For the last 25 years, I’ve been a full-time genre fiction book critic—writing for companies from BlueInk Review to Publishers Weekly to The Chicago Tribune. I’ve evaluated titles in every genre category and reviewed both traditionally published and independently published titles.
I’ve read and reviewed enough books (10,000+) to know that self-published authors make common blunders that can virtually guarantee their books receive negative reviews and ruin any chance at creating a positive buzz. These are giant red flags—ear-piercing alarms—warning me of an imminent bad read.
Consider this a public service announcement. Because as a reviewer, I want you, the self-published author, to bring your best book to the table. I want nothing more than to be blown away by a self-published novel and to shout about it from the rooftops for the whole world to hear.
Listed below, in order of importance, are five mistakes that—in my humble opinion—will doom any self-published book.
1. Typographical and grammatical errors
Learn your craft, writers. Spelling and punctuation errors are the biggest red flags of all. If you can’t spell words that most fifth graders should know and you don’t understand how to use commas, chances are good that you probably shouldn’t be publishing a book.
That’s not to say that a bad speller can’t be a fantastic novelist. It says he or she should’ve let a professional editor and/or proofreader correct it before publishing.
When I review books, I keep track of every single typographical error the author makes in a trusty notebook. A dozen errors in total is only mildly irritating; anything over 50 is unacceptable. I’ve read self-published books with hundreds of errors—grammatical mistakes on every page, in every paragraph, almost in every sentence. I actually reviewed a self-published novel with a typo in the title on the front cover!
Do not publish a novel until it’s finished— and it’s not finished until you know that the majority of errors have been found and removed.
2. Chest beating
This is a big one for me. Don’t brag about what a great writer you are. I’ve read more than a few biographies where the author states that [insert name here] knew from an early age that he or she was an incredibly talented wordsmith, has a special gift that he or she wants to share with the world, etc. A little humility goes a long way, writers.
Don’t say it—do it.
3. No understanding of the genre
It only makes sense that before you endeavor to write a historical whodunit, ecological thriller, or steampunk romance you understand the genre in which you are writing. This ties in peripherally with understanding your craft. There is a level of literary awareness here that cannot be understated. Do you understand the history of the genre in which you’re writing? Have you read more than a few classics and/or current releases? Do you know what kinds of storylines are trending? Are you aware of the conventions and clichés?
The popular Edmund Burke quote—“those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”—is so true in this case. I can’t tell you how many self-published novels I’ve read that have had premises or narrative elements eerily similar to iconic works. And I don’t think it’s so much plagiarism as it is ignorance.
Consider any category of fiction—such as apocalyptic fiction, paranormal fantasy, or amateur whodunit—to be a vast forest. Every novel is a tree, every short story a bush or vine. The more you explore the woods in which you intend to ultimately plant your own narrative tree, the stronger that tree will be.
4. Amateurish cover art
Yeah. I know. People shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But guess what? They do. I’ve seen it happen time and time again: a mediocre novel with eye-catching cover art sells well while a brilliant novel with bad cover art comes and goes unnoticed.
This is a big deal. In future blogs I’ll explore this topic in more detail, but know this: it’s essential to choose your cover art wisely. You are doing yourself and your novel a great disservice by choosing amateurish and/or ill-conceived cover art.
5. No social networking presence
Some people may disagree with me about this, but I think it’s critically important: if you’re a self-published author, it is imperative that you have a social media presence. If you’re trying to promote a self-published novel and you don’t have a website and/or you’re not active on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc., you’re effectively shooting yourself in the foot.
This is where your readers are. Potentially millions of them! Get your name—and your book—out there and grow your audience!
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program. Readers of this blog are offered a $50 discount on a BlueInk review by using the “key code” Allen. (This in no way guarantees a review by Allen.)