I’ve been sitting on these thoughts for a while, but I think enough of the thoughts have come together properly so that I can actually talk about them. And what it comes down to is this: I make a terrible pseudo-agent.
My typical reading style is to read a book from cover to cover and then review it. I don’t really do DNF reviews, and it feels wrong to start a novel and then not finish it. Long-time readers of Bibliotropic might notice that I’ve stuck with some truly terrible books, so that I could feel justified in giving them a proper review. Bad writing, flat characters, nonsensical and counterintuitive stories. I’ve made myself sit through them all, so that I could feel, in the end, like my review will be accurate and like the book is done justice.
Justice doesn’t always mean “positive review.” Justice, to me, means accuracy. It means looking at all the factors and weighing them and making a judgment call.
So the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is forcing me to go against my instincts and look at things in a whole new way. I’m under no obligation to read any of the books I was given from beginning to end. I can stop partway if I feel that the book just isn’t doing it for me, for whatever reason. That’s unusual for me.
As Mark Lawrence put it, we’re all putting on our pseudo-agent hats. We’re handed a batch of potentials and told to pick one that we feel is the best. If we were in charge of passing off one of these books to a publisher, which one would it be?
This is why I figure I make a bad pseudo-agent. An agent would be empowered to, if not inspired by the synopsis and cover letter, just put the submission aside and move on without reading the first page. This isn’t necessarily the agent being picky. This is the agent knowing what works for them, what will excite and motivate them, because how can you pitch a book to someone else if you have to say, “Yeah, this book really isn’t my thing, but it’s pretty good anyway. Maybe it’s not your thing either, but you should give it a try.”
An agent is, in many ways, a salesperson. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from my years of working in sales, it’s this: if you want to sell something, you have to believe in it. If you can’t get excited about a product, how can you expect to get someone else excited? You need to be able to say, “This product is amazing, because [this], [this], and [that]. And it’s right for you because [reasons].” And you need to be able to mean it.
(Or at least fake it well.)
Getting back to my point, if I was acting like a proper agent, I likely would have discarded the vast majority of what I was given, right off the bat. I could have looked at the summaries of all the novels and discounted at least a third because they didn’t immediately sound exciting. Not that some didn’t sound potentially interesting, depending on how they were written, but based on first impressions alone, “potentially interesting if other factors line up,” isn’t necessarily something you want to devote your limited time to.
I probably could have discounted another third after the first chapter. The writing in most of the books I’ve gotten is okay, it’s decent, but a lot of them aren’t wow-worthy. They don’t make me sit up and go, “Damn, this is good!”
I feel like I should be giving every book every chance it can possibly have, even if I know it’s not going to end up approaching the winner’s circle. Over the years, you develop an instinct about books. Or at least I have. I can usually tell what star rating I will end up giving a book by the time I’ve read the first 5 pages. Things may change as I read on. Sometimes the rating may go up or down by a star depending on how the story plays out. I’ve noticed that 9 times out of 10, though, I end up agreeing with my early assessment. At the end, more often than not I feel the same way as at the beginning.
The book I’ve already reviewed for the SPFBO? Had I been acting like a proper agent, I probably wouldn’t have read it all to the end. The writing was okay, but uneven. The story had potential, but the potential wasn’t fully achieved. The characters had no obvious motivation for what they did. It was, in short, decent but average. Okay, but could have been better. (And I don’t feel bad saying that here because I said it in the full review.) I still think it has potential. I think if it were worked on and expanded a bit more, it could be great. But as is, it’s not great.
It’s not going to be the book I choose to pass on to the others in round 2. I already know that. I knew that pretty early on, unless everything else I got was somehow abysmal in quality (and that isn’t the case).
This is my quandary. I don’t know whether I should continue as I have been, giving a book every chance and seeing how it plays out from beginning to end. Or whether I should break out the red pen, start slashing titles off the list, and concerning myself with only a few titles that I really think will do it for me. I know that sometimes my early judgments can be wrong. Sometimes books surprise me. Sometimes I discount a book because the synopsis doesn’t push the right buttons with me and then I pick it up later on a whim and find that I really like it and shouldn’t have made that snap decision.
That’s the risk you take, I guess, when you do what I do. And I mean that primarily for book reviewing, not wearing the pseudo-agent hat.
I see other participants in this challenge approaching it in different ways. Some are reading the book in full (at least so far) and then picking the best out of a smaller batch, then moving on to the next batch. Others have discounted most of the offerings and are down to only a handful of potentials they will devote more time to. There’s no right or wrong way to do this.
…The problem is, I think, that I have two warring inclinations. The first is to do what I’ve been doing, reading everything I can and exposing myself to a lot of books that are mediocre or uninteresting. The second is to be more ruthless and approach this like I am an agent, at least in the quality department, and risk missing a couple of gems. There are pros and cons to either choice. And I’m uncertain as to which one is better, both for me and for the books I read.