Written by Alyse N. Steves
Almost two years ago, I published my first novel, Child of Humanity. The overwhelming sea of emotions I felt as I saw my eBook listed on Amazon was among one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. After four years, I had done something that, sometimes, felt utterly impossible to accomplish. I received congratulations from friends and family, who applauded me for my hard work and perseverance. One of the most frequent comments I received was their amazement that I was a published author at such a young age.
“Self-published,” I would correct.
With those words, you could see the excitement dull in their eyes.
“Oh,” they’d say, “It’s still cool.”
I would try not to let them see me deflate, suddenly feeling as if my major accomplishment – my lifelong dream-- was inadequate. Perhaps the worst comment I ever heard was:
“I tried a self-published novel once. It was the worst thing I’ve ever read. I’ll never read another self-published book again.”
It’s no secret that some self-published books are just plain bad. Unfortunately, it would appear that disgruntled readers, tired of more misses than hits in the world of indie books, have decided to write off the entire collection of independently published works as subpar.
For this reason, I’ve found myself asking what the responsibilities of a self-publishing writer are. Do we have responsibilities to uphold to our readers as well as to the self-publishing community as a whole? Should we be policing our community, requiring a higher standard for those who want to independently publish?
We can’t pretend that we don’t know what that one well-meaning friend was talking about. We’ve all been there. We see a promising self-published novel advertised on Twitter or Facebook, and the link takes us to a five-star book on Amazon that has nothing but glowing reviews. The readers gush about it. They can’t get enough about it. Excited, you purchase the book, only to find a myriad of typos and grammatical errors on the first page alone. It doesn’t get better beyond that. Too many self-published books suffer from non-existent plots and lackluster character development. Too often, the book is left unfinished, or you get to the last page feeling ripped off.
This leads me to my first question: are self-publishing writers obligated to produce a high-quality book for their readers? Should it be an expectation that we all have polished, edited stories for sale? Many people can’t afford an editor. I understand that. When I was trying to get Child of Humanity published, my Kickstarter barely had any support, and to get the job done, I ended up taking out a small loan. It was my dream, so I was willing to make the financial sacrifice, but should every aspiring writer out there be obligated to do the same? Of course, there’s the workaround—the betas. We all know of at least one person who would be willing to be a beta reader. Still, that doesn’t mean that your one friend who happens to really like reading is going to be able to suggest ways to strengthen your characters and knows the difference between an en dash and an em dash. Our friends can only do so much.
So then, should the burden fall on the writing community? With our experience, should we offer ourselves as betas? Should we serve as editors to the needy? Support our fellow writers’ fundraising campaigns?
Or is this one of those sad facts of life that we just can’t work around? It goes without saying that some people see book writing as nothing more than a way to make money. Once, to my utter horror, I heard a fellow writer at a group meeting utter the dreaded words:
“I decided to write that one novel, even though I wasn’t feeling it. It didn’t require much thinking and was an easy five bucks.”
I was drawn to self-publishing because I have full control. It was a way for me to make my dream come true. There is no one to tell me what can be included in my book and what needs to be cut. The cover and title are my own ideas. I love the artistic freedom of self-publishing, so do I just accept that, intermixed with those of us who have a passion for story-telling, there are the businessmen who see the craft as nothing more than a way to get a few bucks off people? Even when it produces bad stories that hurt our reputation? Should we just accept that, intermixed with those of us who pour our heart and soul into our work, there are those who just want it done for the sake of saying they did it?
Of course, there is the other option. Since publishing my own story, I have begun seeking out other self-published novels to add to my reading list. It is my goal to support the self-publishing community by reading and reviewing as many self-published books as I can. I have read some amazing books, which I will post the reviews of on this blog soon, but I have also read books that were clearly hastily released before they were ready. So, question number two: do self-publishing writers have an obligation to be critical of other writers’ books?
Too often, I’ve found myself in a situation where I’ve felt like the self-published story I’m reading is only half baked. In a rush of excitement to get their masterpiece out into the world, the author has released something that, honestly, is no good. But my goodness, they are so proud of it and excited about its potential! Do I have it in me to give them the critical star rating? Do I want it to be me who crushes their excitement—maybe even their dream? Typically, I feel an obligation to the readers and do just that, feeling my stomach twist as I submit the review on Amazon and sit on the couch afterward, feeling as if I had kicked a puppy.
That brings up another issue: so many of us are desperate for reviews that don’t come from our mothers and best friends. We need good, honest reviews from people who don’t know us, and we need a lot of them. Our story, which we worked so hard on, is being overlooked by potential readers because it simply doesn’t have the numbers. To remedy this situation, I will sometimes offer to exchange reviews with another self-published author. The agreement is always that I will give an honest review of your book if you will give an honest review of mine.
But … sometimes, their book falls into the half-baked category. Sometimes, I’m left turning the last page, realizing I will have to give a critical review.
And I wonder … will they return the favor? If I give someone less than five stars, will they retaliate by giving me the same rating or worse? I admit that this has happened. It was not a pleasant experience, and it really turned me off from reviewing any more indie books.
So, what’s the answer? Is this just what the self-published book world is: a mixture of some of the most creative, well-written books available intermixed with half-assed scams or dreams that just don’t make the cut? Are we obligated to be our own community’s police and patrol the eBooks on Amazon for the sake of the good ones? In my opinion, we can’t control what gets published and we shouldn’t. We should all be free to publish whatever we want, and we should have our creative voices be heard without fear of censorship.
However, I think we should feel obligated to read other indie books and leave honest reviews, even if we may face retaliation on our own books. If we want the good ones to stand out, and if we want to change the tone of how indie books are viewed by readers, we owe it to ourselves to take on this extra responsibility.
I’d love to hear your opinions on this. If you have any suggestions or comments on what you think the obligations of a self-publishing writer are, I’d love for you to send me your response at AlyseSteves@gmail.com, message me at my Twitter account (@AlyseSteves), or post a comment on this blog. Maybe, together, we can figure out the answer.
Another Jack Hunt Apocalypse
The end of the world is a topic which fascinates some people more than others, and I believe we can safely say Jack Hunt is part of this interesting book. Previously he has tackled the topic of an electronic apocalypse in his EMP Survival series, exploring in great depth the personal and societal effects such an event would have on humanity. In his standalone novel The Wild Ones, Hunt has decided to take a slightly more lighthearted approach to the topic of Armageddon by turning his attention to a timeless classic: zombies. It is certainly true we've witnessed a veritable array of such novels hitting the shelves in recent years, but in my opinion a few of them are worth a read for the fresh perspective they provide on an old subject... and this happens to be one of them.
In any case, to give you a brief idea of what's going on, the story takes us to the Adirondacks, a chain of mountains near New York. A group of teenagers are attending a novelty of today's world, a summer zombie survival camp meant to teach them everything they would ever need should the most imaginary of apocalypses come to pass. I'm certain you already know where this is going: against all odds, an actual zombie outbreak happens in the mountains as an outbreak infects people and causes them to behave in a violent and uncontrollable manner. Being stranded more or less in the middle of nowhere and with mindless killing machines bearing down on them from all directions, the small group of inexperienced teens must band together, putting their knowledge of zombie hunting to the ultimate test. These two weeks were meant to be some of the most memorable and enjoyable times of their lives... now they'll be lucky to make a step without dying.
At first glance, I will admit this appears to be nothing more than yet another zombie novel to read and forget, to catalogue with the rest of the generic pile. However, the deeper you get into this book the more you realize it has much more to offer. To begin with, the various character tropes we've become sick and tired of in these zombie novels don't really find their ways here. Instead, we are presented with a realistic group of teenagers, all with developing and believable identities mired in flaws but with clear potential. Hunt made a great effort in making these kids behave in a true-to-life manner, one which will no doubt remind you of yourself or your friends at that age. As you get further acquainted with them, they begin to feel like real and valuable people rather than mere fodder for some zombie action.
Of great interest to me was the author's decision to make this book, in part at least, a character study about group dynamics. There are numerous scenes putting psychological principles to the test where we witness how different characters behave and react in this ragtag group of misfits. We get to explore their human side so to speak, and while Hunt's writings do stem from his imagination, he makes a compelling case as to how young people would react to this situation. Even if you won't buy into his study, it will at the very least force you to think a bit as to how you would react to these circumstances. In any case, a break from zombie-slaying action we've seen in a million other works is always a welcome change of pace.
Wild Times Ahead
With that being said, this is a novel about teenagers ironically stuck in a zombie survival camp, meaning there is plenty of action to go around, coupled with some black humour strewn about here and there. There are plenty of enthralling fighting scenes and I'm glad to see they are up to Hunt's standards, being as vivid and memorable as the ones in his previous works.
The plot itself has more twists and turns than you would expect from such a simple premise, seemingly revelling in veering through unlikely territories. While at first you feel quite confident with your ability to predict the characters' fates, as you close in on the ending that feeling becomes gradually weaker, giving rise to uncertainty. The author manages the herculean task of making us care about these teenagers, a feat which in my specific case is infinitely easier said than done.
While it can certainly be said the path walked by these kids has a few less than realistic moments, on the whole their capabilities remain grounded and in the realms of the realistic. The author has an exceptional talent for keeping his characters believable even through the tougher situations where they must go above and beyond what's expected of them.
What's more, we clearly see the characters being molded by their experiences, bearing the marks of pain and suffering from the inhumanity they are forced the endure and from the consequences of irremediable decisions they must make. Without spoiling too much of the ending, I am quite confident it has all the makings necessary to turn into an actual series.
The Final Verdict
The Wild Ones by Jack Hunt is welcome breath of fresh air in the zombie apocalypse genre, taking a somewhat different approach to the topic. While the characters are teenagers I would still say this is very much a book for adults, filled with thought-provoking character study, a realism which at times feels dreadful, and welcome doses of black humour for comic relief. If this is a genre you enjoy then I can confidently recommend this book; there aren't many new experiences left to have in the undead Armageddon, and this is one of them.
David ben Efraim (Bookwormex.com)
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