5 Tell-Tale Signs of an Amateur Self-Published Book

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From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

When you’re confined to a hospital bed for several months the way I was last summer, you read a lot of books. During my 2+ months of medical incarceration, I read pretty much everything loaded onto my trusty old Kindle (over 200 titles.)

Often I didn’t remember how the books got there. I’d just start reading where Amazon plunked me down.

But it’s amazing how soon I could tell a book was an amateur effort. Sometimes I stuck around to read the rest of the book for story, but often I just clicked away.

Do note: I think it’s important to make a distinction between an amateur self-published book and one from a professional indie author. Few people can tell the difference between a book self-published by a pro and one from a traditional publishing house.

But amateurs tend to fly some red flags early on to let the reader know they’re kind of winging the whole publishing thing.

1) Titles: Generic Titles Can Scream “Amateur Self-Published Book.”

An author who chooses a generic title like Finding Myself, or Love and Marriage, or one all-encompassing word like Change, Grief, or Hope is signaling a lack of focus. (As well as a lousy imagination.)

Generic titles also don’t give the reader enough information as to what the book is about.

Yes, I know there’s a novel called War and Peace that hasn’t done too badly in the sales department. And there is a spectacular comic novel called Life, the Universe and Everything. But if you’re not Leo Tolstoy or Douglas Adams, don’t attempt such a huge undertaking.

. . . .

2) Clunky Storytelling (Although it Shows up in Trad-Pubbed Books Too.)

I used to say I could always tell an amateur book by the saggy middle or lack of focus, but after reading those 200 books on my Kindle, I realized clunky storytelling happens everywhere.

However, I did see it more often in amateur books. Constant flashbacks and relentless exposition were the two most common problems that kept me from reading on.

But the worst cause of clunky storytelling I found was the protagonist who didn’t have specific goals and sort of floated through the story rather than driving it forward. Books with goal-less protagonists often can read like a series of vignettes rather than a coherent story.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

7 thoughts on “5 Tell-Tale Signs of an Amateur Self-Published Book”

  1. Test (since this was a story I couldn’t comment on previously).

    I don’t think #2 is a good sign, as the OP admits this problem isn’t specific to indies. I might have put print formatting or cover fonts there, but not clunky storytelling. And even then, I’ve caught academic presses committing some of those formatting sins, and worse ones.

    Few people can tell the difference between a book self-published by a pro and one from a traditional publishing house.

    True. I’ve thought this all along; if I remember correctly the “tsunami of swill” talk came from print media, which has a specific bias against writers. It’s not personal so much as it’s “lived experience,” but the lived experience is irrelevant where indies are concerned.

    I’m not kidding about the lived experience bias. In print reporting, the skill selected for in reporters isn’t writing. The necessary trait is inquisitiveness, and it turns out the ability to ask who, what, when, etc. is not at all related to the skill of writing down the answers in a coherent fashion.

    It turns out many reporters are terrible writers–I was shocked to discover this. One editor griped that when she applied for jobs as a reporter, editors would ask her who wrote a given line in her stories. The assumption was that she couldn’t have written any of the well-turned phrases in her stories, the good lines had to be an editor’s doing. This is often true, because again, reporters aren’t hired for their writing skills, that’s what editors are for. It’s weird, but true.

    The good reporters who can also write may be drafted into the editing ranks. So when stories about indie writers first hit the scene, the assumption was that indies can’t make it without editors to write their stories for them. This is obviously wrong for novelists.

    Back to clunky storytelling, this is definitely not an indie-specific failing. It shows up everywhere, especially in modern stories. About twenty years ago there was a sci-fi website (from the Sci-Fi Channel?) where Ellen Datlow was editor. She’d answer questions posted to the site, and I remember she was mystified when readers asked her to promise that the stories she published there would be true stories. Readers were asking for actual plots with true protagonists who move the plot. She was mystified by this concern, but plotless stories with aimless protagonists was a non-trivial possibility even then, published by the big name publishers to boot.

    • 1- So, Lois Lane’s spelling issues are realistic, not comic relief? Huh.

      2- I’ve seen a few good stories where the protagonist has no real agency in the narrative, anf that is precisely the point. Without going too far, there is 1984. And Heinlein’s JOB. Not every “amateur mistake” is actually a mistake. Sometimes it’s very good writing.

      • 1. Correct, it’s not necessarily comic relief at all; it’s very realistic. And sadly, I saw a comment a little while ago from people who now think that the most unrealistic part about “Superman” is that Lois and Clark are reporters with integrity. I’ve known good reporters, but I can’t blame people for being cynical about the profession now.

        2. To be fair, any “rule” can be brilliantly broken by someone who knows what they’re doing. One example I like is from the world of filmmaking. In film, there’s a concept that I think was called “mit out sound,” or “without sound.” The idea is that if someone is watching the picture without the sound, they will still know what’s going on.

        Tim Burton cleverly broke that “rule” in a scene from Ed Wood. It’s the scene where Ed is talking Bela Lugosi out of committing suicide. If you watch it without sound, you will have precisely the wrong idea about what’s happening. Instead of perceiving Wood is trying to help Lugosi, you will instead think Wood is menacing Lugosi. This is done by shadowing Ed’s face so he looks sinister and threatening, and filming Lugosi at an angle to make him appear to be cowering in terror from Wood. It was cool to realize what Burton was up to; I finally understood why various directors get lauded by critics.

        I believe you can have an inert main character, but chances are they work best in a “message fiction” scenario where they exist largely to illustrate a point. And the point is sufficiently entertaining to overcome the audience’s bias for a protagonist (the character who drives the plot, think Atticus Finch) vs. a main character (the character whose eyes we see the story through, e.g., Scout). If the story’s concept works, the audience won’t mind following a Scout or a Winston.

        • In the area of narrative “tricks” I rather like the unreliable narrator technique in a variety of forms, particularly the version that only shows the protagonist’s point of view until late in the story when it starts to dawn that the “good guy” isn’t exactly Peter Pureheart.
          For example, 1965 THE COLLECTOR. (A very young Terence Stamp, to boot.)

          As you said, done right, a lot of “mistakes” can be used to great effect, subverting expectations. Too many “mistake” pieces seem to be more interested in homogenizing books than in discussing the craft.

          Just as too many media drones are more interrested in disguised editorializing than reporting, injecting their views where they don’t belong instead of letting facts and events speak for themselves.

  2. HA! I’ll repost this here, now that it’s working.

    Twenty years ago, when I was part of an online critique group, one of the people took a few pages from my WIP and “edited them” to show me how they should have been written, using all of the “Rules”. When I read the pages, they were simply words on the page. He had somehow divorced the prose from the story itself.

    Then twenty years ago, when I sold the short story to an anthology, the copy editor simply made some house style changes to my prose and combined two paragraphs.

    I realized that:

    When someone is being paid to “Edit” or “Copy edit” they have to make changes, otherwise why are you paying them money. If they sent back the pages saying that they are ready to go, no changes needed, you would feel outraged to pay their fee.

    – I use time to help me finish the prose.

    I put the pages away, do other projects, then go back and simply read what I wrote, with a yellow marker and red pen, to simply highlight what looks odd, or comment that I started skimming the pages. Skimming your own prose is not a good sign. I would then put those marked up pages aside while I worked on other stuff. Then when I came back to the marked up pages, I would only look at the highlighting and red marks. I usually found that I simply made a “critical” mark because of that moment, and most of the prose is left unchanged.

    Those odd errors that I actually make, I cherish, because like the Ancient Arab weaver would say, “Only Allah is perfect.”

    And am I the only one who thinks that the book cover at the bottom of her web page, SHERWOOD, LTD: Camilla Mystery #2, looks tacky, i.e., amateurish, or am I just being snippy.

  3. That book cover at the bottom of the page may be perfectly acceptable for the genre, I wouldn’t know. I avoid books with those sort of covers and most mysteries in general.

    I know I’ve seen some really poor editing on so called professional novels. not so much non-fiction, although the non-fic I’m reading at present does have a few bobbles. Nothing like the reign/rein, lie/lay, doubled words, mispelled words, misused words etc I’ve seen in fiction. I swear everyone involved is getting less and less literate.

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