The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz
Photo Credit: Allen Skyy
Diet Coke ran an ad during the Oscars that began with a writer working at his desk, taking a stretch break and sipping their product. The commercial showed the evolution of the film from that moment until the audience members gathered in their seats to watch… sipping Diet Coke. The tagline read “not all stars appear on-screen.”
All writers can identify with that guy sitting alone, working hard when it looks like nothing’s happening. Writing is solitary and sometimes unrewarding except for the satisfaction inherent in the work. Writers are weird. We know this about ourselves. We embrace it. You have to be weird to have people running wild in your head, having conversations and doing things that you wouldn’t have expected.
When we write for publication—for that audience sipping the Diet Coke—we know we’ll deal with criticism. In the olden days of the Aughts and earlier, we didn’t have the options for publication that we have in early 2012. For the most part, we kept on querying agents and submitting to journals.
As electronic publishing has grown, writers not only recognize more options for getting their work to an audience, they create their own opportunities. Yesterday’s chapbook is today’s self-published electronic book (available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the author’s personal URL). It reminds me of the surge of one-hit-wonders in the Eighties, when all you needed for a hit record was a synthesizer and a tape recorder. If you want to create a book, all you need is to write it, format it, and offer it for sale (even if the sale price is “free”). But just like the fact that not every Eighties record was a hit not every self-published book will be Invisible Life.
However, whereas we used to sell a chapbook or zine to a potential reader who would go on her merry way, we now have a continued level of contact with our readers. Those readers aren’t silent about their opinions and the very outlets we use to get our work to an audience has become a two-way line of communication, another form of social media.
Increasingly, writers are responding to the critiques. Sometimes “thank you” suffices. Sometimes writers will go on to rebut a critique, no matter how accurate or constructive. While I believe story, character, dialogue, etc. are always open to critique and response in drafting phases, I don’t think that the equivalent of standing in a store arguing with your customer is smart. When it comes to matters of copyediting, it’s downright foolish.
As self-publishing authors call themselves “independent”—like independent musicians who circumvent record companies—there has been an undeniable increase in the number of novels, novellas, short fiction collections, memoirs, biographies, anthologies and other printed work. In our zeal to get that work into a reader’s hands, we sometimes overlook some of the basics. Those basics make the work readable. Using the excuse that we don’t need to pay attention to structure, grammar, or punctuation shows disrespect for our readers and for our hard work.
Why do we need to pull a “yeah but” on our readers? I think it’s strange to respond to critique of published work at all unless it comes from a friend (to which I usually say “thanks” unless it’s a specific question and then I might answer privately, if at all). If our manners and sense of decorum demand that we thank a reader, our manners should also respect the opinions that reader offers. Thank the reader in your acknowledgements if you must but you’re under no obligation to engage with your reader beyond what you’ve already done: offering your work. There are authors who actively engage their audience in social media; Neil Gaiman springs to mind as an author who uses Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and many other social media sites. But Neil Gaiman doesn’t engage in arguments about his reviews. Gaiman provides endless examples of ways to reach out to readers without making everything about your latest creation and its attributes or flaws.
It’s not stretch to say that independent authors have been burned by traditional publishing because every writer who has submitted for publication has been rejected. Do we have a collective chip on our shoulders over it? I say we do and that’s not a bad thing. Some of us take it as a challenge. Some of us see it as a sign to look to new, non-traditional methods of publication. This might be why we are especially stung by criticism when it comes from the readers and why we feel compelled to stand up for ourselves.
If you must defend your choices—a character’s name, an unusual plot twist, misplaced punctuation—keep in mind that doing so is akin to a book signing or a job interview. Your response to a reader that a constructive criticism is “nasty” or “uncalled-for” affects your reputation and possibly your sales. This is the same whether the response is typed by your fingers or by the friends who jump to your defense when you post to your Facebook wall that you got an unflattering critique. You did not get critiqued. Your book did. There is a difference.
When you respond to your readers in any fashion, you thin the line between your work and yourself, not only in terms of the thick skin writers develop but in terms of how your book is considered. Would the average reader bother to post even a five-star review if the author has come along after every review to make notes? Many readers like the distance between themselves and the author. It’s the characters they feel close to, not their creator. People like J.K. Rowling but they love Harry Potter.
Create a website with a “thank you” page, maybe a FAQ page as well. If these pages are rational and professional, they’ll represent your opinions well enough that you won’t be obligated to chase your reviewers and readers won’t feel individually attacked by rebuttals. If you want to discuss your work, do it there. But if you see the same critique over and over, stop defending your mistake. Correct it. With independent digital publishing, you have no excuse not to—other than pride.
Even when an author rejects one element of traditional publishing—a publisher, for example—it doesn’t mean that all aspects of traditional publishing should be eschewed. Editing services are never a bad idea. As I’ve said many times, editors don’t do what they do as a method to crush our dreams. Editors are passionate people who want the best possible product in a reader’s hands. Readers also want the best story they’ve ever read, from character to correct spelling. Is that any different from the author’s goal?
Mutual respect among writers, readers, editors, agents, and everyone involved in publishing is a goal we should reach for, not rail against.
According to the Association of American Publishers, e-books grew from 0.6% of the total trade market share in 2008 to 6.4% in 2010, the most recent figures available. Total net revenue for 2010: $878 million with 114 million e-books sold. In adult fiction, e-books are now 13.6% of the market.