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Who actually wrote that book?

A guest post by Peter Rowlands.

Not all writers are gifted when it comes to detail. That’s why book editors exist. My understanding is that conventional publishers employ them (partly, anyway) to put the shine on what might have started out as a rough diamond. With the best will in the world, it’s one reason why some self-published books miss their mark. Lack of an editor sometimes turns out to equal lack of finesse.

But what about those of us self-published authors who do have an eye for detail? How are we supposed to feel if we ever get to see early drafts of some conventionally-published best-sellers? What should we think about the elementary spelling mistakes, the missed or duplicated words, the suspect grammar? What if even the writing itself is not that convincing? What hidden magic persuaded the publisher to invest in the work in the first place?

It raises an interesting question. Just how collaborative can and should a book be? We tend to think that a novel (unlike a film or play, for instance) is essentially the work of an individual. That was certainly my understanding as I grew up. But is this really the case? When the author says in his acknowledgements, “I’d like to thank my wife for reading the manuscript,” is he really saying, “and for rewriting half the plot”? More important, is this how we should think of all novels?

If it is, how far can this kind of collaboration go before it materially alters the very nature of the work? If a book editor radically rewrites an original book, does that mean it was a great book in the first place, and was simply waiting to be “released” from its inadvertent flaws? Or is it now a different work? Should it still be attributed exclusively to the original author, or should the editor really be credited as a co-author?

In ninety-nine per cent of instances, I suspect it’s the author alone who will in fact get all the plaudits. But is that fair? It’s a bit like saying a Premier League footballer is a multi-million pound goal-scorer, just so long as someone else is on hand to tap the ball across the line for him.

Perhaps this has always been the way of things; but what are we to make of it? We read a book believing it represents someone’s unique personal vision, yet arguably it is often really a team effort – considered, keenly targeted to its market, and little different in practice from a film or a play. I’m not saying any of these media are necessarily flawed; only that we confront them with varying assumptions, when perhaps we shouldn’t, since they are all to some extent a collaborative effort.

Most significant, what is the elusive ingredient that persuades a talent-spotter or book editor to give the time of day to a sloppily-drafted book packed with elementary flaws, and to ignore one that is well presented from the outset? Presumably it’s down to the indefinable magic that singles out the great from the merely competent. But why has nobody shared this information with me?!

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Peter Rowlands

Peter Rowlands was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, north-east England, but has lived nearly all his adult life in London. He spent many years as a business journalist specialising in logistics, transport and home delivery, during which time he edited and contributed to various UK-based magazines.

Finally he turned to creative writing with his first novel, Alternative Outcome, a mystery drama which he published for Kindle in March 2016, taking self-publishing as one of its themes and the logistics world as another. He says his subject areas provided the opportunity for multiple layers and an intricate plot, and for conveying some of the pain of seeking a voice in the crowded world of independent publishing.

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