Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thoughts on Self Publishing: The Question of Quality

There are a lot of issues to talk about when tackling the subject of traditional vs. self publishing. I don't claim to be any sort of expert, but I've read and thought a lot about it as an aspiring author who will be ready to publish a book (hopefully) this year. So first let me link you to three resources that have had a HUGE influence on my decision, three different authors who have all been traditionally published and have a lot of knowledge about the industry.

A Newbie's Guide to Publishing~ The blog of author J.A. Konrath. You've probably heard of him as the guy who is completely raking it in with self publishing and has become something of a self publishing guru. For some time now he's been posting guest posts by successful indie authors. There's a lot to learn about the actual process and what works and what doesn't from these success stories and the comments that follow them.

The New World of Publishing~ A series of blog posts by author Dean Wesley Smith. This guy knows a lot about the industry and is able to provide some really valuable insights into what is going on right now. Less abrasive and more open minded than Konrath, Smith realizes that every writer is different and that everyone needs to make their own choices about what is good for them in this changing environment. Check out his Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing series as well.

The Business Rusch Publishing Series~ I linked this yesterday, but it's worth doing again. Author Kristine Kathryn Rusch gives tons of valuable information about the business side of publishing, how it works, and particularly how authors need to stop being "please-take-care-of-me" artists and start becoming business savvy entrepreneurs who look after their own careers.

Now that you've got access to the advice of the pros, I'll proceed to giving my completely amateur observations, thoughts and opinions on the subject of self-publishing. I've decided to talk this time about the issue of quality because it's almost always one of the first objections that I see raised by published and not-yet-published authors when they think about self publishing.

The argument goes like this:

"Self Publishing is TOO EASY. It allows too much crap to be published. Anyone with a word processor can now slap down a novel and upload it without having to even use their brain. Look at how many ebooks are on Amazon right now and 90%* of it is amateur drivel. I'm talking MAJOR writing flaws like opening with description of the scenery and excessive adverbs. The market is being absolutely FLOODED with chaff and no one will be able to find the** wheat. Publishing NEEDS gatekeepers to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen. And that's what the agents and editors of the traditional publishing industry do. They make sure only books that are WORTHY to be published are. Circumventing the gatekeepers really only means you're not good enough."

* This is usually the number they use, though based on what scientific studies I couldn't say.
** Meaning "my". 

Yes, I have seen every single one of those things said, though not always in so direct a way. There's a lot to refute there so let's get going.

1. Self Published books are mostly (90%!) terrible.

To put it bluntly, bullshit.

First, this is absolutely impossible to know. NO ONE has actually read all the traditionally published books and all the self published books and thus been able to actually scientifically compare their "quality". So people who dredge up this argument have probably taken the chance on a couple of indie books and disliked them and then panned all indie books. I'm sorry, but that's absurd and illogical.

Second, that's a matter of personal opinion. I, personally, think The Da Vinci Code and Eragon, both very successful books, were steaming piles of crap. Does that mean they shouldn't have been published? Does that mean all the people who bought the books and loved them were wrong? Of course not. Because, to a certain extent, "quality" when it comes to fiction is a very subjective thing. 

2. Readers won't be able to find the quality books because of the vast number of terrible books.

Lets not assume readers are that stupid, ok?

I wonder if people who make this argument are aware of two things: 1. the entire capitalist world is fully of crappy products and somehow people still manage to find what they are looking for and 2. there are tools already in place to help people find the ebooks they want.

This is the internet age, where the whole world wide web has so many websites by so many people you'd think we'd never be able to use it to our advantage. You'd think it would just all be too much. Yet we do. We have search engines for looking specifically for the type of things we want. And it's cliche but true that the cream always rises to the top. If you have a product or service of quality that there is a demand for then people WILL find it. They'll go looking for it or they'll hear about it from their friends. Word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool in existence and it even works for ebooks. Oh yes, it'll take time. But the great thing with ebooks is that they have all the time in the world.

And ebook distributiors have purposely made it easy for people to look for what they want and to filter the good from the bad. Categories and lists are a good start. If I'm a fantasy reader (which I am) then I start by going to the fantasy category and thus avoid all sorts of genres that wouldn't have been enjoyable to me. I can look at lists to see what other people are buying and enjoying. There's a good chance if a book is high up on a list it's because people liked it enough to recommend it to all their friends. When browsing through books, I can look for the ones that have the descriptions that most appeal to me. Self publishing authors have a huge advantage here since they get to write their own descriptions to the best of their writing ability in whatever way they feel will best convey their story to potential readers. If I find a book I do like, the page will also show me additional books that other people who liked this book bought. More "word of mouth" type advertising. Last but not least, the glorious sample. Readers can, and do, easily download a sample of the book they are interested in for free. If they like what they are reading after they finish the sample, they can buy the book. If not, they can skip it at no loss.

And this is exactly what readers ARE doing. They are using their own intelligence and the tools available to them to navigate the waters of the ebook world and they ARE finding many, many indie books that they like, that they consider "quality". The numbers of successful indie authors prove it. The cream rises.

3. The "gatekeepers" in traditional publishing are necessary for and effective at keeping bad books from being published. If I publish traditionally both I and my readers will know that I'm good.

Again, bullshit. Book deals for the likes of Snooki and "The Situation" prove that this is rubbish. 

The truth is that big publishing doesn't give a crap about whether books are good or bad. They only care about whether they can sell them. With profit the only thing they care about, they haven't been effective "gatekeepers" for some time now. I'm not accusing individual editors and agents. I'm sure there are many that do care about quality stories, that do want to make the literature world a brighter place. But they don't get to decide whether or not a big publishing house will take your book and to the ones that get to decide the only pertinent criteria is marketability. And at this point agents are only considering books they can successfully pitch to editors and editors are only considering books they can realistically sell to their bosses. This is not a good time for creativity among the publishing houses. Though if you want to write the next set of bestselling vampire romance novels I suppose it can be good for you.

As a reader, I've long since ceased to trust publishing houses to only publish good books. I've read too many terrible ones with the big publishing seal of approval. And honestly, huge books deals for Snooki and any other celebrity who thinks they're a writer have made me totally loose respect for traditional publishing. Maybe once they could actually be trusted for quality. But not any longer. And more and more readers are coming to realize that. The stigma of self publishing is quickly eroding because it's a myth. Once upon a time, self publishing produced some of the world's classics. Until traditional publishing decided to convince everyone that they were needed, that you couldn't write a good book without them. Well, that's crap.

Are there going to be people who choose to self publish books that shouldn't see the light of day? Sure. There are always people offering shoddy products in every industry. But they're not going to fool anyone. And readers are smart enough to realize that it's the author who makes the book and that self published books are no more inherently bad than traditionally published books. Especially if big publishing keeps shooting its self in the foot with Jersey Shore cast book deals.

In conclusion, the face of the book market place is changing. Readers are becoming the gatekeepers, the arbiters of quality and success. That's a good thing for both readers and authors. Does it mean there are more books out there that you won't like? Yes, it does. It also means there are more books out there that you WILL like. All you need to do is use your intelligence and the tools available to you to find them.


  1. Now tell me how you really feel. :)

    I have to admit that even six months ago I was still very much in the traditional publishing camp. Still am I suppose, but I've been following the Konrath blog and he makes a lot of sense. Mostly about how authors are getting screwed by publishers when it comes to royalties. I do think we are on the brink of a major shift in publishing. Soon there might not be much incentive left for authors to align themselves with the big publishers. Well, except I want the shiny hardcover book with my name on it.

  2. Haha, yeah, I guess I do feel strongly on this topic. ;)

  3. I just tackled this same topic on my blog today, though I didn't go into quite the same length.

    Personally, I don't think traditional publishing should be the only route to go (though that's the only way I'm currently interested in), but I do wish there were some better way to ensure a bit more quality control into works that are e-published.

    I think you make some very valid points about how people need to use their intelligence. At the same time, we're all so busy (even the non-writing readers) that we tend to make judgements quickly. In my experience, the few indie titles I've read turned out to be poorly done. So for my own personal reading I don't bother looking at a self-pubbed title anymore UNLESS it was done so by someone I know. It's a snap judgement, I know, but I've already got a TBR pile two feet high.

    I'm not against self-publishing at all. I'm just not a typical customer of people who go that route. But, your best point was, it is still -- no matter what route you take -- word of mouth that will make your success!

    Great post, sorry to be so "chatty" lol


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