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Has the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off Changed Your Opinion of Self-Published Books?

I Heart Books by refashionedAs you’ll know from Marc’s articles and Mark Lawrence’s tweets, as well as many of the blog posts out there on the subject, there has been, and still is, a ‘competition’ going on for Self-Published books called the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO). A kind of X-factor for fantasy books, but without the sad stories and judges more concerned with their own fame than the skill of the acts. Oh, and you cannot phone in to vote…now there’s a fund-raising idea!

It falls to me, because I volunteered, to find out what the judges, the bloggers, thought of the process. If you want to find out what some of the authors thought then Fantasy Book Critic ran a fantastic series of interviews with them here.

I asked the bloggers all the same question and, being the great folks they are, they responded. You’ll read, nod, smile, cheer, cry and shake a fist in anger, but you’ll see where they are coming from and, maybe, just maybe, you’ll be surprised by their views.

It is tempting to foreshadow, to express my own views, but I will resist and merely say, here you go: Has the SPFBO changed your opinion of self-published books?

Fantasy Book Critic

Pen and Book by JaxImageryThat’s a very straightforward question for me, as at Fantast Book Critic, we have always embraced self-published books whole heartedly. In fact some of our favourite authors like Michael J. Sullivan, David Dalglish, Anthony Ryan, and Rob J. Hayes we found via their self-published work.

So in that regard, SPFBO hasn’t changed my opinion about self-published books and authors. Because I already liked the fact that anybody and everybody could publish their story. Yes this also means that there will a lot of books that don’t meet a certain standard and that you as a reader might have to be very circumspect in your choices. But there’s a way around this pitfall, chapter excerpts certainly will help weed out bad ones to a certain degree.

Lastly there is also the matter of one’s own likes and instinct, what works for one person might not for others. So as a reader I would suggest listening to your inner critic for choosing what thrills you and what doesn’t. Also keep an eye out for the SPFBO round 2 finalists to see which titles strike your fancy.

Beauty In Ruins

To be honest, I can’t really say the SPFBO has changed my opinion of self-published books. I admire independent authors who take chances, push boundaries, and refuse to compromise their artistic vision just to land a book deal. I’ve read such authors in the past, and have always been open to reviewing them. They may not always be polished, but they can be fresh and exciting.

If anything, the experience reinforced my belief that a big name publisher, a slick cover, and an expensive publicity push don’t necessarily translate into an enjoyable read. Not only did I have some slick-looking, well-produced titles that I discarded after the first 50 pages, but my first-round recommendation was a generic text file with neither professional formatting nor a cover.

Fantasy Book Review

Pile of books on a black background by macinivnwMy immediate and honest answer would be no, it hasn’t changed my opinion of self-published books at all. You see, in the early days of running Fantasy Book Review I relied heavily on books from off my own shelves and self/independently published submissions. So it was at this time that I began to gain a better understanding of the standard of self-publishing. I realised that the majority of the self-published books were okay, neither very good nor very bad, the product of a lot of hard work by authors learning their trade. And then there were the ones that really stood out – the very good and the very bad. I would say that out of every 10 self-published books 1 would be really good, 2 would be really bad and the other 7 would be okay/average.

The titles at the bottom of this page are the self-published titles that I really enjoyed at this time with The Riddler’s Gift and Silver Mage being titles I remember most fondly.

So when we joined the SPFBO we had absolutely no intention of reading all the books as we knew that this would mean a lot of reading time on books that we wouldn’t enjoy overly. So we went down the first chapter route. This allowed us to remove any titles that were obviously not going to be good enough. After we had read 25 first chapters only 5 books remained and then we read chapter 2, removed another book and so on until we were left with our winner, What Remains of Heroes.

They say you should never judge a book by its cover but when it comes to self-published work I have found this judgement invaluable. The artwork, and more importantly the blurb/synopsis are often indicative of what lies within and if the blurb is long, rambling and making little sense you can safely assume the book itself will be the same.

I’m always happy to read and review a self-published title but I choose very carefully and the only read 1 out of every 200-300 submissions. The email approach is vital in getting a review site to give a book a chance.

Speculative Book Review

No, I have been reviewing self-published books for several years and in that time I have seen books run the gambit from excellent to needs a lot of work. The nice thing about most of the books that I had an opportunity to read in this challenge is that they were average or better, and I still believe that self-publishing has a place for readers and reviewers.

Fictional Hangout

Think Books by Thibodeau PhotographyTo a certain extent the SPFBO has changed my opinion on self-published novels over the course of sorting through the books sent my way in the Challenge. However, first off, it’s clear that the fact that there are good books and there are bad books applies to not just self-published novels but also traditionally published ones. There’s some great reads out there regardless of where they came from but the problem is exposure, and taking a chance on novels that don’t normally have a large amount of praise simply because they simply haven’t been read by enough people.

That’s why this Challenge has been so great is because it’s allowed me to explore outside my relative comfort zone and look at the self-published novels that haven’t necessarily been later republished by the more traditional publishers, for example, Andy Weir’s The Martian. Not every self-published novel gets that level of exposure and that’s something that the SPFBO has been great at providing.

I’ll almost certainly be reading more self-published novels in the future after this Challenge (particularly the sequels to the books that I’ve enjoyed), but I still managed to read a few before and would have continued to do so had I not participated in this Challenge. But, having now read the books, one thing that’s pretty clear is, based on the quality of some of these SPFBO novels – I wasn’t reading enough.

Lynn’s Books

The SPFBO has not changed my feelings. I don’t have a bad opinion of self-published books and never have. It’s just that there are so many people self-publishing that finding something that really works for you is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Let’s face it, a book either works for you or it doesn’t, but buying from a publisher does seem to increase the likelihood of finding a book that you’ll love. It feels like they act a little bit (or a lot) like a filter.

A Stack Of Books Meant To Be Read Aloud by Joel RobisonIf we look at the challenge. All participants had 25 books. We put one forward to the second stage. Out of the 25, I would say I had probably four other books that were good reads. Not books that I would wax lyrical about, but certainly good enough that I wanted to finish. So, to do the maths. Including the book I put forward that’s five reads out of twenty five which is a 1:5 ratio. This year I’m probably going to read approximately 120 books. I may not absolutely love them all but I will (with maybe only a couple of exceptions) like all of them. Going off my over simplified equation I would have to read (or part read) approximately 600 books to have 120 books that I would like enough to finish.

Reading and blogging is a hobby, a bit of escapism. I simply don’t have enough time to read that many books to root out the ones I love. I do really appreciate and respect anybody who has a dream and goes for it. And I’ve read some really good books that have been self-published, including some for this challenge and I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage anyone.

I think I have an open mind about self-published books. It’s more a time issue than anything else that prohibits me picking up lots of self-published works. I will still pick up a few here and there but I don’t expect my reading habits to change too much.

Bibliotropic

Has my opinion on self-published books changed since starting the SPFBO challenge? In perfect honesty, I have to say both yes and no. Because in a way, that’s like asking whether my opinion of an entire genre has changed after reading a random variety of books within that genre. It’s such a broad category that it’s hard to pin things down.

Books for sale along the Seine by rebeccaplotnickIn many ways, my perceptions have stayed very much the same. Before I started the challenge, I read extremely little that was self-published. I tended to avoid self-published books based on the idea that without those much-maligned gatekeepers of publishing, quality control was low and I didn’t really have the time nor inclination to commit to a book that stood a very high chance of not being comparable to what I’m used to. True, traditionally-published books were no sure bet either, since I’ve read some that really don’t do it for me too. But I figured my odds were better if I avoided self-published books.

Now? I still kind of stand by that, actually, and that’s after having read some decent self-published offerings. Because I also encountered more than a few that were exactly what I’ve thought of self-published books in the past. In need of editing, seeming rushed, that the author didn’t seem to know how to market, and I still don’t have much interest in pursuing self-published books any further than this challenge, at least for a time. I’m still more likely than not to run into things that really aren’t going to meet my expectations, even if the synopsis sounds appealing.

Does that make me picky? Eh, probably. Because I can’t deny that there are some good books to be found in the self-published world. There are some that have surprised me, and definitely aren’t what people think of when they associate self-publishing with low-quality. But much like trying to judge any other genre by a couple of books alone, I can’t really say that the challenge, over all, has changed my opinion on self-publication that much.

So what about that ‘yes’ part of my answer? Well, to be honest, this challenge has convinced me to be a bit more lenient when it comes to prejudging self-published books. I may not be about to throw myself into reading more and more of them, but it’s become clearer to me that there’s more out there that’s good than many people – myself included, most of the time – give the self-publishing world credit for. It isn’t all stuff written by people whose high school teachers didn’t recognize their genius (a sentiment I’ve seen expressed by more than a few people, which is sad…). Sometimes there are some really good things in the pile. The tricky part is finding them, but like any good novel, they’re worth the search once you get there.

Elitist Book Reviews

Has my opinion changed?

The short answer is no.

My opinion before all of this began was self-pubbed books were made up in large part by garbage. Either poorly written garbage, or absurdly derivative garbage. Between myself and the other reviewers at Elitist Book Reviews, we could hardly finish any of the manuscripts. Many we discarded after ten pages or less. Why? Here is a summary of what basically every self-pubbed book had in common:

1. Covers were horrid. Look, we realize not everyone is an artist or is a pro at cover design, but as a self-pubbed author, YOU are responsible with finding people who are.
2. Editing was poor AT BEST.
3. Derivative plots. Seriously, half our stories started out almost the same.

All those things? Yeah, that was what I was expecting. It was all confirmed.

Old Books by ELEK-triKSelf-pubbed authors have this odd mind-set. They write their stories (kudos), and some of them try going the traditional route. Generally, after a couple of rejections, these authors get the impression that the traditional publishers don’t “get” the story. It’s the agent’s fault. It’s the publisher’s fault.

Or, maybe the book just isn’t good. Maybe it is written poorly, relying solely on tropes. Heck, we had a story that wasn’t even self-pubbed! It wasn’t available anywhere. I have to ask, are some of these authors even trying? We had a few authors that seemed to think THEY were doing US a favor by letting us read their work. That’s not the attitude of a pro. Of everything – though I kinda-sorta expected it – this is was surprised me the most.

Now, this isn’t to say that it was all doom and gloom…only mostly so. No, there were a couple authors that we could tell had promise. What was lacking in these cases was a steady editorial hand. But again, this wasn’t surprising. When we were originally sent our collection of stories, we expected to find one or two that were good. What is most interesting here is the attitude of the author. They are typically much more grateful, much more serious, and have a genuine desire to improve. More professional.

My opinion hasn’t changed. The bad is just as bad, and the good is as good as I’d hoped – this applies both to the works and their authors.

Bookworm Blues

all my books in a row by light thru my lensPublishing is changing. A large reason for that, in my humble opinion, is the internet. We have, and are, reaching a point where big publishing houses don’t always determine whether or not your book gets published anymore. Now we have alternative avenues like CreateSpace, and various other self-publishing platforms for people to turn to. It’s becoming more and more common to see self-published books out there. Some authors have done quite well self-publishing. Look at Michael J. Sullivan as an example of self-publishing done right.

However, among reviewers, there is still a bit of a stigma regarding self-publishing. Trends in publishing are changing, but self-publishing is open to anyone, whether your book was professionally edited, or if you had your eight-year-old daughter edit your novel for a school project. It’s hard to navigate those waters as a reviewer, and so a lot of us just decide not to navigate them at all.

The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off has been important for many reasons. As a reviewer I have appreciated it immensely as it has managed to renew my faith and interest in self-publishing and indie books in general. There is a lot of quality work out there, and this challenge has shown me that I am not being fair by writing off a vibrant, sprawling arena of publishing.

People self-publish for numerous reasons. I think a lot of reviewers, myself included, often think that self-published authors self-publish because their books aren’t as good as traditionally published books. This challenge has taught me that that belief simply isn’t true, and it certainly isn’t fair. Furthermore, self-published authors face an uphill battle regarding publicity in just about every respect. They don’t have huge publicity agents and media gurus behind their names. They have to do it themselves, and that’s quite a project.

The End by NoteIstPhotosPublishing is changing, and it will continue to change. The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off has shown me that the stigma against self-publishing isn’t fair. There is a whole swath of talent that has been written off by us reviewers unfairly. I’m excited to see what is out there, and perhaps help some of these authors who need some attention get that attention in the future.

– – –

So, what do you think? Are you open to self-published books or are you against them? Can you help the cream of self-published crop rise to the top?

Title image by refashioned.

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you for putting these answers together! It’s interesting to see the numbers–the majority–in line with others in the field. (As in, the six out of seven SFWA members who consider indie publishing on the same professional footing as trade publishing.)

    We talk often about self-publishing being a revolution. In truth, it’s an evolution, and the entire ecosystem will eventually evolve with it. As a reader and a writer, I greatly appreciate those who are taking part in the transition rather than waiting for it to be over. 🙂

  2. Self-publishing has been around for years and years.
    Other art forms like music, film and visual art has been in the hands of independent creatives for years as well.
    Some artists prefer to not be bought out by corporations. Some artists do.
    One isn’t better than the other.

    It can be argued that corporate publishers are quality control. Keeping terrible books out of the mainstream.
    And I agree.
    But it it could also be argued that corporate publishers are quality control. Keeping amazing books that can’t easily be sold out of the mainstream.
    And I would also agree.

  3. S.C. Flynn says:

    Very interesting views.

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