Voting’s Like a Jar of Jellybeans. The earwax-flavoured kind.

There is a UK General Election today (at the time of writing). I’m talking British politics, but the principle remains the same for anyone with a vote, including the US people with local elections coming up, because local elections matter too.

I saw yet another article recently on People Who Don’t Vote. People granted space in the national news to express their views on why they don’t want to express their views. So, that’s bewilderingly pointless.

Actually, there should be more articles on people who don’t participate in the basic requirements of society. Maybe People Who Don’t Put Their Rubbish in the Bin (“What difference does one crisp wrapper make?”) and People Who Don’t Say Thank You When Doors Are Held Open (“It’s pointless, it doesn’t change anything,”) and People Who Watch Other People Fall Over And Don’t Try to Help (“Well, I don’t feel it’s anything to do with me, you know?”). Perhaps even People Who Refuse Point Blank to Give Their Opinion While The Office Party is Being Planned, And Then Sulk Because They Don’t Want to Go Bowling. I’ve often wondered what that’s about.

Let’s look at these.

“What difference does one vote make?”

Very little. It’s not meant to. You aren’t the Patrician.

Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote. (Terry Pratchett)

The point isn’t that you vote and then the country is run to your specification. The point is that we all vote and the country is run to an aggregate of our opinion. It’s like those ‘guess how many jellybeans are in the jar’ things. If you guess, you will be horribly wrong. If ten people guess, the average of their guesses will be closer to the right answer. If a hundred people guess, their average estimate will be surprisingly accurate.

It is obviously not the case that all elections end with a ‘right’ answer. It is particularly not the case when you have an electoral system like First Past the Post, as Britain does, which pretty much guarantees an unrepresentative result in a multi-party system. Nevertheless, the system is based on everyone giving their opinion and an overall result emerging, and remember, however much you may think the system sucks, you live in it. The only thing not voting achieves is to give extra weight to the voices of people who do vote, and their interests may not be yours. Because if you’re one of the 40% of people who don’t bother to guess the number of jellybeans, the other 60% will skew the result.

“It’s pointless, it doesn’t change anything.”

In the last election, 80% of over 65s voted, and only 47% of 18-24s did. As a direct result, we have a government very interested in protecting pensions, and completely unbothered by introducing tuition fees for students.

The ruling party, whatever it is, helps the groups likely to keep them in power at the expense of the groups who won’t. That is what governments do, because they want to stay in power. If you don’t want any particular government to stay in power, your options are as follows:

  • Plot a coup, raise a revolutionary army, march on Westminster singing rousing songs, string them all up from lampposts, become Military Dictator of New Britain, get a fluffy white cat or maybe a chair made of swords.
  • Vote.

All voting sends a message. Voting for a candidate who is nearest to your views but doesn’t stand a chance sends a message of ‘I want more and valid choice’ (and if enough people do it we may get electoral reform). Turning up and drawing a penis over your ballot paper sends a message about problematic disengagement of people from the current system, because they count up the spoiled ballots. And not voting sends a message about who can be safely ignored by every single party. Oh look, it’s you.

Incidentally, for the record, there is not one single UK MP with an outright majority of eligible voters. If we all voted, there wouldn’t be a safe seat in the country. Just saying.

 “I don’t feel it’s anything to do with me, you know?”

Then you’re not paying attention. If you live in a building, or get sick, or get old, or have children, or are LGBT, or ever leave the country, or have a job, or don’t have a job, or pay tax, or buy things, or breathe air, then politics affects you, and pretending it doesn’t is, frankly, ridiculous.

“I don’t want to go bowling!”

Then you should have said so at the point we asked for your opinion, and we might have made a different decision. But you didn’t say. And now it’s too late.

***

Voting isn’t a special treat for a special flower, let alone a magic wand. But it shapes the world you live in, it takes half an hour once every couple of years, and UK voters don’t even need a polling card: if you’re on the electoral register, you can just turn up.

And then we can get back to the far more interesting business of talking about books.

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KJ Charles can’t stand bowling, which is why she votes.

Nepal earthquake appeal: win signed books and literary immortality!

UPDATE: The auction has been won by the wonderful Beatrice Phan, who donated an incredible $625 to the Nepal fund, and whose doppelganger will be kicking arse and taking names in The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, out in June.

Nepal is in desperate need still. I’m running a fund here for the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal with an exclusive Think of England story as bribe!

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The death toll from the earthquake in Nepal stands at 3200 today, and will only rise with aftershocks, injuries and privation. This is one of the poorest countries on earth, its capital city and major sources of tourism income have been devastated, and it needs help. The fantastic Tiffany Reisz is running an auction here (seriously, she’s great) and this has inspired me to chuck in my own tuppence worth.

So, here we go:

IMG_20150427_105458302(1)

I’m offering a signed set of print copies of my Charm of Magpies series (The Magpie Lord, A Case of Possession, Flight of Magpies, Jackdaw)

PLUS

Your name, or that of a friend as you prefer and with their permission, to appear as a character in a forthcoming book (either The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal Victorian Gothic, publishing June 2015, or A Fashionable Indulgence Regency, publishing August 2015, both queer romance). There may well be an option for your namesake to die horribly, if you like that sort of thing. The name is going to have to fit with a Victorian or Regency setting, but I’ll work with you on that.

Please bid in the comments (on the WordPress site – this blog publishes to Goodreads too, but I need to keep it in one place for sanity’s sake. Visit here to bid if you’re reading this on Goodreads.) Just make a comment with your bid and don’t forget to include your email address (in the login thing is fine, I can see it there).

The winner will need to Paypal me the money, and I’ll send you the receipt of the donation made to Save the Children’s Nepal Earthquake fund.

The auction runs until Monday 4 May, because we need to get money over there promptly. Please share this and bid generously! And if you don’t win, please consider donating anyway, to a country in desperate straits.

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Edit: I didn’t think about currency, duh. For ease of auctioning, please could you bid in US$, and we’ll convert if need be?

Edit 2: OK, this is going startlingly well. Allow me to throw in a copy of the Secret Casebook, and a dedication, because seriously, I love you.

How Not To Be Listened To

I got an email today.

Dear KJ

I’d really like you to write about different subjects. I know you mostly write historical queer romance but I preferred your contemporary m/f action thriller and I’d love you to write more of that instead.

Obviously, historical/fantasy romance is where you write and sell the most books, so I’m asking you to move away from your core readership and the stuff you most like writing. And I should admit that I never buy books, so I won’t pay to read your books, or anyone else’s. Also, if you do write another book of the kind I like, I won’t tell anyone about it: I never discuss books online or with friends, I don’t have a blog, and I don’t review on Goodreads or Amazon or anywhere.

Nevertheless, please take my opinion into account and change the way you do things. Thanks!

Now, I liked my action thriller, and so did a few readers, and I’d gladly write more given tangible encouragement. But this guy…you’re not offering me any sort of inducement to listen to you but you want me to move down a path that I don’t trust to do well? Wow, why not just head the email, ‘Please ignore me’?

***

I think you’ve probably worked out that wasn’t a real email.

Today is the last day for Brits to register to vote in the forthcoming election. There may be 7.5 million people unregistered to vote. POC, women, the disabled and young people are disproportionately represented in the non-voting. And with an election this tight, this unpredictable, those votes could make a massive difference.

I know people are apathetic, disillusioned, unrepresented or frankly repelled by the current state of politics. Believe me, I know. I look at my choice for 7 May and it makes me feel slightly ill. And I know it doesn’t feel like politicians give a damn, or that one vote makes a difference in the tide of slurry.

But if you don’t vote, your opinions don’t count. If you don’t give the politicians a reason to give a monkey’s about you, they won’t.

In the last election, 80% of over 65s voted, and only 47% of 18-24s did. Amazingly, our government has been more interested in pensions and inheritance tax than in tuition fees or tackling the housing crisis for the young. The LibDems made promises about tuition fees in the hope of getting the 18-24 vote; they dropped those promises like a hot rock because they didn’t feel young people made it worth their while to keep them. Groups that don’t vote don’t get represented by politicians to the same degree as those that do. Well, why would they?

Register to vote, please. Encourage others to register. Spread the word that today, 20 April, is the last day to register online. It takes five minutes, and you don’t need your national insurance number if you don’t have it to hand.

And remember that not registering, not voting, is a message to politicians too, and what it says is, ‘Please ignore me.’

The Multiple-Choice Book Review

Amazon.com have added a system of drop-down menus for reviewers to use. This will be very handy for all those people who have read a book and gone to Amazon with the express intention of leaving a review, only to find themselves unable to think of any words.

There’s a summary here along with a useful graphic of the various menus:

amazonI’m pretty sure it could use a few more options. (You know, like how there may be other metrics to judge plot than ‘surprise!’, and how we distinguish that simple topic ‘writing’ in a slightly more nuanced way than okay vs good.) So, all-round helpful person that I am, I’ve come up with a few other drop-down menus Amazon could add, in order to bring us all to a real, close, yet fully multiple-choice understanding of every book ever written. I think this should cover it nicely.

What did this book make you feel?

  • Joy
  • Mild to severe discomfort
  • Wistful yearning
  • Sexual desire for a billionaire
  • Seething hatred of one or more characters / the author
  • Anomie
  • Weltzschmertz

Why do you think the author wrote this book?

  • To bring joy to humanity
  • Over-confidence
  • Couldn’t afford therapy
  • Demonic possession

Does this book include krakens?

  • No cephalopods, sea monsters or Lovecraftian beasts whatsoever
  • Some tentacular activity
  • HORROR IN THE DEEP

If this book was an animal what would it be?

  • Cute puppy
  • Fluffy kitten
  • Dragonfly, fragile yet iridescent in its beauty
  • Filthy lumbering hog
  • Kraken

What is this book worth to you?

  • Toenail clippings (discarded)
  • 1-3 hours of my time
  • Firstborn child
  • Later-born but secretly preferred child

How will the author respond to a bad review, in your opinion?

  • Obliviousness
  • Unconvincing gratitude
  • Flounce
  • Social media meltdown (two or more platforms)

What book should the author have written instead?

  • Her last one, over and over again, forever
  • This one, but with a different hero and maybe a different plot
  • One with pictures of cats
  • A much shorter one

What is your favourite colour? [This question is compulsory.]

  • Puce
  • Taupe
  • Madder
  • Gamboge

I look forward to seeing these enhancements to the multiple-choice reviewing experience, and welcome further suggestions in the comments.

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KJ Charles is

  • a freelance editor
  • a romance author
  • inclined to sarcasm
  • going on holiday

 I’ll be back in mid April, see you then-ish. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. And feel free to swoon at the cover for A Fashionable Indulgence! (Loveswept, August, since you ask.)Fashionable Indulgence_03_04_15

Terry Pratchett and common humanity

Terry Pratchett, dead at 66, was a humanist, in the best and widest sense. It is impossible to read him without getting a sense of his huge compassion, a deep understanding and acceptance of people in all their flaws, petty and huge. I think it may be this that made his passing a source of active grief to so many. People wept. I wept. I sat on the bed with Reaper Man, and read the scene where Death begs a little more time for Miss Flitwick, and cried big, snotty, ugly tears, because I didn’t want him to be gone. (Or, more specifically, because I wanted him not to have had Alzheimer’s, not to have had his mind taken from him so cruelly early, to be alive and well.)

‘Compassion’ is one of those words. Terry Pratchett was not a twinkly jolly kindly uncle, nor was he a flaccid liberal. The body count in his books is high. There is retribution. Death comes with a sword as well as a scythe. It’s fantasy, and the heroes kill monsters, but the monsters are not dragons and trolls; they are us. He loathed the idea of meaningless forgiveness and the ‘can’t we all just get along?’ school of argument. Hogfather, his great attack on shallow sentimentality (“Real children do not go hoppity skip unless they are on drugs”), skewers this perfectly, with its well-meaning department store display of Dolls of All Nations playing the song ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice If Everyone Was Nice’.

Pratchett’s compassion was not sentimental: it was fierce, and angry, and uncompromising. But it was still compassion, and not the ‘compassion’ offered by some religions which entails torturing people for their own good. (Small Gods is a roar of rage against that.) He offered a clear-sighted look at humanity, and an intense belief in our capacity for good as well as evil. This line from Reaper Man says everything. (Death speaks in capitals, incidentally, and without quotation marks.)

THERE IS NO HOPE BUT US. THERE IS NO MERCY BUT US. THERE IS NO JUSTICE. THERE IS JUST US.

That is humanism: accepting the moral responsibility for ourselves because there’s nobody else to give it to us, and knowing that if we don’t take that responsibility, if we don’t provide the hope and mercy, and the justice as well, our night will be long and dark indeed.

I believe in freedom. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based.

(Going Postal)

I grew up reading Pratchett, from his early fantasy parodies, watching him mature into not just a deeply wise thinker, but a superb stylist. As a genre writer, I am prickly about the dismissiveness with which genre is treated, the relentless belittling of I don’t read that stuff and Why would you write that rubbish. Pratchett is one of the great writers who show precisely what genre can do, that it can be as well written and say as much as any kind of writing. It took a very long time for him to get critical as well as popular recognition for his skill, in part because he wrote not just fantasy but comic fantasy, of all the low-status things. (Some people apparently don’t understand that any half-arser can throw in terrible human suffering to give their book Deep Meaning, whereas it’s actually hard to write a good joke.)

He used his world of swords and sorcery, silly names and funny gods, to say so much, as well as so cleverly. He filled his books with so many good jokes that you’re still spotting new ones on the tenth reading. (There are two rival clans in his fantasy city, the Selachii and the Venturi. Look up selachii. Know that ‘venturi’ is an air flow, or jet. Kick yourself.) At his best he wrote with magnificent wit and precision, with his narrative description as compelling as his action scenes. He was passionately committed to the value of laughter and the value of imagination.

HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

(Hogfather)

We have lost a great man and a great writer. Yesterday his legacy was visible: so many people exchanging quotes, naming favourite books, glorying in his work. Tomorrow I hope his legacy will be every genre writer writing with pride, as well as she possibly can, and every one of the millions who read his books remembering what he had to say about imagination, and laughter, and compassion. And, most of all, about facing up to our duties to one another, not just to ourselves.

As it happens, this week in romance was distinguished by some fairly crappy stuff. An article in the official publication of Romance Writers of America recommended that authors could avoid losing sales by remaining ‘neutral’ on ‘polarising’ subjects such as equal rights for LGBT people and racist police brutality. (Not in those words, needless to say. Summary here.) This was along with a particularly disgusting business of authors making 50 Shades jokes about the rape of a 14-year-old black slave, and a flurry of defence in which people literally tried to explain away the problems inherent in turning the actual life of an enslaved woman into either a romance or a BSDM fantasy, for God’s sake, what the hell is wrong with you?

Well, Terry Pratchett knew what the hell was wrong with you, and here it is, in a comic fantasy about vampires, during a conversation between people with silly names.

” […] sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that–”

“No it ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes–”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things.”

(Carpe Jugulum)

Rest in peace, Terry Pratchett. I leave you with a quote from Sourcery that means everything to me, as romance author:

“And what would humans be without love?”

RARE, said Death.

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If you have not read Terry Pratchett, don’t start from the beginning. Go for Reaper Man, Hogfather, Thief of Time, The Truth or Going Postal, all of which work standalone. Then go back and start the Guards sequence from Guards, Guards! and the Witches sequence from Wyrd Sisters. Then read all the other ones.

Comments about Terry Pratchett, shared quotes and memories and requests for recommendations, are very welcome.

Comments defending the slave book, or any other aspects of the associated row, will get you kicked off here so hard you’ll bounce.

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KJ Charles is a freelance editor and writer. Her most recent release is Jackdaw, published by Samhain. Think of England  won Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll.

My Book is My Baby! (Now pass me the wet wipes.)

We’ve all come across this metaphor. It’s a cry of ownership, a plea for kindness, a go-to excuse for displays of hurt feelings and bad behaviour at negative reviews. “My book is my baby! I love it! What you say about my book hurts me!”

This metaphor is of course very easy to mock. Thus: I don’t put my baby up for sale on Amazon; I don’t think a poorly baby can be made better by cutting 20% of its length; it is not good practice to put a misbehaving baby in a drawer and forget about it for six months. Et cetera. You can entertain yourself with this on Twitter for hours. But there is a serious reason why this is a bad metaphor, which is worth looking at in depth.

Consider what the ‘book as baby’ metaphor conveys: you create a thing, you love it, and you feel deeply protective of it. The metaphor holds up fine for the first two points with a book. You conceived the idea of a book, gestated it at some cost to yourself, brought it into the world with hard work; hopefully you’re pretty proud of the end result.

The problem is point three, the protectiveness.

The thing about a human baby is that it is incredibly, frighteningly helpless. You can’t even pick them up at first without cradling their oversized heads in case their necks snap. Drop it, shake it, hit it, and it could die right there. Babies survive only because they have adult defenders. We are wired to protect them: most people feel an incredible repulsion at the idea of harming any baby, and when you actually bond with one, you will put its existence above your own and, yes, defend it to the hilt from the least insult. Because if you are cruel about my baby, there is an outside chance you might be cruel to my baby, and before I let that happen I will rip off your arm and beat you to death with the wet end. That’s parental protectiveness at work, and it’s necessary because babies are so very easy to hurt.

Whereas, to state the glaringly, gibberingly obvious: You can’t hurt books.

A book isn’t a human baby, it’s a crocodile. It crawls out of the shell fully formed, mobile, independent, and ready to bite things. You should give it a helpful nudge towards the water with marketing, sure. But a protection response is as unnecessary and stupid as if you picked up a baby crocodile and tried to give it a nurturing cuddle, or maybe breastfeed. (Don’t do that.) A bad review may feel like someone throwing mud at your baby, which is just one step away from throwing rocks, PARENTAL MURDER DEATH KILL RESPONSE TRIGGERED. But actually they’re throwing mud at a crocodile ambling by. And the crocodile doesn’t give a toss.

Someone may give your book one star. They may quote it unfairly or make inaccurate assessments. They may do a review on Goodreads with animated gifs to indicate how much they don’t like it. But the book continues to exist, undented by that dislike. The book will not carry the review with it as a bleeding wound, it will not have its final chapter leeched away by the power of negative criticism. A hypersensitive parent of a baby may perceive an insult as a threat, and react accordingly. But an insult to a book isn’t a threat, and carries no risk of harm. It’s just a bad review.

You know who can kill your baby crocodile? You, the author. You can create a crappy three-legged crocodile in the first place. You can kill your crocodile before it leaves the egg by refusing to take editorial advice that might change the way your baby looks. (It looks like a goddamn crocodile. Get over it.) And you can destroy it when it’s out by screaming, “DON’T YOU DARE HURT MY PRECIOUS BABY YOU BITCH I WILL CUT YOU,” at the first person to chuck a handful of mud, until you’ve attracted a full-on stone-throwing retaliatory mob. (Because if you don’t like your book being attacked, well, reviewers don’t much like their reviews being attacked either, and still less a personal assault.)

You cannot and should not try to curate every reader’s response to your book. It’s published, you launched it, now it’s going to have to cope for itself out there in the swamp. Maybe it will thrive, maybe it won’t, but that’s its problem because it is not your baby, and your responsibility for nurturing ended at the point you hit ‘publish’. Go forth, little crocodile! Fly! (Or whatever, I’m not a naturalist.)Hogarth Croc

And this is why I never want to see ‘My books are my babies’ again. Because it’s a fundamentally inaccurate metaphor that conveys exactly the wrong message about what the author’s relationship to a published work should be.

Just let it go, lay some more eggs, and hope at least one of them grows.

lake placid

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KJ Charles is a freelance editor and metaphorical crocodile farmer. Her most recent release is Jackdaw, published by Samhain. Think of England  won Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll.

This post is not an endorsement of Lake Placid, from which the above still is taken. Nothing is an endorsement of Lake Placid.

Flying crocodile by MCA Hogarth, gloriously!

When Publishers Fail: publishing and author service

So there’s this book, recently out, looks exactly my cup of tea, and a friend I trust recommended it wholeheartedly. Woop! I zoomed off to one-click, saw the publisher, and stopped.

Oh, I thought. It’s published by them. Meh. I’ll get the sample first.

I’ve abandoned several books from this publisher in the past because I’d found the editing unacceptably poor. I now hesitated, very seriously, over buying a book that I wanted–because the publisher was a significant strike against it.

And yes, I’m a nitpicking editor, but here’s something I read just today from the excellent romance book/food blogger Elisabeth Lane:

I recently closed my blog to unsolicited ARC submissions and I’m slowly working through a very small backlog of Netgalley advance titles. I don’t think I’ll be opening it back up any time soon. The reason is at least partially aesthetic. There are a lot of badly-written, badly-edited books out there. … I’m tired of feeling like I have to sort through a ton of chaff to get to the wheat […]

I had stopped enjoying myself. I’d read so many bad books in a row–books with no conflict, books with glimmers of a strong voice that wasn’t fully realized, books with dubious or incoherent themes and moral positions, books with cardboard characters that never move beyond archetypes and yes, books with typos, grammar errors, missing words and other mechanical defects in inexcusable quantities.

Now, if you’re self published and you decide not to use an editor, that’s your business decision. But if you’re with a publisher who doesn’t edit–if they make the business decision to put out your book in poor shape because they don’t know or care that it should be better, if their imprimatur is not a guarantee of anything like quality, if their editing is no better than you’d get from your mate who reads lots of books, if bloggers and readers are looking at your book and saying, Meh…remind me why you’re handing over 60% net receipts again?

Publishing is an author service industry. Publishers provide a set of services to make the book good, an imprimatur to tell people it’s good, a sales and marketing structure to get the book to readers; and they take all the financial risk for these things. In return for these services, the publisher gets a cut of the book’s revenues. When publishers fail to provide these services, when their imprint is no longer a guarantee of quality, the reason for authors to give them money disappears.

There are publishers that don’t pay for proofreading. There are those whose editorial fees are absurdly below professional rates, which makes you wonder who’s doing the work, and how fast they have to do it to eat. There are some that don’t pay editors at all and simply use people who do it ‘for love’, or, to put that in French, amateurs.  I’m well aware editing is a huge cost, of course, especially to small publishers. But if I go to a cake shop and ask for a cake, I don’t expect to be handed a bowl of raw flour, eggs and butter, on the grounds that ovens are just too expensive so they decided not to bake the damn thing. (For the avoidance of doubt: I am not talking about my own publishers, with whom I am extremely happy.)

Of course, it’s very easy to say, ‘Don’t go with a publisher that doesn’t edit properly!’ but let’s be honest, most aspiring authors would sign pretty much anything, with anyone, to get the first book published. (“Beelzebub Books, Inc? My name in blood? Sure!”) But as you develop a few books, a readership, a sales history, you can look at the deal again, as well as at what’s being offered to the reading public with your name on it. Because if the trad pub deal ceases to be worthwhile–if it doesn’t include good editing, cover design, marketing support, the halo effect of being with a respected publisher, a decent royalty split–authors can and should move to other publishers, or self pub, or a hybrid publishing strategy without a second’s hesitation. Once again: the publisher’s split of the receipts is their payment for services. If you’re not getting adequate service, why are you paying?

Don’t get me wrong: I love publishing. I believe in it as a good thing for authors and readers and the future of books. As an author, I would far rather be with a publisher, big or small, and work and succeed together. (That’s not to disrespect self publishers, it’s simply my personal preference.) As a reader, I want to be able to one-click a book with a blithe certainty that it will be properly edited and proofread simply because it carries a publisher’s imprimatur. But to make that work, publishers have to serve their authors properly, because if they don’t they will lose both authors and readers. Which is why a publisher that skimps on those obligations to its authors  is chipping away at its own future.

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ThinkOfEngland72webKJ Charles is a very happily published romance author with Samhain and, coming this summer, Loveswept. She’s also a freelance editor with twenty years’ publishing experience. Her latest book is Jackdaw, out now, and her novel Think of England just won Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll.