Friday, April 17, 2009

Hubris, Not Bad Writing Or Design, Sinks Most Self-Published Nonfiction - Part 1

I recently completed a stint of judging nonfiction, indie books for The Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Popular lore holds that most self-published books are of poor quality, both in terms of layout/design and writing, but that was not my experience with these books.

Most of the books had very attractive and professional-looking covers, and many of them had excellent illustrations and interior layout details (i.e., sidebars, recurring graphic elements) as well. While a quarter of the books could’ve done with a thorough edit to ‘trim the fat’, none of the books were so flawed in terms of mechanics as to make them difficult, or even just unpleasant, to read—and I’m somewhat of a stickler for spelling and grammar.

Nevertheless, fewer than half of the books in my allotment seemed worthy of publication and sale to the public, and some clear patterns emerged among those books. In this series of blog posts, I’ll discuss my findings.

Because I am not allowed to disclose the titles of the books I judged, nor the specific category(ies), I’ve changed identifying details of the books in the following examples. (All book titles given below are fabricated, and are not meant to reference any real books)

Experience Doesn’t Always Equal Expertise

A tax attorney who’s struggled with her weight for years finds she’s somehow managed to lose fifteen pounds in one month. On reflection she realizes she’s been eating a lot of hazelnuts lately. Her internet research shows nuts are often encouraged as part of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, and she finds some studies that report hazelnuts have antioxidant properties. BOOM! The Hazelnut Crash Diet book is born.

A computer programmer’s YouTube parody of a celebrity is brought to the attention of the celebrity, who mentions it on a late-night talk show. The clip goes viral in a matter of hours. In the morning, the man learns what happened and finds he has several interview requests from the media…BOOM! How YouTube Can Make You Famous is born.

A caregiver in a nursing home notices the elderly in her care seem more responsive and alert when she plays music over the facility’s public address system. BOOM! Using Music To Beat Alzheimer’s Disease is born.

The tendency of so many authors to base an entire book or belief system on false correlations, or even mere coincidence, was astonishing to me, as was their complete lack of awareness that their ability to formulate a possible cause-and-effect relationship does not make that relationship valid, nor make them experts in either the cause or the effect.

There are many possible explanations for the first woman’s weight loss, but based on little more than intuition she’s concluded that hazelnuts were the key to her success. She’s not remotely qualified to design a safe and effective diet plan, yet here she is, promoting her hazelnut diet as a surefire, safe solution for anyone wishing to lose weight quickly.

If the YouTube guy had come up with a successful strategy to get the celebrity’s attention or the late-night talk show mention, that would be worthy of sharing with the world. In this case, he simply had an incredible stroke of luck that occurred entirely outside his control or even immediate awareness. Yet here he is, claiming he can show anyone how to recreate the same outcome.

The fact that the nursing home residents perked up when they heard music is no indication of music’s efficacy in staving off Alzheimer’s, and the caregiver’s only knowledge of Alzheimer’s comes from a continuing education class she once took and her observations of the elderly in her care. Yet here she is, claiming to have found a cure for a disease that whole armies of researchers and billions of dollars have yet to crack.

Books like the diet book and the Alzheimer’s book were particularly worrying to me because they can affect the health of others. Where very challenging ailments like Alzheimer’s are concerned, sufferers and those who care about them are often desperate enough to try anything that could possibly work. While exposing Alzheimer’s sufferers to music certainly won’t harm them, sufferers or caregivers might choose “music therapy” over other, better treatment options.

One of the books actually encouraged readers to use spoken mantras to treat a common physical ailment for which numerous safe, proven treatments already exist. Furthermore, the ailment was one of those things that's not usually serious, but can develop into something serious if it's not watched closely. By the time a caregiver employing the mantra method realizes the mantra isn't working, the ailment may have progressed to the point that aggressive and risky medical treatments are required. I was dumbfounded by the author's irresponsibility.

I understand there’s such a thing as alternative medicine, and I can also believe that laypeople and amateurs sometimes make discoveries that have evaded professionals and academics. However, I’m not going to take one person’s word for it that she's discovered a new avenue in healthcare or nutrition based on her personal experiences alone—especially when she has no significant background or training in the subject of her book. Background and training are the things that allow a person to tell the difference between a genuine result or discovery and a wrong conclusion.

Many of the authors seemed to think their own, untrained, non-professional interpretations of others’ academic and scientific studies constitutes “independent confirmation”. It doesn’t. I am an animal lover and even spent a number of years studying Veterinary Science and working as a Veterinary Technician while in college. Even so, that past experience and bit of education doesn’t give me all the knowledge and background I’d need to accurately interpret the statistics reported in veterinary studies conducted by actual veterinarians and scientists.

There are very good reasons why doctors, lawyers, physical therapists, nutritionists, accountants, etc. are required to complete years of education and training before being licensed to practice. Judging by the lengthy disclaimers I saw at the front of several books, the authors knew this, yet still deemed themselves capable of going toe-to-toe with the professionals. The disclaimers variously advised readers that nothing in the book should be construed as professional advice, that the reader shouldn't rely on the information provided in the book when making medical, legal or financial decisions, and in one case, went so far as to say the reader shouldn't rely on the book's content as a reliable source of information on the subject matter of the book.

A book that needs a disclaimer like that is a book that never should've been written, and should definitely not be offered for sale to the public.

Coming up next time: nobody wants to take advice from a dabbler.


Henry Baum said...

This is not something I've really dealt with at Self-Publishing Review. I mainly get submissions for bad fiction - but these mainly hurt the cause of self-published fiction, don't actually hurt anyone physically. This is a very important part of the dialogue about self-publishing and if left to run rampant could further hurt the perception of self-pubbing.

Anonymous said...

I will think of this when I'm tempted to write a non-fiction book. Even if I do have the training in religious studies it's tempting to go easy on the ground work since it's "only" a self published book.

Jane Smith said...

April, this is an important point, and very well-made. I do hope that more writers take note of it, and act on your advice here because I've seen several self-published non-fiction books which give advice which is clearly dangerous, or which are horribly flawed in their logic and execution.

This sort of deep, systemic error is difficult to eradicate from the self-publishing world: and while it continues to flourish it can only detract from the many good self-published books that exist.

Kimberly Davis said...

Great post, April! But I think it's also important to distinguish between self-help books and memoir. With memoir, the individual "lived experience" is worth writing about, even if you aren't an expert. So while it's important not to come across as an expert if you aren't one, I also hate to see wonderful memoirs rejected because the author doesn't have a sufficient "platform." With memoir it's the quality of the writing that counts in rendering the experience. Cheers, Kimberly Davis, Kim's Craft Blog

April L. Hamilton said...

Kimberly -
I just blogged about memoirs in this entry:

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Doug Toft said...

April, this series of posts is pure gold. I keep linking to it.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks, Doug!