Dealing with a Bad Book Review

Background: This blog post was inspired when I learned that an indie author who received a “bad” review from a book reviewer actually attacked that reviewer, and encouraged their fans to do the same. Don’t ever do that. It’s petty, unprofessional, bad for your career, and honestly, bad for other indie authors’ careers as well. Do what’s suggested here instead.

Do you want to be an author? Are you an author already? If so, I have some shocking and terrible news for you. Someone, at some point, is going to dislike one of your books. And they’ll tell other people.

So how do you deal with this? Before we move further, we need to define some vocabulary words.

Subjective: existing in the mind (essentially, one’s personal opinion)

Objective: Unbiased and provable (based on facts, not opinion)

So, how do you make a bad review hurt less?

The biggest and most important way to lessen the sting is to remember that all reviews of your books are subjective (see definition above). Reviews of your books are people’s opinions, not indisputable facts. If someone says of your book “This book sucks!” that is an opinion, not a fact. It is not objective.

Everyone has opinions. Guess what? You also have opinions! And getting angry at someone for having an opinion is unprofessional, unfair to that person, and, frankly, a waste of your time.

Imagine if the author of a book you disliked came after you, and said you were a terrible person. How would you feel about that? Is it fair for the person who wrote the book you disliked to blame you for disliking it? Is it your fault for not recognizing their creative genius?

Now flip that around and tell me you can find any way to justify lashing out due to a poor review.

An opinion is one person communicating how they felt about something. You cannot control the opinions of others, and you should not stress over doing so. Learn what you can and move on.

This may be enough to let that bad review roll off your back. If it isn’t, try the steps below.

Step 1: Remember, you are not your book.

When someone dislikes your book, that’s all they are disliking … your book, not you. How can they dislike you? They don’t even know you, certainly not well enough to form an opinion about you. It’s highly doubtful that when they posted their review, they thought “This author is a terrible person and I hate them”. It’s far more likely they thought “Eh, I didn’t really enjoy this book.”

You remain an awesome person whether someone likes your book or not, and even the person who disliked your book would almost certainly agree! (And if they don’t, that’s their problem, not yours).

Step 2: Remember that everyone likes different things.

Think back on every book you’ve ever read. Can you think of a book you disliked? You can? Guess what that proves? You are not the only person who ever wrote a book someone disliked!

Remember, not even the most successful author in the entire world has ever achieved a 100% “I love this” score, for their entire body of work, from everyone in the world. Don’t despair because you didn’t achieve the impossible. No one ever has, even the most successful authors in the history of everything.

Whether or not a person likes your book is always going to be subjective, and we’ve already talked about what subjective means above. A book you love, another may hate, and a book you hate, another may love. Whether or not someone loves your book is entirely out of your control.

Accept that you can control only the objective quality of your book, not how people react to it. If you plan to continue to write books, someone will eventually dislike one. Accept this, and accept that opinions about your work are opinions, not facts, and it hurts less.

Step 3: Remember that you’re going to write more than one book.

This can be especially difficult when you’re just starting out. If you’ve only had one book published, ever, and someone dislikes that book … that’s rough. As authors grow more established, they have an increasing number of books for people to like and dislike, and an increasing number of good reviews to balance out the bad ones. The more reviews you have, and the more books you have, the easier it gets.

Think of it like completing a college class. If your entire grade is based on a single test, it feels like your whole world rests on that one test. Fail, and you fail forever. But if you recognize that you’re eventually going to take two tests, and three, and eight, and your “grade” as an author will become the average of all of those tests … well then it’s not so scary, is it? You can do poorly on a few tests out of many. Your success is not tied to a single book, and a person who disliked one book may love another of your books.

Celebrate because you actually finished a book. You actually created an entire world, its characters, and tumultuous events in their lives, from scratch. You, with almost godlike power, created this thing in the confines of your mind and made it possible for others to experience it. Congratulations!

Not everyone gets that far.

Step 4: Understand the Responsibilities of Authors, Reviewers, and Readers

So let’s say you’ve tried all this, and you still hurt. Even knowing that all book reviews (including bad ones) are subjective hasn’t erased the hurt. You still really want to contact the person who questioned your amazing creation and punish them for not liking it. Well, here’s what you should do.

Don’t.

By making your book available for sale to others, or asking a book reviewer to review your book, you have made a promise to be a professional. Professionals don’t respond to bad reviews by unfairly attacking the reviewer. A professional reads the reviewer’s feedback, considers what the reviewer didn’t like, looks for clues as to how they might improve their next book, and moves on to that next book.

Professionals are professionals because they can handle subjective criticism. If you can’t handle that, you are not a professional, and you should not be publishing books. Full stop.

The information below is fact, not opinion, and as a professional creative person, you are required to acknowledge these facts. If you can’t do this, you have no business ever selling your work to anyone.

An Author Is Responsible For:

  • Writing the best book they can, every time. Each book should be readable, immersive, and entertaining. Recognize that opinions regarding success will always be subjective.
  • Working with an editor to ensure their book is as polished as possible in its intended language. This includes clear language, no typos (or close), and proper formatting (for both print and e-books). This is actually objective feedback, but that’s good, because you control it!
  • Recognizing that feedback they receive is about their book, not about them, as a person.
  • Behaving and interacting professionally with others at all times, both in-person and online.

An Author is Not Responsible For:

  • Writing a book everyone in the history of everything loves.
  • Correcting the “incorrect” opinions of those who just “don’t get” their work.
  • Being infallible.

A Book Reviewer is Responsible For:

  • Reading an author’s book, then telling their readers what they thought about it.

A Book Reviewer is Not Responsible For:

  • Making the author of the book feel like the most amazing author in the world.
  • Refusing to mention things about the book they disliked because others might like those things.
  • Selling the book for the author.
  • Sparing the author’s “feelings”.
  • “Proving” their subjective opinion of the book is “correct” with “indisputable facts”.

A Reader is Responsible For:

  • Paying an author for their book.

A Reader is Not Responsible For:

  • Liking it.

These are objective facts you must accept if you wish to become a creative professional. And if you can’t accept these facts, actually, that’s perfectly okay! Just recognize that in that case, you shouldn’t be selling your work.

Find something else that fulfills you and makes you happy, because if you can’t accept that someone, somewhere, may eventually dislike your book, you will never be happy writing books. Ever.

Revel in the characters and world you’ve created, bask in the glory of the good reviews, and most importantly, improve, improve, improve. Keep writing, keep getting better at writing, and keep creating new worlds and new books because you love doing so … not because you need everyone to like them.

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Someone Else Got There First – Now What?

As authors, all of us draw our inspiration from somewhere. Whether it’s movies we’ve seen, books we’ve read, games we’ve played, or all three, the new stories we tell are unavoidably inspired by the stories we’ve consumed and enjoyed. Just as new artists look to established artists to hone their techniques, and musicians listen to bands they love to guide their own development, storytellers incorporate the stories they’ve consumed into new forms that draw upon and pay tribute to the originals.

Most of the time, this works just fine. Even though we might love the original Star Wars, we don’t rewrite it with the names changed. Instead, we take elements we enjoyed from Star Wars, and elements we enjoyed from Babylon 5, and elements we enjoyed from Battlestar Galactica or Robotech, and combine them with our own ideas into a new space opera of our own making. We throw the stories we’ve enjoyed into a blender and create a new story we love, with the hope others will enjoy it as well.

The author’s dilemma, of course, comes with another storyteller publishes “your” idea first.

Most books, shows, or movies are developed over a period of months or, often, years. Even finished books may languish for years unpublished, especially if the author is attempting the traditional publishing route. No matter how original an author’s idea might be, there is always the chance someone else might have the same idea or get the same inspiration … and they might publish their story first.

This has happened to me multiple times, as I’m sure it has to all of my fellow authors. Clever lines, cool ideas, or even complete scenes from something we’ve written appear in a movie, or a TV show, or another book. These fellow storytellers didn’t copy us … how could they, since our work wasn’t published at the time? … but they had the same idea, and their idea was revealed to the public first. And even though we came up with “our” idea independently, we now wonder if we should toss it aside.

For the most part, I accepted the occasional “lost” idea as the cost of being unpublished, until the day one of my friends introduced me to one of my favorite shows ever – Avatar: The Last Airbender. I loved the show at once, but as much as I enjoyed it, it also left a sinking feeling in my stomach. Why? Because it took the core elements of the magic system from my finished book (which I’d started all the way back in 1998) and half of that book’s sequel, and it made those elements even cooler than my existing idea!

At the time I first watched Avatar, my first book was in the process of being edited by a small press. I’d finally gotten a publication offer, 13 years after I started writing my book. I was stoked! Yet here, taunting me, was Avatar: The Last Airbender. Not only did it use “my” idea, but it took my idea and made it better. It took the elements of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air and, instead of making them spells, had characters summon them using martial arts. Seriously! What’s cooler than elemental martial arts?

Granted, the magic system in my first book was far from original. It was inspired by JRPGs like Final Fantasy IV (the first JRPG I ever played) which introduced the spells Fire, Ice, Tornado, and Quake. I loved the themes of elemental magic introduced in Final Fantasy and ended up building my elemental magic around a similar idea: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. I had built the magic of my world and even its deities around the elemental theme and now, after seeing Avatar, I was depressed. Every time my characters scribed elemental glyphs, they’d be compared to Firebenders, Waterbenders, Earthbenders and Airbenders. So what now? What do I do with my completed, soon to be published book?

I eventually settled on a rather mundane fix. I’d simply change the names of my deities! Rather than Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, my deities would become Heat, Life, Land, and Breath. Yes, my characters still scribed blood glyphs to summon elemental power when they fought, but at least the names of the elements were different. Problem solved, right? Sure it was … until Avatar introduced me to Toph.

By the time I was introduced by Avatar, I had written about 60% of Glyphbinder’s sequel, Demonkin, and was in the home stretch of finishing up its first draft. I was expanding my ensemble with new characters, and one of the first new characters I created was Tania, introduced for a very specific purpose.

Over the course of Glyphbinder (warning: spoilers ahead!) one of my characters, Aryn, is tortured and left blind. As a student of magic, Aryn can summon the dream world (a mental view of the world similar to vector graphics) but that’s an imperfect solution. In the sequel, I wanted to pair Aryn up with a new character who could help him overcome his blindness, and so created Tania. Another student of magic, Tania went blind naturally at a young age, and thus had plenty of time to learn how to use the dream world to replace her imperfect eyes. During the book, she would teach Aryn to “see” again. A perfect companion character!

In addition, my original cast had covered most of my existing magic disciplines. I had shown off the powers of a Lifewarden (Kara), a Bloodmender (Sera), a Beastruler (Byn), an Aerial (Jyllith), a Firebrand (Aryn) and a Soulcaller (Jair). But an Earther? I didn’t have an Earther, and, just like when my favorite comics introduced a new mutant to the X-Men, I wanted the new addition to my ensemble to have a power that was unique on the team. If you’re an Avatar fan, you know where this is going.

To fill the hole in my ensemble, I made Tania an Earther – a blind woman who uses earth-based glyphs for attack and defense – and, because my other two female characters were heroic (Kara) and shy (Sera) I decided Tania should be snarky and humorous. And then, of course, with Tania well-established as my favorite new character and my second book over 60% done, I watched Avatar … and met Toph.

Toph and Tania remained different characters – Tania is much older than Toph (24), secretly a member of an order of assassins charged with hunting Demonkin (more spoilers!), and has far different motivations than Toph does in Avatar. I wrote Tania as a combination of Aeris (from Final Fantasy VII) and Stick (from Daredevil). Yet here Tania was – my blind, confident earth-wielding mage – and I was seriously considering altering her magic discipline, even changing her entire personality, because my favorite new show, Avatar, had introduced a confident, blind character who was an Earthbender.

Fortunately, this is where I caught myself. I considered the pros and cons of rewriting or removing Tania, and the cons outweighed the pros. Tania is central to Aryn’s character arc and the window into how my magic schools, monarchy, and world at large treat Demonkin. Removing her or changing her would require significant rewriting. After a week of handwringing, I kept Tania as she was, and even though people may inevitably consider her a “copy” of Toph, I haven’t regretted it.

Looking back at what I know now, I don’t think I would have even changed the names of my deities in Glyphbinder, if I had it to do again. Plenty of stories have centered around the elements of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air before Avatar, and plenty of stories will do so after. I got worried about being labeled “derivative” rather than telling the story I wanted to tell with ideas that interested me. Yet scrapping a fully developed character, because I’d just met one very similar, was where I drew the line.

Now, had I seen Avatar before starting Demonkin, would I have built Tania’s character the way she is? Probably not. Yet I created Tania before I met Toph, and decided I shouldn’t toss her on the junk pile just because someone else had independently developed a similar character (and I ❤ Toph). Rewriting Tania didn’t feel fair to her, my story, or myself. Avatar might have gotten published first, but Tania remained my character.

As I’ve been exposed to more and more media, I’ve grown increasingly cognizant that there are no truly original ideas out there. Every story, character, and idea we might have has, in some form or another, been created somewhere by someone, even if we haven’t encountered it yet. All we can do, as authors, is tell the best stories we can while using the ideas and themes that pop into our heads. We should obsess less about whether someone uses one of “our” ideas first, and instead focus on how we, as authors, can create an original story with the ideas that excite us.

Star Wars exists. Does that mean we can never write a story with laser swords? Harry Potter exists. Does that mean we can never write a story where students learn magic at a school? Walking Dead exists. Does that mean we can never write a story where heroes fight zombies?

As an author, forcing yourself to scrap one of your cool new ideas, just because someone has the same idea and publishes it first, is silly. We all draw from the same pool of inspiration, and it’s inevitable more than one of us will sometimes end up at the same place. Storytellers tell stories, and those stories are influenced by stories that came before. We should spend less time worrying about “has someone else done this?” and instead focus on “how can I make this element unique in my story?”

So authors, keep your laser swords and your zombies and your magic schools. Keep them and write the coolest story you can with them. You don’t own that idea, but neither does anyone else. Yes, people may sometimes assume you’re copying others and call you “derivative”, but that’s not a reason to junk your best ideas. Worry less about being labeled derivative and more about telling the story you love.

On the Use of Dialogue Tags in Fiction

Many fiction writers, especially when they start out, soon develop a love/hate relationship with dialog tags (Bob said, Joe replied). We need them, but we worry they’re repetitive or worse, we use them in the wrong places. It’s hard to trust ourselves when writing dialogue. Will our reader know who’s speaking?

While critiquing the work of newer authors in writer’s groups, I often see authors who aren’t sure when or where to use dialog tags. Below are some common practices that often aren’t necessary.

  • The author uses dialog tags when we already know who is speaking (conversation rhythm).
  • The author uses synonyms for “said” (replied, argued, hissed) to avoid perceived repetition.
  • The author falls victim to “the burly detective” syndrome, redescribing characters to avoid repeating a character’s name, because they’re concerned about perceived repetition.
  • The author doesn’t trust the reader to understand the speaker’s emotion.

Ultimately, while these don’t necessarily make people put down a book, they do slow down how the reader experiences the book. Tags, used too often, make even good writing denser than it needs to be.

My own use (or non-use) of dialog tags evolved dramatically as I grew as an author. If you pay attention to how established authors write, you’ll notice common patterns which weren’t apparent at first glance. This is because these patterns are invisible to readers, as the foundations of clean writing should be.

Character dialogue doesn’t need dialog tags as often as we think it does. Readers and authors alike understand a few clear rules, and authors who internalize these rules can make their dialogue crisp and efficient by trusting their readers. Once you understand these rules, your dialog will improve.

Rule 1: In a two character conversation, you only need dialog tags once.

The most basic rule of dialog. Even if this is the only rule you absorb, using it dramatically streamlines your writing. When two characters begin a conversation, readers will naturally read their lines as:

Speaker A (established by “A said”)

Speaker B (established by “B said”)

Speaker A

Speaker B

After those first two lines, readers know who is speaking without dialog tags. After you establish the conversation rhythm (who speaks first, and who speaks second) they’ve got it. No repetition needed.

Below are examples of two characters (Diego and Carter) conversing over a dinner of military rations. The first example is too dense and has unneeded tags, unneeded synonyms, and falls victim to “the burly detective” syndrome. It also doesn’t trust the reader to understand the emotions of the characters. The second example removes these issues, presenting the same scene efficiently.

Example 1 (Dense)

1              “We need more mass,” Carter said. He chewed. They both knew what that meant.

2              Diego saw no other options. “I’ll tell the crew.”

3              Diego’s executive offer shook his head. “They’ll mutiny, cap.”

4              “They won’t,” Diego assured him. “We owe them the truth.”

5              Carter scoffed. “At the cost of Ariadne?”

6              “I’m not feeding anyone to this ship without explaining why,” Diego said. “I’ll lead by example.”

Example 2 (Crisp)

1              “We need more mass.” Carter chewed. They both knew what that meant.

2              Diego saw no other options. “I’ll tell the crew.”

3              “They’ll mutiny, cap.”

4              “They won’t. We owe them the truth.”

5              “At the cost of Ariadne?”

6              “I’m not feeding anyone to this ship without explaining why. I’ll lead by example.”

Now, let’s highlight what improved the second version, line by line.

Line 1 – Removed “Carter said”. We see Carter chewing right after that, so we know he’s Speaker A.

Line 2 – No changes. This line establishes Speaker B is Diego, and provides an important plot detail.

Line 3 – Removed “Diego’s executive officer” (an attempt to avoid repeating “Carter” by redescribing him, ala “the burly detective”). We also removed “shook his head”. It is clear Carter is disagreeing with Diego from the context of the dialogue. No need to repeat, and it slows down the conversation.

Line 4 – Removed “Diego assured him”. Carter started the Convo on Line 1 (Speaker A) and Diego answered on Line 2 (Speaker B). This is Line 4, so we know this is Speaker B, Diego, because we’re following the conversation rhythm. We also know Diego is assuring Carter there won’t be a mutiny simply from the context provided by the dialog. No need to spell that out for the reader.

Line 5 – Removed “Carter scoffed”. Line 5 must be a Carter line. Also, it’s clear that Carter is questioning Diego’s statement from the context. His scoff is implied and slows down the conversation.

Line 6 – Removed “Diego said”. We know Line 6 is Diego due to conversation rhythm.

Rule 2: Use a new dialogue tag when a new character enters a conversation, or when one of the two people conversing is replaced by another character, so who is speaking remains clear.

This is a bit more complicated, but it boils down to ensuring your reader knows when a new character chimes in, and doing it as quickly as possible. “He said” is invisible. You notice it, but your readers won’t – except when they aren’t sure who is speaking. Below, examples of a multi-person conversation.

Dense
1              Woo had already figured it out. Mainard looked like he was going to blow chunks, but he didn’t. Laster was oddly introspective about the whole thing.

2              “But, a human … a body, I mean.” Laster blinked. “How many burns do we even get?”

3              “Eight to ten,” Woo said.

4              “You said we needed thirty,” Laster protested.

5              “Learn to multiply,” Woo replied.

6              “Enough,” Diego interrupted, ending their argument. He held out the straws.

Crisp

1              Woo had already figured it out. Mainard looked like he was going to blow chunks, but he didn’t. Laster was oddly introspective about the whole thing.

2              “But, a human … a body, I mean. How many burns do we even get?”

3              “Eight to ten,” Woo said.

4              “You said we needed thirty.”

5              “Learn to multiply.”

6              “Enough.” Diego held out the straws.

Now, let’s highlight what improved the second version, line by line.

Line 1 – No change. We’re establishing that this is a scene with multiple characters: Laster, Woo, Mainard, and Diego (mentioned earlier in the story, in a line I haven’t included for brevity).

Line 2 – Removed “Laster blinked”. Laster is the last person we described in Line 1, where we said “Laster was oddly introspective about the whole thing”. Readers automatically assume Line 2 is Laster speaking, because Line 1 talked about Laster being introspective. An easy way to remove a dialog tag!

Line 3 – No change. This is Woo’s first line in the conversation, so we have to use a dialog tag to keep things clear. But we use “said” which is invisible. Woo is established as Speaker B clean and quick.

Line 4 – Removed “Laster protested”. Conversation rhythm at Line 2 established Laster as Speaker A, and Line 3 established Woo as Speaker B. This is line 4, Laster, and we know he’s protesting from context.

Line 5 – Removed “Woo replied”. Conversation rhythm establishes this as Woo, and we already know he’s replying.

Line 6 – We need a Diego tag here, since he’s a new speaker. But we don’t need “Diego interrupted, ending their argument”. That’s all clear from context. All we need is “Diego” (to name the new speaker entering the conversation) and what he does afterward… “held out the straws”.

Rule 3: Anytime you use an exclamation mark, a character is either talking very loud or shouting.

This is a fun one, because it’s such an easy way to remove dialog tags. Basically, you almost never need the words “she shouted” or “he exclaimed”. It’s clear to readers simply from the “!”. Below, an example.

We’ve established three characters, Kara, Byn, and Sera. Byn just picked Sera up, surprising Kara.

Dense

1          “I caught a mermaid!” Byn exclaimed. He laughed as he fixed Kara with playful brown eyes. “Can we keep her?”

2          “Drown me, Byn!” Kara shouted. She shoved him and he stumbled back, Sera eeping as he nearly dropped her. “You put that poor girl down.”

Crisp

1          “I caught a mermaid!” Byn laughed as he fixed Kara with playful brown eyes. “Can we keep her?”

2          “Drown me, Byn!” Kara shoved him and he stumbled back, Sera eeping as he nearly dropped her. “You put that poor girl down.”

Now, let’s highlight what improved the second version, line by line.

Line 1 – We removed “Byn exclaimed”. We know Byn’s talking loudly from the “!”.

Line 2 – We removed “Kara shouted”. We know Kara is shouting from the “!”, and it actually slows down the scene to put an unnecessary “Kara shouted” before she shoves Byn. The reader “sees” the shove happen more immediately if we get “Kara shouted” out of their way.

Wrapping Up

These rules are not absolutes. There are great reasons to not do the things these rules suggest – word rhythm, injecting humor or visuals, if the character’s emotion actually isn’t clear from the context – but if you internalize these rules, you’ll have a better understanding of when to break them.

Writing credits: For this article, I used samples from my own writing because I knew I wouldn’t sue myself over copyright. The first two examples are from “Hitting the Arch”, my submission to Fantasy-Faction’s August writing contest for “space opera”. The second is from my first book, Glyphbinder.

Utimately, everyone has their own writing style. Your writing ultimately has to “feel right” to you. But internalizing these rules is a great way to streamline your dialogue.

Thoughts on Self-Publishing: Videogames vs Books (Part 3)

Why the Self-Publishing Stigma Needs to Go Away

In my first post on this subject, I laid out how professionals in the videogame industry and those in the book industry perceive self-publishing very differently. In my second post, I offered my theories as to why this is the case. In my final post on this topic, I’ll talk about why this stigma needs to end.

Based on my experience, I don’t think the stigma attached to self-publishing serves authors of any group, traditionally published or independent. The most unfortunate thing about the way many veterans of the book industry perceive self-publishing (as opposed to those in the game industry) is how this stigma artificially divides authors who are traditionally published from those who self-publish. Instead of curating and molding future talent, as we do in the game industry, those who look down on self-published books are discouraging and deriding their next batch of great authors. Their new blood.

Even worse, some in traditional publishing still view self-publishing as a black mark on an author’s career. Why? The author completed a manuscript, which many writers will tell you is an accomplishment all on its own. They worked with an editor and incorporated feedback. They solicited advance readers and incorporated even more feedback. They polished their book until it was ready and released it, gaining valuable experience that will make their next book even better.

After an indie game developer successfully releases a game, traditional publishers in the game industry are more likely to hire them, not less. The developer has proven they can develop a game from scratch, complete it (no easy feat), and release a quality product. They’ve proved they can do the job.

How the Self-Publishing Stigma Unnecessarily Divides Authors

For the most part, authors support each other. I’ve met a number of authors from both camps, and we all get along great. In private, however, I’ve had authors who were traditionally published warn me in no uncertain terms to stay away from self-publishing (because it’s “vanity press”), and had self-published authors tell me repeatedly that it’s foolish to give away money and creative freedom to a traditional publisher when you don’t need them to sell a book. Both of these statements are incorrect.

Publishing a book with a traditional press will always have advantages over publishing it yourself, just as publishing a videogame through a big publisher will always have advantages over putting it out yourself. Traditional presses have marketing budgets, teams of people to promote your book, and the apparatus to get your book widely read, reviewed, and talked about. You don’t have to hire an editor, pay a cover artist, or do your layout yourself – they do all that for you, and they pay you while they do it! If you can publish through a traditional press, you’re (almost always) better off doing so.

Yet this doesn’t mean authors should consider self-publishing forbidden. Perhaps their book tackles a subject a big press refuses to touch, or presents its narrative in an experimental way a big press doesn’t deem safe. Perhaps they are already a great marketer and promoter, or know people who are, and are confident they can sell their own book. Perhaps their book is a reprint and they’ve regained the rights, yet no big press wants to republish it. There’s any number of reasons self-publishing might be the perfect distribution route for them. Saying they should never do it and deriding those who do is wrong.

Ultimately, both the author who advised me never to self-publish and the author who advised me to always go it alone are great folks – personable, approachable, and generous enough to spend their time offering a new author career advice. They meant well. Even so, knowing what I’ve learned about both publishing routes in the past few years, I think I would have been better served had both of them explained the benefits and drawbacks of all publishing options. Educating me so I could decide which publishing method would work best for me and my book. Just like we do in game development.

Final Thoughts

A game developer is a game developer – a person who makes games. An author is an author – a person who writes books. How those games or books are published should not matter and no longer does, in today’s market with today’s technology. Only the quality of the final product should have any bearing on its reception. If an author has the experience, is willing to do the work, and knows how to wisely invest limited capital, their self-published book can equal any traditionally published book out there.

A strong bias toward traditional publishing made sense twenty years ago, when it was literally the only way to print, distribute, and market a quality book. Yet those old barriers are gone now, blown away by print-on-demand services and e-readers. Only one thing remains the same. Readers want quality books. But they no longer care who publishes their books – only that the quality is there.

Just like in the game industry, if an author creates a quality book on their own, we should congratulate them on their accomplishment, not deride them as “vanity press”. This is how the videogame industry has always worked, and we’re much better for it. The traditional publishing industry could learn from our example. By embracing self-publishing instead of deriding it, and educating authors on how to do it right, they can create a wider market with even more great books and talented authors than now exist.

Self-publishing isn’t going to destroy traditional publishing any more than indie game publishing has destroyed big game publishers. These publishing routes complement each other, with self-publishing providing a route for books that big publishers otherwise wouldn’t have space to publish, and a way for new authors to learn, grow, and gain experience. The more great books and unique voices releasing quality books, the more readers we’ll attract. The more readers we attract, the more people buying and enjoying books – which is great for every author out there.

The book industry needs to move into the present and view self-publishing as the game industry views it – as one of several equally valid paths a creator can take their quality product to publication. No stigma attached. Experienced authors should ensure that new authors know all their options and choose the option that works best for them and their book. All publishing professionals, traditional or independent, should focus on ensuring every new author has the knowledge to produce their best work and chooses the best method to distribute that work. How they publish it shouldn’t matter.

Thoughts on Self-Publishing: Videogames vs Books (Part 2)

Why the Self-Publishing Disconnect?

Yesterday, I ran you through my thoughts on the very different ways that the two creative industries in which I participate (videogame development and book publishing) differ in their perceptions of self-published work. In today’s post, I’ll run through my theories why, including those I’ve self-debunked.

Theory 1: Self-published books are often poor quality – riddled with typos, featuring generic covers, and difficult to read due to layout issues. This is because it’s impossible for authors to produce a quality book without the guidance and approval of a traditional publishing house.

Analysis: A cursory inspection of books on Amazon will confirm there a number of poor quality self-published books out there – unlike in traditional publishing, gatekeepers do not exist. Yet this can’t be the reason game developers and book publishers view self-publishing differently, because the exact same thing is true of independent game development. The vast majority of indie games are poor quality as well. Just go on any app store and you’ll find a huge number of indie games that are riddled with bugs, overpromise and under deliver, and feature unintuitive and clunky controls.

So why aren’t game developers at big publishers constantly telling new developers that they should never publish a game on their own? That they should only publish if they can gain a big publisher’s approval, guidance, and coveted release slot? Because all game developers, including those at big publishers and those working on their own, understand that experience, planning, and hard work are all you need to make a great game. Who publishes the final product doesn’t matter.

Experienced developers recognize that independent games can really shine – when done right – and offer newcomers advice on how to make a game the right way. Prototype. Playtest. Feedback. Playtest. Feedback. Playtest. Bug check. Playtest. And when a new designer finally self-publishes their completed game, other designers congratulate them on this accomplishment instead of looking down on them.

As with game development, the theory that only big book publishers can make great books is incorrect. An author who approaches a self-published book the proper way – hiring a professional editor, listening to and incorporating that editor’s feedback, purchasing quality cover art, and ensuring their early draft receives plenty of unbiased feedback from advance readers – can absolutely make a great book. Like a game, when the quality’s there, it doesn’t matter how it was published.

Theory 2: Market research shows that readers only buy books curated and hand-picked by editors at traditional presses. Readers aren’t interested in and won’t purchase self-published books.

Traditional presses actually disproved this theory themselves. All you need do is look at the number of self-published titles they’ve subsequently purchased from authors and re-published themselves, once the book met with success. Even traditional presses acknowledge that great self-published books exist and it is possible for any author to release one if, again, just like games, they do it right. In addition, there are now a number of self-published authors doing very, very well – in some cases, even better than those authors with traditional press – completely on their own.

The game industry, of course, has never believed a game must be handpicked by a big publisher to sell. We believe all a developer must do to make a successful game is do things right. Find the fun. And many of these independent games, completely free of any influence or seal of approval from a big publisher, turn out as fun as games with hundreds of designers and budgets in the millions – because the independent developer iterated and tested their game until they got it right.

Just as independent game developers who do things right can release a quality game, self-published authors who do things right can release a quality book. They simply publish it themselves, when it’s ready, and how it is published has no effect on the quality of the final product or who will buy it.

Theory 3: Publishing a high quality book and selling it to readers across the world, on your own, was next to impossible for a very long time, before today’s technology and distribution methods. By comparison, game developers have been able to self-publish high quality games for as long as the game industry has existed, and have been able to do so across multiple electronic distribution channels – not just physical stores.

Analysis: Ultimately, this is the theory that makes the most sense to me. Before print-on-demand, e-books, and Amazon, a traditional press and its attached apparatus was the only way to publish a quality book – and I think many in traditional publishing still believe (incorrectly) that this remains the case. In the “old days”, printing presses wouldn’t even print a book unless the client purchased many physical copies at once, which was very, very expensive. Readers could only discover authors at brick-and-mortar bookstores, on shelves that had limited space stocked with physical books from traditional publishers and absolutely no one else. E-books and e-readers didn’t even exist.

By comparison, the game industry has been self-publishing since it was conceived by people making games on computers they built themselves. They proved repeatedly that anyone who was smart enough and ambitious enough could release a quality game, and finishing and releasing a game entirely on your own has always been an accomplishment. Even the big publishers who formed to produce physical media (disks, cartridges, and CDs) retained a healthy respect for “self-published” games because they came from a background making them. Finally, games have always been available in electronic formats – not chained to brick-and-mortar distribution – while e-books have only become popular recently.

The different ways each industry grew up is where I believe the stigma traditional publishing attaches to self-publishing originates. Many in traditional press simply don’t understand how far self-publishing has come in the last ten years, and thus assume it must be inferior. Commonly available software packages allow authors to quickly edit manuscripts and create interior layouts just as clean as traditional presses. Print-on-demand services produce quality paperbacks without the need for an author to pay any money up front, store books in inventory (books don’t exist until they are sold), or mail them to buyers. And online retailers like Amazon and others allow any author to sell direct to readers anywhere in the world.

Finally, the biggest market change comes from readers, huge numbers of whom will buy a quality book regardless of if it is traditional press, small press, print-on-demand, or a plain e-book. Quality is quality, and who published the book doesn’t really matter to the majority of readers these days. All they want is good value for their money – and self-published books can now offer the same quality as traditional press books.

Why Is This Important?

Tomorrow, in the final part of this post, I’ll explain why I think it’s important to remove the stigma associated with self-publishing from the book industry, both from the perspective of authors self-published and traditionally published and from the perspective of those in traditional press. If we don’t do this, we’re giving up some terrific opportunities for publishing to grow.

Thoughts on Self-Publishing: Videogames vs Books (Part 1)

A Contradiction in Perception

After amicably parting ways with the small press that published my first novel, I consulted with several fellow game developers who had published their own books about where to go next. After hearing about the experiences, I decided self-pubbing my book’s reprint (a “second edition”) was the way to go. I found doing so easy and painless, and I remain quite proud of my first book… moreover, I now plan to self-publish my second book, a sequel to the first, at the end of the year. It just makes sense.

Despite my own positive experiences with self-publishing, I still hope to publish a book traditionally some day, and remain open to publishing my future work via any avenue. Yet conversations I’ve had with both fellow authors and editors have reminded me a significant stigma remains attached to self-publishing, which, coming from a background as a videogame developer, I’ve always found quite odd.

This got me thinking about why the book and videogame industries view self-publishing so differently, and what might have led to this divide. The book and game industries are very similar (both produce art that consumers subjectively enjoy or deride) yet the perception of the content creators themselves (authors versus game developers) and their art remains very different. In part one of what will be a three part blog post, I’ll offer my thoughts on how both industries view self-published products.

Self-Publishing in Game Development

In the world of professional videogame development, “self-published games” are generally called “indie games”. Rather than looking down on indie games, both independent game developers and those with big publishers consider the ability to complete and release an indie game an accomplishment, even a badge of honor. What matters is that the developer completed and released a playable game – if it’s a quality experience, gamers love it and developers praise it. How it was published couldn’t matter less.

In addition, many in the professional videogame industry call out independent games and independent game developers as advancing our industry as a whole, exploring themes and gameplay mechanics the big publishers wouldn’t touch. In short, innovating. Gamers often seek out indie games for experiences beyond the “samey” first-person shooter and sports game sequels the big publishers release each year.

When both professional game developers and gamers use the words “indie game”, it is almost always in a positive context. While I could list dozens of indie games I personally enjoy, I’ll simply list one you’ve almost certainly heard of – Minecraft. Its indie developer eventually sold it to Microsoft for billions.

Finally, just as with the book industry, there are a limited number of big videogame publishers and they can only publish a fraction of the games released each year. Big publishers are also far more likely to publish sequels to previously successful games created by developers they already know. There simply aren’t enough slots in their publishing schedule to publish new games from new developers, limiting opportunity for newcomers, and this is why many independent game developers self-publish. A spot with a big publisher may simply not exist, regardless of the quality of the game you’ve created.

Self-Publishing in a Traditional Publishing World

Now let’s compare this to book publishing. Many traditional publishers, as well as authors who publish through them, still look down on self-published books and the indie authors who write them. While the stigma continues to fade each year, a number of agents, editors, and authors maintain that any book which is self-published must be inferior to any book published through traditional press – period – and those who release these books only self-published because they weren’t skilled enough to sell a book to a traditional editor, agent, or press. The derisive term for self-publishing remains “vanity press”, which in and of itself clearly shows how some in traditional publishing still view self-published work.

Among readers, the derision toward self-published work is far less noticeable, and though still present, it continues to rapidly fade. This is largely due to advances in the technology of books themselves – print-on-demand technology is now widely available, e-books are selling well, and the traditional brick and mortar bookstores (where shelf space was limited to traditionally published books) have given way to the level playing field provided by Amazon and other online book vendors. Anyone can publish a book these days and it sells based on its quality and marketing, not who published it. Only quality matters.

Finally, just like in the game industry, the number of big book publishers (and the slots they have to print and publish books each year) remains limited. When a big publisher doesn’t even have enough slots in a year to publish books from all of the authors they’ve already signed, why would they consider taking a book from a new author, regardless of quality? A slot in the big publisher’s schedule simply doesn’t exist, so like indie game developers who fund their own development, indie authors use their own money to hire a professional editor, purchase cover art, and recruit both fellow authors and advance readers to critique their manuscript. They do everything a traditional publisher does to ensure their final book is of the highest quality – the only difference is, once they’ve done this, they publish it themselves.

So What’s Going On?

Why does this disconnect between two equally creative industries exist? Why are the perceptions of professional game developers and traditionally published authors so different? Why is self-publishing a negative in the book industry and a positive in the game industry, when both methods can now produce art of equal quality regardless of publication method? I have some ideas, but I’m breaking this blog post into three parts to keep it manageable.

In Part 2 (to be published tomorrow) I’ll suggest and then debunk some popular theories as to why these industries perceive self-publishing differently, and provide my own thoughts. In Part 3, I’ll explain why I think the stigma associated with self-publishing books needs to end, and how it divides authors.

Year End Update

It’s been a busy 2014 with work on the big game (coming soon to a console near you), the birth of my first daughter, and lots of writing and editing. I now have four different projects in various states and three short stories coming out next year. With the holidays coming to a close, I figured it was a good time to update you folks on the new book and other things.

First, after consulting with McBryde Publishing, we’ve pushed the release of my second book, Demonkin, to 2015. My wonderful copy editor, Juli Mandala, got me a slew of clean ups and fixes in plenty of time, but it’s taking longer than I expected to go through them (the new baby, of course, is helping with that). I’ve already improved the book tremendously thanks to the feedback of a number of advance readers, and I want to make sure the final product is as clean and readable as it can get.

Second, I have some exciting projects on the way. I’ve continued to write new fiction over the past year and not just in the adventure fantasy genre. I may be pushing into other genres soon and if that happens, you’ll be the first to know. My fellow authors at the Baltimore Science Fiction Society Critique Circle and the D.C. “Writer’s Group from Hell” have already offered great feedback and shown me plenty of places where I can improve.

On the publishing front, I have two new short stories on the way next year with a third (which was already released) being reprinted. As each of those is released I’ll have more info, but here’s a list of what you’ll be seeing from me in 2015.

“Demoneater”, my dark fantasy short story about wandering heroes who devour demons, will appear in Superhero Monster Hunter, an upcoming anthology from Emby Press, in early 2015.

“Rum’s Daughter”, my twisted fairy tale correcting the lies told about Rumplestiltskin, will be reprinted in the second edition of Fairly Wicked Tales, due out from Ragnarok Publications in first quarter 2015.

“Jinny’s Finest”, a modern ghost story involving wine and dead people, will appear in Demon Rum and Other Evil Spirits, also due out from Ragnarok Publications before the end of 2015.

Demonkin, the sequel to Glyphbinder and my second novel, will be coming from McBryde Publishing in mid 2015.

In one last bit of news, Demonkin isn’t the only new piece of fiction I’m writing in the universe I first introduced in Glyphbinder. You’ll hear more about that as I come closer to completing my new projects. I will continue promoting Glyphbinder in 2015 and more news will be coming on that front soon.

To end this, I want to thank everyone who I’ve met at conventions or who have written me about my work. Knowing that people are reading and enjoying what I write keeps me going. As an author, we create stories to share them, and I’m glad I get to share my stories with every last one of you.