Sound Off in the Forum

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This section of the site will be dedicated to reviews of small-press, micropress, self-published, and other titles I receive that I consider worthy of attention. However, some introduction is in order. I respectfully request you read all of this if you're a small press author considering sending me your book.

Skip to the list of Showcase titles.

Addendum: March 2011: Some of the details I discuss below are now a bit dated from when I first wrote this in 2005, mainly in that e-publishing has overtaken POD services like iUniverse and others. But the general principles still apply. Thank you for reading.

Addendum 2: April 2011: If you query me and I am not able to fit your book into my schedule, I have been contacted by book blog AdarnaSF (formerly Frida Fantastic), who informs me they are eager to review small press and self-published work. They may be newer and not yet as high-profile as more established review sites, but they are dedicated to giving up-and-comers the review attention they need.

Before I made sending a query letter a requirement, I was literally getting deluged with small press books from hopeful writers looking for an audience for their cherished work. I am only too eager to give these writers all the moral support in the world. The act of creating ought to be encouraged wherever it rears its head. The sad truth is that the overwhelming majority of these look-ma-no-editor tomes are so awful I cannot make it past the first chapter, and in the worst cases, the first two or three pages. Many times the books suffer from the sorts of fundamental spelling, punctuation and grammar errors that indicate the writer in question didn't pick up too many pointers from high school English class. Other times, their plots are simply incoherent, their prose overburdened with pretentious "style." It's just Bad Writing 101.

Most of the time, these problems could be rectified if the author were to get involved in writers' workshops, either hosted through conventions, or through nearby universities, or wherever. Then again, all writers' groups are not created equal. There are a number of groups out there that are nothing but cliques of unpublished writers (in their minds, undiscovered geniuses) pooling their ignorance; these groups usually implode under the weight of the participants' dueling egos. I recommend workshops run at conventions, because they are often actually instructive, and tend to involve one or more authors who have been published. And by "been published," I mean they have had their work published by a magazine or book publisher who has paid them for their work, not vice versa.

Of course not everyone has access to Clarion or Viable Paradise, but there are options out there for writers who are really serious about their craft, let alone making a career of it. How serious you are will dictate how much effort you put into the search.

While it has given us many wonderful things, the Internet has proved to be a bane to hopeful writers by dangling carrots in front of their noses in the form of POD (print-on-demand) and other pay-to-publish services. What writers don't realize is that use of these services could be a black mark upon their career chances that all the soap in the world won't wash away. If an editor at a big publishing house like Tor or Eos or Roc or Ace or Del Rey or Spectra knows you've paid to have your book published, he will usually shunt you into his "loser" file.

(However, despite everything I am about to say — and it isn't pretty — don't assume I will automatically hold it against your book if you used iUniverse, CreateSpace or some similar service. I know there are good writers who use them, who are simply naive about their disadvantages. I will not pre-judge your book to be unworthy if you paid to have it published. But I suggest you keep reading all the same.)

You see, there is a reason it is hard to make it in the world of publishing (or music, or movies, or any of the popular arts). You may not like the work of some of today's most popular writers, but the point is, they have paid their dues and worked very hard to create a viable track record. To compete with a track record like that, up-and-coming writers must not only demonstrate that they comprehend the fundamentals of storytelling, and that they write their stories in good English, but also that they can generate the kinds of stories a publisher can successfully market to an audience, in order to justify spending money publishing and promoting it. If you've cut a check to iUniverse or whomever to see your first book in print, and your sales are limited (as those kinds of books usually are) to "pocket markets" consisting of friends and family, it tells a major publisher two things. 1) Your writing must suck, since the fact you paid to be published means it cannot pass editorial muster. 2) You're unmarketable.

But what do we have in the Internet Age? The siren song of the POD or vanity press. "Never face another rejection slip ever again! Feel good now! We'll like you no matter what you send us! You too can be a published writer today!"

If you've ever considered using one of these services — or, even worse, a web-based "author mill" like the infamous, which advertises itself as "traditional" royalty-paying publisher but functions little differently than the pay-to-publish crowd — to get your magnum opus out of your hard drive and into the world, I strongly suggest you read this section of the SFWA website. Especially the bit about the hilarious hoax a bunch of SF writers played on PublishAmerica, which revealed how high their "standards" really are. (More info about PublishAmerica can be found here, by John Scalzi. PublishAmerica is bad news. Run awaaay.)

Now, before I go any further, I don't wish to overgeneralize about small press. Many writers self-publish by setting up their own companies, which is generally not considered disreputable by the industry the way going with a vanity publisher is. Other small presses or micropresses are 100% legit and have earned a lot of respect, like BenBella Books and Night Shade. The glorious Meisha Merlin rose from the small press ranks to become a serious player in SF publishing by the end of its ten-year lifespan. And it's true that the occasional self-publisher has gotten noticed by the big leagues and ascended rapidly, but this is the rare exception to the rule.

The point is, I recognize what an uphill battle small press writers face. To the serious ones, I offer my guidelines for reviewing small press books.

  1. I will only post a review of a small press title if I think the book is good, ie: or higher. (Note: I have already made one exception to this rule but that was a "special" circumstance and I don't really see the situation — I hope, anyway —  repeating itself.) I hope everyone knows I'm the last guy to shy away from flaming a really bad book when it deserves it. However, as most small press titles are not books that most people are likely to stumble upon at their local Barnes & Noble or Borders (most must be mail-ordered), I see no point in wasting bandwidth on a bad review of a book readers are never going to see anyway. I'd rather give the deserving unknown writer much needed attention. Hate to say it, but this guideline right here will screen out about 80% of the small press stuff I get.
  2. When you send me your books (instructions on the home page), don't pack the envelope with press releases, interviews, and the like. I never look at that stuff. I especially ignore blurbs and quotes from other reviews. I always want to go into a new book cold, whether it's yours or the new Bujold.
  3. Again I reiterate I cannot guarantee a review. E-mailing me repeatedly — "Did you get it?" — won't help (and could hurt). Every month SF's majors put out dozens of new titles, all of which are by authors more popular than you, and I don't even get around to all of those. If I could clone myself five times I would. I must pick and choose, and major releases get priority for obvious reasons. I also try every month to review one of the many older books I have piled up around my office. Only rarely is a book a sure thing in terms of getting a prompt review. When the new Harry Potter or George R. R. Martin turns up on my stoop, my calendar is cleared and the phone turned off. Otherwise, everything is liquid. No guarantees.
  4. If, sadly, your book turns out to be one of the many unfortunates I discussed in my first paragraph, I will not e-mail you to let you know I'm not reviewing it. (What would I say? "Sorry, I have decided not to include you as your book sucked." I may have the rep of Simon Cowell but I am basically courteous, thank you!) But if you sent me your book ages ago, and a review still has not appeared, it may mean that I am, as usual, backed up.
  5. I am not your publicist. You'd be amazed at the writers who e-mail me saying something like, "Let me know when the review is up so that I can put blurbs in my latest advertising, etc." Rather pretentious to assume that not only will I review you promptly, but the review will be fulsome. E-mails like this will usually get your book tossed into the "don't bother" pile.
  6. New 2011 rule for people who e-publish themselves: If your query email comes attached with your complete novel in PDF or other format, it will be insta-deleted. I don't actually have limitless inbox space, and so a file attachment of a megabyte or more, added up over 15 people doing it at once, can choke it all up fast. So please, ask before you attach. Same goes for massive hi-res JPEGs of your cover art. You may feel free to attach one of those, but in a low-res size only please.

I want to end by encouraging all hopeful writers to stick with it! Yes, it's hard. Yes, you'll find yourself beating your head against the wall. Yes, rejection sucks. Yes, life isn't fair. But all of those things make real achievement — that which is attained, not bought — all the more meaningful. So no matter how bad everyone says you are right now, just keep plugging away, and one day you'll start hearing them talk about how good you've become. And who knows...? Maybe one day when I'm old and grey and you're accepting your third Hugo, I can tap the person next to me on the shoulder and whisper, "I discovered his/her very first book, you know...."

Thomas M. Wagner
Summer 2005

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