Post Number: 34
|Posted on Friday, October 15, 2004 - 03:51 pm: |
Column: Reviewers shy away from do-it-yourselfers
By TERESA K. WEAVER
Published on: 10/07/04
From a writer's viewpoint, self-publishing can be the culmination of a
From the vantage point of a book editor at a daily newspaper, though,
self-publishing is a sign of the cultural apocalypse.
I'm kidding, sort of.
Technology has opened up countless opportunities for anyone who has a story
to tell to print it, market it and publicize it. But just because everyone can
publish a book doesn't mean everyone should.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution doesn't review any books that are
self-published. Admittedly, the definition of self-publishing — already a slippery
little devil — keeps shifting as the technology and the industry evolve. But there
has to be a basic standard of writing, of editing, of presentation.
We get about 200 books a day in this office, eight or 10 of which fall into
the broad category of self-published. On a typical week, we have space to
review five books. The math is unforgiving.
The space crunch is hardly unique to the AJC. Newspapers across the country
are struggling with the same issues, handling an onslaught of books in a very
limited number of pages. The self-publishing filter is a common one, in place
either formally or not at some of the most respected newspapers.
"As an unwritten rule, I don't review self-published books," says Margo
Hammond, book editor at the St. Petersburg [Fla.] Times. "I know all the arguments
against that rule — my favorite is that Walt Whitman was self-published — but
it is one I have been glad to pull out whenever I am confronted by a
persistent self-published author who can't understand why I'm not interested in his
"In my 14 years' experience as book editor, I can say that, Walt Whitman
notwithstanding, self-published books are generally not very good. But then again,
neither are most books published by publishing houses."
So what's the difference?
"Only that the latter provides me with one more gatekeeper to help me choose
what to review among the thousands of titles on the market," Hammond says. "I
figure that an author who is published by a legitimate publishing house has
had to convince at least one other person besides me of the book's worth."
For most newspaper book editors, time and space are equal enemies. That's
small comfort to self-published authors who don't understand why their hometown
newspaper won't review their work, but it's reality nonetheless.
"Not reviewing any self-published books is a way of being fair, in some weird
way," says J. Peder Zane, longtime book editor at The [Raleigh] News &
Observer. "The problem with a book is, you can't read just five pages . . . it's not
like a record, where you can listen to the first song for 15 seconds and hear
the melody, get a sense of whether it's a good song or not, and then go to
Song 2, Song 3. . . . Some books don't get good until page 50. In all fairness,
a lot of books I've loved start off slowly.
"It would be impossible for me to really preview the 10 self-published books
that come my way every two weeks," Zane adds. "What I want to avoid is
reviewing one because it's a friend of a friend."
Newspapers in larger metropolitan areas such as New York, Los Angeles and
Washington are better staffed to handle the volume of incoming books and can be a
little more flexible in deciding whether to review the self-published. But
the competition is fiercer there than anywhere, and so the ones that are
reviewed are few and far between.
"I suspect there probably are some well-written self-published books out
there," says Elizabeth Taylor, literary editor at the Chicago Tribune.
Long, long pause.
"But they're not flooding into my office."
Taylor notes an interesting recent phenomenon: an overall decrease in quality
among books published by traditional publishing houses and an increase in
quality among self-published books.
That's attributable in part surely to emerging technology, but also to the
greater use of free-lance editors to work with self-published authors. As the
field continues to grow, that may ultimately make some of the filters newspapers
But for now, they're all we've got.
"We never review books from vanity presses . . .," says Oscar Villalon, book
editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. "The reason is simple: These books
aren't ready for prime time. Any book, no matter how dubious its quality, will be
packaged and shipped out by these folks — for the right fee, of course. . . .
"I think some folks who go through vanity presses understand that, and just
would like to see their remembrances bound up nicely in a book of some sort —
something for their children, say — and that's perfectly fine. But some
people . . . suppose that that's how the publishing industry works, that there's no
difference between a book published by Knopf, say, and one from an online
print-on-demand vanity publisher."
Sam Hodges, book editor at The Charlotte Observer, finds conversations with
self-published authors "the worst part of my job."
"These are well-meaning people who are just really frustrated that this story
that means so much to them can't break out and get attention," Hodges says.
"And I have to explain to them the realities of space and how competitive the
book business is."
Hodges does have a policy against reviewing self-published books, but he
allows for exceptions.
"The thing that haunts me — that keeps me from having too haughty an attitude
— is that I think there probably are really fine books that don't find a
publisher these days, in part because the writer may not know how to work the
system well enough, may not have an MFA or some sort of entree into the
agent-editor world," Hodges says. "I see so much inferior stuff published out of New
York, my heart is a little bit with some of these strugglers."
He cites a recent example, a memoir by a 97-year-old local woman.
"It looks pretty good," Hodges says. "Just that she would be able to finish a
book at that age is kind of remarkable. And she comes from an old Charlotte
textile family, so I know there would be some interest in the book. . . . I
have entertained the idea of doing a feature story or a column about her. But I'm
reluctant to do it just because of the kind of calls it will yield. You know,
'You did it for her. Why won't you do it for me?' "
In New Orleans, a city unusually blessed with gifted writers and artists,
Times-Picayune book editor Susan Larson bends her own self-publishing ban as
"We receive so many more books than we can review that some kind of arbitrary
triage is necessary," Larson says. "This is unfair to the one writer who has
written a fabulous book and has only been able to [self-publish], but there
you have it. . . .
"I can count on one hand the number of self-published books . . . I've
reviewed in my 15 years here — books that were just so special, so emblematic of our
particular culture, or just so well done that they deserved review
Recent examples are books by New Orleans photographer Kerri McCaffety (who
created her own publishing company) and a gorgeous, informative history of
Carnival by Mardi Gras expert Arthur Hardy (who self-published).
"There are exceptions to every rule," Larson says, "but they are rare
In the end, Larson's triage analogy is a great one. More and more people are
writing books, while fewer and fewer are reading them. Writing is an art,
publishing is a business and reviewing feels an awful lot like a scramble to stop