The Pit and the Pendulum

of Self Publishing

Vincent contemplates doing something drastic after reading an unedited novel.

A while back I announced I would be reviewing books for my blog. I’ve met many wonderful writers via Twitter and my blog and received a nice little pile of books to review. A delight to someone like me, who loves to read a good book.

Most of these little tomes are self-published. I was a bit leery about that, but also excited, because I love helping others. And a good book review can do a lot for an author’s sales. However, in the course of reading these self-published books two realizations dawned on me:

Most of them are first drafts.

And none of them are professionally edited.

This came as a shock to me. Because each of these books have their own websites. And the authors attached to them are, without exception, nice people who are writers. They have blogs and are active on Twitter and Facebook as writers. So as I flipped through these books I wondered, do these folks read? And if so, do they not see that their ‘novel’ is not:

1. formatted like those they read

2. as long as those they read (in most cases)

3. as polished as those they read

Because one’s experience as a reader would inform one of these things. Wouldn’t it? Or are we blind when it comes to our own work? And if we are blind, then wouldn’t this be all the more reason to have our work edited by someone else? Preferably a professional?

I’m a little saddened to find this is the state of affairs. In the course of belonging to the writers groups I do I have had opportunity to read a few novels that were either destined to be self-published (their authors said) or were in fact, already self-published. And I always found them disappointingly amateurish and terrible. The results of the high and unrestrained excitement of a month of NaNoWriMo, or some such. But, these were all from authors with no internet presence; people who were isolated in their writing, or who had perhaps never written anything prior and had no training in it.

So I didn’t expect to encounter quite the same from these internet savvy folks who have so much more ‘going on’ for them as writers.

I won’t be doing reviews of these books, and I now have gotten myself into the unfortunate position of having to tell these writers why. Sure to be a morning of uncomfortable email writing, especially since I like the writers as people. But I won’t say a book is good if it is not for whatever reason. I cannot recommend a book that was a trial for me to plow through. And it is upsetting to me to have to dash anyone’s feelings.

Here are the main issues I found with these self-published novels. This first category concerns formatting:

  1. No indents. (Really? You didn’t know you were supposed to indent at paragraphs?)
  2. Not properly setting dialogue apart, where it should be, and/or indenting it.
  3. Double spacing at the end of every sentence. (I have seen this on manuscripts over the years. The writers always insist it’s proper. It’s not. It’s an old fashioned typing habit. And it looks really odd in a printed book.)
  4. Sometimes using quotations for dialogue, sometimes not. Sometimes using single quotations (within the same body of work) instead of double quotations—for no apparent reason.
  5. Whole pages without a single break or indent, sometimes with dialogue buried in it.
  6. Sometimes italicizing thoughts and sometimes not.

Ignoring these basic rules of English grammar makes the reading very difficult for the reader. Is that what you want the reader to experience when reading your book? Difficulty and distraction?

These next issues concern points in the actual writing that a good edit would have pointed out to the writer:

  1. Using the same word many times within a paragraph.
  2. Using too many adverbs or adjectives. (Which weakens our writing)
  3. Using the same adverb or adjective repeatedly on the same page.
  4. Excessive wordiness
  5. Unedited dialogue which would read so much better if tightened up.
  6. Rife with clichés.
  7. Punctuation missing or improperly used.
  8. Words misspelled.
  9. Words missing.
  10. Typos.
  11. Undeveloped plot points which could/would have been developed in subsequent rewrites and would have made the plot more interesting and complex and surprising.
  12. Under-developed or flat characters. (Again, this could be remedied by rewrites.)
  13. No sensory description whatsoever. Sight? Sounds? Smells?
  14. An imbalance between exposition, summary, action and dialogue.
  15. Word count too low to be considered a novel. (Is 45,000 words  now a novel? When did that happen?)

People, don’t let the rush to say you’ve published a novel make you publish something less polished, professional and complete than the novels published by traditional publishers. Right now the pendulum is swinging toward self-publishing. But experience has taught that trends always swing back and reach some point of equilibrium. Where that will be nobody knows. One thing I know for certain: I do not want to see the high standard of literature turned into something shoddy. Please keep our body of literature up to a standard we can all be proud of and enjoy. If you have the time and money to hire someone knowledgeable to build a website for your self-published novel, why not spend the same time and money on getting it properly written, edited and formatted?

If you don’t, I will venture to say, you will never be taken seriously. And your novel will not become a classic that outlives you and is read and loved by many.

And isn’t that the goal?

(I will still be reviewing novels for self published writers and traditionally published writers alike. The only change in my review policy is that I will request a first chapter from any self published writer prior to agreeing to read the entire novel.)

A great link to basics of manuscript formatting: here.

35 thoughts on “The Pit and the Pendulum

  1. It’s a mistake to equate “internet savvy” with “writing and publishing savvy.” Consider how many people who might be considered internet savvy don’t bother to read up on little things like the rules for participating on sites. Or can’t even copy someone’s name to get it correct when replying on forums. NaNoWriMo gets the blame for ignorance and carelessness when it’s a net-wide problem. Maybe your email to the hopefuls will clue them in to the realities. But I predict that most of them will brush off any suggestions you make.


    • Hi Catana, Thank you for stopping by!
      It’s a mistake to equate “internet savvy” with “writing and publishing savvy.” Yes, this has been a learning experience for me. Call me naive, but I did not expect this. And since we are going the way of self published books, according to reports, what I experienced concerns me.
      I will still be offering my support to self published authors, who rely on this kind of help, since they don’t have the big bucks of publishing houses behind them. But I’m a little wiser now, and will request a first chapter before committing to a full read. Especially since I’m not the sort to enjoy giving a bad review to anyone. I could have done so. But choose not to.
      Maybe your email to the hopefuls will clue them in to the realities. But I predict that most of them will brush off any suggestions you make. Yes, I suspect most will simply ignore any advice. Much easier than taking a look at themselves and their novels.
      Thanks again for stopping by :-)


  2. With the invent of the e-reader, self-publishing & e-publishing can be a great opportunity for writers, but if a large volume of the work being self-published isn’t good, it’s going to work against us.
    How do we fix this? I’m not sure that we can.
    Great post!


    • Yes, I agree, Diana. It’s actually a little scary. I love literature. I don’t want to see it harmed or changed for the worse. And you are so right: as writers, this could end up working against us. If self publishing is to be taken seriously there must be some standards. And it’s probably up to us, as writers, to maintain them.


    • Diana, this isn’t something that can be fixed. The most we can do is maintain our own standards and differentiate our own work from the mass of still-born crap. But there are two things that might cheer you up. The writers who do learn from their early mistakes will help bring up the overall quality level. And those who can’t or won’t improve will drop out of the running when their sales remain in a black hole. We also need to remember this is all very new. It’s like a wild-west frontier where everyone is racing to stake their claim. Civilization may be slow in coming, but it will get here, sooner or later.


  3. We ARE on the same page, Cynthia, with regard to the whole notion of being “blind to our own work.” And whether writers are readers (this is one of my soapbox issues!) You hit on such a good point about self-published books – and one that scares me, quite honestly. You said, ” I do not want to see the high standard of literature turned into something shoddy.” This is my fear about self-publishing, even though I know some really wonderful self-pubbed books are out there.

    But, will there be so many self-published, sub-standard books that it becomes difficult for readers to wade through what is “good” and what is “bad”? Will it HURT reading habits, book buying, and legitimately talented authors? I think the positives of traditional publishing are many, including a vetting process by which professional editors ensure books (most) meet some sort of literary standards – and, obviously grammatical and formatting standards. I might someday consider self-publishing (if I don’t land an agent), but I’m not sure… I fear that doing so has such a negative stigma attached that it could be detrimental.

    Now there are always exceptions: Lisa Genova self-pubbed & sold gazillions of copies of STILL ALICE (which got her an agent). Then there’s Amanda Hocking (also now traditionally published after HUGE self-pub success). And I just read that John Edgar Wideman (two-time winner of Faulkner Fiction contest) is self-publishing. So… I’m still on the fence. But the problems you point to are what make me wary of choosing that route for myself. I feel badly that you have to write those e-mails, but applaud you for being honest and upfront with the authors who approach you.


    • Thank you, Melissa. I sweated and cringed about it for days. How does one tell another writer that you didn’t like their book, and why?
      I may self publish someday for the same reasons. And I worry about the stigma attached, as well. I know there are good self published novels out there. I am actually reading one now and will be doing a review of it. But it was one out of many. The writer did take his work to workshops and obviously did revisions and polishing. But what a haystack for the average reader who is not a writer to wade through so many to find this one.
      I hope Catana’s assessment of the situation we find ourselves in is a prediction fo the future. And that self publishing will reach some level of equilibrium at a future date.
      Thanks so much for stopping by! Your friendship and support are priceless. And your blog this week is amazing! :-)


  4. As I type this, I’m actually printing out my novel for Beta readers, and your post reminded me not to become too excited. I know there will be many, many hours of editing once my novel is returned and I see those tell-tale marks on the manuscript. Thank you for keeping me in check, and for your helpful writing tips!


    • You are so welcome, Jolina. And as Natalia Sylvester and other wonderful writers we both know can tell you…the rewrites are where the magic happens!! They are hard work, but are where we make our novels shine. You are a lovely writer. Go for it. Make it the best it can be!!
      Thank you so much for stopping by. :-)


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  6. Interesting post and one which over-enthusiastic authors ought to take heed of. I have come across many self-published authors asking me to hold their books (I run a library) and in just about every case I have been disappointed for exactly the reasons you mention. BTW nice theme to your page. I like the unfinished/dusty edges.


  7. A very important post, and there’s so much I want to comment on, but mostly:
    A. I want you to be my book editor.
    B. This is the reason I too have cringed at the thought of reviewing (any) books on my blog.
    C. I greatly admire your honesty and forthrightness.
    D. This the reason I doubt I’ll ever self publish unless I have a wonderful editor like you.
    E. All of the above and more.


  8. Great blog post. Needed to be said and virtually no one ever has the courage to say it.

    Succinct and to the point!


  9. I love your bravery and honesty, Cynthia. I know these kind of criticisms are hard for writers to take, but it’s so necessary. I’ve been lucky to have had some amazing writers groups where mostly everyone valued the hard work and revisions and brutal feedback, but there were also a couple of writers who made me wonder: Is your goal to be able to say you finished, or is the goal to have a great book?

    Where each writer draws the finish line–that’s what separates the great from the not-so-good.


  10. Bea, great to meet you. Thanks for your compliments on my theme. I like it too…the old newspaper aspect.
    It must be lovely to be surrounded by books. You’ve got the perfect job.

    Julia, I will happily read anything you write. Always.

    Alexander: that means a lot coming from you, buddy. Thank you for your support.

    Natalia: Where each writer draws the finish line–that’s what separates the great from the not-so-good.

    I could not have said it any better. I know you like rewrites. And every writer must do them, so we might as well enjoy it, right?

    Thank all for visiting. xoxo


  11. I cannot believe you even are writing this – mainly because I’m shocked people would call themselves writers and self-publish without knowing how to indent or not setting dialogue apart. You should have seen my mouth drop reading your #1-6 above. That’s horrible! And I too HATE it when people double space after periods and insist it’s correct. It’s not! Thank you; glad I can vent such things with people who understand.


  12. Tell it!

    Seriously, it’s cool that someone has the get up and go to finish a first draft but I feel like newbie writers get into the rush of “finishing” with self-publishing. Slow it down!

    This post makes me so incredibly happy. I am so glad that you have been so brave to point all of these things out. We all know they’re there but we’re just never too sure how to say, “Seriously?” and not hurt someone’s feelings. Because really, all of us have written stuff that looks and sounds exactly what you’ve described. We had to before we could get better. The difference is that that early stuff is hidden away where no one can find it, as opposed to being broadcast as a finished body of work.

    Thank you. Thank you.


  13. It’s always refreshing when somebody steps back and says this sort of thing; because it does need to be said more often. At least until it’s finally eliminated as a problem. I figure that, eventually, the self-publishing community will either get their collective act together (ie, the rushed-out first-draft unedited books will be looked down upon to the point that making the mistake will be a career killer) or the pendulum will swing back to traditional publishing once people get tired of waiting through crud to find the diamonds.

    Very nice post. A good read.


  14. Ahh a slippery slope. I think readers–readers and not writer/readers have proven they are willing to take quite a lot for the sake of a good story. Heck not even a good story, but a story they want to read. I hate talking about Amanda Hocking, because I think she’s a cool chick, but some of her books make me want to claw my eyes out, but for whatever reason I keep reading them anyway. 200 year old vampires likely wouldn’t say “I’m going to the movies wanna come with?” I cringed every one of the gazillion times I read ‘come with’ but that didn’t keep a book from being a best seller, and I finished every single one of them.

    So that is what we are stacked up against being want to be up and comers. Told my our literary friends one thing, but the bar that constitutes out of this world success doesn’t adhere to the rules.

    Heck not all traditionally published books follow the rules, but I don’t think we have time to delve into the grammatical infringements of Twilight. I also find typos in big six published books all the time. It happens, and teams of people read those books before publication.

    Now I don’t use any of that as an excuse to slack off. That’s why I have beta readers, and an Editor. None of that will ever make me perfect though. Luckily, the market doesn’t demand perfect.


  15. Brava Cynthia.

    I can identify with your frustration and recognize all too well the anguish you were in.

    I agree with every point that you’ve made. Though I would probably put a little less blame on “writers not being readers” and more on impatience to be published and over anticipation of income.

    I do think the ease of blogging has started a mini gold rush with everyone eyeing e-publishing as the mother lode. Anyone who writes a blog or a witty tweet thinks there must be money in there with their name on it somewhere.

    They don’t consider that the readers expectations for what is free and takes only a few minutes to read is way different then the expectations for entertainment or enlightenment when a real investment of time and money is involved.

    I would also put some of the blame on traditional publishers. They squeezed out fresh voices and they too started lowering the writing standard by forcing their best selling authors onto production lines.

    Writing is a craft, not a gift. Unfortunately too many aren’t willing to invest in their craftsmanship.


  16. Leah: yea, I’m with you, hon. Can’t believe it myself. (You shoulda been a fly on the wall at my house over the past few weeks!) Those are just the basics every writer should know. Take a class for pete’s sake, right?

    Lisa: I agree that’s a lot of it. Finishing a first draft is exciting. (VERY!) But we’re only half way done at that point.
    Enjoyed your rowdy post on slowing down. Great advice.

    Addley: Yes, that is what worries me. That there will be so much dreck out there in the self published world that the good novels will be lost in the heap.
    Hopefully things will sort themselves out, as you say. From your lips to God’s ears. :-)
    I have to believe…

    Angela: So glad to hear you are using the services of editors. I have found typos in traditionally published books too. (Who hasn’t? They happen…and to me as well.) But it’s rare and usually only one or two. Massive typos in every chapter are another thing. And combined with all the other issues the flaws become so overwhelming that it is a struggle to read on and find out if the story is even any good.
    Total perfection is not possible…but is something to strive for. And in so doing we can accomplish something other folks can relax with and enjoy. I can’t promote a novel I didn’t enjoy or couldn’t get through because of a total disregard or ignorance of the basics mechanics of writing.

    Linda: Writing is a craft, not a gift. Unfortunately too many aren’t willing to invest in their craftsmanship.

    I agree. And yes, traditional publishers do bear some of the blame for where we find outselves.

    I seriously hope when the 99 cent revolution is over permanent damage has not been done to the state of American literature.

    Thank you all for visiting and reading and commenting. Keep writing and polishing! Love ya :-)


  17. I was brought here by another post. I would like to agree, and also to say that part of having your work edited, beta’d, criticised etc — is not just about getting a polished product. It’s about learning to listen to what others say. Learning to act on it. With a publisher, your book is published on condition of satisfactory edits. With self-pub, people can tell you that a plot is too convenient until they’re blue in the face, but you can still just go ahead and publish.

    Learning to listen and act upon criticism is a huge part of being a writer, and it never really ends. Responding to it in a manner which helps you to grow as a writer is a fine thing, though, and is of great value.


    • Learning to listen and act upon criticism is a huge part of being a writer, and it never really ends. Responding to it in a manner which helps you to grow as a writer is a fine thing, though, and is of great value.

      So true, Lucy. And thank you for making this fine point. Unfortunately most respond to criticism with a knee jerk reaction of denial and anger. However gently and impersonally that criticism is delivered and kindly meant. And so they miss any opportunity to improve from it. Part of being a writer, of any age or skill level, is learning to set aside the ego and hear what needs to be heard to improve.

      Too many writers argue for their weaknesses instead of working to overcome them, claiming to not have the time or money to hire an editor, etc. Which is just silly, self indulgent and a lack of regard for their potential readers.

      The reader’s enjoyment should always be foremost in a writers mind…what else is there?

      So nice to meet you, Lucy. I will be sure to check out your blog :-) Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.


  18. Bravo! I touched on this on my recent post about self-publishing, but you really put it out there for everyone to see. The lack of quality (and much of it is simply because of rushing) in self-publishing STILL separates it from traditional in a negative way. If the idea of self-publishing is to build your brand so that you either don’t need a traditional publisher or have them begging at your feet, shouldn’t you at least make sure your work is properly edited and formatted?


  19. Great points and great analysis.
    Unfortunately, many authors are writing for themselves, not for the readers. Publishing is a part of “themselves” issue. It seems they go for it without thinking. I’ve encountered books with the points you mention above. As a reader I felt sorry for the authors and as an editor I despaired on their account. :D

    It’s their books’ doom. Readers will trash the books publicly. And once a reputation is ruined, then it’s almost impossible to be restored. Unfortunately, they don’t see that, since they write for “themselves”.

    Thank you for the very interesting post.


  20. While I agree with the heart of your argument, that self-publishers must remember that they are still publishing and their customers will have the exact same expectations of them as they will of larger publishers, I disagree with one point.

    Length. One of the strengths of the technology that is coming into the industry is that, for a self-publishers specifically, novellas are a viable item for production and sale. My hope is we stop expecting a certain length, and start asking for the right length for any particular story.

    Otherwise, spectacular point, and I have a small group of dedicated beta readers and I’m always examining my finances for the eventual need to hire a professional editor.


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  22. Thank you for sharing this experience, I’ve also noticed that some of the self-published work is unprofessional and poorly edited. I value the freedom and democracy of self publishing but worry it will be marked “unfit” by many readers, as a kind of stigma.


  23. Interesting post. I agree with much of what you have said. Let us not forget, however, those authors (like myself) who chose not to self publish, but used a respected small independent publisher. Time was of the essence in my release date. The editing and formatting was first rate and I’m pleased with my choice to go that route. Had I waited the months/years for a commerical publisher to pick up my book, the people who enjoyed it the most would have no longer been with us on this earth. I think each situation is unique. Each book deserves careful editing, tender loving care, and respect if it has earned that respect.


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  25. Great post. I will be pulling my NaNoWriMo draft out of the drawer on December 30th (yep – it will be a whole month!) and I will be circling all of the adverbs, underlining all of the run-on sentences and highlighting all of the places where I need to tighten it up.

    Thanks for this post, sincerely. I am printing it out as a checklist.



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