Monday 3 September 2012

Self-Publishing: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I recently bought two books, both books that I'd been wanting to read for a while, both self-published by authors who I know. This was my first experience of  self-published fiction, and I glad to support the authors: it might be presumptuous of me to claim friendship, since we've only met on Twitter, but both are acquaintances and people I like, and I was hoping to write glowing reviews about their books.

The best laid plans of mice...

The Good

The first one I read was Bill the Vampire, by Rick Gualtieri.

he only difference between this and a traditionally published book is the lack of a publisher's logo. The cover is neat and professional - well, alright, it's glossy, unlike most traditionally published covers, but that's not bad, just different - the formatting is just fine, and there is nothing to complain about with respect to the quality of the writing.

It's original, despite being in a rather crowded genre - I won't give specifics, because I loathe spoilers, but Rick's made his vampires his own, and made them funny and convincing and interesting.

I liked the characters (especially James. He's probably not exactly nice, but he's fun.) I liked the plot, which was fast-paced and exciting. I read the whole thing in one day and wanted more. The writing maybe didn't stand out from the crowd, but said crowd is a crowd of good writers who write well and readably. So I enjoyed this book and will definitely be reading the rest of the series and probably the Bigfoot one as well.

The Bad

I'm not telling you what the second one was. As I said, I like the author, and I'm not going to name and shame them.

The cover was ringing alarm bells. In fact, it's a pretty nice cover, but the back and spine are blank. But I try not to judge a book by its cover, and I am aware that e-books are the main focus for a lot of self-publishing authors. So it's understandable, if a bit sloppy, that the e-book cover might be slapped onto the paperback as is. Although you'd think they'd at least put the name on the spine and maybe make the colour blend in with  the front, instead of plain white.

The formatting is ... odd. It's in a sans serif font, which (I've heard it's been scientifically proven) is harder to read than one with serifs. And the paragraphs are separated by double line breaks and not indents. Which is unusual in a fiction book and I at least find it a bit flow-breaking. But maybe it looks better on an e-reader screen and it's another side-effect of the paperback being a second thought. Even so, it's quite poor. Surely it could have been reformatted without that much trouble or expense.

But I tried to ignore all this.

The prologue was incredibly wordy and not very enjoyable to read at all. But that's just the prologue. Maybe it's deliberately meant to sound pompous and formal.

It couldn't possibly be like that all the way through.

If it was like that all the way through it would never have been published by anyone who could write worth a d*mn, because anyone who could write worth a d*mn might possibly have written something like that in a bad first draft. And it would never have been published by anyone at all diligent or professional about their writing, because even if they had produced it, they would have had it edited and listened to the editor, and no editor even capable of writing a decent enough bio to pretend to be worth their salt would have passed something in that state. And although I'd not read anything by this author before, I've encountered their marketing campaign and my impression was that they're pretty diligent and professional about their book.

It was like that all the way through.

I struggled through the whole thing partly for the sake of this post and mainly because I like to finish a book once I've started it.

I could cut it down by at least a tenth just by striking out bits that are entirely unnecessary - never mind restructuring and trimming down clumsy phrases and confusing descriptions - almost every sentence contained lists of three or more adjectives. Whole sentences were simply repeating each other. Dozens of clauses explained in straight terms what was already clearly implied.

And while I'm not exactly an expert on advanced comma placement, the best I could say about the grammar was that it's better than Captain Carrot's.

The characters sounded like they could have been interesting and relatable, if only they had had some semblance of their own voices. Each and every one spoke in the same verbose tones as the narrator.

The plot was pretty plausible and could have been pretty exciting if it had been remotely well handled.

The best I can say about the book is that I have seen worse. But in order not to deceive I would then have to add that I have read a good deal of fanfiction. Including the ones written by ten-year-olds and people writing in second languages.

I had a look for reviews on Amazon. The paperback has none as yet, but the ebook has plenty and they are without exception positive, mostly 5 star, brimming with praise for the brilliant writing, the likable characters, the enthralling plot, and how well it held their interest.

I suppose it's possible that the 11 rave reviews on amazon UK and 3 on the US site were all written or paid for by the author and their mother, although I don't like to think that of them. I'm left wondering, am I that bad a reader, or did the paperback, through some hilarious, hideous mix-up, somehow get made from the very first draft?

I asked my brother to have a look at it, in case I really am that bad. He glanced at one page and said that the book had at least three terrible paragraphs.

The Ugly

Is this it? The self-publishing revolution is in full swing, and is this what we're going to get out of it?

Will choosing a new book in future be as much of a pot-luck as picking a fanfic at random? The shelves bloated with thousands of books that should never, ever, have made it further than the author's BFF. Books whose prose has never seen an editor. Books that could be held up as an example of how not to write.

As I say, I've read fanfic. With nothing approaching editorial control, thousands upon thousands of fics are published that are absolute drivel. And some good ones. A sprinkling of decent ones and a handful of genuinely good ones and there is no way to find them without wading neck-deep in the creek - you know, the one you're up without a paddle.

If that's what reading will be like after the revolution, bring back the feudal system. Bring back the shackles and branding irons. Bring back the gatekeepers. Bring back hundreds of good books never seeing the light of day, and a pittance for the authors of the few that do, because even that is preferable.

One last thing: I said I wouldn't name and shame the author of the second book. But I also don't want to make anyone paranoid. So if you think it might be you, feel free to ask. I won't answer publicly, even to say no, but if that person asks I will tell them privately.


  1. Thank you! I'm very glad you enjoyed Bill, although let me just say that if I do happen to disappoint on subsequent tries (assuming there are any ;), don't hesitate to name me. This industry is all about taking the good with the bad and I very much accept that. I prefer to not disappoint, but if I do my eyes and ears are open to learning why.

    ps; just for the record, I don't like the glossy covers. If they ever give me a choice, it'll be matte all the way. ;)

    1. Yeah, I heard that POD can't/won't do matte covers yet.

      If I ever had something that bad to say about you, I wouldn't name you publicly - I'd feel awful - but I'll be sure to tell you.

      And thanks for the twitter mention. :)