Friday, May 14, 2010

What Makes You Happy?

This whole post is TOP SECRET and will hopefully self-destruct after you've read it ... but I've been involved in this weird episode lately. One of my gigs is editing for a very, very, very large POD self-publishing company. I can't really say which one, and I can't get into specifics at all here, but just bear with me.

Basically, when a self-pubber signs up with a POD press, they have an option to buy various publishing packages. I'm one of the contract editors who might end up with their manuscript if they buy a certain level of editing. Most of the time, I don't think about the writers themselves—I do a lot of these books, so it's just another editing job. But sometimes I'll look up the person and see who they are.

One of the books I recently edited was a YA book, and I felt moved to look the author up. Turns out she's keeping a blog about her experience with this POD company. So there I was, reading about her experience of me doing my job and the various travails of waiting, spending thousands of dollars, and her relatively high anxiety level over the future of her book and her decision to use a POD press.

Boy. Talk about living in a world of mirrors.

I finished her book and sent it back to the publisher. But I was unsettled. For the first time, one of these authors had become real to me, and I could totally empathize with her mix of anxiety, insecurity and pride in her book. At the same time, I knew almost objectively that she has no real chance of selling this book. It's a virtual knock-off of another best-selling book, with major problems of its own, and she'll face all the obstacles any POD author faces.

Part of me felt sleazy for doing this kind of work at all. But then ... part of me felt like, at least in this case, I had the ability to give her part of the experience she was looking for. So after I sent the book back, I contacted the publisher and asked them if I'd be allowed to generate an editorial letter. They said yes (even though it's not required), so I whipped up a 2-page critique of her book on a meta-level. I wasn't overly harsh, but I gave her my straight opinion on the fairly major things that need to be fixed. I signed it Your Editor.

I've been waiting these past few days to see what would happen next and how she would react to my letter and the job I did. Today, she updated her blog with a happy post about how she's "loving" the POD experience and I did a "quality" edit. She also said she was so happy to be self-publishing because it meant she didn't "have to change anything I don't want to change." Which I took to mean that she's disregarding most of my letter.

The whole experience really got me thinking. I was talking to someone recently who compared my job to Simon Cowell, who famously tells people they should stop singing because they'll never be any good. Truthfully, that's 100% of the writers I've edited through this POD company. Even the best of them aren't very good. I wouldn't buy a single of their books. So I get it: they are fools, chasing a pipe dream, and I am not only enabling their impossible dream, i'm profiting from it. I'm the editorial equivalent of the girlfriend experience. And yet ... part of me can't help but to wonder: is it so wrong to help these writers live a dream, no matter how foolish it is? Isn't that what we all want, at least a little?


Mark Terry said...

This is, ultimately, my issue with self-publishing. It's not that it's necessarily a horrible thing, that it somehow impinges on those of us who are "traditionally" published (a term that's going to mean, what, in a few years, exactly?). My problems with it I suppose are two-fold:

1. They're deluding themselves into spending money on a dream that's not going to happen and the only people really satisfied with the outcome are the ones who get to cash the checks;

2. Don't hate me, but sometimes it feels to me like it degrades what those of us who are pros and write for a living are doing. If anybody can call themselves a writer and say, "Hey, I had a book published," then how is what I do any better? That said, I don't think this is dramatically different from all the professional musicians versus amateur musicians, or artists, etc. But I do sometimes get a grinding feeling when people who've hacked out something, then paid to have it published, are indicating to the world that they're equivalent to my spending years learning my craft, collecting hundreds of rejections, and working my way up to a professional level. Hey, I'm being honest.

On the other hand, hell, we're all delusional at one time or another. Why should it matter to me? It's her money, let her spend it on whatever she wants to spend it on.

LurkerMonkey said...

I don't hate you ... :)

As long as you don't hate me for my response. I don't have a fiction contract, so what I'm about to say may be subject to change. But I don't really have any issue with anyone calling themselves a writer. I think that's a slippery slope to go down. When does "not a writer" become "real writer"? What about people who self-publish but own their own publishing companies? What about Kindle authors? What about small-press and micropress authors? What about someone who keeps a lifetime of diaries? Personally, I think anybody who identifies themselves in their heart as a writer can call themselves a writer.

That said, to me, there is a bright line in the sand—and it's money related. I think if you pay to publish, you're operating in a different league than someone who gets paid to publish. If you give away your work to some blog somewhere (hey, like mine!), that's a vastly different animal than getting paid for your work.

Mark Terry said...

Yeah, I essentially believe the same thing you do.

Natasha Fondren said...

Whatever their dreams are, they've chosen, as their next step, to go the POD route. You're helping them, Jon. Cool. Great! And gosh, if they can pay $300 (or whatever it costs) and feel published, like they've realized a dream, then awesome. I'm not going to burst their bubble. I'm just going to applaud.

If they're buying hope, then cool. I mean, I pay $3 every Saturday for a few hours of hope. I've never won the lottery, but I definitely feel like I'm getting a bargain.

For me, it's like when I used to help the physically-challenged ride horses: I believe in giving people the dignity of risk. Their life, their choices. It doesn't cost me anything to give them respect and honor their dignity.

Natasha Fondren said...

Although I disagree a little bit (sorry) with Mark. I have musician friends that range from those who do teach to those who play in the Cleveland Orchestra. I have never heard a single word, a single conversation, that is anything close to the writing world obsession with this "real writer," author, or whatnot. That'd be like biting the hand that feeds you. If anything, I'd say that most professional musicians treat amateurs with honor and respect. At least all the ones I know.

Erica Orloff said...

Because Jon and I as editors spend a LOT of time reading truly horrific fiction, I beg to differ slightly. You would not, I don't think, PAY a couple of bucks to go to some bar that had an amateur music night, and watch amateur musician after amateur musician who could barely play a note, played out of key, and were borderline delusional play. Maybe one or two you would tolerate 'til you got to some really amazing amateur musicians. But imagine if every night at this bar, that's all you heard, until you felt like your ears were bleeding. And then these people cut CDs, and pestered everyone they knew to buy them, had a web presence, and all the while anyone who had ears knew these were so off-key, that you couldn't listen to more than half a song. And then they sat around with you and your musician pals--and wanted to teach you about their technique, bragging that since they had a CD out, maybe you should take some tips from them.

I don't think Jon or Mark or I or any published author or professional writer particularly cares one way or the other personally. But when so much of it, as Jon said, is unreadable . . . you start to wonder, and it starts to feel kind of crazy a bit. And THEN, Jon and Mark and I make our livings as writers in particular spheres, and it's reached a point where you can no longer even say you're a writer without the following question, "Well, by a REAL publisher?" Not amongst writers--amongst the reading public, because it's reaching a point where we (readers AND writers) all know the delusional stuff is far outstripping the well-written stuff.

Like I said, does it matter, no. But you are assuming that (in your analogy) those amateur musicians have worked their craft for YEARS and just choose not to be professional, or choose just to do it for the love of it, or they are good but not GREAT since that's what it takes to get in a symphony today or what have you. But that's NOT it. The analogy doesn't really work, if what Jon and I see every day is the measure of it.

I have PLENTY of unpubbed friends who are amazing and have spent years and years perfecting their art. I honor them. But what I see in POD is not that.

Natasha Fondren said...

LOL, well, I love you Erica, but I strongly disagree with you. I can't seem to disagree within an acceptable number of paragraphs, so I'll have to concede.

I would, however, definitely recommend quitting before discouraging other people from writing or POD-ing. Believe me, I know how excruciating it is to be forced to read or listen to crap every day. I empathize.

But telling people not to write or POD is bad for the art in general. And when I use the word amateur, I was definitely including the excruciating crap that's out there.

LurkerMonkey said...

One of the really interesting things about this episode for me was the writer's apparent rejection of my rewrite letter. Now I've never published, but I've dealt with a few rewrite letters. And there was never any real option to flatly reject the letter. I didn't make all the changes in these rewrite letters, but in every case, I literally spent months engaged with the letter, working really hard to uncover the spirit of the criticism and trying to address it.

I don't really care who calls themselves a writer, and I personally think most people would benefit from some engagement with the arts, writing in particular. But I do have to wonder about the mindset that pays much more than $300 only to reject the criticism in the end—without at least wondering if the person you paid maybe has a point.

I liked your point, Natasha, about giving her the dignity of risk. I thought it was beautifully put. But I see a rising tide of antagonism toward "traditional publishing" in certain quarters of the Internet, and I'm not really on board with it. I think a lot of people are confusing a bad business model (the existing publishing industry) with a bad product (the result of the traditional publishing industry). I see a lot of people exulting over the troubles that mainstream publishers are experiencing, as if that somehow validates their own writing. I don't really understand that.

So as for POD, I would never discourage someone from using a POD or self-publishing in any form. Under the right circumstances, I would do it myself. But on the other hand, I have yet to see any evidence that the "democratization" of publishing has resulted in higher quality writing for the general public.

Jude Hardin said...

If you ever see a book review by me, it will be a good one. I don't believe in publicly bashing fellow writers, whether they be NYT bestsellers or self-published hacks. In other words, I'm simply silent about the ones I consider bad.

But, I also don't see any point in fueling someone's delusions. If a writer asks for my opinion, in private, then I will give him/her an honest one.

I can see where you're in a difficult position, Jon. I'm not sure I could work as an editor on books that I know will never be publishable. There are the ethical issues, of course, but it seems being intimately involved with those types of manuscripts on a consistent basis might be rather soul-crushing as well.

Erica Orloff said...

I agree with Jon. You very eloquently believe in CREATION. I think that's awesome! I've also seen POD authors many times who have significant buyer's remorse, who spent money producing something that they now see for what it is, or that didn't lead to all those dreams of Oprah and the rest of it. So it places editors like Jon in a tough spot, as he said.

Melanie Avila said...

I'm not joining the debate -- I just wanted to comment on how bizarre it would be to see yourself from the other side of the mirror, as you say.

LurkerMonkey said...


What if a writer offered to pay you for your opinion? You could still give a straight opinion, or do a straight edit, except you'd get paid for it.

The ethical part of it has crossed my mind sometimes, but I will say there is a difference when you're a working editor or writer. I've written articles for magazines before that are diametrically opposed to my political philosophy ... I've interviewed and profiled people I fundamentally disagree with, I've ghostwritten books for people who then go onto to do book tours and give authors interviews, and I've helped people write book proposals that I didn't believe had any chance of getting published. On the other hand, I've also worked with brilliant doctors on important books about health, and I get letters almost every day from people who are happy with something I've written.

With the POD books, I'm mostly worried like you said about "fueling a delusion." I hate the idea that someone would be disappointed or heartbroken or financially strapped by the experience. On the other hand, to some degree, I'm not in the business of making value judgements on my clients. I will say this: sometimes it does feel like all this bad fiction is seeping into my brain.

E. Flanigan said...

I work as a therapist in early intervention, which means I provide services for children under the age of 3. Early intervention is family-centered, meaning that the parents set the priorities. It's their kid. I follow their lead.

However, in my role I'm also in a position to educate families about normal development, to say, "he should be doing this at this age" or "it's unrealistic at this point to expect that." I can also help them refine their goals, or revise their goals, and accept the realities of their own limitations and their child's limitations.

In your role as an editor for a POD book, you're in a role just like mine. You're not fueling a delusion, because you haven't promised anything you didn't deliver. You are merely helping the author identify appropriate areas to work on, and they can take the information or not, use it as they choose ....

As Natasha said, you have to allow them the dignity of risk, and it's THEIR risk to take. Anyone in a role like that should be able to humbly admit that we are sometimes wrong. Some risks pay off that we didn't expect to pay off.

The author is paying for your expertise, but it's only your job to offer it, not to decide whether their book is worthy of it.