Comment added 7 July 2013: If you found this post following a link on the excellent The Book Designer hello! Just to say that I’ve turned off comments. This post is over two years old. It still has relevance but I think the 200+ comments offer enough food for thought. Thanks for reading.
We are still coming to terms with writers not only being able to self-publish but being able to get those words easily to anyone with an Internet connection and reading device or a postal service.
In other words, you can write a novel, novella or shopping list and get it out in the world with very little monetary investment. And it doesn’t even need to be as an eBook as physical print-on-demand has gone from strength to strength.
And readers are responding to this availability of gatekeeper-free material by supporting those writers with sales. Though as we saw the other day those sales may not replace a full- or even part-time job.
One thing that just isn’t happening for self-published authors on a large scale is breaking into the various circles of critics and reviewers, of which I’m one.
Now, when I posted Where do authors get their validation in an age of self-publishing? I touched on but didn’t fully address why I don’t review self-published fiction (though I read and buy a lot of self-published non-fiction) so I thought I’d come up with a list. Not all these reasons are mine but are indicative of the issues.
I’m going to use ‘we’ as I think this list is more universal than personal though I’m sure people will let me know if it’s just me.
We don’t know who you are.
This is a biggie and probably the toughest as it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy due to the gatekeeper nature of the circles of critics and reviewers.
Logically, there should be no good reason why independent critics/reviewers (e.g. those who blog about books) don’t feature a wide range of books from different sources. Self-published to big six can easily get review copies out there in some sort of form. So it’s not availability. It’s from the reasons for this post. So I’m going to come back to it at the end.
We don’t know how you’ll react.
The erratic behaviour of the author mentioned in Where do authors get their validation in an age of self-publishing? is a strong illustration of why we don’t read self-published authors. We don’t have a firewall between us and the writer. Books from publishing houses that don’t have any self-published books give a level of detachment between what we write and the reaction we’ll get. Sure, publishers don’t want negative reviews but they do need to know if they are publishing something that isn’t selling because it’s awful or because it’s good but not reaching the audience. Publishing is a crap shoot.
We’ll feel guilty when we don’t read it.
We have the best of intentions on reading books we agree (and in some cases begged) to look at and on those we get sent by publishers unsolicited (though even then some of those don’t fit our tastes). It is however physically impossible. And publishers are realistic. I’m sure they are disappointed and do calculate the returns on their investment in certain reviewers and in sending out books from certain authors to certain people. But that’s why they have marketing and PR departments to balance those risks with the chances of books catching imaginations and starting word of mouth, which is second only to money in raising awareness of books (see back to we don’t know who you are.)
But if we’re approached directly we may have to explain why we haven’t read your book. A book you’ve invested hundreds of hours of your life writing, then spent more time talking to us about and getting us to agree to read, only for us to come back with some lame excuse like ‘real life got in the way’ or ‘I got this much better book’.
We know you’re not going to generate hits.
We have several and varying different reasons for spending hours of our free time, and reviewing books that aren’t going to attract anyone is a serious consideration for some bloggers. Have you noticed how many reviews of the new Hilary Mantel there are? Everyone likes to be popular unless they are going for underground cult status, I guess. You see, a popular book will attract hits from people who already know about a book and those searches will get redirected to a blog (your blog) and they might come back. It’s ‘buzz’ content. So you might get bumped up the rankings when that big buzz book lands.
I’m breaking my ‘we’ voice for a second as I’m been blogging far to long to solely chase hits but doesn’t stop me from being tempted.
We don’t read cute bunny love stories set in Ancient Rome…
… or whatever genre you’ve written in.
Now this one is odd. You’ve gone through all that self-motivation to put your work into a package that you consider is something worth paying for and then you start trying to sell it to someone who doesn’t read the type of book you’ve written. Again, it goes back to ‘we don’t know who you are’ but not only that, you’ve also wasted our time and yours. We see the dilemma: you make a connection with us and we probably won’t review it anyway, and if you spam us we might not read it either but it’s got our attention, so why not just spam us and save yourself some time?
With bloggers especially it isn’t always about the fixed reviews on their websites. It’s about the conversations that happen elsewhere. You’re planting that seed of awareness. You know of the phrase ‘all publicity is good publicity’ – well, being negative is not a route I’d recommend btw as it’s a small world – but publicity is about getting out there. Something publishers pay a lot to make happen.
But even that is not enough as their writers are also being asked to promote themselves more. You can no longer write a book and let your publisher do all the work. It’s easy for most books that aren’t by established names to get buried. And even those can fade away if they don’t have fuss made when they come out.
We don’t understand why you don’t like what you’ve written enough to introduce it professionally to the right readers, readers who have published their taste over many, many blog posts for you to see what kind of books they like.
We know it’s going to be rubbish
Call it a sixth sense or sense of smell or culmination of years of experience but wherever it comes from it’s not usually wrong. We can tell if someone is worth reading and of a professional standard after a few pages though even then it might not be good. Or a book we want to read or enjoy but at least we won’t be foaming and ranting within a second of settling down. Authors can be deluded. Self-published authors doubly so. Not only have you compiled your opus without being consciously aware that what you’ve written needs to be redrafted or thrown away as it’s obvious that you’ve not yet mastered the craft of storytelling to an engaging degree. But you’ve got an ego that makes you think that someone else will not see your flaws. The reverse in fact, that we will see your genius and wonder why you haven’t gotten a six-figure publishing deal. We don’t want to break your delusions – as mentioned we don’t know how you’ll react – but we won’t be guilty that we haven’t finished reading you and we are really sorry we now know who you are and hope never to read you again.
Now I know this is full of sweeping generalisations and I’m sure there are exceptions to every point raised but if self-publisher writers want to be ‘taken seriously’ by those that have ‘respected opinions’ they are going to keep coming up against the default opinion that the quality of their work isn’t going to be as good as those books that have been through agents, editors, publishing committees, copy editors, book buyers for retailers – most of whom they have needed to get past in order to get published.
In other words reviewers/critics should never be the first people to give feedback on a work. Neither should your friends or relatives unless they are also able to be professionally critical to a high enough standard.
This all sounds a bit negative though it’s meant to be realistic, as harsh as that sounds. And at some point I want to do a post on ‘why we should review self-published authors’ though I’m struggling beyond; we’re missing out on some great stuff, but wading through all the slush to get there doesn’t seem a fair exchange.
If you’re only staying for the one post you may want to also read Thoughts: Where do authors get their validation in an age of self-publishing? which is a sort of prequel to this post.