Guys, I am absolutely flattered when you decide to follow this blog, or when you email me to request that I review your book. It’s awesome. It’s why I blog, sort of. A huge thank you.
But lately I’ve gotten a lot of requests to review self-published books, and there are two possible reasons for that, both of which are problematic: First, it means you haven’t done your research about me and read the page where I say I do not review self-published books, and if you can’t do that simple amount of looking, I don’t have much faith in your ability to research to put together a good story. Second, it means that you did read that page, and you just thought I either a) wouldn’t notice that your book is self-published or b) that I would forget that I said that I don’t review self-published books. That means you think I’m stupid, and if you think I’m stupid, we are not going to get along.
To be fair, I’d like to outline why I do not review self-published books, for your benefit and mine. I hope this is helpful for people considering whether or not to self-publish, or at the very least that it stops you from asking me to make an exception for your book, because I won’t.
I have read my share of self-published books before, and they are largely self-indulgent and/or the content is appropriate/likeable for only a small amount of people, and that small amount does not usually include me.
I do not review religious fiction, because I think it’s awful. Always. As for other self-published books, I have found often that they say that they are fiction but should clearly have been worked to be a good memoir instead, or I have found that they just don’t know the difference between what makes a good story at the dinner table and what makes a good story in a bound batch of signatures.
I’m petty, and I don’t want to have to be mean to you just because I can’t help it. And I will be mean.
I was nine years old when I bought a cheap copy of What Katy Did at Walmart and read it only to find that it was rife with typographical errors, formatting issues, and just plain bad grammar. Since then, I have gotten only more hypercritical and hyperaware of even the slightest episodes of incorrect grammar or typos. And while I can respect that typos represent human error, I cannot excuse the excessive lack of basic grammatical skills in today’s world, which goes everywhere from children to people who did not get enough education to people with PhDs. Seriously. I was correcting the writing of adults when I was in sixth grade, because my humanities teacher knew I was more likely to be correct than her colleagues. I’m not saying all of this to brag but just to point out that this problem is so prevalent as to be in final bound editions of Big Six books, and I guarantee that if you have self-published your book, even if you did the “right” thing by sending it out for edits, your book is still riddled with errors, and while that may not bother some people, I am literally not capable of separating my anger with that from whether or not your book has a good story. It might not be fair, but I’m only human, and that’s how I function. If you think that it’s okay to use the phrase “So-and-so and I” as the object of a preposition, and if you can’t hear the difference between “so-and-so and me” and “so-and-so and I” and know when to use each one, we just shouldn’t be friends. I admit that this is entirely personal, but so is my blog, so you should know right away that that makes me the wrong venue to review your “book.”
You won’t trick me into thinking it’s traditionally published.
Earlier this year I read the book The Academie, which I got mixed up with another book with the same title and did not realize was self-published. I was duly impressed with how well-produced it was; I honestly did not notice the fact that the publisher was CreateSpace until I was done reading it. But let me tell you, reading it was a chore, because while weak narratives are not exclusively the domain of self-published books, they do tend to go together. And my above point about Americans’ incapability to write 100 words of narrative error-free was all too true in this book. I gave the author due credit for the hard work that goes into putting together a self-published books, and I give that to you as well, but great design, hard work, and lots of investment of money and time does not erase a bad product.
If you have the means to self-publish, you already had the means to polish your work and get it into the hands of a traditional publisher.
Look, one of the reasons I am in library school and that I love to volunteer with 826 Boston is that I know that not everyone has access to the same types of capital (in all senses of the word–financial, social, educational, etc) and that that doesn’t make them less worthy of telling stories or of being given assistance or support. But you, you self-published author, clearly have access. If you were able to find the time, money, and resources to self-publish, then you are in a better socioeconomic position than many. You probably have access to a public library, where you could have done your research, read a copy of Writer’s Market, looked at the back of books like yours and noted the publishers, and found free or inexpensive writing classes, editing services, or critique groups. If your story were well-crafted enough, and if you were willing enough to put in the work to edit it and to listen to the opinions of someone whose full-time job it is to help authors with that, you would be able to find a publisher. There are tons of niche publishers out there that might specialize in the very specific theme or type of narrative you have written. If you were able to do the incredible amount of work that it takes to self-publish, you could have put in the same amount of effort towards finding a traditional publisher, and if your book were publishable, it would be published.
Clarification to the above: not all writers (or stories) were created equal.
I’m not here to tell you not to write. That book that all creative writing teachers love to assign, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, likes to tell you that everybody can write, and that if they want to, they should, and that’s true. But I am more of a John Gardner acolyte, who points out that yes, anyone who feels that they should write should write, but there is a difference between writing for yourself, writing for a select few, and writing to be an author. I strongly believe, in Gardner-esque style, that not everybody should be encouraged to seek publication for their writing, even if they want to. Feel free to disagree, but this is my blog, so I’ll continue. I don’t agree that technical skills are not as important as storytelling skills. Yes, everyone has different levels of technical prowess, and I don’t expect everyone to be as red pen-happy as I am. But if you don’t have basic technical writing skills, and if you are not capable of at least recognizing why a correction has been made to your work and that correct technical writing is important, you shouldn’t be published. You can’t break rules unless you know them, so no matter how interesting your story is, if you cannot write it in an accepted, more or less “correct” way, meaning technically correct and creatively accepted as the “right” way to craft a narrative, you shouldn’t be publishing for a wide audience. Self-publishing is the perfect venue for people who just want to share a story with their family and friends, or who have a really niche topic, like a guidebook to their small town. It’s not for highly literary or highly commercial stuff. Because it will not end up being either of those things. I’m not here to tell you not to write, but that is my belief on publishing.
Writers pay their dues, and the payoff for that is publication. Also, editors are good for you, like spinach.
I had a well-respected literary agent interested in me when I was 15. It was awesome, and it gave me major bragging rights. He was very good to me, and I did not perform as I should have, and while we no longer talk, I am kind of glad that I did not pursue publishing the book I was working on with him, because it wasn’t actually very good. I started writing before I could actually form letters on my own, and I started publishing when I was 12. Some of what I published then I am still proud of, while other things I am not proud of, and a lot of that has to do with the editorial quality. To this day, I have more respect for the editors and other mentors who gave me tough love, who told me flat out when my writing was not up to par, than I do for the editors (and there have been plenty) who have edited mistakes into my writing and then published it, or who did not question what I later saw to be errors or weaknesses in the writing. A good editor is priceless.
Also, I have put in my time, education- and professional development-wise. I have participated in a variety of different types of writing groups and classes, from online forums and critique groups to for-credit college courses. I started doing workshops with adults when I was 14, and out of the many amazing things I got out of that, the best was a very thick skin and the skills to be able to read my own writing with the distance necessary to see weaknesses, problems, and flat-out errors. That takes time to develop. I’m 23 now, and while it’s a bit sad that I still have not managed to finish a novel and get it published, I know that it’s only now that I am capable of putting in the work necessary to do so, and that when I do feel that I’m ready to be published, I will be. Absolutely. I have no doubts about it, because I know very clearly how it works and what you have to do. I have writer friends. I have done the research. I know how to craft a cover letter. I know that I’ll have to do my own publicity. I work now because I know that, since I have the means I mentioned above, I am capable and worthy of publishing under the traditional model. And that’s what I want. I know the value of a good editor, and I want one.
So that’s why I won’t read or review your book if it is self- or vanity-published. I’m fairly certain that I have described reasons that many other people will agree with, but keep in mind the title of this post. If you still want to self-publish, go ahead. But don’t ask me to review your book.