Watch Me Rant (just a little) About Self-Publishing

I swore to myself I wouldn’t address hot, volcanic topics and spread their lava to my blog, but I am a reader as well as a writer, and as a reader I have something to say about self-publishing.

Namely: HELP! You’ve given me a bunch of low priced books without giving me a way to tell if they are a pile of bird poop or not!

This rant comes to you courtesy of a certain self-published book that has a great premise and base plot, but whose writer obviously never read anything about creative writing. Neither did the writer learn how to punctuate. I gave up on the book midway through the first chapter – and after several poorly written scenes – when I started seeing three typos glaring at me on every single page. I wasn’t even looking for them. (I thumbed through the rest of the book, and the writing quality didn’t go up.) Want to know what sort of reviews this book got? Six 5-star reviews on Amazon plus one 4-star, and two 5-star reviews on goodreads.  Not getting into the making-friends-and-family-to-review-your-book rant, not getting into the making-friends-and-family-review-your-books rant…

Did I mention one of the character’s names turned out to be misspelled on the back cover? I kid you not. Abbey instead of Abby. Hence rant.

Everyone talks about how great self-publishing is for a writer. They get control over their baby and a higher cut of the price too. Occasionally you’ll find someone shouting, “And the readers have to pay less, so they love it!” That’s great. It really is. Especially for someone who is as cheap about buying books as I am. But that’s not the end of the matter for readers.

I, as a reader, am scared to buy a self-published book. The problem is a quality guarantee. By no means does the traditional publishing industry absolutely guarantee quality either; however, it makes a guarantee of some sort. It guarantees an agent, an editor and various committees at a publishing house, people who see much more of the industry than most readers ever will, all thought it was good. In fact, the entire industry self-publishing advocates often bash is wired to create a quality bar. You know what else that industry does? They help make your book better.

Interestingly, the above system also supplies a guarantee to the the now self-publishing author who has been traditionally published before. The book they are self-publishing now may not have made it through the gauntlet, but the author has. The guarantee: the author knows what they’re doing. They know what professional level of quality is expected. My post is not addressing these traditional-turned-self-published authors.

Most self-publishing authors – those without a prior career in traditional publishing – don’t have that quality gauntlet. This doesn’t <em>automatically</em> mean the self-published book is poor, it just means the reader has no idea what to expect. And you must admit: a lot of self-published books are of inferior quality. That’s why I hesitate.

That traditional-publishing gauntlet – that at-times painful, slow gauntlet – ends up helping you create the best book y’all can. Not you can. Y’all. (I’m Texan, sorry.) The agent and editor are both there to help create a better book. Whatever you may think of their job, they want the same thing you do: a good book. Readers can tell the difference between someone who has done the best they can on their own and maybe with their friends help and someone who has done their best and had professionals guide them to do even better.

The rule of thumb in this business is you are never as good as you think you are. That applies to you, me, and my cat.

No, honestly, my cat is writing a novel. She’s been typing it a few characters at a time by walking across my keyboard whenever I have a word document open.

She’s not as good as she thinks she is.

Now, before you jump on me like a pack of starved wolves, I know not every self-pubbed book is bird poop. In fact, there’s a certain friend reading this post right now whose self-pubbed book is most certainly not bird poop. More of a golden egg, actually. I, too, see self-publishing having a glistening future. But be honest about the present. Self-publishing has opened the floodgates. Anyone and their cat – whether geniuses or overly-enthusiastic beginners – can sell their work. We readers don’t know if we’re getting scammed or not. This helps no one.

I don’t have answers – I wish I did. There would be more of a point to this post. But I’ve not seen the reader’s story of self-publishing told, and it needs to be told, often and everywhere.

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About Kathrine Roid

I'm an science fiction and fantasy author living in Texas with an undead parakeet and teleporting cat. Think about that for a moment.

Posted on January 13, 2012, in Publishing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. After reading a traditionally published book by a known name author that contained basic flaws that screamed the author knew nothing of the subject, I don’t think traditional publishing is much of a guarantee. Stuff that would easily be fixable if someone asked a knowledgeable person about the subject.

    Your frustration is normal, and has been dealt with before. People who do work build up a reputation for their work. That goes for artists, programmers, carpenters, everyone. What you seem to suggest is that we need a way for the community to talk and share reputations. I agree.

    • I believe that is the only hope for the self-publishing industry. Serious and qualified writers have to start taking the front or making the most noise so they can make the reputation they deserve. I think they need readers’ help to do that, but the readers have to find them first. Weird circle.

      But wouldn’t you consider the reviewing systems on sites like Amazon and Goodreads to be that way for the community to “talk and share reputations”? That is half of my frustration right there: there were a decent number of reviews, all raving, and yet the book wasn’t any good at all.

  2. As a self-published author who shares your dismay, I have to ask: why would you buy a book without reading a sample first? I’ve learned that the majority of people who rate and review books don’t know any more about writing than the writers do. Self-published books that are just plain crap are written for people who don’t know when they’ve stepped in a steaming pile of the stuff.

    • Normally I do. In fact, that “peek inside” feature in the main reason I visit Amazon – even more than the reviews. This time, however, I was in a hurry and glancing over some good deals, mostly picking up every book that was from a genre I liked with an interesting plot. I didn’t realize any of these deals were from self-published writers. I enjoy reading and looking at what the author did even when I don’t like the book, which was why I wasn’t looking very hard at these deals. I didn’t expect every book I picked up this way to be wonderful, but I was completely unprepared for the level of horrible that faced me. :P

  3. I think this is a problem definitely not limited to self-publishing. How do you tell if a book is worth reading, period? How do you tell, browsing the library shelves? How do you tell at a garage sale, or used book store?

    Friend’s reviews are one obvious answer. Since they’re real people you know and trust their opinion will mean more than the ones on Amazon. More and more social networking has become the main method for spreading of information, rather than organized systems.

    The other obvious was mentioned by Catana. I’m not very well acquainted with Amazon’s sample system, but insofar as I know most books have a limited preview. You can at least discern the quality of the editing, and hopefully the quality of the writing. Many authors protest giving away whole chapters of their book, but if you download a sample, if the writing is good enough, how can you resist buying to book to find out what happens next?

    • I rely a lot on the summary. If I’m hooked, I’ll enjoy watching the plot progression if nothing else. Amazon’s sample system is the next thing. Friends are another, though friend recommendations usually only function to alert me to a book’s existence. I’m like that – have to decide for myself! I’m also quite author-loyal. If I find an author I like, I’m into all their books – backlist and whatever is coming out next. They showed me one good story and I’ll trust them to show me more. Interestingly, I’ve found several authors through their how-to-write sites. If I’m take my writing advice from them, one would hope they have good books!

      It’s true that fundamentally this problem is part of a wider question. But I think self-publishing is specifically a problem because there are not automatic screens between the choices and the chooser. Absolutely no one has gone before. It’s like walking into a second-hand clothes store versus the mall. You might find good stuff in the second-hand store and it will be very cheap if you do, but you’ll have to wade through a bunch of unorganized everything and you might pick up something that you later realize has a hole in it. At the mall you still might not like every item, but you won’t find completely unusable things. OK, analogy time over… did that make sense?

      On a side note, what is this abandoned wordpress blog I see? *pokes* You do know I’m brilliant at talking friends into social media, right?

  4. The more of a sample you can provide, the easier it is for a reader to make the decision to become a buyer. The samples of Amazon books seem to depend on the publisher or author. Some of them are quite long; others are very short. On Smashwords, the author has a choice of how large a sample to show. More is better, and authors who are afraid to be generous are only hurting themselves. I recently switched my Smashwords samples from 25% to 30%. Either way, that’s several chapters. I really don’t understand why anyone would protest letting people read a decent sample, unless they know that their book isn’t very good and they hope the reader will pay before finding that out. I’ve seen a few samples of 50%, usually from people who are well-established.

    • I agree with you that sample chapters benefit both the authors and readers. But like Janin, I’ve seen authors (self-published, I think – traditionally-published authors would probably understand the marketing) upset that they had to “give away” part of their books. I recall reading over one discussion quite shocked. Still, the majority of books on Amazon do have this feature.

  5. Good read. I agree that self-publishing isn’t the bed of roses a lot of folk make it out to be. Traditional publishing definitely has a better screen (not that it’s perfect, of course).

    • Oh, it’s certainly the bed of roses. People just forget that roses have thorns that will hurt you if you are not very, very careful. ;) I put a significant amount of stock in traditional-publishing’s imperfect screen, though. Even if I don’t like a book, I can still look at what the author did right. In self-publishing, it’s possible to put something out that simply doesn’t have enough merit to be worth the time.

  6. I completely understand where you’re coming from. This was a great post. Thank you for sharing!

  7. This issue is such a tangled knot.

    So far, I’ve written two novels for which I was unable to find representation. I promise they were free of typos and, from a standpoint of refined prose, equal to that of many industry-published writers. Whether the plot or overall substance of either story were worthwhile is up to the reader, but I suspect my stories need some work in that area.

    If I e-published them and charged 99 cents, you probably wouldn’t feel ripped off, and I would feel empowered. On the other hand, I’d have a hard time calling myself an author, because I have not been vetted by professionals and I’d be in the company of people like the one described in your post who struggled with basic sentence composition. How do you empower yourself and separate yourself from vanity projects at the same time?

    So, I don’t know what to do next. I have a new idea for a novel that, simply because of my experience, will be the best of the three. Do I flip the bird to the publishing industry and self-publish… or do I test the agent scene again? Was my other stuff not good enough, or is it just that I am an outsider who will never break in because I lack connections or a grasp of trends? As almost everyone reading this blog knows, it’s frustrating and depressing to be at the mercy of industry whims.

    On the other hand, despite all the people involved in a industry-published novel or non-fiction title, many of them are awful or seem like first drafts. Off the top of my head, I read a bestseller recently that described a room as “rectangular in shape,” and an object as “red in color.” How would someone who, as a matter of indisputable fact, writes books for a living (and, in theory, is at a higher level of professionalism than I am) ever type those phrases in a first draft much less allow them to make it all the way through to publication?

    Others I’ve read are totally inert (the story could end at any moment and it wouldn’t matter) or they ramble aimlessly and are stocked with ciphers who act without motivation. All the professional help available did nothing to improve their readability.

    Looks like I’ve used your rant as a springboard for my own without contributing anything beyond confusing the issue. If I can add anything, it’s this: Before self-publishing, pay the best writer you know to edit it for you, or hire a freelance editor who is willing to be brutally honest.

    That’s what I’m doing if I go that route.

    • I don’t mind the rant, Oldancestor. I understand where you’re coming from.

      Now that I think about it, one of the two main reasons I decided to go with traditional publishing was because of the quality-check it provided, that validation of being a “real” writer separate from those less talented. Surely, we can all point at terrible traditionally-published books. But those are the exception as opposed to the norm. Oldancestor, you talk about wanting to “empower” yourself. I’m guessing there are aspects of traditional publishing that the author doesn’t have control over that you want to have control over? I, personally, came to the decision that I don’t mind others having control over those things. (I think they’d do it better.) I’m just curious what is “empowerment” to you.

      When I was considering self-publishing, didn’t see a way to “empower myself and separate myself from vanity projects at the same time.” Everyone who self-publishes now is clearing the road, pioneering a new area. Things are rough and they won’t have all the expected benefits of an established method. As pioneers, they (and you, as a see from the comments a few of my readers are in this pioneering crowd) have my respect. But when choosing for myself, the self versus traditional publishing question came down to whether or not I wanted to be a pioneer. And I don’t.

      • I’m going to stop being so lazy about following up on your posts, because you always have good advice.

        I’m perfectly OK with experts helping to shape my work. A writer friend read a couple of my short stories I thought were great, but she pointed out the flaws I never saw. Once corrected, the pieces were improved a great deal, and she also helped me realize I was holding back from writing the kind of stories I should be writing.

        What I mean by “empowerment” is not being subject to the whims of people in a position to decide what happens to your career. By self-publishing, I can bypass that. Believe me, I’ve only just started to coming around to this idea. A year ago, I would have said No Way.

        As artists, we all want validation, but I’m starting to shift away from seeking expert validation and toward seeking reader validation.

        I’m still a work in progress, like my fiction.

  8. Oldancestor, one way to overcome any feelings of inadequacy and separate yourself from the incompetent writers is to price your work at what it’s worth. How can you separate yourself if you join them in the ninety nine cent basement? I self-published my first novel at 2.99 and the shorter sequel at 1.99. I recently raised the price of each by a dollar. I think my work is worth that much, at least, even if I’m an unknown. My readers apparently think so. There aren’t a lot of them yet, but I have every confidence in my writing skills, and I know that as I produce more work, I’ll have more readers.

    • That’s a good point. Thank you! It’s great to get advice from people who have been through the process already.

      If I ever get some spare change for a Kindle device, yours will be my first purchase.

    • First, I’m not a self-publishing expert, though I like paying attention to the arena. From what I know Catana is correct; the 99-cent spree that many self-published authors used to their advantage has fizzled now. A lot of people with their new ebooks were very happy to fill them up with dollar-books and freebies, but now they have been feeling the quality drop. Unfortunately, even the less-competent writers have figured this out. For example, the ebook version of the book in question that I came across was regularly priced at $4.75.

      I do think higher prices make you stand out and give your work a more professional look. But in the back of my reader’s mind it also makes you a higher risk. :P Interesting balance.

  9. I’m planning on looking into self-publishing (at least e-books) when I finish my latest story, and I’m looking into the option of including a sample chapter, that way people can take a look at my writing, editing, and formatting before they commit to buying the whole book.

    I’d love to see an option such as this for every book, as I’ve had similar experiences when trying to support emerging authors in the self-publishing arena. I’ve run across some real gems, but then again, I’ve also run across some absolute seaming piles. Unfortunately, the steaming piles outnumber the gems by about a thousand to one.

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