Thursday, July 31

The Persistent Stigma of Self-Publishing

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Authors Series


Sometime last year, I was very surprised when, after I’d posted about my then-recent novel, Sutherland’s Rules on Facebook, a well-known pro writer friend chimed in that he’d read and loved it. A few months later, when another author I enormously respect told me how much she’d enjoyed the book, I was stunned.

My shock wasn’t so much that they thought the book was good: after years of writing and critiquing, of editing anthologies of other people’s work, and with a prior successful book (Aegean Dream) under my belt, I knew I could write decently. No, what astonished me was that either of these authors, both of whom are traditionally published, would even consider buying a book by a self-published author1.

Because whatever anyone tells you, self-publishing is still heavily stigmatized. True, things aren’t as bad as they were, but we’re still viewed by many as wannabes and second-class authors who aren’t good enough to interest a “real” publisher.


Then and Now–Roots and Realities


It’s not hard to understand the root causes of this prejudice. Before self-publishing mainstreamed with the advent of POD, we had vanity presses (we still do), a derogatory term for publishing houses that charge desperate authors stiff sums of money to produce and print small runs of books, typically in the 1,000 to 2,000 copy range. There was no screening, no editorial process, no proofreading (though some vanity presses would offer these for a price). Like the early rush of POD books that we began to see in 2009 or so, the vast majority of these books were truly awful, and their authors usually and deservedly ended up with a garage full of unsold books.

Five years later, the overall quality of self-published books has improved enormously. This happy event is largely the result of (i) the very lively and ongoing dialogue between self-publishers made possible by the internet, and (ii) competition in the marketplace. A handful of celebrity self-publishers, along with the growth of interest and coverage the field has received in the mainstream media, have helped.

But the stigma among the media, the reading public, and many of our fellow writers persists, and this legacy of prejudice against self-published work manifests itself in ways both obvious and subtle. Almost all mainstream reviewers (and most book bloggers, who ought to know better, given that they are self-publishing their reviews) still have firm policies against looking at self-pubbed work; many trad-pubbed writers still look down their noses and (openly or behind your back) sneer at their self-published peers; and bookstores—even those who brag about supporting local authors—rarely want anything to do with us. And of course publishers and agents have a strong vested interest in perpetuating the stigma.

I’ve experienced, and I expect you have, all these prejudices at first hand. Hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours spent on researching, crafting individualized covers, and mailing print ARCs (Advance Review Copies) to bloggers and reviewers who completely ignore you; trad-pubbed author friends who listen politely then change the subject when you talk about your newly-released book; and, worst of all, friends—sometimes close friends—who are regular, even passionate, readers and yet somehow never get around to your own novel.

This prejudice against self-published work is undeserved, injurious, and discriminatory, and it’s time to out it and bury it. And we, the self-pubbed community, have to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves, because heaven knows nobody else is going to.

A Map Towards Change


It’s important we acknowledge that although trad pubbed books have the ability to be every bit as dull or bad as many self-pubbed offerings, trad publishing does offer the reader some assurance that the book has some semblance of structure and throughline, a reasonable approximation of good grammar and syntax, and formatting that probably won’t make your eyes bleed.

We also have to recognize that most self-published authors—and that likely includes friends of ours—are just not ready for prime time. Self- publishing, both digital and print, has become so easy, so affordable, and so damn alluring that it’s hard to resist2. Someone who’s been playing the piano for just six months wouldn’t dream of hiring out a theatre and performing before a large audience, yet there seems to be no such restraint when it comes to writing and publishing.

So task number one is to continually raise our game. Good writing aside, self- and indie- pubbed books don’t have to look as good as what the Big Five are releasing, they have to look better. We need to produce books that show an artisanal level of pride in every aspect of production, from editing to formatting to cover design. This needn’t break the bank, but it does require time, study, and thought. If we’re not prepared to do that, we only perpetuate the stigma.

Second, we need think hard and honestly about whether we’re ready as writers to put our work out there before the world, and whether our book itself is really polished and ready for public release. We need reality checks, benchmarks, and validations (see further resources, below).

Third—and this is the toughest one of all—we need to help our peers, watch out for them, and cover their backs. In the same way that we wouldn’t want a friend to drive drunk, we should look out for our more starry-eyed and impetuous friends.

This is hard to do. I’ve more than once been approached by writers who want feedback on something they’re getting to ready to self-publish. Three sentences in, I’m already frowning: what does one do in this situation? In some instances I’ve tried to tactfully let them know their writing isn’t ready, using a gentle, come-to-Jesus approach, and every time they’ve ignored me and published anyway—and in truth, if publishing had been so easy when I was an adolescent writing purple prose in the style of a hormone-crazed Robert E. Howard, I wouldn’t have listened to advice, either.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the best approach in these cases, if asked directly for an opinion, is to answer directly and honestly (with no intent to wound but only to protect) that they, or the work in question, aren’t ready and need to spend more time working on their craft or polishing the material—usually both. It may be helpful to point them to some outside articles (I’ve linked a couple below) on self-evaluating and considering their readiness to publish. More than that, and being a friend if things don’t turn out well, one cannot do.

Finally, we need to put our money where our mouths are and directly support self-publishers, starting with our own circle of friends and acquaintances. I’m serious: few people, including self-published authors, regularly buy self-pubbed books by people they know.

The why of this, given we’re talking buying an ebook that’s probably cheaper than a foofy coffee drink (and how hard do you think before buying one of those?) is unfathomable—what’s the big deal if you spend five bucks and then decide you don’t like the book? So what? We can begin to change things right here by promising to buy a self-pubbed ebook, preferably written by someone we know, at least once a month. And if it’s good, talk it up, and buy a copy for a friend or relative.

If we want to come out of the ghetto, we need to lead by action and example. Raise our game, watch out for each other, support one another, and hold our head high. Because feeling like a victim doesn’t help anyone.

Have you ever felt stigmatized for being a self-published author? How have you dealt with it?

Dario Ciriello is the founder and editor of Panverse Publishing, a small press with a mission to break the rigid barriers of category and genre and put story first. His Panverse Anthology authors have been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards, and the winner of the 2011 Sideways Award for Alternate History. On the novel front, his authors include T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, Doug Sharp, and Don D'Ammassa. His own work includes Sutherland's Rules, and the travel memoir Aegean Dream. Panverse is currently open for submissions.

Website | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound 

Notes

1 Technically, I’m indie- rather than self-published; but since I’m both founder and editor of Panverse, the indie press which publishes my work, along with books by various other authors, people still see me as self-published.

2 Heck, Amazon et al want you to self-publish, regardless: if they have a million books that sell just a hundred copies each in their lifetime (they do), and they make a buck off each... (It’s called “the Long Tail”).
 

Further resources
Lessons Learned From Self Publishing
Are You Good Enough to Self Publish?
So You Want to be Published?
Self Publishing Stigma--Do We Deserve It?
The Long Tail of Publishing
Smashwords Authors Publish 10 Billion Words

29 comments:

  1. This is an excellent article, thanks. One thing I notice happen is my self published friends always offer me a free copy of their e-book. I always turn them down and buy it right then and there (I mean I let them know I'm buying it, so they know I'm interested). I haven't had a chance to read all the books I've bought, but like you said, I've wanted to support self pubbed friends. And since I don't like foo foo coffee drinks, why not spend that extra change rattling in my pocket on a book?

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  2. Jen, thank you so much, and HUGE kudos to you for doing that! The thing is, we're not going to like all the books we buy, whether trad or self-pubbed, but we can at least help level the playing field. Many self-published books will surprise us; besides which, having more books than one has time to read isn't a bad thing... sometimes, it feels almost like being rich :D

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  3. Unless there is some way to keep the semi-literate teen author-wannabe from publishing their sort-of novels, people will always be a bit wary of self-published books. When you pick up a trad-published book, there is a guarantee of a certain level of quality. Self-published books are a gamble, and in a way that's what is best about them. I think self-published authors should cherish the stigma because if they write well enough, they will stand far out from the crowd.

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    1. Anna, thanks for your insightful comment. You're right about the challenges, and also about the delight and surprise of finding diamonds among the coal. The problem is that it's very hard for even the best self-published works to gain enough traction to even get read by anyone outside their immediate circle while the stigma remains so pervasive and strong. My first book, "Aegean Dream" did very well despite that, selling over 5k copies... but I got very, *very* lucky with a combination of timing and subject matter (and of course the book has some merit). Most self-published authors don't have luck on their side.

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  4. I'm not yet published, but I agree there's still a stigma attached to self-publishing, for all the reasons already stated here. That said, I have a writer friend who's made a very good career off her self-published novels. Her income is in the six figures now, but she's very prolific, writes amazingly well, and markets her stuff like she was born on Madison Avenue.

    What I think would help self-published/indie authors lose the stigma is some sort of "seal of approval" from a respected literary organization. It would have to be an endorsement earned by a book's merits, not just from paying a fee. Sadly, I can't think of how to implement such a thing in a way that makes it trustworthy and viable.

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    1. Elissa, thanks for your comments. There's no doubt that being a stellar self-promoter is a huge help in overcoming the prejudice many feel against self-published work. The sort of standards body you envisage, something like a Michelin rating system that would put some kind of "seal of approval" on self-published work that meets some minimum criteria for overall presentation and quality is the Holy Grail we need, is something I've thought long and hard about, but can't for the life of me see how it would work, given the third- to half-million self-pubbed books (figures vary) being published each year. But something is desperately needed. Even if cost authors $100 to submit a book for review by some independent standards body, it would IMO be money we'd all happily pay.

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  5. I confess I haven't read very many self-published books and I've been pretty disappointed in the few I have. They really weren't ready. But with more corporate consolidation and fewer and fewer publishing companies, I think we desperately need a thriving self-published and indie sector to provide alternatives to the big guys. I like your suggestions and agree we need to find a way to step up the quality of self-published works. Maybe the answer is an authors' co-op of sorts where writers can support each other, share editing and marketing resources and where readers know they will find quality products. A situation where very few lucky authors (and Amazon) can make money and support themselves with their craft is unsustainable in the long run. Thanks for your insightful post. I'll look for your books.

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    1. (Mary, thinks--sometimes my replies don't appear where they should! It's below :D)

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  6. Mary, I very much agree with your analysis. There actually are a number of author co-ops precisely as you describe, an emerging publishing model in which the members pool resources, share tasks, cross-promote,m and generally work together to the common good: examples that come to mind are BookView Cafe (http://bookviewcafe.com), a co-op of 30-some authors some of whose works have recently hit the NYT bestseller lists, and SF author CJ Cherryh's smaller Closed Circle group (http://www.closed-circle.net/). Finally, thanks your interest in my own work, which is widely available :)

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  7. I've been at this business for over thirty years, and I am an ebook pioneer so I've seen it all. The first thing you need to know is that whatever you write, whatever publisher you choose or not, whatever media you write for will have someone making fun of you.

    From your fellow writers and publishing professionals, you will face sneers and contempt. If you are e-published or self-published, if you write for Kensington rather than Pocket, or paperback rather than hardcover, or if you write romance or erotica or mystery or science fiction or any other sort of fiction, you are looked down upon by someone, and that person has no trouble telling you so.

    From the real world of family, friends, readers, and strangers, people will sneer at you for all the above reasons as well as a few more. Most people think Michael Jordan worked hard for his craft and has a natural born skill, but writers just put words on paper and anyone can do it.

    Over half the people who learn you are a writer tell you that they are going to write a book someday, and they think it will be published instantly. People believe that most celebrities actually write their own books, and therefore, if that idiot can write a book, anyone can.

    The most important thing to know is that THEY don't define you. YOU define you.

    I've discovered that my enthusiasm can win over those blank stares. The trick is to believe in what you are doing and who you are. If you give those people with sneers or blank stares the power to define who you are, then you've lost, and you are nothing.

    Instead, believe in yourself and what you are doing. Writing is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and if you succeed, then you are a success. Glow with it, and no one can belittle you.

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    1. This is a wonderful point and something I am going to remind myself when I feel insecure. :D

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    2. Marilynn, thanks for commenting, and I totally agree. Still, you may be exceptional in being able to maintain enthusiasm in the fact of negativity. Some people are just better self-marketers and have that confidence. Moreover, when you're trying to get a book reviewed or blurbed, being positive and believing in yourself isn't always a tool that one can deploy to such good effect. When a self-pubbed author lands even a beautiful print ARC on a reviewer's desk and it doesn't come from a major publisher they know, that reviewer will immediately google and see that the book is self-published, or see nothing at all, and the book will be passed over, guaranteed. Self-publishers, and most indie books, only get a shot at mainstream reviewed once they've already made it big.

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  8. Not only does this exist with others, I sometimes feel it myself. My friend and family are proud of me, but there's this little niggle at the back of my mind, hoping I'm doing the right thing. But you know what? I'm having fun with it. That's what I use as a guide. If I'm creating quality work (editing, professional cover, good formatting) plus having fun, then I know I'm doing the right thing for ME. I love the freedom and control.

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  9. I love your post about self publishing. I'm still querying novel length work for traditional publishing, but I love the idea of being able to self publish a novella series. I do like having some control over marketing and pricing, but for me it's about the medium.

    There are some commonly held practices by many self publishers that hurts the image of being professionals, like spamming Twitter with your book advertisements. Marketing is great, but it gets old really fast if all someone wants to say is "buy my book". The obligation to reciprocate is troublesome as well. If someone retweets you then you have to retweet them or you're a big fat meanie. I like retweeting people, but if I haven't read their book I'm not going to endorse it either.

    I love the idea of buying more self published books, and supporting the community as a whole, rather than trying to yell above the noise.

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    1. Elizabeth, there are many authors whose behaviour on Twitter horrifies me. Trumpeting your book(s) several times a day may, just may, get you one or two more sales, but it's ended up with me unfollowing that author in every case (not that I spend much time on Twitter anyway). Social media is supposed to be just that--social--and IMO you do far better by being interesting and developing trust. I will announce a new book or blog post once, but that's it.

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  10. This is an important and timely post, Dario. The ultimate judges of a book are the readers and I wonder how much attention they give to how a book is produced. It's increasingly hard to say whether a book is 'true Indie' published by a vanity press which masquerades as a genuine publishing house or by a cooperative. As you say, the only thing which counts is quality.

    I'm going to have one of my books republished by Amazon's Lake Union Publishing. It's good for my ego and the book will be more polished but I doubt any reader will be that clear that it's been published differently from my other Indie books. And to their credit, Amazon are astoundingly author-centric concerning this, realising that different books may benefit from different publishing routes.

    I enjoyed all of the comments on this post but Marilynn Byerly really gets it right. I'm going to copy and keep all of this post for future reference.

    Martin Lake

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    1. Martin, thanks. It's certainly becoming harder, and I agree that ultimately the reader--once the book is in their hands--often doesn't care: they just want a good read. But per my reply to Marilynn above, as long as reviewers have explicit policies against self-pubbed books (translation: books not from a recognizable house they know), the book's discoverability is severely compromised. The same is true for name authors whom you might want to ask for a blurb: unless the author is a friend or owes you a favour, good luck. I'm all for positivity, but I believe the problem is real and challenging. At its simplest it's prejudice--judging in advance on the basis of externalities rather than actual substance and on the same basis as trad published work. That's not a good thing.

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  11. Dario, you mentioned wishing for a way of defining quality for the book-buying public. There are a few schemes emerging now:
    - B.R.A.G.Medallion (http://www.bragmedallion.com) which sets a very high bar
    - Awesome Indies (http://awesomeindies.net/authors/submissions/)
    - Ascribe (http://ascribeme.com), new and which requires a recommendation from an established figure in the publishing world.
    I've joined all three - recognition and building reader confidence in SP authors are key. But as you say, we need to keep upping our game.

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    1. Thanks for that information, Alison, and I agree with you. I knew of awesomeindies but wasn't aware of the other two. I note that bragmedallion has closed to submissions, possibly overwhelmed by the sheer volume?

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  12. Dario, I would NEVER make public my personal reviews of Trad published fiction. Why, takes little imagination. As much as 80% of what I try reading gets heaved back into my bookbag and returned to the library. Redundant. Formulalic. Or, let us not forget, just plain awful.

    IMO, Trad has no reason to smirk. It is a rare instance when a book sheparded through the "system" knocks me back and makes me go, Wow. The last amazing author I discovered was N.K. Jemisin of Orbit. Everyone else, pants on one leg at a time, aka human.

    The biggest reason to look down your nose at Trad (Yeah, turn around is totally, deservedly fair play) is the majority of what they are slinging is schlock. Take a chance? I don't think so.

    OTOH, absolutely, positively, if not going Trad, our suspenders need to be eye stinging tight. I agree, if you're not going through the mill, you better feed yourself into it. I have crit partners locally and internationally, including Cal Moriarty of the Womentoring Project. You gotta be heave it out there and be willing to take your beating in crit and deliver the goods in revision. Otherwise, way too fragile to be a writer.

    Thank you for a timely, reasoned (boy, has that been missing lately) analysis of what it takes to make the grade.

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    1. LOL Cordia! You know, the great Science Fiction author Theodore Sturgeon coined "Sturgeon's Law", which states that "90% of everything is crap." And some of us think he was an optimist. ;-)

      Good critique partners are a vital resource for the self-published author, and both Janice and I have written blog posts on this topic (in fact, we first met some 7-8 years ago in a critique group I had just founded). What I would add is that not just any old critique partners will do--my advice is to always look for better writers than oneself to work with--and the personality fit needs to be good, with all egos checked at the door. It's a whole other topic, but a good crit group will help keep you humble while improving your writing, and let you know whether you're ready for prime time or not.

      (For anyone interested, here's a link to my blog post on the topic of critique groups. I also strongly suggest searching "critique" here on Fiction University as well. http://dariospeaks.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/how-to-start-a-world-class-kick-ass-writers-group/ )

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  13. Great article, Dario. And excellent, informative replies, too. Reading all this and recalling my own initial “indie” experience of a dozen years ago, a lame biblical paraphrase comes to mind: “The Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away.”

    While the Internet (and Amazon and e-readers) has enabled Indie Rebels to publish and distribute gazillions of books for almost zilch, the Legacy Powers and their Legacy Reviewer minions can still make it difficult for most Indie Rebels to make a living. Reviews are critical, and as you said, real Legacy Reviewers can now easily discover if a book or an ARC is from an approved Legacy Power or an upstart Indie Rebel. Fortunately, some perfectly credible-seeming reviewers don’t give a damn if it’s Indie or not if they can make money doing them: Kirkus Indie Reviews and Heartland Reviews come to mind. I haven’t ponied up for a paid review yet, but I just might. All taken with all, seems like this might be more productive than trying to do battle to convince snobbish Legacy Reviewers to abandon their prejudices.

    Back in 2002 when the Chronicler’s Edition of The Luck of Madonna 13 came out, methinks it was easier to game the Legacy Reviewers. Expensive, though. If your book was coming out in hardcover at $29.95 and you sent out a Bound Galley (another term for ARCs in those days) that looked like all the other bound galleys, most reviewers wouldn’t instantly trash it or jump on Google (not nearly ubiquitous a practice then) to check you out. And, after all, no brand new indie publisher in its right mind was going to pony up for an expensive hardcover press run (this was pre-POD of course) for a complete unknown rookie scifi author. Makes no sense.

    So that particular rookie publisher and 50-something rookie author combo was able to garner some excellent and totally free reviews: Publishers Weekly, Heartland Reviews, January Magazine and Locus, among others. It also won ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year for scifi and was named to January Magazine’s Best 92 Books of 2002 list. Not NY Times, but not bad, either. On the strength of those reviews I got guest author invites to a number of science fiction Cons (woo-hoo) for platform building and flesh pressing. But that was then.

    Probably couldn’t pull that off now, even if I wanted to...which I don’t. Fortunately, those accolades from 2002 still work, although I’m “doing publishing different” for the “new and improved” Kindle and trade paperback editions that just came out. The going is slow, but it’s going. And it’s a whole new publishing education after spending the last dozen years doing other stuff. Kinda fun, though. But if I want seed reviews with cred for my new Hallah Saga series, I’m leaning strongly toward paying for a few of them. Be cheaper than a hardcover press run. :-)

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    1. E.T. Ellison, thanks for your comment. ("Legacy powers" -- great term!)

      Yes, you got in at a good time back in 2002, slipping in with your ARC before the shields went up. Locus are still pretty good at reviewing POD -- my own Panverse novella anthologies have all been reviewed there -- but I've had less luck with the SFF novels by other authors I've published, simply because they get so many novels and reviewers tend to pick names they know. I do agree that if one has a good book, it may be worth paying for a Kirkus indie review; it's certainly something bragworthy for the back cover that one could leverage in promotion. In a sense, I think you're right to see it as part of the cost of doing business today... I just wish it weren't so, and that the playing field were level when it comes to indies and self-pubbers getting reviewed. Not to mention the fact that we're further handicapped in our very limited listing category choices, but that's a whole different topic.

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  14. This is a very good article and I especially appreciate your points about raising our production quality. I picked up a very badly formatted self-published paperback the other day, and it made me sad. It wouldn't have been hard to do better than that.

    I do disagree on one point, though: buying friends' books. I do market to my friends, in that I let them know when I have a book out, and I'll continue to do that, but I don't expect them to buy my books, and I'm not necessarily going to read my friends' books (self- or Big-5-published) unless they're something I would have read anyway, or unless they're a very old/close friend and it's their debut. We need to reach the readers who are interested in our books/genre and for me there really isn't much overlap between that group and my real-life friends. I'm not going to pressure people who only read literary fiction to read my romance or epic fantasy!

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    1. Amelia, thanks so much for your comments. I see I wasn't clear--I agree on not reading something we wouldn't normally read, and this isn't something I do with my own friends' books... what I meant was more of a karmic/set an example/pay it forward kind of thing, namely just buy one of one's friends' self-pubbed book every now and then (I do this) whether you're going to read it or not. Call me crazy, but I think this is a good thing to do.

      And I agree, in no way should one pressure anyone to read anything, even if it's something they *would* normally read :)

      Best,
      Dario

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  15. What a fantastic post! I was prepared to read what I have been reading at other sites - that book bloggers are narrow-minded meanies. Instead, you suggest that self-publishers bring their A-game. That's the only way to beat the stigma - always bring your best to the table.

    I've been asked to beta-read for a few friends, and unfortunately they don't seem to ask until right before they publish. That brings me to my suggestion for self-publishers. Ask for feedback while in the rewriting process. It's easier to fix problems after a second or third draft than it is after you've done all your formatting and are just waiting for the "Good job!" before publishing. There will always be something to fix, or to at least consider fixing. This I know from my own experience as a writer.

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    1. BC, thanks so much for your kind words. I totally agree: the time to get input--from the best writers/beta readers one can find--is during the draft stages. Unfortunately many people don't have a clue that their ms. isn't close to ready for prime time; many people will happily write and publish a novel without having the benefit of even a modest critique. I've had freelance copyediting/proofing jobs come in from authors about to self-publish in which the ms has so many issues that it needs a ground-up rewrite, not a few line edits and proofreading. In fact, all the best trad -pubbed writers I know (and reading his memoir, we find even Stephen King does this) wouldn't think of sending an ms. out to their editor without first having it beta read by a few trusted people. Fools rush in...

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  16. BC, thanks so much for your kind words. I totally agree: the time to get input--from the best writers/beta readers one can find--is during the draft stages. Unfortunately many people don't have a clue that their ms. isn't close to ready for prime time; many people will happily write and publish a novel without having the benefit of even a modest critique. I've had freelance copyediting/proofing jobs come in from authors about to self-publish in which the ms has so many issues that it needs a ground-up rewrite, not a few line edits and proofreading. In fact, all the best trad -pubbed writers I know (and reading his memoir, we find even Stephen King does this) wouldn't think of sending an ms. out to their editor without first having it beta read by a few trusted people. Fools rush in...

    Best,
    Dario

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