By Karen McCullough (Guest Blogger)
I hunt for treasure in the stacks of self-published books at places like Amazon and Smashwords.
Authors are in an enviable position these days. There are so many options for getting published – presses big and small, or doing it yourself. The stigma on self-publishing has mostly disappeared, although it’s not entirely clear to me that the average quality level of self-published works has improved. And, yes, I’m one of those authors, published with a New York house, with several small presses, and self-published. More about that at the end.
Right now, though, I want to put on my reader’s hat. I was a reader long before my first actual attempt at writing a story. When I list my hobbies, reading has always been at the top of the list. It still is, though I don’t have anywhere near as much time as I’d like for it. That means that when I do have a bit of precious reading time, I want to use it reading something good--something I really like or something that moves me. And, dang it, it’s harder than ever to find those!
The fact that authors have so many more options should mean that readers have lots more options, too. And it’s true. They do. There are many more books available in a wide variety of genres due to the influx of self-published books. In fact, you can narrow your interests down by special subject areas and likely still find something that fits your bill. Genres that are out of fashion these days, like the traditional Gothic romance, or books that contain subject matter others might find offensive have seen a surge of new offerings in the last few years.
It’s a mixed blessing. Yes, there is a much wider range of choices. Yes, you can get the kind of book you like even if the big gatekeeper publishers aren’t publishing it any more—or ever have, for that matter. But you have to sort through so much poorly written, badly edited mush to find the things worth reading.
Now, that’s not to say that the big publishers don’t put out bad books. They definitely do, especially when chasing after the latest hot trend. I judged several writing contests last year and got saddled with an enormous pile of published novels all featuring vampires. Every single, darned one of them. Don’t get me wrong. I like the paranormal/urban fantasy genre. It’s why I agreed to judge that category. I’ve even read some really damned good vampire stories. One of that stack was just that—really good. The others ranged from mediocre to unbearable.
But at least they all showed signs of decent editing. They weren’t all mistake-free, but they weren’t riddled with errors in grammar, sentence structure and word usage.
Too many of the self-published books I’ve read have been. Not all, by any means. There are many authors out there who care enough about their product to learn how to use the tools of their trade—language mechanics and storytelling techniques—well and who understand the worth of a professional editing job. I’ve read some self-published books recently that were better than many of the small and large press books of the last few years.
Of course, not all readers are as picky about those things as I am, but I do think that a lot are. Poor punctuation makes a story harder to read and also tends to signal that the writer is deficient in other areas of storytelling technique as well.
I’ve learned from hard experience. If I’m not familiar with an author and their work, I download the sample chapters Amazon offers. And if the author doesn’t allow samples, I move on to the next book. I’ve wasted too much time already trying to decipher books from “authors” who have no idea where commas go in sentences, who don’t seem to know the difference between “loose” and “lose,” and have no clue how to handle point of view.
I also read through the reviews but when I see nothing but five-star reviews that all say “Gee, this book was grate!” I shy away. I actually tend to look for more of a mix of reviews and read both the highest and lowest ones. That gives me a clearer picture of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. And a few one or two-star reviews won’t necessarily drive me away. Not everyone likes the same things I do, and I allow for that. I’ve seen low reviews for books I thought were fabulous. I allow for those.
Still, that’s a lot of work to go through for every book. I do it because I’m hungry for new works in certain genres that don’t get a lot of respect from publishers these days. But I know a lot of readers who will only buy new books from authors they know they like or ones that are recommended by friends, relatives or review sites they trust.
And that’s rather a shame. There are a lot of really good books by authors you’ve never heard of waiting to be discovered. If only one didn’t have to search a lot of haystacks full of fluff and dreck to find those wonderful shiny needles.
Speaking of finding buried treasure—at least I hope so—I’m giving away an ebook copy of either A Gift for Murder or The Wizard’s Shield to one lucky commenter. Be sure to include your email address in the comment!
A Question of Fire by Karen McCullough
Not the book I’m giving away, but it is ON SALE at all fine ebook retail establishments this month for the very reasonable price of $1.99 [for a book that’s 90,000 words long]! Come on, that’s a huge bargain!
When Cathy Bennett agrees to attend an important party as a favor for her boss, she knows she won't enjoy it. But she doesn't expect to end up holding a dying man in her arms and becoming the recipient of his last message. Bobby Stark has evidence that will prove his younger brother has been framed for arson and murder. He wants that evidence to get to his brother's lawyer, and he tries to tell Cathy where he's hidden it. But he dies before he can give her more than a cryptic piece of the location.
The man who killed Bobby saw him talking to her and assumes she knows where the evidence is hidden. He wants it back and he'll do whatever it takes to get it, including following her and trying to kidnap her.
Cathy enlists the aid of attorney Peter Lowell and Danny Stark, Bobby's prickly, difficult younger brother, as well as a handsome private detective to help her find the evidence before the killers do.
The word slithered from the bushes behind her, startling Catherine Bennett out of the few wits she'd managed to recover in the peace of the dark, quiet garden. Thready strains of violin music and the buzz of voices drifted across the lawn from the open door to the house. In the light spilling out from it, she could distinguish a couple of people sitting at a table on the deck. Cathy measured the distance with her eye. A good, heavy-duty scream would be heard, even over the party noises.
"Please, miss!" Tense urgency drove the voice as it called again.
She didn't need this. The evening had been disastrous enough already and a man hiding in the garden spelled trouble with capital letters. She got up and backed away, while turning to face the source of the call.
"Don't run away, please," the voice begged. "I won't hurt you. I promise. I just want to ask you something."
A ring of sincerity in the pleading tone kept her from sprinting straight back to the house, an action the more cautious part of her brain urged. Cathy strained for a look at the person in the shrubbery. The voice was male and adult, though probably not very old. "Come out where I can see you," she demanded.
"Shhh!" he ordered in a fierce whisper. Leaves rustled, and a slender shape detached itself from the bushes. In the darkness she couldn't distinguish his features.
A light breeze in her face set her shivering. "What do you want?" She backed another step away. They both jumped when a particularly loud laugh rang across the yard.
He turned to face the house. "You been at the party?"
At it, not of it, Cathy thought. She didn't say so; the young man wouldn't understand the distinction. "Yes," she answered.
"You know a guy named Peter Lowell?"
"Yes," Cathy admitted, wondering where this was leading.
The young man's indrawn breath sounded almost like a sob. "He's in there, ain't he?"
"Could you ask him to come out here?"
"I don't know. We just met tonight and I. . . I don't think he liked me very much. He might not come."
"Please. It's real important. You gotta try." A quiver shook the young man's body and voice.
Tension or fear -- or both? Whichever it was, he sounded near the breaking point.
"All right. Who should I tell him is here?"
The clouds drifted apart and the moon emerged from their shadow. A sliver of light fell across the man's cheek and glinted off the sheen of perspiration there. "Tell him . . . Tell him it's Bobby. He'll come, I promise."
Cathy sighed. "All right, I'll try. Wait here." She turned toward the house when another noise sounded behind them -- the crackle of twigs or dried leaves underfoot.
Bobby's head jerked around toward the bushes, then he called again, "Wait!" There was no mistaking the sheer desperation in his voice now. "Please. Wait." He looked from her face to the shrubbery and back again. "I better give you the message. Tell this to Mr. Lowell, and no one else. Promise you won't tell anyone else?"
Cathy went back to him, found one of his arms, and pulled him back into the shadow of a large boxwood. The arm she held was trembling. "All right," she said. "What's the message?"
The young man looked around the yard and took a couple of quick, shallow breaths. "Tell him Danny was framed. I got the proof. Tell him--"
Another rustle shook the bushes, followed by a sudden, sharp crack which reverberated for a few seconds afterward. Bobby groaned and collapsed, sagging against Cathy. The abrupt burden of his weight drove her to the ground, where she found herself half crushed by the young man's bulk. She moved out from under him, a rush of adrenalin sharpening her senses so that she could hear, over Bobby's ragged breathing, the squish of a footstep in the shrubbery and the churning of leaves and branches fading rapidly as the gunman retreated.
Order trade paperback from author: http://www.kmccullough.com/order.php
Karen McCullough is the author of more than a dozen published novels and novellas, which range across the mystery, romantic suspense, paranormal, and fantasy genres. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Recently she’s been collecting rights to some of her back-list books and re-releasing them as ebooks. Among those are romantic suspense novels, A Question of Fire and Programmed for Danger, and the paranormal novellas, A Vampire’s Christmas Carol and Guardian of the Grimoire.