Tag Archives: self-publishing

Judging a book by its . . . no, not just its cover — words / myth / ampers & virgule

For most of my life, the public was willing to trust experts—in whatever field—to render judgment on what was better or worse (an argument, a product quality, an artistic work). The zeitgeist has shifted, and now the cultural norm is to distrust experts and reject expertise as a basis for judgment. This applies to book…

Judging a book by its . . . no, not just its cover — words / myth / ampers & virgule

[J here: this I found an insightful guide to a subject dear to my heart. I believe quality in book manufacture and production matters, obviously, or I would not be part of the process. I do adore to see good quality production.]


How (and how not) to solicit book reviews

The book industry has changed, in case you weren’t paying attention, and the downfall of the New York model has gone hand in hand with the changes in the game’s admission rules. The bar has dropped from ‘has to make the publisher money’ to ‘author has to be willing to shell out a little money or become a DIY publisher him/herself.’ If you don’t hire any editing, proofreading, typesetting, cover art or printing, there’s no noteworthy cost. It’s guaranteed to be lousy on some level, because just about no one who writes well does all the rest of that well, but congrats: you’re published.

In short, the ticket price has dropped to a sliding scale, but there is no parking or mass transit, and traffic is horrible.

If you self-publish, of course, you’re also the marketing department. (Even under other forms of publishing, you are still the marketing department, though it’s more comforting to pretend that you are not.) That means trying to get some book reviews up on Amazon, which probably has 90% of the market share, or on blogs or other bookselling sites. Most people will read at least a few book reviews before buying a book. A book with no reviews appears to be a book that has generated zero interest, and inspires like in the shopper.

Where this leads: if you’re written any Amazon reviews of any note at all, there are a lot more people seeking reviews than there once were. Naughty secret: for whatever it was worth, under the old Amazon review system where someone named Harriet Klausner ranked as #1 for years by writing about three book reports a day, my highest ranking (out of about 150,000 reviewers) was #73. In 2000, that got me about 1-2 review requests per month.

Today, under the new ranking system (in which my body of work is unremarkable) and having written about ten reviews in the last ten years, I get 1-2 review requests per week. It has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with the exponential increase in self-marketers. Self-publishers, even those who hire professional assistance and produce quality work, are of necessity self-marketers. The self-publisher who is not also a self-marketer is either disinterested in making money, or disinterested in facing reality.

Some of those seeking reviews are doing it right, and some are doing it wrong. Here is how to do it right.

  • The approach must be personal and by name. ‘Dear Reviewer’ is of minimal worth; that tells me it’s spam, and should be deleted.
  • The approach must indicate why I was selected. A generalist approach (“as you have reviewed many books on Amazon…”) is a failure, because that tells me it’s spam.
  • The why must be credible and sensible. At the least, it should refer to a genre of material I have read, and better that it include specific titles. I’m not saying that someone needs to butter me up, just that it needs not to look like spam.
  • The offer must include a print copy of the book. Of course, this is not true for many reviewers, and is not possible for many books. To me, an author serious enough about wanting a review is serious enough to mail me a copy. Therefore, this one’s optional, as I have specific conditions that don’t apply to everyone else.
  • The offer must not involve a pre-publication version, a.k.a. a galley. Galleys may be rarer today, but I remember a number of approaches where someone wanted me to review a .pdf of the galley. I don’t think too many reviewers are interested in pre-publication galleys–they want to review the book after it’s gone gold.
  • The offer must include contact information beyond an e-mail address. This is business. We are real people. If you are an author, you’re a public figure on some level. Providing your contact information highlights your authenticity and encourages me to take you seriously. If you write under a pen name, you should provide your real name, or if not, explain candidly to me why you can’t (your ex-husband is a complete psycho, you are living under an assumed name in Ecuador, etc.).
  • The offer must not put me on a mailing list of people to spam later. I will generally remember who has written to me before, so if you send out a second round hoping for better results, you won’t get those results from me. I realize that this sounds implausible; who would do such a stupid thing? Please believe me when I say that some people are so desperate for publicity, they will do exactly this. When I see it again, I get very grouchy. I had to report one author to her ISP.
  • The offer must be phrased in your best writing. Because if you can’t write well when you step into my spotlight (and presumably are presenting yourself at your very best), that tells me that your book may be badly written. If I suspect that it is, I won’t proceed further.


Because my time is finite, and I don’t want to accept a commitment to read a book that will be torture to my brain. Especially when good practice demands that I drop whatever else I am reading and fulfill my commitment to read it.

Because I will then be expected to review it (and professional ethics demand that I do so in a timely manner), and I have zero fundamental desire to impale a book in public. The idea of harming an aspiring author’s prospects is completely counter to my line of work, my thought process and level of enthusiasm–it feels like a police officer ordered to slap around a nice elderly lady. Most would refuse.

Three, because I get nothing from this. I don’t have tremendous motivation to write book reviews, as anyone who looks at my body of work at Amazon (seven serious book reviews in the last four years) can tell. When I write a book review, I am donating my time almost for free, and to make it worse, Amazon is going to whore my review out to anyone it wishes (a major reason not to donate them free content).

Even if you do everything right, I may not end up accepting a review copy, and the reasons may have nothing to do with anything you said or did. I could just be too busy to do it right and on time. But if you do everything right, someone else will.

The blook: today’s publishing trend

I keep seeing this, so it’s time we gave it a name. From a writer’s vantage, the 2000s have been defined by the crumbling of the NYC stranglehold on the publishing apparatus. The proles can now easily buy the means of production. Self-publishing is the way of the day.

This has led to the blook: the blog that eventually becomes a self-published book. The idea is not new, of course, but an evolution of the colook (collection of columns turned into a book) or the slook (collection of short stories turned into a book). All that’s changed is that now everyone’s a columnist and short story author, me included. Blog consistently enough about a subject, and you can get by with publishing the collection as a blook.

This I don’t like. When I buy a book, I’m expecting that someone meant it to be a book, with previously unpublished insights and a unifying theme. I’m not expecting it to be a bunch of stuff I could have read for free, or seen in the right magazines. I see this as a cheesy way to avoid the long project fatigue of sitting down to author a real book from start to finish. Waspish of me, but: it’s a great way to author by Tao. Ever read the Tao Te Ching? It’s all about doing by not doing. The blook seems exactly like what Lao-Tzu had in mind, applying his concept to authoring.

All the same, the consumer can adjust expectations and willingness to pay. If I think blooks are of less value than books, I can avoid buying blooks I consider not to deliver fair value. However, they sneak up on you, both at the bookstore and at Amazon. In the end, if you aren’t too enamored by blooks, the only answer is to research them yourself before you buy.

Some cold realities about getting published, for your information

This is adapted from an e-mail I wrote to a client, when asked for advice about publication and marketing of one’s own books.

Most of the publishing world is parasitical. It wants you to do all the work and provide all the content so that it can make most of the money. It operates on the principle of the remora.

Your decision is between self-publishing, small press publishing and New York. The main difference between the three is that with New York, New York gets all the money and also locks up more of the rights. Small press probably treats you more humanely and pays you a little better. With self-publishing, you keep all the rights and make all the money.  Also, with New York and most small press, they want ‘exclusive submission.’ That means that they entertain the fantasy that you should pitch it to them, then wait for a reply before you pitch it to anyone else. I’ve seen more credible fantasies in Penthouse Variations.

Notice I didn’t specify any actual benefits from small press or New York. They confer mainly the ‘I made it’ prestige/legitimacy factor, a commodity that is fading faster than the big houses want you to believe. They will mostly do minimal to no editing or marketing for you. They will do a cover for you, but they will inflict it upon you without much input allowed from you. They will typeset it for you, but they can screw up real, real bad, such as accidentally publish an early draft rather than the one you worked so hard to refine. (I am not joking. It happened to a pretty respected author I sort of know, Allen Barra. When I wrote to him to ask, “Al, say it ain’t so, how did this get so screwed up?” he wrote back and told me what had happened. Since I was writing a review, he insisted on paying to send me a copy of the right version. If I was going to write a review, he wanted it to be his best work, which is not what the publisher fricking printed. Unbloodybelievable.)

Suppose it sells for $12. New York will pay you $1 per copy sold. You’re still on the hook for most of the marketing. If you self-publish, you keep $12 per copy sold minus the printing cost. This means that NY has to outsell you 12:1 just to break even, and you signed rights away to them. If you succeed well enough on your own, publishers may come calling. I’d be careful. Publishing is a business. The main reason for them to call is because they want some of the money. The burden is on them to demonstrate why you would make more money with them than you are now, and that that is worth the rights you sign away. Many of them count on you being so wowed that you won’t read the contract too carefully, much less send it to an intellectual property attorney for review.

Your odds of getting an agent are minimal; your odds of a lot of terse rejections are high. Publishers at least sometimes act like you are also a customer, which agents know you are not. Just as many publishers want to buy the home run best seller that will make them zillions for no work, many agents want to pitch the easily pitchable book that will make them thousands for no work.

There are exceptions to all of the above. These are trends, not universal realities.

If it’s a non-fiction book, in order to pitch it, you need a query letter, a book proposal and a copy of the current Writer’s Market. If you don’t know what any of that is, you need to learn, because not knowing what that stuff is would be akin to trying to breastfeed baby and unsure where Junior is supposed to find the spout.

Edit: this piece prompted Shawn Inmon, the self-published author of a compelling true love story, to put forth his own perspective about self-publishing. If you felt this was worth a read, I think you’ll feel Shawn’s post is also.

Radcon 5C

This past weekend I spent at RadCon, the Tri-Cities’ (WA) science fiction convention.

Registration was more abominable than last year, if that’s even possible. (You cannot imagine. Should it take three hours of waiting in line? I think the line began around Bonner’s Ferry.) Dealers either not given enough room or charged too much–there were as many hotel room dealers as there were in the dealer room. If you didn’t wend your way down Wing 2, you missed the Bizarro Fiction folks (google Shatnerquake and just laugh your head off) and a bunch more stuff, such as the Cocaine energy drink people. I was tempted to buy one just to support a beverage that has a disclaimer that says “if you really imagine this contains actual cocaine, you are a moron.” I never tire of packaging that ridicules idiots–we have so many in my country, many of whom escape their just desserts.

Sharon was her usual lovely, charming self, brought a con newbie with her (friend Lovell, from HS) and did for him what she once did for me (general askari/native guide function). I think this was probably the con at which I transitioned from intermediate to veteran, becoming essentially self-sufficient and no longer an albatross around Sharon’s neck, all thanks be unto her for many companionships and kindnesses. Much socialization with C.J. Cherryh and Jane Fancher, each a marvel in her own way. Received emphatic and safe advice from C.J. on matters literary.  If I don’t follow said advice, coming from such a source, I’m too stupid to succeed (this blog is a direct step in that direction, since I’d hate to be too stupid to succeed).

You know, you really experience these cons differently with repetition. It develops a certain intimacy and warmth that grows over the years. I begin to think that if you’re going to do a given con, you need to become a regular–do it annually or don’t do it. You see people you talked to briefly last year, and this year they invite you to join them for dinner, and pretty soon you are invited to a cider pressing in Idaho in summer/fall. You shoot the breeze with some Rasta-type kids out front, or sort of commiserate with the security dude who is out for a smoke. Flirt with the obviously gay-as-the-1890s waiters; better service (as Sharon can attest, I have almost zero shame, not that shame is in heavy supply at SF cons).

One message comes through to me about the literary industry:  the New York dead tree model is hosed. It is less relevant each year. Simple math:  even a prominent author might keep one dollar in ten of the paperback revenues. Through e-publishing, she will keep 100%. Put another way: not only does one e-book sale equal ten paperback sales, one makes the e-book sale with complete creative control and no Manhattan corporate crap. I posed the question to more than one author: “at what point will we fully transition from the dream being ‘picked up by New York’ to, New York calls us and we say, ‘sorry, but you really have nothing to offer me but lousy margins, so no, thanks, I do not want to sign with Random House'”? In the estimation of many, we are nearly there. When one of your sales equals ten of theirs…that is big. That’s an exponent.

(11/11/2020: I review this content nearly a decade later, and kind of get a warm fuzzy because I turned out to be correct. It has driven the demand for editing services. It has also driven an explosion in “anyone can become a writer” thinking, which is great, except that most people who have limited writing skills don’t learn this until they send it to an editor. The second body blow is that, since they have limited writing skills, the editing will cost a lot more than they imagined.)

In short, Radcon was a great time for many reasons, despite its Tri-Cityness (perennial inefficiency being as much a part of the local culture as basic courtesy and goodwill). I pre-registered again, so that tells you something. Biggest drag: learning that the local newsies caught me on camera. It tells you how relaxed I was: I wasn’t even on the alert for one of my most hated situations, as I learned in a text from my wife advising me I was on TV whether I wanted it or not. When someone with a startle reflex and loathing for the news media as profound as mine managed to get filmed by the media on the sly, that someone really had his guard down.