Erin Lausten

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Archive for the ‘quality’ Category

Is it just Me? Or is it Truly Bigger on the Inside?

Posted by erinlausten on August 7, 2013

I hit another milestone recently.

My son and I are reading the Chronicles of Narnia together. Now beyond the fact that he has the taken so well to listening to stories without pictures, I couldn’t be happier that he has learned to love a world which for so long been an influence on my life and philosophy. I do believe I may have an adventurer on my hands. We are in for a wonderful ride.

But I discovered something even more intriguing than usual, which with a boy of five, is quite a feat. This weekend we watched the three Narnia movies released since 2005. My son and I had made a pact that we would not watch the movies until we finished reading the first three movies. But we have only finished the first half of the third story. And yet, I could not wait—what can I say, I’m a sucker. It was a fabulous adventure, watching all three in two days, seeing this world in pictures through the eyes of a five year old. And then something miraculous happened. That night, my son hands me the book and asks for us to finish it.

There is no either/ or in this equation. The ability to shift from a visual/external medium to an audio/internal medium is natural and not rife with the qualitative question of better or worse. My son didn’t even think about which medium was better, but enjoys both. He seems to enjoy the way they create an experience in their own unique way.

So why then do we have this disconnect as we age? Why do we ask whether the book was better than the movie? Do we change how we see the book and imagine the characters if we have seen another’s vision of them before hand?

I have thought of this at times, not necessarily in a strict or specific sense, but quietly and without much care. But now I am. When I read a story, an author paints me a picture, but I see that world as my experience and desires lead. They may tell me the main character has blonde hair, but if I want them to have dark hair… then then will have dark hair. It’s my world. It is what I want it to be. But when I watch a film, the vision is presented to me, but the internal thoughts of those characters are silent. I get to fill in the motivation, the emotion, the meaning.

Film and television has often been described as a non-interactive passive experience. However, I think we have seen that it is hardly that. With fandoms exploding around the worlds which are created only in that medium, how can we ever think of it as a static experience?

And yet, we endeavor to create a competition between the mediums, arguing the merits and shortcomings of both. But I think I finally see that the true worlds don’t exist in the film or the pages of a book. They belong in the minds of the readers. And each world is different, built through the vision of the page and the pictures but completed in the eyes of the beholder.

What a beautiful world where our minds can hold so many unique stories and share the pieces with those we meet. And then they make their own. And the story goes on. I can’t even imagine what you see when you read my stories. But I hope it is wonderful.

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Posted in dreams, motivation, quality, reading, reflection, voice, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Quality of Self-Published Books- The Conclusion

Posted by erinlausten on August 16, 2012

In the first post of this series I posed the question: Is there a high level of low quality material published through self-published models? And if so, does it matter? In the second post I evaluated the first part to the question. Do we indeed see a significant level of low quality material published through the self-publishing model? I ran through that exercise for a variety of reasons, but most importantly to explore the variety of influences that impact the question. In addition, it has helped me to focus my thoughts on the issue. Because the main purpose of this entire thing is to examine the implications.

So, let’s assume I was able to come up with conclusive evidence that there is a glut of bad books being produced through the self-publishing model. Remember, what constitutes a “bad” book is determined by a variety of criteria, but if we simplify it to its basic root, I think we can move on. I am going to define a “bad” or “poorly written” book as one that readers as a whole hate. It can be unedited, poorly structured, topically irrelevant, etc. Whatever it is that makes it bad, we’ll count it in the pool of awful reading material.

Now, what does it matter? What implications does a surplus of bad books have on writers (traditionally published, self-published and aspiring)? I believe much of the concern stems from a fear that discoverability will be adversely impacted if a reader must sort through the excess and choose a book that they will enjoy. It is hard enough being discovered amid the stacks of good stuff, how can we compete when readers have to sort through the crud too?

The point is valid. But there are a number of things running in favor of good books. First, readers are intelligent. They know what they like and what they want to read. They can find it, evaluate it, and make a choice based on a number of criteria they have developed. Some they developed through experience in the traditional book process, such as understanding genre, evaluating blurbs, and trying out a few pages. All of these options are still available.

It is amazing how fast a reader can disregard books they know they won’t like. Have faith. If they make a mistake and choose something they don’t like, they file that away in the cabinet of things to watch out for, and move on. They are not going to give up reading because they read a book they didn’t like. There is a belief that readers may become so frustrated with the number of books they don’t like that they will give up. But we forget how many great books they are also discovering. Why would they stop when there is good with the bad?

Another thing in favor of good books is that this is all brand new. Electronic book discovery is in its infancy. The technology that enabled this model is still growing and the systems haven’t caught up yet. Discovering the most relevant information on the web is a constantly evolving process. Entire platforms are developed just to facilitate discovery in the most effective ways and Amazon is not the only stakeholder in creating superior discovery methods. Academic databases and search engines are also in the business. The need to retrieve information in a reliable way that can target relevant resources faster and effectively is an ongoing issue across the digital world. With the need expanding, the tools will be developed and improved upon. We are only at the beginning of this process and while the tools may be clunky now, we will see significant changes in the next five to ten years that will make what we have today look like stone tools.

Today we are limited to sorting through giant pools of options based on things like genre, cost, format, sales figures, and reader reviews. But imagine if someone comes along like Pandora and classifies books into categories that are even more specific and minute? What would the discovery experience look like then? What gems would I find among the vast options when I simply type in the name of a book I like and see what shows up with similar elements? And that is just one option. I honestly believe we will see amazing developments in what is possible as the world adapts to the new publishing models.

That does not mean that I believe the current criteria we use will disappear or lose value. Reviews are gaining steam as a means to discover great books. We are seeing some of the flaws in the system, but they will work themselves out over time as well. For instance, the issue has come up that just about any author can come up with a handful of friends that will post glowing reviews about their books. And this is true. But what does that do? What happens when those reviews work? People buy the books and if they are unhappy about it, they can write their own reviews. As this happens, the value of the original favorable reviews lesson and it evens out. So why worry?

The great equalizer is time. There is this feeling that if a book is going to succeed it must happen now. What does it matter if my book is successful today instead of tomorrow? A year from now or even three it may take off as it finds its audience and develops a reputation. Don’t get me wrong, I wish it would happen today, but based on how things are shaping out in the business, I think this will be the biggest shift. They are calling it the long-tail, and if a writer is in this for the long haul, it is the piece that will create the most success.

The decision to go through the traditional or the self-publishing model is a personal choice based on a variety of circumstances. Do some people self-publish out of impatience, a fear of rejection, and an expectation of making it big off of one badly written book? Sure. And just as many people work their tail off learning the craft, studying the business and making sound, economical decisions on how to go about the process.

We can’t tell people not to publish before they are ready. The determination is their own and is dependent on a number of factors. And that is the key. If a writer simply wants to finish that one book and put it up to see what happens, then that is what they will do. They may not want to build a career, write another book, or even find a significant audience. And we will continue to see writers in various levels of their craft development. A first book may not be the best, but ideally we will see improvement over time. I have read numerous “first books” by authors I now love, and you can see the difference. I don’t stop reading the bestseller’s newest book because I tracked down an early book and found it wanting. They have grown as a writer just as many of the self-publishing writers will.

Those that do not grow and develop their skills may keep writing, though I find it unlikely. I expect to see a number of self-published authors with only one or two publications but significantly fewer that keep at it and publish more. Those that do will begin to see the success over time. Because even writing badly takes a lot of work. If they don’t want to put in the effort to develop the skill, why would they keep working so hard writing the next book? Eventually the realization that there needs to be improvement will hit and then the choice will be made: Do they learn or quit?

I completely agree with Sue Grafton when she tells new writers to “master your craft.” That is the key to a lasting career. And it is an ongoing journey. But I would not agree with the statement “Stop worrying about publishing.” When your head is in the book and you are learning the craft, then yes, don’t think about the publishing aspect. Focus on the task at hand. But you do need to learn the business and that includes “worrying about publishing.” There are choices that need to be made and plans to enact. In a recent clarification, Sue Grafton admits that she does not understand the new model and may not have a complete understanding of the situation. I think this illustrates more than anything that at every point in your career, you should do the work and learn your craft and your business.

The issue of quality in self-published books won’t go away, but I don’t believe it will unduly impact the market as tools are developed to better assist readers in discovery. Additionally, I feel it is far too early in the process to make sweeping judgments on how it will impact writers as a whole. It’s new. The situation hasn’t settled and until it does, we will see all kinds of possible issues that in the end won’t be an issue at all.

What will be important is the personal side. The decisions each writer makes to develop their work and skill will improve the possibilities of success. The patience required to really grow and make a career of this new publishing landscape will weed out just as many writers as it did/does in the Traditional process. How a writer copes with rejection, the time commitment, and the immense effort will determine who keeps going and who slips to the side.

And that is why the best advice to new writers will always be the same: Master your craft. Learn the business. And keep writing.

Posted in publishing, quality, the craft, writing | Tagged: , , , , | 10 Comments »

The Quality of Self-Published Books- Evaluating the Question

Posted by erinlausten on August 15, 2012

When I first wrote this post, I knew that it would bring to the forefront the author of the original article and their opinion on the matter. Sue Grafton has caught flack on the issue and when you publicize your opinions and thoughts, inevitably there will be comment and confrontation. But the inspiration for this post wasn’t drawn from her comment out of a personal outrage that I felt at the statement. Rather, it reminded me of a thought that has been brewing in my head for some time. She is not the first, nor will she be the last commentator on the quality of self-publishing. And rather than focus on the person, I would far rather focus on the question. I believe that since it has risen so highly in the discourse on the topic, it deserves a serious analysis. And I hope that through this process I can come to some kind of answer, if only for my own personal edification.

And that brings us to the question posited in the first post in this series: Is there a high level of low quality material published through self-published models.  And if so, does it matter?

In this post, I will be focusing primarily on the first part of the question. The second part will be addressed in a following post.

The Analysis:

Is there an easy answer? Ideally, I would love to see data that illuminates the answer and unfortunately, I am not finding that. There is no pie chart out there with the percentage of badly written self-published books in relation to those that are mediocre or even great. So my first question is, “Where are we getting the notion that there are a lot of badly written self-published books?”
I imagine it comes from firsthand knowledge in some cases and repetitive recitation of what others have observed in other cases. So, what does that mean? If I randomly choose a self-published book or three and find they are awful, is that an appropriate test? Can I say that the majority of self-published books fall into the same bucket?

I hope the scientist in you shivers, because this is hardly a representative sample.  So first we need to collect a sample group to test (We can’t read ALL the books out there, so we have to select a number based on criteria that will hopefully show the proportions of quality in the whole). So how do we determine a sample group? Are the books read limited to a specific genre? How are they selected? If I were to simply read the self-published books found on the Amazon Top 100 lists I would be wary to claim I had significantly seen the level of work being produced. There are so many factors that contribute to a book “making” it to those lists, that I have found they do not necessarily bring us the “best”.  In fact, I have had better luck finding great self-published work through word of mouth and serendipitous discovery. (Imagine that, it works just like the traditional model)

Are we limiting our search to Amazon? Or do we include the other options, like Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Lulu, etc.? And once we have selected where we will pull the books from, how do we then select them? There isn’t a list of self-published books that we can skim to choose books. We could go to Smashwords or others that only cater to self-published authors, but it isn’t a complete look at what is out there as so many skip that as a publishing option. In addition, a number of self-published books look just like every traditionally published book out there. In many cases you have to dig to really decide if it was self-published. And if we miss these kinds of books are we not filtering out a set of the sample that could be quite telling?

This is a significant problem. And I am starting to see something quite interesting, but hang on I will get there.

Let’s pretend we are able to put together a good representative sample. (Honestly, I think it is possible— work intensive, but possible. Anyone looking for a dissertation topic?) Once we have a sample, then we would need to establish the criteria that determine the quality of a book. Are we looking at basic grammatical standards? At what level? Newspapers are supposed to be written at an eighth grade level— is that the standard? What level of errors is considered negligible to not matter? Spelling, commas, sentence structure. Where does it stop?

And are we limiting the definition to just basic writing rules. Or are we looking at storytelling as well? Are we talking about criteria set by the literary types in universities across the globe? Or perhaps criteria that the reading public determine? Hold on. We don’t know what the reading public likes. Why do people flock to Twilight and Fifty Shades when so many cry that it is bad writing? What made Harry Potter an international phenomenon? Why would Transformers 3 make millions? (Wait, sorry about that last one—wrong industry).

I am getting a little snarky about the process, but let me rein that in and state that yes, we do know that there are basic criteria that determine a book’s quality. Good story and editing that ensures a reader never falls out of a book is a sign of good writing. But the specific details that make one book stand above the rest often elude us. The Writer’s Digest recently posted an article on the 21 key traits of bestselling fiction. And these are great, but they aren’t necessarily quantifiable. If I follow every rule, can I guarantee a bestseller? No. Not at all.

Perhaps if we cannot quantify the criteria that make a good book, we should utilize a sample of readers instead. So my proposal is to have thousands of readers read the sample of thousands of self-published books, provide their opinions and then evaluate the opinions over that broad spectrum. If we could only tap into this unutilized source of data…

Actually, this is already there. We have Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and GoodReads, and Smashwords. Thousands of self-published books are being uploaded, sold and read daily. The answers are there. Do we know if the collective whole is bad? If you sort the searches in Amazon by the ratings, you get self-published and traditionally published books running through the list from top to bottom. Some of those books that rise to the top of the list could be characterized as awful writing. But consider this: It is at the top for a reason? Why are people reading it? Why are they loving it? Why are bad books making money? Maybe the real question is: Do you really know what makes a good book?

If you hold up two books and cannot tell the difference between traditionally and self-published, then perhaps it is not that distinction that is important. Perhaps it is not the model at all that we are observing as the precipitating factor, but rather the work, effort, and experience being put into the finished product. Perhaps the issue is that there are a number of books out there that are not meeting an accepted standard. Because the self-publishing model is relatively easy to break into, it allows for individuals to produce works that are less likely to be found released through the traditional model.

Yes, as a self-publisher, I can slap stick-figures on a book cover, type nonsense onto a page and throw it on the web. And I am not going to argue that there are not a significant number of badly written books (by whatever criteria) out there. And while I have not been able to do the actual math, the self-publishing model does provide the opportunity to put up just about anything.  And inevitably, the quality can range from phenomenal to not so great.

I went through a lot of words going over how we can tell if there is there a high level of low quality material published through self-published models. And ultimately, it was an exercise in futility, because I didn’t give you a definitive answer. I would love to see actual numbers and know how those numbers were reached, because as you can see, there are so many variables it really needs to be a well designed study. But, the truth is, this isn’t the important part. And that is what I will look at tomorrow.

Does it matter?

If there are a ton of badly written self-published books out there, does it matter? What implications does it have on the industry and what does it mean to the traditional, the self-published and the budding author?

And so… until tomorrow.

Posted in publishing, quality, the craft, writing | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »

The Quality of Self-Published Books- The Question

Posted by erinlausten on August 14, 2012

Bestselling Author Sue Grafton has made some waves in a recent article where she states her opinion on writers and self-publishing.  Before reading on, you may want to stop by the article first.

I do not usually weigh in on the opinions of authors or others in the publishing industry. In general, opinions are just what they are– one person’s view on a situation based on personal experience and philosophy. An opinion is devised through a specific experiential reality. Through debate, conversation and discourse, opinions can add to understanding and therefore change perceptions and opinions. And an opinion should not be disregarded simply because one facet is seen as contrary to another’s experience. It’s complicated and that is why I rarely speak up. The dissection of an argument is a lot of work, and honestly, I have fiction to write.

But, in this case, I feel that there is something deeper within Sue Grafton’s argument that deserves analysis. Not the statement that says, “Don’t self-publish. That’s as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work.” This one line has drawn the most fire from critics. And justifiably so.  A blind monkey could find the errors in that statement. But sweeping generalizations are easy to refute.

The challenge is addressing the underlying issue. Opponents to the self-publishing model grasp onto the question of quality of the writing within self-published books. They argue that the traditional model produces higher quality product. The usual method to dispute this argument from the self-publishing side is to point out that even within the traditionally published works there are vast levels of quality. Many self-published books meet and exceed the best produced by traditional publishing. The level of quality can run the gamut in both methods. But again, we fall into the fallacy that if you can find one example where something is incorrect, then the argument itself holds no merit.

When there is only one road to take, the responsibility is to decide if the risks of taking the road are outweighed by the risks of not taking the road at all. So essentially, the question was originally: what risks are there to following the established method to publication? And the alternative was quintessentially: never being published. If never being published was acceptable, then you had your answer.

The choice has become more complicated. And that is both a good and a bad thing. With multiple models, the risks and benefits to each must be analyzed to determine a choice taken. And the answer could be following one road, or jumping from one to the other. The options are numerous and the opportunity is vast. But there is no Google map for this trip, so it must be drawn by the individual.

Rather than argue right versus wrong, it is essential that professionals adequately analyze the business and industry. No matter which side you prefer, the question of quality within self-published work is important. It must be addressed and determinations made on what impact it has on both the individual publishing professional and the industry at large. They are, as expected, undeniably connected.

So I pose a question. And the only way it can be answered is if businessmen/women in the publishing industry remain rational, temper the emotional response, and attempt to evaluate the truth of the matter.  The type of response that these arguments tend to elicit suggests that authors make their decisions based on emotional and visceral reasons rather than sound business analysis and evaluation. This is not good no matter the decision made. But I digress.

The question is: Is there a high level of low quality material published through self-published models. And if so, does it matter?

(I am intentionally ignoring the question of whether the same is true through the traditional model. That is a separate exercise and would be the second step, if it is even necessary).

Unfortunately, this exercise has turned into something much larger than what would suffice in a single post. Now that the argument is established, I will evaluate and analyze the issues impacting the determination of quality within the self-published literature. But, it will have to wait for another day. I’ll have Part 2 posted tomorrow (Wednesday).

Posted in publishing, quality, the craft, writing | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »