David Kubicek

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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?

Amanda Hocking’s Trylle Trilogy

Torn (Trylle Trilogy, #2)Torn by Amanda Hocking

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Switched, Torn and Ascend make up the Amanda Hocking’s Trylle trilogy. Although each book has a beginning, middle, and end, they all fit together, so this review will cover all of them.

The story is about a girl named Wendy who learns, as a teenager, that she is a troll. Not like the ugly irascible creatures in fairy tales. These trolls look like humans, but they have peculiar qualities that distinguish them–such as hard-to-manage hair, a distaste for foods humans like (such as soda pop and pizza), and a preference for going barefoot. They also have mental abilities like being able to move objects or control the wind. Wendy has the ability to persuade people to do things, although as Switched begins her persuasive ability is in a very rudimentary form because it hasn’t been developed yet.

The story begins with Wendy learning that she is a changeling–her mother switched her with a human infant–and now a “tracker” has come to return her to the Trylle. He comes for her early because the villains of the story, another tribe of trolls, is planning to kidnap her.

That is the start of the story which will span three books before reaching its conclusion. The Trylle trilogy is a fast read, and Hocking is an excellent story-teller. Her narrative is full of twists, turns, and surprises. The only thing that prevented me from giving it four stars is that some of the dialogue is distracting.

For example, when two characters are arguing Hocking tends to use lots of exclamation points and uses phrases like “he yelled” or “she shouted,” which is similar to killing a fly with a sledgehammer; the dialogue is written well enough that the reader probably would picture them arguing without the added emphasis.

Also, instead of relying on “he said” or “she said,” Hocking uses words like “he smiled” or “she laughed,” when it might have been better to say “he said, and smiled” or “she said, and laughed.” I stood in front of the mirror and , just to try it out, talked while I was smiling; it looked creepy.

But those were minor distractions. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the Trylle story, and I think you will, too.

View all my reviews

Self-Publishing: The Pros and Cons

In the past couple of weeks two newsworthy events have occurred in the self-publishing universe. The first was when, as I reported in an earlier blog, thriller writer Barry Eisler walked away from  a $500,000 advance to self-publish his next novel. The second was when self-published bestselling author Amanda Hocking signed a $2 million four-book deal with St. Martins.

The Hocking deal inspired the post “Advice for Amanda Hocking From Authors and Agents” on book editor Alan Rinzler’s Blog. As the title implies, Rinzler asked several authors and agents to put in their two-cents-worth about whether the deal would help Hocking achieve her main goal, which she said was to concentrate on writing rather than split her time between writing and publishing duties.

I won’t summarize the post here. It is a good one, and I recommend that you read it, especially if you’ve flirted with the idea of self-publishing. But I will make a few comments about some of the pros and cons that were mentioned.

  • The success of any book, whether you publish it yourself or through a traditional publisher, requires that you commit a great deal of your time to promote it. While it is true that publishers may pay for things like book tours, it is also true that not every book will have a hefty promotion budget – or even a small one. That depends on decisions made in the board room. But if an author tells his or her publisher, “I want to concentrate on writing; you handle the promotion,” that author’s book will probably be put on the list for a skimpy promotion budget – if it gets one at all – and may even make the publisher less likely to release future titles from the author.
  • With self-publishing you control the look of your book – the cover art, the cover copy, the book design, etc. But if you’re comfortable leaving those duties to others, traditional publishers generally do fine design work.
  • Traditional publishers have the weight to get their authors wider distribution than if they self-published. To some extent this may be true, especially with printed books; however, services like Smashwords publish books in a variety of digital formats for a variety of digital reading devices. You can buy Smashwords books from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Sony, and Apple. You can even buy them in PDF to read on your computer. That’s a lot of distribution. Plus, any book that has an ISBN number (which Smashwords provides) can be special-ordered, in case you create demand for your book in areas where it isn’t available (this isn’t a problem for e-books).The Moaning Rocks and other stories
  • Self-publishing is faster, which is good if you’re impatient. Most traditionally-published books take at least a year – and may take up to two years – to appear in print. A book published through Smashwords will populate its distribution channels in a matter of weeks.

It may seem as if I’m jumping on the self-publishing bandwagon. That’s not entirely true. Like Amanda Hocking, I would take a traditional publishing deal if it felt right for me; however, also like Hocking, I would not give away the rights to books I had already published, and I would retain the right to self-publishing other books.

It may also seem as if I’m promoting Smashwords. To some extent that may be true. My book, The Moaning Rocks and other stories, is being published by Smashwords because I investigated the company and liked what I saw (and so far I’ve been pleased with my experience). My novel In Human Form will follow shortly. Smashwords is also up-front with writers; they say that although some of their books have sold lots of copies (Amanda Hocking’s among them), some authors haven’t sold a single book. It all comes down to how well the author can promote his or her work and how good of a writer he or she is.

But that’s true of traditional publishing as well.

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