The Back of the Bus: Why Not Reviewing Self-Published Books is Discriminatory

The New York Times won’t do it.  They won’t even allow one of “those” books on their e-book bestseller lists.  Even if it is a legit bestseller.

USA Today, a tad less bigoted, does allow self-published books on their bestseller list.  Their reviewers just aren’t allowed to review them.

But it’s not just the highfalutin consumer publications that practice this outright discrimination.  Even many book bloggers, who themselves have just cracked the legitimacy ceiling, turn up their noses at the prospect of reviewing a self-published book.

What happened to the right to be judged by your peers (and I’m not talking about your friends and second cousins who agree to post their reviews on Amazon)?  There are, of course, a myriad of paid options, guaranteed to make a self-published author feel like the pimply high school student who has to hire a hooker to get a date to the prom.  Now that self-publishing has become big business, there is no end to the services, book contests and awards that strive (for a price!) to make indies feel as if they’re getting an invite to the party, when in fact they’re just there to check the coats [full disclosure: in addition to offering no-fee professional reviews to indie authors, IndieReader also offers a paid review service].

So why all this segregation?  Perhaps because traditional publishers buy ads that help keep some of these publications afloat.  Or maybe it’s just an undying and unfair assumption that if a book—and an author—don’t carry the stamp of approval from a “higher” source (aka a traditional publisher) they can’t possibly be all that good.  Or it could simply be that many media professionals are so overworked that they don’t have the time it takes to go out and discover something new.  Something not written by Stieg Larsson or James Patterson.  Or any one of those brilliant wordsmiths that reside at The Jersey Shore.

Whatever the reason, the exclusion in the halls of “legit” publishing of a group of writers—who include award-winning and prestigious authors like John Edgar Wideman, Seth Godin and Dave Eggers—is just plain unfair.  And short-sighted.  Because however you cut it, the fact remains that the best of these otherwise ignored books are scooped up by traditional publishers every day.  And magically, like the Fairy Godmother did for Cinderella—what was once considered dreck is repackaged and re-launched, as if its indie incarnation was merely a bad fever dream.

Having been traditionally published twice, my intent is not to put down the traditional publishing establishment.  I admit that there is a certain prestige gained by having been deemed “worthy.”  And that’s fine.  But why does that prestige have to be gained at the expense of another worthy group?

In short, it’s time the traditional book establishment—from publishers to book buyers and reviewers—admit that there is more than one valid way for an author to create a book.  Why should they do that?  For the reason that most businesses these days do anything: money.  Because when indies are finally deemed equal to their peers, it will give the entire book industry a much needed bump (kind of like Calvin Klein did for tighty whities).  Keeping indies in a self-publishing ghetto is a loss for everyone—from consumers who already embrace the indie movement in their music and movies, to bookstores looking for something to set themselves apart, to reviewers who might just find that they like what they see.

I have a dream.  That one day self-published authors won’t be judged by the imprint on the covers of their books, but by the quality (or lack, thereof) of what’s inside.

10 replies
  1. avatar
    Kirsten says:

    Okay, your points are very valid, therefore I’m going to go all devil’s advocate on you.

    Let them keep their system. They’re welcome to it.

    It’s too vulnerable to corruption. By which I mean, too often, reviewers are themselves writers, which makes for an enormous disincentive to honesty.

    I’m no industry insider by any stretch, but you don’t have to be to get this. It’s just common sense. A writer gets a chance to publish a review in a major newspaper, is he/she going to jump out there and write, “omg, this book is garbage”? Some writers might, of course, but you’d have to either be reckless and ignorant, or awfully secure — and successful — in your writing career to not think twice about making enemies of people in the biz.

    The alternative isn’t perfect, but crowdsourcing via amateur/anonymous reviews is proving enough to move indie authors’ books.

    Ya know? The best way to get over your disappointment at not being invited to the party is to throw a better party yourself 😉

    • avatar
      Amy Edelman says:

      Yes, I agree that the system is vulnerable to corruption, but as long as book buyers rely on reviews, indie authors will need them to get onto the radar. I also agree that the best way to get over disappointment at not being invited to the party is to throw a better party yourself. We hope that IndieReader will be that “better” party!

  2. avatar
    Chris Roberts says:

    The author of this piece is clearly lacking the ability to discern between what is appropriate and what isn’t. The comparison of indie books being reviewed to the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement does not exist in the same reality.

    The title is wrong on so many levels: it cheapens what Rosa Parks fought for, it is pedestrian in its obviousness and discrimination is being hung from a tree, not a self-published bit of offal that doesn’t get reviewed.

  3. avatar
    Anonmouse says:

    This piece only points to the fact that “indie” has to do its work from within making it more than just another market segment. The “indie infrastructure build-out” has yet to take place. More sites that do legit reviews by actual reviewers that know how to write a solid, critical review are necessary. The road is long and hard, but the cream always rises and sometimes you have to churn harder. Independent review sites and award events that celebrate what is GREAT in indie really have yet to take hold. Just look at how many movie festivals are out there. Why not indie book festivals? Indie book review sites shouldn’t care about blasting a bad book…who are they beholding to? This is the reason paid reviews, even only being a segment of the total reviews, are more harm than good to a “review” site. I know you gotta keep the servers on, but there are multiple business models out there to pursue. The world of open publishing is an oyster right now for the taking. This is the land-grab phase and only a few pioneers are showing up to the race.

    • avatar
      Amy Edelman says:

      Thanks so much for your comments. I totally agree with pretty much every point you make…but I do think that including reviews of bad books is just as important as highlighting the good ones. As far as showing up for the race…IndieReader’s been here for awhile. We’re just waiting for the crowd to show!

  4. avatar
    Judith Briles says:

    At this point in the game, I know of no one who judges a book by the imprint–the juding is all about: does the copy on it tell me that it will solve a problem I have … or will it supply the entertainment I’m seeking; does the book have a quality feel to it or does it look like/feel like junk. The imprint effect is vanishing ….

    • avatar
      Amy Edelman says:

      Perhaps that’s true, Judith. But there are still many–esp those in the media, book retailing (aside from online) and the traditional publishing industry–who judge a book by whether they’re indie or not indie. Which leaves indie authors at a distinct disadvantage.


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