Sunday, 18 November 2012

Essay: On Choosing A Fantasy Book To Buy

There was a time when choosing a fantasy book was easy. You went to the library, and looked for something - anything - you hadnt read before. You went to your local bookstore and scanned the one or two shelves of genre books. Once in a while you went to the big smoke and found a proper-sized bookstore, and came back loaded. I was lucky enough to live not far from London, so from time to time I got lost in Foyles, wide-eyed by the sight of so many books. Amazon changed all that, and now the difficulty is trawling through the thousands of offerings there. Just how do you evaluate a book well enough to decide whether youll enjoy it?

The advent of self-published books has made this process more difficult. When every book had been through the hands of a traditional publisher, a reader could assume a basic degree of competence and, although occasionally such optimism was misplaced, it wasnt a bad guide. But self-published works are variable - some are every bit as professionally presented as anything from the big six, and some are appalling. Many are just unpolished, the work of first-time authors that could have done with a little more editing.

Ive been burned more than once, buying a book that sounded terrific, but turned out to be trite and unoriginal, or full of dangling plot threads, or populated by cardboard characters (and this applies just as much to traditionally published as to self-published). Sometimes the typos and creative grammar were overwhelming. As I already have a backlog of many months worth of reading, a book has to be quite unusual to tempt me to buy it. So Ive devised a fairly rigorous evaluation system, and it occurred to me that it might be helpful to self-publishing authors if I document the steps I go through when deciding whether to buy a book.

The first thing I see is...

The Title

And it might well be the last. Yes, if the title doesnt strike me as interesting, that may be the end of it right there. Im quite happy to reject a book purely on the basis of a dull title.

Fantasy titles tend to follow a pattern: The Talisman of Doom, The Tale of the Ravens Stone, The Orphan of the Lost Storm and other such nonsense (I just made those up, so I hope theyre not real books). Titles like these tell me the book is fantasy, but they also suggest that theyre fairly conventional fare. I like something a little different, so they dont hold much appeal for me. Whats an appealing title? For me, its something I dont immediately understand, something that makes me stop and think: what does that actually mean? Some examples: The Silence of Medair, The Adamantine Palace, Ravenmarked.

Every day I get a list of free Kindle books from eReaderIQ, which usually gives me four fantasy titles. Here are four recent offerings:
Whill of Agora - By: Michael Ploof (Createspace) - 4.0 Stars (4)
Sea Change - By: Iain Rowan - 5.0 Stars (2)
Elf Killers - By: Carol Marrs Phipps (Carol Marrs Phipps & Tom Phipps) - 5.0 Stars (1)
Of Elvan Heroes (The Chronicles of Brawrloxoss) - By: J. R. Knoll - 5.0 Stars (1)

So how do they strike me? Im not big on elves, really (theyve been done before, just a few million times). I dont mind a few in the background, but any book focused largely on elves is out, for me. And The Chronicles of Brawrloxoss??? Thats a fail in the bizarre spelling category. So two are out purely because of their titles. And Sea Change, although the title is quite appealing (what sort of change?), turns out to be YA (young adult), which is not my preferred type of reading.

That leaves just Whill of Agora. The titles unusual enough to pique my interest. Who or what is a Whill anyway? And Agora might be a place, or it might be something more interesting. Minor points: I like that the author puts his publisher as Createspace, so hes not trying to hide his self-publishing, and the ratings are realistic, not just an array of 5*. So the next stage is to click the link to Amazon, and have a look at...

The Cover

This isnt a bad cover at all. The two characters in the foreground are very fantasy, without being horribly clichéd, and I like the light on the water, and that intriguing city with its tower and odd sculpture. It suggests some interesting world-building, although covers are nototiously unrepresentative. I dont judge a book solely by its cover, but it gives me an indication of how serious the author is. A cheap-looking cover is a warning sign that the author has cut corners, or not bothered to pay a professional. Im no expert, but this one doesnt look cheap to me, just a little old-fashoned perhaps, and not as mind-blowing as the best of the traditionally published covers (but if its only to be sold in ebook format, it doesnt need to be - its physical books that need the spectacular artwork).

So then I move on to...

The Blurb

Its difficult to write a good blurb, one that gives the flavour of the book and also intrigues, without revealing too much. This one is very good, I think, and tells me plenty about the book. Here it is in full:

Every so often, an epic adventure emerges that makes the blood surge, the spine tingle, and the heart smile page after exhilarating page. Such is Whill of Agora, Michael James Ploofs action-packed fantasy that visits strange new lands as it unveils how one exceptional young man named Whill makes full use of fierce wits, superior skills, and relentless will to help defend the land of Agora from the monstrous Draggard. With plenty of drama and action packed battle scenes, Whill of Agora will enthrall anyone on the quest for great adventure, good times, and an infectiously optimistic outlook on even the darkest and most dangerous of days.
It is the year 5170 in the land Agora, where humans, dwarves, and elves have existed in peace for centuries. Now, however, the human King Addakon has invaded and waged war on neighboring Isladon. The once peaceful Kingdoms of Agora are on the brink of continental war. The Dark Elf Eadon, Addakon's master, and his army of Dragon-Elf crossbreeds, the Draggard, threaten to conquer all kingdoms. The final hour has arrived.
Enter young Whill, a nineteen-year-old ranger with battle savvy and untapped abilities. Having spent years roaming Agora and training with his mentor Abram, Whill has become a bright intellectual and a master of combat. What he seeks most, however, is the identity of his birth parents. Instead, he finds a tumultuous terrain and a prophecy placing him in the center of the struggle.
Along the way, Whill encounters an equally inspired group of companions that are matched in skill and mission. These include Rhunis the Dragon Slayer, the young Tarren, the fearless Dwarf Roakore, the beguiling warrior Elf Avriel, and the powerful Zerafin. As Whill joins forces, he forges bonds far mightier than their escalating travails. With high adventure and fierce friendship, Whill of Agora will capture your imagination and grip your heart during every super-charged escapade that Agoras bold and grinning brotherhood embraces.

Its clear that this is a very traditional type of fantasy: keywords like quest, prophecy, mentor, brotherhood, war, elves, dwarves, dragon slayer and so on. Theres also the unknown identity of his birth parents - so I guess hes the orphaned heir to the kingdom. That may have been done once or twice before. The blurb also tells me that this is a cracking good read, without being too obvious about it: all that surging blood and tingling spine stuff, and phrases like great adventure, grip your heart, action packed battle scenes and so on. And I like the sound of infectiously optimistic outlook, which sounds like the touch of humour which always lifts a book, especially fantasy which is often pretty grim.

More generally, there are no typos in the blurb, no extraneous exclamation marks and only a few capital letters scattered around. Nor does the author assure me that his book is the best thing Ill read all year or as good as [insert famous author here]. This is all positive - nothing here to frighten the horses. Thats given me a good idea about the book, so next I look to see what other readers thought in...

The Reviews

Now some people only really skim reviews - if there are plenty of 5* reviews and not many negatives, they will take the plunge. But I like to read them more thoroughly than that. Its what they actually say that matters, not the rating or the volume of them. (my local, so to speak) has only 4 reviews, 2x5*, 1x4* and 1x2*. The most gushing ones may have been written by the authors friends and family, or may even be paid for, but anything negative is likely to be real, so I always look first at the lowest rated. Heres the 2* review:
Good intentions isn't enough to make it work  In many ways this is a very sympathetic book. The main caracters are likeable, the story is not uninteresting per se. But someting is missing. There is nothing original or new, the characters lack depth and I never really came to care about them. It seems like a rehash of Robert Feists Magician/Krondor series, but without the charm, humour and character og those books.

And heres one of the 5* reviews:
great book: At last another author to stand along side David Gemmell, Joe abercrombie and Patrick Rothfus. More please.And a good price to boot.

Abercrombie? Rothfuss? I dont think so (meaning no disrespect to the author here, he may really be the next Rothfuss, but statistically its improbable). I really distrust reviews that say the author is another X, they sound too gushing by half. The 2* review, by contrast, sounds all too plausible.

Over on big Amazon, there are 26 reviews, 13x5*, 8x4*, 3x3*, 2x2*.
Heres one of the 2* reviews:
Fast and shallow This is yet another YA fantasy written to an overused formula: boy (Whill) has a mysterious background and is accompanied in his (initially pointless) travels by a wise older person, boy has some sort of undefined destiny, boy discovers he has untrained magical power and discovers he is an uncrowned king. Great evil stands in his way, but we all know he will overcome. Dwarfs, elves and other characters abound. Whill is unbelievably good at everything he does and is too good in the moral sense, and his adolescent love interest is indescribably beautiful.
The story is not badly written but the characters are shallow, sometimes stupid, and lack any dimensionality beyond being very good or very bad. Where are the mistakes made for which a price must be paid? Where is the confusion and uncertainty that any young man feels? Where are the unpredictable events and detours in the storyline?
I was unable to identify with the story and will not bother with the next in the series.

And by contrast, heres one of the 5* reviews:
Move over Tolkien Fantastic book. I had low expectations, having never heard of the author and seeing the discounted price. This has the potential of becoming a classic. I can't wait until the next in the series is published.

This is very similar to the previous pair of reviews (except that the comparison this time is to Tolkien!). A pattern is beginning to emerge. Goodreads (my review source of choice) has 21 ratings for the book, mostly 5* and 4*, but no reviews yet, so no information from there. I feel Im getting a good picture of the story now and whether its likely to appeal to me, but theres still the final step...

Look inside/sample

Amazon now seems to have the Look Inside feature for pretty much everything, and its really eliminated the need to download a sample. It doesnt always format quite right, but its quick and easy to read the first few chapters. The first thing I find inside Whill of Agora is a map - yay! And its properly drawn, so bonus points for that. And the chapters have proper titles: The Road to the Mountains, Unlikely Companions, The Drums of War for example. Thats a small point, but it makes it much easier to keep turning the pages when each chapter has some sort of intriguing title.

So to the writing. This book is written in fairly formal language, literate and descriptive without being overwrought. I didnt spot any typos or grammatical errors. Theres action interspersed with quieter passages. The setting is the usual pseudo-medieval affair, with knights and inns and tournaments, the pacing seems good and the characters are likeable enough. At this point, I have enough information to make a decision, but theres just one more factor I take into account - the price. For an author Ive heard of, or read before, Im happy to pay mass market paperback prices, but for an unknown - no more than half that. Its just too much of a risk. This book is free today, however, so that isnt a consideration. So finally...

Did I buy it?

No. I like my fantasy to surprise me, and this one is cut from a very familiar template. I know theres a huge market for this kind of story, and there are some very like it in the Amazon bestseller lists, but its just a little too predictable for my taste. There's nothing wrong with the author's presentation, in fact it's rather well done, but there's a fundamental mismatch between this book and my personal interests.

I should point out, perhaps, that theres no significant reason for choosing this particular book to analyse in this way, except that it happened to crop up on the email, and I went through all these steps to make my decision. It takes a lot less time to do than to write about, of course. But the moral is clear: for authors trying to attract sales, every part of a book's presentation - title, cover image, blurb, reviews and sample - is important to draw potential readers. Even if an author does everything right (as in this case), the book simply may not appeal to many readers, who may be looking for more (or less) action, more (or less) romance, more (or less) magic and so on. It's only a failure if the reader turns away for the wrong reason - because the cover image is poor, or because of typos or self-aggrandisement in the blurb. Once the book is bought, its all down to the quality of the storytelling and the authors skill, but the very first task is to sell the book, and thats where the initial presentation is crucial.


  1. Thanks for your informative and amazing post. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me.

  2. I am the author of Whill of Agora, I just wanted to thank you for the mention (though it was a random event). I learned alot from this article about what draws readers to my book. It was interesting to read what you thought about my presentation. I must also point out that while elated when compared to the greats (Tolkien etc.)I also cringe a bit knowing that these kinds of reviews leave many people suspicious of their origins.
    Your article was very informative and entertaining (who doesn't love hearing good things about their work?). Though I was disappointed to learn you didn't pick it up (I literally said "damn!" Out loud in my office at work, gaining me curious glances.) That is alright though, I can't win them all.
    Thank you again for the kind words and the exposure. Keep up the good work.

    1. Michael, I'm so glad you got to read this. I wondered as I wrote it whether you ever would. I choose your book to highlight because it was such a good example of the process I go through when choosing a book; it seemed to me that you did everything right in your presentation, and in the end it was purely a matter of personal taste.

      I'm sorry I wasn't tempted to buy the book, but (as I'm sure you're aware) the Amazon bestseller lists are full of this kind of traditional fantasy, so I'm sure you'll find a ready market. Good luck with your writing in the future.