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Self-Published Fantasy and Me

When it comes to music, my collection of indie and underground albums equals or surpasses that of my major label collection. I own literally thousands of creator-owned, independently published comics. Some of my favorite movies are low-budget independent releases. But I have completed exactly one self-published novel. And it wasn’t easy to see it through to the end. And I listened to it as an audiobook.

Build These Walls Page by Page by Joel RobisonAm I a snob?

I don’t feel like a snob. Genre fans are, for the most part, a supportive and clannish bunch. We want to support the up-and-comer, the underdog, the Cinderella story. And, more importantly, we generally want to be the first to discover the next great book, so we can recommend it to our friends, both in real life and online. I’m no different. And yet I simply can’t force myself to move indies to the front of the pile. I think I have an indie bias in reverse.

While any worthwhile work of fiction lives or dies by the author’s ability to create an enticing world or engrossing characters, fantasy—more than most other genres—is utterly dependent on the bounds of an author’s imagination. Or lack thereof. And since we fantasy fans are, by and large, an imaginative bunch, it isn’t a huge leap to assume that self-published authors are drunk with great ideas. I’ve yet to meet a fantasy fan that didn’t have an idea of their own gestating in the dark recesses of their psyche. We in the fantasy faction like to create as much as we like to consume. But the Internet has provided a platform for the unfiltered and un-curated exchange of ideas, meaning you have to take the good with the bad. For every stellar indie album, there are a hundred that are pure garbage. And I’m sure that the same goes for self-published fantasy. But for some reason, I haven’t been able to stick with the indies long enough to find the gem.

Order In Chaos by JohnKyoThe problem, I think, lies with the nature of the novel. Deciding to read a novel is a commitment. You don’t press play and then skip through tracks to see if there is anything that piques your interest. You can’t flip through the pages to see if the art is decent. If you’re going to read a book, you make a conscious decision to embark upon a journey, and you either reach the end or turn back around after only a few steps. Or I do, anyway. Because I selfishly don’t want to waste my precious reading time on something that feels second rate.

Poor musicianship can be shrouded by volume, emotion or a lyrical deftness. A great writer can redeem poor comic art. A visually repulsive film can be rewarding if the story is captivating. But a novel? A fantasy novel? The deck is stacked against it.

Great idea but poorly written? Not readable. Flowing, beautiful prose that is devoid of emotion, plot or characterization? Not readable. Typos, inconsistent grammar, lack of editing—they all stick out like sore thumbs, and they rip the reader out of the fantastical world the author has worked so hard to create. And while these problems are not exclusive to self-published works (and they are certainly not exclusive to the fantasy genre) I’ve found them to be all-too-common in the self-published works I’ve tried.

So many stories still in progress by LightReadingPhotosAm I doing these works a disservice by discarding them within a chapter or two? It is entirely possible. Is it also possible that indie authors are doing themselves—and their wonderful, fantastical ideas—a disservice by releasing them into the wild without the requisite amount of polish? It is a chicken/egg question, and one that I can’t answer.

I love fantasy of all types. Epic, historical, high, low, and everything in between—I’ll read it all. I desperately want to explore new worlds, new magic systems, new dungeons and monsters and seas filled with creatures terrible and ancient. I want to support self-published authors because I want to be an author, and I admire their bravery. But I’m failing. I’m open-minded, but impatient. I’m understanding, but unforgiving. I support the cause, but I refuse to march. Am I the only one?

Title image by Joel Robison.

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11 Comments

  1. Avatar Hermina says:

    You’re right on the mark, Zack. It’s one thing to have an idea, but another to commit it to paper and yet another to make it presentable to an audience. This last step requires that writer forget his/her agenda and vision and ‘kill the darlings’: write only what the reader needs and wants. It takes effort to revise, correct, use beta readers to find your mistakes and holes, and it takes humility to follow that path. When we write, ultimately we do it for our audience, not ourselves. When the work fails, it’s because the writer has lost sight of this.

  2. Avatar James says:

    A few ideas:

    *Check some sales figures. Self-published kindle e-books are now taking up a huge portion of the market share in both romance and sci-fi/fantasy. This has meant that in order to keep making the same money for themselves, the big five publishers have chosen to pay their authors (on average) less.

    *Many casual readers (who have no idea of ever becoming writers) don’t seem to notice the lack of polish in self-published books. They “just” want a great story. Check out some best selling self-published series – there are imperfections, but for a small minority of authors it means earning much than they would through mainstream publication.

    *In my opinion, to produce good self-published work a writer needs to serve an gruelling apprenticeship first – perhaps spend YEARS working towards mainstream publication, and only then try self-pub. The BIG problem is that people go ahead and publish the first (or second or third) thing they write.

  3. I guess I have been lucky with the self-published works I’ve read. Granted, quite a few of them had an issue here and there (generally not spelling, but stylistic issues such as head-hopping, or using the 10% myth), but the number of works that fall in the categories “did not finish” and “not going to buy part 2” are less than 5%.

    The thing is, for me traditional fantasy scores about the same. And if you’d ask me my top 10 of books I’ve read in the past year, half of them would be self-published, including #1. If you’d ask me to make a top 10 of books I thought were absolute horse dong, most of them would be traditionally published by well known fantasy authors. 😛

    My suggestion would be to keep looking. Read samples to find out if the style of writing works for you, and if you do find a self-published book you like, check out the “people who read this also bought” category to find other writers. I’ve found plenty of new authors (both traditional and self-published) this way.

  4. You make a great point here, Zack. I’m a 20+ year fantasy fan and an award-winning indie author and even I have a hard time making the commitment to indie books. I struggle with my own hypocrisy. I KNOW how difficult it is to get a typo-free manuscript. I want to support my peers. But I’m increasingly less interested in wading through waist-high slush looking for that gem you mentioned above.

    Traditional publishers are clearing houses that weed out the trite and mundane. No one wears that function for the indie market – that very function is why so many indies have gone independent. It’s probably a 20 to 1 ratio of good to bad. Or the ratio might be much higher. I know that great works are being produced every day, but how do I find them? How long do I dedicate myself before tossing a story aside, especially when there are so many others waiting for my attention?

    Eventually someone is going to come up with a way to help readers support indie authors by culling the wheat from the chaff – without turning that service into a gatekeeper, like the trad publishers have unfortunately become.

  5. Avatar Joe Sherry says:

    For an author I have never heard of before, I require a gatekeeper. There are enough disappointing fantasy novels out there that are represented by an agent and purchased by a publisher that I just don’t have the time nor the inclination to try to read novels that have not made it through either of those rounds of quality assurance.

    Maybe the book will be great, but I’m a little skeptical. Sure, some great novels have been rejected more than sixty times before being sold and becoming classics, so with the rise of self publishing, I could be overlooking Dune or Harry Potter, but I’m willing to take that chance.

    I read more than 100 books a year, and there are dozens of new novels in additional to the previously published novels that I really, really want to read for all sorts of reasons. If a previously published author decides to self publish in the future, I’m okay with that. That author has built a reputation and I have trust. A brand new author needs to build that reputation, and while they can find success and break out on their own, I am not willing to be their gatekeeper when I could be reading new (and old) novels from Ann Leckie, Steven Brust, Elizabeth Bear, Daniel Abraham, Peter Hamilton, and Kameron Hurley. You want me to set aside a Kate Elliott or Robin Hobb novel I am way behind on getting to in order to read your self published book, you better be bringing your A+ game because anything less just isn’t good enough right now.

  6. Avatar Alice Sabo says:

    No you are not a snob. I agree with what you say. As a self published author and a fantasy lover I see both sides of the coin. It is hard to get eyes on your work when you don’t have an established track record. On the other hand, I have ditched a lot of self pubbed books after being drawn in by that super-polished first chapter.

    Successful writing needs a couple things. Knowing your genre is primary. Knowing how to tell a story trumps even that. I have a friend who can’t tell a story to save her life. She gets totally sidetracked by little details – it was Tuesday, no maybe it was Wednesday. Sue was wearing the blue dress on Tuesday, so it must have been… and all the while I am waiting to hear about the dinner party. Writers need to be able to see a story in its nutshell – not just beginning, middle and end, but goal, failure and culmination. Then they can fill in the rollercoaster bits. And the day of the week might not even matter.

    A lot of stories I dropped was because the author didn’t understand the basics of storytelling. It has rules, like grammar. Once you know them, you can see how a story needs to flow. A well told story can overcome typos, formatting issues and punctuation errors for me.

  7. Avatar Kristy says:

    I tend to agree more with what Jeroen says above. I started reading indie largely because I was bored with what was coming out of the trad markets. I have encountered shockingly bad writing coming from big publishing houses. Without question you will find the same in the indie market, and it can be quite a challenge to find the good ones.

    The gatekeeper for indies is the consumer. Generally, the good books will float to the top through ratings and sales numbers and the poor ones will sink to the bottom. The problem is there really isn’t great infrastructure out there yet to support this. Not all readers look for the same things as another poster pointed out. You may purchase a book based on high ratings only to discover the audience may not have the same thing in mind when they say ‘great book’ as you do.

    I think this will improve over time, but meanwhile, I don’t blame you for your hesitation. As an indie author I spend a lot of time talking to others about the importance of a quality product and how to make sure they deliver one. There is a bit of a slog ahead, without question.

  8. Avatar Frankie Ash says:

    Of course we want to read ALL.THE.BOOKS., but one does not simply walk into…ya’ll know where I’m going with this.
    I’m seeing that there seems to be no separation between self-published and indie, and maybe that’s why it seems so daunting as thousands (millions, trillions, gazillions, I dunno) of self-pubbed books are uploaded daily.
    An indie author invests money into their work for line editis, concept edits, cover design, marketing…all the things a traditional publisher pays to polish and promote their babies, just on a smaller scale. They advocate their work, research reputable freelance editors, graphic artists, marketing firms. And this isn’t always cheap. They are usually members of some type of writer’s/publisher’s association or what not and are labled as an Indie Author.
    A self-pubbed author typically edits their own work and designs their own covers. They don’t usually invest large amounts of money into their works. I’m not saying that all self-pubbed authors carelessly press submit on LuLu, but some do. I almost did. But something gave me pause, so I researched and learned that there were professionals out there that could help me produce a better version of my work.
    I understand that everyone can’t invest money into publishing their works. But there are networks of other authors that critque one another for free and that’s an investment just the same.
    I will read anything as long as I know that the author nurtured their work, that time and effort were invested to give me a good story. No one wants to read a rough draft someone hammered out in a week, uploaded to yadayada.com, called it a novel, then asks that you pay for it.
    But what it all boils down to is that a story is either good or it’s not. If it’s polished and cared for, it’s likely to be better. It doesn’t matter if the author is indie, or self-pubbed. Just keep reading:)

  9. Avatar A.J. Zaerhe says:

    I have spoken on this idea for a few years and I have recieved much criticism over this opinion. It isn’t just t fantasy that has been building up a slew of poor indie novels, the genres have as well. I think the main problem is a lack of professional editing. I think every author should be at least workshopping a piece if they haven’t the ability to hire an editor if they want to self-publish. If not, then the rout of professional publication must be taken. It is hard, but will be worth the work.

  10. You’re certainly right, Zach.

    I think a lot of people in the self-pub world, particularly in Fantasy and SciFi, underestimate the monumental task they’ve taken on.

    In Fantasy and SciFi especially, the author is responsible for creating an ENTIRE world. The land, the inhabitants, the traditions, the economy, etc. While not all these things need (or should have) exposition, they must all meld harmoniously into a single whole that the reader can honestly take for granted and not even notice the level of effort that went into creating them.

    A good plot idea is not enough. Just like you said. It takes lots of work and refinement to get the job done effectively.

    —Vic S.—

  11. […] favorite fantasy books of 2015 have been self-published. For a guy that wrote “Self-Published Fantasy and Me” for this very website, that is quite an admission. And while I don’t for one moment regret that […]

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