Recently, Newsweek ran an article about the brave new world of self-publishing. Its title asked the question "Who Needs a Publisher?" Well, the short answer is, I do. The bigger answer is: we all do.
Don't get me wrong. I'm glad that self-publishing has evolved from stigma to respectability. I love that worthy authors who might be overlooked by the major houses can now be read. It's great that writers with a special niche, an established following or an entrepreneurial bent can make more money self-publishing than they would in royalties. But I'm also concerned about the future of books and the larger issue of assuring the flow of reliable information.
Here are just two reasons for that concern, based on my own recent experience.
1. Advances. I just finished a nonfiction book that will be released this fall. It consumed the better part of three years -- far more than I anticipated -- and the research entailed countless hours of reading, about three hundred interviews and some travel. My advance did not come close to covering the cost of all that information-gathering, but it helped. More importantly, the fact that a major publishing house was committed enough to write even a modest check was psychologically essential. Given my personal circumstances, I simply could not have sustained the effort to complete the project without that commitment.
Advances are a time-honored tradition that serve authors the way venture capital serves entrepreneurs. They're not only a vote of confidence, they make it practically possible to move an idea from conception to fruition. It should concern all of us that the writing of research-heavy, time-consuming books might in the future be limited to authors of independent means, academics with tenure and writers with support from foundations or -- beware! -- commercial or ideological organizations with a vested interest in promoting a point of view.
2. Quality control. After authoring and coauthoring more than twenty books, I was just reminded once again of the immense value of working with professionals. At each step of the way, from inception to restructuring to rewrites to finalizing the index, editors, copy editors and proofreaders made my book a better book.
I'm not just talking about spotting typos and grammatical errors, although they did plenty of that. At the onset, editorial discussions helped me to clarify the book's point of view and its focus. Later, when I turned in the manuscript after several drafts on my own, my editor spotted a structural weakness that slowed the narrative flow. He did not know how to solve the problem, but he diagnosed it, and that was enough. After a couple of sleepless, obsessive, anxiety-filled days, the pieces of the puzzle came together in my mind. I talked it over with my editor and got to work turning three long chapters into five shorter ones, moving chunks of the manuscript from one location to another, deleting some sections and adding new ones, rewriting transitions and otherwise reorganizing the middle of the book.
Later, aided by my editor's comments, I was able to reduce the length of the text from a bloated 400 pages to about 350 without losing much of substance. Then, in the copy editing phase, additional refinements were made. Going over the book in manuscript form and then in galley proofs, the copy editor spotted errors. Again, not just typos, poor word choices and other boo boos that I didn't notice because I was too close to the work, but factual errors. I take pride in being careful, even meticulous, about facts. But even obsessive authors are human, and we can screw up in the process of taking notes, transcribing interviews, cutting and pasting from computer documents and remembering -- or misremembering -- information we assume we know. I got dates wrong, once by mistyping a digit, another time because I was misinformed by an expert source. I spelled a couple of names wrong. And, horrors!, I got the name of a Beatles album wrong -- a laughable error perhaps, but one that reviewers would have jumped all over and friends would have teased me about the rest of my life.
There were other factual mistakes too. For example, I wrote that an organization opened its offices a block from the Empire State Building, when I meant to say a block from where the Empire State Building would be built thirty-six years later. The copy editor, probably an underpaid English major who loves books, was savvy enough to spot that bit of carelessness and others, and concerned enough to look things up.
The point is, I'm a professional writer who takes great care with his work and has been at the business of books for over thirty years. And I still need editors. It pains me to think of what kind of errors -- not to mention amateurish prose -- will creep into books that are self-published by writers who don't care enough to get editorial help or simply can't afford to pay for it. Spell-check and grammar-check are great inventions, but they'll never do what professional editors can do. Until someone invents a foolproof Factcheck program, we'll need human beings.
My bottom line is this: when it comes to serious nonfiction especially, readers, libraries, reporters and everyone else concerned about accuracy and readability should rely only on books that have been competently edited. And long live advances: may they grow and may authors and their readers prosper.