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.