Update on the self-publishing fantasy blog-off (#SPFBO)

August 14, 2015 Publishing/marketing, The Plains of Kallanash 0

You may remember me mentioning some months ago that Mark Lawrence (author of The Broken Empire series) had organised a competition for self-published authors. He rounded up ten well-known bloggers who review fantasy, and sent each of them a ‘slush pile’ of 25 self-published books submitted by their authors. All the bloggers had to do was to work through their pile, just as an agent would, reading as much or as little of each as they wished, and choose just one book to put forward as their champion for a second round. Each of those ten would then be read by all the bloggers, who would award points and thereby a winner would be chosen.

I submitted The Plains of Kallanash, and the blogger it was assigned to was Sarah Chorn of Bookworm Blues. With the end of the first phase in sight, she’s now read all her 25 books, and reviewed Kallanash on 6th August. The good news is that she finished it! She rated it 3 out of 5 stars, and the winner of its mini-batch of 5 books. She described it as: ‘…certainly unique, and quite bold. The plot is intricate, the world building is superb, and the two mixed together creates a rather engrossing mixture that is hard to pull away from.’ She had trouble liking protagonist Mia (but everyone has that problem!) and also found that the ending left her: ‘…a little underwhelmed, as the big climax that I wanted to read about never really happened.’ All in all, a very fair review, and a big thrill for me in that one of my favourite bloggers read and reviewed my efforts. You can read the full review here, and see the champion Sarah chose here. For the full list of 250 entrants and links to many more reviews and the list of 10 champions, check out Mark Lawrence’s website here. The page to keep tabs on progress in the second phase of the competition is here.

Elsewhere in the SPFBO world, Marc Aplin of Fantasy-Faction, having chosen his champion already, has been explaining why he advises beginning authors NOT to self-publish, but to wait it out for acceptance by an agent and then a publisher. His main reasons seem to be, firstly, that being rejected multiple times and then working with an editor is the ideal way to hone your craft, and secondly, that self-published books are (mostly) rubbish and you (probably) won’t make any money anyway. You can read Marc’s article and the comments it spawned here.

I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of self-publishing here, it’s an old argument that everyone has to work out for themselves. There are valid reasons for pursuing a trade deal, valid reasons to self-publish, and there are also valid reasons to pay someone to publish for you (so-called vanity publishing). I’ve never submitted to an agent or publisher, so I’m not one of those who chose to self-publish because I was rejected. I just preferred to publish exactly the book I wanted to write, warts and all, and not wait years for some kind of validation. As for money, I’ve said before that it’s perfectly possible to make money from self-publishing. There are techniques that work, and luck doesn’t (usually) have much to do with it.

I do have some sympathy with Marc’s main points, though. There are innumerable authors who finish their very first book and bang it up on Amazon without any thought at all. Almost all of them would have done better to take a bit more time over it, polish it up, get proper feedback or even set it aside and write something else. I’ve read many, many self-published books where the writing became noticeably better as the book (or trilogy) went on. Even when an author has talent, it can take years to hone that talent, and self-publishers do tend to show the world every stage in their development.

Are most self-published books poor quality? Yes, in my experience, they are. I read more self-pubbed books than trade pubbed these days, but I’ve become adept at weeding out the ones that will be unreadable (to me). That is, books riddled with typos, grammatical and punctuation errors, books with trite plots and cardboard characters, books that meander all over the place without getting to the action.

There is no quality control on self-published books, whereas trade-pubbed books have at least been through some basic checking. That means that trade-pubbed books vary from brilliant to middling, while self-pubbed books vary from brilliant to execrable. That is inevitable, given the nature of self-publishing. It takes time to search out the gems, and I don’t blame anyone for choosing not to do that.

Having said all that, not all self-published books are dross. The very best are easily on a par with the very best trade-published works. I’ve posted lists of a few of these hidden gems over at Fantasy Review Barn for 2013 and 2014. Then there’s a tranche of self-published works that are comparable with many trade-pubbed books: professionally produced, competently written, which would qualify as excellent reads without setting the literary world alight. But below that level are many that fall into one of two categories.

Firstly, they have extremely original ideas but the execution may lack polish. They may have some typos, some structural or characterisation issues, the formatting may be poor, or the writing may be amateurish. I’ll happily try these, because originality is more important to me than perfect presentation.

The second type has solid writing skills, but the plot may be trite, the characters fall into tropes, the world-building is lazy and the ending predictable. I’m likely to give these a miss; I do like to be surprised in my reading, and I get bored reading something familiar. It has to be said, though, that works like this can do very well. There seem to be vast numbers of readers who do actually want familiar tropes and themes.

But below this level there are many, many self-published books that, for me, anyway, are just not readable. They are simply not professional enough to be worth my time. Some of them, with good marketing, can produce a good income for their authors. Most, however, won’t set the bestseller lists on fire (but that’s true of almost all books).

So when the SPFBO shines a spotlight on self-published work, it’s not surprising that the bloggers trawling through their slush piles found a mixture of books, some good, some OK, some that definitely needed more work. There was also the inevitable result of randomness: that they encountered books that, while they may be fine in themselves, just didn’t appeal to that particular blogger.

But – and here’s the key point, for me – they are actually reading self-published books, in some cases for the first time. They are bringing exactly the same critical skills and broad fantasy-reading experience that they apply to trade-published books. And that’s a wonderful thing.

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