Self-publishing: a killer of standards?

Having sent books to agents a few times and been rejected, people have had the best intentions when telling me to ‘do what that bird did, or what that bloke did’ and publish my book(s) myself. Originally, I turned my nose up at this idea - paper books, real hard or paperbacks in a shop with my name on were much more appealing. However, after thinking I would be stupid not to check every avenue, I began to read up on all this self-publishing malarkey - and came across something that has made me re-think my plan to self-publish.

In a word: standards.

Now I don’t mean that your average hob-nob-snob variety of reader only goes for paperbacks on the train. In fact, it seems the whole eBook thing has exploded about 200% percent in the last two years alone. Amazon’s Kindle has its own apps for finding new titles and downloading straight to the device without needing a computer, and other e-readers (the Nook, the Kobo, etc.) have their own ways of getting readers their fix without needing a home computer. This is accelerating the market so fast, it seems online booksellers need to keep revamping their sales procedures to keep up, and keep the whole game as convenient and reliable as possible. If they don’t? They’re sacrificed for other eBook suppliers. Simple.

What I mean is purely the standard of the printed word that is digitally obtained by whoever takes a chance (or, in the case of Amazon, enjoys the free portion they get as a sample) and buys it. Let me be clear:

You could write a book about your holiday, save it as an ePub document (easy as pressing ‘export as ePub’ when using Apple’s Pages application), and then register as a Kindle publisher. Some ISBN trifles, a few DRM ticks or un-ticks, and you can upload your own stuff. Anywhere between 2 and 4 days later, your title is available to buy (or get for free, if you publish it as such). Easy, right? Easy.

While trawling the net for people who have blogged about their experiences with self-e-publishing, or those who want to help others out of the kindness of their hearts, I have stumbled across what I hope is a phenomenon: bad grammar. If the people writing these tutorials or the ‘it happened to me and I’m now a published author’ blogs can’t put a sentence together, what does that say for their saleable matter? Now I’m the last person to point fingers - I regularly blog here like grammar went out of fashion with Beatles’ boots, but that doesn’t mean I can’t proofread what I blog. When I’m serious about the subject matter, you’ll notice a distinct improvement in my grammar and urge to get it across in a clear, proper way. Just because these people blog using sub-standard grammar, as I do, doesn’t mean they can’t write properly when they want to. I accept that.

However - and this a big however - after following a link to find the free sample at Amazon, one, to check it was real and not a scam page, and two, to see what the results were and how your published eBook appears on the sales page, I was horrified to see that the grammar matched that of the blog.

I’m not going to name the blog, or the book, as that’s just rude and to be honest, unnecessary. What I will say is that I found this elsewhere, too. I then found that the odd author actually attacks people who leave less than rosy comments on reviews of their book. Unprofessional? Completely. Childish? You be the judge. Perhaps if that author had an agent or someone who covered publicity for them, they would conduct themselves more like a struggling (?) author and less like a five-year-old in the playground looking for a good scrap over the colour of the paint on their fire engine. Everyone who’s ever written has had ‘bad’ reviews - and by that I mean someone has attacked their work in a manner that does not provide an opportunity to learn from what someone else considers a mistake. Proper readers leave comments like ‘I felt the main character did more telling than showing’ or ‘perhaps I missed something, but I don’t understand why the main character did that in chapter three’, etc. Simply writing ‘that was crap’, with no qualifying reasoning, is a waste of everyone’s time. S/he may as well write ‘penguin marmalade’, all the good it does. I’ve had my fair share of bad reviews - but the people were all kind enough (or intelligent enough) to tell me where they felt I had erred. In six years of publishing fan fiction on the net, I can’t think of one time where I’ve left the kind of review I’ve just described, or treated anyone who I’ve Beta’d for in such a manner. I’ve even managed not to reply to snotty, ignorant or blatantly flaming reviews - there haven’t been many, but on the odd occasion you have to leave that review for a day before braving it again. And then you let it roll around your head, let yourself be angry with it, be childishly petulant (on the inside) that someone in the universe doesn’t like what you like, and then get over it like a normal human being and move on. Perhaps time spent on the net has trained me, Kenobi-style, to see the bigger picture. Or perhaps I stopped scrapping over beloved toys when I was five.

All that aside, it’s standards I’m worried about. If you have a publishing house take on your work, they have editors whose job it is to check these things. There’s a reason they’re still doing big business and large publishing houses are stocked to the gills with proofreaders and editors. When people self-publish, you should get the best that the author can achieve by themselves. I’m not saying that isn’t up to the same spec. as editors - these authors have no doubt used their brain and asked for either professional or at least semi-professional help in proofreading. And lest we forget, some of these authors work in publishing houses or the media industry and are qualified editors or proofreaders in their own right. However, for every person who either learnt grammar at school or asked for help, there are a hundred who haven’t and didn’t. And the worrying thing is, some readers can’t tell the difference. That’s what really concerns me; the downfall of proper grammar being used in society.

Go on, call me a grammar Nazi. But the next time you’re chatting with someone down the pub and they use the word ‘irregardless’, or perhaps ‘medal’ as a verb, don’t blame me. They’ve read it in a book, see, so it’s perfectly fine. It becomes accepted into society sheerly through digital osmosis, and the next thing you know, everyone is talking like rejected failures from A Clockwork Orange.

Ok, I’m taking the piss with that last one. But basically what horrifies me is that, in twenty years time, words we wouldn’t have tolerated before will be used all over the shop, and it’ll be impossible to stop it. Call me a snob, and call me out-dated and old-fashioned, but I still think that any book should be properly spelt. Books like Trainspotting work because they’re not ‘proper’ standard English, but that’s their hook, their angle. If every single book is written this way, then what hope is there for authors like Stephen King or Suzanne Collins? Will the future show the entire former empire use this bastardised English, to the point where grammar devolves into whatever people let slip out on the street, as if the language were a rain-drenched washed-out slimy Blade-runner street that no-one cares about any more? Sounds like a sci-fi novel waiting to be written. Ooh, hang on - I’ll be right back…

Seriously though, someone needs to be checking these things. Simply saying ‘If the grammar’s crap then no-one will read it and the authors won’t keep publishing’ doesn’t wash. Have you seen how many indie or self-e-published books are on the market right now? And that’s only set to rise. Funny how the woman who managed to sell enough books to get onto the New York Times’ Bestsellers List still doesn’t have a publisher. Then again, does she need one? I haven’t seen her work, and even if I did, who’s to say I have better grammar than her anyway?

I have two Beta readers - one for the story, one for actual tough proofreading. Sometimes I need to know someone else has seen what I’ve written, precisely because I can’t always trust my own grammar. (I keep the grammar checker on my laptop turned off - getting real British English to stay on a foreign-made computer and play properly is more trouble than it’s worth. The spell check, however, is always on and ofttimes double-checked against Oxford in case of dispute.)

The point is, I understand how I’m not infallible and because of this, I get my work checked - because it has to be the best I can make it, whether it’s off my own back or that of a man who can. But does anyone else? There is a reason that 90% of these self-published books are not touched with a bargepole by agents or publishers before they’re released on the net. Then again, there are hundreds of ‘instant hits’ out there that are perfectly formatted and produced, but agents or publishers will not deal with for fear of losing money.

Of course, every author thinks they fall into the latter category.

That’s pretty much it. There’s SOPA and ACTA and all kinds of shit going on, but in the meantime, I have a book to push to any agent that will take it.


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