Thursday, April 14, 2011

“…an actual book.”

My teenaged daughter is a snob… sort of.

I’m not speaking here of Hope Edwards, my almost-fourteen-year-old whose cute-and-quirky comic strip, The Adventures of Dough Girl, I’m formatting into a picture book for the iPad. I’ve mentioned her elsewhere and will speak further of her upcoming book in a future post. I mean her twin sister, who is also a writer but who hasn’t chosen a pen name yet, whom I will refer to here as “Daughter.”

I was taking Daughter to tennis practice this morning and I asked how her writing was coming along. She said, “Fine,” so I mentioned that, whenever she felt that she had a book ready, I could publish it as an electronic book for the Kindle, or the Nook, or the iPad.

Her reply set me back:

“I’m not going to publish it as an electronic book before I get it published as an actual book.”

Well, that was the end of our conversation about writing; we went on to other things until I dropped her off at practice.

Frankly, I was surprised at Daughter’s response, at her seeming to be put off by modern technology. After all, we are a fairly technological family. We have our share of computers and cell phones, with which we are all quite comfortable. My wife and children, especially, do Facebook and Gmail and texting and all of that. So, yes, I was surprised.

I was a little saddened, too, because her remark expresses the all-too-prevalent view that a mass of writing is not a legitimate book unless it is printed with ink on paper. To be fair, Daughter may be a “monster of my own making.” We have tried to instill in all of our children a certain reverence for books. They are to be treated with respect as physical objects of value—don’t tear the pages, don’t throw them around, keep them clean—but also respected for what they contain: exciting and enjoyable stories, and also important and useful information. What she said, about the two paths to publication available to a writer today, clearly shows the strength of the grip that the traditional one still has on many writers. She said, in effect:

“I’m not going to publish it myself before I convince someone else to legitimize it by publishing it for me.”

Now, there is something to be said for a certain degree of “legitimization,” at least in the form of proofreading and editing (and virtually all self-published books could use a much heavier dose of proofreading and editing than they have been getting lately), but to think that it’s not a real book until it exists as ink on paper is shooting yourself in the foot, because any form of publication is better than none at all.

As other people have pointed out, writers are not makers of books, they are tellers of stories, either true stories or made-up stories. Furthermore, merely creating the story is only the first half of storytelling; the story has to reach an audience, either by being read or heard, for the act of storytelling to be completed, and denying yourself the ability to reach that audience because you believe that you have to wait until someone else says, “yes, you are allowed to pass this story along to others,” is not merely foolish. It’s sad.

It’s foolish because of the financial (or quasi-financial) aspect of it all. If the story doesn’t get published, the author gets no return, either of actual money or of something else of value: prestige, name recognition, personal satisfaction, etc.

It’s sad because, if that someone—that keeper of the publishing gate—says “no,” all of the writer’s effort—all of the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” as it were—that it has taken to get to that point, where the story is ready to make its way out into the world and rise or fall on its own merits, all of it will have been wasted.

Because a story never published is, in effect, a story never written.


  1. I used to be a snob (heck, still am to some extent) and look down my nose at anything self-published (ebook, paperback, or not). I fully intended to go the traditional route and do all the tedious agent-querying stuff.

    Then I got a kindle and found out how good the earnings were for indie ebook authors. 70%? Authors who work through a publishing house don't get anything close, and so few publishers do anything (insofar as marketing goes) for any but their A-list authors these days.

    One of my writing buddies got an agent early last summer, and her book hasn't found a home yet. In the meantime, I've e-pubbed my first two novels and have made back all the initial expenses (cover art, editing, formatting), so everything from here on out is profit.

    It doesn't mean I'll never look for a print deal, but it's making more and more sense to start with ebooks, establish yourself, prove you can sell, and then (if you still want it) seek an agent and a publishing deal. You have a lot more negotiating power at that point too! ;)

    But, hey, you're probably not worried about the money aspect. *g*

  2. Thank you for taking the time to post such a long answer. I know that your “money aspect” comment was a little bit of humor (and I took it that way), however:

    There was a television commercial on a few months ago, in which a teenaged girl comes running into the room where her parents are and says, excitedly, “I’ve been accepted at one of the best schools in the country!” Her father hears: “I’ve been accepted at one of the most expensive schools in the country!”

    That was my seventeen-year-old daughter and I a few weeks ago. The commercial was funny; the reality is a little more sobering.

    So, yes, I will be self-publishing as soon as each book is ready (I have several in the pipeline), and I will shamelessly flog each and every one—to you, Lindsay, and to anyone else who has a platform with which to reach readers—and am perfectly willing to let each rise or fall on its own merits, because I will be formatting them myself and will work to make each the absolute best that I can make it.

    I—and you and Amanda and Zoë and Joe—all of us are fortunate to be living in a time when new technology allows us to do this, or (to be more accurate) to at least attempt this. Not all of us will succeed, but at least we don’t have to wait anymore for anyone’s permission!

  3. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the link. I can see myself lifting the line "a story never published is, in effect, a story never written" in my next presentation!

  4. I've used those exact same words myself -- an *actual* book -- but I probably meant something a bit different.

    I used to draw a distinction between "real" and simply self-published authors, but not anymore. Not after the way the landscape has changed over the last 3 years, and not after nearly 3 years of reading Zoe Winters' blog. :)

    It's my ambition to be a published fiction writer, and if the indie route or e-only was where I ended up, I'd be ecstatic -- like you said, it's ultimately about having an audience for your stories.

    Still, to me, an *actual* book is printed on paper. Not that it's any more legitimate as a published story, but it's both a story and a physical artifact: tangible and actual in a way an electronic anything can never be. There's just something about an actual bound paper book.

  5. Hello Peter
    I don't think the "legitimization" is in the obviously necessary proofreading, but in the very compelling idea that someone else believes in the work enough to invest money and time in it. I think your daughter is very astute, actually!

    I am not against self-publishing at all - in fact, my first book was self-published - but acclaim and belief by others is surely important. If you've brought your daughter up to love quality books, you've done a great job but you have *not* created a monster! Self-publishing is great but your duaghter is right to want her book to be right for publication first. Congratulations!

  6. I'm interested in what Nicola means by "acclaim and belief by others is surely important." Surely we write for our readers? Their acclaim and belief, which for me comes from their spending money on my books, is more valuable than any seal of approval that appears to come from the mainstream publishing industry.

    I've been around authors long enough (and had enough experiences of my own) to know that literary agents -- the gatekeepers for all the big commercial houses -- don't have any special gifts when it comes to recognizing talent and/or public appeal. Nor do a lot of publishing employees who (and this may be a consequence of my age) seem to be getting younger and lack any breadth of experience. We've presumably all read enough stories of best-selling authors who were rejected countless times, only to be signed up after they had proven their books sales-worthy under their own steam?

    There is no one "correct" route to any of this. Some of us have already experienced the mainstream route (nine of my books have been published by major houses including Random House and HarperCollins) and said, To heck with earning a pittance from our efforts. Others feel a sense of achievement from having jumped through the hoops set by publishers who, when all is said and done, are at least prepared to soak up the costs of printing and distribution. Both are valid choices.

    I'd just offer a variation on Peter's final comment. For me, it's not that a story (and I include nonfiction within that broad category) never published is a story never written. It's that a story never purchased (as in a book that has attracted no sales) may as well be a story never written. And since to all intents and purposes all authors are stuck with having to be their own marketers/promoters, regardless of whether they are traditionally published or go the Indie author route, I'm viewing all of this from an economic perspective. I'll take the 70-100% I get from self-publishing these days as opposed to the 5-15% I accrue from my older books.

    If there's one myth I'd like to shatter, it's that being published by a traditional house makes an iota of difference to your chances of selling books.

  7. No, Liz, it’s not a consequence of your age (I don’t believe that you’re old enough to have many “consequences” yet). Too many people in the communications fields nowadays—publishing, customer service, radio- and television news readers and reporters—really ARE young and stupid!