Monday, 1 October 2012

Monday Musings: Sir Peter Stothard and Self-Published Authors

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.


CONCLUSION

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?

15 comments:

  1. I think your parallel is completely valid; I also think that the difference in quality between self-pub and trad pub is a chimera... or possibly a straw man. It's certainly spurious.

    But I know that I'm much more wary of trad pubbed (and in particular Bog Six) books than of indies precisely because of my prejudice that they have been selected in the hope they will be the next phenom, and pushed (ahem, distributed) by a huge marketing machine.

    Reading a new self-pub is like trying that new restaurant down the block. It may be good; you might hate it even if it is good. It may be mediocre but you might like the atmosphere enough to hope it will improve.

    Reading the latest Big Six bestseller hopeful is like going to McDonalds. You know exactly what you're getting. There are no surprises. So if that is what you like, then you won't be disappointed.

    And it so happens that many self-pub authors care enough about their readers that they pay folks like me to make sure their book meets a certain quality standard (subjective though it may be), and in many cases what they pay for professional editing on their first few books is more than they will get in sales. They take part in writers' groups. They have independent panels of "beta-readers". They ask a lot of questions on fora.

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  2. interesting stuff. Loved the bit about the drama. It does exist...and I think perhaps because some self published aren't used to dealing with critique due to their 'youth' in the writing business as a whole.

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  3. Great post! I do read Self-Published books, although I don't accept them for review. The reason. I prefer not do deal one-on-one with authors especially if it turns out I don't like their book! But I do read self-pubbed books and it just so happens that two of my favourite reads of the last month or so are self-published books (Taking Chances, On Dublin Street). There are bad self-published books out there, just like there are bad traditionally published books! If I like the sound of a book, I'll check it out for myself, and to be honest, I don't really care who publishes it, although I do prefer when self-pubbed books are professionally edited. I really think that's needed! I think there's still some snobbery surrounding self-publishing, just as there is some snobbery surrounding book bloggers, and I think your initial comparison was a very valid one!

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    1. Thanks for the comments, everyone! Leanna, I picked up Taking Chances last week - fairly sure it was after reading your review of it. It looks really cool. On Dublin Street looks good as well!

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  4. Great article! It is an interesting point to bring up. I of course, do not think that bloggers are less qualified than critics-- writers don't write books for critics, they write for everybody, and that includes bloggers/regular readers. And as for self-published books, most of the reviews I take on are self-published books. Maybe there are some that are not that great, but I think it's coincidence. There's no reason why the next J.K. Rowling gem could not be found within this generation of self published authors. A thing that I realized recently is that self-published authors and bloggers work as a team.

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  5. What a fantastic post! I myself run an indie friendly book blog. I started reading self-pubbed books around this time last year and I have seen both sides of the tracks. There are some BAD ones out there. Some really bad ones. HOWEVER, there are also some AMAZING ones out there. I have had the pleasure of falling in love with a great number books and /or series from the minds of some brilliant authors. Some authors that are FAR MORE TALENTED than some of the highest grossing Big Six authors out there.

    I have a habit of keeping my head in the sand so I don’t get dragged into a lot of the blogger drama. Due to this, I never realized exactly how much stigma there is around indie authors. Then I got into the business of organizing blog tours for indie authors…. What I found is that there are a great number of book blogs that won’t touch indie authors with a ten foot pole. I couldn’t believe it. And yet Parajunkee did a 200 blogger poll a few weeks ago in which they came up with only 13% of book bloggers wont deal with indie authors. I would like to get my hands on the list of the other 87% because there numbers do not match up with my experience.

    I have also had the misfortune of having a hissy fit thrown on me by an indie author. His book received 2.5 stars (out of 5 on our scale) and he proceeded to fill my inbox with hate mail – insulting the reviewer’s intelligence by saying that she “just didn’t ‘get’ the book”. He went on and on for the better part of a day until I pulled the review and any trace of him off of my site. His behavior had nothing to do with him being a self-pubbed author. His behavior was 100% a result of a crappy personality and an inability to take criticism. If that is the case, don’t self-publish because you don’t have a publicist and a marketing team acting as your buffer, sending your book off to the outlets they feel are the best fit for your book. Instead, he was sending his book to EVERYONE and it was sent to a reviewer that wasn’t terribly impressed. End of story. Not the end of the world.

    As for recommended self-pubbed books –oh the list I could provide!!!! Here are a few:

    Bayne’s Climb by Ty Johnston
    The Book of Deacon Trilogy by Joseph Lallo (book #1 is free too!)
    The Betty Boo Series by Beth Dolgner
    The Caged Series by Amber Lynn Natusch
    The Skyfall Trilogy by Matt Larkin
    The Peachville High Demons Series by Sarra Cannon
    The Mageri Series by Dannika Dark
    The Forever Girl by Rebecca Hamilton
    (DEAD)ish by Naomi Kramer
    The Doorknob Society Series by MJ Fletcher
    Silas Robb: Of Saints and Sinners by Erik Lynd
    The Shekinah Legacy by Gary Lindberg

    Just to name a few….

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    1. What a fantastic list! I'll definitely check some of them out - thank you so much.

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  6. I started blogging/reviewing in 2009 and I have to say that most of the books I have reviewed are self published. Most of the books have been very good, a few not so good and maybe one or two that were too horrible to want to continue. By that I mean the proofreading was not there at all. Like another person said here, there may be the next J.K Rowling out there!!! Great post.

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  7. All true, heh. I think accepting indies is like going to a garage sale. There'll be a few gems, but you have to enjoy the hunt and the experience. :-)

    I applaud all book bloggers willing to consider indies, and I also applaud those who know what they like and state so clearly on a review policy page. It's a big world!

    I admire authors who doggedly email bloggers. You have to give them credit for not hustling sock puppet reviews. At least you know the review inquiries from those people are coming from an honest place.

    All book bloggers are individuals, but they share commonalities. I've never received an email (rejection or otherwise) from a book blogger that wasn't exceedingly polite, kind, and helpful.

    I feel bad for bloggers who get caught up in drama, but the best thing I can do is not be a cause, and keep writing. Chin up, everyone. We love books!

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    1. The garage sale is a great comparison! I think review policies are really important and I'm glad MOST people read them! It does drive me crazy when I get people who've written adult sci-fi, for example, message me and ask for a review even though my review policy states "MG/YA".

      Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed the post.

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  8. Of course it is a valid comparison between book bloggers and indie authors. People who don't see that just don't want to.

    Thank you for being willing to keep an open mind about self-published writers. I know there are people who gather a bunch of stories together they wrote in college and hit "publish." At the same time, there are authors that never pursued traditional publishing, but went to the expense and time to have their book professionally edited, proofread, and hired a professional cover designer. I did with mine. I can't guarantee anyone would enjoy the romance story I wrote, but I can say I put the very best product out there I can. Thanks for not painting us all with the same brush.

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  9. Great post, all very valid points in there too! I'd often read self-published books, you can definitely get a mixed bunch of good and bad books. Same can be said of traditionally published books-as times. But it's fun too, as you said, being the one to find the real gems!
    I hope eventually more bloggers will become more and more open to reviewing self-published books. But I can totally understand that it can be a bit of a mine field!

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  11. I agree with the article and most of the other comments. Not all self pub books are created equal. But you don't give up eating fries just because you found a few burnt ones.
    I only really started reviewing (published)books a few years ago and that was mostly for my own pleasure. Nothing was sent to me. I would just pick up a book that looked fun. If I loved it. I blogged about it.
    It was only this past Spring that I was connected with my first indie author(Scott Cramer). And to be honest, at first I had to disconnect my own personal preferences and look at it from a different perspective before I could see just how good it really was. Especially when I compared it to other random books I would read on Amazon.(can it really be called a "book" if it's only two chapters?) In fact, I found it to be on par with any book found in a book store. Before that book I can only think of one other (complete) book that I would recommend to my puny followers. And that one I loved mostly for its originality and take on a well know topic...Now, if I had to critique it for spelling and grammar (which as I'm sure you've notice, I suck at) I would have had to thrash it!
    So the question is, are you going to throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak? Or look at it as a whole and find more good than bad? And then from there maybe give constructive criticism to help them improve those minor mistakes.
    As for comparing a publishing company with all of their "people" to a loving family. That is a valid point. But who knows maybe that loving wife was and English major. And I believe that there are enough bloggers and independent professionals out there who can do just as good of a job. And if an author is truly serious about getting honest reviews then they should use those blogger/professionals as a resource...even if those resources tell them they need to find better resources. i.e an editor that's not your mom.

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  12. I do review a few self-publish books. I have to be clear on two points: I do so when I know if will appeal to both me and my audience (I mostly read YA); also, if I can I rather buy the book than get it for free. I have enjoyed some really good self-published books, such as Tammara Webber's Easy, which is an amazing book.

    I also participate in a few blog tours, and some of these are for self published books. Again, I try to judge the books like I would for any other. I check the book in Goodreads, I look at the cover and read the synopsis.

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