One Reader’s Advice to Indie Authors

I like to read indie authors, for various reasons, always hoping I’ll find that one gem amongst all the rough diamonds that is polished and ready to read. Unfortunately, more often than not, I read decent books, okay books, books that aren’t bad, that with a little bit of editing and development might have actually been great books, but that were just mediocre books because of the way they were published–they weren’t ready. Then I’ll read one of the trade published houses by a big-name author and I’ll be reminded of all the reasons why I prefer traditionally published books over indie books. Sure, it’s true, some trade published books are bad. There are stinkers in every type of art, work, industry, you name it, but in the indie book world, there are many more stinkers than there are gems, and in the trade publishing world, it’s the opposite. So I started taking a really long, hard look at what it is that makes indie books not as good as their trade published counterparts, as a whole.

Now, keep in mind when you’re reading this, I am both a trade published and indie published author. I hold nothing against either road to publishing and believe that both have their place in the book economy. I have read some really, really good indie books. I’ve read some really, really bad trade-published books. But even the lower end of trade-published books often exceeds the majority of upper-end indie published books. Why? Lots of reasons. Mostly, I call it the ‘readability factor’. I often will pick up a book and start reading it in the bathroom on bathroom breaks–I’m just being honest here, okay? So I know it’s a good book when I can’t leave the bathroom without taking the book with me. If the only time I ever read the book is while sitting on the pot, it’s not a great book. It might be a perfectly fine book, but not a great book.

For example, Dean Koontz regularly makes me take the book from the bathroom with me. I read THE TAKING and THE BAD PLACE, and especially toward the end, I was flipping pages, couldn’t put it down, had to know what was going to happen. At one point, reading THE TAKING while a thunderstorm was going on and I was sick in bed, under blankies, I actually screamed out loud at one point, that’s how much I enjoyed that book (and yet, it got horrible reviews… go figure, but just goes to show how subjective opinions of books are!) And yet, even those paled in comparison to THE HUNGER GAMES, all three books, because those made me lose two nights of sleep, because I read all three of them straight through, falling asleep in bed with the Kindle Fire hitting me in the face when I passed out, too exhausted to continue (that’s the only downside to the Kindle–it’s much harder than a paperback when it hits my head!).

THAT is what I look for in a book.

And I have never found a single indie-published book that has done THAT for me yet. I keep looking. I WANT to find one. But I haven’t.

Now, I’ve found indie books that have had parts of them that have made me take them from the bathroom to finish. But then it’ll get to a lull part and I’ll set it down and won’t pick it up again until the next bathroom break, or what-have-you. And I’ve found some that I can’t even finish. That’s not unique to indie books though. After all, I said I like Dean Koontz, but LIFE EXPECTANCY still sits folded open on the ledge of the garden tub, unread and covered in a layer of dust, about halfway through the book. I just can’t finish it. I can’t get into it.

So here, as a reader (not a writer), let me tell you indie authors where I’m having problems with your books (and please know this is to all indie authors in general, aggregated data, not any one indie author or book specifically).

I think part of the reason indie books aren’t as good as many or even most trade-published books has a lot to do with the fact an indie book can be published so quickly. My book, WHAT BROTHERS DO, took me four years to write and edit and vet and perfect. When I started submitting it to agents, two years into it, I received some feedback that caused me to rewrite the beginning of the book, remove about five full chapters, merge several other chapters, and change the focus of one section of the book. The book now is similar to the book I wrote four years ago, but it’s gone through many iterations to improve it, based on the agent/editor vetting process. I have also spent more time with it, editing it and tweaking it after each rejection. That process has turned out a much better book than the one I had four years ago. In turn, the next book I wrote, RELUCTANTLY HUMAN, started off stronger from the experience and input I received from the book before it. Even if I were to indie/self-publish BROTHERS now, it would be better by far than if I had self-published it four years ago. And yet, four years ago, it was a good book. Now, I personally think it’s a great book. The traditional publishing process, like a fine wine, has allowed the work to mature, to breathe, to change subtly with flavor that it didn’t have four years ago.

In 2010, I submitted it to the Faulkner/Wisdom contest and it was a seminfinalist. Last year, I was a short-listed finalist with the new changes to the book. It IS a better book now.

The difference between the two? Editing, time, patience and feedback from multiple sources. Honest feedback… not feedback from my friends and family or a critique circle of writers who have never had anything traditionally edited or published. I got honest feedback from people who have been published, who have been rejected, who have been editors, and who will tell me the cold, hard, honest truth and cut with a swift sword that which needs to be cut. It IS an ego blow. It’s a tough process. But I have a much better book and am a better writer for it.

I could have self-published this book two years ago, three years ago, and it would have been a good book. It would have been okay. But there was a reason I got rejections back then. If you aren’t putting your book through all these paces, self-published or not, then you are doing yourself a disservice, and you’re not being honest with yourself. Self-publishing might still be the option you choose, but it shouldn’t happen within weeks or even a few months of finishing the book.

But who will be honest with you? The buying and reading public, that’s who. Sure you might get a few 5-star reviews from friends, family, social networking contacts, but go outside that scope of friends, let the real reading public get to your work–sell more than 200 copies–and see if your reviews don’t change. Ask someone who is known to give honest reviews to review your work honestly and accept their criticism. The reading public will either rip you to shreds in the comments/reviews sections of where your work is sold–or worse yet, your sales figures will stagnate and not improve or increase, with a couple of hundred sales–and sometimes much, much fewer–being your maximum.

It’s not because your book sucks. It’s because there is so much competition out there that someone else’s book is just THAT much better, or they tried THAT much harder, or they cheated–yes, it does happen–or they knew someone, who knew someone, or whatever. Being “good” isn’t good enough at this point, and indie authors are having to fight a stigma to get placement anywhere. It’s not easy. You won’t make it if you’re weak willed and  if you can’t take constructive or even cruel (such as reader comments) criticism–it’s better to take that criticism BEFORE your book is launched to the public than after, ’cause once it’s out there, you cannot take it back.

So what should you do? Well, it’s simple–TEN Easy Steps:

  1. Write a damned good book that tells a universal story.
  2. Let the book sit for a month or two and move on to writing another damned good book with a damned good story.
  3. Go back to your first book now, and edit the crap out of it.
  4. Let it sit for a week or two, and then edit the crap out of it again.
  5. Hire a professional editor who has published book credits to his/her editing name.
  6. Edit the crap out of your book with the editor.
  7. Give the book to 10 plus beta readers and tell them to be BRUTALLY HONEST with you.
  8. Take what you can use from the beta readers and leave the rest, then edit the crap out of your novel again.
  9. Set the book aside for a couple of weeks to a month and let it rest, while you start or finish writing another damned good book with a damned good story.
  10. Edit and proofread the crap out of your novel one last time–THEN self-publish.

After all that, I still actually recommend you consider submitting it to mainstream publishing houses, agents and such. See if you get a bite. If you’re not getting requests for partials, then something is wrong with your query and/or your novel. Listen to the feedback and make changes accordingly. Then, if you decide to still self-publish, after you’ve made the rounds, you will know it’s your choice to do it and you did it the right way. Plus, if your query pitch can’t entice an agent to even ask for a partial, then you’re not likely going to have a blurb that will entice a reader to buy your book.

Submitting to agents and editors also forces you to slow down and take your time, allowing time to let the work sit and you to move on and focus on something else, losing a slight amount of your protectiveness of your work. It’s much easier to edit a project when the excitement about it has moved on to the next project, because you’ll look at it more critically and more dispassionately, allowing you to make the necessary changes to make the book better. And who knows–you might get a contract. You don’t HAVE to accept it if you do, but you never know. At least then, you’ll have options.

Poor editing is the #1 complaint I, and many others, have for indie published books. The problem is, so many people don’t even know what editing is, so they THINK they have a professionally edited book, but they don’t. Before I get into what editing is, let me tell you what it is not:

Editing is not about fixing grammar mistakes or red penning your novel the way an English teacher would do a book report in high school. In fact, English majors (not literature majors, but English majors) who have no active editing experience in a publishing house operation are probably one of the worst people to hire to edit a novel.

Editing is not proofing the document to make sure there are no typos, though certainly this is important.

Editing is a difficult and time-consuming task that incorporates all sorts of skills that go beyond just knowing how to string together a sentence that is grammatically correct. In fact, when used properly, grammatically incorrect sentences often have impact and emotional resonance that are part of the editing process. An editor will read the story for consistency, continuity and clarity.

Consistency: Do the characters act in a consistent manner? If they do X one time, when faced with the same situation later, do they do Y? If so, does the author properly explain why? The weather is always sunny, beautiful and clear in the city by the bay, but this one day, out of the blue, it rains, because you need a plot device. It’s always a balmy 80 degrees in Palm Springs, but the snow fell in March of that year because you needed an icy runway. A good editor looks for these things.

Continuity: So and so’s girlfriend’s name was Melanie in chapter two but it’s Melinda in chapter four, then it changes back to Melanie in chapter five again. The store where he bought his hat was called Grott’s Lair in one chapter, and is now Lair’s Grotto in the next part. Diane was born in 1948, but twenty years ago, when she was 32 years old… see the problem there? At the end of chapter three, Larry was dangling from a rope off the side of a cliff. In chapter four, we go to Marv’s point of view. In chapter five, we see Cheryl’s point of view, and then in chapter six, we come back to Larry, who is now at home eating dinner with his son and wife at the family table. Unless Larry is regaling his family with the story of how he got off that cliff (which is expositional and really shouldn’t happen anyway), we’ve got a continuity problem.

Clarity: If at any time a reader asks themselves, “Uhm, what just happened here?” or says, “Wait a minute… I don’t understand…” then you have a problem that needs rewritten. Yes, I realize your beta readers have YOU to explain it to them. But that’s not good enough, unless you plan to read over every single reader’s shoulder and explain it to them too. If just one beta reader mentions something is confusing, that’s a sampling of all your readers–change it, even if you think it’s perfectly clear. ‘Cause if you have ten beta readers and one of them mentions something confusing and the others don’t, and then you turn around and sell 1000 copies of your book to people who all write reviews, that is 100 low-star reviews out of that thousand because you didn’t fix that problem. A good editor will help you with that.

Editors look for things like exposition, telling the story in the dialogue, story and plot and character consistency, and so much more, all before they ever even look grammar, sentence structure and punctuation. Yes, those things matter too, and I’ve seen some really poor grammatical editing in published indie books–so bad it made it hard to read them because they were confusing. After all, grammar and style are that way so that reading is easy, so there is no confusion, so that sentences make sense easily to the reader. You want your book to make sense, don’t you?

So if the editor you’re hiring ONLY wants to fix grammatical errors and punctuation and makes no comments about your characters, plot, consistency, etc, then hire another editor. And if you hire an editor who makes these comments, look at those suggestions. Don’t be so married to your work that you can’t consider the possibility that maybe it’s not perfect, that maybe you see if differently than someone who didn’t create that universe, world, person, story, etc.

And last, but definitely not least, don’t TRY too hard to impress. Don’t use flowery language that isn’t natural to you. When you find your voice, that language will come naturally. Don’t imitate another writer, and for goodness sake, don’t use cliches and conventions that are trite, overused, and obviously intended to increase the purpleness of your prose.

My point here is, be sure the reason you’re indie-publishing your books–assuming you are–is because you CHOOSE to for various reasons of your own, and not because you feel like you can’t make it in the mainstream trade publishing carnival.

I know the publishing system sucks in general for most writers. But I think, and I still believe this with all my heart, the system is set up for a reason the way that it is. It works. It forces writers to write their best, get vetted through a grueling process, so the strongest, most tenacious and oftentimes the best (though not always) rise to the top. Sure, someone with one really awesomely fantastic book might get overlooked, and that’s always a shame, but ultimately, someone who can write ten fantastic books in five years is going to get picked up before someone who can write one awesomely fantastic book in five years. The point is to find that balance and realize that the CAREER of being a fiction writer is about a lot more than just sitting down and writing books. It takes work, business savvy, some smarts, a lot of tenacity, having very little pride, and a whole lot of ego.

If you have that, you’ll make it in this business, whether you choose to indie publish or trade publish.

If you think you have an indie published book that will keep me turning pages beyond my bathroom break, I’m still looking for that one amazing diamond gem of an indie book that will keep me up all night flipping pages. A damned good book will do that regardless of genre–after all, THE HUNGER GAMES is a YA fantasy book, and I’m not into YA or fantasy really, and it had me up all night, two nights in a row. If you think your book can do that for me, put a link to it in the comments below and I’ll give you an honest review of it when I finish reading it. I’m still looking for an indie book to give me THAT experience. Is it yours?

Love and stuff,



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4 comments to One Reader’s Advice to Indie Authors

  • Rissa Watkins  says:

    Very good points- but I wanted to add- be sure the beta readers read in the genre you are writing.

    Scifi/fantasy rules are different from literary fiction or romance. I learned that lesson from my first crit group when I edited out all the voice from my first few chapters because of their suggestions. Luckily I had this amazing, red-headed mentor who helped me re-edited it and get my book back on track.

  • suzanne crane  says:

    I so totally agree. I’ve written what I think is a good first draft, others say they couldn’t put it down and was pretty much grammatically perfect, but the subject matter – a UK jazz club struggling to survive – means it probably would get turned down by mainstream publishers.

    I went to an indie publishing site, read through some of the stuff others had written, and realised my work would end up buried under acres of dross. Currently it’s languishing as a CD-Rom labelled “failed attempt to become a recognised author.”

    Jeeze, when you’re up against luminaries like Katie “Ghosted” Price …

  • GSBO  says:

    adore these kind of these include this 4 th two

  • silver  says:

    I have every reason to believe that in ten years’ time there will be a retail setting that everyone recognizes as the logical descendent of today’s retail bookstores. The trick for all of us is to juggle declining printed book sales with new products and new services and the appropriate amount of real estate in the right location. Hardly an easy task but if the indie community has anything going for it, it is the fact that we are a feisty, determined, creative bunch that love what we do. Taking a cue from some of the technologies that been so disruptive, collectively the indie community is crowd-sourcing the sustainable bookstore-like thing of tomorrow. One of us is going to figure this out.

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