If Sir Peter Stothard had attacked self-published authors rather than bloggers, would there have been a similar outcry as there was last week when his "killing literature" comment was made?
SELF-PUBLISHED AUTHORS AND BLOGGERS - THE PARALLELS
I got into a discussion with a traditionally published YA author last week after she was critical of self-published books. I made the comment "You seem to be suggesting all self-pubbed books are terrible in the same way Sir Peter Stothard thinks all book bloggers are killing literature." I was quickly told this was an absurd comparison, but I'd like to think there's some merit in it.
Sir Peter's main argument against blogging seems to be that bloggers, due to the lack of anyone selecting or paying them to give their viewpoint, are inferior to 'proper' critics and that because of this there are lots of bad ones out there. The most common criticism of self-published books seems to be that, due to the lack of a publisher giving their authors a book deal, are inferior to traditionally published books. Are there parallels there, or is it all in my imagination?
THE EASE OF SELF-PUBLISHING TODAY
There's no question, of course, that the rise of e-books - particularly the Kindle - has made self-publishing much easier to achieve today than a few years ago. I spoke to Sarah Menary, who self-published print copies of her book The Tale of Tully and Juno 7 years ago and sold nearly 1000. She said that after reading about GP Taylor's self-published Shadowmancer being picked up by Faber and Faber and receiving standard rejection ships herself she'd gone ahead with self-publishing. "I thought that if I could demonstrate sales with my building society account books and retailers receipts they would have to take me on. (I was wrong!)"
Menary describes receiving the print run of 1000 books as "pretty scary", and explains that "selling them became my life which did not leave any time for writing more books!" With a background in PR giving her a big advantage over most authors striking out for themselves, she managed to get extracts printed for several weeks into 2 large local newspapers, appeared on the radio, gave talks in schools and convinced 10 local bookstores to display her book prominently, Despite this, she says that if she decided to self-publish again she'd definitely go for e-books because "you don't have the cost of print to make back the money on and it is up to you therefore how much you promote it. However I do understand now that really any author who does not have an agent or a publishing house already, must promote themselves to be taken seriously."
When self-publishing was limited to people who were, like Menary, able - and sufficiently confident - to pay for a decent-sized print run then you'd naturally only hear about a few self-publishers. In comparison, today, there are people who can write a book in a month and slam it on Kindle in a few weeks, for minimal expense. Looking at Amazon, it's clear that the number of self-publishers has shot up.
ARE SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS WORSE THAN TRADITIONALLY PUBLISHED BOOKS?
Because of this, it's easy to decide to ignore self-published books. On asking what people thought of them on Twitter, I got a few responses from bloggers saying they didn't read them at all. One well-respected blogger said "I won't read self pubbed because on the whole they aren't all that good (even the ones who eventually get publishing deals)", while another, @liveotherwise, said "Experience is that they can be self indulgent," although she also said "There have been exceptions, and I'm more likely to give it a go where I've got to know an author online."
Non Pratt shared her views on the point, saying "I believe that children’s books should engender a love of reading. Self-publishing means that the books haven’t been ‘vetted’ by anyone at all (except maybe by a loving spouse or a politic child). On the other hand, books issued by publishing houses have usually been read by an agent, at least one editor, at least one member of the sales team and quite possibly by the person selling you the book if you buy it in a shop. Published books have been thought about in ways the target audience (children) are too young to worry about – what’s the underlying message? Is the language accessible? And most importantly, is the story a good read?
Bad books make bad readers. Any children’s writer considering self publishing should ask themselves whether running the risk of a child being turned off by a particularly dull bit of writing is worth the reward of seeing their work in print."
I respect all three of the above people as being really knowledgeable, and I think it's definitely a valid point to make that a lot of self-published books aren't too great, but I don't think the 'gatekeepers' of traditional publishing are particularly infallible. I've read about 200 books this year, with 5 being self- published. (I'm not exactly a self-publishing evangelist, by the way, as those numbers should make clear!) If I ranked those 200 books in order - well, I'd go mad, to be honest. But if I did somehow find the time, drive and inclination to do it, I'm reasonably sure all 5 would be in the top half, and at least one would be in the top 20. I know that really bad self-published books are out there - I can think of two I've read about but not read which sound utterly abominable - but I've only ever actually read two YA books which I thought were so appalling that they should never have seen the light of day.
One of those - which saw a girl and her mother literally getting away with murder - was published by an imprint of a Big Six publisher. Another, from a usually solid publisher, had rape, mutilation, and other horrific stuff with the children involved again getting away with it and learning absolutely nothing from it. (I'd been sent an unsolicited review copy which I declined to review on the grounds I felt like throwing up just reading it, there was no way I wanted to write about it!) As Non mentioned, both of those books will almost certainly have had at least 3 people reading them before their release - I don't know what on earth those people were thinking!
WHAT PEOPLE LIKE ABOUT SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS
When I asked a few people what they liked about self-published books, traditionally published author Luisa Plaja said "I think some readers enjoy the discovery aspect - it can be like listening to unsigned bands or going to independent film festivals," while self-published author Scott Cramer described his decision to self-publish Night of the Purple Moon as "10,000 percent" the right decision, saying if he hadn't self-published the book, "I would have either put it in the drawer and moved on, or I would have re-written it again and attempted the traditionally publishing route. I wasn’t sure I had the motivation to do another re-write."
Cramer does, however (in a list of tips I'll share fully tomorrow!) accept that "A number of self-published books hit the market before they are ready, and this, I believe, has made some bloggers wary to review any self-published book."
For me, personally, I'm looking for the exact same thing in a self-published book I'm looking for in any other book. Engaging writing, strong characters, and a good voice. On the rare occasions I review one I don't lower my standards for it - but I will agree with Luisa that there's something hugely satisfying about being the first of the people I know to read a really good book!
SELF-PUBLISHED AUTHORS AND DRAMA
There was another main reason given for not reviewing self-published books by the first blogger I spoke to about it, "...often the author is too closely involved with the PR of the book to have that professional distance. I have seen no end of drama kicking off around self pubbed titles and just don't want to get in the middle of all that."
While this can certainly put people off reviewing, it's hardly limited to self-published books. The behaviour of various well-known authors, including a New York Times bestseller, over recent months has made me so wary of accepting review copies for the blog that I'll now only take them from people I know and am reasonably sure won't flip out if I don't review or give a less-than-glowing review. What does irritate me slightly is that a meltdown from a self-published author seems to bring out lots of comments along the lines of "That's what self-published authors are like," while, thankfully, a similar meltdown from a big name author, her husband and her assistant doesn't get many "That's what traditionally published authors are like" responses.
So, to draw a somewhat rambly post to an end, I think there's some really good self-published stuff out there and to ignore it all is to risk giving authors the same sort of blanket treatment as Sir Peter gave to bloggers. If I'd avoided all self-published work, I'd have missed out on - amongst others - a really unique paranormal in David Morgan's The Boo Hag, a perfectly voiced PI spoof in Harper Madigan: Junior High Private Eye by Chelsea M. Campbell, and of course one of my favourite sci-fi novels of the year in Night of the Purple Moon by Scott Cramer. In addition, I'd have had to have waited until 2013 for the Penguin release of Tammara Webber's Easy to get my hands on that stunningly powerful novel.
What about you? Do you read self-published books? If not, has this post made you consider it? If you do, is there any you'd particularly recommend?