Reject yourself! (Mark Twain on quality control)

There are at least two schools of thought about editing and revision in self-publishing.

One (exemplified, perhaps, by Dean Wesley Smith) says that you should write as much content as you can and publish it as soon as it’s done. This results, I suspect, from taking Heinlein’s Rules far too seriously. Folks, they’re not the Gospel according to St. Robert; they’re one man’s opinion, and a very unusual man he was. ‘You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order’ is fatal advice for a self-published writer, because, in the nature of things, that editorial order will never come. (It did Heinlein great harm, too, in his later years, when his editors stopped trying to argue with him.)

The second school of thought, which I have seen well expressed by Joel Friedlander, is that you ought to take every bit as much care with editing and revision as if you were a conscientious publisher printing someone else’s work.

In this matter I incline to Mr. Friedlander’s side. In fact, I will go further: Sometimes you have to reject your own work. If you follow Kipling’s advice on editing (and I heartily recommend it), everything you write with malicious and mercenary intent will have a cooling-off period before you cut and correct it. At that point, you need to ask yourself: ‘Is this good enough to go out with my name on it?’ Sometimes the answer will be ‘No,’ and you will, I think, be well advised to do what a famous self-publisher did in a financial emergency.

For many years, Mark Twain self-published his books through his own company, Charles Webster & Co. (Webster was his nephew, who was hired to look after the daily business of printing and distribution.) Like many other businesses, Twain’s firm came up short of cash in the financial panic of 1893, and went bankrupt. Unlike most owners of bankrupt firms, Twain promised to repay every dollar of the firm’s indebtedness. Right on cue, temptation knocked. This is from his Autobiography:

In Rouen in ’93 I destroyed $15,000 worth of manuscript, and in Paris in the beginning of ’94 I destroyed $10,000 worth — I mean, estimated as magazine stuff. I was afraid to keep those piles of manuscript on hand lest I be tempted to sell them, for I was fairly well persuaded that they were not up to standard. Ordinarily there would have been no temptation present and I would not think of publishing doubtful stuff — but I was heavily in debt then and the temptation to mend my condition was so strong that I burnt the manuscript to get rid of it. My wife not only made no objection but encouraged me to do it, for she cared more for my reputation than for any other concern of ours.

I do not advise that anyone should burn $25,000 worth of manuscripts because they are not up to Mark Twain’s usual standard. You and I are not the leading literary figure of the late nineteenth century, and I have a shrewd suspicion that we never will be; unless Father Time slips his gears and sends the nineteenth century round again. We have only our own standards to live up to — but we owe it to ourselves and our readers to do that much. By all means, if a piece can be fixed by judicious editing, fix it; but if it is flawed at the source and can’t be fixed, chuck it out and think no more about it.

By the way, Twain paid off his entire debt in five years — without that $25,000 in ‘magazine stuff’. Verbum sap.

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