Thursday, November 30, 2006

Self-Published Authors: Reality & A Rant

Over at best-selling author Tess Gerritsen's blog, this:

A local self-published author had requested that the store arrange a booksigning for him, and she had turned him down flat. Enraged, he’d thrown the book on the floor and asked: “When the hell am I ever going to get a signing in this store?”

“When pigs fly,” she’d snapped at him. The man couldn’t accept the fact that their store almost never hosted signings by self-published authors — even if the author was local.

“Why not?” I asked. “Is it because of the quality of the books?”

“That’s only part of it,” she said. “The real reason is that we can’t return them.”

This was a revelation to me. She explained that when they order books from a subsidy (self-publishing) press, the books are non-returnable. If the store can’t sell them, then they’re stuck with them. And they lose money.

Now, back to the quality. I have yet to browse a vanity press novel that wasn't mediocre to awful. Pretty lousy is how I'd categorize the bulk. One, in all the time I've browsed these babies at author meetings and assorted signings or online, ONE was okay. I actually read-skimmed all the way to the end. But the subject matter was of intense interest to me, and that always helps.

So, expensive and usually crappy, that covers my experience with self-published novels.

Time for a personal snapshot of The Mir and The Vanity Novel: I was browsing amazon back in September. I'm a Beauty and the Beast fanatic, and once a year or so, I'll browse for new titles that might be related, so I do searches with key terms. This time, "beast." I came across this novel and read the reviews.

I got suspicious.

Look, I've been dealing with since 1997 or '98, and I've ordered thousands and thousands of bucks worth of books from there, and browsed thousands more. After a while, you start noticing this thing where the reviews are just a bit overly gushy and often vague. Being cynical, I'll check into it, and sometimes find that the reviews are by friends and family (and churchmates or writer's-groupmates. You figure this out because a quick google gives you an author's site or MySpace, and you'll notice who posts and what they say. Connections. I don't take those reviews as worth a dime above spit. It's all family/friends/fellow-writers promo. (Disclaimer: Fellow writers CAN really love your book and write fine, genuine reviews--hey, I have--but the gush-factor and, excuse me for bluntness, some networking sort of hiney-kissing does go on.)

I don't blame the author for wanting to publicize and sell books. I do blame this sort of manipulation (where I've seen it clear-cut) that basically perpetrates a fraud. That is, you ask a bunch of family, friends, or even use mutiple amazon names to post glowing reviews for yourself. It makes it hard to get a real sense of a book's value to readers. Come on, none of us are gonna diss a sister's or brother's or aunt's or spouse's or best pal's book, even if it's pretty dismal.

One giveaway: The reviewer doesn't review any other book. Just the one they're wildly gushing over.

So, back to the novel linked above: Lots of over-the-top, wildly unrealistic seeming, gushy reviews on a book that's self-published and the reviews are mostly from one-time reviewers? Comparisons to Stephen King (as in "better than", Koontz, and Tolkien. "Piece of art." Yeah. And four reviews posted the same day (April 29). (Things that make you go hmmmm.)

My cynical button got pushed.

Concerted promo effort, mebbe?

PollyAnna Intrusion: Those MAY have been real reviews from strangers unknown to the author who just happened to buy an over-priced, vanity novel and thought it was deliriously wonderful.

Back to the tale: So, I searched for an excerpt of this wonder of prose (according to reviewers). View it here.

Keep going. That's just prologue. There's more.

You tell me. Better than King? Up there with Koontz? Rival to Tolkien? Prose art?

I got ragged on by one of the reviewers because I wrote a negative review without actually reading the book cover to cover. Um, tell me. Does that excerpt make you want to read the whole thing? Can you tell something of what's coming from the featured chapters? Isn't it fair to say, "Well, I read the sample chapters and this is not really well-written. Sample it yourself, readers, before believing the hype of these reviews."

My encounter with this novel only cemented my opinion of vanity published fiction. And, honestly, any self-published author who crowns herself the queen of pysch suspense and tells Stephen King to move over, better deliver--and how! That sort of hyperbolic marketing raises expectations. Meet 'em or get a negative review.

And trust me: Had the novel sample chapters lived up to the hype, I'd have bought it myself.

My advice to self-published authors:

Don't claim the throne of any genre on the basis of a vanity novel. That's just so lame.

Let others crown you queen or king of a genre: editors, agents, reviewers, a vast audience throwing money to read whatever you pen. That makes you publishing royalty. When you're the queen, you'll know it, everyone will know it, cause you'll be rich and your name will be on the top of the lists and every publisher will come a-courting with multi-book deals sweeter than tupelo honey.

Get someone with a solid grasp of grammar, usage, and fiction technique to edit your work, even if at the most minimal level. It's worth it to pay some struggling student out to get their M.A. in English to go over your opus. If you can pay to self-publish, then pay to get editorial feedback.

Have your relatives and friends be a bit more moderate in their praise. Or at least SANE in their praise. Comparisons to the top living writer in a particular genre is a bit much. Really, it is.

Consider writing three or four or seven more novels and nailing your craft before putting something out there. Tess Gerritsen had something to say on that as well.

Here’s the truth. I wrote three books that didn’t sell. And then I sold my fourth — to Harlequin. I have a good friend who wrote seven — SEVEN! — manuscripts that didn’t sell. Think of her desperation, her hunger, to be published. It had to be there, driving her, or she would have just given up. But she just kept going and wrote manuscript #8.

And it sold.

Think about that — writing seven books that don’t sell. Would you have the persistence to start writing #8? Do you accept the fact that, yes, there’s an apprenticeship involved in being a writer, a period of training that you will be forced to undergo before you finally understand what the craft is all about?


Josh said... That prologue was...I'm not sure what adjective to tack on it. I tried to read the next section and got to the point where the author tried their hand and dialect. Gah. Felt like someone had thrown every cliche into a woodchipper and cut-and-pasted the resulting mulch. Brrr...

Mirtika said...

Precisely. And yet someone had the nerve to say I had no right to judge based on sample chapters and needed to read the whole thing.

It was beyond my human ability to read the whole thing.