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.

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Jackdaw release day!

Just a quickie to say that Jackdaw is here, should you be into chaotic criminals with unusual magical gifts, ex-lovers with a serious grudge, vengeful law enforcers, Cornwall, rugby-playing heroes, villains trying to go straight (as it were), or people who read Dickens.

For those who want a bit of extra stuff…

  • Graphic novel prequel by Lyudmila Tsapaeva here.
  • Blog post on Cornwall, with pictures and extract, here.
  • Blog post on sympathy for villains, with giveaway, here.
  • Blog post on how to write a convincing redemption arc here.
  • Book here: Publisher, Amazon UK, Amazon US
  • Five-star reviews at Sinfully, My Fiction Nook (spoilers), Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words. 
  • The first book in the Charm of Magpies series, The Magpie Lord, is on special offer across all retailers at the time of writing, at 99c and local equivalents, so if you’re not sure, now is the time to try it for cheap. Amazon.com
  • My Facebook group can be found here, if you like in depth book chat, teasers, and early looks at stuff.

Right. I have launched Jackdaw, which is part of my Victorian paranormal Charm of Magpies series. I have finished book 1 of my Society of Gentlemen trilogy, where Regency exquisite meets Radical revolutionary. I now need to jump back into a different Victorian paranormal world for The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. This is my brain right now:

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See you on the other side.

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If you stop running, you fall.jackdaw small

Jonah Pastern is a magician, a liar, a windwalker, a professional thief…and for six months, he was the love of police constable Ben Spenser’s life. Until his betrayal left Ben jailed, ruined, alone, and looking for revenge.

Ben is determined to make Jonah pay. But he can’t seem to forget what they once shared, and Jonah refuses to let him. Soon Ben is entangled in Jonah’s chaotic existence all over again, and they’re running together—from the police, the justiciary, and some dangerous people with a lethal grudge against them.

Threatened on all sides by betrayals, secrets, and the laws of the land, can they find a way to live and love before the past catches up with them?

This story is set in the world of the Charm of Magpies series.

Jackdaw: Valentine’s Day. The Graphic Novel.

My new book Jackdaw releases on 17 February.  And I have the mother of all teasers for you.

“Jackdaw: Valentine’s Day” is a Jackdaw prequel, drawn by the magnificently talented artist Lyudmila Tsapaeva. It features our heroes Ben and Jonah, who appears in the previous book Flight of Magpies, and as you will see, things are going swimmingly for them.

Individual pages follow, and there’s a pdf link at the bottom for download.

Happy Valentine’s Day from me and Lyudmila. I hope yours is better than Ben and Jonah’s…

Jackdaw Valentine's Day(1)-1
02(3)

03

 

04(1)

 

05(2)

06

Jackdaw Valentine’s Day(1)

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If you stop running, you fall.jackdaw small

Jonah Pastern is a magician, a liar, a windwalker, a professional thief…and for six months, he was the love of police constable Ben Spenser’s life. Until his betrayal left Ben jailed, ruined, alone, and looking for revenge.

Ben is determined to make Jonah pay. But he can’t seem to forget what they once shared, and Jonah refuses to let him. Soon Ben is entangled in Jonah’s chaotic existence all over again, and they’re running together—from the police, the justiciary, and some dangerous people with a lethal grudge against them.

Threatened on all sides by betrayals, secrets, and the laws of the land, can they find a way to live and love before the past catches up with them?

This story is set in the world of the Charm of Magpies series.

Confessions of an Irritable Romance Novelist

Someone wrote an article (‘Confessions of a Failed Romance Novelist’) for the National Post on how she tried to knock out a romance novel to make lots of money. If you are a romance reader/writer, you can save time by screaming and throwing something at the wall now, rather than reading it.

Edited highlights follow. Get your bingo cards out.

Comes from a position of ignorance and contempt:

“From what I gather the [typical romance novel] plots are simple and the characters’ emotional lives not terribly complex. Also, the sex or some sex act needs to happen way before the 100 page mark,” [my agent] wrote me.

[Note to author of article: Your agent is terrible. Get a new agent.]

Does no research before writing:

I attempted to revive [romance career after publishing the book] by borrowing some Harlequins. I wanted to surprise myself; maybe I would actually like the real thing. Maybe I would be able to imitate it.

Is better and more intellectual than dumbo romance readers:

I decided the world was ready for a book about love with many subplots, dealing in experiences more complicated than a sudden, early outburst of butterflies. …

[used to read Harlequin as a tween but] I read Lolita for the first time and my literary tastes were irrevocably ruined.

Feels compelled to make gratuitous ‘romance writers are fat and ugly’ snipe:

I put on my ugliest glasses, squished my face into my hand to affect a triple chin, and took a picture of myself [for the fake author persona].

Disdains the lively and committed community of readers, reviewers and writers:

I started befriending people like some crazy creep, initially by joining groups that dealt with romance writing and reviewing. In three weeks, I racked up more than 1,000 friends … I didn’t have the time to engage with other fake people. What I learned from my friend and from Facebook, the romance-novel writing community required a sense of mutuality: you review them and they review you.

[For the record, I am aware backscratching reviews happen. I have never been approached by anyone to request this. Maybe nobody likes me.]

So anyway, this book, written with contempt for and ignorance of the genre, didn’t sell. Shocker.

I used to edit at Harlequin Mills & Boon. Every editor had a teetering pile of romance slush submissions two or three feet high by her desk, not to mention the unclaimed five-foot mounds surrounding the photocopier. On Friday afternoons, when I felt too lazy to edit, I’d sit there and power through two feet of people’s hopes and dreams at a time. Now, with slush, what you most want is a brilliant, perfect book that you can carry in triumph to an editorial meeting. Second is a flawed yet excitingly redeemable MS. Third preference is something you can reject on sight, without further ado. Seriously, there is a reason we don’t send everyone a personal letter. The piles are big.

(‘Reject on sight’ may sound unfair, but you develop a knack. An agent was famously asked if he could really judge a MS based on just three chapters. He replied that you can tell if a MS is no good based on three chapters, often one chapter, sometimes the first page, occasionally the covering letter, and, in extreme cases, the envelope. This is 100% true, as any experienced slush pile reader will testify.)

I saw so many ‘knock it out for the money’ submissions in the slush pile. So many clichéd, spark-free, lifeless, lazy, dull, grating, cranked-out MSS that someone had the unmitigated gall to think ‘would do for Mills & Boon’, without knowing the trade, or the market, or the readership. With the very natural desire to make money by writing, but completely lacking the bit where the author wanted to write the book, or had any gift/inclination for doing so.

I loved those submissions. Adored them. I could drop in the preprinted rejection slip after reading one single paragraph, and that was another slush knocked off!

And that’s what I see when I read these ‘I tried to write a romance’ pieces. Authors who wouldn’t get a single full page of a MS read by a work-dodging editor on a Friday afternoon. I mean, seriously, if you’re going to be shallow and money-grubbing, at least do it well.

There is a mildly insightful line in this article:

But the work of creative writing is something else, it seems. I have to believe in it, non-cynically, otherwise who is possibly going to believe me?

This is true, if obvious. Romance is a genre powered by emotion. Authors can and should treat writing as a business. But the business of romance is to get endorphins flowing, hearts pounding, tears starting, pages turning. A romance author who can’t do that is as much use as a thriller writer who can’t kick off the adrenalin response, or a horror novelist who can’t pry into your limbic system and set off the shudders. And you cannot write real, convincing emotions if you’re knocking out a cynical exercise by numbers in a spirit of uninterested contempt.

So if you intend to sit down and write a bad book in a spirit of greed and ignorance, make it a hard SF or conspiracy techno-thriller, okay? It won’t be any easier or better, but I won’t ever know about it because I don’t read them, and that will save me a lot of irritation.

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KJ Charles is a romance writer and freelance editor. Jackdaw is out on 17 February.

If you stop running, you fall.jackdaw small

Jonah Pastern is a magician, a liar, a windwalker, a professional thief…and for six months, he was the love of police constable Ben Spenser’s life. Until his betrayal left Ben jailed, ruined, alone, and looking for revenge.

Ben is determined to make Jonah pay. But he can’t seem to forget what they once shared, and Jonah refuses to let him. Soon Ben is entangled in Jonah’s chaotic existence all over again, and they’re running together—from the police, the justiciary, and some dangerous people with a lethal grudge against them.

Threatened on all sides by betrayals, secrets, and the laws of the land, can they find a way to live and love before the past catches up with them?

This story is set in the world of the Charm of Magpies series.

The Still Small Voice of Doom: feeling flaky about your MS

I finished my MS the other day. I tend to edit as I go, so it was fairly clean. Everything had gone as per the synopsis. And I’d finished early. Yay! (I have four deadlines this year, I need to get on).

I told Mr KJC I’d reached The End. He said, “So have you sent it to the editor?” I said, No, I’ll send it to beta readers first. He said, “Well, have you sent it to them?” I said, Not yet. I’ll do that now.

I sent it to my beta readers. I twitched. I fretted.

Mr KJC said, “Why are you fretting?” I said, I’m not fretting.

Mr KJC said, “Why don’t just you send it to the editor, whose job it is to read your MS?” I said, I want to do some pre flight checks. Make sure the timeline’s okay. See if the readers spot anything.

Mr KJC said, “I’m pretty sure editors do that. I’ve been married to an editor for a decade, I know this.” I said, Yes, well, it’s my first book with a new publisher. I’m just being tidy.

Mr KJC said, “Are you wanting to make sure Teacher doesn’t tell you off?” I suggested he might shut up.

Then one of my beta readers texted me and said she liked it but wasn’t sure how the ending fitted the story. And I nodded and went about my business doing other things, and three days after that, I sat at my desk and said aloud, “Of course it doesn’t bloody work.”

It didn’t work. It didn’t work (since you ask) because it was making a big dramatic number out of an insufficiently significant plot strand, because it didn’t weave in the other main plot strands, because it ignored the Big Massive Existing Threat that touches on the entire cast of the whole trilogy in favour of a small localised threat that actually the heroes had already confronted successfully. It was, structurally, crap.

And I knew it.

That’s why I was finding all kinds of reasons not to do what you do with a finished MS, i.e. send it to the editor. Because it wasn’t finished, and I knew it wasn’t finished, but I had typed The End and I wanted it to be finished, and so I was ignoring the Voice.

You know the Voice. The one in your head quietly going, um, not really sure that’s…hey, aren’t you just jamming that in…what about that abandoned strand…are you sure that fits there? The one that niggles at that one little line every time you pass over it: are you just going to let this sit here? The one that is soft and mild and persistent and will not go away.

I’m not talking about the grating voice that says You can’t write books, who do you think you are? and Why aren’t you doing something better and more important, you loser? I mean the persistent little niggling wobbly-loose-tooth Voice that you don’t even really notice, except that you keep telling yourself, Sure the ending’s fine and Yeah, I can retcon it, build it up in editing and Well, it’s just a different sort of plot structure, that’s all, and That’s just a detail, tidy it up later.

The Voice talked to me a lot during the doomed first version of Magpie 3 where I ended up dumping 30K words. Hello, old friend, we meet again.

Thing is, though, the Voice knows its business. The ending was wrong, sure. But when I went over the MS and picked up the other little tiny points that the Voice had been niggling and nibbling and chewing at all along, they slotted together like jigsaw pieces to form a picture of a better ending. One that ties in the key themes to become proportionate and relevant, and which will do a hell of a lot more towards the two linked books. It’s pretty obvious this should have been the ending all along (duh), and the Voice was itching at me to see that, but I had an apparently perfectly good synopsis and a deadline, so I ignored it. More fool me.

One day I will listen to the Voice while I’m writing, rather than before I reach the end of the draft. One day. Meanwhile, the following:

  • If you’re feeling niggled at while you write, find a trusty beta reader to read the incomplete MS. That will help keep you on track and it’s always useful to have people’s thoughts on where the story is going.
  • Small pointless details that niggle at you are probably not small and pointless after all. Listen to your subconscious.
  • We all feel that this is the worst MS ever at some point. Ignore that feeling. But if you keep on thinking about/circling round/justifying something to yourself, especially if it’s specific rather than general self-doubt, you might as well face up to it now.
  • If you’re actively finding reasons not to send a finished MS off, it’s time to go hunting for the bits that made the voice say, Ummm…
  • Editors can fix this stuff. If you have an in-house editor, ask for help. If not, and you can stump up for a development editor, that’s what we do. Even if we’re not, apparently, fantastic at doing it for ourselves.

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KJ Charles is rewriting. Jackdaw is out on 17 February.

If you stop running, you fall.jackdaw small

Jonah Pastern is a magician, a liar, a windwalker, a professional thief…and for six months, he was the love of police constable Ben Spenser’s life. Until his betrayal left Ben jailed, ruined, alone, and looking for revenge.

Ben is determined to make Jonah pay. But he can’t seem to forget what they once shared, and Jonah refuses to let him. Soon Ben is entangled in Jonah’s chaotic existence all over again, and they’re running together—from the police, the justiciary, and some dangerous people with a lethal grudge against them.

Threatened on all sides by betrayals, secrets, and the laws of the land, can they find a way to live and love before the past catches up with them?

This story is set in the world of the Charm of Magpies series.