I read your book

October 17, 2015
I Read Your Book Last Night

This morning's books waiting to be opened and shelved at Book World. (Ron Charles/Washington Post)He begins kindly enough: “I can imagine how frustrating it is to have your book refused possible review coverage by the Horn Book simply because it is self-published.” But then he lays out the case from the review editor’s point of view. He’s bracingly blunt. Here’s my summary with his key points:

1. There are too many of you. “If we were to commit to giving self-published books the same level of scrutiny we give to what we already cover, I would need to increase our staff exponentially, which is not going to happen.”

2. Your books are not good enough. “Most self-published books for children are pretty terrible.”

3. You have no sense of audience. “People writing ‘for children’ tend to have set themselves up as Lady Bountifuls, handing down stories from above like plates of healthy vegetables.”

4. You don’t know the market. “An editor isn’t there to ‘fix mistakes.’ His or her most important job is to understand what contribution your story makes — or doesn’t — to the big world of books and readers.”

I contacted Sutton this morning for additional comment (and to see if he’d been assaulted yet). As I suspected, his open letter had been inspired by an e-mail exchange with a “self-pubber.” Those of us in the business know these exchanges well. They’re pretty much why I don’t answer the phone anymore. There’s always some aggressive or depressed “indie writer” on the other end insisting that his book is spectacular, unlike anything else being published today. If only I’d read 25 pages, I’d be hooked.

I asked Sutton, “What do you say to the indie writer who reminds you that Walt Whitman was self-published?”

“You are not Walt Whitman, ” he said. “The 21st century is different in so many ways from the 19th that the comparison is meaningless. No one is forbidding you from self-publishing, but neither is anyone required to pay attention.”

We both agree that books from indie writers will only increase. “It may engender a whole new stream of book reviewing, ” Sutton said, “but I doubt it, because people are more interested in writing self-published books than in reading them. And if old media is so passe, why do they care so much about what we think?”

At The Post, we’re getting about 150 books a day. A day. And these are books that had to find an agent. And then a publisher. And then were professionally edited. And now are being professionally marketed by people with money on the line. Many of these books, of course, are bad, but many — far more than we can review — are interesting, engaging, informative, moving, timely and/or newsworthy for various reasons.

All the winnowing and editing work that went on before a galley ever arrives at our door make this job possible. The idea of dumping several hundred thousand additional books on our small staff every year is terrifying.

Are there great, truly great self-published books being produced — and ignored — every year?

I’m sure there are, and that’s a tragedy. But it’s not a tragedy that I can solve by reading 25 pages of every one of the 300, 000 self-published book that would land in our office if we opened the door.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.

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