Proof of Skill

Today I read an offhanded remark on a site that said something along the lines of (paraphrasing): “Well, they’ve only ever self-published, which is fine, but it’s no proof of their skill as a writer.”

Hmm.

It made me wonder: How do we measure “proof of skill” for writers?

My guess is that we mostly measure authors by their sales, simply because that’s the easiest way. It’s quantifiable and concrete. And since publishing is a business, certainly sales matter. “Oh, So-and-So sold a bazillion copies of Bookity Book? Must be a great author!”

But there are plenty of books that sell a lot of copies that aren’t all that great. I mean, it’s subjective, of course, but just as many people seem to hate Twilight and Fifty Shades as love them. So sales aren’t necessarily proof of quality. They’re really more proof of appealing to a large (I won’t say lowest) common denominator.

How else might we figure proof of a writer’s mad skillz?

Less quantifiable is “buzz.” Which is to say, how much are you hearing about a particular book or author? (And, really, how much good are you hearing about it/them?) If many people are talking about a book, there are usually two reasons: it’s amazing or it’s offensive. It can, I suppose, even be both(?)…

So does word of mouth = proof of skill? Well, it = proof of marketing skill at least. But again, there are plenty of hyped-up books that end up being big disappointments and just as many hidden jewels gathering dust on shelves, and whatever ebooks do when they’re ignored.

Does being picked up by an agent and then a big publisher mean you’ve got amazing writing skills? Based on the comment that started this post, that still seems to be the gold standard. Even as we continue to say that self-published books are often just as good, and sometimes better, in quality, that they’re often more original because of the authors’ creative freedom . . . Deep down there’s still a sense of a need for gatekeepers to validate a book or author, an idea that books need to be “good enough” for an agent or major publisher, and books that were self-published clearly aren’t or weren’t. Never mind that self-publishing is no longer a last resort for many authors; they’ve learned they make more money and save a lot of time by doing it themselves. The stigma, alas, remains.

And I must say, of big-house books I’ve read lately, I’ve noticed a lack in editing quality in many of them. Now, I don’t know if that’s down to the authors or the editors involved in those books—I suspect many of the books were hurried out without enough proofing—but I’m just saying: having an agent and a big publisher doesn’t, in my view, immediately mean an author has skill. It could mean they had a connection to someone in the industry. It could mean they had a good idea that, even half-baked, the agent or publisher thought he/she/it could sell. It could even mean—yes, I’m going to say it—that they’re the token [insert diversity here] that the agency or publisher was looking for so they could feel good about themselves. I’m sorry, but I’ve worked in publishing, and I’ve seen it happen.

This isn’t to put actual, skilled writers down. This is just to say that the way we decide whether an author is “skilled” is . . . Biased a lot of the time. Subjective to each person’s preferences. There are a lot of factors involved. Being self-published versus agented and published by a big house—that’s not a definitive guideline as to an author’s skill.

The final facet of an author’s skill might be their actual craft, from the foundations of punctuation and spelling to the more lofty question of how they use words to build a story. BUT, again, not all of a writer’s ability can be determined this way. After all, a good self-published author probably hired an editor and proofreader. So maybe the author can’t spell and doesn’t know a comma from a semicolon but found someone to fix that problem. Maybe the story had huge plot holes that a development editor helped fill in. On the flip side, maybe the editor at that big publishing house was tired that day and missed a few things.

The key thing that set me off on writing this was the very casual dismissal of self-publishing I felt underlying the comment I paraphrased above. Not just because I’ve self-published a number of my books, but because to say something like that and not maybe define your personal criteria for “skills” feels a bit like a fly-by. Every reader has a checklist, whether they’re aware of it or not, of what they will and won’t tolerate in a book. They consider the authors who tick all their “yes” boxes to be “skilled” and authors who don’t, or who actively tick their “no” boxes, to be hacks. I’d like to think that most readers are open to self-published works so long as those books tick enough of their “yes” boxes, but I’ve seen readers in online groups have that as a “no” box: NO SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS. Sad but true. They cite poor experiences with self-published books as the reason for their prejudice, but have they loved every traditionally published book they’ve ever read? I doubt it, and yet they don’t boycott those.

I won’t claim to have answered the question of how to discern a writer’s skill. There are too many moving parts, and I think the largest part is that we won’t even all agree on which authors are skilled to begin with. What some readers treasure, others despise. What some consider classics, others consider trash.

How do you decide whether an author has skills? What’s on your reading checklist?