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Friday, 28 December 2012

Essay: Reasons Given For Not Reviewing Self-Published Books

...and a few reasons why it might be a good idea

I’m a big fan of self-published books, which give me some of my best reading at a very good price. But not everyone is so enamoured. Book review bloggers love to read, they love to write reviews, they love to connect with other readers. But a lot of them just won't touch self-published books. Here are some of the reasons they give:

1: I can get all the books I want from the traditional publishers. This is actually a perfectly good reason. Nobody can read every book published each year, even the most voracious readers can only get through 300-400 a year, if they gobble them up at the rate of a book a day or so. Most will read 1-2 per week, some less than that. So reviewers have to be selective, and choosing to read only the output of publishing houses is as good a method as any other. It's the safe choice.

2: I don't have time. This is a curious one. Superficially it makes no sense, because if you have time to read one book, you have time to read a different one. Does it take more time to read a self-published book than any other kind? No, actually, they're often shorter, but that's not really what this is about. It's not the reading time that's at issue, it's the time to find self-published books that you might want to read. Many book review bloggers are sent free books by publishers in the hope that they'll publicise them. Often they buy their own books as well. So there's always a huge pile of books waiting to be read. When they finish one, they just go to the bookcase or fire up the Kindle and pick another that appeals. It takes virtually no time because they are choosing from a limited supply (of hundreds, maybe, but still limited). But how do you find self-published books? Amazon has endless thousands of them, and it can be daunting to trawl though the lists reading the reviews, the blurb and perhaps the sample. And it takes hours. Ideally you want some recommendations, but that's hard to find because - guess what - many bloggers won't review self-published books. So it's easy to see why many bloggers stick to what's most readily available. Another safe choice.

3: Self-publishing authors might behave badly. It's true that some self-published authors react very badly to critical reviews. It's equally true that some traditionally published authors throw hissy fits from time to time, too (or their agents, spouses and publishers do). But there is a more fundamental problem with self-published authors, which is that the relationship is much more personal. Reviewers have no contact with a traditionally published author, because review copies are sent by the publisher or the marketing department to the blogger, either on request or unsolicited. Self-published authors, however, are doing all their own marketing, so they necessarily have to contact the blogger direct. This immediately creates a cyber-relationship between author and reviewer. Instead of dealing with author S Smith, suddenly  you're exchanging emails with Sarah, who apologises for the delay in responding but she had to take her two-year-old to the doctor. This creates a real problem for reviewers: it's very tempting to agree to read a book just because the author seems like such a nice person, but what if you absolutely hate it? Can you really write a critical review? So it's easier just to say upfront: no self-published authors.

4: So much self-published work is terrible. Now I have a lot of sympathy with this point of view. Traditionally published books have been through some sort of selection process, they’ve been edited and tinkered with and polished so that the amateur mistakes have been weeded out. I may not enjoy the story, but I won't be distracted with creative approaches to spelling, punctuation and grammar. Self-published books haven’t necessarily been subjected to the same quality control - or any editing process at all, it sometimes seems. And given the vast numbers of self-published books being released nowadays (many times more than traditionally published), it can give the impression that they’re all rubbish. In my experience, traditionally published books conform to a rough bell curve - a small number of amazing ones, a much larger number of good and quite good ones, and a small number of terrible ones (terrible to me, that is). Self-published books fit exactly the same distribution - BUT there is also a long, long tail of books below my personal threshold of readability. Then the problem becomes one of finding the enjoyable ones (see point 2 above). So again, it’s easier to just say no.

5: They don't generate hits on the blog. This is an interesting one, which translates into: no one's ever heard of them. Well, true, but only up to a point. Most are unknowns, but there are actually quite a number of established authors who have made the switch to self-publishing. A lot of romance writers are jumping ship, for instance, because of the very restrictive contracts the publishers impose. Working independently, they have more creative freedom, can interact directly with fans and also make more money. Some authors stay with a publisher for their mainstream books, but self-publish their back catalogue, edgier work or anything that doesn't fit the publisher's marketing strategy. But yes, most self-publishers are unknowns. Then the question becomes whether a blogger wants to inform readers about interesting books regardless of where they come from (assuming they can find them, see point 2 above). But again, sticking to the well-known names is very much the safe option.

So, OK, there are some good reasons for reviewers to avoid self-published books, and that's their decision to make. Self-published books are the risky option - you never know what you're going to get. It might be a masterpiece, it might be a trite rehashing of an already overused story, riddled with typos, bad grammar, poor writing and cardboard characters, or it might be a stream of abusive emails from the aggrieved author. But even if you could find the masterpiece amidst all the rubbish, are there any reasons to review self-published books rather than mainstream?

Reasons to review self-published books:

1: They're cheap. Generally speaking, self-published books are less than half the price of the typical mainstream book. You can buy 2-3 self-published books for the cost of one mass market paperback, and 5-6 for the price of a standard hardback. For those of us feeding our reading habits ourselves, that makes a significant difference. For those who accept free books for review, self-published authors are almost always willing to send an ebook.

2: They're more original. Obviously, traditional publishers put out a certain amount of truly imaginative work as well, but on the whole they tend to be conservative, to run with what's selling well at the moment, to prefer books that fit a certain style. They’re slow moving, too; very often they’re busy pumping out look-alike books long after the market has moved on. Self-published authors have no such constraints. They can cross genres with impunity, write exactly what they want, respond instantly to trends, be as different as they like. This doesn't always work, of course, but even the slightly wonky efforts can be hugely rewarding to read.

3: I like to reward initiative. It’s a struggle for authors to be noticed. Only a small proportion ever get picked up by a publisher, and until recently the rest might as well not exist. They were invisible. Not so any longer. Many rejected hopefuls turn to self-publishing in despair, and others just don’t want the hassle of all those rejections. Many of them work hard to present their work professionally and to market it, in a climate which is openly hostile towards them. It can be dispiriting, so it’s nice to give a helping hand to those who deserve it, and are not getting help or money or encouragement from anyone else.

4: Self-published authors are nice people. Yes, yes, I know a few of them behave appallingly, and quite a number of reviewers have been burned by that. But I’ve never yet had a bad response from an author, and I don’t pull any punches, either. If a book has flaws in my opinion, I say so in my review. I’ll quite happily hand out 1* and 2* reviews to books that just didn’t work for me, and no one’s ever got stroppy about it. On the contrary, some of the most gracious messages I’ve received were in response to poorly rated books, and some authors are abjectly grateful for any review at all. But when I’m genuinely able to write a glowing review for a self-published book, I really get a buzz out of that. I realise that a big-name author neither knows nor cares what I think of his/her work, but self-published authors do, and I enjoy being able to make their day.

5: I don’t care where a book comes from. I would guess, actually, that most readers feel that way. Apart from formula books (like romances, for instance), few readers slavishly follow specific publishing houses. Authors, maybe, but not publishers. It’s the story that matters, and the writer who created it, the way it was published is irrelevant.

6: I might be the first to spot the next best-seller. Actually, I’m not terribly bothered about this, and it’s not why I read self-published books, but it’s definitely fun to be the first to post a review, and to find the real gems amidst all the junk. It’s also nice, in some ways, to watch a self-published author grow from nowhere and become successful.

7: The next book will arrive quicker. You would think, wouldn’t you, that as soon as an author hands the finished manuscript over to a publisher, then the book would appear in the stores a fixed amount of time later? Not so. Part 5 of a mega best-selling series that millions are panting to get their hands on can be whizzed through the process in a matter of weeks. For most authors, however, it’s a more leisurely business, and will be slotted into the publisher’s marketing schedule whenever convenient, which might be years away. Self-publishing authors don’t have that problem. They still have to go through the usual steps of editing, finding cover art and so on (or they should!), but then it’s straight off to Amazon. So fans don’t have to wait so long between books, and with the traditional fantasy trilogy, that's a significant difference.

OK, so there are more reasons to read self-published books than there are not to read them, but that doesn’t mean everyone should immediately change their reading habits. For those who are happy with traditionally published authors, that's fine. I'm not suggesting that anyone should fill their Kindle up with self-published books. But there are good, readable self-published books out there for those who want to try them. The real problem is - how to find them.

You might think that the Amazon bestseller list would be the way to go. Amazon posts the top 100 books in the fantasy genre, both free and paid-for, and surely any self-published book which makes it into the paid-for list will be worth reading? You might well think that, but you'd be wrong. About half the list is self-published, and while they're obviously popular, the question of whether they're worth reading is debatable. Those that I've read vary from brilliant to - well, unreadable (by me, anyway, although obviously a lot of people are unconcerned about creativity in the grammar, spelling and punctuation departments, and are relaxed about plot and characterisation too). Most are just meh - books that could have been better with a decent editor in the development process, to tighten up the plot and improve characterisation. The ideas are often good, but the execution is not always that great. Mind you, exactly the same could be said of some of the traditionally published books on the bestseller list.

It has to be said - the most popular books are not always the most intellectually satisfying, and this is probably true in all genres. My (admittedly limited) research into this suggests that most self-published fantasy that does well tends to be fairly simple: a single protagonist with a linear plotline and straightforward language, written in such a way that the reader never has to wonder exactly what is going on. This is in sharp contrast to some traditionally published successes, which tend towards the convoluted - multi-book series where you have to take notes as you go along, or reread regularly, or where the reader is parachuted into the middle of the action without any explanation or all of these (Malazan, I’m looking at you here).

So where else can a hopeful reader look? The book bloggers often don't review self-published books, but there are quite a few which specialise in them, if you trawl around. There are a few websites which actively encourage self-publishers, like www.fantasy-faction.com. There are websites like westeros.org which include an active literature forum. Amazon has a very useful feature: ‘Customers who bought this also bought...’. Find a book you like, and Amazon will suggest up to 100 more of similar type. My preferred source is Goodreads, which connects you with like-minded friends, has specialised discussion forums and has an interesting recommendations feature. I get most of my suggestions from one or other of these sources. But the principle of caveat emptor applies: read the blurb, read the reviews, read the sample. Then, and only then, decide whether to buy. Of course, this applies equally to traditionally published books.

About half of my reading these days is self-published, and although I still come across the odd turkey, most are perfectly competent, readable efforts, well-presented and free from the most egregious errors, and a few are outstanding. Am I just lucky? No, I put a lot of effort into weeding out anything laced with poor grammar or spelling, a writing style that doesn’t sit well with me or plot features that I just don’t enjoy. But what’s left is mostly indistinguishable from traditionally published books. Which is exactly as it should be, of course.

6 comments:

  1. Interesting discussion with respect to the why and why nots.

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  2. Thanks. To be honest, I'm finding the distinction increasingly blurred between self-pubbed and traditionally published. But I do enjoy the originality of a lot of self-pubbed work.

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  3. HI Pauline - this is so refreshing. I have a bookmarks folder of Fantasy Reviewers. Nearly all of them have words to discourage the self-published. It is an opportunity missed. Clearly the much publicized authors of the main publishing houses are good at what they do, but I've read so many tired offerings over the years. Unencumbered by the requirements of hard pressed editors, hundreds of original writers out there spend entire lives creating wonderful free-thinking fantasies that will never be read - because they don't fit the market, because they're not established authors, because there are only two fantasy slots per mainstream publisher per month. Now that self publishing is an option at last we have the chance to discover something new and passionate and non-formulaic.
    When eventually I get round to publishing the great work I fear it will languish in some sort of limbo state, not worthy of being accepted into the heaven of wide readership because, still born, no-one will ever get to see what it can offer.
    Us strugglers want two things I think: firstly the joy of creation - producing something fun, thoughtful, entertaining and good - and secondly someone to be entertained. We get much pleasure out of the first but there is always that nagging lack of the fulfillment that comes from anonymity.
    Thanks for giving us hope that times and attitudes are changing. Meanwhile I'll get back to the editing.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comments, Wilf. For a self-publishing author, there can be few more disheartening words to read on a blog than 'No self-published books'. So many bloggers read one or two, find them deficient and judge the whole lot the same way.

      I do think the tide is beginning to turn, though. About half of the Amazon Kindle bestsellers list (in fantasy) is self-published, largely because they're much better value for money (cutting out the middle man), self-published authors are beginning to make sensible hybrid deals with publishers and a few bloggers now review self pubbers. It's still difficult for readers to find the best self-published books though. And you're right, a huge amount of wonderfully original work simply drifts unnoticed. Not sure what the answer is.

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    2. Agreed. The industry is not moving *away* from self-publishing but towards it, and book reviewers will eventually catch up. That's not much comfort for those of us caught in the middle NOW, but then we indie authors are a tough breed. :-)

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    3. Yes, exactly. I'm grateful to self-publishers for providing me with so much exciting and original reading material, and all at a very reasonable cost. Self-publishing and ebooks are the future, people are reading more than ever before (on Kindles and the like), ebook sales are through the roof, yet you still get doom and gloom about the decline in the (print) publishing industry, like this: http://io9.com/5977221/a-chart-that-shows-a-dismal-trend-in-sales-of-print-science-fiction-and-fantasy-books. They just don't get it.

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