When people learn I serve as a judge for an annual self publishing contest sponsored by a national writing magazine, they always want to know what it’s like. My first response is that it’s a lot of work for very little pay. On average, I review 50 entries; the time involved probably works out to about $5.00 per hour. Each book must be evaluated in numerous categories: structure, plot, characterization, grammar, and book design. After those grades are calculated, I must write a couple hundred words on what the author did well and what needs improvement.
Grammar is the easiest category to stamp a grade on; either the writer knows the basics or she doesn’t. You’d be surprised how many people go through the time and expense of having a book self published without checking it for typos and grammatical errors. The most common mistakes I see are with punctuation: no commas or too many commas, overuse of exclamation points, semi-colons where colons belong. Then there are those who overuse italic and/or bold print (often the same ones who abuse exclamation points). To me, these are gimmicks that signal a lack of faith in one’s ability. One of the most important rules writers must follow is to trust our readers. If we write in an intelligent, engaging manner, our readers will get it—no gimmicks necessary.
Characterization is pretty straightforward. Either dialogue is fresh and believable or stale and stilted. The protagonist is likable and/or interesting or plastic and forgettable. Secondary characters help move the plot forward or take up space.
Structure and plot are more difficult to assess, but when either or both is lacking, everything else about the book becomes pretty irrelevant. The most common mistakes in this area appear in non-fiction entries. A book on ice fishing that spends half the narrative talking about the author’s childhood in Maine (cold winters!). A memoir that devotes countless pages to everyday events (lunch, a favorite dress or toy, a mundane conversation). A marketing seminar masquerading as a self-improvement book. In fiction, a structural problem is usually related to overwriting—explaining every line of dialogue with a line of introspection, going into back story for pages on end, repeating the same event through different characters’ points of view, dwelling on too many sensory details. All of these methods do little but serve to slow the story. And guess what? When the story slows, readers lose interest—and fast.
Grading a book’s design is somewhat a matter of personal taste (What’s gaudy to some might be gorgeous to others). What’s important for the purpose of review is that the chosen cover art fits the book’s subject matter and the space on the back cover is utilized as a promotional tool—blurbs by other writers praising the book, a teaser or short synopsis (never give away the ending!), an author bio. What doesn’t belong in that space is a series of blurbs by the author himself, praising his own work (and yes, this is a common error, especially by professionals with PhDs and/or Masters.) Inside, the text itself must be sharp and easy to read. Fancy fonts don’t cut it. And size matters. If the text is too large, say 14 point and up, I get the feeling the author is trying to make the book appear as if it has more content than it does. If the font is less than 9, I’m guessing the author knows her book is too long and probably in need of a major edit.
By now you’ll probably agree with my initial assessment that judging is a lot of work for $5 an hour. So why do it? Because despite the majority of books that are filled with some, and often times many, of the errors noted above, I always come across a couple of gems. Books that deserve to be picked up by a conventional publisher so they can be enjoyed by a mainstream audience. If my recommendation (which is passed on to a finalist judge) helps even one of these authors fulfill his or her dream, I consider my effort time well spent.