Every single self-published author deserves credit. They’ve all grasped the nettle, written their book, wrestled with the technical and procedural challenges of self-publishing, and got their book out there.
Yet the “establishment” – and that includes both traditional publishers and seasoned readers – still seems to have profound reservations about self-published books. If these books are as good as conventionally published books, people reason, why aren’t they in fact published in that way?
Well, in pursuit of getting my own first book online, I’ve now had occasion to examine dozens of self-published books by other writers, and I have two broad generalisations to make about them.
- There are some very impressive self-published books out there; BUT
- A lot of self-published books have flaws of one kind or anther.
OK, so what do I mean by flaws? Well, here’s a quick run-down:
- Self-conscious prose that simply doesn’t flow smoothly, and doesn’t have a comfortable rhythm and cadence.
- Stilted dialogue, in which characters are simply recounting events, not talking naturally to each other.
- Rapid introduction of multiple characters who aren’t clearly defined, making it difficult for readers to follow the plot or form a clear impression of who everyone is.
- Emphasis on irrelevant details – the type of food being eaten, the décor of the room, what clothes the characters are wearing. Sure, these things sometimes expand on the plot or the characters, but in bad books they’re often introduced gratuitously in place of real narrative substance.
- Blatantly incorrect use of words – usually a word used mistakenly in place of another that sounds a bit like it.
- Poor punctuation – for instance, failure to put commas at both ends of a parenthetical phrase, and failure to introduce or terminate quoted speech properly.
- Kindle formatting errors such as double instead of single spacing after full stops, and failure to separate sections of a chapter from each other visually.
In most cases, the author presumably thought he or she was on top of all these things and needed no help, or else wasn’t prepared to invest the time or money to get a second opinion (and preferably to get some professional editing done). Yet in the worst cases, they’re not only short-changing whatever readers they can muster up; they’re also parading their own ignorance before the world.
The sad thing is that basic blemishes can reduce even quite promising books from the status of “worth reading” to “only worth reading if you’re ready to make allowances”. And who wants to read a book like that?
As a lifetime editor, sub-editor and contributor to business magazines, I know something about all this, even though until now I’ve never worked in the world of fiction. And the depressing realisation I’ve come to is that in many ways the establishment is right – a lot of self-published books really are inferior to conventionally published books. Not all, but quite a lot.
I say this without any intention of criticising or undermining other self-published writers. As I’ve said, they all deserve credit. But I feel there’s a need to sound an alert over the hidden dangers awaiting the inexperienced. If you’re not sure whether your writing is good or bad, my advice would be to find someone to advise you – don’t just put your work on sale and hope for the best.
All this being said, self-publishing offers some genuine gems – books as good as anything you’ll find from the big five publishers. Probably they’ve been self-published purely through the author’s impatience with the traditional route. The problem for such authors is that there seems to be no clear route to differentiation. How nice it would be if there were some astounding computer program out there that could evaluate any book in seconds, and would simply declare, “Yes, this is a ‘proper’ book,” or “No, this is not a ‘proper’ book.”
Alas, there isn’t. Instead, both writers and readers are reliant on the goodwill of book reviewers. But even reviewers may not recognise the underlying reasons why they like or dislike a given book. They might comment adversely on the plot, the structure or the characterisation, not recognising the weaknesses in the literary style and presentation that have made these factors so evident. Still, reviewers do their best, so all credit to them for that.
But as a reader, how do you assess the quality of a self-published book? Well, my acid test is to dive into chapter 2 or chapter 3 (in other words, pick a point after we’ve got past the bravura prologue and any scene-setting passages). See how well the prose reads once the author has found his or her pace. If it doesn’t convince by that stage, you have your answer.