Thursday, 14 June 2012

Read Me! Or, why do self-published authors care who will review their book?

" It's simply not good enough for cultural pundits not to engage with self-publishing"...

Getting someone to open the cover of your book. That's always been one of the major battles a self-publisher faces. It almost certainly will infuriate you at many points during your self-publishing life. After all, you *know*, if they'd just open the first page...

The first thing to say is it's not something exclusive to self-publishers. Many of my author friends published by small presses have exactly the same problem, and Kevin Duffy, who runs Bluemoose, one of the most inventive - and brilliant - small presses around is frequently outspoken about the Big Six and London-centrism of most reviewers.

That said, why reviewers, especially bloggers, won't review self-published books is something that has become a heated debate in the past few weeks. Well-respected blogger gavreads posted on 27th May his "Reasons Why We Reviewers Won't Read Your Self-published Book." Self-publishers were furious (and believe me, what's said on the comments is nothing to what was said on forums and groups all over the web. And to be fair, paragraph titles like "we know it's going to be rubbish" were probably designed to stimulate a certain amount of, er, debate.

And today, the on site Awesome Indies Tahlia Newland has issued a clarion call that seems aimed as a rebuttal, entitled "Come on Guys Give Indies a Fair Go."

Now, both articles make some good points - the former is, as the author says, simply an explanantion of a tendency and not a justification, the latter makes a call for equal treatment rather than especially harsh scrutiny. And both have their faults - traditionally published authors aren't exactly tantrum-free and genre-busting is sort of what self-publishing's for; whilst "be big-hearted" has the ring of desperation to it.

I don't want to take sides, but I do want to offer a series of observations about reviews and book bloggers. Take them as the beginning of a debate. Reviewers - take them as the start of some self-questionning about what you do; writers - take them as the start of some self-questionning about why you want to be reviewed.

  • Most of the anecdotal evidence I've heard - and the outspoken words of indie guru Joe Konrath - suggest reviews don't create sales
  • There are book blog reviewers I go back to again and again because I know I share their taste. They are few and far between - Tony Malone, Farm Lane Books, Winston's Dad - and I think of their reviews more like recommendations from friends who share my taste. Furthermore their reviews feel less like advertisements than parts of an ongoing discussion of which the book in question is only a part - and more often than not I enjoy the review more when I've read the book as opposed to when I'm looking for a new book - though when I do buy a book recommended, as when Farm Lane Books introduced me to Beside the Sea, it's so I can join the conversation. So...
  • Reviews are part of a community built around a certain taste. This feels much more like the 1000 true fans model than the "review-as-plug" model. I wonder if, within such communities, there is such resistance to self-published authors who are part of that community - the first of Gav's main points "we don't know who you are" certainly doesn't apply
  • Writers, ask yourself why you would want a review from somewhere where you're not part of the community. Why are you not already part of the community? Quite probably, or at least possibly, because people who are part of it don't share your taste - why would you want to foist your book on them in that case?
  • People have review blogs for a lot of reasons. Some of them for their own glory. I thought Gav's point "We know you’re not going to generate hits" spoke volumes - I have no interest in being reviewed by someone who reviews books to generate hits. Just as I have no time for people who self-publish "to get rich" so I have no time for people who review "to get hits." Most people review books because they love books, plain and simple. I go back to my point above - if their passion is not for your kind of book why would you want to hack off another human being by being a pest, and if you just know they'd love your book that's probably because you're a regular at their blog and chances are they will take a look at some point.
  • If a reviewer isn't looking at self-published books, chill - blogs will soon appear that do - gaps will be filled, niches plugged, communities built. Take a look, for example, at Cally Philips' excellent Indie ebook Review (interested party alert - I do some reviewing there and have had a couple of books reviewed there). If nature hates a vacuum, that's nothing compared to the internet's sheer abhorrence of them!
Now where I think it's different is the cultural media. I think I would still go along with point 1 - a review in a big paper won't make you millions. Speaking from experience, I can say that coverage in the Guardian, both of The Dead Beat and The Zoom Zoom, did lead to a sales spike - in double but nowhere near triple figures. But I very much do think it's the job of the cultural media to go out and trawl the world of self-publishing looking for the inventive and the ingenious. The cultural pages should be full of trendsetters not trend followers, people whose own journalistic career is built on innovation, on not being afraid to champion the unheard of (though it's so much easier to snipe than cheer). Hats off to Damien Walter for exploring the world of self-published weird fiction, even actively soliciting self-publicists! But that's one example. It's simply not good enough for cultural pundits not to engage with self-publishing.

The point here is that cultural pundits are there to give a picture of both the general landscape and the new, exciting things bubbling up on it - and by failing to give a complete picture they are failing the public that look tothem for advice of where to turn next for exciting things - and when people get turned off books because they are told only a fraction of what's out there, some of the blame for that lack of interest lies with those who didn't give a complete picture.

So, book bloggers and cultural pundits do two different things. The former are engaged in ongoing discussions with devotees. The latter exist to chart those discussions and provide entry points to them. We writers need to get those clear in our heads before we start complaining and campaigning. If a reviewer won't review us, the chances are, to bastardise Wittgenstein, both parties aren't part of the same community - in which case, why worry about missing a review, and if you are worried, take the correct step and join the community. If a cultural pundit won't talk about the exciting liminalities of the self-publishing world, however, campaign from the rooftops and call them out on it in the blogosphere and anywhere else.


  1. Hi Dan,
    Thats an excellent post. I'm currently preparing my blog tour for my release (a paranormal romance) in October and hitting a wall of prejudice... That said, I also understand someeviewers who dont have the time to waste on poorly edited,not proofread novels... I guess we just have to keep working hard, build a track record as individual authors and as self-pub as a whole... Things will change. In my genre (romance) the best performing (sales-wise) books have been self-published, starting by the controversial 50 Shades...
    I'm curious though with what you said about "reviews dont create sales" as it goes against everyting I've heard so far. I thought reviews (as in amazon reviews) played a big role i=for the algorythms?

  2. Hi Marion,
    I think you're right about Amazon reviews having a vital role - I was talking about book blog reviews and even newspaper reviews. I think the most valuable thing of all is to get your book talked about in the watercooler sense - where people who write about it aren't reviewing it so much as buzzing about its characters and issues.

    India Drummond was kind enough to offer me a slot when I briefly dabbled with paranormal romance so you could get in touch with her. As soon as festival season's over I'll start thinking about what we can do for an event for you in Oxford.

  3. I think this is another area where author coalitions will be helpful. Once a group has gelled and knows its identity, it seems like it would work to pitch mainstream reviewers as a professional group with solidly branded work. Obviously, it's daunting for reviewers who are confronted with this vast mosh pit of self-pubbed books. They want someone to narrow it down for them.

    All that said, it's really frustrating to me that I can't get my indie books reviewed by media outlets that did review my first dozen corporately pubbed books. I'm the same author with the same creative value system, the same skills, the same NAME! Only one thing has changed: My indie books lack the seal of approval from those paragons of publishing virtue who brought out the literary works of Snooki and Justin Bieber. The hypocrisy hurts my head.

  4. Joni, I think you're right that in practice that would work - I certainly think collectives that have a very strong niche and identity are a good way of giving people an idea of what to expect from their books - just like small presses with strong identities do. I certainly think it's a very good idea for authros to join together *if* they can do so and maintain a very strong group identity that will reflect the books contained therein - like Triskele.

    On the other hand, I do think it's the job of the cultural media to dig out the fabulous and the hidden so I feel ambiguous towards things that make their life "easier" - easy soon becomes lazy and then we're back to the problem of a lack of air for the original and if what we care about is the state of culture as a whole that *has* to come before a concern for our own personal sales.

    And yes, the media's hypocrisy is mindboggling - that you maintain your positivity and altruism in the face of it is a minor miracle!

  5. Thanks for the mention Dan. Indieebook review was set up as a reaction to a) the frustration of Amazon (type) reviews which are NOT primarily (in my opinion) a place to go for a recommendation of whether a book is good, b) to illustrate that personal opinion is one thing and critical reviewing/commenting another (both with their place but easily confused on Amazon/Goodreads etc) to try and find and support and promote a range of indie writers without fear or favour and no financial imperative. I think it largely works. Whether it sells books I can't tell. It's certainly opened my eyes to a lot of brilliant books I would never otherwise have found. Whether we are creating a community or standing outside community commenting on it I'm still not sure. But it's an endeavour being undertaken in a positive, honest spirit and anti hypocrisy in all it's forms! It's also changed my whole understanding of how to read a book and what one can find in them and the relationship between the reader and the writer. This old dog has learned some new tricks as a result.

  6. And Joni, I just 'checked you out' after reading your post and have bought one of your books. If I like it I'll review it on IEBR. If not it will only be because my sense of humour doesn't accord with yours and that won't be YOUR fault! And bugger the seal of approval from THEM. It's our world too woman and we are just as entitled as THEY are (but oh, yes, they are the ones in control of the money. You just have to shift your mindset away from success in terms of THEIR rules!) And then you will be Free. My novel Brand Loyalty tells my view of this more entertaingly in fiction than I can ever do in a blog comment box!

  7. Hi Cally! I think IEBR does a great job - and I absolutely think you shouldn't even be thinking whether it sells books - that's not a reviewer's job - and I think that's something writers miss in all of the franticness. A reviewer's job is to be one chain in an ongoing discussion.

    I think being the hub of a community is the thing most review blogs do best - I certainly think a review site with a broad remit will *by definition* fail if it sees itself as commenting on a community - indie authors are not, creatively (though we may well have different communities in respect of and outside of other aspects of what we do), a community and if we try to be or are seen to be our creative heart gets ripped out. We are many many communities and many of those many communities contain people published in every way conceivable. Thinking of indie writers as a creative community only perpetuates the problem of not taking our content seriously - so when we are discussing actual works I think we owe it ourselves and the creative endeavours of others simply to say "this is a work of [paranormal romance/punk poetry/urban dystopian fairytale etc]" As someone concerned with hekping self-publishers I have more in common with self-published authors of westerns who share my general outlook towards art, and that is what this blog's for, but as an artist I have way more in common with Tracey Emin than with that self-published western author. I think it's a question of untangling our narrative communities so as to know where we are doing what and when and thus to contriute more meaningfully

  8. Reviews do create sales. My sales dropped off when the reviews stopped. It was a clear correlation for me. Also the big hearted request to reviewers isn't specifically for indies, all authors should be treated with the same respect.

  9. As regards to my post on the Awesome Indies, I wonder why asking for equal consideration has 'a ring of desperation about it'? Or is it because I asked for kindness? If so, please don't confuse kindness with dishonesty. My point was that all authors should be treated equally, but that reviewers should also understand the specific problems that Indies face when starting out and try to foster talent where they see it. Give credit where credit is due is all I'm saying. Just getting your book written and in print is an enormous accomplishment for any author and more so for an indie. I think people should understand that.

  10. Tahlia, thank you so much for commenting. Yes, I do absolutely think you're right that equal treatment is essential. And yes, you're absolutely right in relation to all authors and I apologise if I mistook the intention of that comment, which I did take to be referring primarily to indies - like I say, sorry if that wasn't the case - I have written on a number of occasions the importance of remembering that authors are people and treating them with that respect. Fostering talent is also absolutely essential - and it's one of the key things we try to do at eight cuts. But I don't think we should be calling to reviewers to do that - I think, and I hope I've made the point as to why, reviewers are there to do something else, and their first duty is to the community whose conversation they lead. For some reviewers that will mean championing the new - but it is by no means a given. I *do* think that pundits *should* play that role though, and I think we should be aiming our broadside there. I agree that yes it's a great achievement to get our work out there, but if it's more so for indies, again reviewers I think have a duty not to be swayed by that and I think as authors we have a duty to respect their roles (I should say that whilst as a devotee of art as a whole I take this line, it nonetheless drives me stark staring nuts as a writer that it means people won't review my books - I genuinely believe with my head that if they won't it probably means I wouldn't be right for their readers but with my heart I'm tearing my hair out!) and support them just as we have a duty to chivvy the pundits.
    It's very interesting though about yor sales and the link to reviews - I wonder if it relates to genre at all or other factors - whether readers of some books are more likely to listen to reviews (and whether review blogs are simply more or less established within genres) and others to go to forums or elsewhere - it'd be good to have more info.

    Thank you again

  11. I had a thought and it was this - perhaps there are two sorts of publishing - the first is about getting the work out there and engaging in a dialogue, giving the potential reader an informed choice and letting them make up their own mind. The second is trying to MAKE the mind and SET the choices of the potential reader. The first is what indie publishing may/should represent (IMO) the second is what market driven commercial publishing does. There's room for us all. I personally am only interested in developing a dialogue with a reader where a relationship is established. I don't really want to bully or cajole someone into reading my work, I want to give them the opportunity to know it exists and enough information to make up their own minds - then if they read it they are less likely to be disappointed because their expectations have been manipulated or managed. But if we are writers of the first camp we can't cry when we don't have the financial success of the second camp. For me, creativity is not an industry. When I first novel I had real problems selling it - in that I thought of it like a puppy and I didn't want it to go to a home that wouldn't appreciate and love it. I sort of still feel the same though I have a bit more confidence that I can tell people enough before they commit time or money to allow them to make the decision to read or not. Finally realised it's not for ME to decide who will understand or enjoy my work. But I am NOT interested in turning it into a financial product and hyping it through awards or mainstream or any of the capitalist tricks to get people to part with their money. End of thought.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. I'd take that Gav a lot more seriously if he'd have an editor check his posts, like any self-published writer. A publicly dangling modifier, for example, ought to be an embarrassment to someone who claims to esteem good writing:

    'Being fair he [Marlowe] was an aristocrat when he was human so breeding could have helped.'

    Now if only he'd dangle something really worth ogling...

  14. Now to essentials...

    In the past there have been review sites for self-published writers, but most of them have folded eventually. It's an awful lot of work, especially if you're not limiting yourself to a particular and perhaps relatively small pool of writers. One or two bloggers I corresponded with a good while back talked about sheer inundation. And if you chose to review all across the board, and not just the stuff you really like - which I believe essential to give a balanced view - then you are going to have to deal with obstreperous and potentially irate writers. Just like in the 'real' world ... ;-)

  15. Cally, "But if we are writers of the first camp we can't cry when we don't have the financial success of the second camp." I think that's absolutely right - I'm not sure all regular publishing necessarily falls into the second camp - but whether they are trying to create or meet market needs, yes, their is a consideration there that doesn't have to be for us, and that's a liberating thing.

    Lee, as a reader I am happy to cope with a hundred basic typos, but a single dangling modifier drives me nuts.

  16. iUniverse has helped more than 35,000 authors publish their books professionally and affordably. Since 1999, we have crafted a reputation for breaking records and blazing new trails in the self-publishing industry.