ a strategy that is nearly ineffective unless it is part of an overall marketing plan. And the costs for overall marketing plans themselves  (also available from a host of sources) can be outrageous and unnecessary. (I have just been looking at one company that lists one of its services as “Amazon Optimization” through the creation of “keywords.” If you’ve written the book, you can pick seven words to help readers discover it, as you will be prompted to do by Amazon itself when you post your book there. That is all that “keywords” are. Snake-oil salesmen love to throw technical terms around, but most of them are easy to translate into plain language.)

Still other companies offer book distribution packages that are actually available to everyone at very little cost when they publish books online with Smashwords, Kindle, or other self-publishing outlets. (You can get expanded distribution from Amazon, for example, that includes bookstores, libraries, etc. Your royalties per book are smaller than with direct sales to purchasers, but there’s no need to pay up front.)

We are also seeing increasing numbers of expensive, needless gimmicks such as seals of approval to indicate production quality in published e-books (this one charges $125 per title. How many readers do YOU know who are choosing to buy books because they have a formatting seal of approval?), and costly competitions for awards that very few can win (and who knows whether the winners gain any sales traction from their prizes?).

Who Is Doing This?


While there are some great resources out there — people with editing and publishing backgrounds who are charging reasonable hourly fees for their services — too many book-publishing coaches and self-publishing managers and others who go by similar titles are no more than fly-by-night operators with no significant credentials. They offer to help you get your book edited and up on Amazon for several hundreds or thousand dollars when you can do it very easily for free or at very little cost.

Printing Companies

Dozens of printing companies that were established to print books for real publishers have huge off-set machines now sitting idle. They need you to help them pay the overhead, so they have re-branded themselves as publishers.  In truth, the only traditional publishers they resemble were formerly known as vanity presses. These companies are selling packages of print-only copies of your book (usually no e-books are offered) for $800 or $900 or several thousands of dollars. They do not know much about promotion and the fine print on their websites state that after you’ve paid the big bucks to buy several boxes of offset-printed copies of your book, they will help you build a website (wow!) and put you in touch with a marketing company to help you promote your book (where you will pay additional fees, of course).  One printing company whose site I visited said they would even put you in their catalogue. Now tell me, when was the last time you bought a book because it was listed in a printers catalogue?

If you are selling to a specific, known market (such as the residents of a small town whose history youre writing) you may decide to go with offset printing because the per-item production cost will be lower. But if you are not certain that you are going to sell the books you are required to purchase when you work with a printing company, using offset is a false economy. These printers who are now calling themselves publishers also say they offer editing: I would advise you to ask who the editors are, and to request their references and credentials.

Respectable Book Reviewers

Reviewing outlets such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews have established branch services that are charging unwitting self-published authors upwards of $500 for a single review (Im surprised that The New York Times and The Globe and Mail havent jumped onto this bandwagon yet). The idea is that if you get a good review of your self-published book, you can use it to convince booksellers to stock your book. (If you get a poor one, you eat the money you have spent.) The trick is that most booksellers won’t stock your book anyway, because self-published books are nonreturnable.

You can also pay to have your book review included in a variety of in-house publications where publishers, agents etc. can contact you if they are interested. Humpff.

Keep in mind that your average reader doesn’t know the difference between a Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Review and one your aunt Elsie wrote and posted on Amazon. A $500 review is largely a waste of money.

Book publicists

I believe that book publicity will, along with editing, become an area of specialization that self-publishers need in future. But for now, there are a lot of people out there who say they are book publicists who have no actual experience in the field, or access to the media outlets that might promote your book, and they are overcharging for the services they do provide. Keep in mind that it is almost impossible to get noticed if you have written a novel anyway, even if you’re traditionally published; non-fiction writers usually have a better hook for interviews. And even if the book promoter is well known to the media, there is no guarantee that he or she will make any special effort to get your book noticed, no matter what you pay. Remember that if a book publicist has not read your book and fallen in love with it, that person cannot help you.

A few book-promotion companies will tell you that, for a price, they can help you become an Amazon bestseller or even get you onto the New York Times bestseller list. To do this, they use a complex system that involves a whole lot of purchasers, funded by you, all buying your book all across the country all on the same day or in the same week, which drives your numbers up in the right places. But this kind of access to best-seller lists is not sustainable and authors often end up paying more to get on the lists than they earn back in royalties.

You do need a great promotion plan – one size does not fit all — and here a creative and honest book publicist can help a lot. Remember that at this point in time, getting self-published books into bookstores, or onto radio or television, or reviewed in major newspapers or magazines, is nearly impossible… because of the attitudes of the gatekeepers of those organizations. At the same time, social media is an almost useless promotional device. Any book promotion company that wants your money for these kinds of initiatives had better offer you some proof that they can do the impossible.

Literary agents

Well, you know how I feel about most literary agents. The ones I dissed five years ago are largely out of business now or have found new ways to earn their keep from unsuspecting authors. Check their websites for further info.


Even some publishers have turned to mining self-publishing authors for a few quick dollars. Some will take your money and publish your book with a slightly different imprint than their other publications (so those on the “inside” of the industry still know you are self-published, and will still lock you out, unread).

Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, had harsh words for enterprises of this nature. Writing in the Huffington Post in January, 2014, he said:

The vanity approach to self-publishing, as witnessed by Pearson/Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions (operates AuthorHouse, iUniverse, BookTango, Trafford, Xlibris, Palibrio, others…), has shown itself to harm the brands of all traditional publishers. I predicted this last year. The Author Solutions business model is wholly dependent upon making money by selling overpriced services to unwitting authors. Their business model is expensive at best, and unethical at worst. It’s about selling $10,000+ publishing packages to authors who will never earn the money back. The model represents the antithesis of what the best and proudest publishers have always represented. Great publishers invest in their authors. The money flows from reader to retailer to publisher to author, not from author to publisher.

Dont Be a Cash Cow (for anyone but yourself)

The best books are not published for nothing, of course, but most of the work can be done at very little cost. The best places to invest your money are directly with a book editor, a book designer, and a book publicist, each of whom loves your book.

In each of these areas, make sure you are getting your money’s worth. You need someone who knows the business and can provide solid references. You need to check those references. You do not want to be one of a hundred books and authors in a money-making assembly line.

The writing and self-publishing community is unbelievably generous with its knowledge and its skills. Almost everything you need to know about self-publishing is available online for nothing. All you have to do is ask the right questions in the Google box. At the very minimum, check out the publication costs on Smashwords, Amazon, Kindle and Kobo before you hire a consultant. In other words, before you pay good money to anyone to get your book up for sale, find out what the work they are going to do for you is going to cost them. Don’t let yourself be bamboozled.

It has already cost you a lot to write your book  – particularly if you consider the time you spent when you could have been doing other things, like climbing the corporate ladder. Invest what you must to get the best possible book to readers. But don’t waste money until after you attain bestseller status. Then, you will be able to afford it.

Fiction in 2013: The Ugly Truth (and a call for patience)


So I was going to write a post about the sorry state of fiction publishing during this transition period, as we watch the established presses, gatekeeper agents, chain booksellers and respectable book review outlets grind through the death throes of their former heyday — those days soon gone forever when they got to decide what books we should read.

I was going to detail a few of the horrors that one former “mid-list writer” (me) witnessed as she set off on her lonely road to self-publication, and witnesses still as she trudges down the even more harrowing and thorny trail of self-published-book promotion. Several of the appalling sights I’ve seen have contributed to a precipitous decline in my faith in my fellow human beings, such as:

  • New lows for the publishing industry. Traditional publishers have “evolved” from basing their guesses about what books they should publish next year on last year’s bestseller lists, to basing them on the lists of top-selling self-published novels — whose authors they then race to sign. How ironic is that?
  • Sticking fingers in the dam as the ship goes down. Almost all traditional book review outlets, booksellers, awards competitions and funding agencies continue to refuse to review, sell or reward self-published books on principle, no matter what the track record of the author or the quality of the self-published book (why? Because they might have to THINK if they were to become more open? How much easier it must be to simply proceed as they always have done, by accepting only those books published by traditional presses?). This makes book promotion for former mid-list writers very difficult, but it also means that readers who are wise enough not to participate in on-line review forums never hear about self-published books with any literary merit;
  • The Crap. Oh, the Crap. I draw your attention here to the hundreds of thousands of works of so-called fiction that have been released into the marketplace in the past few years by self-published writers who are incompetent, inexperienced, badly edited, and/or merely ignorant or boring, many of whom grow apoplectic and even threatening if anyone suggests that they don’t know how to punctuate, much less how to write (This enormous garbage heap is offered as justification by publishers, booksellers, review outlets, awards organizers and granting agencies for continuing to proceed as they do, and I do not argue that it is a major issue. However, a bit of diligence on the part of these institutions could sort the wheat from the chaff – sorting is not THAT difficult – but who has time to be diligent when your house is crumbling around you?) ;
  • False Positive Reviews. Then we have the proliferation of ridiculously positive, 5-star reviews of the aforementioned Crap now posted to, Goodreads, book-review blogs, and other book-related sites. Most of these patently fluffy reviews have been written by the authors’ well-meaning but inexperienced, uninformed and not widely read friends and relatives. One book-review blogger favourably compared an utterly talentless writer to one with the world-class stature of, let us say, a Jane Austen – a comparison that was then, of course, gleefully quoted by the writer in subsequent promotion. Now, if you were an unaware book buyer and a fan of Jane Austen, would you know to proceed with caution? I don’t think so. (Yep. It’s a zoo out there. Be careful where you step);
  • Books that sell on reputation and gossip rather than content. These are the Honey Boo-Boos of the current literary world. Take, for example, the Fifty Shades series, which has sold an astounding, gut-wrenching, nauseating 68 million copies so far. (Lest anyone accuse me of sour grapes, I have no qualms admitting that I am fifty shades of green over E.L. James’s book sales, but I would never, ever want to be associated with such bad writing, even in exchange for a lot of money. Thank you anyway, Mephistopheles.) As far as I can tell, this phenomenon MUST be due to the lack of literary reviews of the book, for why would anyone spend good money on a totally unerotic, misogynistic, implausible piece of shit? The only possible explanation is that  is that 67.32 million of those 68 million purchasers bought the book by mistake. I’m telling anyone who hasn’t yet made the error: I bought the first book in the series. I read as much as I could stand. I threw it in the garbage. Don’t waste your money. Read Anaïs Nin or someone else who can actually write erotic fiction instead);
  • Review Police: Then we have the packs of on-line sleuths, most of whom hide behind pseudonyms, who apparently have an intense dislike of writers in general and suspect us all of being guilty of the most nefarious crimes, particularly ones pertaining to reviews. (I have personally been the victim of their sordid and senseless attacks when I stupidly ventured onto their forums to point out the errors in their thinking. Like two-year olds, their arguments are not constrained in any way by the need to use logic, and they will therefore win all arguments). Among other things, such individuals believe to the very cores of their Neanderthalean little hearts that if you have received a free copy of a book rather than purchased it, you are incapable of writing an objective review of it. This opinion of course invalidates every review that has ever been published in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail , the London Review of Books, or any other respected review publication: since the beginning of (literate) time, reviewers have not paid for books they have reviewed; they have received the free review copies that have been sent to the publications by the publishers. The “review police” seem to have very little to do with their lives aside from hunting down authors they can report to the Amazon gods for having engineered positive reviews for their own books – or, better yet, of having written such reviews themselves, using false names. Such witch hunts commonly occur on the Amazon Top Reviewers Forum (which is not exclusively about books, but also talks about reviews of toilet plungers and whatnot; here is, however, a charming recent thread that reveals the biases of many of the habitues of the forum) and The Kindle Forum;
  • Overkill Response by Amazon: Last fall, Amazon responded to accusations by these sleuths by deleting thousands of reviews by writers, inflammatory or not. Here are the details, as set out in the New York Times and The Telegraph;
  • Last but not least, it doesn’t help that at least one traditionally published author has admitted to actually doing what we are all being accused of doing: not only has R.J. Ellory written reviews of his own books and posted them under pseudonyms, he has also used fake personae to slag his fellow authors.

So, yeah. It’s a pretty disgusting time to be a fiction fan – as I am, both as a writer and a reader. I remember a bookseller once telling me (about 30 years ago) that she didn’t bother to take ID from book purchasers when they wrote cheques because they were all so honest. The nature of the beast seems to have changed, and I am very sorry to be seeing it.

What I was going to do was to just advise everyone to stay away from fiction–even mine!–until this all shakes down. If you can’t trust what is being published to be good, and you can’t trust the reviews to be honest, much less representative, then what’s the point?

But then I reminded myself that this IS just a transition stage. I reminded myself how far we’ve come in the past four years. I remembered how I’ve noticed that several of the newly published writers I didn’t feel were very good seem to have given up on their dreams to become millionaires from writing the next knock-off Twilight, and stopped plugging their books everywhere. It seems likely that many others who are not “real writers” will follow because this is (as it always has been) a hell of a lot of thankless work.

I thought about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and reminded myself that I’ve been at this fiction-writing stuff – working at improving my writing – for more than thirty years now. I reminded myself that I finished my (first) half marathon back in the 1990s , and lost 30 lbs last autumn, by keeping on and keeping on–no matter what. Giving up on writing, even for a few months or years, is not an option anyway: I love to write. A writer is who I am.

I told myself that within another few years, there will be a new and much better system, in which the readers will find the good books for themselves from among all the self- and traditionally published books that are released, and then will tell the rest of us about them on book blogs that we will come to trust to point us in the best direction for our own personal reading interests. Within a few years, really good editors will offer to put their imprints on self-published books they’ve edited and liked. There will be awards programs that are open to both kinds of fiction publications. Writers who have established presses and agents will stop dumping and ignoring on principle those of us who are not dragging around similar litters of dependents. (See, for example, this.) We will have book review outlets we can trust to cover ALL good fiction writing, no matter where it comes from, and booksellers who will recognize their new roles as community gathering places for book lovers rather than as gatekeepers.

It will take a few more years for the evolution to shake down properly, but it will happen. And I am optimistic, despite my dismay and discouragement right now, that the world is going to be a better, more open and less expensive place for writers and for readers. And that we will once again be seen as a group as honourable people who are kind and supportive of one another.

So I decided not to write that depressing, bleak, discouraging blog post I had been thinking about after all.

The New Publishing Rules: Panel Discussion, Anguilla Lit Fest

“Writing Is Just The Beginning: The New Publishing Rules”

 Anguilla Lit Fest Panel Discussion, Friday, May 25, 2012

Moderator: Stephanie Stokes Oliver (Author/ Editor; USA/Anguilla) Panelists: Malaika Adero (Vice President, Senior Editor, Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, USA), Marva Allen (Hue-Man Bookstore/USA), Marie-Elena John, Author (Antigua/USA), Lasana Sekou (Author, Founder of House of Nehesi Publishers, St. Martin), Mary W. Walters (Writer/Editor, Toronto, Canada)

Left to right on panel: Stephanie Stokes Oliver, Lasana Sekou, Malaika Adero, Marva Allen, Mary W. Walters, Marie-Elena John. (Photo: Gerry Riskin)

How do you get three publishers, six writers, five editors, and a bookseller onto a panel when there are only six chairs on the platform?

Well, welcome to the world of writing and publishing ­– as it always has been, and as it always will be. For centuries, many, many writers have turned their attentions away from what they were creating and contributed at least some of their time to the editing, printing, promotion, marketing, and distribution of books – theirs and others: sometimes because they needed work (although the pay has never been that great), sometimes to get themselves and their friends into print (a lot of fine publishing houses were started this way), but mostly because they cared about books and wanted to make sure that the best found their intended audiences.

Stephanie Stokes Oliver, Moderator

Over the past hundred years or so, as the publishing process became more refined and some people began to suffer from the illusion that there could be money in the books business, some publishing houses became larger and larger, and the bigger those companies became, the fewer the number of writers who were involved, especially at the top. This made good business sense. We all know that serious writers are lousy at business. Many would rather read a “good” book than one that sells a million copies overnight. (Do not start in on me again, I am not dissing all the vampire novels or all the romance novels or even all the vampire romance novels: just the poorly written ones. No matter what the genre, there is no excuse for bad writing, and even less excuse for reading bad writing.)

However, as I have maintained all along (even in my very first Militant Writer post, “The Talent Killers,” which really was intended to be partly tongue- in-cheek), those who love great writing have always continued to infiltrate the publishing business. These literature aficionados are especially visible in the smaller presses, but we still find them occasionally at the larger ones as well, particularly in the role of editor.

Finding A Platform

One of the most difficult aspects of the impact of the new technology on the books business, in which the publishing model as we have come to know it is dissolving before our eyes, is how writers and other people who love great writing can continue to talk to one another. There is a tremendous temptation among those of us who have begun to self-publish to be defensive and self-righteous, and a similar impulse among those of us who have not.

There are, however, a number of issues on which we can agree:

1)    the manuscripts of self-published authors have not been vetted and preselected by independent, experienced editors before they become books: there is no quality control. As a result, a majority of the books that are self-published are junk;

2)    most self-published authors cannot afford to (or choose not to) invest in top-notch substantive and copy editors or book designers and layout artists. Therefore the majority of self-published books are not only junk, they are badly edited and poorly laid-out junk with crappy covers;

3)    for many, many years the established publishing system has – despite its inherent flaws – offered the only truly workable system for weeding out the good writing from the crap and getting it to readers;

4)    in recent years the traditional publishing system, because it is profit-based, has become unworkable not only commercially but from a literary perspective as well;

5)    some truly outstanding writers, with strong track records in the established publishing business, are discovering that self-publishing offers them an opportunity to control their destinies for very little cost, and to increase their profits;

6)    the new possibilities offered by technology have created not only self-published authors but also e-books, which have been adopted by readers en masse, and which are taking down independent booksellers one at a heartbreaking time.

So where does that leave a panel of intelligent, dedicated committed writers, readers, publishers, and one of the most well respected independent booksellers in the USA? Well, it is a testimony to the perspective and vision of the participants of the panel discussion that was held at Anguilla’s first LitFest on the morning of May 25, and its moderator, Stephanie Stokes Oliver, that we were able to engage in a lively discussion and find our common ground rather than increasing the size of the fissures that currently threaten to separate us.


Lasana Sekou of House of Nehesi, panelist

The three publishers on the panel were Lasana Sekou, founder of the House of Nehesi,  Malaika Adero, vice president and senior editor at Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, and Marva Allen, a director of the new independent publishing house Akashic Books. In answer to the opening question, they explained the traditional publishing model: how a manuscript is selected for publication, edited, designed, laid out, released and then promoted. They described the challenges  – historical and new – that face publishers: not only the big-picture issues (most notably economic ones) but the day-to-day frustrations.

From them we heard that: senior editors at major houses have to deal with marketing divisions that veto excellent manuscripts because they will not sell; publishers face such avalanches of unsolicited manuscripts that they are unable to even look at unagented material; publishing houses must sometimes turn away promising writers because they are so pig-headed and misguidedly arrogant that they will not allow their work to be edited; the new technologies mean that already overburdened senior editors need to get all of their authors’ books into e-book format – and not only the new releases, but the backlists, too. We learned that they are saddened when good books must be turned away, that they feel a responsibility to ensure that fine stories continue to be told, and that they respect and want to sustain the voices that tell the stories they admire, and the ones that move them.


After the panel: Malaika Adero (r) and me

The editors on the panel were (in addition to Lasana, Malaika and Marva, who were also all editors as well as publishers), Stephanie Stokes Oliver, editor of Unity Books and former editor of Essence magazine) and me, freelance Book Charmer and manuscript editor.

All of us (and all of us as writers as well as editors) agreed that even the best-written manuscripts need strong editors. Writers need substantive editors who will tell them where their manuscripts are working and where they are not, what characters need to be developed more and which ones less, what isn’t clear to readers and what needs to be omitted.

These editors need to be people who can help the writer say what the writer wants to say in the way the writer wants to say it: and who are willing to listen to what the writer says in response to editorial suggestions. The editor lets the writer do all of the necessary edits and revisions. A good editor never does the rewrite.

We all also agreed that books need to be well copy-edited before they are published (and winced at what we’ve seen out there in some self-published books, but also in some books from well established presses.)

I expressed the opinion that I have stated before on The Militant Writer, that the era is coming when some editors’ private imprints will have cachet – independent of publishing houses (as translators have done in the past). If you are self-publishing and have attracted a certain well-respected editor to work with you on your book, you will put his or her name on the cover as your editor, and that will alert readers to its quality. Top editors will be able to hang out their own shingles and make some real money for a change. And they’ll be able to pick and choose the manuscripts they work on. (Some will say they cannot afford to hire editors. If you put aside $5/week for the two years or more when you would be waiting for a publisher to make a decision  on your manuscript, put it in the publishing queue, edit it, typeset it, print it, and release it, you will have no trouble saving up enough money to pay an editor – and a book designer.)


Marva Allen, panelist (l), and me – after the panel

To my mind, booksellers, particularly independents, are the innocent victims in the transition to new publishing models. This has less to do with the proliferation of self-publishers than with the growing popularity of e-books. Marva Allen, whose Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem has an international reputation, is recognized for her contributions not only to fine writing in general and the writing of African-Americans in particular (“A SKU for every hue”) but to the building of the reputations of a number of important individual writers.

She told us that the economic reality of bookselling has reached the point where she is not sure if she will renew her lease.


Marie-Elena John, Panelist

All of us who were on the panel are writers. A couple of us – Marie-Elena John most notably (whose novel, Unburnable, I am eagerly looking forward to reading), but also including Lasana Sekou, Stephanie Stokes Oliver and I – are writers first and foremost, in our self-perception and our lives.  Malaika Adero and Marva Allen are writers too, and all of us on the panel shared concerns as writers and lovers of good writing about the traditional publishing industry – its slowness to respond, its inability to change (Malaika compared it to an ocean liner trying to steer its way into a tributary), its poor track record in promoting and distributing the books it does publish, and its increasing tendency to overlook quality fiction in favour of what a friend of mine calls “mental junk food.” (The name of Paris Hilton, “author,” came up in this context several times.)

Publishers used to argue that it was the books by non-writer celebrities that allowed them the financial stability to publish less economically viable literary works. No more: there is no financial stability in the business anywhere. As writers we understand this, and as readers and writers we’re in despair over what we’ve lost – even as new doors open for us.

The New Gatekeepers
As I have also said before, the readers are the new arbiters of what will sell and what will not. In recent months, we have seen a significant example in Fifty Shades of Grey – a book that not only found a kazillion readers for its author, but opened up a whole new genre of writing. Within weeks, imitators were putting out their erotic novels by the hundreds. And it wasn’t only other self-published writers who were proving that when you are trying to make a buck, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: it was the established publishers as well. (Most of the rest of us just stood around turning Fifty Shades of Green.)

To my mind, the ability of a writer to reach directly out to readers – eliminating the middle people – and the ability of readers to respond – by throwing rotten eggs at us or by welcoming what we’ve written and spreading the word to other readers – are some of the most exciting aspects of this evolving, truly democratic world of publishing. But the evolution also has produced so much garbage that it is hard to find the glints of precious metal that are surely in it somewhere.

To find the best books, we are going to continue to need great book reviewers who establish reputations for themselves – often in specific genres. Their stamps of approval will mean as much in future as does a review in the New York Times today. Unfortunately, given what’s happening to newspapers and magazines (which pay almost nothing to reviewers anyway), most of these future king- and queen-makers will consist of unpaid bloggers. (Oh, and Oprah: whose book club, I have heard, is back.)

The publishing panel discussion at the Anguilla LitFest was invigorating, with the love of literature and great writing forming a common bond among panelists and audience members. In addition to our conviction of the importance of continuing to write, find and promote good writing, we were also all in agreement that electronic books and self-publishing are here to stay. We are going to have to learn to live with them – and with one another – in this rapidly changing world.


(Note: Thanks to Gerry Riskin for most of the photos on this page.)

A potentially costly typo. Seeking guidance.

(Update: Decision made. See end of post)

A careful reader has caught a typo in The Whole Clove Diet (print version), in Chapter 15. It’s important because it’s a date (the new year is 1999 but I made a mistake and said 1998) but the mistake isn’t part of the title: it’s buried in a paragraph.

The title of Chapter One shows that the novel starts in Sept. 1998. Later in the book, I flash forward to Dec. 31, 1999 for one chapter, but the book actually ends in Oct 1999.

There may be some other typos in the book — not many I hope, as it has been through several editors and proofreaders — but this one is unusual. It’s important to me that no one get confused about the flash-forward year. But maybe no one cares, or will ever notice.

I hate mistakes. If I don’t change it, it’s going to bug me forever. I’ll be grabbing books out of people’s hands and correcting the mistake with a pen before they come across it on their own.

Do I spend $50 now and fix it — I haven’t actually started promotion on TWCD yet, and only a few copies are in print — or leave it? What would you do? (I guess I’d have to sell about 20 copies of the book to cover this cost. Then there’s all the rest of the money I’ve put into it. Which is both an argument against spending another $50 and an argument for spending it.)

(And before anyone else says it: Yes, I know this is a first-world problem. But it’s my first-world problem, and it matters to me. Among many other reasons, I want to show that self-published books CAN be really well edited.)

(P.S. And isn’t it great that with Print on Demand, you CAN edit after the book has been released? I think so.)

Update: Thank you all for your feedback. I am going to invest the $50 and make that change, plus a couple of other minor changes that have also been identified by my FINAL proof reader. :) You were all correct: I could not have lived with that particular error.

Coming soon to this space: A review of a straight-to-DVD film from Pinder & Martin in the UK, called The Agent, which will agonize any literary writer who either has or has longed to have a top-quality literary agent.

The Author as Publisher

(Second in a series of articles about the new realities for writers and readers.)

It seems inevitable to me now that unless they take up the sideline manufacture of weaponry or bath salts to subsidize themselves, the major publishing houses are going down. There will certainly be a role for niche publishers in future (literary presses that focus on poetry or esoteric fiction among them, teetering on the brink of expiration as they always have, and non-fiction houses that specialize in such limited areas as the flora and fauna of Paraguay or the battles of World War II), but for the majority of mainstream fiction and non-fiction book writers, independent publishing will soon become the norm.

In this post, I examine the “services” publishers have traditionally provided to writers and their books (and therefore to readers, I suppose), and then I look at how I believe these same functions can be managed—often in a more effective manner—by the authors themselves when they publish their own books. The post examines five specific areas:

  • manuscript selection
  • editing
  • production
  • promotion/sales
  • distribution

There are other areas that publishers have traditionally managed for writers, often with the help of agents. Most of them relate to subsidiary rights—e.g., translation rights,  dramatic rights, merchandizing rights, and so on. Publishers have traditionally taken a chunk of the money that accrues when a book has been translated or made into a movie. They have argued (with good reason) that after a manuscript has been accepted by a publisher and turned into an attractive book, it becomes more appealing to rights purchasers. Publishers have at times facilitated the process by presenting their books to prospective foreign publishers at the London and Frankfurt book fairs, for example, but for the most part they have simply secured some portion of the subsidiary rights without actually doing much to encourage an income flow for either themselves or the author from such sources.

So, on to the “services” they have offered and fulfilled.

 Manuscript Selection

Looking Back

Most readers and many publishers have always believed that publishers performed an invaluable role in the book-production process by making the initial selection from the thousands of manuscripts that were submitted to them every year of the books that would reach the marketplace. These selections were made, at least ideally, and perhaps twenty years and more ago, on the basis of writing quality, uniqueness of voice, and a variety of other subjective criteria that only highly trained, well read, passionate, experienced and discerning editors could make.

However, publishing companies have realized increasingly in the past decade that they are businesses. Senior bean counters have required the editorial departments to make decisions about which books to publish on the basis of how many copies of those books are likely to sell. Sales departments have increasingly had veto power over book selection . . .  and the sales department of a publishing house is itself directed in large measure by the buyers for the major booksellers, who are the ones who ultimately choose which books are going to end up on the shelves.

To attempt to ensure sales, publishers release books that are just like the books that sold like hotcakes last year—hence the proliferation in recent years of vampire books and in future years, I am guessing, of detective stories starring androgynous computer geeks with photographic memories. They also want books that are written by people whose last books sold like hotcakes. When publishers do pick up a new writer, they want her or him to be sexy, well-spoken and distinctive. Sometimes they will even go and get her, if she is famous enough: watch for the book by Lady Gaga which is sure to be out soon.

The days when literate editors fell in love with new literary voices and argued successfully to publish their books is long gone. If there is no research evidence (i.e., last year’s sales figures) to justify the company’s taking on a book, it isn’t going to happen.

In the initial post on this blog (“How Literary Agents Are Destroying Literature…”), and in others since, I have described at length how the book selection process is skewed away from quality literature and toward shlock. For additional and truly eye-opening discussion of how books are selected for publication, I also direct all readers, and particularly mid-list writers, to an article by Stephen Henighan that appeared in Geist –“The BookNet Dictatorship” — which discusses how book-sales data affect the selection of book manuscripts for publication (the article is about the Canadian industry, but the same system applies where you live).

Looking Ahead

In the brave new world of publishing, the worthwhile books (and the standard for what is “worthwhile” has infinite variation) are selected after they are published. The sorting is done by the readers and reviewers. They are the ones who decide which books will be popular and critical successes. No more gatekeepers who are “more knowledgeable” than readers about which books will sell, or even be of interest. If a book has an audience of three, now it will find that audience: and a few other people might pick it up as well.

This democratization of the manuscript-selection process is in itself cause for huge celebration and excitement among both writers and readers, although the haughty “I know literature better than you do” types see it as the greatest drawback to the proliferation of self-publishing. The great books will still be there, folks, and—thanks to on-line resources that you will come to rely upon the way you do now on the New York Times Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement—you will still be able to find them.


Looking Back

Traditionally, once a manuscript was accepted for publication by an established press, it would be assigned to either an in-house or a freelance editor who would work with the writer to improve the manuscript substantively. This “substantive” or “content” editor would suggest areas where more information was needed, sections that could be cut, even whole new passages that needed to be written. The writer would then do the revisions (or—at least, ideally—the ones he or she agreed with).

After the major revisions were complete to the satisfaction of the writer and the publisher, the whole manuscript would go to another editor for copy-editing. This final editing step would get the manuscript into a clean format ready for the printer, free of spelling and grammatical and punctuation errors, and adhering to the “house style” of the publishing company (often a variation on the guidelines set out in the Chicago Manual of Style, although books in certain disciplines use other style guides).

To my mind, and that of most other writers, the editorial phase was probably the most important step of the book-production process. An editor worth his or her salt, working closely with the writer, often turned an interesting manuscript into a truly spectacular, award-winning novel or non-fiction book. Despite this, in-house and freelance editors didn’t get paid very much and often received no acknowledgement at all.

Looking Ahead

Really good editors are already leaving the publishing houses because their love for turning good into great books is even less valued than it has ever been in the industry. Many of them have started taking on freelance clients (and charging what they are worth).

In future, certain editors will become so well known that having their name appear on the self-published book as editor will be enough to guarantee the book attention from the media and readers. The participation of certain outstanding editors will become a new way of sorting out the quality books from the crap that proliferates in a world where everyone can publish.

Self-published writers who do not invest the time and money in good editing are going to pay the price. Within a few paragraphs, readers like me put aside a poorly edited book: it is simply not worth the effort to read a novel or non-fiction work that is riddled with typos and factual errors, or where the point of view doesn’t work or the flashbacks are too choppy—no matter what the underlying quality. A poorly edited book means the writer doesn’t understand the value of an editor, and I am not impressed with writers who don’t value editors. We can live without publishers, but we cannot live without editors. (See my related post on the rise of the literary editor from May 2009.) In this world, “Look Inside The Book” options on booksellers’ sites become the friend of the wary reader,  and the enemy of the sloppy, unedited writer.

I can hear writers moaning that they will not be able to afford to hire good editors, that their access to publishing companies in the past meant that they had access to good editors at no cost to them, and that this possibility is now lost. Keep in mind that the vast majority of writers never had access to top-quality editors because they never had their books accepted by any of the publishing companies where these editors worked.

If you need a good editor, and your aunt is an English teacher, explore that possibility for copy-editing. Do that at least. If you really care about your book, get quotes from substantive/content editors on line and save up to pay for one, the way you would a car. The publishing collectives that are springing up offer editing services to their writers, and I am sure that editors who love great writing will occasionally take on pro bono work (No. Don’t ask. I don’t mean me. I can’t afford to do that yet.)

Please note IMPORTANT: No credentials are required in order to set up shop as an editor. Most editors’ organizations do not require any track record from their members, so membership in an editors’ association is not in itself a credential. There are people setting themselves up now as editor/publishers who can’t even spell their Twitter posts correctly or deliver them grammatically.

Ask for names from writers you respect. Check references of those you find on-line. Demand credentials. Remember, you are the creator. You are the talent. And now, you are also the employer.


Looking Back

When your manuscript had been edited to perfection, it was submitted to the layout department where the pages were set. A careful in-house editor working in cooperation with the layout department would make sure that all chapters started on the right (usually the right-hand) side of the page, that there were no pages with just one word on them, that there was an appropriate running head across the top of the page, that paragraphs had not accidentally run together, and that all the other details were adhered to that made for a professional-looking book. If you had included figures or tables in your manuscript, they would be laid out and proofread at this stage. Captions would be checked, illustrations inserted where appropriate, double-spaces and fluerons would be added where they should be, and again checked. If there was an index (usually created at the author’s expense), the typeset pages would be printed off to be given to the author, who would then insert the page numbers.

The cover design would be completed and the text for the back cover and any other promotional inside notes would be created, set and proofed. Tables of Contents would be created if necessary, Forewords inserted, Acknowledgements checked and placed.

When all of this and other related bits of work had been completed, the page proofs would be sent to the author for final checking. Then the laid-out version of the novel and the cover would be sent to the printer.

A few weeks later, the printer would send back what was known as a “blue line” (this can be imagined sort of like a negative of a photograph, although it isn’t really a negative), which would show exactly how the pages were going to look when the page was produced and what order the pages would appear in. The in-house editor would give this blue-line a final check, and would also check all the colour separations with the art department for the cover and any illustrations.

The order to print was then issued to the printer. Within a certain defined period of time (which was almost always exceeded by the printer, meaning that books were often late for important events such as book launches), 500 or 2,500 or 3,000 or 10,000 or whatever number of copies of the books had been ordered would be delivered to the publisher for warehousing and distribution.

Looking Ahead

With self-publishing, the writer submits the edited manuscript to a layout artist (paid or a relative, depending ;) ) and/or does the layout himself or herself, and then submits the laid-out version of the book to the publishing company, according to the page specifications that are provided by the company.

The author also arranges for a cover to be designed and prepared in the manner required by the publishing company.

Depending on the knowledge/skill of the layout artist/typesetter and the cover designer, this step makes the difference between a book that “looks” self-published and one that does not.

Most self-publishing houses and publishing partners now deal only in print-on-demand books, rather than running off 2,500 copies using an off-set printing press. This means that when someone orders a copy of your book, one copy of that book is created on the spot, packaged and delivered to them immediately. Since 2,500 copies of your book are not sitting in a warehouse somewhere, waiting for someone to order them, trees are saved and many middle-people are eliminated. Customers don’t need to wait any longer for the bookstore to take their order and then to contact the publisher, who then contacts the warehouse department, which waits until enough books have accumulated for shipping to one address to justify the delivery charges, before the order is fulfilled. (By which time your customer has forgotten that he or she ordered the book, has no money left in his or her account, and refuses to purchase it.)

The one drawback to the print on demand (POD) system today is that the books can look flimsy and the covers don’t always get stuck on straight or properly. But before too long the technology of self-publishing partners like CreateSpace will become increasingly refined so that books that are self-published will be harder and harder to tell apart from those that have been designed and typeset by traditional publishing houses using big printing presses. And, of course, e-books make this step much simpler; far fewer quality-control steps are required in the production of an electronic book than in the production of a “real” book. However, real books are always going to be desired by many readers, so this part of the process should not be ignored by self-publishing authors–at least for literary works that someone might want to hold.


 The primary sales tool upon which most traditional publishing houses rely is the catalogue. As an author, you and your book receive top billing (usually along with five or six other writers/books) in the season in which your book is actually published. For a few months you and your book are featured in the front pages of the publishing company’s catalogue, and then your book falls farther and farther back in the subsequent editions until it forms part of the company’s “backlist.”

I have heard from booksellers that one of the most important ways they have to discover which books in a publisher’s catalogue they might want to stock is the enthusiasm of the sales person when he or she comes around to the bookstore. If the publishing company’s salesperson has read the book and really likes it and can talk about it, the bookseller (we’re talking primarily independent booksellers here) will likely be convinced to stock a book that he or she has not heard about before. Unfortunately, the sales reps from many publishing companies have not read all the books (or at least may not have read your book) and so you just become one of many new voices in one of many catalogues the bookseller receives. Some sales people never even go around to booksellers any more, apparently. So the bookseller gets your publisher’s catalogue in the mail or on–line about the same time that he or she gets an avalanche of catalogues from other publishers, and often that is that.

In addition to the catalogue, most publishers will send out review copies to newspapers and magazines, but unless there is some unique way of getting the attention of the book-review department, your book is likely to languish in a pile of other newly published books that reaches to the ceiling and is soon shunted off to a backroom somewhere. Many traditional outlets will not review ebooks. Or POD books. Even if they are published by traditional publishing houses.

Many writers make very poor interview subjects so there are legions of radio and television hosts who do not want to talk to writers. Apparently we just don’t know how to capitalize on and entertain audio/visual audiences — our preferred medium is print! — and since so many of our number have bored viewers and listeners to death in the past, even if we are ourselves great guests on tv or radio, we will need to overcome established prejudices before we can have our moments in the sun. . . either that, or we will need to do something newsworthy that interviewers can talk about with us, like robbing a grocery store or walking 2000 miles in our bare feet.

Another unfortunate bit of news: publishers and booksellers have found that hosting book-launch parties and readings are not very cost-effective, so this happens far less often than it used to.

Looking Ahead

When it comes to promotion of self-published books, the sky is the limit. I have a bunch of crazy ideas and some more time-tested ones, and I’ll be doing a whole column about that in future.

At the Writers Union meeting I attended this past weekend, there was a panel discussion on promoting one’s own work through blogs and social media, and aside from the fact that everyone agreed that blatant self-promotion was more off-putting than attractive, there were a range of ideas that I’ll be happy to present here at some point before long.

Stay tuned.


 Looking Back

Publishers have always had huge problems with book warehousing and distribution.

If you print 10,000 copies of a book and ship 3,000 of them out to bookstores when the print run comes in, what do you do with the other 7,000 copies? On the other hand, if you only print 3,000 copies and they sell out quickly, what do you do about the fact that it’s going to take a couple of months to get more copies printed? Or what happens if the author’s book wins an award, and you don’t have enough copies available to fill the orders that result (this happens all the time, in fact). Where do you situate your warehouses? Near the editorial and sales offices, or out in a lower-rent district where the shipping department becomes like a whole separate entity. Do you combine forces with other publishers to reduce duplicate costs of distribution? How can you be sure your books are being rushed out to customers if the other publishing companies with which you have combined resources have a run on a particular title?

The craziness of the book business also means that if retailers don’t sell the books they order, they can return them to the publisher. So publishers need somewhere to put returns – unless they plan to simply shred them (which also happens).

Looking Ahead

The age of technology has resolved many distribution problems in ways that benefit writers and readers more than they do publishers and traditional booksellers. With Print on Demand and electronic books, readers can press a button and the book is on its way to them –either in the mail or electronically. No warehouses are necessary.

Of course, booksellers don’t make any profit from e-books, or at least they haven’t figured out how to do so yet, so they don’t like them. And they don’t like Print on Demand books, because they can’t return them after they have ordered them. Booksellers and publishers both look down (with good reason) on the poor quality of many POD titles, and don’t want them in their stores.

The whole area of book distribution is evolving as rapidly as any other area of book publishing, but the bottom line is that the changes are good for writers and readers—the latter can actually impulse-buy our books!—and for that among many other evolutions in our business, we can look at our futures with a new optimism, even knowing that our role as publishers or at least publishing partners is going to mean a lot more work for us.

So there you go. Poof! You’re a publisher.

Agents out, editors in?

Predicting the rise of the literary editor

by Mary W. Walters

In addition to the potential to reach a wider audience, my major reasons for wanting to get to the desks of the major publishers are two-fold.

First, the major publishers employ many of the world’s finest books editors (yes. They do so. Granted those editors are usually busy with a million other unrelated tasks, but they can also edit! I am not talking about the publishers or the business managers. I’m talking about the editors).

The other reason is looking after all the hassle of the business end of things–warehousing, distribution and some of the promotion (a job that is increasingly shared by the writers, which is a relief to me. And I am not talking about writing jacket copy, but about dreaming up and executing unique and interesting sales and marketing approaches.)

Most literary writers know that trying to edit one’s own work is as potentially fatal as is trying to remove what appear to be superfluous organs from one’s own body. If these writers are unable to find publication by the world’s major publishers, they are going to self-publish. They are going to hire editors first, and they are going to hire business managers next, and they are going to take on the marketing of their own books with a passion no agent can equal. They are going to do it all themselves.

And this means that the best editors will leave the publishing houses and become self-employed, finally earning what they are worth (I charge $80 to $100 an hour for writing and substantive edits, and I never made anywhere near that when I was employed) and they’ll be able to focus on editing–which most of them love–and forget all the crap like sorting out contracts with agents.

Editors will set up boutique shops of their own. The best will become well known and highly sought. It will be a brave new world indeed.

Note: Amazon is hastening this process by promoting its own self-publishing arm, CreateSpace. Have you noticed how impossible it is to find out who published a book on an Amazon posting lately? Self-published or Random House? It’s not easy to figure that out. Coincidence? I think not.