Slushy Glut Slog: Why The Self-Publishing Shit Volcano Is A Problem

This is likely to be a big, rambly-ass blog-post so let’s just clear the way for some ground rules.

a) I do not hate self-publishing and I am in fact my own author-publisher on a number of releases, and will continue to be so. I am in fact one of those “hybrid authors” you keep hearing about, which means I have fins like a dolphin and claws like a badger and I can both play the violin and kill with my mind. This is not a post bashing self-publishing, but rather a post that aims for critical awareness and constructive thinking.

b) This post is going to have some naughty language. If that bothers you — which is totally fine! — you would be best-served by frittering off and seeing if Wheel of Fortune is on. That Pat Sajek never utters a dirty word because he is clean and fresh like an unused bar of Irish Spring.

c) You will need to be nice in the comments. I am comfortable with disagreement as long as it isn’t flavored with salty dickheadedness. Disrespectful commenters will be pitched into the spam oubliette where they may slap themselves wetly against the pink, quivering dungeon walls.

d) I’m serious this time when I say I won’t really be attending much to comments — I’m starting a new book and am also trying to thaw my way out of the icy Wampa bowels that comprises this shitty winter, so please excuse my lack of presence below. But do talk amongst yourselves!

Can we begin?

We can begin.

The Thesis

Both old-school publishing and self-publishing publish a whole fucking fuckbucket of books: in the United States alone you have about 300,000 new books added per year to the traditional pile, and Bowker claims the number for self-publishing is somewhat higher (~400,000 in 2012) if you count them by ISBNs, and many self-published authors do not use ISBNs, so when you add in other countries and territories, you could be looking at twice or more of that number.

The very, very long tail of digital publishing actually increases this number quite a bit because all the books released every year form a rather large pool — and with self-publishing in particular, this number is increasing at a cuckoo bananapants rate. It’s like watching coked-up paramecia have an orgy in a petri dish. It’s like that scene in any movie about a pandemic where they’re like, “Today, it’s Smallville, USA. Tomorrow, New York City. Tuesday, it’s the East Coast. By Friday, we’ve lost the world.” And the red pandemic blob grows and grows until it eats the moon.

The sheer number of releases is an issue all its own. It becomes increasingly hard to stand out merely by publishing a book in either form. It’s like trying to get a droplet of water to stand out in an entire goddamn ocean.

The issue becomes more complicated when you add in the fact that, in my opinion, a whole lotta these author-published releases are going to be the equivalent of smearing poopy handprints on the windows of your Plexiglas enclosure. This is par for the course, maybe, because one of the features of self-publishing is that the door is open to anyone. Everyone. Always. No bouncers at this nightclub door, which is fine, but that also means you get folks with no shirt and no shoes. You’ll get folks dressed to the nines in sharkskin suits and you’ll also get wild-eyed dudes who are eating goulash out of rubber boots and who are quietly masturbating in the corner. You let anybody swim in the pool and, well, anybody can swim in the pool.

The Goals Of This Post

In short, the goal of this post are:

a) To dispel the notion that the “slush pile on display” is entirely harmless

b) To create a general awareness of quality

c) To offer solutions to help countermand the erupting shit volcano

d) To in the end help readers find awesome books and

e) To help authors find readers. Oh! And

f) To get angry emails from self-published authors HA HA HA I kid please don’t send me any more of those. I already have enough to wallpaper my home both inside and out.

A Note On The Nature Of Quality

A common refrain here will be: “But traditional publishing releases stinkers, too.”

And that is entirely accurate.

Someone will mention Snooki.

But here’s the deal. The works that are generated by publishers big and small are works that in general are vetted. That’s the whole “gatekeeper” thing. Someone is there at the gate making sure the books that release are of a level of quality before they are allowed up in the First Class cabin.

Further, let’s pretend not to care what the big publishers do.

Let’s focus on what you can do as an author-publisher.

An addendum refrain is, well, who am I to say what stories are good or not?

Except here the issue is not purely a matter of taste. An author on Facebook the other day noted, quite correctly, that writing is a craft and as a craft it can be evaluated fairly easily. This isn’t about whether a story is to your liking, but rather, does the author know the basic rules of writing a story? Rules can be broken, of course, but they must be broken with some skill — breaking the rules out of ignorance creates, you know, a fucking mess. A writer not knowing the difference between a possessive and a plural is not some avant-garde hipster trick. It’s a basic lack of craft awareness. At that point you’re not a marksman doing tricks; you’re a toddler with a handgun.

Yes, you’ll find books that have typos and fucked-up formatting and other errors inside traditional books, too — particularly in e-books because the big publishers were slow to figure out they need to actually design e-books as their own entities, not just as copies of the print books. But this is less true these days (I said they were slow to figure it out, not that they never figured it out).

Here, in fact, is an exercise:

Choose ten random author-published releases.

Choose ten random traditionally-published releases.

You don’t even have to purchase them. Just look at the available samples through, say, Amazon.

(Random book finder: bookbookgoose.)

In my experience, you will find considerably more errors in author-published releases than in those published by publishers small and large. As with this entire post: your mileage may vary.

The Shit Show That Is Book Discovery

This calls for a side journey, if you’ll come along.

Let’s talk about book discovery.

Let’s say you’re a reader.

Finding new books to read has gotten both very hard and very easy depending on your situation. Word-of-mouth remains the primary vector for viral book transmission, where we share our favorite books with one another through memetic delivery. Word-of-mouth relies on a circle-of-trust, and that circle of trust has gotten a whole fuck-of-a-lot bigger since the advent of social media. Used to be you’d talk to people at home, work, school — maybe a circle of ten people.

Now you can have circles of hundreds. Thousands, even.

In this sense, if you surround yourself online with other book lovers (meaning people who read and talk books, not people who “love” books with, say, their naked bodies — HEY NO JUDGMENT HERE), you will be subject to a fairly steady frequency of story recommendations.

A few downsides, here:

a) Sometimes that steady frequency can become more noise than signal.

b) If you are not a social person — in person or online — but still like to read, then you’re shit outta luck on this front and you’ll still have to rely on Ye Olden Wayes to find new books to read. (We should not assume everyone is savvy with social media or particularly compelled by it.)

c) Social media word-of-mouth still requires some measure of discovery to precede it, though. Word-of-mouth does not spontaneously generate (BUT IN OUR SPAM-BOT FUTURE WE CAN DREAM). Someone still needs to discover and love your book in order to talk about it.

You still have to use various methods to source new books — to “discover” them — as a reader.

This includes, though is not limited to: bookstores, libraries, other meatspace booksellers (Target, Wal-Mart, etc.), online book distributors/sellers (Amazon, B&N, iBooks, Kobo, Smashwords), magazines, TV, YouTube (ex: Sword and Laser), blogs, websites, podcasts, professional review outlets (Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, etc), online forums (AbsoluteWrite, kboards, etc.), bestseller lists, award nominations and wins, and so forth.

Probably sources I’m missing there. Feel free to mention in comments.

Now, at present, the traditionally-published author has some access to all of these. This access is more theoretical than guaranteed — nobody’s going to talk about my books on TV, though some of my books have seen mentions in magazines (I think SciFiNow just did a short piece on the three Miriam Black books, for example). But in general, the bulk of traditionally-published authors have some kind of (imperfect) access to all these channels of discovery.

Self-published work in general does not have the same level of access, in my experience. The door that is open all the way to traditional releases is open only a crack to author-published works. You won’t generally be in bookstores or on library shelves. Few magazines will review you. Professional review sources require you to pay them to source the review.

This ultimately leaves online sources as the primary channels for discovery.

It means: social media in some form. Or it means browsing online booksellers.

Given that word-of-mouth still requires some genesis in discovery, let’s talk about one’s experience when going to browse an online bookseller to discover new work.

*inchoate screaming*

Oh, jeez, sorry! I tried to browse Amazon for new books and found myself plunging into a nightmare of noise and garbage. Amazon — the primary vector for online book sales — is a fuuuuhuuuhuuuuckin’ mess when it comes to browsing books. It didn’t used to be. I rememeber a time where browsing Amazon felt like a lazy, pantsless version of browsing the shelves at B&N. I could pick a genre or an upcoming releases list and check it out. Now, it’s less like wandering the aisles at a bookstore and more like wandering a labyrinth made of old, frozen diapers. Sure, I’m trying to find David Bowie and his Magical Yam Bag, but all I find instead is a drunken minotaur who just wants to make out.

It’s not pretty.

(I am not claiming this is self-publishing’s fault, by the way. This is on Amazon.)

So, you’re an author with a new book via whatever publishing path. Cool!

See that graphic?

When your book comes out, it gets thrust into a rather large pool — that same pool I was talking about at the fore of this post. It is one of millions of other books. It is a data point. Just a squiggly sperm launched from the creative scrotum. That is represented in my hastily-created graphic which depicts not a scrotum, but the crusty underhanging dirt-clod beneath the city.

The city in the image is where you want to be. Above ground, not below it.

The city represents channels of discovery. The higher you go in those channels, the more rarified the air. At street level you’re one of the mob, but at least you’re not subterranean — but as you climb the buildings you warrant greater attention. You join fewer and fewer authors as you get mentions at blogs and in reviews, in magazines and perhaps ultimately, on bestseller lists.

Of course, discovery feeds on discovery — the more readers find you, the more they’re likely to talk about finding you (particularly if your book is awesome or at least scratches some curious cultural itch). Attention in this sense is multiplicative.

Books below the surface or at street-level don’t actually affect the books that go higher-up, of course — but they can affect one another because at that level they are in some fashion competing (not for sales, necessarily, but for attention). A clumsy analog for this (because all analogs are ultimately false) might be the divide of the rich and the poor. The poor don’t really affect the rich all that much on a day-to-day level. But the poor affect one another in ways both good and bad (competition for resources, competition for jobs, cultural clashes, community building, community disruption, etc).

To sum up this point:

All books go into the big undiscovered pile at first.

All books need some manner of discovery to, duhhh, be discovered.

Traditionally-published books have access to more channels of discovery.

Self-published books have access to fewer channels.

So: what does this have to do with the quality level of author-published books?

The Deluge

As an author-publisher, I wish I had access to more channels of discovery than just what’s online. I wish it was easy to get into bookstores and libraries. I wish it was easy to get reviews and critiques. I wish that those same channels were open as completely for my self-published books as they are for those of my books published with publishers.

The reason they are not is, in part, because of the belching shit volcano.

I’ve noted this elsewhere but feel that it needs repeating:

I open the blog on Thursdays to self-promotion by various storytellers. I was once open to self-published authors sharing this space, but when I open myself to that, it’s like trying to get a sip of water from a water fountain and getting a fire hose instead. A fire hose that shoots sewage.

For every one author with a big publisher I get ten who have self-published.

Which is, in theory, fine.

But these books. These books. And these authors, man. I get so many unprofessional emails by folks who don’t read the already-meager submission guidelines. Some of them are pushy and presumptive. I’ve had authors send me their book and their answers and tell me when to post it — not ask, not submit, but just straight up assume I’m doing it, and then when I tell them it’s not a good fit, they send me back cranky emails.

So, what I get is: a bunch of ugly books with quality issues pushed forward by unprofessional authors. Now, that’s by no means all of what I get from the self-published, but it’s at least half of what I get from them. And here someone is going to say, “Well, I’m sure you get the same from the authors with big publishers,” and here is where I say: not once. Not ever.

Given that I do not have a lot of time and I provide this service for free, this means I have to close my door to self-published authors. Because when I open the door to let the good ones in, all the bad ones come in, too.

Hell, even when I don’t open my inbox to self-published authors, I get ‘em anyway.

I’m not the only one. This is a phenomenon I hear about from reviewers.

Here’s a comment from last week, by Amanda Valentine:

“I review middle grade books at reads4tweens.com and I’ve struggled with how to handle self-pub books. On one hand, I want to support indie authors, and I have discovered some really great books I would never have discovered otherwise. Also, self-pub and small press are more likely to provide me with review copies of the books, so that helps.

However, even if I’m not paying for the books, I’ve grown wary of accepting self published books. When a book is poorly written and essentially unedited, I pay for it with my time and opportunity cost. I want to do right by an author who has taken the time to write a book and contact me about reviewing it, but I can’t in good conscience bring attention to a book that isn’t ready for public consumption. And I do feel disrespected. You think you’re doing me a favor by adding to the to-read pile that threatens to crush me under its weight? Not so much. I’m doing you a favor by reading your book and writing a review. Please have enough respect for me to send me a book that’s gone through multipe revisions, careful proofreading, and at least plenty of beta readers if you can’t afford a professional editor.

I know a lot of reviewers have simply stopped accepting self pub books, and I can understand that. I’m not there yet, although I won’t *buy* self pub books unless they come highly recommended by someone I trust (no, somehow the seven glowing 5 star “BEST THING I EVER READ” reviews you got your friends, your writing group, and your mom to post don’t do much to convince me).

The stuff I’ve read with typos, huge plot holes, major inconsistencies, cliched characters and situations is painful. And I get a good bit of it. I’m not a slush editor. No one pays me to slog through your attempt at writing looking for unpolished gems. I expect to get a book that’s ready for a reading audience. One that the parents who come to my site can recommend to their kids.

The books that make me saddest are the ones with real potential. They need more work, but there’s a story worth working on there. But if you put your rough drafts out there and charge people for them or expect reviewers to spend their valuable reading time on them, you’re *losing* audience. I’m not reviewing your second book if your first was awful. I’m not buying your third and maybe much better attempt if I couldn’t read the first because it was such a mess.

The slog wears down readers and reviewers alike. We value the time we have to read, and we feel cheated if you don’t value our time enough to give us something worth reading. It’s disrespectful to your audience, your reviewers, and your work.”

You’re still saying, “So what?”

Self-published authors don’t have access to all the same channels of discovery afforded to other authors because of the quality level — and that’s a problematic quality level that exists both in the books and in the authors’s demonstration of marketing and basic professional conduct.

You want in bookstores? Libraries? You want another axis of review or critique?

This is (in part) why that’s hard.

You might be saying, “Fine, we’ll stick with Amazon and our other extant sources.”

Okay, sure. Except as noted, Amazon’s discoverability factor is already in the toilet. And with more books published every year across all of publishing, regardless of the quality of those books, it’s going to get harder and harder to Get Noticed — harder to become signal amongst all that noise.

This ties too into some of the other problems the constantly erupting shit volcano presents:

Lump Sum

You’d like to think that self-published books don’t get lumped together — certainly traditionally-published books aren’t, right? One bad self-published book doesn’t reflect on the others.

I’d argue that’s, at least in some cases, inaccurate.

First: just as you can generalize about traditional publishing, you can about self-publishing, too.

Second: You can often — not always! — spot a self-published book by its cover.

Third: You can sometimes spot a self-published book by its listed publisher on Amazon.

Fourth: Price is a signifier. One of the watermarks of self-published work is that the price tends to be less than that of those put out by larger publishers — so, indie books tend to be $0.99 to $4.99. To tell an admittedly anecdotal story, I have a family member who discovered that Amazon had this wealth of cheaper e-books in genres she liked to read and so she dove in and bought several and tried to read them and found that, to the number, they were all of significantly inferior quality to what publishers offered. And her first realization wasn’t that they were self-published but rather that they were all inexpensive, and so she swore off buying those inexpensive books. (Later, she realized why they were inexpensive when someone explained self-publishing to her.) She no longer buys self-published books in general because she no longer buys books priced accordingly. Cheap books mean cheap books. So, if one of your primary advantages as an author-publisher is price but that price level becomes a signifier of poor quality — what then?

What happens when you’ve poisoned the price point, which is a powerful motivator for people to buy those books in the first place? (If your answer is that cheaper books are sometimes cheaper in quality, then I’d suggest you have the wrong mindset. Readers do not want to hear that.)

Results Both Present And Potential

The quality problem has a handful of results both real and potential.

Real results include:

Channels of discovery remain closed.

Channels of distribution remain hard to access.

Readers sometimes stop buying indie books.

It gets harder to get noticed because of a glut of books.

Pay-to-play opportunities (i.e. costs $425 to get Kirkus review).

Potential future results include:

Authors avoid trying to self-publish because of the association.

Sites friendly to self-publishers begin charging fees. (Actually, this happened with a site called Awesome Indies. You can get priority treatment through their epic submissions pile by paying $125 — and for those who bristle at gatekeepers, their site has a list of content criteria you have to meet to get a review.)

Amazon implements actual standards for accepting self-published work. Meaning, Amazon becomes another (less rigorous) “gatekeeper,” likely with some kind of algorithms or programming in place. (Think this can’t happen? Amazon wants to be Netflix more than it wants to be YouTube. It doesn’t want to be eBay or CraigsList. I’ve spoken to folks inside Amazon who are… aware of the quality problem and are a little worried that over time Amazon could be positioned as a bargain basement content provider. If Amazon ever feels that their already thin margin of profits are threatened because of this perception, you can be sure they’ll bring the axe down quick. And Amazon has used that axe more than folks would like to admit — they have removed books, including books of so-called monster porn, from their ranks. To quote the KDP guidelines: “Content published through Kindle Direct Publishing is held to the high standards customers have come to expect from Amazon.”)

Alternative: Amazon segregates self-published work. Either again algorithmically or just by giving it its own “site” — just as they do with, say, digital video, or how they set aside items sold by third-parties through Amazon. Other sites could follow: Goodreads, B&N, etc.

Another alternative: Amazon changes the fee structure. Maybe they cut the royalties (they will be upping the price of Prime, reportedly). Maybe they charge a fee to self-publishers (“listing fee”).

All speculation, but speculation I’ve seen elsewhere. It’s not like I dropped peyote in the desert and am just making up wild, harebrained ideas. I mean, I did drop peyote in the desert, but that was like, yesterday. I’m fine now, I swear. Soon as I clear these screaming robot bees out of my skull, we’re good.

*drinks pesticide*

What The Hell Can We Do About It?

The two questions you see regarding concerns over the overall quality level of self-published work is: a) does it even matter and b) what the hell could I do about it, anyway?

The above is my answer to the first question (I believe that it does matter).

As to the second question –

Well, listen. I’m not trying to make this some grand call to action, some rah-rah standard-bearer trumpety kind of thing, but I do believe that as an author-publisher you have ways to countermand the vibe of low quality. Some thoughts in that direction (and I’m aware that these are not all entirely original and that some of these exist in some form or another already):

Put On Your Oxygen Mask Before Helping Others

Publishing isn’t an art — publishing is a business. A creative business, a weird business, but a business just the same, and so it behooves you to treat this like a business and to put out the best work you can. The overall property values of a neighborhood go up when you tend to your own yard — the more author-publishers who commit to doing their best and not just regurgitating warm story-barf into every conceivable nook and cranny of the Internet are going to contribute to an overall improvement. If you want the stink out of the air, spray a little perfume, you know? In short: we can all do better, so do better.

And once in a while, it behooves us to mention to a neighbor: “Hey, mow your yard, wouldja?”

Quality of Marketing

Part of the spewing shit volcano isn’t just in the quality of the books released but also in the quality of the efforts to support those books. In short? Sometimes author-publishers can get a little spammy. You may not feel comfortable shouting down examples of books you think don’t meet your standards; that’s fine. But personally, when you see self-publishers actively acting like spam-bots given flesh? They maybe need a good talking to. Or at least report their asses for the spammy spam-flavored spamgasm that they are.

Best Practices

I said this in a comment elsewhere but I’ll note it again here — when I worked at the library, I worked for a department whose task was, in part, to increase outreach to under-served communities. Elderly, disabled, etc. And as kind of a hub in the library system we produced a document that listed the Best Practices for that kind of outreach. These were not laws or enforceable guidelines. They were a collection from various libraries nationwide that said, “We have found and agreed that these criteria have been effective, and here’s some evidence.” That’s it. It wasn’t a gun to anybody’s head, it was just a collective document where lots of folks said, “XYZ might work if you apply it.”

(Actually, the list of criteria from Awesome Indies is a good start, maybe.)

Hell, just a simple checklist of, “Are you really ready to click publish?” could be helpful.

Signifiers of Quality

Possible, too, to invoke various signifiers of quality.

For instance: editor listed alongside author. Editors are the secret rockstars of the publishing world — so why can’t author-publishers out them as the badasses that they are? Editors may, over time, get a reputation for stamping quality work — and further, that editor could become an axis for future discovery.

Also — someone who uses and applies the entirely theoretical Best Practices above might earn some kind of note in the description of the books (though how this is administered and by whom becomes a stickier wicket).

Collectives / Union

Consider Andrea Phillips’ blog post: “Publishing on a Spectrum,” where she speaks about collective teams of author-publishers producing content together. That would then serve as its own kind of signifier.

A More Critical Look

I advocated this last week but it bears repeating again: self-publishing is at a stable place. It’s no longer clawing for market share — so, it’s time to take the critical laser often focused on traditional publishing and turn it inward. It is understandable to feel one’s hackles raise — defensiveness is a quality many writers share — but trust me when I say, a constructively-critical look at How Things Are Done can do more to help everyone produce quality content. Stop circling the wagons. Put your chin up and chest out and run the gauntlet.

Support Folks Doing It Right

Not only does this mean buying and championing author-published books you think are exemplary, but also checking out the works of folks like Joanna Penn or David Gaughran — or have you checked out the Self-Publishing Podcast (Sean Platt, David Wright, Johnny Truant)? All folks who are offering up good advice and practical wisdom (and are in fact helping to contribute to that idea of “best practices” I talked about above) in addition to producing high-end material all their own.

Sum Up

Some of you might be oiling your pitchforks.

You’re already forming the words to say that what I’m trying to do is create more gatekeepers.

That’s okay, I understand that — though I’d ask that you recognize I’m not actually trying to destroy self-publishing through a post like this. This isn’t about installing new systemic gatekeepers but rather to surround ourselves with gatekeepers to keep us in check. That means editors and designers. That means beta readers and fellow authors. That might mean publishing collectives or unions, or documents like best practices, or even forums like kboards or AbsoluteWrite.

As authors we want the absolute freedom to publish what we want. We have that, and nobody wants to see that go away. But readers — readers want the freedom to buy books that meet a professional standard, stories offered that contain passion and power but that are also presented by someone who treats publishing as a business decision and not an amateurish, artistic one. It pays to surround ourselves with those who will check us and our work and who will help ensure that what reaches the readers is the very best we can produce.

You may disagree that the “slush pile on display” hurts anyone — and certainly this is a YMMV IMHO situation. It doesn’t bother you, then hey, don’t worry about it. But for my mileage, this is has the vibe of climate change — just because it’s not affecting you personally doesn’t mean it’s not affecting somebody. (And further, it doesn’t mean you’ll be insulated from it forever.)

I know it affects me. It affects me as an author, a reader, and a blogger.

Right now, the shit volcano still spews over reviewers and readers. You don’t have to look hard here or in threads on Goodreads to find readers who feel burned by indie releases. We can do better. We can suggest doing better without getting out our knives. We can help to elevate other practitioners to a better, smarter place instead of drowning them like a bag of kittens.

It’s easy to believe that it’s impossible to collectively up the game. It’s tempting to think that self-publishing isn’t even a community or a culture. But the very existence of self-publishing as the robust option it has become is one that comes out of a culture of people. And the books that exist now and do well now are sometimes the product of that culture and of the collective passions of people who freely share information. The improvements I’m talking about are already happening — but, me, I like to think we can always turn up the volume on the good stuff.

Lot of noise, and sometimes it’s hard to find signal.

So the question I pose to you is:

How do we limit the noise?

And how do we increase the signal?

313 comments

  • All I can say is, Chuck, thank you for saying it. People won’t listen to me–I’ve been preaching this shit for years, but I guess you need a legitimate pulpit to get people to listen.

    I pour every last ounce of talent and money I can scrounge into my books (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BJCLMFU), but it’s a completely useless endeavor trying to sell blowfish if everyone is dying of fugu poisoning.

  • Spend ten minutes every so often on your Amazon Recommends list clicking the “why was this recommended” links, rating books, and making liberal use of the “not interested” button and you’ll find your Recommended list becoming a much more useful tool. I honestly don’t understand why more people don’t make use of the number of ways Amazon has created to deliver exactly what they’re interested in, but in my case, after ten years of the occasional ten minutes spent on my Recommended list, Amazon is like my personal shopper for books. The software knows what I like and it tells me so.

    • Seconded. Go through and rate your purchases, and do some not interesteds on the recommend pages once in a while, and that so-and-so will become like magic. Also be sure to check “Don’t use this for recommendations” when you buy gifts for people you love even though they have the taste of a deranged magpie on PCP.

  • As an author (both traditional and indie), editor, and blogger, I agree that the low transom has led to a flood, much of it not the kind one wants to wade through. This is the exact reason that I have avoided Smashwords as a vehicle for my indie published work–much is admirable about the intent of the company, and I admire Coker as a businessman–but the overall feel of the site is smarmy. I prefer not to have my work presented there, or direct my readers to the site.

    I point this out not to criticize Coker’s fine efforts, but rather as an example of where we are heading. I don’t believe the answer is in gate-keeping. It is, rather, in self-selection, both by author-publishers and readers. As the market continues to mature, sites will proliferate that readers will trust to present readable work in their preferred genre. Authors will seek out quality forums for their work. Out of work professional critics will establish alternative journalistic sites for readers to learn what is quality and worth reading. This is inevitable as standard (newspaper and magazine) vehicles fall by the wayside and more and more people realize that the remaining “Bestseller Lists” are simply crass marketing indices manipulated by the publishing industry.

    Eventually, and by that I mean in the next few years, our industry will have undergone the transition completed a decade ago by the music industry. Professional tastemakers and big business machinations will be replaced by a new democratic. The real question is who will have the genius and clout to own this process, as Apple did when it gave the listening masses what the big recording businesses would not–quality, reasonably priced product. We won’t have to wait long.

    • Hi Evan, I appreciate some of your kind words. But I’m curious – can you elaborate on why you think Smashwords is smarmy? As you might imagine, I’d strongly disagree. We’re a publishing and distribution platform. We give writers the freedom to publish, we distribute to major retailers where over 90% of our sales are derived, and we give readers the freedom to choose. Our services are free. We don’t sell publishing packages. We don’t employ salespeople or take money from authors. Every aspect of our business is transparent and oriented around helping authors adopt best practices. We only earn income through sales commissions, so we’re all about helping our authors reach readers. With exceptions for certain categories of taboo erotica, everything you find on Smashwords you’ll find at the major ebook retailers. Should authors not allow their books to appear at Amazon or Barnes & Noble because they’re carrying books by Justin Bieber, The Kardashian Sisters, Snooki and Hitler?

      If you walk into a Barnes & Noble store, 99.5% of the books in that store are likely to be of zero interest to you. But that’s okay. That’s why there are shelves, and categories, and featured recommendations. In the online realm, book discovery is much simpler, efficient and accessible. Rather than the few dozen shelves of overly-broad categories you might find in a physical store, online bookstores contain hundreds of shelves organized by micro-categories. Every category, subcategory and sub-subcategory has its own shelf, and the best titles are easily discoverable by bestseller lists, highest rated lists and also boughts.

      While I’d agree there’s a glut of low-quality books out there, most are invisible and they don’t prevent readers from discovering absolutely fantastic books by indie authors. Every retailer provides these simple and effective discovery tools.

      From an author perspective, you should get your books everywhere readers are shopping for books. The challenge for authors is not the glut of low-quality books, it’s the glut of high-quality books. The competition is increasing. Self publishing will enable the publication and availability of more high-quality books than ever before.

      • Dear Mark:
        I certainly did not mean that Smashwords is smarmy. As I stated in the post, I have a very high regard for both you and your business. The site, however, is not a desirable storefront. I feel quite comfortable taking my child into a B&N, but I don’t want them browsing the first page of content on the Smashwords site. I agree that it is in the interest of any author to present their work as widely as possible, but I believe that your online retail experience must be improved before I put my work alongside the publications I see whenever I visit your site. With all that you have accomplished from the very earliest stages of independent publishing, I believe that you are in a perfect position to create the venues that I describe in my post. So far, the Smashwords site isn’t it, but I look forward to a time when you take the lead in this aspect as well. I wish you continued success in your endeavors. You certainly have been a force for everything that is positive in this industry.
        Evan
        http://Www.theGoatRodeoBlog.com

  • When children gather at my feet and look up with big eyes and say, “Unky Paul, I wanna self-publish my novel. What should I do?”

    I smile at them and say, “Children, by all means self-publish. But for fucksake! DO NOT SELF-EDIT! Hire a professional. By which I mean someone with a qualification in editing. Not someone who says they can edit, but someone who does it for a day job. Someone who can do a structural edit and a copy-edit. Invest money in that motherfucker and be in awe of their awesomeness in turning your shit first draft into something that you can actually be proud to see published.”

    Usually at this point the little ones are in tears and only the bravest souls venture a second question. “Unky Paul, How do I make sure I have a great cover?”

    “Boobs. Big boobs. People will always buy books with tits on the cover. Just make sure the rest of the cover is designed by a professional. That is, someone you pay money to. Not someone who does amazing art and you ask them to make your cover for free. ‘Cos that makes you worse than donkey dick cheese.
    Now go and have a cookie and watch cartoons.”

  • I just can’t imagine if all the books I greedily consumed as a child were full of typos, misused words, and comma splices. If the author’s note at the beginning had been written in the style of hasty texting, with random nouns capitalized.

    “Wrote this Book for you to enjoy………It took all yr but It was worth it!”

    I saw something similar to that in a self-pub the other day.

    I have a pretty good grasp of English, grammar, and punctuation. And I think it’s because of all those books.

    If I’d had a Kindle in elementary and high school, with access to so many free and cheap books, I’d have been in book heaven.

    Thank god I didn’t. I can’t imagine what would’ve happened to my brain if all those Madeline L’Engle and L.J. Smith novels I gobbled up had never seen a proofreader.

    Someone I know keeps telling me he thinks he’s getting stupider from reading internet comments and forum posts. That all those plurals written as possessives and confused homophones are corrupting his mind. I read a self-published book one time that had so many confused tenses of verbs that I started wondering if *I* was wrong. Maybe all this crap isn’t just polluting the book selection on Amazon.

      • The whole book was like that actually. With the weirdest punctuation, use of caps, ellipses made up of commas instead of periods (what? yeah.)

        I just…this kind of thing belongs on blogs. Not published on Amazon.

        • I was in a local B&N a while back and saw a book in the sci-fi section that caught my eye.

          There was a grammatical error in the title.

          “Okay,” thought I. “Maybe this is some kind of artistic thing.”

          I opened the book.

          No.

          The error was replicated throughout. As were several other errors. In just a few random page flips. It was awful. Also, I read the first few pages (I am a flashreader) and the author was trying to write hard sci-fi about NAFAL space travel without even a vague understanding of relativity. Somewhere, Lorentz gently weeps.

          The thing is, I’m not sure if this counts as a strike against indiepub, or tradpub. It was an iUniverse book. iUniverse is a self-publishing company… owned by Random Penguin. The man who eats the meat is morally equivalent to the butcher.

          Incidentally all the books had cards from the author in them: apparently he was local to the store. (Though he hadn’t signed them, which I thought was odd.) Good on the manager for encouraging local authors. Bad on everybody for letting that book into the stream of commerce. :(

  • I am so sorry. I “self-published” a dumb short story I wrote last year to give to my family for Christmas (yes, I’m a kid, I know I know) because I wanted them to have the book on their Kindles. It was a pretty dumb gift, but I was also struck by house easy it was to upload my “book” to Smashwords and spew it out over the Internet. Obviously it has long been flushed down the toilet and there is no chance anyone would happen upon it, but still. My crappy story is out there. With all of the other crappy stories.

    And although I recognize that the story I wrote (which was not even twice as long as this post) was terrible and cheesy and hastily written, it is essentially on the same level as a lot of other “novels” out there. On some level we have to congratulate these authors for having such a conspicuous lack of dignity or self-awareness. On another level we have to go slap Jen for thinking a self-published short story would make a good gag gift.

  • Answer: Write the book that everyone has been waiting for and doesn’t know it. Write the book that everyone will have to read, love it or hate it. Write the book that no one can put down. A book with human interest, intrigue, extreme controversy, and scandal. Get professional editing. Apply military information operations doctrine. Refer to Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” Persevere. Treat people with dignity and respect. Have two dozen + test readers give you highly encouraging feedback, in that they couldn’t put it down and felt as if you were there with them telling the story in person.

    Good post. See you at the NY Times nonfiction bestseller list. (I forgot to add “maintain a positive attitude.”) Or in the sludge.

  • Chuck, this is a great post. I’m the founder of Smashwords. I’ve observed a dramatic increase in quality in the six years we’ve been doing this. There’s still much room for improvement though. As an enabler of the best and worst of self-published books, and as a company that is entirely dependent upon our books being discovered and purchased (we don’t sell services, so we’re entirely commission-based), I’m not terribly concerned about the torrent. The torrent is a good thing. The system is entirely democratic, and no force for sustained sales is stronger than word of mouth in the form of reviews and person-to-person recommendations. By enabling all authors to publish with greater freedom and ease, we see more great works and more horrible works. Authors who respect their readers, and who respect the best practices of the most professional publishers (traditional and indie) are the ones who will find readers. Authors who rush books to market without respecting best practices quickly discover their books drop into a black hole of invisibility. A couple years ago when I published my free book, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/145431), I formulated a simple best practices concept I call Viral Catalyst. A Viral Catalyst is anything that makes a book more available, more accessible, more discoverable, and more desirable. If you imagine your book as an amorphous blob, and attached to that blob are dozens of dials, levels and knobs representing best practices that you can twist, turn and tweak, you begin to understand the secret of what it takes to publish a high-quality, bestselling book. Viral Catalysts, executed well, drive word of mouth. Executed poorly, they create unnecessary friction that degrades the book’s discoverability and desirability. Many authors make the mistake of searching for that one magic bullet that will catapult them to the bestseller lists. There really isn’t one single factor. Most often, it’s a combination of factors. It starts with a well-executed story that wows a reader. If the book is merely good, it’s not good enough. Readers want to be wowed. They want to be taken to an emotionally satisfying extreme. This is what drives word of mouth. But a great book alone is not enough. If the cover image, stripped bare of words, doesn’t make an accurate, appropriate and honest promise to the target reader, you’ve got unnecessary friction. If the author doesn’t know their target reader, there’s friction. If the book’s mispriced, that’s friction. If the book description is poorly written, more unnecessary friction. Poor categorization, inadequate distribution, poor editing, sloppy proofing? More friction. Everything the author can do right or wrong on the Viral Catalyst front conspires to either generate viral word of mouth or diminish it. The goal with word of mouth is for every reader to generate more than one additional reader. Sometimes it only takes a few twists and turns of knobs to get the formula just right so the viral multiplier crosses that 1.0 threshold.

      • True, Massimo. That’s why it’s so important for indies to make the effort. Most writers spend a lifetime developing their writing talent. It requires a different set of knowledge to understand how to navigate the business-side of publishing. With a little effort, however, marketing concepts are simple to learn, and there are so many great examples set by successful indies. I see three primary legs to the professional publishing stool, and without all three an indie cannot succeed. An indie needs: 1. A printing press (the ability to produce a book). 2. The access to retail distribution (getting your book in places where readers go to discover and purchase books). 3. Professional publishing best practices knowledge. All three of these tools, the press, the distribution and the knowledge are available at no cost to any indie ebook author. It just takes effort. The bestselling indies are hardest-working people you’ll ever meet. If an author is unwilling to make the effort, that’s their choice. One cool thing about indie ebook publishing is that as the author’s experience and sophistication grows, they can evolve their book and evolve their publishing practices. We’ve seen many instances where authors tweak the cover on a book that has languished for months, or tweak the pricing, and the book takes off.

        • Yes, but do they do that as the result of an informed process? A bit of luck is needed, too.

          I’ve sold over 5,000 books is Amazon ( and a few hundred in Smashwords) and sell every day. I work with proofread, line and copy editor and have my own group of beta-reader. Covers are produced by a graphic designer. I’ve been in the top 100 Sci-Fi best selling authors quite a few times, and have hundred of reviews.

          “Take off” has different meaning for different people. In my case I’d say my books will take off if books are read by thousands new readers every month instead of 5,000+ after a year.

          • That’s a great question. When I dissect a sudden breakout, where the author goes from selling a few copies a day to hundreds per day, there are often multiple catalyst triggers. Sometimes it’s a single trigger, like a price promo, a new cover, a new release, a free series starter, a retailer merchandising feature, a big review. Sometimes it’s difficult to identify the trigger. Luck always plays a part, but rarely will a book break out into a bestseller list without the underpinning of a super-awesome reading experience, or the built-in trust of a dedicated following of fans. Some authors have a systematic and informed process of constant iteration until they get the formula just right. Many of them publish like pros, and hire pros as you do. It takes a village to publish great books.

          • Great comment, Mark, and a truth: “It does take a village to publish great books.” Self-publishing is a misnomer, I know of no successful Indie book that has been the result of a truly self enterprise.
            It is more ‘collaborative-publishing’ or ‘artisanal-publishing’ than self. ;)

            I will run soon a BookBub promo for one of my books. I’m confident the result will please me.

  • I self published two books and had other Indie Press publish another two… the difficult thing for me was editing. My novel (which I won’t promote) was edited by two people. One a new editor, who picked up some story thread issues and an experienced editor who picked up other threads. In the end the book was well edited and proof read by my wife (who happens to be a very good proof editor)…All who have read the book love it, and want more, but it is self-pub and because of this I don’t really promote much. Why? It is not because I don’t believe in the book, I do. But it is because of the shit volcano and my work getting caught in it. My wife got a kindle and god heaps of kindle recommendations – cheap books, and as you say, they were cheap, quite shit actually.I take on board the idea of buying quality. I have sold my books at cost, as a way to get people who think all content should be free, to at least buy a decent book. After reading this I think I will change that stance. Good work and well said.

  • I died a little inside reading this post. Not because it was wrong or bad or anything. In fact it nails the issue right on the head. As an indie author I’ve watched door and door close over the last few years from reviewers who won’t even entertain author-published books anymore simply because of everything you just described.

    I am one of those folks who is on the fence about trad publishing, maybe because I just like managing the process myself, or maybe because I hear the horror stories about the way some people get treated by traditional publishers. Sites alike Smashwords and KDP have given us all such a great opportunity and I feel that way WAY too many people have pooped in the pool, spoiling a lot of swimming opportunities for others.

    I really hope things turn around, but I fear self-publishing might end up being it’s own worst enemy eventually, with people trusting non-imprint books less and less. I dunno. Maybe I’ll just drink, write more, and hope the herd-immunization of self-publishing quality improves, but thanks for saying this.

    • I feel your pain. It’s hard for me to be optimistic, too. And this kind of makes me sick. Indie publishing is SUCH a cool thing. Could be even cooler. But I honestly doubt it ever will.

      And this is why: arguing Chuck’s point with people who don’t believe it is like arguing with someone about politics. They believe what they believe because it’s what they believe. Nothing you say is gonna change it. In fact, the more you talk, the more adamant, defensive, stubborn, and volatile they’ll probably get.

      They publish vomited out first drafts because they see nothing wrong with it. If they saw something wrong with it, they wouldn’t do it in the first place. They refuse to hire an editor because that’s their right and dammit they don’t need no stinkin editor, their work is theirs and no one else is touching it. They have no idea what an editor does and they have no desire to learn. If they cared about the quality of indie books and the future of indie publishing and what the hell the world is gonna think about unedited, vomited-out books with amateur cover art, they wouldn’t be hitting publish in the first place.

      Aren’t I just sunshine and rainbows tonight. Somebody get out the tequila, quick.

      • Where, precisely, are the posts that are increasingly adamant, defensive, stubborn, or volatile? I missed those. I disagreed with some of Chuck’s conclusions. We cross-posted, responded, had a reasoned dialogue, and agreed that the world might not be as polarized as the original conclusions might have suggested.

        Typically, those who don’t hire an editor do so for one of several reasons that doom them to failure, in my opinion: They don’t have the money, they don’t want to spend the money, or they don’t see why they should. That means they either don’t have the money to start a publishing company, don’t care to invest in their business, or don’t understand why remedial quality control is important.

        None of those are recipes for success.

        I don’t give two shits about the quality of indie books or the future of indie publishing, and don’t see the point in complaining about any of it. I only care about the quality of the books I publish, my future, and how I can improve. I regularly post blogs offering my views on what it takes to succeed (which include pro everything) to those who are interested, however I earn nothing by doing so, and routinely see one star reviews after posting them. People are odd that way. As to the future of indie publishing, I’m not a member of some cult. I self-publish because it makes the most sense economically. If trad-pubbing makes sense at some point, I’ll do that. I don’t concern myself with the stewardship of an entire imagined movement. How crazily egotistical would I have to be to imagine I could affect it, or that the movement even exists outside of my own mind?

        My point is that complaining about what all those other people are doing achieves nothing but a dilution of your focus, and posits a world that doesn’t exist. Other people publish shit? So what? You aren’t hurt. Your odds actually increase if you believe cream rises to the top. Swamped by the tsunami of crap? The trad-pubbed tsunami is 30 feet high, and you’re on the beach. Does it really matter if once you throw the self-pubbed on there, it’s 50? Why? Guilt by association. Then why are all those self-pubbed authors I mentioned doing so well?

        Every one of the names I cited as examples of successful self-pubbed authors started doing this maybe three or four years ago. They have all flourished. The tsunami hasn’t affected them. While the paucity of quality concerns me, it doesn’t really impact me, or anyone else who’s focusing on pulling on their own oars, any more than the lack of quality in trad pub affects books in general, or me specifically.

        In my view, complaining about all this is akin to complaining about how crappy everyone else drives. No point.

        Drive defensively, encourage responsible behavior while tending to your own concerns, and chill.

          • I don’t frequent Reddit. Didn’t really see anything on KB that I found any different than responses to most of the posts I’ve made suggesting that doing it yourself is a fool’s errand.

            I meant, to clarify, where are the posts here that are in any way definable as those characterized? There aren’t any. While I’m sure we can all find idiots who are posting nonsense in response to anything, my perspective is to ignore them, as they aren’t buying my books, and so don’t concern me. “Look at all the haters of X” doesn’t actually mean anything to me if I have to seek out those that hate X. Sure there are X haters. They don’t matter.

            Trying to teach pigs to sing is a fool’s errand. Listening to them protest being taught to sing is even less wise.

            This is all sound and fury. None of it means anything that I can tell. And note that I actually agree with Chuck’s basic premise that you would be well advised to hire professional editors, proofreaders, cover artists and formatters, ensuring your product is the best possible. We simply disagree on the extent to which the world will tilt on its axis should most choose to be stupid about how they approach things.

          • Well, thank you for the “fool” moniker. You’re definitely the most well-spoken troll I’ve encountered today.
            I’m glad to see at least one of you knows the value of hard work.

          • Well, there’s an old saying: The attorney who represents himself has a fool for a client.

            99% of all authors I know are not qualified to edit their own work. For a host of reasons I’ve written about. First, they are unaware of their own deficiencies, and so can’t correct what they don’t recognize. Second, editing is a completely disparate skill than writing. The eye fills in gaps, errors and omissions. Editors spend decades getting very good at overriding that. Third, editing can involve subjective decisions, and we’re all blind to our own faults.

            Just about every DYI author I’ve met claims they are the exception. Just about every DYI author I’ve met actually rationalizes their lack of money, or their unwillingness to spend it, as a strength.

            It’s amateur. I counsel against amateur behavior if you want to run a pro business. I say it’s amateur because no professional publisher would counsel their authors to edit themselves and forego the in-house treatment. Because it would be unprofessional, result in a lower quality product, and endanger their investment in the product.

            If that make me a troll, well, hmm. I’d suggest you read my countless blogs on the topic before applying that label. If nothing else, to spare you some embarrassment.

          • Actually, that saying is “The attorney who represents himself oft has a fool for a client.”

            I’ve represented myself in legal matters and done just fine, thank you very much. ;)

          • Well, not to be a pedant, but a search for “‘oft’ has a fool for a client” generated no hits. The one minus the word oft generated many pages. The quote is attributed, depending upon the site, to Abraham Lincoln, who didn’t use the oft, or to French proverb, which also doesn’t use the oft.

            Glad it worked out for you, however.

        • Russell, I’m speaking from personal experience. Mostly private conversations. I’m not referring to any exchanges here. Others can point you to the vicious stuff online mentioned on the other posts. I don’t really go there.

          And I sure as hell can complain about crappy drivers when we’re driving 60 mph down the highway with my two precious children in the car. Take those distracted, reckless, careless, inconsiderate, aggressive drivers TO JAIL. Revoke their licenses. And point them in the direction of the bus stop. If they can’t be responsible with the things we all share they lose the privilege.

          Unfortunately, there are too many of them. It’s impossible to police. So here we are.

          • Kay, I’m pretty sure that someone ruining their own chances of success by publishing sub-par crap isn’t the same as your dislike for all those “other” inconsiderate drivers.

            If it makes you happy, sure, complain about them. Or don’t. Or don’t drive. Because the only thing stopping you from a head-on collision on most roads is only a painted line. And they’re everywhere. Those cretins. We need more prisons, and more rules. Jail everyone I believe is a menace, an irritant, or inconsiderate. Hmm. We’ll have to disagree on that. Because at some point, when you mistakenly cut someone off or don’t see them when you change lanes, you’re now the person you’re complaining about. But that’s a different topic.

            My point is that you’re way better off focusing on what you can do to up your game, than complaining about others. They don’t matter in the scheme of things. Just you, your readers, and how you are going to find them, and entertain them.

            Just as nothing that’s said on this board will change the price of tea in china. But doing a third draft polish on my WIP might change my odds of pleasing my readership.

            So I’ll do that, and leave the policing of “them” to…you.

          • >>when you mistakenly cut someone off or don’t see them when you change lanes, you’re now the person you’re complaining about.

            Dude, it’s never happened. Okay maybe once, when I was 16. But I think everyone gets one freebie.

            So maybe we let everyone get one freebie published book?

            Wait…NO! What am I saying?

            And I’m not volunteering to police anything. I expect people to get their own shit together. But like I’ve said, my expectations are way too high.

  • In regards to access to resources that author-publishers have, a fellow author-publisher I know was refused to sell her very well done children’s picture book at our local independent book stores in the greater Seattle area because she used the createspace system. You may as well said the Amazon Godzilla to these Indie brick and mortars. They refused saying that Amazon was eating them alive. My friend was like, “but I live right here…shop local, support local…all that jazz.” The local indie book shops would not budge. I can see both sides. Regardless, your points on access is true in this particular situation.

    But my biggest head-nodding came with Amanda’s comments. Get the damn thing edited. Your name is on the “written by” line. Do your best to appreciate the time your readers give to your story. Don’t half-ass it. Hire an editor. There are many of us who do a pretty damn good job, and it’s likely cheaper than you think.

    • Wow. A local book store not selling this author’s work is simply bad business, plain and simple. The store owner could have taken a tiny little cut of whatever the Amazon Godzilla made on those books (and built a little business goodwill with a local business person), yet turned them down and hurt no one but the local author. Well, the store owner hurt herself as well. Perhaps this is part of the reason the local book store is so easily having its lunch eaten by the Godzilla?

  • I know you mean well, Chuck, and the advice not to publish crap is good, but I think you’re overlooking a couple factors in the drive to clean up self-publishing.

    First, even the most serious-minded indies don’t have a say in what other writers do. Seriously, zero. We can stand on our soap boxes and post in our blogs encouraging, nay, *begging* people not to publish crap. We can try to offer constructive criticism and teach people to create better covers, learn to format, and even mention the typos we found in the sample, but at the end of the day they don’t have to listen to us. What’s more, well, I’m sure you’ve had new writers ask you to give them feedback only to piss in your face because what they actually wanted was your adulation (or worse, they didn’t even bother to thank you for setting aside your own work for several hours just to take a red pen to their precious baby). Every piece of unsolicited constructive criticism, however well-intentioned and diplomatic, invites a possible confrontation with a nut job who will misbehave on your blog, 1-star your books, and egg your house – and who has time for that shit?

    Second, the people who need to read essays like this aren’t the ones reading them. The people on kboards, in the main, are not the problem. You get a few shady characters who try to drum up review circle jerks and quid pro quo nonsense, but most of the regulars are serious about the craft of writing and the business of self-publishing. Even hangers-on go there because there are a lot of very smart people who have found success and are willing to share their knowledge with other people. Market analysis by price and genre? Which advertising venues are profitable and which are a waste of marketing dollars? Which of Amazon’s shiny new programs are worth getting involved in? There is an education to be had there. When someone on the Internet talks about self-publishing, they’re the first ones to share it with their peers and invite discussion and debate, which is why they’re among the first writer communities to respond to your blog posts. The thing is, despite the annoyance many of them have expressed at what they feel is a series of essays talking down to them, they’re not actually the ones who need to be told to write good books, present them professionally, and make business decisions based on hard data.

    Writers who publish before they do their research (or before they figure out the difference between a comma and a period) and aren’t savvy enough to realize that a Twitterbot that automatically follows everyone and then unleashes a torrent of spam isn’t a viable marketing strategy aren’t looking for advice. Like the aforementioned ungrateful newbie writers they’re expecting adulation, and when they don’t get it, rather than looking inward and finding ways to improve their craft/presentation/marketing, they get angry. They become abusive toward reviewers, other authors (regardless of publication avenue), and straw man versions of traditional publishing houses. They most certainly don’t dig through author blogs that tell them to get their shit together, nor do they seek out a business-focused web forum that will tell them to change their covers, clean up their formatting, tweak their book description, or consider hiring a content editor (all of which happen often on kboards when people ask for feedback). Say what you want about celebrating mediocrity, but at least someone who publishes too soon but comes to a bunch of folks who are doing self-pub right and picks their brains in a sincere effort to improve both craft and business acumen is actually *growing*.

    I suspect that the folks on kboards who protest that incremental improvement is okay are not celebrating people who publish a stream of crap. They’re acknowledging the reality that a hostile environment would only discourage newer self-publishers from learning. It wouldn’t actually prevent them from publishing. Instead, the crap-publishers look at their dismal numbers and watch other people discuss their great numbers, and this encourages them to ask “what am I doing wrong?” Then they either become more teachable or they burn out like light bulbs and rage quit (but that’s also a victory of sorts for the biz).

    • Eric —

      True fact, all of this ain’t actually true. I understand the assumption, but it’s false.

      Since talking about this stuff last week and this week, I’ve gotten a surprising number of emails from folks saying that they heard me loud and clear, and that they’re going to (my paraphrase) boost signal and squash the noise. Meaning, they’re gonna try to do better.

      If a few people do better because of this, that’s a win for me.

      — c.

  • I’ve given up on self-published books. Burned too many times by authors who send out shitty query letters to 300 agents in one week, get rejected based on said_shitty query letter (which points to lack of understanding of the business of publishing), lets sister/wife/friend edit book for free, creates the crappiest cover art on the face of the planet, and slaps it up on Amazon.

    And a month later is emailing agents saying, “Hey, my self-pubbed book has sold 14 copies. I need an agent to take me to the next level.”

    The thing is, I desperately want to support indie authors and people who put out GOOD QUALITY work. I just don’t know how to find these titles with the crapfest that is the Amazon ratings systems (cough: sockpuppet reviews). I think the issue is intermingled with the book rating systems currently in place. If we can figure out how to manage that (reasonably), then self-published works might have a better chance.

    And I won’t waste my time sifting through the metric assload of garbage.
    And maybe I can support the indie person who writes like a badass.

    • LOL, that made me laugh. 14 copies! :D I’ve sold over 5,000 books on Amazon alone, collected hundreds of reviews with a 4+ average on Amazon and Goodreads combined and I don’t believe I’m anywhere near a sales-volume where an agent might be interested.

  • Well peps, for what they’re worth these are my thoughts on this one.

    1. I can’t do anything about people who don’t bother to edit their books. If I read one, and enjoy it, I can tell them. Which I have, twice so far.

    2. I was certainly a key contributor to the shit volcano at the start. Not because I didn’t care but because I didn’t know any better. Even having my books professionally edited didn’t stop them from being error ridden. Since I have a form of dyslexia it’s hardly surprising but I’d hoped I’d managed to present them decently. I hadn’t. Now, my first book has the seal of approval from awesome indies, and my second is listed with them. There are errors in it, I need to clean it up before I try and get the seal of approval on that one – indeed, it’s currently having a second edit – but they loved the story.

    So, what I’m saying is, I understand how hard it is to present a book well, with a low level of resources (£2k per book). However, even a complete fuckwit like me can produce their work to a professional standard if you really try. Pretty much. And it’s worth doing. Because you want to tell a story, right? So the more smoothly you present it, the better. You don’t want to put people off.

    3. There are people earning a good living from being author publishers. However, there is one thing that almost all of them have in common. THEY PUT OUT A NEW BOOK EVERY FEW MONTHS. Or they spend every waking hour on social media, networking, sparkling and generally attracting readers. In short they’ve all made some kind of pact with the devil regarding time: Yep. That right there, people, is the key. Time. These people are jemmying 48 hour’s work into a 24 our day. Sometimes it’s a question of having the luck of Satan, but normally, unless you are seriously efficient with your time and blessed with a serious amount of it, it ain’t gonna happen. Sorry but that’s the truth.

    4. I sell more paperbacks than e-books. Unbelievably, this is true. If I carry a copy of my book around in my handbag, chances are I’ll have flogged it within a few days. Chances are my vict- er hem sorry, customer will contact me later to say they enjoyed it. So my fourth point is this. Not all of us can churn out 3 books a year, it takes me 2 years to write one 100,000 word book.

    Look at point 3 there, that means the market is completely and utterly broken for #slowriters (yes there’s even a hastag) like me. It’s broken in a way that I will never be able to fix. That’s beyond my control. So, my theory is just to adapt. If I sell lots of dead tree books then clearly, the Real World is the place to interact. So my solution to being at the bottom of the shit lake is to go find another pond. I’ve made my first book perma free (or at least, I’ve set the wheels in motion, it may take a while). When the rest of the series comes out I’ll go through the online motions to promote it but I’m going to chase dead tree sales: book stores – starting local, if they sell well the managers will soon recommend them to fellow managers in the chain – , doing talks, interacting with book clubs. I’ve looked at size and ideal price point and I will be tailoring the length of my future books to fit.

    Maybe we should stop trying to shout ourselves hoarse and try something different. But the way I see it, right now, paperback books are easier for me to sell, and if I sell enough of those, the ebook sales will follow.

    So there you go, my twopennorth.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • I find that heartening, but there are a *lot* of author-pubbers out there, and if you think kboards or Reddit have some problem folks you should check out the Amazon forums or (so I’ve heard) the KDP forum. *shudder* We can try to elevate the business, and I truly hope you’ll inspire even more writers to up their game, but I fear the shit volcano will always be with us. Like it or not, it is more likely that curators will spring up to help guide readers to the pearls in the pig slop than that writers who have no idea what they’re doing will suddenly stop sprouting like dandelions on manure piles.

  • This is a tough subject, but let’s frame it by comparing apples to apples, not apples to apple pies.

    For the reader, it makes sense to compare end-product to end-product. The reader is looking for a book, and there’s no question that’s a challenge, and the proliferation of poor-quality books makes that harder, and the self-published author has fewer resources, theoretically, to stand out from the noise and get noticed by the reader.

    However, for the writer, the fair moment at which to compare self-publishing with traditional publishing is not when the book is published, but rather when the manuscript is completed.

    The author with a completed manuscript has a choice: To self-publish or make a go at the traditional publishing route. Either way, the author faces a discovery challenge. The author can try to stand out from the noise in the published marketplace, or the author can try to stand out in the traditional publishing process (finding an agent, being accepted by an agent, being noticed in the slush pile, surviving rewrites demanded at any step along the way, and so on). Either way, there is a lot of noise.

    Maybe my view is too colored by Hollywood, where the myth of “meritocracy” is cited daily in self-congratulation.

  • Being an author-pubber is great in that you control content, cover, and pricing. The problem is you have to go secure all those things that you yourself are not skilled enough to do. I’m just now able to make a cover I’m not embarrassed by (and that one probably needs another trip through GIMP/Photoshop). Barter is your friend, but how many betas can you do for a graphic artist?

    Even then, those are just production issues. What I really struggle with is reading other self-pubbed authors. I started reading one. Got about halfway through it when I realized I could not wait to finish it and start the next one in the stack (also self-pubbed.) That was my cue to put it down and call up the next one on the list. I made it through two chapters before I realized this was going to make the Left Behind series look like the collected works of Hemingway. (Sometimes, I’m too charitable.)

    It would be good if there were review sites that could act as gatekeepers because, quite frankly, I 1.) want to get noticed, and 2.) don’t want to read crap. (If you think mine is crap, well, thanks for taking a chance on it.)

    • February 5, 2014 at 12:37 PM // Reply

      As a reviewer, I don’t have time to serve as a gatekeeper to keep out the crap. There are way too many books I want to read, and no where near enough time. It isn’t my job to wade through the slush pile – my review site *costs* me money instead of paying me. Many reviewers simply don’t accept self-pub and I can totally understand that. As long as the shit volcano continues to spew, the role of reviewers in discovery is likely to get smaller and smaller. And that hurts every author-publisher.

        • February 5, 2014 at 1:36 PM // Reply

          I edit some author-publisher and small press fiction (Elizabeth Cole, Chuck when he’s published by Evil Hat), so I very much hope that enough reviewers will stay open to reviewing books like these. I’m proud of the quality of the books I’ve worked on, starting with really great authors who are willing to realize they can’t do it all alone.

          But when I have my reviewer hat on, I don’t know immediately which authors have bothered to go through all of that. (And, honestly, a professional editor isn’t always required – but a lot of self-editing and an outside proofreader are the absolute minimum necessary.)

          I still accept self published stuff for my review site and intend to keep doing so. But I really wish there was some gatekeeper before me for a lot of these books – it’s endlessly frustrating to me when authors won’t serve that role themselves.

          • I checked your website and we do not match as you read/review YA.

            Stephen King admits he can’t do it all alone and works with his editor since decades. If he would never send a MS to publishing without extensive re-work and rewriting with his editor I don’t see anyone able. The “I have a MA in English” doesn’t make the cut ;)

  • I won’t buy a book on-line unless I can read sample chapters first. You can’t trust the reviews.I’ve read some terrible books that had-not just one-but four or five glowing reviews.There seems to be some unspoken rule between self-pub writers that you never give another writer a bad review, that you should support your fellow writers, no matter how bad the writing. And if you do give a bad review, be ready for the onslaught of bully-like behaviour that follows.

    • Well, Laurie, though I hate to say this, but four or five glowing reviews is nothing. You shouldn’t base your decision based on that. The “Look Inside” feature is there for a reason and unless a book has collected tens of reviews it means it is hardly read or too recent. Check whether the author has published other books.

      Check whether those glowing reviews actually ‘talk’ about the book or could be written for any other title in Amazon ;)

    • It blows my mind that anybody, indie or trad, would put up an ebook and not let me look at a sample. I have seen both sorts of publishers do it. (I was dismayed that several of the recommendations from the prior thread didn’t have sampling enabled. Sorry, guys, but even with a recommendation from the astute readers of this blog, no sample, no sale.) At least in the bookstore I can browse a few pages. What, are you afraid I won’t buy it if I get a little snort first? Well, then… you’re probably right. And I definitely won’t buy it if you don’t, so thanks for saving me the time.

      Incidentally, I just put a few books on DriveThru Fiction for the first time, to get the lay of the land. I was delighted to see that they allow you to specify which pages of your book are the free sample. If like me you like to put “Also By,” etc, in the front of your book, it lets you allow the sample reader to skip right to “Once upon a time…” and try to set that hook. I wish other epublishers would follow this example.

  • I am an amazon top 500 to 1000 Reviewer and I am not a Vine Voice. I get dozens of requests a day to review people’s self-published novels. I became a top reviewer by accident and at first, I accepted a lot of these requests, being fairly naive about the explosion of self-publishing. I assumed that there were some sort of quality control measures in place.

    Oh, poor innocent! While I may be that commonest of weeds, a writer who doesn’t write, I am a world class reader and I browse amazon obsessively looking for new worlds to discover. As our fearless leader noted, amazon used to be great for this – now, browsing the new release section leads only to a) obvious new releases (we all know when King or Tartt releases a book) and b) a slew of self-published titles.

    Whatever happened to the mid-list? Titles that even the dedicated reader might not be immediately aware of, but that are more than worth reading. You know, writers who can write, tell a good story, but for a variety of reasons aren’t making the best seller lists either in their genre or the wider marketplace. I have read some great books, old and new that live and die and live again on the mid-list.

    So, I both bought some of the “inexpensive books” and accepted review requests from people writing in genres I enjoy. I have rarely been sorrier. To be fair, I have discovered a couple of rough gems, but nothing that I would characterize as great, even among those that have garnered million dollar contracts from a self-publishing start.

    Now, I only accept review requests for physical products other than books except in exceptional circumstances and I have a little blurb that I send out to writers requesting reviews. I will not badly review something that I haven’t paid for – I will just say nothing. If I have ponied up my own 99 cents or 2.99 than the gloves are off, but I feel a bit bad savaging a free product from a struggling person. Perhaps I should re-think this as I am doing a disservice to other readers. I do pay attention to the amazon review – this is why I first started reviewing there in the first place. There is a reason I now shy away from the self-published – some of the writing hurts my head a mere ten pages into the book and that is before we even discuss minor matters like plot, character, setting and pacing. Or the fact that a large percentage of these folks seem to think that they are going to make a financial killing with a pallid copy of a best seller.

    My opinion? The quality issues are going to fix themselves. I realize that the platforms allowing self-publishing are making money off of hopeful writers, but they also make money off of readers. If readers stop buying – and it seems that in many cases, this has started, than self-publishing will go into its own private ghetto, or quality control gatekeepers will be put into place – i.e. the writer must pay not only for the publishing platform and the right to publish there, but for editing services either from the publisher or from a list of approved independent editors.

    Seems to me that good books and writers will still have to go one of the old-fashioned traditional routes, or run the gamut of newly establish quality control – which will turn self-publishing into a form of traditional publishing. If publishing platforms can only make money from writers and not from readers it will force them to enact quality control practices. If they don’t do this, eventually people will stop publishing as it will essentially be burning money to place a book in the subterranean shit sea.

    On a side note, I do find it ironic that writing is the only fine art where everybody assumes that they can easily do it. Nobody assumes that they can paint like Da Vinci or make movies like Welles, but everyone thinks that they can write like King or Shakespeare – it is just a matter of doing it – why is this?

    • Your side note is my biggest frustration. Literature and writing are my life passion. I was that kid that checked out and read the maximum allowed books from the library every week, first grade onward. Today, I spend most of my entertainment $ on Amazon digital books. I read daily and sometimes long into the night when I should be sleeping. I studied for and earned two degrees in writing. I’ve been actively teaching writing for seventeen years. If I’m an expert on anything, it’s writing and literature.

      Yet still, after all my years of training and focused practice on the art of writing, writing fiction is damned hard to do well. I’m baffled when people who don’t even read (yes, we can tell!) are hellbent on becoming best-selling novelists. It seems to be an epidemic of narcissism. I guess since the mass of self-publishing dilettantes apparently are not readers themselves (though they know no shame in expecting others to read their publications), they have no idea what good writing actually looks like.

    • I love this, esp. the last paragraph.

      I didn’t realize that you could contact reviewers on Amazon to request reviews. I mean, I knew there were links to Amazon reviewers’ profiles but I never thought to ask someone to review a book.

      I’ve published three books via publisher and I’m working on something I intend to self-publish, although I’m still writing for my publisher. I believe — and I tell everyone who even hints that they’re thinking about self-publishing — that you shouldn’t do it until you’ve been professionally edited. Sometimes people will assume I’m being snooty, and someone in a comment thread somewhere else accused me of fearing competition. But until you’ve had someone else — someone you don’t know well, someone who has no interest in or affection for you outside the context of editing your book, someone who’s doing it for the money and not as a favor–then you don’t know how necessary an editor is. You also don’t know how it feels to have something you worked on so hard and for so long returned to you with instructions to tear it up and reassemble. But it’s necessary, no matter who you are or how well you write or how much you’ve written. (Want to hear me rant about best-selling authors who no longer work with editors because their publishers don’t make them? No? Ok.)

      Having said that, the book I’m working on will be edited by a friend and fellow-author – but I’ve been critiqued by her in the past and she’s a bitch. She’s also done professional editing.

      Maybe I’ll bug Anatasia for a review, or maybe I’ll hit up a couple of people who’ve reviewed me on Amazon – I should probably ask one who loved my stuff and one who thought I just sucked.

      I’d also probably pay for an Awesome Indies review. I think that, given the (largely deserved) shady reputation of self-published authors held by so many, and the deficit of trust an indie author has to overcome before they can sell a book, a favorable review by a site like Awesome Indies is worth the fee.

      • Great you want to submit to Awesome Indies, but if you aren’t sure of the quality of your book I might suggest you go for a MS appraisal, first, then decide whether you want to pay for a review. You don’t pay for a favourable review but for a review based on a well defined metrics of evaluation. You might end up paying for a good review that brings a one-star or a two-stars rating, too ;)

        • That is, Awesome Indies are Awesome if you are willing to learn about your writing skills. Sure, you may discover you’re on the right track, too, my first novel has received the Gold Seal of Approval from Awesome Indies (multiple 5-stars from reviewers). My second didn’t but received back a few hints to best it and it won the 2013 PRG Reviewer’s Choice Award as Best Science Fiction Series.

          So, Indie writers should approach Awesome Indies for a learning/discovery process, not to get a favorable review (mind, not implying that was your attitude or expectation.)

    • >On a side note, I do find it ironic that writing is the only fine art where everybody assumes that they can easily do it. Nobody assumes that they can paint like Da Vinci or make movies like Welles, but everyone thinks that they can write like King or Shakespeare – it is just a matter of doing it – why is this?<

      It isn't.

      As a book lover, you should find it obvious vis-a-vis the visual arts–look at any vanity-published book's cover and think to yourself "someone thought that was good enough to publish." Hell, there have been some relatively-big-name-published novels with horrific covers (I love Strossy to pieces, but he'll never live down the Saturn’s Children cover, for example). I’m not gonna posit the folks who produced those thought they were Van Gogh, but they thought those works publishable. I’ve read horrific books that were Pulitzer material compared to their covers.

      On the movie front, even with the rise of Netflix Instant (their gatekeepers are a joke–anything that would let 666 Revealed through has some fundamental flaws in its quality algorithm–but they supposedly do exist), you still have to know what you’re doing to really find the underbelly of the video industry. But pretty much every film fan with a portable video recorder is now capable of making a movie, buying a stack of DVD-Rs, and posting on Craigslist. You don’t even have to buy ad space in Fangoria anymore! And for every no-budget piece of schlock that becomes a cult sensation (Fateful Findings, The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, etc.)–or, perhaps more germane, for every no-budget decent-to-excellent movie I have ever stumbled across–I’ve sat through at least one hundred pieces of Zombies Ate My Neighbours: The Movie or Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. But I keep doing it because that hundredth movie is The Clown Tape or Noctem or Shallow Ground or Deadlands: The Rising or Lockout or…

      >I am an amazon top 500 to 1000 Reviewer and I am not a Vine Voice. I get dozens of requests a day to review people’s self-published novels.<

      When Amazon stopped reporting the old way, I was #37 in Amazon reviewer rank, I AM a Vine voice, and I haven't gotten an unsolicited submission in years. The quick and easy way to get them to stop: throw tact out the window. And of the ten biggest and most well-deserved hatchet jobs I've ever written, only two of them were for solicited reviews! (But really, they were pretty awful, both the books AND the reviews.) But once they realize you are both (a) honest and (b) tactless, they go away pretty quick. That said, I DO still accept them, given the caveat in the next paragraph, the very few times they float in, and I actively hunt vanity-published and indie stuff at Half Price Books and university book sales, because while 99% of it is T. P. Mina, there's that 1%. I've watched Charles Sheehan-Miles spend the last thirteen years going from a credible writer of war dramas to one of the best romance novelists I've ever read, and I'm currently watching Sara Samarasinghe become one of the bright lights of teen rom-com (I've been following her since about 2006 now). When you find the really good ones, to me, they make up for all the crap, but YMMV, natch.

      Oh–if you want to preserve dignity and tact, the other possibility is just telling them you've got a two-year backlog. In my case, that's, um, true, but it struck me last night that would be a REALLY quick way to separate out the people who hit "publish" in the quest of a quick buck and who don't expect their book to be around for two years from the people who are serious (and intent may not be everything, but it seems someone who is at least TRYING to write something for the ages will probably have a clearer head about such matters). Worth a shot, anyway.

  • Sure, there are tons of bad books being put into the self-publishing area. But by no means does it mean that those books will be able to sustain an audience and be successful. The “Kindle Gold Rush” isn’t sustainable because bad books don’t have a chance long-term. They’ll get no reviews, or bad reviews, and my point is… the cream will always rise to the top.

    Good books will always beat out bad books.

  • Another attention getter, Chuck. Many good suggestions here, though I’m not convinced the concept of “self-policing” among self-pubbers will guarantee quality reads. Two ideas stand out for me. 1. Self-Pub needs a reliable and respected reviewing process that can’t be purchased. By respected, I mean reviewing venues in which a trust has been developed that readers will go to for recommendations. There’s a few, not as many as we need. 2. Offer the first chapter, ten pages, whatever, on the selling site. Traditional does it all the time with sequels or “coming soon” with popular authors. Like agents/editors, crummy writing starts on page one, and if it aint good, it aint gonna get picked up.

  • “Rules can be broken, of course, but they must be broken with some skill — breaking the rules out of ignorance creates, you know, a fucking mess. A writer not knowing the difference between a possessive and a plural is not some avant-garde hipster trick. It’s a basic lack of craft awareness. At that point you’re not a marksman doing tricks; you’re a toddler with a handgun.”

    This. So much this. The rules aren’t there to be a stumbling block; they’re there for you to *use*, for you to learn intimately so you can best know how, when and (most importantly) why to break them. Chuck’s writing is a perfect example of someone who KNOWS the rules but ties them up and has his way with them, leaving them panting for more. OWN your language, folks. Make it squeal like a pig or sing opera with a Pennsyltucky accent; make it do exactly what *you* want it to do.

  • Really long, I had to skip class and work to finish this! J/k. Great read. In a few weeks I will be one of those self publish writers. I am currently using an editor (Dev, Line and Copy Editors) and a proofreader. Although I am doing the cover myself, I am proficient in Photoshop and Illustrator so I have no problem with creating the cover art.

    I like reading the “What not to do” as a self publisher that way I can avoid the things others have done before me. I do wish there were more positive aspects written out there about self publishing and at times, the bad information seem to out way the good, but any information will assist me with my marketing plan.

    Especially with someone with ADHD like myself, I need like 50 eyes on my work before it goes live. I have yet to read a self published book that falls into the descriptions you listed in this article because I only read the self published books suggested by trusted sites or friends. Please do a review of the horrible books you have read.

    The fix to the self publishing volcano waste, it seems, there needs to be more companies that help self publishers from point A to point Z of the publishing process at an affordable price. Create Space does a great job with most, but the editing is costly. Same goes for Writer Digest, Dog and Ear, Awesome Indies and few other sites. I am thinking more along the lines of a real self publishing program. Maybe I should create this doohickey. *rubs invisible beard* maybe I will *evil villain laugh…coughs*

    In the mean time, keep typing out these thought provoking blogs that cause people to grease their pitchforks and keep putting in words that cause them to punch their monitor and in the aftermath, they relieve they’ve broken their only connection to the outside world. On the other hand, some may just read your blogs with a cup of hot Earl Gary with star trek on for background noise.

  • The argument may be valid for USA but here in Spain we’ve been hit hard and had lost almost all the publishers for SF/Fantasy/Terror. The few “big ones” only translate foreign authors, and the rest are very small publishers that look more like fanedits. Crowdsourcing seems the only way for a writer to keep doing what he loves,

  • I completely agree with this and have wasted so much time reading self-published books. I seldom finish them. I wish more authors realized the importance of a professional editor. If they can’t afford one, they should form a group of betas to mark it up. I sound like a hard ass, but a fresh pair of eyes sees a novel in a different way.

    And what is the hurry! It seems like there’s a starting gun that has gone off and there’s a race to get as many books published as possible. Like running with an egg on the spoon, by the time they cross the finish line it is all cracked and the yolk is oozing out.

    I am STILL working on my first book. The first 40 pages are with a top editor. I plan to send the rest of it after I see the markup. My mantra is “I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.

    • In a sense, it is funny, even. From the first page anyone can tell it is a rushed product, a first draft that received no revisions. They rush to the station for fear of losing the train and they jump into the first wast&debris freight that’s leaving. :) A digital book will stay on for ever—or at least for as long as there’s Amazon and internet—and those crap wagons will smell on and on and on…

      Anyway, a fresh pair of eyes is not enough, really. A second person cannot act as beta-reader, proofreader, and editor. Those require different set of skills and experience.

      PS
      It takes a writer more to get the novel ready for publishing than to write it.

      • I agree! Those first 10 pages are telling. I think if a writer has put a lot of time and sweat equity into writing a book and he/she really think it’s special in some way, then it’s worth the money to send it to a pro.

        There is also the problem of publishing a crappy book and then trying to get readers to give you a second chance!

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head. People are in this huge hurry and there’s no reason for it. I accept queries for my publicity business from self-pub, but the vast majority of the time I reject them. I am not sure if I’ll ever get to a point where I don’t accept them anymore, but some days it’s tempting. I don’t get paid for that vetting time, after all.

      And your mantra is good. Not only are you not wasting other people’s time, but most importantly you are not wasting your *own* time.

      • I don’t blame you! When your name is going on a product, you want to make sure it is high quality.
        Thanks! I am thrown out of a book by the simplest things, so I want to be sure my readers keep turning the pages. :)

    • This mantra is what guides me as well. Unfortunately, professional edits are not in the budget right now (typical Great Recession blues), even at the smallest level. I can’t justify the up-front cost on an intangible when I have tangible needs.

      However, I take this very, very seriously. 2-3 months of pre-writing/outlining, 6 revisions from high level down to syntax/diction/punctuation and then someone I trust to look it over. It took me over a year to publish Inchworm, which is only 38,000 words. I told people (whose opinions I value) that I’m doing this, so I imagine them opening up the sample in Amazon and what they’d think if it stunk to high heaven. I have to face these people every day and don’t want to embarrass myself.

      I’m fully aware that this is still not optimal and that I should have a pro look at it. But if it’s between fixing my transmission or paying hundreds of dollars for a professional edit of my first novella, I have to go with what gets me to my day job. I suppose I’ll have to find some people who are willing to beta-read. My long-view is to sell enough to pay for professional editing; then I haven’t lost anything from my day-to-day cash flow. I’m undercapitalizing the business, I know, but that’s what’s affordable now.

      Ultimately, the marketplace is what it is, and the quality of the books must be at a certain level, regardless of an author’s personal situation. But it’s not as simple as “realiz[ing] the importance of a professional editor.” I’d love to have a $1,000 budget for each book for dev/copy editor & proofreading so I can get into the next book that much sooner. But it’s just not there.

      • Critique groups can get too cozy too. Who wants to be the bad guy if everyone is saying how much they loved it?
        I have a few beta readers who aren’t close personal friends. I give them a hard copy and a bag of post it notes and tell them to go for it.

  • I really would like to support fellow self-published authors, but as you so rightly point out, it’s nearly impossible to find new undiscovered books worth reading, because they are drowning in the sea of ‘books’ written by people who don’t know that the first letter in a sentence should be capitalized or that only one question mark is required to get the point across.

    • Amazon does increase visibility of books that sell. They do appear in the “Also bought” in the “Hot New Release”, the “Top 100 Best Seller” per genre, and it is not uncommon to see them reported in mailing list announcements (as reported by readers and friends when my novels appear on those emails from Amazon.)

      The general feeling is that there should be additional ways to make decent books float above the foam. Can’t say what, what KIP (Key Performance Indicator) Amazon could use and reward those authors—instead—who spend months and months of working with beta-readers, proofreaders, and editors before pushing that dreadful ‘Publish’ button.

      Unfortunately, I’m also sure that whatever system in place, there will always be those who try to “play” it rather than working to publish a decent book.

      • Yes, but the problem with the current system is that books have to sell BEFORE they can be found. Which means also decent books can have problems getting discovered at first and maybe never rise up above the garbage.

        • There should be an “Amazon Vetted” label, but I guess the effort to have a department to raise the quality level might be prohibitive but then again, there are pamphlets sold on Amazon that are full of errors and absurdities that would turn a Word into a theory of red underlined paragraphs.

          Even an automatic system might filter out a lot.

          • I think it would be cool if Amazon (and Smashwords) allowed for a badge system where a gatekeeper/reviewer/organization would provide a URL (that was confirmable, probably keyed off of AISN or some ID) with an image of the required size/etc. That way, a vetting organization (not just Amazon) could provide a “A+” badge, Amazon could verify it, and then various gatekeeper/reviewer organizations could endorse a book as “not sucking”. Of course, there are a few more issues (like keeping track of revisions and maybe graying the image for updates, like Google Play does for “responded to a previous version”).

            I know Mozilla has something similar for their Open Badges API, but it might give merits. Then, search terms could be “Bob Awesome Reviewers” and get all the reviewed book.

            Not sure how it would fit with the Amazon model, but I would think that endorsements (including Huge Award Winner, Pulitzer Prize Winner, etc) could only increase the sales of a book. And it would provide gatekeepers with a form of identifying non-suckage.

  • I’d add a word of advice to those of you who are querying about reviews and blog posts to those of us who run writing-related or review sites: make your pitch top notch. In this day and age of “I have to get this out fast, faster, fastest so I can make loads of money” — few pitches or posts are worthy of my time as a blog host. If your pitch isn’t worthy of my time, will your book be? I doubt it. My recommendation: be your own gatekeeper or hire one. Editors can help you polish your product–query, post, or book–before you try to sell it.

  • As a self-pubbed author (who hasn’t actually published anything) I can’t begin to more strongly agree with some of the things mentioned in this post. It absolutely baffles me when I see someone copy-pasting their fanfiction.net crap straight to Amazon because ‘hey, it’ll sell.’

    I wouldn’t dream of releasing something without a whole lot of (sober) revisions and at least 2 passes through the beta reader meat grinder. Maybe one day I’ll get up the courage to actually submit to a publisher or agent, but for now, I’m going to hold on to my title as the slush pile mushroom.

    Keep up the fantastic work, Chuck!

  • Chuck,

    I fully endorse your suggestion that editors (and other non-authors working on a book) be credited along with the author, a position that I’ve been suggesting for the past several years.

    I think it would be a tremendous aide in helping readers endure the shitcano; I believe that this would quickly become a reliable tool. The audience would soon learn to assess levels of quality. It’s egalitarian as well – anyone can play the game, it encourages responsible behavior. Don’t want to participate? Nothing stops you from going ahead and publishing. Best part? Anyone contemplating the purchase now has a much better idea of exactly what they are paying for.

  • well as an editor, I don’t really edit these days – too many arguments over precious babies and the ‘I am not going to change it brigade’ and these days I make sure my price for an edit job give a clear indication you can’t waste my time. $3000 is the minimum I charge these days, and on a few occasions I have had to send the cheque straight back because there were no redeeming features in the book. There is stuff I will not edit no matter how much you pay me. I had to once re-author a book once for a publishing group (who, thankfully I no longer work for, or even suggest as a possibility) – the author was horrendous about all the work to be done, complained every step of the way but what was achieved in the end was a book that did get some good reviews. He wanted to do the work just as it was — Crap is what I would have loosely used. If you want a good editor you have to pay them, so you have to weigh up just how much you are going to invest in the book and once you start doing this you get a better understanding of what mainstream publishers invest. There is a reason they sell better than your book.

    • And there’s part of the problem right there. Not saying editors don’t earn every penny, but I can’t afford to pay $3000 to have someone edit a book that may not ever be published. It’s $3000 I might not ever see again, and to a writer who is just starting out and trying to publish a debut novel, that’s a lot of money. Maybe that’s why so many writers put up unedited work. It’s a vicious circle.
      On the other hand, I have edited and proofread my work over and over and had beta readers do the same. I’ve seen work on Amazon so full of mistakes it looks like a first or second draft.

  • I’m intrigued by the problem solving possibilities in this discussion. Had a conversation with my partner about the crapcano, and how much difficulty I have locating worthy books either trad or self pubbed. He, being a software algorithmicist, started talking about components of a software filtering system *for readers* might look like. “What are the elements of a good book? Can they be quantified?” It was his opinion that the NSA probably had some of the AI pieces necessary for such a filter already written and in use. Amazon has the reach, scope and bucks to make such a filter happen for customer use, but would there be any upside for them in creating an automated evaluation tool? Like I said, interesting conversation. Great work, Chuck, spawning this discussion.

  • Totally agree with everything on here… and those random apostrophes on plurals and possessives have bugged the shit out of me for quite a while.

    Isn’t that something people learn before high school?

    I’m not the best writer by far, but I know the difference between your/you’re, there/their, its/it’s, etc. and I’ve known the difference since I was 10 years old.

    I’ve seen blurbs with errors on best-selling self-publishers’ web sites, and even grammatical errors in the TITLES of best-selling books (the random apostrophe thing). I am not kidding. There was a blurb on an ebook where the author misused the word loose (the proper word should’ve been LOSE–the blurb stated the ‘heroine looses her virginity’, of all things UGH). So yes, these ARE the kinds of books that shoot up in the rankings and drown out the better-written stuff, and it really needs to stop.

    Those who put in the damn work have to scramble and fight to get half-way decent sales; meanwhile someone tosses up an ebook with major glaring errors and gets excellent sales for it @ $2.99. I’ve seen it time and time again.

    /rant

  • I’m a little scared to enter this discussion.

    What it all comes down to is: People who learned to read have the privilege of reading. I have that privilege, and feel an urge to supply it with written things. Insofar as I write things, I have the right to write whatever I want, crap or brilliance or something in between. Because reading is a great privilege and writing is a focused desire, my right to write crap lessens as it comes into proximity with other people’s privilege of reading *my* writing. It’s not that it should be more special because I wrote it. It’s that the work cannot become better than when I release it (editions and rereleases not withstanding). At that moment, I should be able to envision every person who has the privilege of reading doing so with my text as the focus of their attention. That attention is an honor paid me, and I hold myself to produce a text worthy of that honor. I make the book the best it can be because YOU are going to read it.

    Ergo, my right to write crap ends where your right to pay attention to only those things worth your time begins, along the scale of how much I care that you care.

    And frankly, writing crap isn’t worth my time, either – it takes too long to polish. If I start out writing better, it takes less time to fix and edit and send out. From a business standpoint, that means I can produce more product at better quality in less time just by knowing my craft and using my skills to their full effect. I see no down side to writing well.

    *goes back to lurking*

    • No need to feel intimidated. You raised the good point of mutual and respect, writer and readership, and writer self-respect. Take all that away and one can understand how comes Amazon is loaded with written excrements.

      Good and easy reading is damned hard writing. Many trash-published works want it easy.

  • Yes, there is a shit volcano out there, just as there has always been a shit volcano out there.

    As an author, the one and only thing I care to do about it is to continue writing brilliant, perfectly-edited novels. Thanks to the dross, it will take some of my readers a lot longer to discover my work, and that is unfortunate.

    But persistent quality is the key, and I believe that everything else will sort itself out eventually…

  • I just looked. Last year, as a fledgling indie publisher with just one author, we paid thousands of dollars to editors for our one novel and three novellas. We are trying as hard as we can to not be the shit in the volcano. I don’t know what we’d be instead, but please, not the shit. I encourage everyone else to use and editor and most importantly PAY an editor. If you can’t afford it, save until you can.

  • The “glut problem” in book publishing is never going to go away because writing, unlike film or music, lacks a natural barrier to entry. Making a movie is expensive, requires technical skills that not everyone possesses, and a large team of professionals. This creates a natural barrier to entry. The situation is similar with music. But, writing doesn’t have such a natural barrier that keeps the number of entrants somewhat manageable – nearly everyone can write and has a computer.

    I don’t think, however, that the publishing industry creating an unnatural barrier to entry by playing “gatekeeper” is the appropriate solution, since they make and have historically made so many mistakes in this area that cost writers not only years of their lives spent trying to break in that could have been spent writing, but sometimes even their actual lives (John Kennedy Tool…).

    Yet, the “glut problem” is getting a bit out of control on Amazon and will only get worse before it gets better (as self-publishing loses its novelty and people who aren’t really serious about it naturally drop out of the game).

    But, there are solutions that can be implemented at Amazon without too much difficulty and don’t require shutting down the whole self-publishing enterprise, which is beautiful and democratic and should never be shut down.
    1. An independent third-party certification system can be created to certify, for non-fiction books, that they were written by someone with some level of knowledge in the subject matter, and for fiction books, that they meet some pre-set quality criteria in terms of grammar, spelling, layout, editing, cover, etc. Certified authors, both traditionally and self-published, can then post their certification in the Product Details section of the Amazon page, which would make it easier for customers to distinguish between “professionals” and “amateurs”, which is currently very difficult to do.

    2. Amazon can incorporate another element of a physical bookstore – not keeping all the books on the shelves forever. But, the window doesn’t need to be as short as it is in a physical bookstore. Amazon can say that titles that have not sold X number of copies within 1 or 2 years following publication (and they can calculate the appropriate X based on their internal data) will be moved to a separate Amazon site for “inactive releases”. This will benefit everyone – the consumers, who will have an easier time browsing Amazon, authors of “active releases”, who will have an easier time being discovered, and authors of “inactive releases”, who will benefit from the many curious people who will be drawn to browsing the “inactive releases” site for undiscovered gems and various weird finds.

    3. Amazon should create a separate site for erotica titles – both traditional and self-pubbed – which are the source of a majority of the quality complaints and browsing difficulties to begin with.

    The important thing is to create the best possible experience for book buyers while leaving the door open to any and every author and author-wannabe without censure – just some organization.

  • When I see someone saying there’s a shit-volcano in self-publishing, my first reaction is to ask, “Am I lava? Or ash? Or hot gas (my wife thinks so)? Or tephra? Or a pyroclastic flow? Or…..”

    While I have defended self-publishing on my own blog, there is no denying most currently published titles are crap. I worry I am contributing to the problem with my own work. I’ve done everything I can with limited resources to make it presentable. But I am contemplating un-publishing some of it, or changing my approach to self-publishing, because I have started to doubt my capabilities, and my instinct is to err on the side of caution. I don’t want to disappoint my readers, either.

    Some of the suggestions people have made for solutions are excellent. I particularly like the idea of writer co-ops to edit and polish each other’s work. Perhaps it’s time for self-publishers to start uniting to help each other.

  • I just want to add to the chorus of “I agree!” I worked as a reviewer for Kirkus Indie for a while. I was so happy when I first started because I thought it was great that Kirkus was going to review (therefore, raise awareness of) self-pubbed books.
    It didn’t take long for the happy to wear off. I had to quit after a few months because IT. WAS. JUST. SO. AWFUL. Every single book I reviewed was simply off-the-charts poorly written, riddled with typos…like something a clever 4th-grader would pen. It became difficult to find new and unique ways to say “the characters were never fleshed out or even introduced…the plot was rambling and filled with holes and pointless detours…author switches POV and/or verb tense randomly…repetitive and/or rambling…filled with cliches and typos…” and on and on.
    /vent.

  • When the Internet was new, everyone was excited about having a “site” and expected the world to show up every day. There are a few sites out there now, just a few. What’s the difference between a “book” and a “site?” The former is longer? You charge for it? (Even if nobody is buying.) Anyone can have a “site” or “book.” So?

    I am a reader. I buy books, I borrow them, and Amazon sends them to me. (I am a Vine Voice,) I also work, go hiking, watch movies, go shopping, and sleep. I do not have time to read self-published books. (I have one on my shelf, by an editor at Scholastic, but that’s the only one. It’s a collection of her talks on revision. I bought it after hearing one of those talks, but I digress.)

    If a writer does not respect his or her own work enough to find a traditional publisher, then I’m not going to respect that work either. I have met too many self-published authors who are too good to face rejection. Well, if the submissions editor doesn’t reject their NaNoWriMo draft, then readers like me will. These writers will not get rejection letters. Instead they will hear crickets. If you must publish, and you don’t want to go through an apprenticeship, why not just start a website and serialize your book? It’s easy and free. Considering the cost of “services” to self-published authors, you will probably come out ahead.

    • (Serious) Writers do not choose to author-publish because they can’t find a publisher, they do that because publishing contracts are laughable. http://massimomarinoauthor.com/best-selling-authors-arent-making-minimum-wage/

      Traditionally published authors are getting their rights back and self-publish because they earn more royalties. I refused already to sign with two publishing houses who offered $2000 advance, 10% royalties, and 15 years publishing rights frozen. Who would sign that nowadays?

      Of course, there are people who jolt down 20000 words, write “The End

      • ” and self-publish but I’d rather call that trash-publishing and not Indie writers. An Indie writer works with a team, a proofreader, an editor, and a graphic artist for the cover. A team of beta-readers adds to the work and it takes more time to fine tune a novel to publish it than to write it.

      • I have seen and signed dozens of publishing contracts.

        I have also heard best-selling defectors from traditional publishing speak at conferences. I understand that point of view. I do not agree, but I understand.

        That said, I am sorry. I do not read self-published books. I haven’t even had time to read all the amazing traditionally published books sitting on my shelves or archived on my Kindle.

        As a reader, here’s my thinking. I depend on professional editors to sift through piles of manuscripts and pick one out of thousands for my pleasure. I trust that these beta readers will recognize freshness, a story sense, and insight into human nature. I trust they will spot, in the author or translator, an engagement with and a deep understanding of the English language.

        I depend on them to ferret out wit, wisdom, and drama. Because this does not always happen (although it happens much more frequently in traditionally published books), I also depend upon print reviews and the recommendations of librarian friends. This is just me.

        Best of luck to you.

        • I understand your point of you. I do not agree, but I understand. That said, I’m sorry. Your trust is wrongly place. As a reader you’re bound to get the next 50 Shades of Grey. This is what publishers are looking for and they’ll spot. So much for the engagement and deep understanding of the English language.

          I’m not joking, what you believe publishers are after is a chimera.

          Best of luck to you :)

          • Besides, manuscripts are not read one after the other. There’s no time for that in any publishing house. Anything that is out of the current ‘sellable’ themes is disregarded. I don’t know if you ever sent manuscripts to agents or publishing houses only to receive a “great story but right now the market is looking for… don’t you have anything along those lines?”

            Ferret out wit, wisdom, and drama ? Sorry, that’s the ultimate publishing joke. You’ll receive what the majority is buying at the moment. It’s mass marketing and sellingc, not jewel picking out of dirt.

  • The one thing that continues to baffle me. There is a lot of bad stuff out there self-published, but I have also seen some pretty crappy traditionally published stuff. Mindless drivel because the author has become established seems to be the norm these days. Maybe the public really likes it, or maybe like television, its there because the traditional publishers and their gatekeepers, the Agents, don’t allow anything to divert them from their agenda. How many copycat stories can exist before they realize its beyond tedious?

    One issue wish continues to plague me, is there is a lot of criticism of self-published work, some of it deservedly, and a lot of suggestions for being successful, but little offered in access to improve the quality of self-published work. Unless one has an endless supply of money, it would be hard to do all that others suggest: A few thousand for an editor, another few hundred for a cover, hundreds more for a meaningful review. I bought one book which promised to show the path to successful writing and promotion for the Indie Author and laughed through it. He told how successful his book about being successful was. Oh so helpful. And this from a successful author. Needless to say, I felt like a sucker for buying it and won’t be making that investment again. Maybe I am getting a little cynical myself, but I can’t help but wonder if successful authors care about helping, why they only do it if they can make more? Are they really trying to help or merely stroking their own ego? The idea that Stephen King needed more money to repeat the mantra that successful writing takes time, effort, perseverance, and a willingness to continue learning and improving strikes me as absurd. To me, its another book telling me what I already know. I just don’t feel the need to enrich an author who doesn’t need it and most likely doesn’t give a fig if I ever find a way to become successful; even moderately so. I keep hoping someone will offer some realistic solutions, but so far they only keep on with the same line.

    I guess I wonder, with traditional publishing now in the hands of only a very few conglomerates, agents unwilling to move far from trends because they want a sure-fired sale, and so much advice on what to do and not to do as an Indie Author, when someone with the ability will find a way to do something useful to create a system where new and worthy books might have a chance? The closest I have seen now is the new eBook publishers, where the editors actually read, accept, then go first to ePublishing and move to the traditional publishing based on success. So far its limited to big genres — thrillers, mysteries, and romance, but it may be the hope for others in time.

    Right now, its hard to know what to do. Where does one get an honest assessment of their work? I’d rather be told what I did was lousy than continue on in uncertainty. How does a person judge whether their work is worthy of further investment? I don’t want to pay $500.00 to hear it isn’t worth investing in. Hearing its great but we’re not interested doesn’t tell me a thing. Nor does its great we’re just not right for it, or you just have to find your market. What the heck does that mean? I guess I understand why some give into despair and figure, well I can’t get any honest feedback, I don’t know if it there is a place for my work and everyone seems to be saying the same thing, so what the heck, I’ll throw it out there and see what happens. I guess without some concrete resources to turn to without going broke, its not going to change terribly much, no matter how many insist it needs to.

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