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

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.