On reviewing self-published work

As a writer who makes the bulk of her living reviewing for newspapers, I'm beginning to wonder if I should change my attitude to this question, or if I'm still on the right track about it.
Up until now, I have believed very strongly that only the traditionally published should be reviewed in newspapers and journals. As a traditionally published author, you've been assessed, contracted, edited and copy-edited to produce the best version of your book that you can, and the least you deserve is to be taken seriously and reviewed seriously, whether that means with a positive or negative outcome.
That's if you can make it on to the increasingly smaller books sections in newspapers and magazines in the first place, of course.
But a few months ago I reviewed Black Thorn by Aimee Chalmers for The Herald, a self-published novel about the poet Marion Angus. I was hugely impressed by it. It's intelligent and experimental, written partly in Scots, and beautifully so. Should it have been excluded by the traditional books pages because it hadn't been through the same process as other non-selfpublished titles? Surely inclusion should only be about literary merit, not about who publishes it?



But that still didn't quite change my mind. What has challenged me more is something else entirely. Like many traditionally published writers, I also work occasionally for literary advice companies reading unpublished manuscripts sent in for assessment. I've always felt it hugely important to be as honest as possible, especially as the fees for these services can be high. I would never tell someone to give up writing, no matter how bad a job they might have done - it's not my place to do that. But I have always been clear about where and how much more work was needed. That's partly because when I was first setting out on my own 'adventure' in fiction, I got stuck and sent 50 pages off for advice.
The advice I got in reply was correct (I was being too ambitious) but so gently given that I could easily delude myself, and I subsequently spent a very long time writing a book that wasn't going to make it. You could have published it yourself, I hear you cry. Horrors! That first attempt is thankfully in a drawer and it's never coming out.
I am regularly sent scripts that I think the same way about - there's potential there, but it needs work before going to an agent/traditional publisher - even more so, please don't attempt to self-publish this until it's hugely improved!
Most people take that advice well, some go ballistic.
So would it be right, for reviewers like myself, to assess work that had been self-published before it was really ready, in the same way that we would assess a novel by someone published traditionally, who had been through the rigours of editing?
Some very small publishers operate virtually as printers rather than publishers, with no editorial input at all, including proper copy-editing. It shows, and that can be tricky for a reviewer. Should I cut the writer some slack for a poorly produced book that's been printed up badly? Or treat it exactly the same way I would a book from Granta, Faber, Cape etc?
And would self-published authors even want me to review their books? 'Self-published' is an enormous category - it includes those who sell massively and those who sell only to friends and family; those who have been traditionally published and have found themselves on the rejection end of things because of a poor sales record but who have a decent following nonetheless; those who cannot write and will never be able to write but are convinced they're geniuses and it's only the metropolitan elite that's keeping them from Booker prize-winning glory.
Some of these books will be brilliant and some of these will be terrible - much like traditional publishing in fact. If the books pages in newspapers were expanding instead of shrinking, I'd say, possibly it is time to treat self-published books the same as traditionally published ones, and review them the same way. Regardless of whether they're 'ready' or not. But would that be fair?    

Comments

  1. I think that would be very fair. There are very many self-published authors that take the time to go "through the rigours of editing." I am one of them. And I think it's high time it stops being "us and them." We are all authors. The way our books become available to the public really should no longer be an issue in my opinion.

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  2. You should review self-published books when they're good enough and you should cut the writer no slack at all. It's either good enough or it isn't. I recently read The Testament of Mariam by Ann Swinfen; it's self-published, properly edited, good cover and it will stand up with almost any traditionally published book. I also read a self-published historical novel that has immense potential but desperately needs editing--not just copy editing but developmental editing of the sort that agents would once have given the writer but now do so very rarely. I said some nice things about its potential on Goodreads but didn't give it a star rating at all because the best I could have offered, and that only at a stretch, would have been three; the author would have been hurt and I wasn't confident of being able to explain all the things that were wrong. I have a book with an agent at this moment; encouraging things have been said about it; it was very well edited at my expense before it went to the agent; if the agent doesn't place it I will self-publish because that thing we used to hear--"if it's good enough it will eventually find a publisher"--simply isn't true. So go ahead and review--but only if it's good enough. My frank opinion is that that will exclude at least 95% of self-published books.

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  3. One of the problems is the sheer scale of how much is being published nowadays. People don't realise how much literary editors get sent - the Herald book cupboard is regularly overflowing with traditionally published books that won't get into the books pages - and that includes lots of good ones - because of the sheer volume. Add to that the volume of self-published work and it becomes an impossible task to sift through it all, to find out what's good and what isn't.

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  4. This is to assume traditional publishers are the only gatekeepers. It ignores the fact the big publishers are held to ransom by the book shop chains, supermarkets & Amazon. (This could cloud your judgement. If Tesco says they won't take a book, it's dead in the water, so you need to commission books Tesco will like.)

    If publishers have stopped looking for the next Harry Potter or 50 Shades, it's because they're now looking for the next Game of Thrones. Reviewers looking for innovation and independence of thought would do well to include indie authors in their selection process.

    Most book bloggers don't distinguish now and I'm one of many successful indie authors who no longer describe themselves as "self-published". Nobody cares who publishes you now. The big Qs are "Can she write?" and "Does she sell?"

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  5. Quality is the thing. As a hybrid author (both traditionally and indie published) I realise that isn't the preserve of any particular method of publishing. Yes, in terms of quantity reviewersl need a filter, but what's the most useful one? Not snobbery, surely.

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  6. I certainly endorse Jessica and Linda's comments. You and other who write for the newspapers and magazines should go for it and review Indie books. Many of us Indies, all who take writing seriously, carefully proceed through the editing and production process very conscious of the accusations that we may produce books full of typos and inaccuracies - and indeed we edit and use beta readers ... we know the score. Many trade publishers want writers to write to the popular genre, in a formula knwon to succeed (for obvious reasons): Indie writers have chosen an independent route which allows for creativity and originality. You should certainly at least widely explore what is now out there from us.

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  7. Many traditionally published books are badly edited. Many self-published books are well edited. Reviewers are among the very small percentage of the reading population who actually care who has published a book--all that readers care about is whether they'll enjoy a book enough to make it worth putting money down for it. If you have any independence as to what you review (and I'm assuming from your post that you do) shouldn't your real responsibility be toward the readers of the newspapers you review for, to find them the best writing in today's market? To ensure that over-hyped bad books are exposed for what they are before people shell out their hard-earned cash? To ensure that really good writers are brought to the fore and given the exposure they deserve? If you've answered yes to all of these questions, then these should be your guiding principles as a reviewer, not who published the book.

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  8. Self-published authors are crying out to be judged on an even playing field! Among the self-published authors I know are ghostwriters for best-selling authors, authors who had been dropped by their publishers after their latest book didn't sell quite so well, authors who were traditionally published and have become completely disillusioned with the process and hybrid authors, as well as those who are learning their craft. Readers who discover our work understand this. They don't care who has produced the book, but they have parted with their hard-earned cash and they approach reading without prejudice or bias.

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  9. I applaud you for writing this article and shedding some light on an issue that isn't going to go away. I'm an independent author/publisher and neither want nor need any slack from anyone regarding my work. I want to be scrutinized in the same way that any other traditionally published author might be. The key to my "indie" status is that I don't need anyone's permission to create my work. My career will rise or fall based on the merit of the books I write and I wouldn't want it any other way. Let the market decide. Prejudice in any form is ignorance. Those that are prejudiced against independent publishers are unfairly and unwisely dismissing some amazing work and books that are quite often better than much of what is published in the "old-school" fashion. A legendary American writer once wrote and published all of his work independently and his books changed the world. His name? Mark Twain. Never judge a book by its cover. http://www.rogerwbuenger.com/my-books/

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  10. Could reviewers not be literary gatekeepers and help publishers identify indie books deserving of a larger publicity budget and a wider readership? Research indicates that print reviews have very little effect on what readers read (sorry, Lesley!) but reviewers could perhaps affect which books get taken up by traditional publishers. Part of the reviewer's role is to be a talent scout. Couldn't reviewing indie books be an extension of that?

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  11. As someone published by small or independent publishers, I do try to look out for books published by the smaller presses when I can. But I come back to the volume question - you ask if reviewers could help identify indie books, Linda. A lot of bloggers, who also publish indie, do that (a bit like looking out for the smaller press I guess). I can't do it all though, there's just way too much. Too much being published by trad publishers, too much by indies. A massive amount altogether. Most of it bad, a lot of it mediocre, some of it great. Reviewers need someone flagging up the best - in the past, that's been the publicists of trad publishing. Who can do that for indies, apart from the author, becomes the question - it's not so much about gatekeeping as trusting, I think. There are publishers I 'trust' more than others, in terms of the work they bring out.

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    1. You make an excellent point Lesley. I often wonder how many truly great books just don't get noticed and what the solution to that is. As an independent, my biggest enemy is not the competition, but rather it is anonymity. My debut novel came out 2 months ago and I literally spend every moment of my working day just trying to get it out into the market. The problem, for me anyway, hasn't been the reception by readers (which thankfully has been terrific!) it is trying to get more eyes on the work.

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  12. Yes, Roger, that's getting to be a big headache for the traditionally published too - how to get noticed in an ever-expanding market. Which is only going to get bigger and bigger and bigger. My solution would be - more books pages in newspapers!!! But I would say that, wouldn't I....

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    1. I'm on board Lesley so that makes two of us anyway!! LOL Seriously though, the need for your expertise becomes even more critical now with all of the "chatter" out there so that good books will make it to readers. I agree that it seems like there is indeed a missing layer here which might be used to weed out the work not worthy of a hard look, allowing professional reviewers a better chance to see quality over quantity. What that layer is, is of course, the one million dollar question... In the meantime, I suppose we are all left to slug it out. Me to be seen, you to duck and run...ha ha

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  13. As the author of The Testament of Mariam, mentioned above by John Lynch, I'd like to add to the debate. At the time I wrote it I had three traditionally published novels, and my agent sent Mariam out in the usual way. It was enthusiastically received by editors and we were on the point of having an auction between three of them when the money men stepped in and gave it the thumbs down. (This was at the height of the recession.) My agent gave up on it, but I did not, and published independently. It received two newspapers reviews, not by book reviewers but by features editors, who were intrigued by the subject. The online reviews (all 5 star) speak for themselves. I have received wonderful feedback from readers, and the book is now in production as an audio book, read by a top Hollywood actress. I would not return to traditional publishing. The only difficulties with independent publishing are visibility and being treated seriously. I want no concessions from any reviewer. I am the same writer as when I was traditionally published. I hope that, in fact, I am growing as a writer.

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  14. Yes, it seems that where a few years ago, excellent midlist writers who were dropped by bigger publishers for low sales turned to smaller ones, now many of those kinds of writers who would have gone to small publishers are bypassing those to self-publish, with increasing sophistication as the indie scene expands. What this means, of course, is anybody's guess. Nobody yet has really been able to give me an answer to my question about how to handle the sheer volume of it all. But maybe in a few years' time newspaper reviewers like me will be obsolete anyway!

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    1. Perhaps the quality of online reviews might provide some guidance, Lesley. And I do mean quality, not quantity. Perceptive, articulate reviews can reveal a good deal about the book in question.

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  15. I'm not sure how quality online reviews answers the question of how to get through the sheer volume of published work, which is what I'm concerned with, though? As I say above, it's possible literary bloggers are more interested in the indies because of their own background perhaps (as I look out for smaller publishers because they published me)? But whatever the reason, how do I get through trad published books from big and small, as well as indie? The sheer volume of it all is enormous, and that's what's not being addressed.

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    1. Presumably you don't attempt to review all those books anyway - it wouldn't be humanly possible! So you must filter out those that interest you, as a first step, surely? Do you ask publishers only to send you books within your own areas of interest and expertise? Beyond that, i assume you wouldn't review a book you totally dislike. Life is too short. And it should be possible to come to that conclusion within a few pages. As for what is left, your choice must have to be subjective, how can it be anything else? In your position, I'd want to review the books I found interesting, irrespective of who publishes them. It is the book that matters, not the publisher - isn't it?

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  16. When I go up to the newspaper office to get books, they're spilling off the shelves, there's so many. I scan the titles, looking for something that stands out, or 'should' be reviewed (the Herald does have an obligation I think to cover Scottish titles as it can). I make a selection of 8 for 2 paperback columns, out of a 'cupboard' (it's really a room) of several hundred books. Sometimes self-published titles are in there, too, but I think most indie titles are e-books? How those are sent out, I don't know - nobody has ever sent me one and I'm not sure I'd want my inbox filled with several hundred per week, as the Herald's book cupboard is, but maybe that's the way it's going to go? I've written before about how I focused on women writers when I started out reviewing, so I'd have to filter much more to cope with the volume. Maybe in the future then all reviewers will have to have small specialist interests to cope with the volume. Whether that means more titles missing out, or the opposite, I don't know.

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    1. It certainly sounds daunting! (Incidentally, I live in Scotland too.) Certainly a lot of indie books are e-books, especially short non-fiction titles and those which need to be updated regularly. I wouldn't have thought you would review e-books. Most serious indie authors will publish both in paperback and e-book format. You've probably heard of the Alliance of Independent Authors, a professional organisation which campaigns both for high standards amongst indie author-publishers and for their recognition by the media, bookshops, literary prizes and so forth. The publishing world is changing so fast at the moment I don't think any of us know how it will look even in 5 years' time. All we can do is try to keep up!

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  17. I second all the encouragement here. Certainly it's fair to review self-published books as rigorously as those that have been traditionally published. Indeed, it is essential. Readers need you to steer them towards the books that are worthwhile and a good match for their tastes. Writers need you to judge a book by its merits, not by where it originated. If the proper work has been done, it will show.

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  18. I think you need to develop a system that you feel is fair and comfortable with. That may mean thinking about your overall target audience and perhaps doing a little research on your readership. So for your Scotsman column you will definitely want one book by a Scots author or a book with a Scottish overtone but for the other papers you may have a different readership to cater for. You definitely need one or two big names included in your initial selection because big authors will attract people to your column and the editor is definitely going to want that. So you'll have to break that down further - maybe a male author and a female author or a book each from the two biggest genres which might interest your readers. (safe bet - thriller/romance) Play fair. You probably won't need to devote much time to these (we all know how a Katie Fforde or a Lee Child is going to play out:D ) so then you can select something with substance that you can get stuck into - probably a literary work which will hopefully spur the reader's interest. Then maybe you narrow down your other four choices again to whatever feels comfortable - rotate it if you can do it on a weekly basis. One week, a historical novel, next week sci-fi or an academic work. Whatever seems fair. I think you've already some decided self-pub works should be judged fairly like any other so you can just incorporate that into your scheme - say one every other week. In fact, making a feature out of it may spur some interest as the public is becoming more aware of the changes in the industry and certainly other newspapers are coming around to the idea that all self-pub isn't a dead loss - hence the recent Guardian self-pub award. Just a get a system and a large bag and remove the excess to the charity shop:D

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  19. I don't have a problem knowing what to pick - that isn't it. I've been choosing books to recommend for review etc since 1997, when I first started. What I'm asking about is the process of self-published books getting access to me, without there being a flood of hundreds per week in my inbox. I don't have time to check them all out, and I don't have time to go looking for them either - I review 20-25 books per month as it is!

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    1. Oh yes - sorry - the imagery of you stuck in a cupboard with books raining down on you blurred my thought processes!

      The self-pub industry is starting to organise itself - I and many of the commentators here are members of Alli where there is a commitment to producing professional work. Perhaps Alli and other like-minded institutions could submit to you a list of their members upcoming releases (with very brief details or filter them to your interests) and if any appealed you could request a copy. It would be a bit tedious to start with but once you'd built in a few provisos it might work. I like Jane's idea below too - that could be probably built in at the submission stage.

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  20. When I submit my self-published books for review, I am asked to provide details of my writing credentials (qualifictaions, competition wins, etc.) and to provide positive reviews from other industry professionals (editors, authors, etc). An application or submissions form would at least weed out the books you don't want. Of course, this might make it more difficult for authors who have not yet broken through, but if you are serious about including some self-published books in your selection, I think we all appreciate that you have to start somewhere.

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    1. An application form is a great idea. Then you don't have to wade through a lot of information presented in diverse ways.

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  21. Thanks, Jane, I'll check out ALLI and see what I can find - maybe follow up with a blog on my experiences, how I've found the process, what I've found to review etc etc, in a couple of months time?

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    1. That sounds great, Lesley. I look forward to hearing your feedback and, in the meantime, wish you the best of luck negotiating those stacks of books:)

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  22. The beauty of the Internet is that we can now bypass the traditional gatekeepers and go straight to the readers, and it is the latter who can ultimately determine the fate of our books - assuming they have sufficient opportunity to find us.
    Therefore, to remain relevant, the professional literary review obviously needs to start encompassing self-published work, but the choice of what to review may in the end be made for them, not by us or by publishers, but by the readers.

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  23. As a recent small publisher (not a writer!) who has decided to go down the e-publishing route I found your blog post both extremely interesting and depressing at the same time. As you mentioned in one of your comments above more authors are turning to self-publishing and producing their own e-books. However, although the quality of writing may be good, the quality of production can be pretty poor. Not many authors have the expertise in producing good looking e-Books. But even if they get over this hurdle how do they get their book "discovered". And in my opinion ridiculously low pricing or giving your book away for free for a short period is not going to help. I don’t see Waterstones giving many of their books away!
    Dicoverability is the biggest problem for "selfies" and, small e-Book publishers like myself. Traditional print publishers can turn to the mainstream press and send copies for review and hope for a positive one, but e-Books seem to be looked down upon. Whether this is to do with the editorial staff not knowing how to handle them, or it’s a downright "if it's not on paper it can't be all that good" attitude, it’s not for me to say. Probably, it’s a lot easier to hit the delete button when you have shelves full of the real thing and don't know what to do with an e-Book when it arrives as an email attachment.
    As a publisher I would never send an unsolicited e-Book to a reviewer, for reasons of digital rights management (DRM). DRM is not added to eBooks until they are bought on-line. I would have to have the assurance that the reviewer would not pass the e-Book on. I'm sure print books sent to reviewers will get passed on second or third-hand, but with non-DRM e-Books it's so easy to find them on free file sharing sites, it's frightening! So, small, and self publishers are in a Catch 22 situation and many turn to social media, which may or may not, be their saviour.
    Personally, I’m all for a good old-fashioned review wherever it’s published on digital media or print media but please can we have a level playing field. I suggest that if newspapers and book reviewers are willing to review e-Books they make it known that emailing a 1 page A4 Advance Information sheet to them as first step is they way to go. Then the reviewer can request a copy if they so wish.

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    1. The DRM can be stripped off a file in seconds. And then the ebook can be returned for a refund. So I wouldn't be too worried about an ebook sent to a publisher being illegally copied - it's the least likely scenario. The only way you can ensure your ebook is never pirated is not to publish it at all.

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    2. Yes, this is very true, but it's something as a publisher I don't like to mention ;)

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  24. That's really interesting, thank you. I don't have an e-reader, so I'd have to read e-books on my laptop, which isn't quite the same. I don't know if that's what challenges literary editors with regard to sending out e-books for review? But yes, there's a lot of catching up to do, the technology is moving so fast.

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    1. Many reviewers and bloggers now get egalleys via NetGalley or Edelweiss.

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