Have you ever written a book review?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

As Publishing Barriers Lower, Quality Suffers

One of the hallmarks of maintaining a competitive edge in any business is the difficulty of entering into that business. Once you are there, great. But is the barrier of entry for others high or low? How easy is it for others to slide into your livelihood? For book publishing, that answer is careening in one direction like a wild car chase in a James Bond movie.

Software, the Internet, and print-on-demand technology has pummeled the barrier and opened the floodgates to independent publishers and authors who choose to self-publish. As the managing director of a thriving independent publishing house, I understand this. I also welcome it. But there is a learning curve, as one author recently discovered.

I received a call last week from "John," whose manuscript I had turned down last year. His research was very strong, his writing less so, but his work merited publication because of its unique topic. But it was not something Savas Beatie was seeking to publish. "John" decided to publish his book on his own. (I advised him not to.) He called to tell me the book was in the mail. (I thanked him.) He was sending me a copy as a way of saying thanks for some of the guidance I provided him.

The book arrived. It looked as I thought it might: self-published. The paperback boasts a mediocre cover design even though it was "professionally" done. The type size inside the book is 1-2 points larger than it should be, and the font is not one I would have selected. The headers are cringe-worthy, as are the margins and choice of paper. The text reads well because he hired a capable editor (at my suggestion).

I called John this morning to thank him for the signed book. He acted embarrassed, and told me as much, because the book did not turn out as nicely as he had hoped. One early review crucified his effort. I immediately decided to put him at ease. Our conversation went something like this:

I can't believe how awful it looks . . .

Look, I wince on occasion when I pick up and flip through some of our inaugural titles from the early 1990s. Book publishing is not an exact science, and there is a steep learning curve for anyone who wants to get involved and do it right.

I tried to do too much myself . . .

Those who have never ventured into this morass we call publishing have little idea what it entails. All the pieces have be in place--from designers and editors, to printers, suppliers, distributors and, of course, buyers. The other day I picked up one of our recent titles, and the first thing I spotted when I opened it was a small mistake in the text! Authors, editors, designers, indexers, and proofreaders scrubbed it, and yet a mistake slipped through. Alas, it is the nature of the beast.

But the review really hurts . . .

It is easy to lampoon a book for this or that fault or mistake--especially when you don't have to produce one yourself. It's the cousin of blasting another's labor in a public review, without ever having written one yourself to fully grasp the difficulty involved. I offered Tim Smith's bestselling Champion Hill as an example. Lauded by nearly everyone, a lone reviewer trashed it. We later found out he was deeply involved in researching the battle and our book preempted his efforts.

John hung up relieved (I think). And I'm relieved, too. As soon as our conversation ended, I reached over and opened our latest book and spent twenty minutes scanning for something amiss. I closed it with a smile.



Stephen Tiano said...

Self-serving as it sounds, I tell anyone who'll listen--readers of my blog, potential clients who contact me through my blog or website, participants in the forums I frequent--that if they don't value there books enough to spend professional prices on the design and page makeup, they shouldn't be too surprised if prospective readers don't become actual readers.

Good blog, by the way. I do believe I'll add it to my blogroll. I invite you to take a gander at mine and, perhaps add it to your blogroll.

Kevin said...

Self-publishing is a crapshoot at best.

Poor cover design? What did you expect from a 'photo-shop' artist who never read the book?

How to avoid?

Check the line item charges on your contract. If the publisher is charging you $150-$250 for the cover, demand that you be allowed to commission your own artist and deduct the cost from the contract.

You may wind up paying more for the cover you want, but in the long run, it's pricess.

Kevin Ahearn

Jay Stout said...

Great perspective--and right on the mark. It mirrors many of my own experiences. Although I've not always been wholly enamored with the designs my publishers have selected (sometimes against my suggestions), at the very least they've never made any monster mistakes.

And they shouldn't--it's their business.

As far as self-publishing...my personal feelings are that if I can't put together a proposal convincing enough to compel a publisher to take on the project, then it probably isn't worthwhile--at least from an economic standpoint. And if they don't think they can make a go of it, then I'm probably not, with less resources and experience, going to make it work.

Bottom line, if no one will pay me for it...then that's exactly what it's worth.

Thanks for the great blog.

Jay A. Stout
"Slaughter at Goliad