11 January 2013

Selecting A Self-Published Book

I am pretty impressed with Guy Kawasaki's new book APE: How To Publish A Book,  I reviewed it at the beginning of December. I'm also impressed with Mr Kawasaki's unending energy in taking the APE message out into the world. Now it's time for me to be similarly impressed with his short presentation published in the Huffington Post advising readers on how to discriminate when picking an indie pleasure for their e-reader of choice.

I would, however, take issue with a couple of points that he raised. I'm talking from the point of view of a genre author, Mr Kawasaki from that of a non-fiction writer but there's a good deal of crossover. Many of my quibbles are to do with the different ways that fiction and non-fiction are sold.

On a technical note (so more the Huffington Post's fault than Guy's) I'm also not too pleased with the slide show having no option to read it as a short article. To mitigate the technical issue and add my thoughts here's a quick summary of the key points of the presentation:

1. Cover
Guy says: "While it is inaccurate to say that every book with a crappy cover is not worth reading and every book with a nice cover is worth reading, the cover is [your] first data point." 
The Monkey says: I have to say, I'd pretty much agree with this. I'd add that a cover needs to be appropriate more than anything.

Whacking a great piece of richly detailed art on a fantasy or historical may well be the way to go but thrillers and horror books are often more impressionistic. If someone hasn't even looked at covers of books within the genre they're writing then how seriously are they taking themselves as a commercial writer?

In my opinion, in the world of the indies there is a bar, and currently there are points for effort. If it's clear that the cover has been lovingly handcrafted in an attempt to engage, or generically designed enough to fit with all other similar titles, then I'd tend to give it a thumbs up.

2. Blurbs
Guy says: "An excessive amount of blurbs is a sign of poor quality."
The Monkey says: I have never really paid much attention to blurbs in fiction whatsoever. I think this is more of a non-fiction point. Non-fiction requires a definite authority to say; "This guy knows what he's talking about".

Fiction is far more a matter of taste. I have read loads of Neil Gaiman, I don't believe I have ever bought anything endorsed by Neil Gaiman, or, if I have, never because it was endorsed by Neil Gaiman.

3. Name of publisher
Guy says: "If an author cannot come up with a more clever name for his company than his last name, how imaginative and intriguing could his novel be?"
The Monkey says: There's another point here. The fact is that in order to get your book out into the world you have to take yourself seriously as a writer. To learn to be a thing one must first imitate the thing we want to be.

There are good authors who don't "pretend" to have a publishing house and that's not an indicator that they're a bad writer. It is however, an indication that they don't take the business of marketing at all seriously and, by association, they may not view delivering the product to the customer seriously either.

A book that has a lacklustre cover and loads into your e-reader at page one, chapter one, no title, no TOC may be fine, but it does say that the author had more fun writing than they particularly care about whether you will have reading.

4. Front matter
Guy says: "It’s not crucial that [the front matter conforms to the Chicago Manual of Style] but at least you can determine if the author cared enough to find out what the front matter of a book should contain."
The Monkey says: This just refines the point about how seriously you can tell the author takes themselves as an author. In order to have published a "real book" I want my work to resemble a "real book" to the extent that the casual observer cannot tell why my book is "not real".

Also showing an awareness of copyright notices shows you take the business side of what you're doing seriously, dedications are a nice touch, thinking about the structure of your book is about taking care of your reader. I don't go the whole hog but I do put in a copyright notice, disclaimer and ensure that anything I feel I should say before the main action begins is said in good part. In other words, I do believe a self-publisher should make this effort.

5. Copyediting
Guy says: "Read the first few pages of the book and if you see more than three spelling mistakes or instances of poor grammar, take the book out of your online shopping cart and save yourself a few bucks."
The Monkey says: To this day I still question what "good grammar" really is. In journalistic and non-fiction pieces sticking to the absolute letter of the orthodox grammatical law is essential. In fiction the question is, rather, "does it flow?" Do you understand the story? Do you care? The odd fragment sentence is sometimes allowed for style reasons. Your mileage will vary.

Spelling errors come in two flavours, bad spelling e.g. "I am loosing my mind" and typos e.g. "I am losing my mnid". Either should be rare but typos and even the odd complex homophonic (bear/bare, hear/here) substitution do creep into the best of books.

Mr Kawasaki's three alarm limit seems fair to me. The Amazon default preview is 10% of the book, if the book is hard to understand and poorly proofed to the degree that you check yourself three times in 10% of the volume you will potentially encounter 30 head scratchers in the course of the whole book, which is pretty excessive.

6. Fonts
Guy says: "As in cover design, the use of Times, Arial, and Helvetica is a bad sign."
The Monkey says: This is a reference to fonts used throughout the interior of the book. I would tend to disagree with this when it comes to genre fiction. In fiction books the use of Times New Roman is to encourage readers to find the actual text as invisible as possible.

I did read something once that stated serif fonts, such as Times were easier to read printed, where as sans serif fonts, such as Arial were easier to read on a screen. We've entered a time when what counts as "a screen" is somewhat harder to define, so this is no longer a hard and fast rule. What I would tend to say is that those artifacts that are used as books tend to benefit from serif text, those intended to be read off a vertical, non-portable screen, such as a monitor, from sans serif.

If a fiction book's text looks pretty boring that's probably a good thing, if it looks weird, crazy or if you're noticing the fonts while you're supposed to be wrapped up in the story that's probably a bad sign. In addition the peppering of a random crew of unusual fonts in a non-fiction book shows a cluelessness in typographic skills that should be a red flag.

So not what I would describe as a hard and fast rule.

7: Website
Guy says: "If you’re browsing online, take a quick look at the author’s website because a website is a window into her soul."
The Monkey says: This is a strange one, because it's just as true of a published author or any other person asking you to become digitally involved with them.

If someone's Facebook profile looks like a Facebook profile, their Twitter bio looks like a Twitter bio and their website looks like the kind of place you'd like to hang out then you know that the person is communicating effectively no matter how they're trying to engage with you. If you get the creeps looking at a public artifact someone left behind with the full intention of having random people look at it then that person probably isn't your type of person... so, a no brainer really.

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