This January, I set out to read the free ebooks that I’d been collecting on my Kindle but never got the chance to read. It’s been an interesting ride, in turns energizing, frustrating, eye-opening and confusing. Apart from a desire to clean up my back-log, I originally wanted to use this to learn a bit about what it might take to hook a reader, be it a customer reading the free sample, or a slush-pile reader. Hopefully I could then apply these lessons in my own writing, or at least share it on the blog.
A summary of what I’ve read is at the bottom, and individual mini-reviews are in the four (five) updates. These were all books that passed the first hurdle of getting me intrigued enough to download them, but often that was a very low hurdle; after all, they were free. I very rarely buy books completely “on spec” anymore, but as there was no risk here, I gorged myself a bit on freebies, whether advertised deals or perma-free. Obviously, the stash grew much faster than I could read it, which is the danger with free giveaways, as many acknowledge.
After that it became much as I would expect slush-pile reading is: picking up a random book and giving it a read until I didn’t want to keep going. Sometimes this was a few pages, sometimes a few chapters, and, in a few cases, the whole thing; I’m sure a lot of experienced slush readers read even less than I did.
Did I expect to find my new favourite book this way? No, which is why I usually use a far more scientific approach, with all the tools now available. Did I expect some not-very-good books? Yes, and even moreso because I realise I’m picky, with particular predilections about settings and sexism. But really, I was looking for a few pleasant surprises, and to perhaps find some distinguishing features between the more successful ones and the more obscure.
1. Generic Fantasy is alive and well in the indie world
So, if you’ve read the updates, you know I’m not great fan of what I term “generic” worldbuilding. To me, this means the sort of shallow, stereotypical fantasy world you see in video games and Disney movies, disconnected from historical realism (not “accuracy”), a jumble of tropes and anachronisms that only Discworld is allowed to get away with. (For example, the books expound on cities, princes and soldiers, but it’s never clear how all these people grow ingredients for their ubiquitous stews, because the land is a lonely wilderness not a teeming agrarian base.)
You still get a bit of this in modern published fantasy, but it absolutely abounds in the indie press. Obviously, a lot of readers are less picky about this than I am – or than agents and editors are – because a lot of this stuff sells. Fantasy has always made space for the comfortable and familiar, so it makes sense that as the mainstream turns away from tropes, the indie world fills the void. And why not?
2. I think I know what “voice” means now
An agent I follow on Twitter (and I’m sure he’s not alone) always says that “voice” is the number one thing he looks for in a submission – before plot, setting, character – and, having read through a slush pile of my own, I’m getting more of an idea what he means. The writing in certain books stood out through a mix of style and authority, a confidence in what they were doing and how they were unfolding the tale.
These books read like books by published authors, but this is not to say they all sounded the same. Rather, it was the way they used the language effectively (and often, efficiently), the way they paced, the way they introduced characters and scenes. Some of this is obviously the product of critical editing, which leads me on to point 3.
3. Editing is not optional
I don’t mean spell-checking, which should be automatic – most of these were, in fact, decently proofed – but the critical eye that helps hone “voice”, as above. There was a lot of bland, wordy prose that took forever to get anywhere, and made you struggle along the way. Also a few of the books were written, not only in generic fantasy land, but “generic fantasy voice” – full of old-fashioned flourishes that don’t quite work (with one notable exception).
Other common issues were things like using passive voice, telling rather than showing, including extraneous details and full-on info-dumping. These are all things you can find in almost any advice book or blog post, but some writers apparently either don’t want to know, or can’t see it. Of course, you can break these rules as you like, but not without risk.
4. You’ve got to have a hook
I focused on the hook in Update 1, but it’s absolutely vital, and doubly so in an exercise like this. The hook can be an intriguing mystery, an interesting character, an ominous threat or an inciting event – but there has to be something to get the reader engaged in the story. As mentioned, I’m more likely to be hooked by certain things than others, and there are plenty of things that will still turn me off, but a book that doesn’t draw you in and give you some idea what it’s about is easy to put down. For me, some element also has to be immediate – not something that will arrive at the end of the book, or (!) the series.
5. Popular doesn’t always mean Good, but it does mean something
We all know that critical merit and popularity don’t always go hand-in-hand, and I’m especially aware that my tastes don’t always line up with the majority, so it’s hard to know what conclusion to draw here. I was a bit surprised that, while generally better crafted, I didn’t see anything ground-breaking in any of the bigger names. However, as I said above, there’s an audience out there for good, solid stories with all the tropes.
Some popular authors will admit that a lot of it is down to luck – right place, right time, right story – and that once you make that breakthrough with a fanbase you’ve got the platform to build a lasting success. Some successful indie authors seem to have a knack for finding a niche and filling it with as many books as they can, including the sorts of classic stories mainstream publishing isn’t looking for but that readers still want. I occasionally think of this as the new ‘pulp fiction’ and I don’t mean that negatively.
I do wonder, however, if the conclusion here is that self-publishing may not be for me. On evidence of my taste, I don’t expect to ever write a particularly popular – or, at least, populist – book, which clearly seems one important element of indie success. On the other hand, I don’t know if the money-men at traditional publishing would take a chance on my more esoteric work, either, and therefore maybe indie publishing does represent the only chance to get my work out there. Hopefully, one way or another, a few people will appreciate it, as I have done some of the “hidden gems” here.
Does giving books away for free help authors? Am I going to continue any of these series? I don’t know. I’m not really the type to get stuck into series anyway – more often I’m on to the next new thing – so I’m probably the wrong target audience. It certainly has got me to read books and authors I would not have, and I can now recommend a few more writers to people (as I’ll do in the next post). Having got a book for free, and seeing how many more free books are out there, however, clearly raises my threshold for actually paying for something. And when I can often snag a widely-praised traditionally-published book by a respected author for £1.99 as well, it’s a very tough market out there.
Also, where are the women? I struggled through this whole thing to find books by women authors that were not YA, urban/paranormal/punk and/or clones of other popular series by women. I know this is a reflection of genres overall, but freed of the constraints of publishing bias, I hoped for a few more “traditional/adult” fantasies by women. The ones I did get were among the best (Patty Jansen and Elizabeth Baxter), but perhaps there’s some truth to the stereotypes about what men and women write?
There was definite quality here, and variety, even if I still think the range of both are a bit lower than you get from traditionally published books. That’s not a surprise, really, but indie books are clearly exploiting a few niches, finding plenty of fans, and I’ve found a few treasures in the “slush piles”. The main problem – for authors and readers – continues to be how to sift through all that slush. I can tell you, it takes some effort!
Read in Update 1 :
Enchantment’s Reach – Martin Ash – Finished!
Read in Update 2 :
Fire & Ice – Patty Jansen – Finished!
Red Axe, Black Sun – Michael Karner – 51% (before this blog series)
The Dreamer and the Deceiver – Alex Villavasso – 21% (it’s short)
The Last Priestess – Elizabeth Baxter – still reading!
Read in Update 3/4:
Sorcerer’s Code – Christopher Kellen – Finished! (novella)
The Seventh Horse: Shader Origins – D. P. Prior – 50% (novella)
New World: A Frontier Fantasy Novel – Steven W White – still reading!
Skip – Perrin Briar – 14%
Read in Update 5:
Stormsinger – Stephanie A Cain – Finished! (novelette)
A Dance of Dragons – Kaitlyn Davis – 31% (including all of prequel novella)