Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Should you publish your own book?

Google "self-publish" and you'll find countless websites exhorting you to become your own publisher. Self-publishing is quick. It's easy. It can be cheap. Best of all, you are in total control. No more wasting time with publishers or agents who just don't get it.

For a different opinion, read Melissa Foster and Amy Edelman's op-ed piece, "Why Indie Authors Don't Get No Respect", first published, ironically, on IndieReader.com ("a venue for discriminating book-lovers to find and purchase books published by the people who wrote them."). Publish your own book, these authors say, and you're likely to get bad editing and crappy covers. By bypassing the "gatekeepers," you will release your book into a vast pool of unfiltered and usually inferior content. That's no doubt why the New York Times will not review self-published books, and it's why I duck and run whenever I see one coming my way.

But I may have to change my opinion.

Last week I reviewed (not for this blog) two books published by small but conventional publishers. One  was so unattractively designed outside and in that at first I assumed it was self-published, or perhaps a galley. But no. This was the final copy.

The other book looked somewhat better, but the copyediting and proofreading, if any had been done, was abysmal. The text was sprinkled with typos, of course, but it also featured misused apostrophes, incorrect capitalization, dangling modifiers, faulty parallelism, misspelled words and names, incorrect punctuation, homonym faults, misused words, incorrect citations, mistakes in subject-verb agreement--and even a running head that actually dips down and interferes with the first line of type.


As I was recovering from these two books--both of them worth reading, by the way, and certainly worthy of better treatment than they got from their publishers--I got an over-the-transom request to look at a self-published book. I was heading into my instinctive crouch when I suddenly thought: How could it be any worse than the books I'd just reviewed from conventional publishers? So I checked out the author's website. Hey, not bad! Good design. Good marketing. Much better than the publishers' web pages for the two authors I'd just read. I may regret this, but I agreed to look at her book. I hope she used a competent editor.

I still agree with Foster and Edelman, at least on principle. Gatekeepers, editors, and designers can vastly improve the quality of published material. Most self-published books interest few people beyond their authors. But you know, if publishers think they can no longer afford expert designers and editors, then why would any author in his or her right mind want to accept their lower royalties?

Should you publish your own book? Probably not, unless you're willing to hire a team of professionals to ensure a good product which even then will be rejected by most book stores and reviewers. But before offering your proposal to a publisher, be sure you're dealing with a house that still places high value on design and editing. When publishers stop doing that, they make themselves irrelevant.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Number-One Hits: Not Just for Birthdays

The Andrews Sisters
A lot of my Facebook friends are sharing links to the number-one hit song on the day of their birth. Listening to the song can be disconcerting. One friend, after discovering his was by the Andrews Sisters, wrote, "Will someone spoon oatmeal into me for dinner?"

(If you want to find your song, click here.) Mine was a song I'd never heard of - somehow I didn't pay much attention to the hit parade when I was in my bassinet. What with diapers, bottles, and sleep deprivation, my parents may never have heard of it either. I just checked the top hits on the days my daughters were born, and they were completely unfamiliar to me too.

So I got to thinking, this meme has it wrong. The important song in my life isn't the number-one hit on the day of my birth. It's the number-one hit on the day I was conceived. That song might explain my existence.

I immediately checked out my idea by looking up top hits on my daughters' probable dates of conception. OK, scratch that theory. One song was barely familiar. The other was "American Pie." Well, yes, "I can still remember how that music used to make me smile..."

The top hit on my own probable date of conception, though, seemed sweetly appropriate: Francis Craig's "Near You." (If you want to estimate your date of conception, click here. If you were born in a leap year, choose 2012 as your birth year; otherwise, choose 2011.)

But hey, the hit parade is more for teenagers than for sober young householders. What song was popular that Sunday afternoon when Mr Neff and I, aged 19 and 18, snuggled in a parked VW and decided to get married?
On a Sunday afternoon ...

We'll keep on spending sunny days this way
We're gonna talk and laugh our time away
I feel it comin' closer day by day
Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly . . .
More than 44 ecstatic years later, the music hasn't died, though it's getting more and more difficult to groove in a VW.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Wow. This is Sue Grafton's best alphabet mystery yet.

Well, I think it is, and I've read them all, beginning with A Is for Alibi (1982), which begins with these memorable first lines:
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I'm thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.
I've loved all 22 (so far) of Millhone's adventures for being witty and smart, but not deep or noir; for having a kick-ass female investigator who seems like a real person, not an action figure; for including the same lovable minor characters from book to book (Rosie the Hungarian restaurant owner, Henry the fatherly landlord) without ever repeating plots or becoming predictable; and for appearing year after year after year.

But since I grab them as soon as I can get hold of the library copy, and since last time I read one - U Is for Undertow - was 20 months ago - I can't be absolutely sure that V Is for Vengeance is the unquestionable pick of the litter. I can only tell you that as I was enjoying Grafton's deft handling of multiple plot lines and points of view, I kept thinking of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series, and that is high praise indeed.

Both Connelly and Grafton, inspired by mid-20th-century greats Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, have taken hardboiled detective fiction and humanized it. Their detectives not only age but also change and grow. Their supporting characters are decent but flawed - or deeply flawed but, usually, still showing traces of grace. Their settings - Los Angeles for Harry, Santa Teresa (a pseudonym for Santa Barbara) for Kinsey - feel real: both authors know, for example, that Californians use the definite article when referring to their freeways ("the 10"). Their books take us well beyond the borders of genre fiction. These are not just page-turners; they are fully-fledged novels.

In V Is for Vengeance, Kinsey's part in apprehending a shoplifter plunges her into a labyrinth of organized crime. Who is Dante, and how does he make so much money? Is Nora's husband stepping out on her? Why does Marvin keep changing his mind? Is it wise for Kinsey to keep hanging up on the persistent reporter? Why is Pinky so nervous? What's going on with Dante's little brother and the vice cop?

And will the risk-inclined Kinsey finally make a fatal error?

I confess that the last question didn't worry me as much as it might have: I know that four more books are on the way, and I am grateful. If you're already a fan of Kinsey Millhone, I guarantee you'll love this one. If you have yet to make her acquaintance, you don't have to read the other 21 novels to appreciate V Is for Vengeance. Read it now. You can - and probably will - fill in the backstory later.