Self-publishing’s quality problem…

When I pick up a book in a bookstore — which, more than likely, is a book issued by a publishing company, also known as a “traditionally published” book — I can usually assume that book will meet my baseline for quality*. In other words, it may not be a good story, the writing may be lacking, or it may not be a book that speaks to me, but at the very least, it will be readable.

As a freelance book reviewer,** I have reviewed a fair number of self-published books, otherwise known as “indies,” over the past year and a half. The majority of these did not meet even the bare minimum baseline for quality. Conservatively, I’d estimate that at least 70 percent of the self-published books I reviewed were essentially unreadable. (A small number of the books I reviewed were published by small presses, but in terms of quality, they resembled traditionally published books more than self-published books.)

This is a problem for self-published authors. Indie books have to compete not only against one another, but also against the millions of traditionally published books that are in print or are being published. As a reader, what incentive do I have to even consider self-published books as an option if I know that any one I happen to choose is very likely to be gobbledygook? I could choose instead to read only traditionally published books and have more than enough reading material to last me several lifetimes.

Yes, some self-published authors are quite good and are worth reading. But readers have no incentive to swim through a vast ocean of junk just to find those few pearls. Amazon reviews are completely useless as a guide to quality. Every self-published book I’ve reviewed, even the most wretched, has several five-star reviews on Amazon, presumably written by the author’s friends or family members or perhaps even by the author himself.

Speaking of Amazon, which is the largest marketplace for self-published books, their business model rewards authors who publish most frequently. In other words, Amazon incentivizes writers to produce more and and more junk without regard for quality, including books shamelessly plagiarized from better authors.

If those who self-publish want to be considered viable alternatives to traditionally published authors, they are going to have to figure out some trustworthy way to signal to readers which books are worth their time and money. I’m not sure of the solution–although I have some ideas–but right now, self-publishing doesn’t seem like a viable alternative for either serious writers or for readers.

*For reference, here is my personal baseline of quality, the ten minimum standards a book must meet in order for me to consider it readable. If a book I am reviewing does not meet these standards, it will not get a good review. Period. Note that these standards are for fiction; nonfiction requires different standards, although there is a lot of crossover.

  1. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage are mostly correct. (At the very least, run the spell checker.)
  2. Verb tense is consistent.
  3. Point of view is consistent. (No head-hopping or random switches between first and third person.)
  4. Character names are consistent. (Really.)
  5. Sentence structure has some variety and complexity.
  6. There is a balance in dialogue, exposition, and action.
  7. Exposition isn’t given primarily through dialogue. (“As you know, Bob…”)
  8. Characters have some non-stereotyped development.
  9. There is some plot and plot points make sense.
  10. The story is not overly didactic; the author’s voice does not noticeably intrude.

If, as a writer, you don’t understand what I mean by any of these terms, you need to do some basic study of your chosen craft.

**Note: I am assigned book reviews by the publications that I review for. I don’t receive books from the authors directly. All books reviewed on my blogs are books that I review from my personal reading, not book reviews that I am paid to write.

Coming up, I will discuss some other ways self-published authors can produce a higher quality product.  

8 responses to “Self-publishing’s quality problem…”

  1. “For reference, here is my personal baseline of quality, the ten minimum standards a book must meet in order for me to consider it readable.”

    First, let me say that I agree that there are a lot of really bad self published books on the market. I also agree that indie authors must produce fast in order to succeed.

    Where we depart ways is your assertion that self published authors need to meet your personal baseline for quality. Simply put, “No!”

    Self published authors need to meet the minimum standards of the readers who make up their target audience. My guess is that your standards are a bit higher than that audience’s standards.

    I would advise any self published author reading your post to completely disregard it. Instead, go to Amazon and look at the top selling books in your genre. Read the indie published ones. Study those books. That’s the quality level that you need to achieve.

  2. Which items on my list would you consider too high a standard for a self-published author to try to meet?

  3. It’s not your list as much as the fact that you think they should be trying to please you at all. Authors cannot please everyone. The important people are their target audience. The best advice you can give an indie author if you want that person to succeed is, “Ignore everyone except your target audience.”

  4. Well, you are correct in that writers can’t please everyone, nor am I suggesting they should. But I remain puzzled why any writer wouldn’t want to improve the general quality of their writing.

  5. When I’m reading to critique a piece, things like verb tense and POV stand out big time. They’re easy things to flag for correction.

    As a reader who is immersed in the story, I simply don’t notice these kinds of things at all.

    I’d prefer that author focus on learning how to compel their reader’s interest than on superficial stuff that readers just don’t care all that much about.

    Another way of putting it is that, once you can write coherently enough that the reader can follow the story, the actual words become a 20 activity, and the story takes precedence. Focus on the 80, not the 20.

  6. That’s an interesting perspective. So a writer should not strive to both write well and create a compelling story?

    I wouldn’t consider the fundamentals of writing superficial stuff. As a reader, I care about that stuff a great deal, and lack of attention to it keeps me from getting immersed in the story. Many other readers feel the same way as I do.

    But you’re correct that any writer is free to take my advice or leave it.

  7. Writing fiction well is incredibly difficult. There are many areas that need to be mastered. I think it’s important to focus on the most important areas first. Which areas those are depend solely on the target audience.

  8. You’re certainly correct about that. Your advice to focus on audience and read similar books is very good, advice I would give as well. I don’t think my advice is incompatible with this, though. Some readers and target audiences (including book reviewers) will care about these things, so my advice could be worthwhile for writers who would like to target them.

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