Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Self-published short story collection on Frank O'Connor Longlist

As reported in the Guardian:

This year's 39-strong longlist for the €35,000 Frank O'Connor international short story prize sees a runaway American bestseller vying with an almost unknown, self-published author.Jhumpa Lahiri's latest collection, Unaccustomed Earth, recently topped the US book charts and has been immediately pegged as the frontrunner. But the prize for the year's best short story collection in English has a record of rewarding new talent over established names - so Mary Rochford's self-published volume, Gilded Shadows should not be written off too quickly.

This is a very interesting piece of news from the point of view of The Short Review. Self-publishing is a tricky topic for reviewers. We currently do not accept any collection for review that was self-published or whose author is involved in running the press that published it. Why? Good question. There are terms I could bandy around, like "quality control" etc... But frankly, I've read some dreadful collections published by "mainstream" press. I guess what most concerns me is that some unnamed "floodgate" will be opened if we accepted self-published books that would overwhelm us. But surely the point of The Short Review is to celebrate all published short story collections?

There was a very interesting blog post on this topic recently on the Vulpes Libris blog, by novelist Anne Brooks. She starts by saying:

Hello, my name is Anne and I’m a self-publisher. Yes, I thought I ought to get that out of the way at the beginning, partly because it’s true and partly because it’s sometimes akin to admitting you’re an alcoholic. Not done in polite circles. And once you’ve admitted it, people laugh nervously, fall silent or drift away. Often all three. Or perhaps that’s because I’m no good at small talk. It’s hard to say.

Half of my books are published by the small press and half are self-published. The latter is something I’m proud of, and am becoming more so as the years progress.

She and three fellow writers set up their own press, Goldenford Publishers. They have encountered difficulties getting their books into bookshops, but this is not something unique to self-published books - local authors, for example, are finding it harder and harder to get shelf space in their local bookshops. Interestingly, Anne found that "other shops, such as delicatessens, vineyards, and even museums, are more open to stocking self-published books and also arranging events".

She sums it up by saying that

One encouraging aspect of self-publishing is the openness of online books reviews to small- and self-published books.... In the online world, there’s an encouraging openness in giving critique to non-traditional books which is regrettably absent from the traditional hard-copy reviewing press. ... perhaps it’s time for the Times Literary Review and other such publications to wake up and smell the roses: self-published books are eminently readable and people need to know about them too.

This is all food for thought for me as the editor of The Short Review. I would be very interested in hearing other opinions: for reviews of self-published collections or against?


Anonymous said...

For. Lots of great authors started out by self-publishing--Mark Twain,Virginia Woolf, e.e. cummings, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Alexandre Dumas, to name a few. Great service you have going on, T. Kudos and more power!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

For, with a proviso. That if, after a quick scan, the book is seriously bad... the reviewers are not obliged to review.

Nik Perring said...

For. I agree with Vanessa's point about obligation. There's no reason why a reviewer should waste time on something substandard, but there's also no reason why something good shouldn't be given a credible review and all that goes with it.


Anne Brooke said...

Thanks for the mention - I feel quite glowy now (is that even a word??)! And naturally I'm "for" - but then I would be, wouldn't I!!

Seriously though, I do think there should be room in the writing/reading world for both commercially published and self-published books. The horrendous effort involved in getting any "mainstream" publisher even to glance at my offerings is way beyond painful (and my agent will say the same!), and I get a lot more fun from going through the publisher I helped to set up and run. Bizarrely my bestselling novel is one of my self-published ones - so I would strongly encourage other writers to take this "singer/songwriter" route, and I'd also encourage other good reviewing outlets (such as yourselves) to consider them.

Finally, I'd also like to say that for many of us good quality but quirky writers, self-publishing is not only a way into print and gaining a readership, but a valid end in itself, rather than being a "way through" to some other publisher. But I appreciate that's only my own opinion.

Hugs, and thanks again for the mention!


Anne Brooke

Archeology of the Future said...

You have to be an absolutely excellent writer to self-publish a book and have it succeed in competition with other books.

Self-published novels are often badly edited, badly proofed and sloppily written. Not all, but a fair proportion.

With short stories there is more chance that the contents will have been published somewhere, so will at least have run through the hands of an editor.

I have no problem reading and/or a self-published book of short stories, but I'd be more enthusiastic if there was an indication where and how often the author had been published.

There is, of course, always the chance that someone has been published nowhere and decided to self-publish. The chance of their collection being of a usually publishable standard are low, with the probability lying in favour of them being inexperienced, unedited and having bypassed the usual path of writing, receiving feedback and modifying and developing their writing.

The possibility that someone has eschewed the usual path of having to impress, engage or surprise someone to get published that gives me reservations. I'm sure that the examples of self published greats above tels a very convincing story of the benefits of going your own way. The difference is that they were really, really good at writing. I'm sure that a number of them were familiar with either journalism or writing for periodicals.

I find it difficult to engage with self-published writing when it is obvious that the author is self-publishing to short circuit the process of getting published, and leaving out the hard work involved in making your writing better and getting other people to see it.

The important thing isn't that you have a book with your name on. It is that you have developed your practice to the level where someone you don't know will pay you to own a book with your name on the cover.

Yes, it's possible that there is a diamond in the rough, but in the world of self publishing there's an awful lot of rough.

Not all self publishing is vanity publishing, but only the very best writers will avoid that trap.



Group 8 said...

For. As long as it's worth reviewing. At the very least it indicates self-belief and a go-get'em attitude. Roddy Doyle also self published first and sold his book out of the back of his car. He has since won the Man Booker.

Anne Brooke said...

I would certainly have agreed with Mark whole-heartedly about 5-10 years ago. Thankfully all that is now no longer the case. Self-published authors who mean business (and, believe me, many of us do) go through the same rigorous editing processes that commercially published writers do.

Speaking as someone on both sides of that fence, I think that the Goldenford (my own company) editing process is far more rigorous than the commercial processes I've had to go through thus far. With both my self-published books, I did what I always do before going to market (or even getting to my agent), ie acted on a report from The Literary Consultancy and then had the work professionally edited. Once in Goldenford, the book is edited again and separately by my three fellow-directors (who can be extremely sharp-eyed and demand very(!) substantial changes). In both my commercial publication experiences, the book has only been edited once or twice after my own processes.

Self-publishing (or to give it its business name: writer/publishing - as in singer/songwriting) is as valid a publishing method as any other. It is there for books that don't fit in to the mainstream market but are just as high-quality - and in a large proportion of cases a lot higher-quality! - gripping and readable. Ooh, and so far my writer/published books have earned me more too!


Anonymous said...

Listen, its all about the book, the quality of the writing, and nothing less. If we can bypass the game of getting published, and have the means and self-determination to self-publish, then great. It can take greater guts to then get the book 'out there', as the writer you quote in the blog admitted its hard to get it into bookshops, so its all 'word of mouth' and persuasive advertising. I voted maybe, dependent on the quality of the book and the self-generated hype of the author.


Tim Jones said...

Anne Brooks' novel is one of a number of recent examples that show that self-published books no longer deserve, if they ever did, to be discriminated against. In Canada, a self-published book has recently won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, beating a field which included Douglas Coupland.

But if you do open up your reviewing process to self-published books, how will you handle the increased volume of books for review?

Anonymous said...

I am in favour.

Sarah Hilary said...

For, with the same proviso as Vanessa. I for one would hate to lose out on reading a terrific book just because it didn't press enough of the right buttons for the mainstream publishers to give it a go. I also trust my own judgement over a lot of critics and publishers! That's not vanity, it's just a reflection of the poor state of the industry, I'm afraid.

Archeology of the Future said...

A lot of short fiction publications come from small presses, at least in the UK. The majors don't really publish many short story collections by new authors.

So the 'doesn't tickle the fancy of major publishers' arguement isn't quite the case for short fiction.

There is really only one reason that you'd self-publish: At that moment, no one else is prepared to take a financial risk on publishing and distributing your book.

It's the reason why someone else isn't prepared to take the risk that's the real point of debate.

The prejudice suffered by self-publishing is not really a prejudice without foundation. If your book is self-published because you haven't ever sent anything to anyone, anywhere; the chances are that it won't be very good, because you won't be the person best placed to decide whether the financial risk is worth taking.

If your book is self-published because it serves a purpose, rounds up stuff you published previously or is a book that has been turned down by various publishers but with enough encouragement to make you feel that there is someone out there who would really like to read it, the chances are you book will be better, or at least more in line with what other publishers are publishing.

It's worth remembering that a lot of authors who are being published by small and major publishers struggle to get coverage and find an audience, and they are coming with a big stamp of approval because someone has decided to risk some money on them.

Someone has risking their own money isn't quite the same.

As I think we've all said, it depends on the book. A good book is a good book.

The question is: How would you tell before you sent it out for review, without being accused of prejudice against self-published books if you decided not to send it out for review it?



Tania Hershman said...

This has, as I had hoped, stimulated very interesting discussion. No-one has come out and said No, don't review self-published, or writer/publisher books (I like that term, thanks Anne!). I think it is time to change the policy, but, as with all books that we choose to review, do a little background checking into the book first to, as Mark suggests, check out the writer's "pedigree", if you will. I and my reviewers will have to work out ways to do this. I think there is a difference between what Anne describes, herself and three colleagues setting up a press which, I am assuming, might also publish other writers' work alongside their own, and a writer simply printing their own book (writer/printer?).

This is not to say that there might not be the odd diamond out there, a collection of stunning stories no literary magazine has been given the chance to read, but there has to be some measure by which to judge a book, any book. I will make the change on The Short Review website.

Tim: in response to your question about increased volume, we will still only review 10 books an issue, I am not going to increase that (yet). If some floodgate is opened, that in itself will be an interesting development, we will handle that when it happens!

Thank you, all, for your taking the time to comment. Much appreciated.