Thursday 5 March 2015

The Editorial Standards of Modern Readers

An unopened book is like a pretty girl: She may be as intelligent as Einstein or dumb as a bag of biscuits—you won't know until she speaks. Similarly, you won't know until you've read a few words whether you have an intelligent book or just an attractive cover filled with silicone. I may have mixed my metaphor a bit, there.

Most readers are willing to go with the flow, provided an author does not prove himself unworthy. But something I came across made me wonder what modern readers consider worthy.

In a discussion between a potential reader and a writer who was close to releasing her first book, the reader encouraged her to publish, even if there were still typos, because modern publishing platforms allow you to fix those later.

This made me wonder: For the modern reader, what are the vital requirements which constitute a good book? Each of us has their personal preferences and pet peeves, of course, but what are the base minimums? The reader mentioned above was obviously not too worried about typos. Would he be turned off by poor grammar? What about poor story structure?

This topic often arises when indie authors talk amongst themselves and it tends to separate those who hired professional editors from those who didn't. The writers who shelled out big bucks to have their work professionally edited hold themselves and their peers to a high standard and are frustrated when lesser works sell; or don't sell, but muddy the literary waters.

Authors who self-edit argue that while they appreciate what a professional edit can do, they have worked extra hard to attain a level of perfection sufficient to deliver an entertaining story. They may be right, but going through a thorough edit is like having a baby: It's often painful and it can only be appreciated by those who have done it.

Before my novel was edited, I had thoroughly poured over it at least six times and had nine very picky readers read it. I was lucky enough that one of them was a trained editor. She caught some issues, but  she could not afford to apply her full efforts in doing a favour for a friend. By the time I sent it to my team of professional editors, I was confident that they would find very little. When I got it back, however, I was startled by the number of things they urged me to alter. Now, I know that despite my best efforts, without that $4000 professional edit, my book could not stand shoulder to shoulder with the best-edited, traditionally published literature.

Authors of professionally edited material tend to blame the rise of indie-published books for the problem of poor editing in published work, but more than 20 years ago I felt the standards slipping in traditional publishing when I came across a novel in which the exact same paragraph occurred twice; once near the start and again, at the end. It was the largest error I had ever seen in a mainstream, printed novel. Since then, I've seen entire chapters out of place, character names suddenly change and homonyms in place of the proper word; symptoms of the computer age of "cut and paste," "search and replace," shorter turn-around times and and ever-increasing work loads.

Over the last three months, I've read ten indie-authored titles. Of these, one I regard as of the highest quality, two were solidly professional. A fourth was especially disappointing because the calibre of writing was high, and the idea was fresh and exciting but it needed to have about 50,000 words thrown away. The remaining six were plagued by typos, grammatical issues, storyline problems and poor characterization. All things that could have been fixed, given a thorough edit. In my view, their entertainment value was critically impaired by this lack of editing.

I complained about this in one LinkedIn discussion group and several highly-rated indie books were recommended to me.  I'm about 80 pages into one now and have only found 5 typos, one lazy character description and one or two awkward sentences. For me, this is entirely readable. I would gladly rate it: 2 stars. However, it's a prize-winner and widely read; a success. By definition and by reader approval: A 5-star novel.

Amazon's Kindle Writer's Cafe hosts articles by some indie authors who made hundreds of thousands of dollars from their books. These authors have kindly become mentors, openly sharing their secrets for success. For most, of them it boils down to quantity. In one remarkable case, the author pumped out 18 books in 15 months! I looked up some of her work and was surprised that what little I read was not bad—3 stars. But there's a limit to the quality one can maintain when writing that fast.

It all comes down to modern readers. Everyday, they are casting votes with their pocketbooks and sending us all messages about what constitutes an acceptable novel.

If what I've seen is any indication, the answer is that readers have become very tolerant of the format and hungry for the message. Popular fiction is candy. No surprise there.

The question, then, for writers is: Should we take advantage of this tolerance or should we keep struggling to raise the bar?

And, if so: How high should we loft it, and for whom?

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