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 clichéd 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.