2011 was my first full year of writing reviews, focused largely on fantasy. It was also the year I discovered both the pleasures and the pitfalls of self-published books, and that not every big-name author is to my taste. This year I set out to be more selective, and learned how to determine in as short a time as possible whether a book is for me or not. According to Goodreads, I read 102 books this year plus 7 others I attempted but abandoned: 8 rated 5* (7%), 39 rated 4* (36%), 43 rated 3* (39%), 10 rated 2* (9%) and 9 (including the 7 abandoned) rated 1* (8%). That’s an average rating of 3.2, marginally down on last year. Two thirds of my reading was fantasy this year. [Edited to add: Gender rating: 42 of that 109 (39%) were written by female authors, as far as I can tell. Some authors use initials to hide their gender, and some names are ambiguous, so if I had no idea I assumed male.]
It was also another inexpensive year. I bought a total of 149 books, mostly ebooks but a few actual books and one audiobook. However the average price was only £2.15 (around $3.50), down from £2.91 ($4.70) last year. 40 were completely free, either permanently or a special offer (such as Amazon’s Kindle Select program), and a few were a reward for a Kickstarter donation. A further 68 were below mass market paperback rates, costing me less than £3.50 (around $5.65). Not all of these were self-published books, either; mainstream publishers are also beginning to appreciate the value of special deals, and Amazon’s Daily Deals and seasonal promotions regularly came up trumps. I don’t accept free books for reviews and naturally I don’t download pirate ebooks, so anything that helps to keep down the cost of my reading helps. I never read a book just because it’s free or cheap, but if I’m dithering between options, I’ll usually go for the cheapest.
Best of the year
Temeraire by Naomi Novik: the Napoleonic Wars with dragons. A crazy premise, but it works beautifully, both on the level of historical detail and the social nuances of the era, and the dragons. Plenty of action, and the most interesting character by far is Temeraire the dragon. Review here. The follow-on Throne of Jade was just as good.
Voice of the Lost by Andrea K Höst: a wonderful follow-up to The Silence of Medair, with a surprise twist on almost every page, and yet all perfectly logical. Believable characters in an unusual setting. Review here.
Thorn by Intisar Khanani: a delightful YA fairy-tale with surprising depth, and an intelligent final twist. Review here.
Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson: I was disappointed by Elantris, but this one was a quantum leap better. Great magic system, some memorable characters and an action-packed finale. Review here.
Lots of good reading this year. Here are just a few:
Michael J Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series came to a dramatic conclusion, the six books improving in quality and depth with every volume. Series review here.
Stephen Deas’ Memory of Flames series rolls on with fast-paced action, fascinating if not necessarily likeable characters and fantasy’s meanest dragons. First of the series is The Adamantine Palace.
Funniest book of the year - Robert Bevan’s Critical Failures, about a group of table-top games players magically transported into their own characters and world, with interesting results.
My favourite sidekick - Lysander in Duchess of the Shallows by Daniel Ravipinto and Neil McGarry, a thoroughly enjoyable character-driven fantasy.
An intriguing and thought-provoking war between angels and demons in Tristan Gregory’s Twixt Heaven and Hell.
Charlotte E English’s main character has wings and a timid personality, but Draykon overcame all my initial reservations and produced a terrific readable story.
More of my best reads on my other blog here.
This year about half my reading has been self-published, although the distinction is increasingly blurred. Self-pubbers are picked up by publishing houses mid-series, traditionally published authors self-publish their experimental work or back catalogue, authors ‘publish’ with tiny independents which still expect them to do all the grunt work and even the big six publishers are muscling in on the act, seeing self-pubbers as another market to be tapped. But for the first time there are signs that big publishing and authors are reaching a more grown-up relationship. Authors no longer have to make the difficult decision between a standard contract which gives them the freedom to write but with virtually no control over marketing, or self-publishing which has all the control but also all the work. Hugh Howey, the author of the surprise hit 'Wool', recently negotiated a deal where he retains all the rights to his ebooks, while the publisher markets the printed books. Authors with a proven selling record have power, and are finally realising it.
But for the vast majority of self-publishing authors it's a dispiriting business. They might sell a few copies, but getting reviews, and getting noticed amongst the deluge of books now swilling around on Amazon is increasingly difficult. It's tempting to game the system, but Amazon is clamping down on authors who write reviews as a favour to fellow authors, even though they might be genuine, while being unable, it seems, to do anything about the flood of paid-for reviews. It is also nerve-wracking to rest your authorial future on a mega-corporation like Amazon, whose goal is to shift product. Amazon has been very kind to self-publishers to date, but that is a marketing strategy focused on profit margins and scoring points off the big publishers, and could change overnight.
I’ve been saddened, too, by favourite authors who have disappeared. Sue Rule, who wrote the unforgettable Shehaios trilogy, reports on her last blog entry that she’s no longer writing fiction owing to an ‘overdose of reality’. Amy Rose Davis, whose ‘Ravenmarked’ was one of my most enjoyable reads of the year, has genuinely vanished, no longer to be found on Goodreads, Facebook or Amazon, and I have no idea why. I can only worry about her, and hope for the best.
A thank you to authors
I’ve enjoyed some great reading this year, with fewer disappointments and what-was-I-thinking moments. Even when a book was not to my taste, I could admire the originality and energy and the quality of the writing. So, to all the authors whose works I’ve read and reviewed - a big thank you. I hear a great deal these days about authors behaving badly, but I have never encountered anything but politeness from authors I’ve reviewed.