Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: The Reader’s Perspective

by Jack Woe

The merits of self-publishing vs. traditional-publishing has been discussed at great length in various blogs from the point of view of authors.  Never, or very rarely has this been discussed from the point of view of readers; the people that ultimately buy the books.  This is my attempt to correct that.

This blog is inspired by The Trials of Self-Publishing: Why I Consider It a Last Resort and Eisler on Digital Denial.

Publication Snobbery

When I buy a book, I don’t consider the publisher at all.  Whoever published the book doesn’t matter.  This also means I don’t care if it’s been self-published.  Not one bit.  It does matter how well it’s written and edited — and that there aren’t so glaring grammatical errors I’m not sure what’s being said.

To dispel a myth, traditional publishers offer little protection from any of those points.  True, I can be reasonably sure the entire book is legible, but at the sentence and paragraph level I have no such “protection.”  Anyone with a reasonable reading experience should be able to come up with examples.

What matters most to me, when I’m reading a novel, is that I’m having fun.  Anyone missing that point needs to get out of the industry.

Here I come to an issue that has plagued me for years, when I read paper books.  When the book ends I’m not always having fun.  This is due to what I choose to call we’ve run out of paper syndrome.  Very often, the author will hurry up and finish a book as if the publisher said “we don’t have room for more pages, you need to finish this now” and the book suffers for it.

I have to admit that I haven’t read enough self-published e-books to determine if this syndrome plagues them too, but it never has to; there is no paper to run out of, nor deadlines.

What I am sure of, almost always, is that traditionally published books are written with a minimum of storytelling proficiency.  A notable counter-example might be Magician by Raymond E. Feist which reads more like an autobiography than a novel.  I’m not sure I read the original shortened version (by the publisher) but the longer one is more refreshing than boring.

Here I’ll stress minimum.  I can point out storytelling issues in books by world1 famous authors.  There is essentially no difference in quality between traditionally published works and a lot of stories available for free on the internet.  I know authors who publish their work on the ‘net, for free, and surpass many a published book in the quality of the writing.

So what does that mean?  It means I don’t have to buy books if I only want to read a well written story.  The downside is that if I limit myself to the free stuff on the ‘net, I have to read all the drivel too, to find the jewels.

And what does that have to do with self-publishing?  Nothing so far, but what I’m trying to say is that traditional publishing isn’t the quality control it’s hyped to be.  Nor is it a required prerequisite.

Publication snobbery will get you nowhere.

Gatekeeping

It’s been repeated on blog sites and comments over and over that the people in the publishing industry act as gatekeepers that protect readers from slush.  However, they do more gatekeeping than just that.

The Human Wave Science Fiction blog by Sarah A. Hoyt is a fine example.  Check out the comments if you’re not convinced.

A publisher’s job is to sell books.  It’s safer to choose books that fit into the current trend than to take a chance, even though the chances tend to create trends when they’re successful.  I should not need to point out examples for the experienced readers.

This means I can pretty much walk past the shelves of supernatural fiction because the trend isn’t what I’m looking for.  I can say the same about other genres too.

I don’t want to read the same story over and over and over again, only written by different authors.  I want something new.

And to find something new I look on the internet where everyone is equal.  While I’m reasonably sure I won’t find what I’m looking for through the big publishers, I see no reason to ignore them.

I will now confess that I have never spent money on ebooks at Amazon.  Instead I’ve bought them DRM free at Baen and Smashwords, in multiple formats.  Being tied to a specific platform like Kindle doesn’t appeal to me.  The only e-books I’ve gotten on Amazon have been free promotional copies.

That means I’ve accidentally stayed clear of the slush whose authors publish exclusively on Amazon.  Lucky me.

Price

I’ve seen comments from one of the top reviewers on Amazon, who joked about novels for $2.99.  As if all of them were horribly written and unedited drivel.  This is not true, but does underline that people do use the price as an indication of quality.

Personally, I feel that is a false promise.  Mark Coker writes, in Ebook Publishing Success, that authors can earn the same income with books at $2.99 and $5.99; and points out that with the lower price the author is reaching more readers than the higher — obviously.

Considering the people who try to avoid self published slush by looking at the price, they may not be reaching the same readers, but definitely more of them.  Also, there is nothing that prevents authors from pricing their books high, like traditional publishers do.

Covers

A cover is a promise.  When I’m drawn to a cover I expect the story to follow through on that promise.  Sometimes the the blurb on the back makes it clear the story won’t, and sometimes the blurb promises even more.  Yet not all stories come through.

A romance novel with a silhouette of a naked woman holding a whip better have a naked woman holding a whip at some point in the story.  If not, the story isn’t following through on the promise.  It’s disappointing and unfortunately, is more likely to steer first time readers away from that author, rather than the publishing house that ultimately is responsible for the lie.

Self published authors also have to deliver this promise.  No graphic is better than a terrible cover that promises a terrible story, or at least terribly written or edited story.

Basically, if the cover is terrible it takes a dedicated word of mouth campaign, an outright peer pressure, to get me to read a book.  This happened to me with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld stories.  I’ve always been repelled by the covers.  Not as much now as 15 years ago when I first came across them, then I hated the artwork.  Now it’s just a minor annoyance because the books themselves are terrific.

Self published authors who don’t take the cover seriously — or seriously enough — are promising boredom or drivel.  Don’t do that.  The promise has to be there for the first time readers to pick up the book, or click on the link.  The blurb also has to follow through on the cover, though the event depicted doesn’t have to be mentioned on the back.

The publishing industry has established some conventions for the covers of the genres.  And while it may work for genre specific novels, it does pose some challenges for a genre crossing self publisher.  In this case — for the broadest audience — the cover may need expert graphic design that blends two or more cover conventions together.  That’s not a task for a newbie designer.

Readers Aren’t Picky

Readers are not as picky as writers and editors.  The average reader doesn’t care about passive vs. active voice, showing vs. telling nor POV hopping.  People who are looking for entertainment don’t care how the story is told, as long as the writing is good enough to convey the tale.

They certainly aren’t going to care about dangling modifiers — as long as the sentences are understood.

Mike Wells touches upon this in his his blog Brit Writers spoke to Mike Wells where he advises new and unpublished writers to get feedback from readers.  He says:

“At the end of the day, it’s only READERS who matter, ordinary readers who buy books and borrow them from libraries.”

What matters to readers is that the detective finds the killer in the murder mystery, the kid survives the monster under the bed and that the heroine finds her prince charming at the end of the story — or in the case of antiheroes, that the supervillain gains world domination.

Plot holes like the murderer couldn’t possibly do it because at the time he was in the library and not the drawing room are more likely to set off readers than superficially bad grammar2 or other storytelling snobbery.

This means that in the traditional publishing world those stories never reach the eyes of readers and remain unenjoyed.

Yet, New York Times best sellers can have side plots that lead nowhere and storytelling that leaves much to be desired.  Something I’m quite tired of.

To Authors

It is important to pay attention to the details of the craft.  Know when the story is in passive voice and realise that too many instances of “had had” — which is perfectly good grammatically —- may scare away some readers.  Consider every POV hop and determine if it’s necessary or a sign of laziness.  Make an effort to find and eliminate dangling modifiers.

Show the story, don’t tell it.  Not all readers care, but I want to see the action, feel emotions and smell the graveyard.  I don’t want the story explained; I just get bored.

Pay attention to character creation.  If all your characters are carbon copies, you have some work to do.  Stories with too similar characters tend to be boring.

Questions

  • Can you name a case of we’ve run out of paper syndrome?
  • Is there a trend you don’t like in your favourite genre?
  • Have you been disappointed by the storytelling in a New York Times bestseller?  Which one?
  • Have you come across books you don’t like, but almost everyone else is raving about?
  • Have you been disappointed by a book whose cover was attractive?  Did it make you boycott that author?

1 If you’re not clear on it, it means outside the USA too.

2 I mean only grammar elitists will even notice.

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