Thursday, October 6, 2011

What I learned from reading bad books: Publishers aren't evil

I have nothing personal against self-published authors. I have my own book, Wizard and Spy, The Ex-Apprentices published on Kindle and also on Smashwords. Currently, I'm working on the second volume in the series. I was hoping to have it done by the end of September, but October is looking more likely.

I say this just to establish up front that I am not a shill for the publishing industry. Before self-publishing my book, I had read a number of articles and blog posts. Self-publishing makes perfect sense for people writing books with a regional focus, say on the history of Naperville, Illinois. That's not me, though. I wrote a general fantasy book for young adults and immature not-as-young adults (like me).

My main reason was well-stated in the lazyway blog and 100 other places. Basically, for a new author, getting accepted by a publisher requires finding an agent, then getting a publisher to talk to your agent - and just those steps alone each require sending out dozens of query letters.

Well it is a lot of work and time doing things I don't want to do. To paraphrase Ogden Nash, no one ever said,

"Woo-hoo, boys and girls, this round of query letters is on me!"

Since I like writing fantasy novels and I don't like writing query letters, I decided that I would just go ahead and self-publish on Smashwords and Amazon. I posted about my Smashwords experience earlier. It took me four hours. What could be easier?

Because I think I'm a fairly good writer and my book is only $2.99, I thought there are probably plenty of other writers out there like me who also have good books available at a low cost. Why pay $6.99 for a book or $20 for a hardback copy when you can get it for $2.99?

This is where things started to fall apart. In the past couple of months, I must have read at least 20 books that were self-published and another dozen that were from traditional publishers. Half the traditional books were technical books for work, so maybe that is not a fair comparison. Even discounting those, I have to say the difference in quality was disheartening to me as a self-published author.

It's easy to find articles on all the famous authors whose work was rejected. The take-away message is supposed to be that publishers don't know anything and if Ursula LeGuin and Madeleine L'Engle got rejected, then your book is quite possibly just as good and you should go ahead, self-publish it and make millions from your adoring public.

Probably not.

Let me establish up front that I have relatively low-brow tastes. I work at a very technical, demanding job for excessive hours and when I come home I want junk food for the brain. It's what I do instead of watch TV and most of the books I read are quite forgettable. I read a few self-published books that I thought were fine.

With all of that said, most of the self-published books I read scored a 1 or 2 on my very lax 1-5 scale. A couple were just horribly incorrectly labeled as far as genre. I'm not a porn fan. If you have lots of graphic sex and call it erotica, I'm still not a fan. I'd like my sex personally and not vicariously, thank you very much. If people are getting killed graphically, I think it belongs in horror and not fantasy. That isn't to say that those particular books were bad books if you like that kind of thing. I don't like Stephen King's books, either. My point is that a publisher would not make the mistake of having Stephen King classified with Lord of the Rings.

Some of the books that were actually fantasy were just plain not very good. I understand that I am reading a book about witches, wizards, unicorns and griffins. That does not mean that coincidentally every person you meet in Europe turns out to be a long-lost relative.  There was one book where every time the main character needed assistance her cousin, best friend from elementary school or some other random person just happened to be the sword-bearer of an ancient race or have the power to dissolve hedgehogs or some damn thing. Even if you are writing a book about a mythical place, there should be some logical order to it.

There is more to writing than a good story, but a good story is important. If I am going to continue reading self-published books, I need to get out of the habit of finishing every book I start. Some of the books had a good story that I wanted to follow but the writing had little more description than the Dick and Jane readers.
"See Jane fall off the cliff screaming."
"Aaaaa!"

Actually, I might enjoy a book like that.

Other books kind of petered out in the middle as the author ran out of ideas, it seems. After a hundred pages of character development where the author has really piqued the reader's interest in whether the ancient race of pixies, led by Susie Lou will rise up against their evil wizard overlords, they all settle their differences over tea. The End.

As I said, I am not hating on self-publishing books but I am coming to grips with the reality that a lot of these flaws would never have made it to the light of day because an editor at a traditional publishing house would have sent the book back for revision or turned it down out of hand.

The only exception to that, from my reading experience, is authors who have sold a lot of books in the past. I have been disappointed in a couple of books where it seemed the author has lost interest in writing about the characters in the series but not lost interest in being paid. These authors seem to get a pass from the editors because they have a sales track record and they will get suckers like me to buy their latest book because I liked their previous books. I won't buy their next one, though.

So, yes, there are good books from self-published authors and bad books from traditional publishers, but I have to admit that from what I have read in the past couple of months, the mix of good versus bad is higher on the traditional publisher side.

I'll have some thoughts on what the reader can do about that in my next post.

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