Self-Published Books – to review or not to review?

I do consider self-published books for review (see my review guidelines), but some bloggers and magazines don’t. I treat self-published books the same as traditionally published books: what I’m looking for in a review is quality of writing, poetic craft and whether the book would appeal to readers. Generally I can satisfy myself as to whether the book under review meets those criteria before opening the book.

Why Reviewers Don’t Review Self-Published Books

  • Concerns about the Quality of the Book
  • Concerns about the Quality of the Writing
  • Concerns about Vanity Publishing
  • Concerns about Authors’ Reactions

I’ll look at each in turn:

Concerns about the Quality of the Book

These concerns apply equally to self- and traditionally-published books. A printed book should cope with repeated opening and closings, the cover shouldn’t curl, the pages should be numbered and the text should be readable. An e-book should be page numbered, navigable and the text should be readable.

Generally there’s very little difference between self- and traditionally-published books in terms of print quality. However, some self-publishers omit to consider:

  • Cover image – if one is used it needs to be quality, uncluttered, relevant to the book without spoilers, and not render the cover text illegible.
  • Pagination – the easiest way for a reviewer to find that section they wanted to quote is by page number. When the pages aren’t numbered its harder for a reader to keep their place and few readers read a book in one sitting.
  • Table of Contents – you’ve gone to all the trouble of giving your poems hook-worthy titles so don’t waste it by not including contents.
  • Acknowledgements/Publishing Credits – a list of where the poems within have been published before or placed in competitions is a quality mark, i.e. a sign to the reviewer that the poet has submitted work to editors who have decided it worthy of publishing. A book with no acknowledgements has no quality mark and the reviewer may suspect the writer has rushed into print.
  • Author Biography – a writer with a track record will reassure reviewers over the quality of writing. No information about the author is a red flag. Even if the writer is using a pseudonym, there should be a way of conveying what qualifications the author has to write this book.

Concerns about the Quality of the Writing

From experience, this is a non-concern. Both self- and traditionally-published authors are in the business of selling books and it’s fair to say that some traditionally-published books have been published because the publisher knows the topic or author will sell the book even if the writing quality is uneven.

Self-publishers can allay these fears by including publishing credits and an about the author section that demonstrates their track record.

Concerns about Vanity Publishing

Vanity publishing has long plateaued and is actually dying out. With printers and publishers advertising self-publication services and plenty of advice about the pitfalls of self-publishing, vanity publishers are finding it harder to hoodwink naive writers into paying over the odds to see their book in print.

Concerns about Author Reactions

This is a tricky one and a valid concern. A self-published author has more at stake and is more likely to view themselves as needing a positive review. A traditionally-published author at least has the publisher to remind them that reviews aren’t particularly influential, the reviewer wasn’t part of their target market, the important thing is sales and one person’s opinion is just that.

Unfortunately social media makes it easier for authors to contact the reviewer and/or comment on the review publicly.

My experience is that for every negative comment, I’ve had at least three positive ones. I also know that I wouldn’t have the track record I do in reviewing if I wasn’t any good at it. Every negative comment I have received has reinforced the opinion I formed in my review. I’m not going to be derailed by comments from one author and/or their supporters so I will continue to consider reviewing self-published books.


Jazz-inspired poetry at Leicester Central Library to celebrate what would have been Ella Fitzgeralds 100th birthday

Responding to Reviews

A writer’s job is to communicate. That communication is likely to be with a target market simply because writing a poem that will please everyone is impossible. Trying to accommodate everyone’s tastes and views on what a poem should be is likely to result in something rhyming and bland, that is something that looks like a poem but isn’t a poem. You may think you’re writing for the general poetry reader, someone reasonably intelligent, well-read and up to date on current affairs but then be surprised because someone who looks and behaves like a general poetry reader did not understand the metaphor you used in stanza three. Or took the opposite view to the one you intended. Or thought you were being patronising or an autodidact.

Sending a book out for review always carries the risk that the reviewer simply isn’t a member of your target market. A reviewer’s job is to give the review’s readers enough information to decide whether or not they want to buy the book under review. It is not a reviewer’s job to offer an in-depth critique of every poem in the book.

Whenever I comment on a poem, in a review or at a workshop or because I’ve agreed to do a critique, I don’t expect the poet to immediately and unquestioningly re-write their poem according to my comments. It’s not my poem. I do not have the right to re-write it the way I would have written it if it had been my poem. I do expect the poet to read my review or comments before deciding whether to consider them or not.

When someone comments on a review and I receive that comment via the editor before I’ve even seen my copy of the magazine where the review appeared, I’m suspicious of the amount of time the commenter spent reading my review.

The comment thanked me for my review, but made the point that I’d only commented on a small number of poems from the collection, expressed a regret that I’d come to the conclusion I did and hoped I’d found something in the poems I’d hadn’t commented on to like.

There are some classic mistakes here:

  • That regret is not a regret. It’s phrased in such a way as to imply I’m the one that should have regrets in my apparent failure to appreciate the poetic talent within the collection.
  • In a review, I don’t have space to comment on every poem individually so I select a representative sample. How I feel about the representative sample is how I feel about the collection as a whole. If I do like one poem in particular but dislike the rest, I will say so (although I’ve yet to read a collection where I only liked one individual poem). The reference to only commenting on a small number of poems suggests that either the commenter doesn’t understand how reviews work or is implying I haven’t read the other poems properly. Insulting your reviewer is not a good idea.
  • I have read the poems I didn’t comment on so sending me back to read them in hope I find something to like is guaranteed to put me off them altogether, and potentially put me off reviewing any subsequent collections.
  • The comment doesn’t ask for or give space for a response: it’s intended to be the final say on the matter and naturally the poet wants the final word.
  • The speed at which it was sent implies the commenter didn’t spend long reading my review, probably didn’t read any of the other reviews I’d written for that particular issue of the magazine and didn’t try to put my review in context of whether I was the target market or not.
  • I’m not the target market: that’s not my problem. That’s not necessarily the poet’s problem either: it depends on whom he was writing for.
  • The commenter should have pressed ‘delete’ rather than ‘send’.

What the comment does tell me is that if I’m sent another book by this particular author to review, I can write whatever I want as he won’t bother to take any notice of my comments anyway.

I don’t think that was his intention. But that’s the tricky thing with communication: what you meant to say may not be how the reader interprets your work. If you are not prepared for a reader to interpret your work in a different way from your intention, think very carefully about putting your work in the public arena and publishing it.

By

Should Writers read reviews of their Writing?

A subject touched on by both Meg Gardiner and Tess Gerritsen and raised indirectly at a recent poetry reading where one poet punctuated her poems with anxious looks towards the audience, as if seeking approval before reading on.

Three Reasons Not to Read Reviews 

 

1. The book’s already been published and can’t be changed.

True, but a perceptive, constructive comment could inform future work, especially if it’s part of series.

2. It’s a flame by an anonymous troll on a site such as Amazon.

Then it’s not a review, it’s a flame by an anonymous troll… and not worth responding to. It’s difficult not to take a scathing attack personally, but if the person writing it didn’t have sufficient courage of their convictions to use their own name, then treat them as a playground bully and ignore them.

3. The reviewer said nasty things.

The world would be a very boring place if everyone loved your books. Reviewers don’t really have that huge an impact on sales – most people buy books because:

• they like your books

• their friend likes your books

• your book was on special offer

• they picked it up by mistake

• they were stuck for something to read and a librarian suggested it

• they were bored and a copy was left on the bus/train/etc

• a reviewer they liked, liked it

• a reviewer they hate, hated it.

Three Reasons to Read Reviews

 

1. A good review is a good ego boost.

It’s also useful publicity.

2. Positive comments encourage more writing because it’s reassuring to know someone’s reading you.

3. The review said good things.

Sometimes unintentionally. One of my stories was described as “an extended myspace confessional albeit better written“. It was meant as a snark but his comment actually said “contemporary, modern story” and he thought the writing was good (“better” implies “good”) so I took it as a compliment.

Ultimately whether a writer reads their reviews or not is a personal decision. I’ve never had a bad review, but, equally, I’ve never had one that’s been pure praise. That’s good: I’m lucky my reviews have been balanced. However, I’ve never self-published. Everything of mine that has been published has been approved by an editor. An editor who has had confidence to say “this is worth publishing”. In poetry, where rejection rates run at 98%, that editor’s approval counts and rates far higher than the opinion of a reviewer. Even so, it’s hard to remind yourself that editorial approval matters, anonymous flames don’t when it’s your own work under attack. Writers deserve robust reviews by reviewers who are constructive. 

But the worst review of all is no review: flamers take note.  No reviews means no one’s reading the book.

Related Articles:

Reviewing self-published books

Ready to have your poetry reviewed?

If you don’t read, you can’t write

Self-published: to Review nor Not Review?

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.