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Editorial: Self Service

The Horn Book website was alight last month with a discussion of self-
publishing books for children. It began when I posted my thoughts on the subject in response to an email I received querying our policy of not reviewing books written and published by the same person. Like most good discussions, it was both heated and informative, and you can read the whole thing here.

Self-publishing is certainly far from the days of the now-closed Vantage Press, leader of the pack of vanity presses who charged authors a fee to publish their books (aren’t the authors the ones supposed to be getting paid?) and who peppered review journals with copies of books that in a just world would have remained unsent, if not unwritten. You didn’t even have to open one to know it for what it was; the cheap binding and cheaper book jacket announced its provenance loudly. I’m sure these presses had no expectation of getting reviews; mailing us their books was simply cover for them with any authors curious about what kind of “marketing,” promised in the pricey contract, they were getting.

It’s a different world now. While much of what I see of self-publishing for children remains almost unfathomably clueless, there is a lot more range now, in production values, quality of writing, and sense of a market. But there is simply a lot more now, too, far more than we can even quietly dispose of in a systematic way. And given that there must be a pony, how do we find it? I’m open to suggestions.

What this discussion has given me more than anything is an understanding of the part publishing plays in turning manuscripts into books. It’s more than mechanical and financial. It means there is someone to say no. No, or “not yet,” or “try this instead,” or “I’ve seen better from you.” It is true that self-publishers of both kids’ and adult books now frequently employ freelance editors, designers, illustrators, marketers, etc. But when the author is the one paying all of these people, the best interests of the book will not inevitably prevail. As Molly Idle, author-illustrator of Flora and the Penguin, reviewed on page 70, said in a recent Talks with Roger interview, “It’s a collaborative process, making books. It would be so easy to keep hold of this little idea that is precious to you. But in sharing it, collaborating with editors and art directors, it becomes something even more. And hopefully better than you could ever have come up with if you had just kept it all to yourself.”

We don’t need to idealize publishing — which in fact doesn’t say no as often as it should — to understand the value of an institution that brings writers and illustrators not just into cooperation with talented book-makers but into communion with a great heritage. Whether Coraline or Carolyn Keene, that heritage has been nurtured by the Horn Book for ninety years now. In the spirited and smart, if largely self-interested, comments from self-publishers that followed my post, I saw passion and hard work but also writers working largely in ignorance of a great tradition. How can we make them part of the family?

From the November/December issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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Comments

  1. Hi Roger,
    Having initiated this with my original letter to you, I must take this opportunity to bring my intention to the discussion once again. The exasperation I have felt just trying to get the book read by unbiased reviewers was the springboard. Over the four months since releasing the book (old news already, eh?) I have been entering competitions (I’m out of luck with your “golden ticket” timeline, and was 2 weeks too late for entering this/next year’s HB awards), not qualifying for reviews within exclusionary submission guidelines; writing letters to the likes of you, urging readers to review on amazon, blogging and tweeting and twiddling and facebooking, and spending so much of my creative energy on these things, I’m jaded and weary—but I still believe in my book.
    That said, I can see how those in the industry see a single-handed writer/illustrator/publisher/publicist as way too close to the work to be objective, but we are not all like that. As you said, self-publishing authors are now employing editors and collaborating with others to get those much-needed objective eyes to move the work into the best form possible. I am lucky to have such sharp-eyed friends and the willingness to utilize criticism.
    Based on the input of readers, I believe in my work now more than ever. I’ve sold a few hundred, and have had nothing but positive feedback. It is being considered for a few One Book One School programs, a professor of science education has made it required reading for his science ed majors, and no matter how long it takes, it will find its way into schools, because yes, it’s that important, timeless, and good. But I am only one person, now engaging as many people as possible to read Nelson Telson – The Story of a True Blue Blood.
    During our initial exchanges, since your parameters excluded my book from any possibility of review, I offered to send you a copy, no strings, just for your enjoyment.
    You ask, “How can we make them part of the family? My offer still stands.
    🙂
    Heidi

  2. Roger, I’m glad that some of what you see in publishing holds true, but your depiction of editors as people whose job is to spot great manuscripts and improve them also strikes me as rather historic or romanticized. Those of us whose manuscripts are rejected with praise followed by remarks about an inability for the work to sell in numbers deemed necessary are hard pressed to see the chief role of editors as raising bars. I doubt that caring, conscientious editors who have been laid off can hold to such a vision either.

    Few will disagree that self-publishing can be done badly by anyone, but I cheer for brave colleagues who find places for work that holds to high standards, and places like the Authors Guild who have opened definitions of who’s considered published. It seems that big houses want big sales, while smaller-selling books can be published by smaller presses, including self-publishers and partnership publishers, which put out vetted and honed work.

    I agree that a collaborative process can work wonders, but the traditional publishing system seems broken. Some of us have been in “the family” you mention, but ousted, so look for other ways to do our best work, find truthful and wise editors, and bypass the certainty of being invited to the old table. Yes, “self” is in the word “self-publishing,” but a self can be rightfully proud, not simply vain. Self-publishing or hybrid publishing may not be the first choice for many, but it is a choice that writers find better than silence, and may even enlarge the heritage you honor.

  3. Dear Mr. Sutton:
    It was easy to be aghast at your comment to mechanize the creative process we hold dear to us all. This would only serve to further constrict a business already attempting to stifle itself and has proven to say “no” much too often in its history.
    Certainly, it’s easy to mention Kerouac, Salinger or Richard Bach, all of whom were dismissed repeatedly by the “great tradition” as being unmarketable, as examples. But to eschew creativity under the guise of employing the collaborative process? This is self-immolation at its finest. Like a cannibal viewing his own fingers as he would petit fours.
    You ask, “How do we make them part of the family?” We already are part of the family. The question seemed more rhetorical than constructive. Either way, perhaps Amazon has beaten the great tradition to the punch? But only in the mechanized fashion of which you speak.
    It’s easy to sell one’s soul, there are many buyers.
    Now, where does one go to get the best price?

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