Quality, revisited

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Another day on Twitter (it’s just about bearable these days if you use Tweetdeck, I find), another free and frank exchange of views on the question of whether it’s fair to make a principle of not reading self-published books.

In one sense, it’s a pointless question. One can’t, and shouldn’t, force people to read books that they don’t want to read, and their reasons for not wanting to read them are surely their own business. But I do want to take issue with the underlying assumption that self-published books are necessarily terrible.

(Mandy Rice-Davies voice: Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?)

I would not deny for one moment that there are many appalling self-published books in the world. Earlier this week I read this thread from a professional editor with fascinated, delighted, horror. But, as I said when I shared it, there are plenty of traditionally published books that I’ve judged ‘Not bad, but could have done with a thorough edit’, and a few ‘This was so bad I couldn’t finish it’, as well as a lot more ‘Couldn’t be bothered’. The worst book I’ve read recently came from a small press. It was dire. It didn’t know which genre it was trying to be, and the worldbuilding was cowboy builder work. Needed a very thorough edit. Nor are the production values necessarily any better in conventional publishing. I still remember this horror with a certain sense of disbelief.

Conversely, the professionalism of self-published authors like Jane Davis and Ankaret Wells results in absorbing, enjoyable books that I look forward to reading and re-reading. And I know from my own experience that the choice to self-publish grants the great gift of control. I don’t have to put up with a terrible cover or a phoned-in edit. The power to improve things is mine. I make a point of never putting a book out until it’s as good as I can possibly get it. Quality is a subjective thing, of course. But it is not my judgement alone that puts my first novel on a par with some of the best of my generation; it was that of three authors whose writing I admire and who are big names in literature. It wasn’t lack of quality that meant I couldn’t get it published conventionally; it was the fact that there wasn’t a significant market for it. Too gay for the Christian market; too Christian for anything else. (I suppose I could have tried Darton Longman Todd, but then I don’t know what they’d have done with a novel with basically no religious content the next time round.)

Extrapolate from that, and one surmises that there are plenty of very good books out there that aren’t being published traditionally, and likely never will be, because the subject or the style just isn’t ‘in’ at the moment, or because the current trend is for debuts and the author didn’t hit the big time on their first attempt. I’d rather have the option of reading them. And I’d rather not be the one who puts that restriction on my reading material.

We all have our petty preferences, our likes and dislikes, both justified and unjustified. (Personally I’ve developed a violent hatred for that brushstroke calligraphy font that’s everywhere at the moment. I dare say that either my hatred or the fad will die off sooner or later.)

There are millions upon millions of books out there, and no human lifetime is going to be long enough to read all of them. We all have to find our own ways of prioritising. No matter what that is, we will inevitably miss something that we would have loved if we’d just given it a chance. Avoid books with predominantly pink covers, on the grounds that you don’t like chick lit? Miss out on the grittiness of Dorothy Koomson and the psychological insight of Marian Keyes. (I’m serious. I don’t think I’ve ever read an unreliable narrator that worked better for me.)

No. I choose books to read based on whether the subject matter interests me, what my friends are reading, and, above all, whether I like the writing style. And, as another Twitter self-publisher pointed out, that’s very easy to find out with a look inside, or, indeed, the ‘Look Inside’ feature.

If someone else’s chosen method of prioritsation is to exclude self-published works, then that’s up to them. But I will maintain for as long as I’m reading that it’s by no means a reliable filter for quality.

4 thoughts on “Quality, revisited

  1. A thoughtful post; thank you. A couple of years ago, I wrote to popular self-published U.K. author George Mahood to tell him I loved his books. He wrote back after checking out my blog, urging me to write a book and directing me to KDP. A year and a half later, I published my first book and its success has exceeded my expectations. It was anything but easy, but the best payoff rests in my heart.

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  2. As a devoured of books the biggest problem with a self published book is discovering the book in the first place. As a reader of SF and Fantasy I learned to ignore the front cover illustrations which more often than not had no relationship with the narrative but which were no doubt deemed eye catching to the expected readership by the publisher. As a teenager I was introduced to Georgette Heyer through her “swashbuckling” novels Beauvalet and Simon the Coldheart followed by her detective novels. All of these books caught my eye on the shelves of my relatives and I then dipped into the text to decide that I wanted to read them.
    With a self published book one needs to come into contact with the book. Hopefully some bookshops will help although I suspect the big chains are very tied to publishers either contractually or more likely by simple inertia. I have seen (and bought) minority interest books at National Trust shops. A very rare sighting though and usually a book associated with the NT location.
    So how does “Look Inside” work? Is this the first chapter? Or the précis that is on the book reverse, something I usually ignore!

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    • Oh yes, definitely. I rely on word of mouth and the internet – blogs, social media, online friends’ recommendations – to find new books to read. In that respect we’re at an advantage over previous generations of readers (and self-publishers).

      ‘Look Inside’ shows you the first few pages, or, if I recall correctly, there’s a ‘surprise me’ option. That’s on Amazon. Other retailers do it in slightly different ways – Kobo lets you download a sample, for example. And many writers offer sample chapters on their websites, which is very handy – if (as you say!) you have got to the point of actually knowing about them!

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