Independent Authors writing

5 Things Independent Authors do that are a Dead Giveaway

Indie authors are at a disadvantage. We self-publish without the selective screening of agents and objective publishers. Our works are not scrutinised by hard-nosed editors, rejected, rewritten, polished until they’re deemed suitable for showing to the world. All of that has to be done by ourselves or with minimal help on a shoestring budget. We’re marking our own homework and it shows.

As a writer, I’m in the same boat. It’s hard to judge one’s own writing and I’m never certain of the quality. Perhaps my prose is too ‘purple’. Perhaps my sentences are too long. As a reader, though, I know what jumps out at me and I’ve noticed a few things that independent authors often do that signpost ‘amateur’ self-publishing.

Format badly

Some indie writers give it away at a glance. No professional publisher would allow inconsistent indentations, split lines, strange fonts and ugly chapter headings, but I’ve seen all these in otherwise well-written novels.

My advice: look at books in your genre from big publishers and copy the formatting style. It’s not too difficult to learn how to format on common word-processing software (such as LibreOffice). Then be scrupulous with consistency.

Use clichés

It may not be ‘a dark and stormy night’ but if the phrase comes too quickly to mind and to the page, perhaps it’s mundane and over-used. Lack of crafting and originality in prose is very obvious in many of the self-published books I have tried to read.

My advice: Be judicious in your use of well-worn expressions. Try to spot the common phrase. Is it a cliché for a reason? If not, change it. Actively control the language you use.

Write in the present tense

This is a matter of personal taste, but the present tense in fiction is an immediate deterrent to me as a reader. Past tense is the standard, ‘invisible’ tense; it doesn’t distract the reader from the plot and the characters. The present tense can be managed skillfully in the hands of an expert, but runs the risk of sounding infantile.

My advice: Choose the past tense by default. Write your novel in the present tense only if it’s a positive stylistic choice and you know the reason. Be very careful not to mix tenses carelessly.

If you’re interested, here is my slideshow on the named English tenses with examples.

Use too much dialogue

Like primary children, some independent authors write their stories like radio plays, dominated by conversations between characters. Perhaps this is because it’s our first use of language, or perhaps it’s the influence of film and TV, but stories written in this way are a chore to read. Dialogue holds up the pace of the action and leaves little room for description and setting.

My advice: Use dialogue like spice. Choose carefully and use sparingly. If it doesn’t enhance the plot or tell us more about the character, leave it out.

Punctuate poorly

The problem with punctuation (and grammar), is that many writers do not know that they do not know how to punctuate properly. Generally speaking, professional editors hired by big publishing houses do know how. They may let the odd famous author get away with a few run-on sentences, but misplaced apostrophes, stray commas and incorrectly punctuated speech will be filtered out pretty ruthlessly.

My advice: Unless you are very confident that you have expertise in this area, use grammar checkers, electronic and human. Then proofread again. Beware editors who have comma splices on their home page. I have seen some!

publishing writing

The Dominance of the Big ‘a’ (and Why it’s so Hard to Resist)

It’s a wonderful moment the first time you hold in your hand a physical copy of a book that you’ve written. No amount of digital text can compete with that solid artefact. It’s also comforting to note that people still love love them. Reading the real thing has not been killed off by all the putative threats of the past two centuries: not radio, not TV, not audiobooks, not e-books. None of these has stopped the purchase of the printed word on paper. And bookshops have survived, though by their own account, not all and not without great difficulty.

For this reason, I’m told, there is huge resentment amongst sellers of printed books, of their online, megalithic competitor that has almost (but not quite) wrapped up the entire market. If you’d like to see your book in a bricks-and-mortar store, you’d better not use the distribution services of that notorious company, nor have mention of it in your book. You’re unlikely to receive a sympathetic response. Apparently.

But then, bookshops have to accept some of the blame, don’t they? Certainly from the point of view of an independent author and publisher, this is how it feels. Because I really did try to find alternatives to the services provided by ‘a…’ but it was pretty unsuccessful in so many ways. Much as I might feel ethically compromised, they really do offer a fantastically easy and well-priced package for the likes of us. Nowhere else is as cheap, as easy or as flexible. No printing company offers POD (print on demand) on the same terms with as little fuss, with the same distribution for as little cost. No bookshop, large national or small independent is welcoming to independent authors and publishers or has a straightforward system to submit books for consideration.

I contacted by email, two nearby independent bookshops, knowing that they sometimes hold titles from local authors, and I asked: Here are my books. Would they be interested? What were the terms and normal procedures? Would they accept books ‘printed by a…’ or would they rather that I found a different printer? That was a month ago and I’ve yet to hear back at all. We’re in a pandemic, so I can forgive a little lack of communication. But the thing is this – knowing that they probably wouldn’t want the ‘a’ word anywhere near their store, I looked at alternatives for printing. Nothing comes close. One local printing company quoted me £11 per book for something that I sell for £5.99 and for which I currently pay £2 per book! Even the biggest rival POD company which offers a great service all round the world, charges more, is less simple to set up and requires an up-front payment for the service.

Then there are the national chains. One of the most widely-used makes a policy of not accepting anything from authors, though they have a self-professed policy of ‘Finding and championing publishers that are small, new, or hard to find on the high street’. That’s great and it’s a start, but it’s not easy, even after you’ve been down the standard route of obtaining an ISBN and making sure your book is properly listed on Nielsen (as I have). Publishers have to use one of their named distributors and are encouraged to go down the specific route of one in particular. This requires setting up a trading relationship with that wholesaler/distributor and then applying to the bookshop after that has happened.

Yes this is all doable, but they don’t make it easy, do they? Who does make it easy? That online company that is taking all the trade whilst making a bad name for themselves in a multitude of other ways. A finished book can be ready for the virtual bookshelves within an hour and on sale worldwide within a day.

Now at the back of people’s minds is that proviso, ‘Yes but it could be any old rubbish and that’s the problem.’ Well that’s true, but it does not mean it is any old rubbish and there almost certainly will be independently published books that are far from any old rubbish. They just might not be filling up the shelves of your local or national bookshop because really, how could they?