In the US National Book Critics Circle Ethics in Book Reviewing Survey, 60.5% of responders think it’s OK to ignore self-published books. This is worth a closer look since it particularly disadvantages poets. A recent editorial in Iota poetry magazine highlighted the extend that some UK poetry publishers are subsidised by the Arts Council of England. Most poetry publishers are not on that list and publish on a shoe-string, expecting the poet to be heavily involved in promoting and marketing their book. Whether subsidised or not, most poetry publishers budget for publishing two to three books a year (there are some exceptions, but I’m using general terms). Poetry magazines are running at a 1 – 2% acceptance rate because they’re simply overwhelmed by people writing poems who want to see them in print. Given the high rate of people submitting to magazines, a high percentage of those are likely to want to see a collection of poems published. That means there’s a very low rate of available book slots. Factor in that some poetry publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, that book slot availabiliy is narrowed further. Therefore for most poets who have run up a record of magazine publication credits and/or competition placements, the only way to get a book of poems published is self-publish. So if 60.5% of survey responders think it’s OK to ignore self-published books, that’s a significant amount of poetry being ignored.
In the survey, the NBCC didn’t define self-published or seek to differeniate self from vanity publishing. The two are different. A self-published writer selects and edits their own poems, treats the publisher as partner, gets involved in typesetting, layout, distribution and marketing of their book and pays for the printing costs. A vanity published writer feels incredibily lucky a publisher has shown interest, accepts the publisher’s guidance on which poems go in, accepts the publisher’s house-style, layouts and cover design, accepts the publisher’s promise that the finished book will be promoted, doesn’t have any expectation of getting involved in marketing and willing pays the publisher substantially more than the cost of publication so the publisher’s made a profit before the book’s published. Generally vanity publishers focus on publishing anthologies rather than single author collections because there are more contributors to make a profit from.
I review both self-published and publisher accepted books. Occasionally I’ve been commissioned to write a review of a vanity published collection. It’s a horrible experience: the poetry’s generally awful, the writer naively expecting the full-of-praise-review the vanity publisher’s promised and I somehow have to break the bad news.
Generally there’s little difference between self-published and publisher accepted books, especially if the self-published writer has built up a good record of magazine publications and focused on those when putting the collection together. The main difference is after the review: the self-published tend to respond if they see a review as being less than praiseworthy. Strangely enough these responses usually reinforce the original opinion expressed in the review. But I would never ignore a self-published book and I’m disappointed that so many other book critics seem to think otherwise.