Why Your Self-Published Book May Suck A Bag Of Dicks

This Old Rustbucket

A loser is the guy with a for sale sign on a dirty car just phoning it in.”

– Mark Burnett (seen via a tweet by Mike Monello)

Dear Self-Published Word Badgers,

I’d like to take a little time out to commend you for your intrepid publishing spirit! And by “commend you,” I mean, “slap you about the head and neck with your own bludgeoning shame.”

No, I’m not talking to all of you. A good lot of you are doing as you should. I have in the past week alone been exposed to a wondrous number of self-published goodies, whether by excellent writers seeking an avenue for their unpublished (or presently unpublishable) works or by tried-and-true DIY storytellers who have been honing their own punk-publishing endeavors to an icepick’s point.

I am, however, talking to some of you.

Some of you should be really quite floored by the quality — or, rather, the sucking maw of quality, a veritable black hole of hope and promise that leeches the dreams from the minds of little girls sleeping and replaces those dreams with nightmares where unicorns are stabbed repeatedly by interlopers on icy sidewalks and left to whimper and bleat until the police come and finally end their misery with a single round from a service revolver bang – that your work puts out into the world.

You think I’m being mean.

Okay. You’re not wrong. I’ll cop to that. I’m not being a nice man.

Here’s the thing, though. I (and I’m sure other capable writers) have noticed and noted that self-publishing bears a certain stigma. With the term comes the distinct aroma of flopsweat born out of the desperation of Amateur Hour — it reeks of late night Karaoke, of meth-addled Venice Beach ukelele players, of middle-aged men who play basketball and still clutch some secret dream of “going pro” despite having a gut that looks like they ate a basketball rather than learned to play with one.

Self-publishing just can’t get no respect.

This is, of course, in contrast to other DIY endeavors. You form a band and put out a record yourself, well, you’re indie. You’re doing it your way. Put out a film, you’re a DIY filmmaker, an independent artist, a guy who couldn’t be pinned down by the Hollywood system. You self-publish a book, and the first thought out of the gate is, “He wasn’t good enough to get it published. Let’s be honest — it’s probably just word poop.”

This is in part because it’s a lot harder to put an album or a film out into the world. You don’t just vomit it forth. Some modicum of talent and skill must be present to even contemplate such an endeavor and to attain any kind of distribution. The self-publishing community has no such restriction. It is blissfully easy to be self-published. I could take this blog post, put it up on the Amazon Kindle store and in 24 hours you could download it for ninety-nine cents. It’s like being allowed to make my own clothing line out of burlap and pubic hair and being allowed to hang it on the racks at J.C. Penney.

And so it must fall to the community to police itself. You cannot and will not and should not be stopped from self-publishing. But, when you self-publish the equivalent to a manatee abortion rotting on a reef bed, you should be dragged into the city square and flogged with your own ineptitude for gumming up the plumbing with your old underpants.

If, perchance, you don’t know if I happen to be referring to you, let’s see if you pass this easy test. Don’t worry — it’s just a handful of questions. Relax. Take a deep breath. And begin.

Does Your Cover Look Anything Like This?

Hound Riders

Fond of the Papyrus font, are you? Or Comic Sans, perhaps? Do you enjoy book covers that seem to make no visual sense? That offer titles whose design and meaning are utterly indiscernible? That when seen at a glance are merely puzzling, but that when viewed up close accidentally provoke vomiting and dizziness in all but the most stalwart, war-tested super-soldiers?

Take your cover and compare it to these covers. Is it anything like this great cover? Or howabout this one? Or are you instead closer to this?

I know what you’re saying: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Mm-hmm. Sure, no, no, I hear you. Let’s try this experiment: I’m going to dress in a Hefty bag. Then I am going to roll around in a dumpster. If I’m lucky, I’ll manage to get a week-old Caesar salad stuck in my beard! Then I’m going to come to your place of work and try to sell you a sandwich. No? Don’t want to buy my delicious sandwich? It’s really good. Wait, what’s your problem, man? Does my smell turn you off? Hey. Hey. Don’t judge a book by its cover. You should look deeper. Beyond my eye-watering odor. Beyond my beard-salad. Gaze into my heart, and then buy my motherfucking sandwich.

No? Still not cracking the wallet?

Same thing goes for your e-book, pal.

Hire a cover designer. Your book should look like a book someone can find on the shelves at Borders.

(Or, at least, before Borders goes tits up.)

Does Your Book’s Product Description Read As If It Were Written By A Child, A Monkey, Or A Schizophrenic (Or A Schizophrenic Monkey Child)?

SET IN PRESENT DAY VICTORIAN ENGLAND, DARYL WALDROP IS PROTECTED AT NIGHT BY A GORUP OF INVISIBLE BEINGS NOWN AS THE HIGH COLONY AND THE HIGH COLONY UNDERSTAND THAT DARYL IS SPECIAL SO THEY SEND HIM ON SECRET MISSIONS TO QUEST FOR THE GOLDEN STEAMPUNK CLOCKWORK HORN OF –

*gun in mouth*

*brains form a middle finger on the wall*

I swear to Christ, you read some of these descriptions and I think, “I could write better than this when I was in the eighth goddamn grade.” This isn’t good. Because I was a talentless little shit in eighth grade (and may still remain one, but you keep your damn fool mouth shut, you).

I know, I know, I’m being mean again.

But seriously, somebody has to be. Your product description is designed in some way large or small to entice me. It is both a sales pitch and an emblem of your writing ability. If you can’t even string together three sentences without resorting to ALL CAPS HOLY CRAPS or without confusing me from the outset, I gotta tell you, you’re pretty much fucked.

Did Anyone Actually Edit Your Book?

Anyone at all? Your mother? Your evil twin? A semi-literate orangutan?

If the answer is no, well, then, your self-published book might suck a big ol’ sloppy bag of dicks.

Best fix: hire an editor. Or at least farm it out to a capable wordmonkey friend who will do you a solid.

Or: orangutan. I mean, it’s better than nothing.

Is Your Free Downloadable Sample A Testament To Your Raging Lack Of Talent?

Your sample is supposed to be representative of your work. It should be shining testament — an unyielding pillar – demonstrating just how much I’m wetting my man-panties trying to give you my money.

Unfortunately, when I click most free samples, my panties? Dry as a saltine cracker.

I see: bad grammar, awful spelling, opening paragraphs so flat and full you could use them to pound stakes into hard earth, hateful spasms one might refer to as “characters” (if one were being charitable), and other outstanding goblins that earn only disdain and dismissal.

It’s like the quote at the fore of this article says: don’t slap a for sale sign on a dirty car.

Don’t put your worst foot forward. Of course, with some of the self-published e-books out there, my worry is that your bile-soaked downloadable sample is actually your best foot forward.

In which case, uh-oh.

Yes, Blah Blah Blah, I’m A Big Blue Meanie

Not only am I a meanie, but I’m taking easy shots. Hell, I already told you, self-publishing has a stigma. I’m not making it up. It isn’t new. Everybody knows to throw iceballs at the fat kid with the ice cream on the ground and the self-published Book Seven Of Made-Up Fantasy Series under his pudgy wing. By this point, I’m just throwing snow on that fat kid’s long-decaying body.

You want self-publishing to stand on its own feet? Get your shit together. You think publishing is full of mean ol’ myopic gatekeepers and you can do it better? How is anybody supposed to take you seriously when you can’t even approach a fraction of the quality found in books on bookstore shelves, books put out by publishers big and small?

You’re going to put something out there, make it count. Don’t fuck it up for the rest of the authors — you know, the ones who actually put out a kick-ass book. Hell, some of this stuff goes for me, too. I can do better. I can always do better. We should always strive to improve our books, our sales, our connection to the audience.

More succinctly: stop splashing around in the kiddie pool.

And while we’re talking about, stop peeing there, too.

Because, ew.

So rude.

167 comments

  • If you write a great book, you don’t have to defend how you publish it. You just focus on promoting it and writing the next, and don’t worry about being lumped in with the bag o’ dicks, because the book will outlast that. That’s the discipline, right there. Great post! Loved it!

  • I do appreciate your post. How do you get through to these people who won’t spend a dollar on a cover or even have their highschooler do a read through before they throw it up on Amazon.com? As Amazon.com launches their indie book store this week, I wonder if readers will eventually be able to filter out indie books thereby, punishing those of us who are trying to put out a quality book for our readers.

  • Disclosure: I’m self-published, and either completely deluded or safely in the category of being one of the good ones. Nevertheless, I have a couple of beefs with your post. First, crappy self-published books are a very, very easy target, and for all you know the product description that looks childish, may have been written by a child. Not like too many readers not closely related to the authors are going to buy any of these books, so it’s not like anyone’s actually ripping anybody off. So here’s the thing, why shoot fish in a barrel? Where’s the sport? Especially in a world so full of real crap that people make millions off of.

    My second objection: While you acknowledge that there are decent self-published books out there and admit to having actually read a few of these beasts, most readers haven’t made that leap yet. People who’ve never actually seen a good self-published book, don’t believe they exist. Your mentioning that they do within your post won’t convince anyone. It’s not your job to do that, however, instead of adding your name to the many who slam self-publishers, why not become a force for good, and actually review a couple of worthwhile titles?

  • I think I love you! Secretly I bitch to my husband about the same things you covered so numerously in this post. It makes the self-pubd authors who hire editors, cover artists, publicists, and work on worldwide distribution (meaning they think outside the Amazon box) look like the red-headed step children of the writing world.

    But I have to say, if you work your ass off and market your work like a $5 hooker on a Tuesday at 2 a.m. then you MAY just be lucky enough to reach your target audience and find some readers.

    You found a new follower in me, and I plan to check your work out next. Wishing you the best in your writing career and may it be half as successful as this post — cheers!

  • “This is in part because it’s a lot harder to put an album or a film out into the world. You don’t just vomit it forth. Some modicum of talent and skill must be present to even contemplate such an endeavor and to attain any kind of distribution.”

    @Chuck,

    Obviously you haven’t listened to / heard of sub-sub(-sub) genres of music like:

    ambient black metal (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVq8W_d_MZQ)

    or goregrind / pornogrind (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7HzHsmVE3s&feature=related).

  • As a self-published author/illustrator of Story Books (REALLY GOOD ONES), allow me to add my 2 cents worth. Although my books have been successful due to the quality and beauty of said books, I usually try to dissuade people from self publishing.

    My objections have to do with the artwork in Storybooks. I am driven utterly INSANE by those who decide to self publish AND illustrate their books, without one iota of artistic talent. I have had parents tell me they are PUBLISHING the work of their 7 year old, because>>>”He is such a great artist!” He isn’t. I hear it over and over again from people with no art skills,” I am working on a children”s book, too!”
    The artwork in many children’s books ( and that includes mainstream published books) is so crappy that everyone thinks they are capable of illustration. So while you are concentrating on the word content being garbage, I am focused on the visual “artistic” content, being garbage.
    With the ease of self publishing, not only can anyone be a writer, they can also be an Illustrator…..even when they are not.

  • That was hilarious. It was by far the best writing I’ve read this month.
    I have to say that, although I have a self-published book that has been edited numerous times(not sure how good the last few editors were though), that self-publishing is just NOT the way to go. I would NEVER recommend it to any aspiring writer out there. If you do self-publish, good luck promoting it.

  • speaking to the indie film world, our cancer is the ‘democratization’ of film making. let me explain:
    the miniDV tape based cam was around for a very long time and of little interest to most folks. that is because it required work. capture of a tape and editing. and then, you had to show it on DVD on your TV to those that you could corral into watching.
    then came youtube and other UGC (user generated content) sites. they were just kind of fun at first. then came the flash memory video camera embedded in everything from point and shoots to iphones.
    two things are happening:
    -UGC is crapping and urinating on the universe far more than it is contributing. vimeo is a notch above youtube, but in the end the difference is irrelevant.
    -’indie’ self proclaimed ‘filmmakers’ are producing their own movies with…yes….their own screenplays. almost universally, literally 95%+ are complete garbage either by the basic rules of screenwriting or the horridly technical failings of the film. oh, did i forget to mention amateur actors. oh yeah, that is the chainsaw that finally takes your head off.
    i feel better (not really). i will now quit wasting my own time and return to the screenplay i was writing before i googled ‘military slang’. that led to a search for ‘bag of dicks’… which ended here. so, there’s that. and yes, i am aware that i type in all lowercase in forums.

  • Every self-published ebook I have downloaded and tried to read was a piece of shit. If you like sucking on a frozen chimp turd, then I guess reading self-published books is for you.

    I am hoping to see the whole self-publishing fad come crashing down as soon as possible.

  • A. NONAMISS (aka Trolly McTrollerson), thanks for the laugh, man!

    I’ve thought about self-pubbing, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Like you said, Chuck, traditional publishing does legitimize things. And I don’t have the money for the marketers, the cover designers, etc. I know that if I did this now, it would not be good enough. More than just being published, I want whoever picks my books to say, “Hey, this is an enjoyable read, and I not only think I can sell it, I think people will LIKE it.”

    This is why I have to keep working, until I’ve learned enough to crash those gates. I’m not there yet but I’m still plugging along.

    P.S.– Many thanks to you and other writers who have shared knowledge/experience so us newbs with tiny budgets don’t get snookered by bad advice gurus.

  • Alright. I’m no where near getting what I call writing published, but this certainly straightened some things out for me. While I won’t go and get my book self-published, it has certainly inspired me to look back on my book. When I did, I finally ceased to see a shining grail full of holy water but something more along the lines of a dirty dixie cup full of the sweat collected off of gorilla’s ass. So thank you, now I will go back and put some effort into this half-ass attempt at a book before sending it to an editor who will probably not be as funny as you are.

  • December 25, 2012 at 2:47 PM // Reply

    I hope no one is taking writing advice from an author who is incapable of proper use of colon, semi-colon and long dash. But, to be fair, you lost me when you tried passing “bludgeoning shame” off as coherent. Then again, what do I know? I’m not a big fancy novelist/screenwriter/game designer. If you are going to pass yourself off as a worthy critic you may want to go back and improve your skills. Try reading B.R. Meyers’ work “A Reader’s Manifesto” to see what adroit criticism is. If anything, you should be elated with the large number of poor writers in the world—it only makes an apparently superb scribe like yourself seem all the better.

  • Love the article! I’m an aspiring writer, but I will never go the self-publishing route. If my writing isn’t up to par, who’s going to tell me? Certainly not a Vanity Press. I may think I can craft a mean story (memoir, by the way; another strike against me) but the rest of the world may think I’m delusional! I’d rather an honest agent tell me how to change or improve my writing, even if that advice follows a rejection letter.
    I actually called a reputable Vanity house recently. The conversation went something like: (I tell her my book idea) “Oh, that’s great. You know, we need more books like that, we really do. We’re here to support you every step of the way!” the entire phone call however, kept coming back to one theme: “So, how soon do you think you can get that $2500.00 over to us, because I think you have a real opportunity with our company and I don’t want to see you lose it.” OK, I know it’s their job to sell. But that’s where their job stops. And your article mentions one cruel reality; vanity books have a bad rap. Bookstores won’t stock them unless they have a guarantee on return policy attached. You have no marketing, and you’re competing with an internet that is drowning in a self-published sea. I’ll bide my time, even if the day never comes, and wait for traditional publishing doors to open..

  • This is hilarious, and (mostly) very true. However, speaking as the “capable wordmonkey friend” from your third criteria, I have two issues with you.

    The first is regarding book covers. I’ve seen some godawful covers on published books, and I’m not talking about sword-and-sorcery novels with buxom Amazons in leather and fur.

    The second is regarding the quality of professionally published books. When I have to put down a professionally published book 10 pages in because I spot 5 historical errors regarding an era of history I don’t even know much about, I’m distinctly unimpressed. When I pick up a professionally published book and find it full of grammatical errors, poor sentence construction, and many common fiction writing no-no’s, I have to wonder if the publishing company fired all its editors. When the latest book by an internationally acclaimed and published author whose stuff regularly makes the best seller list is full of spelling and grammatical errors, and a quick search of the internet finds a press release claiming that the publisher accidentally gave the printer an early, unedited draft, I’m forced to question the competence of the publisher. I’d love to say that these were books from small publishing companies, but all of my examples came from HarperCollins, one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, English language publishers in the world.

    Fanfiction gets a similar bad rap as self-publishing, but a significant portion of what I read these days is fanfiction. When you know how and where to look, there’s a lot of stuff that’s as good as or better than published books. The quality of professionally published books is not what it once was.

  • I was going to self-publish a junior fiction title but now am not so sure. I have many picture books published in different languages and some reference titles too but now I have no idea whether my novel sucks or not because none of my beta readers have got back to me. Thanks for making me think about it. I might try to get an agent on the strength of my other books having sold over a million but not before my editor beats me about the face and neck.

  • If two dozen publishers have shown you the door, you should look for other means of expressing yourself. Chances are you are not Kafka or Zora Neale Hurston.

  • I have actually read GOOD self-published books. Many authors published by major houses are going this route to make more money from sales. You do need to research the author and check out any samples when possible. I do reviews on Goodreads and Amazon and have no problem giving a 1 star and explaining why. Fan fiction is an example of self-publishing with a built in rabid audience base. I subjected myself to a couple of those not knowing what they were, and it was painful. Both got 1 stars. I will give 4 and 5 stars to indie authors and small publishing companies that actually make an effort. With the bad ones, you can tell nobody or nobody outside of family and friends has edited the book.

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