Self-Publishing and Writerly Etiquette

I have a problem.

Well, not so much a problem as a poser.  I am in a quandary.

Recently (as regular readers will know) I launched myself into the Tweetgeist and am now a regular, some would say prolific, Twitter. (Some would probably say other, much ruder things, but I am not paying attention to them. ;))

One of the things I like about Twitter is the chance to ‘meet’ people.  In the short time I have been on Twitter I have met funny people and sweet people and people, like me, who are working hard at this writing thing and trying to navigate their way through the brave new world that is publishing these days.

My problem relates to the latter.  One of the people I have become friendly with is a writer who recently released a self-published novel.  (Actually this applies to several people I know on Twitter, but I am thinking of one in particular.)

Because I like this person, I acquired the novel in e-book form and read it.

And now, I don’t know what to do.

It’s not that it’s dreadful – not at all.  There is a lot to like about it.  The story is strong and the characters interesting.  There were a few times when I thought the female protagonist was too stupid to live and times when I thought that the male protagonist was a pain in the proverbial, but I am quite prepared to believe that this is just my preference, rather than a weakness in the story.  (The writer is a good bit younger than me and is likely to have more patience for stupidity in the pursuit of lerv than I do!)  And there was a twist in the tail of the story, that I didn’t see coming at all, which was admirable.


This book needed outside editing. There were several elements that would have been fixed as a matter of course by an editor which ruined the reading experience for me.

For example, there were random changes of point of view.  I have no objection to omniscient point of view storytelling.  I think it can be wonderful and I regard the current prejudice against it as a fashion which will, I hope, pass.  But that’s not what this was.  This was sudden, unheralded changes from deep third person point of view into the point of view of a minor character.  They were random and jarring to the point where occasionally you didn’t know who was thinking what.

There were typos.  It’s not as if one never sees them in printed books, but they don’t happen with such regularity.  It wasn’t unreadable, by any stretch.  This work had been proofed, but it is an example of why you should always get someone else to read your finished work for errors.  After a while, you just don’t see them yourself.

And on that subject, there was a particular turn of phrase used in this novel that jarred me out of the story every time it was used.  It was a way of describing something that is culturally normal for this writer in spoken English – I know because I have heard other people from the author’s country say it.  Spoken, it’s fine; just an idiosyncrasy which is more charming than anything.  But it is ungrammatical and when written, especially repeatedly, it stuck out and started to irritate me to the point where I couldn’t recall anything else on the pages where it appeared.

There were other things too, but they were deeper, more structural things and they might just have been me being picky.  For example, I think a little more exploration of motive would have prevented me thinking the heroine was being stupid – but that’s deep stuff and really the province of a professional fiction editor.  I think the story could have been improved, but my argument is not, chiefly, with the story itself.

My problem is with the more superficial things that bounced me out of being immersed in this story.  Now, it is entirely possible that these things irritated me more as a writer than they would an average reader.  But as a writer, I am now left not knowing what to do.

I know the writer of this novel is serious about their craft.  But I also know that their novel is doing quite well and they are very happy about that.  So what should I do?  Should I bring up these issues, in the interests of improving their work?  Or should I just stay quiet, let them enjoy the success they are having and let them think I didn’t read it?  And what does it mean for books by other self-publishing mates?  Do I have to avoid them altogether, now, to avoid this quandary?

What would you do?

I would really like to know.

43 thoughts on “Self-Publishing and Writerly Etiquette

  1. Depends on how well you know her. Do you have a strong enough relationship that she can accept your comments as you intend them? If so, go for it. I’ve found similar problems with self-pubbed books, but have also read the odd one or two that was well crafted and edited but outside big publishers’ genre preferences, hence self-pubbed. If your twitter friend is serious about her craft, she’ll thank you in the long term.

  2. Oh, this is what I was afraid of. I don’t know this person all that well and I dont want to upset them, but I feel I should say something and you are confirming it. Perhaps I should screw the old courage to the sticking place…

  3. Here’s my two cents. Don’t tell her. The bottom line is she feels her book is doing well. If you say anything she’ll likely interpret it as jealousy, finding it hard to believe, particularly since the book is doing well. Or she’ll resent you. It’s not worth it. Here’s the thing: it’s very difficult to get published the traditional way. More and more people don’t want to deal with the rejection it brings, and don’t want to face up to the fact that maybe it has to do with their writing. For many reasons they end up self publishing. Anyone can self publish as long as they have the money. So, you can tell her all you want, and if she listens, she will either have to improve her writing (take classes, hire an editor) or stop trying to self publish all together. Not knowing her, I doubt she’ll do either of these options. Because, I go back to one thing: the fact that she feels her book is doing well. It’s a no-win to bring it up.

    Now, I’ve never read your work before, but I already love what you’re doing on my blog and Bella’s. You’re adding so much to the stories. You are quite talented!

    • Thanks, Monica! I really don’t want to rain on the parade. Maybe it’s best not to say anything. But in the meantime, I’m loving playing with your story. It’s so much silly fun!

  4. I so understand. This is one of the reasons I get shy about even letting an author “friend” know that I’ve bought/checked out their book. There’s a big difference between “hey, that was good, even if the story isn’t my thing” and “this should have been in the hands of an editor”.

    If you aren’t close friends, you are probably better off letting it go. If she ASKS, well, then, you have to decide how to let her know what you think. Does she read this blog? If she does, it is entirely possible she might catch on that this post is about her.

    I think self-publishing is awesome. There are writers who’s books I’ve read that are awesome, and writers who I’ve been able to read in the beta period who truly deserve to be trad-pub’d, but we all know that route isn’t just about skill.

    Unfortunately, it is true that self-pub does result in material that really isn’t ready. But then again, like you said, this person’s book is doing well. In a world that falls all over themselves for reality TV (no offense, ya’ll, I watch some too), sometimes the audience isn’t as discerning as we think they would be.

    Sorry you are in this position.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Amber. It is a tricky one, because this book has been worked on – a lot. It’s not raw and hopeless and if my quibble were just about the story, I wouldn’t have any trouble keeping quiet, because, as I said, those quibbles might be just me, anyway. And as for the other things, I can’t decide whether they bother me as a writer or a reader. If I could be sure it was as a reader, I would be more willing to say, because I would be clear that leaving them would damage her book’s chances. But if I’m just being writer-picky, it would be mean-spirited to rain on her parade. So, at the moment, I’m saying nothing – but that also means that she probably thinks I didn’t bother reading it, when I did! Gnash, snarl! It’s a minefield!

  5. Thar be dragons, Imelda.

    Say nothing. Even tho it goes against your instinct to aid and assist and educate… You don’t know her well enough to give that advice without it seeming patronising or worse. You could leave a balanced review on Smashwords or Goodreads (or wherever) praising the strengths and mourning the weaknesses. Believe me when I say the self-pub are all over their reviews (and I say that as an also self-pubbed). She’ll see it.

    One of the things all writers have to accept is that people who are ‘friends’ on social media are also readers and reviewers and are going to buy and comment on our work. And they’re not all going to like it. But if your review is, overall, positive she’ll be more grateful for the support than hurt by the constructive criticism.

    My 2c

    • If I could leave an anonymous review, I would do that, Nikki. But that feels cowardly. But if I put criticisms in a review, it sounds as though I wasn’t woman enough to front up and tell her myself. Also, I don’t want to draw others’ attention to things they might not have noticed. Ho hum… Thanks for your 2c, it’s all helpful!

  6. Why don’t you comment on one or two things that worked for you – “liked your twist in the tail of the story, that I didn’t see coming at all, which was admirable. I think a little deeper exploration of motive would have helped me connect more with your heroine.” That sort of response might offer her food for thought while letting her know you read it and keep you onside.
    Just a thought.

    • Maybe that’s the way, Sue. If I accentuate the positive and just imply that I have more to say if she wants it, then it’s up to her how much she wants to hear! I might be able to do that. Thank you!

  7. Both Monica and Sue have excellent points, but the latter might really make her understand that something in her novel was either missing or quite not well done. Hopefully next time she will self-publish something else, will make more attentif to details.

  8. Don’t tell her unless she asks your opinion because she won’t be ready to hear you otherwise. Even then just tell her that you think her editor let her down. If she didn’t employ a professional editor it will be a heads up to get one for the next book or a heads up to get a better one if she did.
    Because the things you’ve outlined sound like the kind of things I wanted my editor to tell me. When she didn’t, I just had to trust that it was okay with the corrections she gave me. And time will teach your friend the wisdom she needs. I’ve come across several best selling authors who wish they could take back their first novel but I bet they didn’t feel that way when it first came out. It was only with experience as a writer that they could see what they couldn’t see before. So don’t tell her unless she asks you directly. Because it will be then that she has a chance of hearing.

    • Oh, I like that! Very diplomatic!
      And for the record, there was nothing like that in yours, Louisa. If I had found anything, I definitely would have told you, but then I know you in real life and know something of your journey.

  9. Dude. DUDE. You are now an author. Your life will be full of these WTF moments, and unfortunately, you are no longer entitled to comment in a personal fashion on any of them.

    Maybe, you are still allowed to write book reviews. Maybe. So long as you keep them impersonal, and say only meaningless stuff like, ‘oh, what a shame, this book just didn’t work for me’.

    I don’t know who makes these rules. But if in doubt, keep your mouth shut. And even if you’re not in doubt… keep your mouth shut.

    That’s just the way it is 🙂

    • I love you, Erica! This made me laugh out loud. But I have to agree. When you are writing yourself, your opinions aren’t ‘free’ any more. They’re loaded, whether you want them to be or not. I’ve already decided that the only books I can talk about on the blog are ones I can wholeheartedly recommend. It’s a drag in one way, but then I was never very good at book reviews anyway, so I doubt it’s a loss to the reading community!

  10. If she is not a good friend of yours, it’s really not your problem, or your beezwax, to say anything, especially as your advice has not been asked for. Believe me, if the book has as many errors as you say, a reviewer somewhere (who does not need to be you) will say so. You have to know someone really really well before you can critique them comfortably without potentially pissing them off, because you have to intuit how much honesty they truly want.

    My mother always said, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Good luck Imelda.

    • I have always tried to adhere to your mother’s advice, Sami, which is why I haven’t said anything. My frustration is that I DO have nice things to say about this story, but I can’t say them without saying the other things as well. I mean, I could, but I wouldn’t feel right. You’re absolutely right, though, just because I see it doesn’t mean it’s my job to say so. I’d rather be her friend (or friendly accquaintance) than editor!

  11. Thank you, everyone for your contributions. And anyone who wants to add anything, please feel free – it’s a fascinating discussion.

    You have helped me make up my mind. I will say nothing, unless directly asked. I have realised, through having this conversation, that if the writer in question had wanted writerly or editorial feedback, they would have asked. Since they didn’t, I should just butt out! (And if, about now, you are saying, ‘well, duh!’ I understand.) If I am respecting the writer as a professional, I have to respect that the decision to seek editing was theirs to make and what I think of that decision and the finished product is irrelevant.

    I am grateful for everyone who took the time to help me work this out and also grateful to this experience, for teaching me the value of a professional editor!

    I have also learnt that, if you see a typo, you should make a note of the page number at the time, as you will never find them again once you’ve finished the book!

    Thanks again, everyone. You’re fantastic!

  12. It sounds like this person has written out the book and thought, “Well, it’s done. Mission accomplished! Now for the moolah to come rolling in!” You have to proofread over and over until your eyes bleed words! I put it to you, Imelda Evans, that you, Imelda Evans, be subtle and just say it’s enjoyable but typos need to be corrected. I wouldn’t really worry about it anymore than that, unless there’s a glaring plot hole.

    Incidentally, I recently discovered possibly the best typo ever in “broken”, which magically becomes “borken” with a slipped finger. I find this really rather amazing.

    • The trouble was, Alex, that they didn’t do that. If they had, the result would have been truly terrible and I just wouldn’t have bothered with it. There was a lot of work in this book and I was saddened that what was really a very good story was let down by relatively minor things that are fixable.
      But it’s possible that I’m just being crazy picky. Maybe because I like the writer, I care more than I would if I knew nothing about them. Anyway, I have decided discretion is the better path, now, so I guess I am being super subtle!
      Lovely to hear from you, as always.

  13. On the omniscient viewpoint (not omnipotent), just a quick comment. I’ve found a lot of writers don’t understand what omni is, even well-published ones with many years in the business. They try to fit their knowledge of third person into omni and keep thinking character viewpoint, not narrator viewpoint and have a hard time making that distinction. As an omni writer, I often get mistaken for writing in third; in fact, I’ve been told I’m not writing in omni at all, but close third because everyone is imagining specific writers who write in omni, and it’s not the ones that I’ve used as my guide. What results is that I tend to tune that out as unhelpful. Should you need to comment in the future, don’t tell the writer she’s head hopping. If she’s doing omni, she’ll probably tune you out. Say the transitions are jarring. That will mean something.

    • LInda, I can’t believe I typed omnipotent! I’m tempted to leave it in, as a lesson to myself in the importance of proofing! Thank you for pointing that out. In the circumstances, it’s kind of a hilarious oversight – at least to me! (Please note, anyone reading this comment, that I HAVE corrected the post above.)

      I agree that omniscient viewpoint is not well understood – or tolerated – in the modern writing scene. I don’t like ‘head-hopping’ as a term, as it implies that one cannot and indeed should not give more than one POV in a scene and I don’t agree with that. And I don’t think that it shouldn’t have been used in this work, either. Your way of putting it is useful. The issue wasn’t that the minor characters’ POV was included, just that the transitions were jarring and occasionally confusing. And I say that as a reader who has read many, many, multi-viewpoint novels without a moment’s confusion.

      Thanks for the suggestion and thanks for taking time to comment!

      • Ah, the omni POV strikes again. I have a half-written novel that is in omni and I struggled with it – I would get into a character’s head too much then the transition would be jarring. Thank God I had people who were reading as I went to help me keep from making the hole I was digging bigger. The jarring transitions really is the best way to describe it. When I was first told about the “head-hopping,” I was about to completely rewrite the story in 3rd. Thankfully, someone more knowledgeable about Omni and 3rd explained it better and went through the transitions with me.

        Now, this really doesn’t have to deal with the subject at hand, about your friend, but I wanted to share.

        I concur with the others, unless she specifically calls on you for your opinion, I would not say anything. Self-pubbing can be great, but a writer should NEVER EVER forget to use an outside editor NO MATTER THE EXPENSE. This is why self-pupped authors are, for the most part, not taken seriously because too many people have just thrown their subpar work into the literary world. I have bought a few books from ‘vanity’ publishers or self-pubbed, and it was brutal. I couldn’t even FINISH the books and that never happens. I’d had some luck since then, but I have become more selective when purchasing a book that isn’t from a traditional publishing house.

        Yes, it is hard to get published traditionally, but methinks there is a reason for that.

        • Hello! Lovely to see you again. I’ve decided it’s none of my business and feel much better about it. Funny how we torment ourselves over things that aren’t our problems, sometimes, isn’t it. It was just that I thought this was a shame, because it WASN’T one of those dreadful ones that you can’t finish, it was far from that. It was just let down by a few things. Anyway, onward and upward. I hope there will be a side outcome from this rise in self-publishing and that is that editors might start to be valued as they deserve. They’ve always been the unsung heroes of the publishing chain, usually overworked and underpaid. Maybe, as more serious writers take the opportunities self-publishing offers, we will see them take some of the great editors with them!

  14. I think the issues you describe with your friend’s book sound so common – especially the omniscient/head hopping/transition thing. I wonder if you would want to speak to some of them in general on your blog, or open them up for discussion on your blog, without identifying your friend’s book, of course. It seems to me like you are partly motivated by wanting to help your friend and partly because you have some thoughts to share. It sounds like a discussion that would be beneficial to me and others if you wanted to devote the energy to it in the abstract.

    • Actually, Kasi, point of view would be an excellent thing to talk about, thank you for the idea! It isn’t just about transitions, either. It’s one of those subjects that is simple on one level, yet profoundly complex on others and one on which people have surprisingly (to me at least) strong opinions. I will definitely give that one some thought! Thank you!

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  16. I would only offer my opinion if asked. And if asked, I would use the sandwich method. Start with what you liked about it. Then go into the editorial stuff, the criticisms, the major problems. If there are this many problems with it, she’ll probably get the same feedback from others, so she’ll likely find out anyway. Very interesting discussion. This is why I won’t publish any creative writing until I am ready and it’s gone through many channels.

    • Thanks for joining the conversation! This not-publishing-until-it’s-ready thing is a real issue for the brave new world of publishing. I think it’s tempting to think that because you CAN fix things that you find after the event, that you should. I mean, of course, if you find typos and you can fix the file and re-load an ebook, you should do that. But story structure? There’s an interesting post up on Dear Author about this today:

      I do believe that you should release things into the wild only when they are as good as you can make them – and then let them go. I know people who cringe at their early work, because they know so much better now, but it’s all a journey and if people enjoy it, then it’s a good part of the journey.

      On reflection, I have realised that this work is one of those things. It isn’t perfect, but she was happy with it and has let it go and it is part of her journey. If she is a serious writer, which I believe she is, she will work this stuff out for herself eventually. In any case, it’s neither my problem or business unless, as you say, she asks!

  17. I know you have a ton of comments on this subject, but I hope you see this one.
    I was in exactly the same predicament as you just a month ago.
    To give you some background my first book is being released by Lyrical Press in November, and so I’m well aware of the “editing process.”
    But like you, I’ve befriended a wonderful writer on Twitter, and she’s bringing out her first self-published novel shortly.
    The only difference though, is that I asked her for her first chapter to run my eyes over it before she published, and to help her edit if she wished. I can’t tell you, I’ve never been more glad that I did. Not only am I helping her to “content edit” her book–but it would have been sad to see it go out in the state it was in.
    She has said to me countless times since I began editing her book, that she can’t believe what she has had to learn, and is so incredibly grateful. (No writer wants to see that their best hasn’t been delivered.)
    Also, what I’ve learnt in helping her, is that I’ve grown in my own ability to “self-edit”–so there is a payoff for is both.
    I would definitely implore you to speak to her, and offer to edit the first chapter of her next novel. It’s only the first you have to do, because they learn so much that they fix the rest on their own. Then you can run your eyes over the full manuscript once she’s getting the edits sorted herself.

    All the best Imelda.

    • Although…
      And I should have said this in my comment. As writers we’re incredibly busy, and have our own work cut out for us. We often don’t have the time to help others. But in my case I did.
      And I wouldn’t want you to think you should edit your friend’s work just because she needs it. There are editors out there she could employ herself. If you’re going to write and make it a career–you need to spend a little money to get you there.
      I feel for you–It’s an awful predicament you’re in.

    • Joanne, thanks for commenting! I’m so glad you’ve been able to help your new friend this way. My situation is a little different, in that the book is already out and the author in question considers it fully edited. (Which I know from reading the author’s comments in promotion.) In this case, I think I’m probably not in a close enough relationship to offer help without it being taken amiss. I do believe this author is serious about their writing, so I’m sure that whatever comments they get will be taken into consideration for future works. They just won’t be getting them from me – unless they ask! 😉 Lovely to hear from you, though and good on you for being so generous and for your new friend for appreciating the help!

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