Monday, June 23, 2014

Self-published Novels: Should They Be Held to a Lower Standard?

As a review for Chick Lit Central, an email I always hate to send is the one in which I tell the site’s administrator that the book I offered to read would result in a negative review, and would she mind asking the writer if we should run the review anyway. The writer almost always declines – who wants a negative review published on a site with hundreds of regular viewers? I wouldn’t.

Thanks to CLC and my job working for an agent, I read about five to six self-published or unpublished manuscripts a month. I also try to get in at least one or two traditionally published books from my favorite authors. Add that to my own writing, and it’s a lot of stories.

There’s nothing better than reading a book you love. For my agent, I write a glowing report and keep my fingers crossed that she’ll love it as much as I do, and think she can sell it. For CLC, I write long reviews about the terrific protagonist, the witty writing, the fast-paced storytelling. I tweet the review and hope that my praise plays a role in helping the writer get sales.

Then there are the books in between. By and large, they work, but there are issues – often a muddy middle, or characters with weak motivations, or characters who are just stupid (Stupid is the worst. You’ll lose me completely there.) I’ll write reviews for these books, and they’ll be mostly positive, but I’ll point out the book’s weak parts, as well.

But should I?

Many of the books that Chick Lit Central reviews are self-published, and many others are published by small presses that specialize in women’s fiction. Sadly, for those of us who are fans of the genre, traditional publishers now find chick lit a hard sell, and are more inclined to invest in YA, straight romance or memoir. That means that a lot of really good chick lit books have gone the self-published route, not because of an issue with the writing, but because traditional publishers didn’t think they could sell enough copies to pay off an investment.

(And just because a book is traditionally published doesn’t mean it’s worth your reading time. Last year I reviewed a book by a multi-millionaire author whom I’d never got around to reading before. I was stunned by how bad the book was. Since it was traditionally published, CLC did run the review, and I got a lot of feedback from readers telling me that everyone knew how bad this writer was. She still makes the bestseller list with every new book, so I guess that everyone hasn’t hurt her sales at all!)

Still, that leaves many self-published books out there on Amazon, selling for $3.99 or less, that are there because they aren’t quite good enough to attract an agent or a traditional publisher. Perhaps the writer was eager to rush to press, or perhaps she just didn’t have strong enough beta readers to steer her into a stronger edit. Whatever the case, though, the majority of these authors do invest in their books – they hire book designers, maybe formatters so that they can upload to all the on-line books stores; some even hire professional freelance editors (and believe me, they are not cheap!) All of this, and chances are, they aren’t going to make very much money from this endeavor. Even with Amazon’s generous royalty rates, when the writer factors in money lost to 99 cent sales, BookBub ads and other programs, there isn’t a lot left over.

So, knowing all this, as readers and reviewers – do we give self-published authors a break? Do we read their $1.99 offering about a new mom convinced her baby’s been switched with her ex’s newborn, and forgive the inconsistent tone and a few obvious plot points? Do we do what we can to help this writer sell her book, because it’s funny and the ending really works? Or do we hold her to the same standard that has been set by Emily Giffin, Jennifer Weiner and Sarah Pekkanen, and insist that everything works as well in her book as it does in these books by famous authors who work with agents, publishers, and publicists?

What do you think?

PS – Let me know what think about that baby switch idea. Maybe I’ll write it….

PPS – I just signed on with a broker so I can help people buy and sell houses here in St. Pete Beach, Florida! If you want to live in paradise, let me know!

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