For several reasons (explained by other, more professional authors) I won’t be regularly reviewing other books on this blog. Though I do have Goodreads, I won’t be panning any books even on there (3-star is not necessarily a pan, btw – thoughts on star ratings for another time!).
On the other hand, I do think it’s worth talking about the state of the field wherein I’m trying to work, which means both Indie/self-published authordom and SFF as a genre. This post is about the intersection of the two, and how it seems to have played out.
So, I’ll start off by saying that I haven’t (yet) found a self-published SFF book that rises above the best of published fiction. I have read a few that I thought were better than some published books I’ve read, but overall the system works to get the best books out there. I already have a large TBR pile of published books that are probably better (especially technically better) than almost anything I’ll turn up from indie authors. But I still go looking…why?
To my mind, the self-publishing boom is Good because it increases the breadth and variety available. Everybody has a certain type of book they love to read, and sometimes the requirements of this book are very particular. For years, most of the books on the shelves at Borders (yeah, back then) weren’t really crying out to me to be read. I’m sure most of them were good, but they weren’t for me. This is one of the reasons I started writing my own, but the rise of indie books has definitely increased reader choice.
One of the first indie ebooks I found was the incredibly obscure “Traitor Blade” trilogy (really one book) by Richard Crawford. I’m not sure how I found it, and I’ve not met anyone else who’s read it (the author isn’t even particularly visible on-line), but I really enjoyed the book. It very strongly invoked a 14th/15th C medieval era, with intriguing characters and just enough magic to make it fantasy. It was pretty much written for me. Sure, it had a few rough edges, but overall I thought it easily a match for most published fantasy, and a much much better match for me than almost any other book.
So, this is what indie fantasy can do: it increases the chances of you finding the right book for you, which is always special. I’ve found a couple more since, and I’m so glad I had the chance to read them.
On the other hand, the vast majority (and there is a vastness to the indie ranks these days) don’t rise above mediocrity. For a large majority, there is a clear reason they wouldn’t be published. Not that they are terrible, just that they aren’t good: generic setting, stock characters, by-the-numbers plot. Some of these books are perfectly readable, if you are looking for something that doesn’t rock the boat. There are writers out there churning out the electronic equivalent of pulp fiction – cheap, fun, reliable adventures, often in serial form – and making a good living out of it. Just nothing life-changing.
I’m not trying to knock this too much, because I think it’s great that all these authors can share their stories. I’m working towards being one of them, after all! It’s just odd when perfectly average books get loads of 5-star reviews, like people are celebrating this mediocrity. I guess it’s similar to the X-factor effect.
At the end of the day, even if these books aren’t great, you usually aren’t paying as much for them. Some are even free!
There are various types of ugly in the indie/self-pub market. The most frequent gripe of readers is the lack of professional editing: typos, misspellings, bad grammar and usage. I can let a few honest errors go (especially in a free book!), but ignorant ones do start to grate. Not that trad. published books are always error-free, but you generally get a better quality product after a pro edit (which, to be fair, some self-published authors do pay for).
Other uglies include terrible covers, painful prose, unwitting anachronisms, broken plots and all sorts of other offences against writing and publishing. The worst part of this is that somebody should have caught these – if not the author themselves, then a beta reader or the first person who reads the free sample on Amazon. Which is why sometimes you want to comment, not to be mean, but to give the author a chance to rescue the book – and to warn readers off something just not ready for the public.
And the ugliest part is when authors refuse to accept that their magnum opus isn’t a masterpiece. It’s rare that a writer’s first finished novel is unquestioned brilliance, and most authors have buried these monstrosities in a dark corner of their hard drives. Unfortunately, today it’s all too easy to upload these ‘trunk novels’ to Amazon, where they should quietly sink into oblivion. If the author learns their lesson, all well and good.
But there are still some authors who will insist everyone should love their staggering work of genius, that will invest on advertising, flashy websites, covers far too good for what’s inside, paid reviews and the rest, and then rumble round the internet with a huge chip on their shoulder when they never come close to making their money back. There’s nothing uglier than an author responding to a honest, critical review to explain why the reviewer is wrong. Now, I worked in retail enough to know that even though the customer is not *literally* always right, but you still don’t argue with them, especially when it’s something as objective as books.
So, am I really down on indie publishing? It’s frustrating, to be sure, with all these authors out there clamouring to be read, especially when a fair few of them have published pretty poor products. I’m not sure which direction the market is going, but I do think we need new systems for separating the good from the bad (or the ugly). Current rating systems are getting to easy to game, and with so few people willing to give critical reviews (like I said, I won’t, as a professional courtesy). And then there’s the worry about what this all means for authors earnings. But I do think the publishing is evolving in the exciting ways, and I’m enjoying the ride so far.
What do you think? What gems have you unearthed in this brave new world?