Monday, November 5, 2012

Self-Published Novels, Reconsidered.

Copyright Mick Stevens, The New Yorker Collection

If you've read my review policy (which I'm sure you have...I mean, who hasn't?), you know it includes this line:

"I currently do not accept self-published books for review."

I have gotten questions about this statement several times since I started the blog.  Some people are just curious why.  Others imply via their tone that I'm being a snot.  And still others tell me that I'm missing out--self-publishing is blowing up right now, so why would I neglect all those books for review?

Let me tell you how that policy came to be.

I received my Kindle as a gift in May 2011 (over a year before this blog opened).  Before that, I don't think I had ever read a self-published book.  But if you get a Kindle, what is one of the immediate appeals?  ALL THE FREE BOOKS!!  I blindly waded into Amazon's "free" section and started downloading anything that looked even remotely up my alley.

Then I started reading them.  The first one  The second one was...meh.  By the end of the third one, I was a disgruntled reader.

The books had flat characters, awkward dialogue, nonsensical plot elements, and confusing uses of POV.  Not to mention that they were riddled with bad spelling and grammar.  I found myself wondering who in the world their editors were, allowing these things to be published?

And then I realized--there were no editors!  These were self-published works.

So when I started my blog, I decided that I would not be seeking out or accepting self-published works for review.  My early Kindle freebies had ruined me, and I had thousands of other books to choose from anyway.


Now that the blog has been running for a couple of months, I've had ample opportunity to read reviews of self-published works from my fellow bloggers.  And while some of them sound similar to how I reacted to those Amazon freebies last year, others sound pretty awesome.  I've also received several review requests from authors who have self-published works (despite the disclaimer in my review policy).  I've turned them all down up to this point, no matter how good they sounded, in the interest of sticking to my original policy.  Because when it comes right down to it, anyone can self-publish--and who wants to take the time to wade through all that mediocre work, looking for the good stuff?

But in the last week, two things happened.  First, I received an email from Novel Publicity tours (for whom I serve as a tour host), asking for blogs to host a book called Bluff by Lenore Skomal.  Reading the description, I was excited--this book sounded awesome!  I couldn't wait to read and review.  However, going on Goodreads, I quickly realized it was self-published.  Feeling deflated, I emailed a bit with the Novel Publicity rep about it.  She assured me this was a well-vetted piece of fiction, encouraging me to host if I was considering it.  I couldn't forget my initial excitement about the book--should I really let this one go?  So I took a chance, and said I would host.

Second, I clicked on a link in my daily Shelf Awareness email last week to get an ARC of a book that sounded pretty great: The Thief of Auschwitz .  The author (Jon Clinch) has published with Random House before, so I was initially confused as to why I was downloading the ARC off his personal website.  Then I read this article .  And I found Clinch's story quite compelling.  Long story short: he published with Random House, and despite good reviews, had disappointing sales with the publishing house.  As an experiment, he wrote another book and self-published it under a pen name--and lo and behold, sold thousands of copies with no publisher backing him.  So he decided to also self-publish his next literary novel (The Thief of Auschwitz).  Of course, this created a conundrum for me--should I turn down a self-published novel from someone who has already earned critical acclaim for his writing through bigger publishers?

In the end, I decided to take another chance, and I downloaded the ARC.

So, where does this leave me and my snooty review policy?

For now, I'm going to leave that line in the policy.  My personal belief is still that a lot (A LOT) of self-published work does not have enough editorial support to read as cleanly and strongly as that put out by publishing companies (indie or big-name).  (That's not to say publishers never put out terrible books--but the "terribleness" is usually not based in structural/editorial issues the way I've seen it in self-pubs, and if it is, the book usually gets enough widespread bad publicity that you know it well beforehand.)  However--I am more open to the idea of self-published work, if (after researching it) I have some compelling reason to believe it is a strong piece of fiction.  

These two examples have shown me that my early Kindle freebies may not necessarily be reflective of all self-published books.  Thus, I am going to use these two novels as an experiment.  Because my critics' assessments are correct--in the era of e-readers, self-publishing is huge.  And some awesome work is bound to come out of that.  But for me (especially as a blogger), the trick is wading through that messy sea of self-pubs and finding the treasure--not an easy task.

So, be on the lookout for my first two reviews of self-published work (for Bluff and The Thief of Auschwitz) coming up in December/January.  We'll see how this experiment goes, and I will post a follow-up once they've both been reviewed.

Readers, respond!  What has been your experience with self-published work?  How do you distinguish between the good and the bad--or do you not bother to do so?


  1. I do lots of research on a self-pubbed book before I read it. I won't turn them away since I plan to self-pub myself, but I do at least give them a shot and look up reviews. I don't like reading them when they are very new. They have to be a few months old. I also like to stalk the author on their blog and get a feel for them. So far, I have discovered quite a few that I really liked. Jade Varden's Deck of Lies series was a brilliant example. I saw a lackluster cover and didn't bother to read the summary. I finally read it when she approached me with a review request and now I can't wait for the next in the series.

    My best advice for weeding through it, is to read the reviews. People will comment on the editing. It gives you a good heads up. I have noticed that I tend to stick to self-pubs that are stand alone novels. I have a silly rule about continuing with a series once I start it so long as the first book was better than 2stars, and I don't like the risk with self pubs unless I have read a stand-alone by the author or the story looks amazing.

  2. Ariel, thanks for the comment/advice. Those are all things I didn't think of (amt of time it's been out, stalking their websites, stand alone vs series, etc). I guess sometimes I wonder if it's worth all the work to "vet" a self-pubbed book when I could more easily pick up any old traditionally-published book without having to do background research first. But then the other side of me doesn't want to miss out on the gems of the self-publishing world, even if it means more info-gathering on my part.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I also zealously protect my reading time so I totally get where you're coming from.

    Where I'm coming from is a long career in corporate publishing as an author, editor and ghostwriter. After a dozen books (several NYT bestsellers) and kudos from all the traditional outlets, the traditional affirmations don't mean that much to me anymore. I still do nonfiction with NY publishers, but I created a digital imprint for my own fiction. I value my creative freedom way beyond the old school party invitations. (And yes, I make more money, so it's a no-brainer.) I'm not sure where that leaves me vis a vis your policy, but if you flip me an email via my website,, I'll happily send you a review copy of one of my novels.

    Meanwhile, I hope you know there are many, many indie authors out there who made it past the gatekeepers with proven talent and craft skills but decided to take creative control of our own work. We're not the amateurs who scored big in the gold rush. We're not rejects or refugees from "traditional" publishing. We still work with our publishers and agents. Hybrid authors are taking the best of both worlds and using that power to create great books.

    Earlier this year, I started forming a coalition of critically acclaimed and bestselling authors blurring the boundaries of old-school publishing. (Here we are on FB: #/LeagueXA.) Let me know if you'd like to see a top-notch indie reading list. This year, 7 of my 10 favorite reads were indies - the most creatively risky, exciting fiction I've read in years, and in terms of editing and technical issues, as good as or better than corporately published books I'm reading.

    Peace and grooviness ~

  4. Joni, thanks so much for the comment. I'll definitely be checking out both of your websites. See, these are the things I am just starting to learn about indie publishing. It helps when some centralized resources (like yours) are available to point people in the right direction. The grouping of "self published novels" is so big and diverse, it's hard to know where to start--or where the quality lies.

  5. I'd like to see what you think of the books. I shy away from self-published for the exact reasons you gave. I just don't want to commit myself to reading something that hasn't been edited.

  6. I've had two experiences with self-published authors, both local. One has made good, solid books with a local illustrator - and the author is legally blind, making it all the more impressive. The second had a book that was an editor's nightmare. So I offered to edit it for the second printing, and ended up with a win-win situation.

  7. I've never liked a self-published book. Granted, I've read only four. But those four made me believe that self-published authors think anyone who can speak English can write it.

  8. I'm enjoying reading everyone's opinions here (especially fellow bloggers). It's nice to see that I'm not alone in my reservations.

  9. I recently downloaded an Amazon freebie of a selfpublished author. The other books in the series are not free, so I'll see what I think about #1.
    I heard about this book in a book group on Goodreads were it was recommended.
    I think you can find out quickly enough on those social networks what a book really is about and if it's worth reading.

  10. I do read self-published books, but I'm careful about just downloading anything now. Like you, when I first got my kindle I proceeded to get several freebies that were not great. Now I read lots of reviews and I love being able to sample a chapter or two first. Usually this will give me enough of an idea whether I should continue or not. Although I will concede that it doesn't always work. And there is certainly some terrible editing being done, or not done out there!

  11. Kara, your experience sounds similar to mine. It stinks that most Kindle readers probably will not educate themselves about self-published novels, and thus will just read a few, dislike them, and possibly give them up for good. It does take more work to find the good ones, but the influx of bad ones gives the rest a bad name (and creates frustration for the average reader).

  12. I've had awful luck with self-published works so now I just stay away :( Sometimes that makes me feel like a jerk. But mostly I think it keeps me sane. However, I'd be willing to try almost anything if it's recommended by a blog or site that I trust.

  13. I've just not had the best of luck with self-published ones. I end up feeling horrible about it, but I do turn them down. It's actually gotten to the point where as of July this year, I do not accept any books now, even from a major publisher (I've made an exception only twice). I love the freedom of just blogging about any book that I get from the library or purchase on my own.

  14. Natalie, I wonder if I will get to that point some day. I am still pretty new in the book blog world, so ARCs haven't lost their shine, but I can see how easy it is to fall into a nonstop schedule of ARCs without leaving time for the things you just randomly want to read.

  15. I have two well-received and successful self-published books. Sure, there are a few typos here and there and a sentence or two that doesn't flow as well as it could with professional help, but in the end, they're good stories and so readers overlook their short comings. I've recently signed a two book deal with Random House and I am interested to read your link to Jon Clinch's experience. I agree with you that the quality is not always there with self-pub, but I have found several authors that I enjoy reading (Hugh Howie for one). I tend to rely on reviews and word of mouth.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jen (and congrats on the book deal!). I think the problem, many times, is that the self-pub authors who don't proofread or carefully craft their stories give a bad name to everyone else. It diminishes the ability of a reader to confidently select a good novel. As a blogger, I often feel that it's my responsibility to go through the extra steps to do that, but on the flip side, it can be very tiresome.

  16. As a published author (HarperCollins) who is about to take the plunge into self-publishing, I found this discussion fascinating -- and depressing! My experience in traditional publishing was a lot like John Clinch's (good reviews, disappointing sales), but technology has advanced since then to the point that authors like us have as much (or more) potential in self-publishing than via the Big Six.

    It doesn't help that readers expect self-published books to be free or dirt cheap. This sets up a devaluation of the product so that good self-published books are tagged with the same label as bad ones: crapola.

    I'd encourage readers to use the "Look Inside" feature whenever possible. You can get a good idea of the quality of the writing that way, and balance your impression with the reviews (which are often written by friends/advocates of the writer). If you like what you see, it might be worth spending a buck or two to download the book.

    At least I'm hoping that's what readers will do when my book comes out!

    1. Thanks for the advice re: the Look Inside feature on Amazon...very helpful! I agree that that would tell me a lot more than the reviews (which I have learned not to trust, especially if there's only a few of them posted). Best of luck on your release Kevin!

  17. My wife has self-published a novel. This book has been in the works for almost seven (7) years. It has been through 2 different critique groups, both of which had traditionally published authors as members. It has been critiqued by a few editors/agents/etc at various book writing conferences. It has been edited by a professional editor. She has had some great rejection letters from agents and publisher, most of which ended with "but we don't see a large audience for YA Historical Fiction books". In the end, I talked her into self-publishing it. I have been charged with doing the marketing and publicity for the book, while she works on the next book. I have found this to be a huge challenge, because of people not wanting to take a chance on a first time author, especially if self-published. I too have read some awful self-published books, but I can usually figure it out in the first 10 pages or so. I have finally managed to get a few bloggers to read and review the book and my wife and I have both been somewhat surprised by how good the reviews have been. I have been including links to these reviews in the e-mail asking for reviews in the hopes that new bloggers will at least read a couple of the reviews and see that the book is actually quite good and worthy of their time.

    1. Bill, thanks for your response. I'm glad that you have been able to get a few bloggers on board for reviews. It's certainly unfortunate that the bad writing of some ruins the experience for all (in the world of self-pubs). That, paired with the packed review schedules of bloggers, makes us often unwilling to take a chance on something "untested". But I do like the strategy you're employing, and I think if I saw other bloggers raving about a self-pub in a genre I enjoy, it would give me a push towards possibly reviewing it myself.

    2. Kelly - Thanks for your response. Here are the links to reviews and author interviews from other bloggers. If you are still interested, I can provide an e-book copy for you, or possibly an audio book version.
      Other blog reviews

      Author Interviews

  18. I just self-published, and fully understand everyones' angst. It is very much an upstream swim in polluted waters. Read the reviews........there are some gems out there.


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