Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reviewing Self-published Books Continued

Over at the Black Gate blog, I've taken on the task of reviewing self-published fantasy novels. I've received about 20 submissions so far, and I'm still expecting a batch of review copies of books which John O'Neill's received. So I thought I'd talk a bit about how I intend to choose the book I'll ultimately review.

I have two criteria:

First, it has to be a self-published fantasy novel. That means I can answer "yes" to three questions: Is it self-published?  Is it fantasy?  Is it a novel?  The novel question, at least, is easy to answer, as that's a question of hard numbers.  Is it 40,000 words or more?  If so, it's a novel.  The other two can be more complicated.  Is steampunk fantasy?  I suppose it depends on how exactly the technology, and the world, works.  Would a mix of sci-fi and fantasy count as fantasy?  What about alternate history?  In general, I'm trying to apply a broad definition of fantasy, but there are still some that are borderline.  The self-published question is giving me even more headaches.  By definition, a small press is not self-publishing.  Unless the small press is your own imprint.  What if you published with a small press, but it didn't do such a good job with your book, so now you're self-publishing?  What if it's a vanity press?  I'm still considering these questions.

Fortunately, I have a pretty free hand and some options.  While I probably want to stick with something purely self-published for my first review, that doesn't stop me from reviewing other things, either in later months or as a separate review from my self-published books series.  This also allows me to consider books that are borderline non-fantasy.  But before I do any of that, the book has to meet my second criteria.

My second requirement is that the book has to be something I want to read.  This is harder for an author to select for. While strong prose, characters, and world-building will make any book more enjoyable, if I don't like epic fantasies, then it's unlikely I'll want to read your epic fantasy (for the record, I love epic fantasy--I'm just using that as an example).  In order to decide whether I want to read the book, I first read the blurb and see if it sounds interesting.  Then, if it does (and so far, more than half my submissions do--I'm going to have to become more selective), I start to read the sample chapter.  This is where the prose can make or break the book.  If I find the prose style difficult to read--which isn't always bad prose, just difficult--then I'll stop and move on to the next one.  I may also lose interest if I notice numerous grammatical or stylistic errors, or clumsy infodumping, or lifeless description, or clich├ęd characters, or a plodding plot.  If, however, both the story and the characters are engaging enough to keep me reading, and I reach the end of the sample chapter wanting to know what happens next, then I know I have a book I want to review.

I still have to decide on which book I actually will be reviewing, and that means selecting the one I think looks the best. That's as much guesswork as good judgment.  On the bright side, just because I decide not to review a book this time around doesn't mean I can't come back and review it later.

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