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Posts Tagged book reviews
So I find a lovely-looking review blog. The posts are thoughtful, fair and seriously considered. I look up the review policy and … it says ‘no self-published books’.
Today I want to open a dialogue with reviewers. If you have that policy, might you be persuaded to change it? Or to approach the problem in a different way?
I used the word ‘problem’. Because I appreciate – very well – that in making this policy you are trying to tackle a major problem. Your time as a reviewer is precious – and let me say your efforts are enormously appreciated by readers and authors alike. You get pitches for many more books than you can read and you need a way to fillet out the ones that are seriously worth your reading hours. A blanket ban is a way to fend off a lot of substandard material and save you many unpleasant conversations. And traditional publishing implies a certain benchmark of competence.
Competence. That’s probably the heart of the matter. There are good self-published books, of course, but how can I help you sort them from the bad and the fug-ugly?
Most people would probably tell you to look at the presentation – whether the cover and interior look professional, and the blurb looks authoritative and slick. But to be blunt, pigs can be well disguised by the right kind of lipstick. Still thinking in pig, a good sausage and a bad sausage look mostly the same on the outside.
No, instead, I urge you to do this. Look at the author.
Consider the following:
- What experience do they have of publishing? Do they know how much meticulous polishing a book should have? Have they already been traditionally published, and learned what it takes?
- Do they give the impression that they are wise and competent enough to make responsible publishing decisions?
- Look at their online persona – do you think they’d act on professional feedback, and would they have the self-discipline and pride to give the book another revision if a pro told them it wasn’t yet ready?
Yes, it has to be admitted that some books are published too early. A release date is decided, and sometimes there is no time for the author to do a rewrite, even if the manuscript badly needs it. The editorial people do the best they can in the time available, tidying up the typos and inconsistencies – or sometimes they don’t even have time for that. I’ve been involved with books like this – and industry friends have too.
Sounds like a ghastly compromise, doesn’t it? And do you know, the examples I have in mind are not self-published books. They’re books produced by traditional publishing houses. I promise on my honour, this happens and it’s not even uncommon.
Manuscripts that have already been published in hardback often get another proof-read before they release in paperback – and all manner of unholy errors come to light. Not just the odd typo, but fundamental goofs with credibility and consistency. And major craft issues like head-hopping. I can’t count the number of published books – yea, even those from trad houses – where the author hasn’t grasped point of view. When characters start talking about things they can’t possibly know, it can slap a reader right out of the story.
So it’s not safe to assume that a trad published book has superior quality control.
But, you might ask, who is doing the quality control on an indie author’s book? Well, the trad houses use freelances – freelances who are also now working with indie authors. It’s the editors who guide the book, line by line, into a publishable shape – so indie authors who use them are getting exactly the same degree of professional stewardship as authors who are published by an established imprint. And, if they’ve been sensible with their schedules, these authors might be able to use the editor’s contribution more fully. (Here’s a post where I give advice on how to build in time to use your editorial experts properly.)
But all the good authors get book deals, don’t they?
No. They don’t. A book deal isn’t like an academic qualification – you hit the standard, you get the badge. That’s one of publishing’s biggest myths. Here’s the reality – a book deal is awarded to writers whose work fits current marketing needs. Big, big difference. Here’s a unicorn.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate what it’s really like. I have a friend who’s a senior editor at one of the Big 5. A decade ago she published a set of novels that were well reviewed, got a five-figure advance – the full fanfare. She’s now come out with a new novel, which has seriously impressed an agent. But.
What’s the but? The market has moved on and isn’t looking for books like hers. On its own terms – as a reading experience – the book is her best ever. Her old fans would probably love it too. Her original books are still finding a steady trickle of new readers. She’s made the grade, dammit, but that book does not fit today’s market.
And what’s she doing? She’s seeking my advice on self-publishing. As is another friend who got his original publishing deal by winning a national award, and then went on to publish 10 highly acclaimed novels.
These are some of the people who are self-publishing. Senior figures in the industry. Prizewinning authors. People of solid publishing pedigree. And they’re probably even better authors than when they started because they’ve grown as writers and people. Other kinds of people who self-publish responsibly include authors who’ve begun under contract and then continued as self-publishers; authors who have released their books once they went out of print; authors who’ve published in very commercial areas but would like to publish with more creative control – me, for instance, but I’m not alone. Purely as an example, here’s my story.
Some book deals are unacceptable to authors
Even if an author ticks the marketing boxes, they might prefer not to accept a deal. Not just because of money or royalty rates, but because of other clauses that have long-term consequences. Two that particularly deserve attention are rights grabs and reversion clauses. Here’s a shark.
Two technical terms
What’s a rights grab? A book contract is a grant of the right to publish in a particular format. A book could be published in many formats or ‘products’ – an ebook, a print book, an audiobook, a movie script, a TV adaptation, an interactive app, a workbook. And it could be all these, multiple times, in all languages (translation rights) and other English speaking territories (England, US, Australia etc). A rights grab usually tries to get as many of these in one deal without paying extra for them. If the author sold them separately elsewhere, they would usually get a better deal. Publishers are usually not keen on this.
What’s a reversion clause? A book doesn’t have to ‘belong’ to a publisher for life. Indeed, a book often goes out of print, which means the author could then take it back and find a new publisher for it, or publish it themselves. So contracts should have a reversion clause – but if the terms of this aren’t fair, that book might completely disappear. For many authors who are building a body of work, that’s simply not acceptable.
Sometimes, a publishing deal doesn’t make business sense to the author, even with the kudos.
Dealing directly with authors
Now this is tricky. If you review traditionally published books, you might deal with third parties – publicity departments or services such as NetGalley. If you don’t like a book or choose not to review it, you don’t have to explain or justify anything to the sensitive person who wrote it. But indie authors might contact you directly, and it could get difficult.
So here’s a plea to authors. If a reviewer has agreed to look at your book, send it and then … forget about it. Don’t hassle to see whether it’s being read or when the review will be published. In the publishing ecosystem, far more copies get sent out than are reviewed. They slip through the net for all sorts of reasons, many of them unrelated to the book itself. Don’t hound a reviewer to give you feedback. Fire, forget and move on.
The author as creative director
We are in an age where more authors will be their own creative directors – for artistic reasons and financial ones (we haven’t even mentioned creative control, but that’s another factor for committed authors with their eye on the long game). A lot of the new, important voices will come up through self-publishing because traditional publishing will have to play safer and safer. And a lot more of your favourite authors will be continuing their body of work by self-publishing.
So if an author can prove they have the necessary maturity and wisdom, would you give them a try?
A few more things to chew over.
Here’s a post about highly commercial publishing and creative control.
Just to confuse matters even more, here’s how the boundaries between traditional publishing and self-publishing are blurring.
And here’s a post about how we’ve – thankfully – moved on from the bad old days of ‘vanity publishing’.
I’d like to take this debate forward in a helpful way. Book bloggers and reviewers, you set your policies for thoroughly sound reasons. Would you share them here? If you accept indies, how do you make this work? And if you don’t, what are your concerns? I’d like to understand them. What would you need to know about a self-published author to consider one of their books?
What am I working on at the moment? My latest newsletter
attitudes to self-publishing, book blogs, book deals, book reviews, how to approach reviewers, indie authors, reversion clauses, reversion rights, reviews, rights grabs, self-publishing, selfpublishing
Sometimes I put a book down and am left a tad envious. These are books that, although I finished them several months ago, still make my green eyes … greener.
Night Work by Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn
Jonas wakes up one morning to find he is the last person left alive. There are no bodies. No animals or birdsong. He is completely alone. He searches the city, leaves messages everywhere, dials stored numbers in the phones of offices and shops, gets drunk a lot, develops forms of madness and strategies to stop himself feeling so alone.
A lot of people on Goodreads didn’t like it, and I can appreciate their reasons. Basically it’s a book where hardly anything happens. I usually don’t like that either, but this kept me intrigued. I wanted to see what the author would do with the idea, so perhaps my curiosity was metafictional. I found it to be like a dream, an unravelling of everyday life and what could happen if the world breaks. And this is where I think it really works – not as a story, more as an environment to run in your mind. Next time you’re pleasantly alone in a wood, imagine there is only you. Anyway, my review is here.
The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard
The portrait of a marriage in five sections. I was drawn to it by when Hilary Mantel said Elizabeth Jane Howard was the novelist she recommends most frequently. I found Howard’s style too muddled for my tastes, especially in the early sections. Infuriatingly so. But there were two things I liked it for very much.
First, the structure. The five eras of the marriage are not presented chronologically, but backwards. I’ve long been a fan of backwards narratives (Ray In Reverse by Daniel Wallace, The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer ) ever since I read about Peter Ustinov’s play The Banbury Nose, which is the story of an English upper-class family written backwards in time. I’m intrigued by the poignant possibilities of characters growing younger, and perhaps more or less themselves.
In The Long View, Elizabeth Jane Howard uses the backwards narrative to increase the story pressure. Her characters become more accepting with age, but if you wind them backwards they are more raw.
The second reason I’ll forgive her is her central male characters – two immaculately selfish cads who are explored in fine detail and have left many reviewers hopping with indignation. I galloped through the final part, mesmerised by them. My review is here.
Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (not THAT Elizabeth Taylor)
The story of a romantic novelist who is wildly successful but a horror in person (long before Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil. I was drawn to it by a poor film adaptation that made me suspect the original might have a lot more nuance. I was not disappointed. Not only is there nuance, but Elizabeth Taylor is a complete master of pace and tone – able to be humorous, tragic, tender and keep you riveted to the page. It’s also a fun look at the publishing industry (which is why Peter Snell and I devoted one of our radio shows to it ). Here’s my review.
Round The Bend by Nevil Shute
Read the intro on Goodreads and you have a good example of a blurb that smothers the book at birth:
Okay, here’s what it really is. A beguiling story of love, faith, loss and missed opportunities, told in exquisitely controlled prose. The narration is cool, but somehow agitates you to turbulent emotion. The main setting suits the subject matter like a stage backdrop. It is an airstrip in Bahrain – a stripped-down place of sand, hangars and engines. The main characters hop between the continents, delivering goods, setting up more export bases, leaving behind personnel who spread the influence of their engineer friend Connie Shaklin, who has become a religious guru. Shute would never be so clumsy as to make the comparison with angels, these people who spend so much time in the sky in their machines, but you are drawn to entertain the idea. My review is here.
MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker
You think you know MASH from the film and the movie? Join me in a chorus of ‘the book is better’. Read it for the tone. Richard Hooker has created a style that allows his world to be both hilarious and haunted – the characters are raising hell, but also repairing the sad ravages of it.
My review is here.
Over to you. What books (fiction or non-fiction) have you recently read that challenge you to do better?
Andrew Sean Greer, Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, book reviews, Daniel Wallace, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Elizabeth Taylor, Fay Weldon, Hilary Mantel, learning from good authors, learning from reading, Life and Loves of a She Devil, MASH, MASH movie, MASH TV show, MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, Nevil Shute, Night Work, Peter Ustinov, Ray in Reverse, reading like a writer, Richard Hooker, Round The Bend, story structure, The Banbury Nose, the book is better, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, The Long View, Thomas Glavinic, writing style
Last week I posted on Terri Giuliano Long’s site The Art and Craft of Writing Creatively and in the comments got into discussions about where indie publishing is heading. One of the commenters was Daniel Marvello, who afterwards sent me this email …
You said, ‘2012 will be the year we organise ourselves with quality control’. I love that! And I’d love to know what was in the back of your mind when you wrote it. What do you see changing in 2012?
(As you see from Daniel’s picture, he’s fond of the crystal ball.)
What was in the back of my mind? No big plan, unfortunately. I can see this is what we need, but I haven’t a grand solution. But there’s no better place to talk about it than on my blog with you guys.
For those of you who’ve sat down late, 2011 was the year when many high-profile fiction writers with respected followings went indie, and gave good reasons for doing so. Before then, if you self-published fiction you risked nuking your credibility. But it’s also led to a rash of people uploading to Kindle or CreateSpace or Smashwords but not taking care about quality. Result? It’s raining slush and nonsense. Readers who’ve bought unreadable books are muttering ‘vanity press’ all over again.
Where does quality control come from in traditional publishing? From skilled professionals. Authors don’t do it on their own. Here’s Daniel again:
Most authors ignore advice to get an editor now. What might change that? What will prompt authors to let another set of eyes look at their manuscripts before they click “save and publish”? Can something be done to make such resources more appealing or easy to acquire and use?
The way I see it, there are two issues to address with quality control:
- production – putting out a book with no grammar howlers, formatting glitches, funny typesetting or misprunts
- whether the content is good enough.
One problem is very much easier to solve than the other, but let’s eat this elephant one bite at a time.
Why do indie books fall down on production quality? Several reasons.
1 – Indie authors may not know what’s done to a book in traditional publishing. They might have heard about the artistic side of editing – the developmental work to strengthen the story and literary quality. But they frequently don’t know about all the other trades who wade in once the words are right – copy editing, proof reading, text design, cover design, ebook formatting. Take any debut author who blogs and at some stage they’ll pen a gobsmacked post about how much checking and polishing goes on.
What might change this? We tell people, as often as possible, how much work goes into a published book. You don’t always need separate experts, but these jobs all need to be done. They’re not an optional extra.
2 These services cost money. Personally if I was new to publishing and someone told me I needed to pay for all that my reaction would be ‘pull the other one’ – especially as publishing on Kindle and Smashwords is free. But even when you do decide you’re going to invest, how do you find a reputable pro? Authors have always been easy targets for scammers. Not only that, there are hordes of people setting themselves up as editors when they haven’t the experience.
What might change this? Writers need to find out where the professionals go. A good start might be author groups – for instance, at Authors Electric we’re setting up a list of people we’ve used and would happily use again.
3 Some people simply refuse to be told. If I go into the reasons we’ll be here all day, but there are a lot of those. (You, my friends, are not, or you wouldn’t be reading this blog.)
What might change this? Confiscating their laptops, probably
Now that last remark may seem facetious and unnecessary, but it underlines a point. As indie authors we have to do everything we can to rise above the trigger-happy Kindlers, because they make it hard for the rest of us to be taken seriously.
Not just presentation
So we can lick production quality. That, as I said above, is the easy part. What about the content, the artistic merit? In traditional publishing, the lame books are rejected and the good ones go through a developmental stage. (Yes terrific books are rejected too, but the author is usually made well aware that they were good.) This brings me to another interesting question that Daniel raised.
If people won’t use editors, can we realistically replace them with critique groups and beta readers?
ie, is it possible to get all this input free?
Sorry, guys, I don’t think it is. In the real world that doesn’t come free. Agents and publishers do it as part of their job. Critical feedback of that type takes experience and judgement.
Critique groups and beta readers will give very valuable input, and should definitely be used as well. But they aren’t a substitute for professional critical help – they cannot give your book close, considered attention. I’m not advertising myself here, but when I critique a manuscript the work takes two concentrated weeks at least, with plenty of time taken to consider what the writer wants to do and how I’ll teach them what they need. (In fact, if you imagine your normal rate of pay for two weeks’ work, an editor’s fees start to look cheap. And it’s also why you can’t expect anyone to do it ‘on the side’.)
And another thing
There’s another issue we need to address with quality control. It’s letting good work rise on merit.
If you can have buyers’ markets and sellers’ markets, indie publishing is a marketers’ market. If you’re good at marketing, your book rises higher. But a lot of cool, exciting and original books aren’t getting the exposure they deserve.
Indies are starting to tackle this in author collectives – groups to curate the good authors. And proper, critical review sites where indie books are expected to be as good as anything traditionally published. Authors are already taking this into their own hands – Tahlia Newland with Awesome Indies, Authors Electric with Indie ebook Review, Multi-Story, Underground Book Reviews, The Kindle Book Review.
But each group or review site is only as good as its critical scruples.
Does this look familiar? It’s a system of gatekeepers. But hopefully, ones motivated by editorial integrity.
Here’s what we really need to do. Ultimately we need to reach readers way beyond our own little blogosphere of indie publishing. We need to win the respect of the major book reviewers, because right now we’re preaching to the choir, and this is not sustainable.
It seems a natural moment to mention that my novel is up for the Summer Reads awards at Underground Book Reviews. The winner is decided on a vote, so if you’d like to tip the balance in my direction I’d be very grateful.
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