Recently, at the literary journal where I’m the Book Review Editor, we made the decision to begin reviewing self-published books. I could write pages on the debate that continues over whether such books are a valid part of the market, but to me the point is moot. Those books are out there by the thousands. Digital publishing has made it so easy to produce books, and traditional publishing has become so closed to writers who aren’t already established, that this phenomenon will keep growing.
The Los Angeles Review has been accepting queries and samples of self-pub books for review for a couple of weeks now, and here are some first impressions, drawn from the submissions:
- It is truly great to see that so many people want to write, and that they won’t let the lack of opportunity in the publishing world keep them from pursuing their passion.
- The writing is not bad. All of the submitters so far have a good command of language. A couple (and I’ll be contacting the authors soon regarding reviews) are superbly written.
- While the writing is decent, the structure in most cases is weak. What I’ve noticed:
- Plot establishment and character motivation lacking.
- Too much time spent on description of the setting and not enough on enacting a scene.
- Lack of imagination. Storylines read like retreads of mainstream pulp.
- Absence of theme.
In short, it seems that most of these writers have little formal training in fiction, and that they are trying to mimic books they’ve read, rather than write about something that really matters to them, or examine some aspect of human nature. Reading the openings of these novels is like watching network TV shows—it’s safe, formulaic fiction that is uninteresting, and not in the least challenging. Here lies the difference between successful fiction and writing that is rejected by most agents—the successful novelist almost immediately taps into a psychic chord that connects with the reader by invoking some desire or experience that stimulates identification with the fictional characters and plot, and draws the reader into a world s/he wants to explore.
I can’t help imagining Anton Chekhov tearing off the first half of each of these submitters’ manuscripts and handing them back to the writers, explaining that all the prologues and backstories and slow build ups aren’t necessary. I see Damon Knight teaching that a good story should begin as close to the point of character change as possible.
Despite their drawbacks, I’m still encouraged by the queries that have come in. People want to write—they want others to hear what they have to say. Sure, they may not have command of the craft yet, but writing is learning, and if they keep writing, they may get there. They are trying, and trying matters.
By the way, if you or someone you know would like to query regarding a self-pub book review, go to the submission page of the Los Angeles Review for guidelines and uploads.
 Yeah, my MFA done gimme this.
 Knight and many other great writers and teachers have said this.