Self-Publishing and Book Reviewers

Although self-publishing is less stigmatized now than it was even ten years ago, we still have a long way to go before we stamp out every form of prejudice against self-published books. For instance, book reviewers – other than local reviewers in the author’s hometown – refuse to review self-published books. They won’t even open the book and read the first few paragraphs, which is enough for people who make their living reviewing books to determine if the writer is good, or if he’s publishing prematurely.

Once upon a time, I edited a book called October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. I received an average of 240 submissions per month. I had lots of other things to do besides read 240 submissions per month, which would have taken a substantial amount of time. After reading a couple of paragraphs, two pages at most, I knew two things: 1) If the writer was ready for publication, and 2) If the story was the type for which we were looking. That’s not difficult to do, and it doesn’t take much time. There is not an editor anywhere who reads every word of every manuscript he or she receives.

When I was a student at the University of Nebraska, one of my English teachers brought in an arm load of self-published books. They weren’t difficult to find. UNL’s English department publishes The Prairie Schooner, a prestigious literary magazine. The Schooner receives many review copies of books from traditional and self-publishers. At that time they dumped the self-published books on a table where anyone who wanted them could pick them up.

My teacher read excerpts from the books, and we all had lots of laughs over them – until he came to one written by a fellow named Thomas M. Disch. That piqued my interest because, being a reader of speculative fiction, I was familiar with this author’s name. My teacher, with a smirk on his face, started reading. Slowly, the smirk dissolved. He stopped reading, and in a voice that clearly communicated his astonishment, he said: “This isn’t funny.”

He seemed almost let down, as if the Prairie Schooner had cheated him by putting this book on the rejects table.

The reason that book wasn’t “funny” might have been that Thomas M. Disch had a long history of being “traditionally” published. I don’t know why he chose to self-publish the book my teacher picked up. There are many reasons writers choose to self-publish, and it is a mistake for a critic  to dismiss a book because of his or her own misconceptions, his or her own prejudices.

Reviewers who have a rule that they will review no self-published books, would not have reviewed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Mark Twain self-published because of “the foolishness of his publishers.” That’s one reason some writers self-publish. Other writers self-publish because the pay is better (a royalty of 60-85% vs. 10-25%), and they are paid more quickly (many traditional publishers withhold an author’s royalties for three pay periods – 18 months – after the book is published). Other books may be self-published because, for whatever reason, they failed to find a publisher who thought there was a market for the book.

And yes, many self-published books are not ready for publication. But this is true of traditionally published books as well. I’ve been an avid reader for many, many, many years, and 99% of the books I’ve read were published by traditional publishers. And I’ve read lots of crap. Lots of crap. I’ve read fiction by writers who weren’t ready for the big time or who had ineffective editors or both, and I’ve read nonfiction books that did not support their hypotheses with good evidence. I’ve also read many good traditionally published books.

On the flip side, I’ve read some good self-published books as well as some that were not ready for publication.

My point is, to borrow an old cliché, you can’t judge a book by its cover. A reviewer who refuses to even look at a book because it is self-published not only is failing to do his job, but he’s also doing his readers a disservice, readers who might like Amanda Hocking’s stories, for instance (for those of you who may not have heard, Hocking found her audience by self-publishing, then was offered a $2 million deal from a “traditional” publisher).

For a look at some famous authors who self-published, check out my earlier blog post Self-Publishing: Is It For You?

Categories: Books, Indie Authors, Publishing, Reading, Reviews

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13 replies »

  1. This was such an interesting blog. I quite agree with you. I am working on the self-publishing thing myself. I appreciate your insight.


  2. I am writer who once had the same attitude to self-publishing. I have been working for a company, FriesenPress, and have been learning so much about the changes going on in our industry. The stigma is changing bit by bit, but as authors we do need to take the necessary steps to make sure that we are producing quality products. There are lots of articles on our blog page that discuss some of the different aspects of self-publishing and share information of value to upcoming authors……


    • I agree with you that many less than stellar self-published books were rushed to publication too quickly and would greatly benefit by more revision and copy-editing. Fortunately, that can be easily fixed if the authors take their time and are more careful with their work.


  3. I think anyone who locks themselves in a box and will only watch/read/listen to things that fit within that box are doomed to suffer a closed, boxed in life, whether it’s genres or publishing routes, or whatever their criteria. A lot of good things get missed because they fall outside the parameters.

    Great blog!


  4. With the current meteoric rise of e-book and attending rise of self-published book, reviewers limiting themselves to traditionally published books are bound to miss out on a lot. We will probably see a new generation of reviewers skilled in finding the diamond straw in the haystack and bringing us the gems brought forth by the new self-publishing opportunities.


  5. I have been searching for reviewers and it is absolutely true that many don’t even want to look at a self-published book. There is a definate bias against SP authors. I too can’t understand why they are unwilling to spend some time looking for “that hidden gem.” One publisher liked my book but said they were down-sizing and didn’t have the staff to take it on. Many other publishers must be in the same boat so who will reviewers review? Interested in doing a children’s picture book review David?
    (I blame any errors on the absence of my best friend, spell check.)


  6. I’d be glad to look at your book, Susan, as long as it has been published – it can be self-published or traditionally-published . Send a review copy to: David Kubicek, P.O. Box 80485, Lincoln, NE 68501-0485. Whether I review it depends on how well I like it, which means I need to give it 3 to 5 stars. I don’t use this blog to trash books but rather to promote books I like, so rest assured I won’t give you a bad review.


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