I’ve read a number of indie/self-published books now. All of them in print, because I don’t have an ereader, and almost all of them ones of my choosing – that is to say, they were ones I particularly like the look of from the description and sample chapters and was lucky to get the opportunity to read.
And now I’m asking myself the big question: would they be better if they were mainstream published? This is the question to which many (especially the indie authors amongst us) hope the answer will be no but fear it will be yes.
Now, remember I’ve been very discerning in my choice. I haven’t bought anything on a whim because it’s cheap; and I’ve only read in print. I suspect that, making a book available in print, with all the hassle and expense it entails, makes the author/publisher check the details that bit more meticulously. Also, I know a bit about the production background of each book – some were almost entirely DIY by the author, with edit suggestions from friends; some went through expensive self-publishing services; some employed editors of varying degrees of professionalism – similarly for cover design; and some were lucky to get editorial suggestions from top mainstream publishers even though they didn’t eventually take the books.
In all cases, the books were beautifully presented. There were no garish covers or low quality print or typesetting. In that respect I don’t think they’d be produced better by mainstream, traditional publishers. They’d be done differently – by the publishers’ regular designers and to their own house styles, for reasons of marketing. But not better. You trade in a bit of individuality in order to make the book look more like others on the same list and therefore sell more copies.
Regarding structure (in which I include plot and subplots and organisation of material), this is a difficult one. All were expertly paced. But could they have been improved with the addition or removal of characters and scenes? Or with a different ending? I thought one of the books was a bit weak on plot. But it wasn’t my preferred genre and not a book I’d have chosen, had it not found its way into my collection. That said, I still enjoyed it as a calm undemanding read. If it were mainstream published (which I don’t think it would be because the plot isn’t strong enough) then, almost certainly, it would be spiced up, which would be an improvement. The others, I enjoyed as they were.
So, if signed to a big publisher, would these books be changed? I suspect the answer would be yes. And experiences of other authors vary greatly, ranging from hardly any editorial input to insistence that you change your book so it is effectively the editor’s book with the author ghost writing. It would seem to depend very much on the common vision and partnership of the author and the editor to whom they are assigned. The editor might work with the author or against them, either to make the book appeal to a wider audience, or to allow the editor to impose their vision of how they see the book. I know one or two traditionally published authors who felt the changes they were required to make spoiled their books. And, more worryingly, many of their readers felt the same way. A friend who works in the production end of the music business tells me it’s very similar and that, once signed to big labels, musicians are required to make changes deemed unnecessary by many of those concerned.
But, after all this, would the books be improved? Probably not. They’d just appeal to different people.
Now, down to the level of line edits. There are many people who will state categorically that you can’t self-edit your own book. From what I’ve read, I would have to disagree with this – both at a general and more detailed level. It requires a different set of skills, and most writers will get a lot of feedback from readers at different stages, but it can be done. There is no evidence, from what I’ve read, that employing a professional editor produces a more perfected finished product – if anything, I’m seeing the opposite, with the most precise prose coming from the DIY authors. Would the books I’ve read be improved in this respect by mainstream publication? For those who’ve really learned the craft of editing: no. I’ve noticed that only the top literary mainstream authors seem to have perfectly proof read books. If every mainstream book were given that attention to eliminate every typo or overused word then I might say yes. As it is, the only thing standing between the top indie books and perfection is the cash to upload a corrected version.
As a summary, I’m going to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Because I’ve considered how books might be improved, but not what they would lose. To illustrate this I’m going to refer to Birmingham Girls, a memoir by Carol Arnall. It’s a book that has immense charm. Much of its appeal is in the way it wanders off at tangents, the way your thoughts do if you’re browsing through a box of old photos. Also appealing is the language – which is very much a spoken language, with a hint of regional dialect. Now, in the hands of a mainstream editor, I’m quite sure these idiosyncrasies would be seen as faults to be corrected. Yet, if they went, you’d lose the essence of the voice. There are parallels in music and art too. It is not human to be absolutely perfect. And artists often prefer to forgo computerised perfection in favour of the human factor.
Would the indie books I’ve been privileged to read be improved by mainstream publishing? No. There is always a trade in. Some would gain as much as they would lose. But for others, I’d rather read them complete with their ‘flaws’ because sometimes, safe predictable and sanitised use of language doesn’t make up for losing that individual human factor.