Self-published books — how can you tell if you’ll enjoy one?
These days, finding a good book to read can be tricky. Not because there aren’t enough books around; the science fiction, fantasy, and horror markets are absolutely saturated, so navigating through the flood to get to something you’ll enjoy can be difficult.
Some readers stick to the authors and series they know. That way, there’s a bit of a guarantee of the kind of story you’re going to get. However, it also means a lot of great stuff may be passing you by.
This article is written for readers who are looking to be a little bit more adventurous and try something new. If that’s you, brilliant. There are hundreds of fantastic writers out there who really need your support. Every writer’s path to finding their readers is a different one and if you’re prepared to take a risk on a new book it can be a good experience for both of you — even if you don’t like it. Trying something different stretches us and makes us aware of the good and the bad in every story we’ve read.
Here at Parallel Worlds, we want to find some diamonds — and we know there’s a few out there. Hopefully we can encourage you to start looking too, and find more great writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who really deserve a bigger audience.
What’s changed in the 21st Century?
The ebook took off in 2007, with early adopters quickly claiming a potentially-lucrative market share and audience. Opportunistic authors got in ahead of the established publishing houses. That year, the Kindle was the great new piece of technology to own, but a lot of the content available in book stores wasn’t available on the new platform. So, readers turned to whatever they could find. Some of it was cheap, some of it was free, and a lot of it wasn’t very good.
Now, twelve years later, the landscape has changed. The ebook revolution — which seemed like it might signal the end of print — has peaked and levelled off. Sales are broadly even between paperbacks and ebooks. The market for dedicated devices has fallen, with most people using phones, tablets, and laptops to read whatever they want to read in PDF, epub, and Mobi formats.
In 2019, anyone with some knowledge of Amazon’s Kindle Direct website can set up a book to be published. In fact, anyone who learned how to write a website in the nineties can make an ebook. The basic language used is HTML, so there isn’t much to learn if you can remember how you used to put your dot coms together.
Generally, ebooks can’t handle complex design, which is why they’ve not managed to establish themselves as a rival to PDFs or other electronic comic book formats. But they work well as a cheaper option, particularly for voracious readers and researchers who need to get a quick copy of something for an essay or class.
In the publishing industry, the bigger publishers have lower costs on physical books than smaller publishers. This is because their print runs are huge, so the cost per copy goes down. But ebooks are an area where smaller independent publishers and self-published authors can compete.
The science fiction, horror, and fantasy publishing industry in the United Kingdom is thriving. The big imprints (publishing labels owned by larger publishing houses, usually genre-specific) are usually the ones you see in Waterstones, Foyles, or Blackwells, but occasionally you’ll find a smaller press getting its books on their shelves. Other genres really cannot compare in terms of the sheer number of titles and demand at all levels. Internationally-recognised authors are now commonly published by a variety of sources — in the past, that didn’t happen.
Many smaller publishing companies are basically individual authors who have become frustrated with the high levels of rejection at the top of the industry. Most businesses like Gollancz, Harper Voyager, Penguin, and their ilk only accept ‘agented’ submissions, and most agents reject around 90% of what they are sent. So aiming high is all very well, but it isn’t necessarily a mark of how good a book is — just a measure of what has caught a particular agent’s eye.
Some independent publishers have gained a reputation for excellent work. Newcon Press (featured in issue 2), who publish Adrian Tchaikovsky, have been nominated for many industry awards over the years, as have imprints like Fox Spirit, Luna Press, PS Publishing, and others. Similarly, Angry Robot Titan Books and Rebellion are diverse organisations with different products, like comics, within the same business.
Finding novels produced by some of these companies can require you knowing where to look. Most will be at the conventions, like Worldcon, Eastercon, and Fantasycon. Forbidden Planet in London are owned by Titan Books and stock many rare titles, as do little independent bookshops like Books on the Hill in Clevedon.
However, sometimes a book needs to be self-published. The stigma attached to this, and most of the vanity publishing industry that catered for it in the last millennium, has mostly vanished. In fact, internationally-renowned authors self-publish occasionally. There are moments where that is simply the best choice for the story and the writer. It does mean that percentages aren’t going to other people, but it also means the writer is responsible for all aspects of getting the book to the reader. That means not only writing, but also editing, layout, cover, format, and distribution.
So — you’re looking for a book to read and you want to support a new writer, or try something a little different? Ok. Here are a few things to look for:
- Reviews. Read up on the book. See if other people enjoyed it. People are generally polite about books, even on the internet, but there are a few pointers you can always pick up from a review or two. Similarly, if you choose the book and read it, leave a review. You’d be surprised how much it means to an author’s profile if you do. Amazon is the go-to place for reviews, but it’s also good to look around and see what other websites are saying. (Ant Jones and I both review for SFbook (http://www.sfbook.com) which is a comprehensive reviewing website. We do try to squeeze in as many requests as we can.)
- Cover design. There are plenty of pretty ebook covers that are a massive disappointment when you get to the text. However, a bit of effort put into the cover can give you a clear idea of what value the author placed in getting it organised. Some of the best books I own have plain and simple covers. Things that look hastily thrown together are what you might want to avoid.
- Blurbs. It sounds obvious, but a back-page blurb sells the book. Writers are often really bad at writing these, or indeed at pitching their own work (trust me, I know!), but there can be some alerts that would put you off of a self-published ebook. Given that the writer can change their blurb on Amazon pretty easily, you’d think they should get the spelling and grammar right, wouldn’t you?
- Price. Most authors don’t know the worth of their work, and many ebooks are inexpensive or free. If an author has written a 100,000-word novel, that will have taken them at least fifty days (if you’re Stephen King) to write and then at least the same to edit, proof, format, and so on. Selling a book at a low price or giving it away for free can be a good idea, particularly if you have written a series, but it’s still shorting the value of your work. Unfortunately, with so many books available for free, it does make it difficult for a writer not to be tempted to try a giveaway one or two to see if they translate into more sales. So, ‘free’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘bad’.
With an independent publisher, things are a bit different. Most have a very good idea of the value of what they’ve taken on, in terms of time invested, contracts, current sales, and comparable sales with other novels or collections. Most will prefer you to be buying books from their website — that way, a higher percentage goes to the writer and the publisher and less to Amazon or another distributor.
Lastly, read the preview. Most books on Amazon have a preview option now, so you can get a feel for whether you’ll like the writing style.
Some diamonds we’ve found
Here are a few examples of diamonds we’ve found that really deserve a bigger readership:
Ada King by E. M. Faulds
The understated cover might make you overlook this little gem. Ada King is the story of a rebellious ‘counter culture’ society that springs up in the near future of our world. It blends together virtual reality and reality, as one extremely gifted individual seeks to forge an independent path, founding Raft City for people who have rejected the dominant dystopian societies that seek to oppress and exploit them. This is a fantastically-written thrill ride from start to finish, that is crammed with big ideas.
The Fractured Empire series by Amy DuBoff
A space opera setting with telepathic agents and a ‘secret interdimensional war’. Duboff began her series in 2015. In four years, she’s produced seven novels, been Nebula Award-nominated, and found time to write a variety of other science fiction in collaboration with other authors. This is the kind of accessible, epic science fiction you can devour. It’s a total escape, with excellent writing throughout. There’s also no sign of DuBoff slowing down any time soon: she’s developing a collection of collaborations set in her fictional universe.
The Lost War by Justin Lee Anderson
An epic fantasy, published by King Lot Publishing, which is actually Anderson’s own imprint. This is a 500-page doorstop of a book. The Lost War has a bit of a clichéd opening, with a tavern fight and a rescue, but from then on it finds its feet, and is reminiscent of the classic 80s and 90s fantasy quests (by the likes of Brooks, Feist, and Gemmell) that some of us remember growing up with. The story is innovative and interesting, the characters have some depth, and the writer is certainly punching above his weight in the market. This book deserves a good audience amongst ‘sword and sorcery’ fans.
Becoming David by Phil Sloman
Published by Hersham Horror, Becoming David is a novella-length story set in contemporary times that serves up a meticulous serial killer outwitted by a little dose of the supernatural.
Sloman’s writing is very good. One or two choices prevent this being as scary as it might be, but the sense of disturbed, lingering awfulness continues all the way to the end. You really get a sense of the different characters in this work, each of them playing a part as it works its way towards a bittersweet conclusion.
Mr Sucky by Duncan P. Bradshaw
At first glance, this is the kind of book that can’t really find a home with a major publisher unless someone’s prepared to take a significant leap. Mr Sucky is available as an ebook or a paperback, but really you should buy the paperback as it looks like a faded vacuum cleaner instruction manual!
Inside, and past the assembly instructions and translated sections, you’ll find a sharp, comedy horror story told over nineteen chapters. The dialogue is fabulous, and the clever little touches in terms of visual design throughout are a delight to find. This is the kind of book your friends will be surprised to come across, and surprised they remember years later.
Over to you
So, there we have it: a few tips and recommendations from us, but the journey is far from over. If this article encourages you to try a new author or two, please do let us know — [email protected] Together, we can start talking about some great new stories and helping get them to readers who are prepared to be adventurous.