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Self-published Book Reviews: Some Thoughts After Half a Year

Sunday, July 7th, 2013 | Posted by Donald Crankshaw

Tiger Lily cover

The first book I reviewed.

Back in November of last year, I offered to review self-published books for the Black Gate blog. As I said when I started:

Nowadays, it’s really easy to self-publish a book. However, it’s very, very hard to stand out in the crowd. For every author who breaks through, there are hundreds out there who do not. While many of these self-published books are deservedly unknown, I believe that there are self-published books out there that deserve more attention than they’re receiving, and I’d like to help them get it. So I’m offering to review one self-published fantasy book each month. Considering that there are hundreds or thousands published every day, I’m sure that this won’t even scratch the surface. So in order to help me find out which books I should be reviewing, and to give you the best opportunity to sell yourself, I’m going to set up a submission system.

Now that I’ve been doing these reviews for half a year, I thought that now would be a good time to look back and think about my approach. That and I was slow selecting a book to review last month.

When I first hung up a shingle offering to do reviews for Black Gate, I had a quite a few review requests, and it was a challenge just doing the minimum due diligence on them all. My technique consisted of reading the blurb, and if I thought that sounded interesting, reading the writing sample I requested. If I thought it was promising from that point, I’d mark it as a possibility. However, I didn’t request a copy of the book until I’d gone through all the requests, which gave me a chance to ask for the book I thought looked most promising.

Choosing the most promising book was harder than I expected. The overall quality of writing in the submissions I received was strong, and I sometimes stumbled over criteria other than the writing: such as whether a book was really fantasy or whether a book fit the definition of self-published. I eventually decided not to worry so much about the other criteria and focused on picking the book I thought sounded best. I tried not to limit myself to just my favorite genres, and to give everyone a fair chance. I’m not entirely sure how well that worked. Even if it didn’t affect my book selection, it did affect my reviews. I did try to be fair, but there’s some subjectivity to my likes and dislikes, and those can’t help but come through. And I don’t always enjoy books as much as I think I’m going to. Despite that, I think the review process has gone well so far. If you have any feedback, criticism, or advice, I’d love to hear it.

I still have a number of old submissions to choose from, but new submissions have slowed considerably from when I first began. I still have a few I intend to review, but I would like to start getting some more soon. So if you have a book you’d like me to review, please see the submission guidelines. Aside from your own books, if you have any suggestions for self-published books I might review, feel free to send me an e-mail at donald@blackgate.com.

I intend to continue doing these reviews at least for the rest of the year. At that point, I’ll take another look, both at the submissions I’ve received and whether the rate I’m receiving them indicates that there’s still interest, and decide whether to continue.


diner-3-fullOne reason I wanted to review self-published books is because I have some experience with self-publishing on Amazon myself, so I’ve seen how hard it is to get noticed. I haven’t used Amazon for first-run stories, but whenever I have a story published in a market that isn’t available for free online, I put it on Kindle for a nominal price once the rights revert to me. I have two stories online right now, “The Office of Second Chances” and “A Stranger in the Library.” Of these, I think “Office” is my favorite, combining the tropes of “The World is Always in Danger” and “The Odds are Always Against Us,” and taking that to its logical conclusion: sometimes the heroes fail to save the world. What happens next?

“Office” was originally published in The Midnight Diner, an anthology of Christian-themed genre fiction. While I am a Christian, “Office” is not a religious story. In fact, it’s probably the one story of mine whose theological implications I least agree with. That’s because I wasn’t trying to write a story with solid theology, but one with a fun — and hopefully funny — story, and let the chips fall where they might. That’s what I like about The Midnight Diner: they let me do that. While most religious publishers require impeccable doctrine, supernaturally clean language, and an explicit message, The Midnight Diner abjures all those things. From their submission guidelines page:

The Midnight Diner is a hardboiled genre anthology with a Christian slant. No restrictions on God, no restrictions on reality. Didactic preachy works are dismissed unceremoniously; we’re looking for high quality works that are uncompromising in craft, content, and quality.

This gives room for speculative fiction writers to do what they love, speculate, while still exploring questions of faith.

While I love the premise of The Midnight Diner, in the two anthologies which I’ve read (I haven’t read the third), I’ve found the stories to be uneven. There were some excellent stories that I loved, but some that were ho-hum as well (see my wife’s review of The Midnight Diner here, and check out the comment section to see us debate the meaning of horror). Until now, The Midnight Diner has been an unpaid market, attracting amateurs and writers who believe in what they’re doing rather than pros. They are currently raising money to become a regularly published, paying market, so you might consider donating if you’d like to see a new semi-pro market.


Donald S. Crankshaw’s work first appeared in Black Gate in October 2012, in the short novel “A Phoenix in Darkness.” He lives online at www.donaldscrankshaw.com.

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