Saturday, December 31, 2011

Self-published books are not my best friend.

I've been reviewing books for a few years now for San Francisco Book Review and Sacramento Book Review. On the whole, it has been a fantastic experience. I get free books and then I get to tell the world (well, our readership, anyway) what I think about them; what's not to love?

Most of the time, I truly do love it. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a voracious reader, and I can comfortably spend an entire day curled up on the couch (or on a pile of pillows, since we don't actually possess a couch right now) digging into a good book.

The painful part often comes in when I'm presented with a self-published book to read. Now I'm not necessarily here to bash the self-publishing industry. (Or maybe I am. Let's go with honesty here.) The majority of the self-published books I've read during my time as a book reviewer have been pretty bad. So I'm going to make a broad, sweeping, and probably partially untrue statement here: Self-publishing companies are one of the worst things to happen to printed books in the last few decades.

Self-publishing companies simply make it too easy for anyone to get their book out there. I'm not trying to say that there aren't some people for whom self-publishing isn't the best option; I know that real publishing companies can only put so much out, and sometimes a genuinely good book gets passed up. Unfortunately, for many of the self-published books I've read, there's a very good reason why no regular publisher would want anything to do with it.

Self-publishing allows people to “tell their story” even if, quite frankly, they have nothing of actual interest to talk about. Does that sound callous of me? I read one memoir about a man who grew up in Germany and served briefly in the military in World War II. He had a completely non-distinguished career and did nothing of real note during the war. This author then went on to eventually move to America; if I remember correctly, he ultimately settled in California and opened a car dealership, or something similarly unexceptional. I'm sure these family stories are of great interest to... well, his family. I know from my own experience that having these stories recorded may someday be invaluable to his grandchildren when they have to do some sort of family heritage project in school. But I don't see what the point is of publicly publishing a memoir that, in all honesty, will not be of any interest whatsoever to the general population.

On the flip side, sometimes people use self-publishing as a creative outlet because they actually have something to say. And sometimes they have too much to say, and try to cram it all into one book, and the end result is a disjointed, incoherent mess. Earlier this year I read what to me is the reigning monarch of terrible self-published books. Not only was it simply not well-written (possible translation: reading and trying to understand it was... an adventure, to say the least), but plot-wise, it had to be one of the most confused stories I've ever encountered. If I remember correctly, one of the major plot lines centered around the universe facing a dramatic shortage of beeswax, and how one of the characters unwittingly entered the black market for selling beeswax to other planets. Seriously. Another one of the major characters got a job with an apiary, where he was apparently quite skilled at getting the bees to produce extreme amount of beeswax due to his propensity to windmilling his arms when he got nervous.

There were other parts of the book that had absolutely nothing to do with beeswax. If I recall correctly, the passage that this quote came from had no real bearing on the rest of the book:
Heck pondered for a moment, was he doing the right thing preparing for total global thermonuclear war? Or should he just go home and order a pepperoni pizza instead?
(I have a ton of these quotes saved; I was reading this book while D was away at basic training and I frequently inserted nonsensical quotes in my letters to him, both to vent about the book and to entertain him.)

I also remember one particular character who had a habit of scratching himself when he got nervous. (Come to think of it, there were several characters who had bizarre tics produced by anxiety.) In one scene, he took a pretty girl out for coffee, but unfortunately his nerves got the better of him. He stood there and scratched his arms while waiting for both coffees to be ready. He scratched so vigorously that he not only turned his arms red, but he started scratching off skin flakes, which fell into his date's coffee drink, which she then actually consumed, not noticing the little skin flakes floating on the surface until after taking a sip. Needless to say, there was no second date.

I can't make things like this up.

Most self-published books are, quite simply, badly written. Well, maybe that's a little bit of a generalization, but I do find that the majority of the ones I have read are in desperate need of an editor. Companies like Xlibris and CreateSpace offer editing services, but not as a part of any of their regular publishing packages; an author either has to pay extra for a specific editing package, or has to pay a freelance editor for the work. Perhaps not surprisingly, it would seem that many authors forgo what should be an essential part of the publishing process.

The result? Many self-published books can be downright painful to read, since many people are downright bad at writing. The aforementioned memoir contained an unfortunate line about someone eating a “bowel of pea soup.” The little gem I'm reading right now is absolutely rife with spelling and punctuation errors; D's theory is that the book was written using some sort of voice-to-text software, which seems like a viable explanation to me. If that's the case though, the author should have either invested in better software or worked harder at enunciating clearly; I'm pretty sure “scheldrole” is not an actual word. Additionally, it would seem that the manuscript was not even subjected to the inadequate rigors of spell-check; I'm not even sure it was thoroughly read through before being submitted for publication. I'm less than thirty pages in at this point in time; here are a few of the things that have jumped out at me: there for the right resends. 
Most parents like me have to give up there hop pies just so we can spend more time with our child. 
That was my paten and my desire in life.
Keep in mind that those sentences are copied verbatim. I feel like I'm repeating myself here, but I just can't make things like this up.

So I hate to sound old-fashioned, but I really tend to think that if an author can't get their book published through conventional means, there is probably a reason. They're not all bad; I've read a few self-published books that are actually pretty darn good. Well, that's an exaggeration; I can think of precisely one self-published book that I've read that was truly enjoyable. Most of them are mediocre at best. And many (of the ones I've seen, anyway) are simply terrible.

Note: There's a reason why I'm not mentioning any of these books by name. Most of them were what my company calls a Sponsored Review, and my name isn't directly attached to the reviews themselves; I'd prefer to keep that anonymity, thank you very much. I'd also like to pretend that terrible books like these simply don't exist; maybe if I don't give voice to their titles, I can wish them out of existence. And I also just don't want to be mean by openly bashing these books, no matter how awful they are.


  1. Self-published books are interesting, agreed. When I blog, I try to keep in mind that I, too, am joining the world of self-publishing, and try to maintain some level of quality! Resendly I've suffered a lapse in publishing due to travel but I have great hop pies that I can resume full-blast soon 8-)
    The beauty of a blog is that if it's really bad, nobody will read it ... so nobody will know.

  2. The best self-published books I've read were not recommended to me by the author - but were instead found, well thumbed, on bookshelves belonging to family and friends.

    The very worst self-published book I've ever written was a children's book, given by the author to my five-year-old son while standing in line at the grocery store. It was so very bad that I later sewed it into a pillow case and used it as a 'kick plate' to protect my belly while nursing in bed.


    Mrz Carmen