June 13, 2011

No. 1 reason reviewers trash self-published books

By Patti Thorn, BlueInk Review Managing Partner

Among the stack of books on my study floor, there’s a children’s book with one page written entirely stream of consciousness. There’s a memoir with typos and grammatical errors on the back cover copy. There’s a nonfiction book that uses the past and present tenses interchangeably. Trying to read even one page makes you seriously wonder if the author dropped down from outer space and is speaking in some warped version of Star Trekkian Klingon.

At BlueInk Review, we receive some wonderful self-published books for review. We have thrillers that our critics couldn’t put down, poignant memoirs, inspirational self-help stories – all books that any library would be proud to have on their shelves.

But it’s the books like those first mentioned that keep me up at night – much like the blog I ran across a few days ago titled “Bad Writing Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”

Really? Has it come to this?

The gist of the blogger’s argument is that people don’t care if a book is poorly written, they’re buying it anyway, especially when it’s a 99 cent ebook they can download on their new Kindle. “Plainly, we’re entering a new phase where people approach writing differently. People will forgive problems for a cheap read.”

While the “problems” part wasn’t specified in the blog, and reader discussion pivoted around what makes a good read, comments also touched on whether or not good grammar and proper editing matter anymore.

Even noted literary agent Andrew Wylie seemed to acknowledge that lower standards are acceptable on some level in his recent article in WSJ Magazine, proving that the issue isn’t limited to self-published books. “The devaluation of quality editing and writing is sad and it’s inevitable. Each house has a large number of titles to publish, and with a difficult economy, fewer people to handle the publications.”

Inevitable? Isn’t that a little bit like saying that, due to the bad economy, it’s inevitable airplanes will no longer undergo safety checks?

OK. I’m willing to forgive the occasional misplaced comma – and I’m sure I’ve misplaced more than a few during my writing life. But will I forgive the author of that book that has so many grammatical errors that I can’t get past the first page without going cross-eyed?  About as much as I forgave that desperate housewife Nene for wasting my time on Celebrity Apprentice.

This may come as news to anyone who slept through high school English class, but grammar is not just a pesky annoyance, something akin to your mother telling you to clean up your room even though you’re perfectly fine just stepping over the mound of clothes you’ve dropped all over the floor. Anyone who has tried to read a book riddled with grammatical issues can tell you that commas, periods and quotation marks in the right places aren’t just formalities – they’re essential to conveying meaning.

Reading a book that is poorly edited is a profoundly disorienting experience. You look at the well-designed cover. Yep, this is a book, you say to yourself. You open the book to the title page. Yep, everything is in order here. You see the copyright, the note about “all rights reserved.” Check, check. Then you turn to Chapter 1 and start reading, and suddenly you feel as if the book in your hands has just transformed into an entirely different object. Ever see that movie Pan’s Labyrinth, in which the mandrake morphs into an ugly little baby? (Here’s a puzzler: what looks like a book, feels like a book, but isn’t a book?)

Which brings me to the point of this post. What is the no. 1 negative comment reviewers have of the self-published books they review?

I’ll let our BlueInk critics tell you in their own words, as they have in many reviews:

Not enough consideration has been given to editing and organizational structure — quotation marks are unnecessarily placed around “everyday phrases” and topics are discussed before being adequately explained (or never explained,…) .

Grammatical glitches and lifeless dialogue hamper (this) otherwise well-paced writing.

(Author) could have used an editor to catch some grammatical and punctuation errors (he seems to be rationing commas, which are absent in many necessary places), as well as simple copy editing mistakes.

And he likes to use commas, whether they’re called for, or, not. Also worth noting are some gaps in the book. A dozen pages, plus two pages of the Index, just aren’t there.

Equally troublesome are other word-skill distractions, especially syntax, diction and punctuation flaws that hurt this book to a fault. No reader should be asked to decipher a sentence like this: “The hammering winds filled every cranny of her bedroom, overlooked by hired builders.”

(This book) would greatly benefit from editing to eliminate inconsistencies in the action.

… her stories sometimes lack context and are occasionally told non-chronologically in a way that intends to be artful, but will end up only puzzling readers. Alas, a closer edit could have turned this heartfelt story into something stellar.

Bottom line: Editing matters. You can put a period on that.

Patti Thorn is the former book review editor of the Rocky Mountain News and co-founder of BlueInk Review, a service devoted to providing honest, objective book reviews of self-published work.

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