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Ten Things I’ve Learned from Evaluating Self-Published Books for a Year

Photo by Flickr's Fabio Hofnik [1]
Photo by Flickr’s Fabio Hofnik

Today’s guest post is by Jessica Bennett. She and Leslie Ramey created Compulsion Reads [2], a website that seeks to shine the spotlight on quality indie books by endorsing those books that meet CR’s strict quality standards.

From Jessica:

At Compulsion Reads, we always seek to help educate and inform writers. I believe that my personal experience of reading and evaluating a large amount of self-published books over the last year could lend some important insights to authors. This is something I would have liked to read when I was first getting started out on my own road to self-publishing.

Find CompulsionReads on Twitter [3] and Facebook [4], and check out the CompulsionReads blog. [5]

Ten Things I’ve Learned from Evaluating Self-Published Books for a Year

Before I self-published my first novel in 2011, I didn’t read many self-published books. That all changed in a big way when my critique partner, Leslie Ramey, and I created a company called Compulsion Reads after growing frustrated with how challenging it was to market our self-published works. Compulsion Reads is a company that offers something we felt was desperately missing from the indie and self-published book market: a quality endorsement.

In July Compulsion Reads celebrated its first year in business, and boy has it been an incredible ride. We’ve hit many bumps along the way, but the majority of it has been an absolute pleasure. And the books, oh the books! We’ve endorsed just over 100 books in our first year, and since this shindig got started, I’ve read an average of two self-published novels a week, every week.

With experience comes what I hope is a bit of knowledge. Below are the top ten takeaways from my year of reading indie and self-published books (listed in no particular order). Please note that these are merely my personal observations and opinion.

1. There are many amazing self-published books on the market

Yeah, I know this one should be obvious to anyone who has read a lot of self-published books, but I had to start the list with this just to set the record straight. Self-published work is often perceived as low quality, and self-published authors are sometimes assumed to be too lazy or not talented enough to get a contract with a traditional publisher.

Not true. Sooooooo not true. I have read fabulous self-published and indie books this past year that could compete with anything that the big guys put out.

2. Many Self-Publishers Publish Too Early

One of the hardest decisions for an author to make is to decide when their book is “ready” to publish. I think a lot of newer authors lack the experience and patience to give their book that last needed scrub before putting it out on the market. Many of the self-published books I’ve read could benefit from a couple of months in a drawer to “breath” and then one last no-holds-bar edit.

3. Self-Published Authors Need To Care More About Grammar

Grammar is the most common quality standard that our submitted books miss at Compulsion Reads, which is a shame, because it’s also the easiest writing issue to fix. When you publish your book it’s no longer just art, it’s also a product. I’m amazed at how many self-published books I read that are filled with grammar mistakes.

4. Self-Published Authors Are Amazingly Kind And Generous

One of the best things about operating Compulsion Reads is that we get to meet lots of authors. These individuals are almost all extremely enthusiastic and passionate about writing and about their books. We love all the happy responses we get when we choose to endorse a book, and we’ve even gotten some positive responses from authors whose books we chose not to endorse. Sure, there have been a few hurt egos along the way, but on the whole Leslie and I have been bowled over by the positive response we’ve gotten from our customers and from the indie and self-publishing community as a whole.

5. Writing A Great Novel Does Not Mean It Will Be Successful

Wouldn’t it be absolutely wonderful if the best written books – those with stories so compelling that you’re laughing until water comes out of your nose and crying so hard you go through a whole box of tissues – naturally made it to the bestsellers list?

Well, life just doesn’t work that way. Quality is a necessary factor to great book sales, but it’s not the only factor. I’ve read some pretty fantastic books through Compulsion Reads; books that I would expect to rocket to the top of Amazon, and yet they linger in the anonymous muck with all the rest of the low sellers. Why? Why? Why? I don’t know. Good sales seem to be quality + lots and lots of marketing + luck + momentum + even more luck.

6.  Too Much Telling!

I don’t think you can get through a college Intro to Creative Writing class, a writer’s group or a writer’s conference without hearing the phrase “Show Not Tell!” so many times you’ll wonder if it’s some kind of magical good-luck mantra for writers. And yet, so many self-published books are oozing with Telling instead of Showing. I wrote earlier that the number one quality standard that Compulsion Reads submissions miss is grammar. Telling is the second most missed standard. Some indie authors just don’t seem to have the patience to focus on developing the skill of Showing.

7. Indie Authors Are Incredibly Creative

Some indie authors (like myself) cower at the prospect of marketing our books and must be dragged onto Facebook kicking and screaming. Other authors take to marketing like ducks to the water, and I’ve been blown away with what they come up with.

During the last year, we attended two big events and offered to hand out goodies on behalf of our endorsed authors. Wowee! We got t-shirts, wristbands, beautiful business cards, brochures, postcards, even designer pens! Our self-published and indie authors are constantly thinking outside the box and figuring out amazingly creative ways to interest their readers.

8. Self-Published Authors Struggle With Making Big Edits To Their Books

Yeah, editing is hard. After you’ve already gone three, four, or five rounds with your book, doing another edit can seem like an impossible grind. But that last big edit may be what your book needs to make it to that final stage of perfection.  By big edit, I mean slicing the scenes that don’t carry the story forward, adding layers of depth to your characters and figuring out a way to pave over the big plot holes even if it means reworking the entire middle of your book.

Many self-published authors seem unable or unwilling to make the hard choices, which I think comes back to a certain lack of patience.

9. Things Are Going To Get Harder For Self-Published Authors Before They Get Easier

The Wild West town of self-publishing is over-populated and under-appreciated. There are plenty of books lounging at the saloon but not enough readers to go around. The number of indie books published is going to continue to rise as authors realize there are no barriers to self-publishing and others mistakenly assume that self-publishing is the quick road to riches.

Self-published authors face a very, very bleak world. There is a hodgepodge of efforts underway to help spotlight quality self-published books, including the Compulsion Reads Endorsement, but I don’t think the West will be won anytime soon.

10. Self-Published Authors Need More Love

Self-publishing can be a disheartening experience. Authors spend countless hours of effort crafting their novel, release it out into the world with exuberance, and then watch as the world mostly ignores its existence.

I’d like to ask all the readers of this blog to spread the love where they can, especially to self-published authors they enjoy. Write a review for the good self-published book you’ve just read or a post a message on the author’s Facebook page. Most self-published authors will never earn a living from their books, but one fan letter or positive message can make all the trouble and labor of writing worth it.

If you’ve self-published, or had the opportunity to review and/or read many self-published books, do you any lessons you’d like to share? The floor is yours.