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.  

Rule number 1 for self-publishers: Proofread!

In the last few years, services like Kindle Direct Publishing and  Lulu have made it incredibly easy for writers to self-publish, which I think is mostly a good thing for writers and readers. Self-publishing enables writers to build and audience and demonstrate their talents, and it puts more voices out there than ever before. Some terrific writers have gotten their start through self-publishing, such as Hugh Howey (Wooland Andy Weir (The Martian: A Novel).

But self-published books have already acquired a tarnished reputation, and with good reason: They are all-too-often riddled with errors. Spelling mistakes, typos, punctuation misuse, grammar abuse, word confusion, incorrect names and facts–when a reader encounters too many of these in the first few pages of a book, she will stop reading, and with good reason. How can a writer expect readers to pay good money for an unprofessional product? It’s not enough to run a spell-checker. Writers who aspire to the professional level must show some respect for their craft and knowledge of the language that is their medium. They must proofread.

We’ve all seen errors in professionally published books as well, especially e-books, but the amount and types of errors aren’t nearly so egregious. Professional publishing assures the reader that someone has read the book beside the writer and has probably caught most of the major goofs. Self-published writers have to give readers a very good reason to dip their toes in the sea of dreck and seek out their books. They have to be even better than their professionally published competitors.

The bare minimum self-published writers can do is hire a professional proofreader or copyeditor to give their books a thorough vetting. If your book is riddled with errors, your ideas simply won’t shine through.