Books by Melissa Bowersock

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Pariah of Self-Publishing: NOT!

I follow a lot of writer’s forums online (LinkedIn, Goodreads, etc.) and there’s been a lot of debate over self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. Almost every day a newbie or wannabe author/writer will ask about the pros and cons, and all the old mythology immediately starts to surface. Those of us who have already self-published (and some quite successfully, thank you) are quick to point out the benefits, but there are always a few (often with hidden agendas) who pooh-pooh self-publishing and offer up all the old stereotypes.

I am happy to report that those stereotypes, with a few exceptions, are dead.

It used to be that the only reputable way to get published was traditional; that means getting an agent, having said agent send out your manuscript (all 40 pounds of it) to various publishers on either coast, waiting, waiting, waiting, getting back non-informational reject letters (“doesn’t fit our brand; best of luck”), and repeat ad infinitum (or ad nauseum). If a writer wanted to do anything other than this carved-in-stone formula, they would have to go to what was then called a “vanity press.” Vanity press has somewhat gone the way of the dodo, but it does still exist in slightly different forms. More on that later. Essentially a vanity press would print anything you asked them to, if you were willing to pay their price. This was very often in the thousands of dollars and came with much ego-stroking and promises of fame and fortune. The reality was often heart-breakingly disappointing.

The main problem with a vanity press was that they had their money up front. Once they did, there was no incentive for them to do anything to promote your book. You paid them to print it and they did; then you ended up with an empty bank account and countless boxes of books in your garage that you were left to sell or promote however you could figure that out. They had your money; you had your tarnished, dust-gathering dream.

Anyone who knew anything about publishing knew that if you weren’t published traditionally, by a recognized house, you were probably a hack, so any book with a vanity press brand was immediately pigeon-holed as crap. Some have even said such authors became pariahs, which may be true. It was as if once you had succumbed to the lure of the sham, you were branded a fool and no worthwhile publisher would even glance your way. You were dead in the water.

That was in the old days.

Over the last 20 years, publishing has undergone a huge transformation. For some reason (unknown to me) the industry began to pull back into a very fearful and conservative replica of itself. Instead of working to discover and develop the next up-and-coming brilliant author, publishing houses fixated on only proven authors and instant best-sellers. Instead of taking a chance on undiscovered genius, houses banked on household names and sure blockbusters. Uncovering and developing rough talent (of which there is never a shortage) lost out to almost assured (remember Sarah Palin’s book?) million-sellers. A never before published author had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anywhere with the big houses.

Luckily, the cavalry was appearing on a distant ridge.

The large publishers’ reluctance to take a chance on new authors left a huge void in the writing world, but it wasn’t long before forward-thinking entrepreneurs were popping up to fill that gap. Small presses began appearing all across the country and the world. They didn’t need to have a New York address or populate a 5-story building in Manhattan. Many were small mom-and-pop businesses, started on a shoestring and willing to consider unknowns. At the same time, the internet was ushering in author’s showcase sites where writers could put up a sample of their writing and publishers, editors and agents could peruse at their leisure. It was a match made in heaven.

Then everything changed – again.

Digital printing, print-on-demand (POD) and the immediate transfer of data over the internet spawned the new and now wildly successful industry of self-publishing. Now for the first time, writers could publish their own works easily, affordably, and produce a quality product which paid for itself as readers ordered books. There was no huge cash outlay, there was no huge inventory to warehouse, no huge gamble to take. The old, slow, expensive process of printing, warehousing and shipping large quantities of heavy tomes was replaced by a sleek, cheap and efficient process that brought almost instant results.

The shackles had been thrown off.

So if self-publishing is so great, why does the debate rage on?

From my point of view, people who argue against self-publishing either have their own agendas or they are laboring under old stone-chiseled misconceptions. Here are a few of the arguments you’ll hear:

Self-published books are badly written and are rife with spelling errors, typos and bad grammar. Partly true. People are different and of course some writers may not have the best command of the language and/or believe they don’t need an editor or proofreader. Most, however, have a good understanding of their own limitations and are not shy about calling on outside help to polish their book. We writers are artists; we are creators and when we create a story, we want it to be the best it can be. This argument is most often promoted by (you guessed it) people who work as editors.

People who self-publish are just lazy and impatient and are not willing to do the work or to wait for a traditional publisher to accept them. There are some calcified brains who honestly think that self-publishing is just too easy and that “fact,” in and of itself, is a good argument against it. What they’re not considering is that some authors may have been working on their book for many years and may have spent many more years shopping it to every agent and publishing house they could find, only to be passed over again and again. Most writers are not cranking out a book every three months, slapping a cover on it and pronouncing it done. All the writers I know take their time, write their best and polish, polish, polish until they feel they have an interesting, satisfying story.

Self-published authors become “unpublishable” and are pariahs in the industry. False. By now everyone knows the story of the Celestine Prophecy, how it was self-published but became a huge seller and was picked up by a traditional publishing house. It’s not the only one, just the most famous. Self-publishing does not preclude being traditionally published. As for being branded a pariah, let me ask a question. Last time you bought a book, did you look at who published it? If you did, were you aware if the company was a self-publishing company or not? And if you were, did it influence your decision to buy or not buy that book? I’m guessing the answer to those questions is most likely no. We don’t buy a book according to who published it. We buy books because we want to read the story. We don’t buy an author because of who published their book; we buy them because we like their style and story-telling.

People who self-publish produce inferior books. False. Self-published books these days are quality products with crisp printing and beautiful and eye-catching covers. I would challenge anyone to pick up a self-published book and a traditionally published book and compare them. I doubt they’d find any differences. In one of the online forums, there was actually a guy arguing for offset printing (which just happened to be his business), saying it was still cheaper per unit price—but of course that’s only if you order a run of 5,000 books or so. Not only did this guy have his own agenda but he was advising writers to continue using an outdated and antiquated form of publishing that is expensive, bulky and unnecessary.

What’s really too bad about all this bull is that most of these shrill voices (1) have little or no real experience with the self-publishing process itself and (2) they promote themselves as experts, condescending to advise the lowly unpublished authors about the “truth” of self-publishing. They bank on their criticism and know-it-all manner to lead the newbie by the nose away from self-publishing and (ironically) toward whatever outdated method their business is based on. I find these tactics reprehensible.

Luckily, so do hundreds and thousands of my fellow self-publishers. Take a look at some of these online forums and you’ll see these sharks surface now and again, starting off with a very “helpful” post that includes some of the bashing above. Then watch the fun. My fellow self-publishers don’t suffer these sharks gladly. They zero in, tagging the false comments, rebutting with facts, ripping apart the advice to harken back to the old ways (“Ignore that man behind that curtain!”). It usually doesn’t take too many zinging comments before the shark turns tail to go look for more placid waters to hunt in.

Writers have discovered that they have the power.

And they like it.

Next time: The Evolution of Vanity Press

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Perception is the Problem

Watching a program on PBS the other night, there was a discussion about the fact that the Bible, the Constitution and other important documents are interpreted very differently from one person to the next. Each of us reads through our own lenses, filters we have developed throughout our lives from our experiences, our upbringing and our teachings as well as the broader invisible cultural mores we absorb without even realizing. Because this accumulation process is transparent to us, we are often surprised when we butt up against someone with a very different opinion, and of course we tend to think that our view is “normal,” very often leading to heated discussions or even war.

In pondering this, I realized that reading any book or story is the same way. I, as the writer, set down what I believe is a story worth telling and tell it in a way that makes sense to me. I do my best to tell it so it is engaging, interesting, easy to follow and complete. When I judge that I have done that in the best possible manner, the book goes to print and is offered to readers. All that’s left is for the reader to follow along, reading my words so that the very same story is created in their minds. Right?


There can actually be a huge gap between the writer’s intent and the reader’s perception, wider or narrower depending on the agreement (or not) of those filters mentioned above. As a writer I have sometimes been completely blind-sided by a review wherein the reviewer tells details of the story that are not in the book. I remember reading one such review and wondering if someone took the cover off of my book and put a different book inside it, because what the reviewer was describing was not my story at all.

But it was.

Different filters. Different perspective. Somehow the reviewer’s brain had added details that seemed to make sense in the context of the story, no doubt details that were provided by some past experience or maybe wishful thinking. It was at that point that I realized that, no matter what I wrote, once I put it “out there” for the pubic, it was beyond my control what any reader perceived from my printed page. This even happened with an editor once. Before publication of another book, the editor sent me his proud draft of the back cover blub and again I had to wonder just what book he was referring to. The blurb was so glaringly wrong-headed, it made me cringe to read it. Luckily he was amenable to my “revisions.”

It’s not unlike doing a web page. You type in your information, align your text, pictures, and links in a pleasing configuration, preview it over and over as you tweak it and refine it, and when it’s perfect you upload it to the server and your creation is there for all to see. But then you visit a friend and ask her to check it out and when her browser brings up the page—it’s all wrong! The page is too narrow and the pictures have shifted and everything is out of place. Even the colors are wrong. What the … ?

Problem is, the friend’s monitor is not the same size as yours and the resolution is set at a different level, making all your perfectly-placed pictures small and grainy. This monitor has different color saturations, as well, so the colors that looked so complimentary on your monitor are all fighting with each other now. In other words, her monitor interprets the data differently than your monitor did. It’s all the same data; it’s just coming through two very different systems.

Just like our brains.

I remember once reading about a very well-known author (maybe Stephen King? John Irving?) saying that once he sold a book’s movie rights to a studio, he no longer considered it his story. I believe he (wisely) understood that the studio’s interpretation of the story was going to take it several steps away from his original intent, and then the studio’s presentation was going to take it further still. It’s a little like playing the old game Telephone. You whisper a phrase to the person next to you, who whispers it to the another, then another and another, and when the phrase finally comes back to you after twenty or so such steps, it’s evolved into something completely different. Perception.

The human brain is an amazing thing; it has evolved into something that can imagine, design and create something that never existed before. It can also hallucinate, become addicted, experience paranoia and hate, yen to destroy. It absorbs everything from languages to multiplication tables to celebrity gossip to physics. It seems to be hard-wired to embrace the divine, even if total understanding is beyond its grasp. And it even has the ability to study and understand itself. All these various abilities make its potential unknowable. It also just about guarantees that no two people will perceive anything in exactly the same way.

What’s an artist to do? Not a thing. It’s a given that our creations—books, paintings, music—will be perceived differently by different people. Everyone may not see the story I’ve told, see the shapes on the canvas, hear the harmonies. But some will. Some will feel the tug of those words, sink into the colors and shed tears with the soaring melody.

That’s enough for me.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Grammar Police

I’ve written before about typos and how they send me right up the wall (especially my own). Sure, we all make mistakes (doesn’t mean I have to like it), and it’s a natural human failing, much as we strive to keep our work clean and correct.

Now it’s time for the Grammar Police.

Word Usage

The English language is confusing. Having two words like bear and bare that sound exactly the same, yet mean two (make that three or four) different things can be frustrating and annoying, and our language is peppered with examples like that. It might help (but maybe not) to remember that our language is a distillation of many, many languages down through time, which means that several similar-sounding words have come to us from different derivations, hence the differences in meaning and spelling. Do you really need to know what word came from what language? No. Do you need to know how to use them? Yes.

On Facebook or any written forum online, you’ll often run into a long-standing ruckus between the self-appointed Grammar Police and the luckless souls who find themselves so policed. You might see sentences like the ones below, complete with comments about their usage:

Your an idiot.  

I went over to there house.

Every dog has it’s day.

Use it or loose it.

Every one of the above is an example of incorrect usage, and my Word spell-checker is indicating each one with a wavy line beneath the incorrect word. Do yourself a favor and if you see the wavy line under a word, check it out. It’s there for a reason.


I once helped a friend format a book for self-publishing. My job was not to edit but to format, so I did not proofread the book but did notice some problems. In every case where the author had a single word as a sentence of dialog, there was no period following the word.




Yes, it’s a fragment and yes, we’re generally advised not to use fragments, but we all know we don’t speak in perfect sentences and we very often speak in fragments, so I have no quibble with that. But fragment or not, that one word is a sentence. Put a period after the blinkin’ thing. I suggested (gently) that this person might want to go through and put periods after these one-word sentences, but the author never did. If there was a reason for doing it this way, I have no idea what it might be.

Punctuation is our friend. Really. It helps us to communicate to our readers how the thoughts we are writing down should be ordered. A period means the last sentence has come to an end. It means that last thought has come to an end. It sets us up for the next sentence, the next thought. Not having that period sets up the assumption that the thought is continuing without a break.

I saw the deer it ran through the bushes.

A comma indicates that there is a slight pause, but the train of thought continues on unbroken.

I saw the deer, and it ran through the bushes.

A semi-colon indicates that you’ve got two separate thoughts, complete unto themselves, yet they are connected in some way.

I saw the deer; it ran through the bushes.

In each case, the punctuation is a signal to the readers how they should read that sentence and how the thoughts should be ordered. Help your readers; use the correct word and the correct punctuation.

What’s the big deal?

Why the nitpicking? Aside from casting aspersions on your level of education, the main reason I rail against these things is because it pops the reader out of the story. If I’m reading and the story has grabbed me by the throat and dragged me relentlessly along on a lethal, fast-paced car chase, the sudden appearance of a their instead of a they’re will stop me dead in my tracks. Now not only am I no longer engrossed in the story (and cranky about it), but I have to re-read that sentence to make sure I know what the author is trying to say, and that makes me crankier. Writing a story is like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs; we’re leaving a trail of words for the reader to follow. If the breadcrumbs are scattered haphazardly, perhaps mixed in with some street gravel, readers will have a hard time picking out the crumbs and the direction we want them to take. Help your readers by giving them a good, clear trail to follow.

We may want our readers to work a bit while they’re reading: work to figure out who actually killed the philandering husband, or wonder earnestly how the star-crossed lovers are going to get back together when she’s in Paris and he’s in Timbuktu. But we don’t want them to have to work to figure out what it is we’re trying to tell them. To my mind, the reader should be drawn along that trail of words in an almost effortless way, so effortless that they forget they are reading and they are, instead, feeling the story, seeing the location, sensing the love or doom or conflict. If they have to stop frequently to re-read errant sentences and try to figure out what you’re really trying to say, they most likely will not enjoy the side trip and will not put your  next book on their “to be read” list.

All that aside, language is such a fluid, dynamic thing, is there really only one correct way to use words and punctuation? Absolutely not. That’s actually the beauty of language; we can use it in whatever way it serves our purpose. Let’s go back to fragments. MS Word will very kindly let you know every time you use a fragment, and that wavy line will tip you off. Ideally fragments are to be avoided. But there are plenty of times (like the single word sentences above) when we want to use a fragment and it’s entirely appropriate. Breaking the rules is fine as long as you (1) know the rules to begin with and (2) have a reason to break them. Breaking them for no reason will only serve to confuse and confound your readers.

I don’t know about you, but I want my readers to enjoy the experience of reading what I’ve written.