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 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?

356 responses to “Slushy Glut Slog: Why The Self-Publishing Shit Volcano Is A Problem”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.


    • Lora Leigh writes what are considered Romances, trad, very sexy. She gets shelf space, hard bound, behind the cash register, paper, racks next to register. She is a guaranteed good seller. You would use up two red pencils editing her finished product. Once, she changed an important character’s name half way through. I’ve heard of chapters missing or out of order. She easily pays 3G for editing, or her publisher does. Damn right I’m bitter, and pissed. And why are so many females thrilled to read about blow jobs? Over and over. Makes me suspect a hidden agenda.

      In The Stand by SK, the good guys go up the Great Divide in an IH and come down in a Ford. Dealership at the top? Etc., etc. My second book was nine (paid) in woman’s fiction, ONCE. I’m just tired of it. But I write.

  4. […] slow down any time soon, and it’s not going to yield more high-quality reading material, either. Chuck Wendig, the author of several well-received novels, writes about why this is a problem. He sets out the reasons I generally avoid self-published stuff unless I know the author’s work […]

  5. […] So, nearly five months later, have I made back the cost? Good lord, no, but then that was pretty much to be expected. I’m an unknown quantity in a crowded, noisy marketplace, after all. On top of that The Floors is self-published, which nowadays is enough to see a significant number of readers running for cover from the shit-volcano’s pyroclastic cloud. […]

  6. 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.

  7. 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…

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. […] Chuck wrote a blog post about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, about the pitfalls self-publishers have to deal with because everyone is a writer now. The gatekeepers have been tossed aside, and a deluge of bedroom novelists have flooded the scene (this is both a good and bad thing). When I read Chuck’s blog post, it was weird. It was, in a way, like reading the thoughts I couldn’t quite put into words, so Chuck plucked them out of some strange communal writer brain and published them on the Internet. Chuck’s post is a detailed account and analysis of all of the things that have been bothering me about where the self-publishing scene is going and has gone. And while I can’t call myself a self-published author any longer, I haven’t forgotten that I came from the same creative ghetto every self-published author inhabits. Once upon a time I was an angry, on-the-edge-of-broken writer who knew she was better than every poorly Xeroxed rejection letter I’d ever received. I know how hard it is to fight your way through the crowd and the noise. And in a way, it saddens me to see that self-publishing, which was at first a form of creative self-empowerment, is degenerating into little more than a digital slush pile that, rather than cluttering the desk of a tired and overworked agent, now clutters up digital market space. “But there’s no limit to digital market space,” you say. “Why shouldn’t every writer have a chance to publish her book? You did.” Cue the finger pointing here. Go ahead, point away. […]

  12. […] There are other hidden benefits in how self-pubbed ebooks are purchased. Speaking for myself, I make the most financial profit through .pdf sales through the store, because the third-party cuts are smaller. However, purchasing my books through Amazon or another online vendor gives me free advertising. Ranking is everything; the more sales that a self-pubbed book gets, the higher it climbs in the lists, so its exposure increases, which results in more sales… It’s a lovely circle of profitability. It’s also an indicator that a self-pubbed book is good–or at least readable–as there is the very real problem of the self-publishing shit volcano. […]

  13. […] this earth. Sure, some people are going to say, “But you wrote and published a book!” And I will point them to Chuck Wendig’s lovely blog post on how anyone and their brother can w…. (The language in that blog post is rated R). It’s publishing the book and gaining an […]

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

      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.

  16. 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.

  17. […] Part of that “being a good citizen” value I discussed yesterday was a commitment to quality. That was number one on my list. Some may be wondering: What does producing quality writing have to do with the community at large? Why should society at large care whether or not the body literature available to it is carefully crafted, deep and complex, or just, as Chuck Wendig eloquently put it, “a shit volcano“? […]

  18. […] Chuck Wendig recently posted the following two blogs over at his site, which, inexplicably, have become a source of some controversy to some folks: Self-Publishing Is Not The Minor Leagues and Follow-Up On Self-Publishing: Readers Are Not Good Gatekeepers. Both are well worth the read. Even more recently, he followed-up with Slushy Glut Slog: Why The Self-Publishing Shit Volcano Is A Problem. […]

  19. […] Terrible Minds is popular with self-publishing authors, wrote about the issue in a post titled “Why The Self-Publishing Shit Volcano Is A Problem.” In discussing the poor quality of many self-published novels, Wendig writes: This is par for the […]

  20. Here’s some facts for anyone who’s considering using Amazon, Kobo, Lulu (loud guffaw), or anyone else as a portal for their own productions.

    1. The only real winners are the aggregates. They don’t really do much for hosting your product and creaming off their percentage, which is quite a chunk considering how little they do for it. Sure, they have to pay their “quality control” team to ensure that your book matches their cacky terms and conditions, but that’s about it. Considering their quality control team are willing to pass any old shite as long as it fits into their remit, that isn’t saying much.

    2. If you can write complete and utter pointless asinine drivel – such as the dross churned out by Barbara Cartland for Mills and Boon – I’m sure you’ll do fine and Amazon will look upon you very favourably. But whatever you do, don’t write anything with any poignant socio-politico metaphor in it. Amazon will certainly frown upon that. After all, it may offend certain readers and that would hamper their customer base relations. Just as well that Eric Blair (George Orwell) wasn’t alive today. He’d been totally screwed, finding his “1984” and “Animal Farm” completely sidelined and invisible in the search results. Yes, if they don’t want a certain book visible, they can just hide it from the results and you’ll never get to see it.

    3. If you really believe that you’re likely to make any money of note, forget it. I took the trouble to purchase a Kindle book – something about “Illustrating Childrens Books for Kindle” – and the author informs the reader that you’re lucky if you make £100 per book over the course of a year. Well, £100 would essentially equate to nothing more than half a title page, so I’m guessing you’re looking at a very short book if that’s the kind of income you’re hoping to attain per book. Unless you want to be working 24/7, like some comic artists, for a pittance.

    4. I see that some people advocate identifying niches and cobbling together a load of information off the internet and tossing it together into a book, like they really care for that subject. I love that cynical approach to creativity. Strange. I always had the idea that a book (particularly a work of fiction) is something which is carefully crafted over a long period of time and ultimately has a an important statement to make about something. I guess that’s why there’s such a load of crap on Amazon and Kobo. Just a load of rubbish tossed together. But it keeps Amazon laughing, watching the pennies roll in.

    So if you’re happy to be a slave to the aggregates, you jump right in there, and you’ll find out if you make it or not. I’m willing to bet that after you’ve sweated for months over a book, you’ll probably be lucky to pull in a couple of hundred quid, after you’ve wasted your time with a load of marketing on web pages and blogs and stuff, and sucked up to everyone on Facebook and Twitter to take a peek at your offering.

    Not for me, I’m afraid. The proof of the pudding lies in the book itself. That is where the real satisfaction is gained. Not in courting attention and relying upon hype to promote your work.

  21. Posted here, because this seems like the best place. We really need to have this discussion, all over the bookish spots on the Net. (You know, that chat about Readers’ rights? Remember us?) Permanent home is on Facebook:

    A Reader’s Bill of Rights Regarding Self-Publishing: 1.0

    1. Readers have the right to know immediately, without having to perform any additional investigation, whether or not any book they encounter is self-published. Any self-publisher who lists any name, whether their own invention or the name of a vanity press deliberately designed to be mistaken for that of a traditional publisher, other than their own byline as the “publisher” of a self-published book is guilty of grievous fraud and immoral conduct. Anyone engaging in this activity should be banned from websites (especially those of retail booksellers), publicly condemned, and, where possible and appropriate, subjected to civil suit and legal censure.

    2. Readers have the right to full, unconditional disclosure of any relationship, personal or financial, between a reviewer and a self-publisher whose work they have reviewed. Any writer who provides fraudulent positive reviews in exchange for money or other tangible gain, any friend or family member of a self-publisher who provides a fraudulent positive review for a work solely as a “favor” to a self-publisher, or any self-publisher who purchases fraudulent reviews or encourages friends and family members to post fraudulent reviews, is guilty of grievous fraud and immoral conduct. Anyone engaging in these activities should be banned from websites (especially those of retail booksellers), publicly condemned, and, where possible and appropriate, subjected to civil suit and legal censure.

    3. Readers have the right to review a self-publisher’s qualifications, including their academic and employment histories and any professional (aka. “traditional”) publishing or editorial experience, before deciding whether to give their attention to any advertisement or in-person sales pitch from a self-publisher. Any self-publisher who persists, in person or on line, with unwelcome marketing attempts despite having refused to list their academic, employment and professional qualifications is guilty of harassment and grossly immoral conduct. Anyone doing so should be banned from websites (especially those of retail booksellers), publicly condemned, and, where possible and appropriate, subjected to civil suit and legal censure.

    4. Readers have the right to shop solely for traditionally-published books, whether in stores, at events or on line, without being subjected to advertisements for self-published books. Any self-publisher who spams the on line comment streams or message boards of traditional publishers, who distributes advertisements for a self-published book at events related solely to the works of traditionally-published writers (i.e. readings, panel discussions or book clubs), or who otherwise intrudes upon the activities of traditional publishers and their readership, is guilty of harassment and grossly immoral conduct. Anyone doing so should be banned from websites (especially those of retail booksellers), barred from participation on the site or at the event upon which they have intruded, publicly condemned, and, where possible and appropriate, subjected to civil suit and legal censure.

    5. All people have the right to assemble, anywhere, for any reason,without being subjected to advertisements for self-published books. (This stipulation does not apply to existing legal advertising venues, such as magazine ads or billboards, which a self-publisher might rent or purchase under the same circumstances as any other retailer.) Any self-publisher who spams comment streams or message boards unrelated to books or reading, who distributes advertisements for a self-published book at any event unrelated to books or reading, or who otherwise intrudes upon the activities of the general public that are not in any way related to books or reading is guilty of harassment and grossly immoral conduct. Anyone doing so should be banned from websites (especially those of retail booksellers), barred from participation on the site or at the event upon which they have intruded, publicly condemned, and, where possible and appropriate, subjected to civil suit and legal censure.

    6. Readers have the right to shop solely for traditionally-published books, whether in stores, at events or on line, without being subjected to advertisements for self-published books. Any bookseller who refuses to facilitate the complete differentiation and identification of professionally vetted & edited, traditionally-published books as distinct from those of self-publishers, whether in on line search results or in brick & mortar displays, is guilty of attempting to defraud and exploit their customers, and of misrepresentation of the nature of their business. Anyone who services first the interests of self-publishers at the expense of readers is guilty of fraud, and deserves to be boycotted, publicly condemned, and, where possible and appropriate, subjected to civil suit and legal censure.

    7. Readers have the right to read solely professionally vetted &edited, traditionally-published books, without explanation or apology.

    • IndiePENdent writers are increasingly treating their self-publishing ventures as businesses. This means realizing that their publishing efforts must be part of a broader business model that takes into account everything from branding to media outreach to editorial collaboration, which is an important development.

      In order to be successful, a self-published author must see himself as business owner. Writing the content is only the first of many steps. Even good content has trouble finding an audience if there’s no paid attention to the services a traditional publisher offers like editing, marketing, e-book conversion, and cover design.

      When choosing to self-publish we are not eliminating the role of the publisher: rather, we choose to assume the publisher’s responsibilities. This means that indie authors need to do more work than their traditionally published counterparts, but are perhaps more empowered as a result—taking ownership of their titles and working to expand their readership.

      The kind of ‘authors’ you describe in your points will disappear in due time.

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