Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Perils of Self-Publishing - part one (of many)

It's been a few weeks now since Natural Causes launched on an unsuspecting public. At the last count, 322 people had downloaded it from Smashwords for free, 13 dupes lovely people had paid £1.92 for it on Amazon UK and 5 had ponied up $2.99 on Amazon US. Not earth-shattering numbers, but given my lack of exposure in the outside world, not too shabby either. Natural Causes is just one book, and the key to some small measure of success is to build up a back list.


I've had two reviews so far, both five stars. One completely unprompted and very welcome on Smashwords, by a reader so moved by my writing she felt urged to tell the world before she'd even finished the book. I am glad she enjoyed it, hope she found the rest of it equally satisfying. Thank you Felicity Knowles, whoever you are. 


The second review, on Amazon, feels a bit of a cheat to me, since it was written by the Horse Doctor. To be fair, she bought and paid for a copy (one of the thirteen), and has even read most of it. I did tell her to re-post it on Amazon.com, since that doesn't seem to happen automatically. 


Several other friends have bought copies, are reading same, and making the sort of appreciative noises that writers love to hear. They have promised reviews, and it will be interesting to see what they say. I've already learned I can't spell Dandie-Dinmont and that they're not yappy dogs. And they are finding all manner of typos.


It's a truism in writing that you can never properly proof-read your own work. I'm usually very good, to the point of irritation, at picking up the sort of typos that spell-checkers miss: the 'he' instead of 'the' and 'an' instead of 'and' type of thing. My spelling itself is pretty good, but I do have a mental blank over it's and its. It's not that I don't know the difference; more that my fingers have a habit of shoving that apostrophe in all on their own, without any intervention from my brain. This is an easy one to cover though - just use  search and replace to go through the whole manuscript. First with 'it's', then with 'its' checking them all off one by one. Tedious, sure, but necessary. I do it with their, there and they're as well, just to be certain. If I was being pedantic, I could do to and too, and of an off, but they're not ones I tend to get wrong.


Continuity errors are a whole different ball game, and usually my own fault. I caught the big one in Natural Causes before it went live (although not before a couple of professionals had read it and either missed it or decided not to tell.) There is a key scene in the novel, where McLean goes to visit his parents' grave and meets and old family friend (see that - I've just noticed the error in that sentence whilst re-reading before hitting 'publish'.) I'd shuffled this scene to an earlier point in the narrative, but somehow, in a merger of different versions or just because Word hates me, the original scene had found its way back. Now I'm all for using repetition to emphasise important points, but only when delivering lectures, not in fiction. The offending passage was swiftly removed and now that scene occurs just the once.


I missed another one, though. One point highlighted by the professional reader's report I had done on the novel was that a character's name didn't work. Kit Smithers was an old school chum of mine with whom I've not spoken in the best part of thirty years. I used his name for a minor character just because it popped into my head when I was writing. Apparently the surname Smithers is now inextricably linked with the character from The Simpsons, which I guess is fair enough. Having a character referred to as 'Smithers' gave the wrong impression, and it was suggested I change it. Easily done, he became Roberts instead.


Then I noticed another character called Andrew Peters, latterly referred to as Andy Peters, who is, I am told, a children's television presenter. This again was entirely unintentional, and as the name did not need to carry any great meaning, I changed it to Peter Andrews. 


At least, I thought I changed it. Somewhere, there is a copy of this manuscript where it's been changed in all instances, I'm sure. But that's not the copy that went into Smashwords Meatgrinder, or got uploaded to Kindle Direct Publishing. That copy had some instances of a man called Andy Peters and others of a man called Peter Andrews. Even more confusing than if I'd just left well alone.


Still, the joy of Kindle and Smashwords is that it's very easy to upload new versions. These errors have now been corrected, along with a number of small typos. I am very grateful to anyone who points these out, so if you've spotted any, please do let me know. I might even offer some sort of prize, like a free copy of the next book when it comes out.


Editing is a crucial part of the writing process - be it line editing, reviewing the overall form of the book, or detailed proof reading to uncover the sort of errors we all make in a project the size of a novel. Unfortunately, the cost of professional editing is high, especially in comparison to the potential income from a self-published Kindle title like Natural Causes. I'm lucky enough to have had the book read by a number of professionals, but I am all-too aware that it lacks the polish a really good line-edit and proof-read would give it. This is something I have to accept, for now, and take any criticism I receive in due course as constructively as I can. 


If you're going down the self-publishing route, don't kid yourself that you can ever produce perfectly error-free manuscripts. Have someone else read your stuff, even if it's just your mum or the bloke who works in the next door cubicle. They'll spot the little things you miss, and which left in make the book look unprofessional.


And they might even be able to spell Dandie-Dinmont.

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