A Self-Publishing Book Review Sob Story

This article in Salon.com, while mainly a whiny and self-pitying lament, does shed some light on one aspect of the recent changes in book publishing. Publishing is not what it used to be, and neither is book reviewing. It used to be that a published author stood a decent chance of getting a professional review from a newspaper or magazine book reviewer. Apparently, there ain’t no days like those anymore. The article’s writer – a previously published author with in-crowd connections who was once able to garner such blessed reviews – couldn’t even get responses to his emails once he decided to self-publish his latest awesome novel (which he only resorted to after it failed to get traditionally published). The kicker is when he moans that If this can happen to him, imagine how horrible it must be for the 99 percenters of self-published writers, those of us without his hoary ties to people-in-the-know and his track record of proven, if admittedly minor, success.

What we 99 percenters know, of course, is that when it comes to getting (legitimate) reviews of our self-published fiction, we have always relied on the kindness of strangers.  We quickly exhaust our social network supply of potential reviewers (we exhaust them in every sense) and after that it’s all “word of mouth, baby”. Recently a publicist for free-ebooks.net (one of the many ebook sites with an experimental business model, this one a subscription service) asked me if I knew how to convert downloads into reviews. The only answer I could give was “maybe give them stuff” – not money, but rewards of some kind, benefits in kind, more free books perhaps. Goodreads Giveaways are supposed to work like that. The winners are supposed to submit reviews after they receive and read your books. I have no way of knowing if they actually do that. I’ve done four giveaways so far and am beginning another one this week for “Prisoners of Perfection” but there seems to be no tracking mechanism for the reviews or ratings.

Yes, it’s difficult. For every thousand downloads-to-strangers you might get one written review. That’s just a guess, nothing scientific, but it seems to correlate with my own experience. Star ratings are somewhat easier to come by, but are not the same thing at all. People who take the time to write and post reviews of self-published books are practically mini-gods to self-published authors. We can’t thank them enough, even if they trash our work. At least somebody said something! Otherwise, how can we even know that we exist? Self-publishing used to be called vanity publishing, but all publishing involves a degree of vanity. The Salon article shines a bright light on that little secret as well.

The article’s conclusion is “I can tell you that self-publishing is not fun.” I didn’t feel too sorry for him. If what the author reallt wants is reviews, only that, his best chance is to give away his book for free and to give it away for free in as many places as he can. He probably still wouldn’t get a boatload of reviews, but then the question is, how many are enough? How many reviews would it take to make it all fun for him? How many readers would it take? How is 1000 strangers reading your book better than 999? What difference does the one thousand and first make, in your everyday life? Where do you draw the line between fun and not fun?

A friend of mine once told me her philosophy of gardening, and it’s stuck with me ever since, especially in regards to self-publishing. One tomato is great, she said. Anything more is “abundance”.


13 thoughts on “A Self-Publishing Book Review Sob Story

  1. There is that machine, isn’t there? And the small presses of the world are getting completely overlooked in the whole discussion. Small presses, and small independent bookstores, are getting crushed from both sides – the handful of monster corporate publishers, and the unwashed masses of ebook self-publishers. Meanwhile the media loves to proclaim “the death” of things. It was my experience as a bookseller that literary fiction was always a fairly small piece of the publishing puzzle, but a shiny one. I have a feeling its obituary is once again being prematurely written.


    • Oh yeah, death is all around us. [shudder, shudder] On Kboards right now, it’s the death of moral complexity in fiction and the death of stand-alone novels. Why don’t we all go crawl under a rock and nurse our wounds? I can’t stand to read those woe-is-me articles. They’re based on ignorance, and unwillingness to find out what’s going on in the publishing world so you can adapt to it.


  2. Reading that Salon article, I could hear the voice of a rich kid going away to college and lamenting, “Oh, my God–I have to do my own laundry? That’s barbaric!”

    Most traditionally published authors have no idea how privileged they are, and how much the system has been slanted in favor of the big publishing houses. He’s right, competing on a level playing field is no fun when you’re used to having all the refs on your team’s payroll.

    On the other hand, we scrappy rag-tag amateurs who grew up in the sandlot think it’s great to get a chance to play in the big leagues and hit the ground ready to swing for the fences.

    He’s got it on Smashwords for $7.99, with no reviews, and on Amazon for $7.99 with two reviews. I’m really not surprised he’s not seeing a lot of action on it.


  3. Heh, I like how you describe what reviewers are to self-pubs, because I so feel like that too! And it has given me one resolve: I now review every single book I read. So far I’m only posting them up on Goodreads and the blog I’m a guest reviewer for, but I’m a firm believer in ‘do unto others what you would have them do to you’, so I’m going to persist.
    But yeah, bit of a whiny git, him…


    • Nice! I try to review every book I read that I like, but usually not those I don’t (unless I’m really really disappointed and it’s by somebody bigtime anyway who wouldn’t be bothered by one more opinion).


  4. The whole death to books in print and traditional publishing due to ebooks and self-publishing is a bit of nonsense. Look at music, media vs. distribution and such. The music biz is different but not dead; likewise books. Every time I see a link or read a post about something from salon.com, I think whatever is linked will be some outlier story that is extremely favorable or unfavorable, rather than something realistic. Actual results will vary. Many degrees of what can and will happen.
    Thanks, Tom, for this post. I like your blog as much as your stories!


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