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.
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.
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?
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.
“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:
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.
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.
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.
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?