Yep, still wary about self-published books

I hate to say this, but as much as I hate the traditional publishing “system” as a writer, I’m mostly grateful for it as a reader. This past month I spent most of my time reading books that were either self-published or had originally been self-published and now had been picked up by a publisher, or the author had started out as a self-published writer.

First, I decided to try out Amanda Hocking. She received a great deal of attention for the many sales she made in self-publishing of her Trylle Trilogy series. The millions she made got the notice of some publishers, and she got picked up by a traditional company. I ended up getting a review copy of the first book in her new Watersong series, Wake, which is her first to be published entirely traditionally. It’s in e-book format as well as hardcover. Everything about it is polished and professional, from the cover to the marketing to the actual writing. I found the story to be compelling and pretty well written. I don’t think it’s going to be my favorite of any YA series out there, but it holds its own among its competitors.

After reading that, I thought it might be time to investigate the older Trylle series, starting with Switched. Now that Hocking has been picked up, the books she’s already self-published have gotten the professional treatment, with nice cover images and some editing. Having not read them before they were edited, I can’t say how much editing they got. Did they just get some good proofreading, or did the stories themselves get some good polishing and reworking to make them better? I don’t know. I suspect they didn’t get as thorough editing as the Watersong books, however, because I did feel they could have used some more changes. I can also say that I didn’t think that the Trylle books were “all that.” Again, they hold their own OK compared to other books in the full YA romance and “paranormal” market, but they’re not standouts, in my opinion. The love story was pretty well done, but I couldn’t get on board with the “triangle;” one character just didn’t get fleshed out well enough for me to be completely behind him. And that was really important. I also just couldn’t get into the premise of the story enough for me to really like it; the idea of these “beautiful trolls” having little communities and “kingdoms” hidden among humans was fine, sure, but I just didn’t care what happened to them. Hocking kind of resolved that for me by the end of the series, but a reader shouldn’t have to wait till the middle of the third book to “get into” the premise. That was a major strike against the books, I thought.

So I am glad that Hocking got picked up by a major publisher, because she has talent enough to produce books that will sell well in the YA market, and she definitely benefits from good editing.

Next, I started a self-published book called Broken Shell Island, which a blogger had highly recommended. Looking at her list of other favorite books, I found similarities in our tastes and thought I should try out this book. I have to say that this is a fairly good story, but I just didn’t love it. It’s deliberately quirky, with a splash of Alice in Wonderland, almost, but the whole mix just didn’t do it for me. Others may like it. I think it would do better with a larger audience if it had the benefit of a good editor, as well.

Since I had blogged about clean romances, an author contacted me and asked if I’d like to read one of hers. Normally, I tell self-published authors I simply don’t have time to read their books; I have such a huge list of to-reads anyway, and limited time for reading/ reviewing, that it’s just safer for me to stick with traditionally published stories. (More on this later.) Plus, I want to make sure that Rated Reads reviews books that are getting a lot of attention, so that my site’s visitors know if the popular books they’re hearing about are clean or not. If I had a hundred reviewers contributing to RR, maybe I could alter that policy, but for now it still works. But I made an exception and read her book, Forgotten Honeymoon. It was cute enough, I suppose, but I did feel that I could have used that reading time for something I would really have loved. Again, it’s nice to know that someone’s out there writing “clean romances,” but they have to be really great and well-written in addition to simply “clean.”

Last, I read Love Unscripted, which is another book and writer who have been picked up by a traditional publisher after finding some success in the self-publishing arena. As I wrote on Goodreads, I decided to read this when I saw on one of my publishing-news updates that it had gotten picked up by a publisher. I figured that meant it should be a cut above the usual self-published stuff. For the first half or third of the book, I felt convinced that was true. It was fun to read and actually pretty well written. But as the book wore on, I had more complaints. I am hoping that since it’s now getting the treatment from a good editor, it may end up correcting some of the problems that I saw.

First, it was entirely too long; it could easily have been edited down without losing anything at all; in fact, taking out some stuff would have made me happier. It just dragged. I felt that some of the plot points were stretching my credibility and patience, and they could easily have been left out or changed significantly. Second, and related to the first point, as some other Goodreads reviewers noted, Reber does too much “telling” rather than “showing” in her writing. She hammered us over the head in telling us how the characters must be feeling. We get it. We’re smart enough to follow where you’re going. Third, a few things toward the end were so obvious that I just wanted to smack the character and the writer. I won’t “spoil” the story, but, really, this character is pretty smart. She didn’t see the really, really, REALLY obvious things that were going on around her from a mile away? Everyone else knew, and she didn’t. Urgh.

And on the topic of “clean” content or not, I was unhappy with the number of uses of the f-word. There were at least 25 to 30, which was simply far too many. The sexual details throughout the book were actually at a satisfactory level except for the first time the main characters have sex, and that scene is long and detailed. I REALLY didn’t want to know exactly what he was doing to her. Ick.

I think, though, that this author has potential and can create some characters we can root for and a love story that draws us in. This just needs a little bit of good editing. I hope that when it gets that and is published “traditionally,” this book will do well.

So, to sum up: In this month of spending my reading time with books that have been self-published somewhere along the line, I can still say with all confidence that I’d rather read something traditionally published. It’s still true that the publishing route allows books to get vetted for quality and then edited to make them even better. I just want to read books that are going to knock my socks off, and so far I haven’t read anything self-published that has done that.

And if that means that since I have yet to get picked up by a traditional publisher for the projects I’ve spent months of my life (and blood, sweat, and tears) on, I’ve not produced writing that’s good enough for others to read and love, so be it. It hurts my pride, but I’ll keep trying.

Author: Cathy Carmode Lim

I'm a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is I'm a mom of four and grandma of three.

5 thoughts on “Yep, still wary about self-published books”

  1. I appreciated and agreed with most of your comments. Unfortunately, it seems to me, that anymore, having an editor does not promise a well developed and thought out story, or characters who are well drawn. I find this particularly true in the YA scify/fantasy genre. Case in point, would be Ally Condie’s second book “Crossed.” As I read the book, I wondered more than once if her editor had gone on vacation. There was no difference in the voices of her characters. And it was particularly problematic when chapters were being written with the POV of those characters.

    Sorry to say that most self-published work is not very good. I wonder, however, if given a chance, if there aren’t a number of really fine self-published stories that would be wonderful reads given an editors attention. The publishing industry is nearly impossible to break into unless you know someone, or can jump on the current ‘fifty shades’ train and come up with a knock-off that will sell quickly regardless of the merit of the work.

    My guess is that your own work would probably have appeal as well, if you could capture the right persons attention. I personally have sent out over a hundred queries trying to find an agent. Most do not offer even a form letter reply. None of them tell you why your book was not to their liking. I have had two small publishers interested in my work – one thought the book to offensive, the other, not offensive enough. So where do you turn, if not to self-publishing?

    Seems to me the entire industry has become a catch 22.

    1. Well, you’re right about that. Definitely it’s true that having an editor or a traditional publisher does not guarantee a good book. It just gives it a better chance. There are a TON of books out there that have somehow gotten agents and editors and are just bad. Bad. Bad. I’ve scratched my head many a time.
      In terms of my writing, I wrote a mothering memoir a dozen years ago and sent out countless query letters and read a ton of advice on crafting the right kind and on and on and on. I gathered quite a folder full of rejections. I eventually decided to self-publish. This was before there were really e-books, and I deliberately decided against print on demand because I didn’t like the quality of what I’d seen out there.
      I can and probably should write a whole other post on all the problems with the publishing industry. And I agree that there must be some self-published writers out there who should be given a chance; it’s clear that’s the case in terms of someone like Amanda Hocking, who is good enough for it. I just don’t want to take the time to wade through the millions of offerings out there in order to find a good one. I am sure editors feel the same way.
      I suppose I can also say I’m a copy editor/writing coach by profession in addition to being a longtime book reviewer, so it gives me a bit of a different point of view on books rather than just being a book critic. I would actually love to be a book editor, but I’ve never figured out how to go that route. (I also am not in a position to move to New York.)

  2. I’m relatively new to the self-publishing arena, but I have to say you made some good points. I read somewhere that presently there are over 400,000 self-published books released annually. I’m sure some are very good; however, discovering them is quite challenging. On the flip-side, I have spent good money on traditionally published books only to find that I didn’t like them.

    Unfortunately, I’m seeing more and more that online reviews are unreliable. I used to think the more reviews, the better the accuracy as to how good a product is, but in recent months I’ve come to learn that making a determination based on reviews is often not very helpful.

    I think the best way to find well-written, engaging self-published material is by word of mouth referrals, whether it’s through social-networking or in “real life.”

    About 1 out of 10 books I start to read I actually finish. That also applies to traditionally published books. Yesterday I bought my first Kindle. I plan to take advantage of the free Kindle eBook offers on Amazon. I’m quite fed-up with buying books (or making trips to the library) and seeing the author needs the first 100 pages for exposition, or can’t get me even mildly curious by page 150.

    As a self-published author, I have to admit I’m aware that my book could be more polished and that I rushed to release it. I wanted to have something in print primarily for my personal satisfaction rather than attempt to generate extra income. I hired an editor before I published. She was very good (Amanda Bumgarner), but after paying her to edit two of my stories I realized I wouldn’t be able to afford an editor for a longer period of time. After publication, I sent copies to my mother and to my nieces and nephews. I’m hoping it will inspire them a little, or at least help to encourage a life-long love of reading. ( My 2nd edition will be more polished. 🙂 )

    The short stories from my book I’ve posted on my web site because I want people to have the opportunity to “try before they buy.” I know that some people feel strongly that authors shouldn’t “give their work away” because it hurts other authors, but I am not yet convinced of that. As a reader, if I hear of a book that I want and have to pay $10 or $20 for it, I will buy it even if there are 1000 free books available. I don’t believe competition between authors is the same as competition in other industries. If I really want a Jeep, but someone offers me a brand-new Dodge Caravan for free, I will take the Dodge; it’s unlikely the Jeep can do things significantly different or better than the Jeep. With a book, the content will be vastly different from other books (I would hope!), so I’m more likely to spend money on a book I really want, even though someone is offering me another “book” for free.

    1. I hadn’t heard too much about the argument of giving your work away hurting OTHER writers, but I can’t say I can get on board with it. On the contrary; I tend to avoid most of the 99-cent or free books on Amazon because they are from self-publishers (and I’ve already said my piece about that…), so my business goes to the authors I really love. And I’ve barely borrowed anything from the Kindle owners library because it’s still a lot of self-pub.
      I know there are a few really great writers out there among the self-published, and there are definitely a bunch of cruddy ones among the traditionally published. But I don’t have time to sift through the hundreds of thousands, unfortunately. And I’m very picky about word of mouth, too. Goodreads is useful but I still give the most credence to people I know whose tastes I know.

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