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CRITIQUE OF A BATCH OF SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS

January 17, 2018

This article was going to be in a couple of weeks, but the discussion came up, off air, prior to a recent radio interview I did with author James Kelly. It seemed a good idea to bring it up now.

While I don’t actively discourage self-publishing, I also take it as a cautionary tale. The fact is that when you present your work to the public in a do-it-yourself manner, all the expertise rides on your shoulders.

While there are a few of you that go to great lengths to do it right, and there are some tremendous success stories, there are way too many that self-publish because they just can’t cut it in the traditional world. Or, they don’t want to wait and do it right. Or, they never hit that string of luck. Or…they just don’t want to follow the rules.

While some rules seem tedious and overbearing, they’re there for a reason. Those annoying “rules” bear some weight when it comes not only to attracting readers, but keeping them.

This is not to say that traditional publishing is immune to pushing out crappy books. If you’re a reader, you know this. I’m sure you’ve gone through plenty of books that you’ve either struggled to finish, never finished, or were pissed off when you did finish them. Or, you were ultimately disappointed in the end.

Unfortunately, in the self-publishing world, this crappy book thing is far more predominant. After all, editing, formatting, artwork, the whole caboodle costs. It can cost a lot, and cutting corners on any of it shows in the end product — what you’re attempting to put in the hands of readers. If you go into this blind, without going through the proper steps that steer you the right way, like some authors are prone to do, you end up with a total mess.

Okay, there are some readers that are blind to all of this. They can read anything. They may notice something is a bit off, but if they like the story, that’s good enough for them. Most readers are more discriminatory. They have world-wary insight into what smells right and what doesn’t. They’re more invested in their genre (or interest) when they pick up a book. When an author throws stuff out there with minimal effort and quality, they poison the well.

A RECENT BATCH OF ICKY BUG

One of the things I asked for this Christmas was a batch of icky bug novels off Amazon. Yeah, I say Amazon because I have no other choice. Our one and only local bookstore (for new books, that is), Barnes & Noble, doesn’t carry very much icky bug. In case you’re new to this site, what I’m talking about is horror novels. Icky bug is my term for horror, but not just any horror. I’m talking b-movie monster horror, like the old Chiller Theater Saturday afternoon horror from the 50’s through 60’s, like we used to get in the good old days.

These stories are still out there, and it’s as rare as hen’s teeth to see them in a traditional bookstore, traditionally published. What gets traditionally published in horror? Usually character studies with bummer endings. Yup, literary stuff that I not only would not read, but would “literally” throw back on the shelf, not just place back on the shelf. I despise that stuff, and that seems to be all that ever makes it to the bookshelves.

Therefore, I have to resort to buying them on-line from the “only” real source out there with an easily-accessed variety, Amazon. There, I can find all kinds of b-movie icky bug novels. The only difference is that ninety percent of them are self-published. I have to carefully look through the usually mediocre (at best) covers, then browse the “peek inside” previews.

The peek inside previews are critical because I won’t even bother unless the story is written in third-person, past-tense. I can usually tell by a quick scan through the entire sample if the author sticks with that. I can also get a quick sample of the initial quality of the writing, though not near enough for the entire book.

Sometimes I scratch the book off the list from the sample. Very rarely, the cover is enough, though I’m not one to usually judge a book by its cover.

This year, I opted for four novels that intrigued me, all by authors I’ve never tried before.

WHAT I FOUND

First off, as I suspected, all four novels were obviously self-published. Given the red flags, there was no doubt. However, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, I liked all four novels, but some had serious flaws.

The covers.

Three of the novels had decent covers. The artwork was not all that bad. They might’ve passed for a traditional publishing house. The fourth was downright cheesy. It was just awful, but even that didn’t deter me from buying the book. I don’t care that much about the cover. However, I can see that one sitting on the shelf in a bookstore, skipped over time and time again by readers. It “literally” screamed “self-published.”

The formatting.

One of them, the best of the bunch, was the most professionally done. The formatting was flawless. From page one to the end, I didn’t see a single glitch. On the other hand, the other three, especially one of the others that happened to have a decent cover, was full of formatting errors. It was like the editor(s) (who did a lousy job) went in for last-minute corrections, but never fixed the formatting after making the changes. Paragraphs were out of place, there were gaps between words, lines were interrupted and dropped to the next line. You name it. Oh, and random capitalizations dotted the paragraphs.

The editing.

In the one with the crummy cover, the editing was atrocious. There were run-on sentences, repeated words, sentences that didn’t make sense. Oh, and the author didn’t know the difference between American and British English. No, this was not a Canadian or British release.

Point of view.

All but one of them had no point of view. They were semi-omniscient, which is to me, a red flag for self-publishing. When there’s no control of point of view, it tells me there was no editor to make the author stick with any controlling characters. I know that in traditional publishing, emphasis on point of view is becoming less and less, but it’s still at least some kind of emphasis. In these books, POV was willy-nilly with no character controlling anything. A complete, head-hopping mess. There was only one book where it had solid third-person controlling POV. That was, by the way, the only five star review I gave of the entire bunch.

Story.

While I enjoyed all four stories, except for the one, they all had their flaws. In one of them, nothing, and I mean nothing happens from the prologue all the way through two-thirds of chapter one. I’ve talked about starting a story with a bang. In this case, there was no bang until page thirty. That would never happen (or shouldn’t) in a traditional novel, unless it’s literary and folks, this was no literary story!

Second, one of the books, while a fun story, had a serious flaw in that the main characters (and there were several), were never put in serious jeopardy. While there was a high body count, none of the action involved the main characters. For an icky bug novel, that’s kind of the point. The main characters have to be put in some kind of jeopardy that they have to get out of.

In the one with the crummy cover, the supposed main character, at least according to the back cover, never did the main hero stuff. He was always in the wings while someone else did the hard work. He just stepped up at the appropriate time to help out and take the credit. Huh?

SUMMARY

It isn’t all just about the story. There has to be something more. Getting you stuff out there, and doing it by cutting corners, or by not following the rules doesn’t always work. In a sample of four self-published books, I found one that did it right. Four random books.

The odds should be better than that.

I’m not trying to discourage self-publishing, if you’re going to do it, please do your research. Don’t get in a rush just to get it out there and shoot yourself in the foot. Remember, it’s your legacy. More and more, there are plenty of self-publishing success stories. If you want to be part of that crowd, slow down, take the time to do it right so your book doesn’t sit out there on the web and languish with a couple of lousy reviews or one or two good ones by friends, while nobody else will review it for fear of hurting your feelings.

Do it right.

Happy writing!

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