The downside of the e-revolution in publishing

Once upon a time the mountain of manuscripts rejected by the world’s publishers would, after their last submission by their hopeful creators, languish in a bottom drawer somewhere and no one, aside from the author’s undoubtedly long-suffering family, was any the wiser.

These days such tomes are electronically ‘self published’ in increasing (and alarming) numbers.

If you are not an eBook reader you probably haven’t experienced the bewilderment of being offered a self-published ‘book’ for review or, worse, trying to trawl through a self-publishing dumping ground like Smashwords browsing for something readable. I know I hadn’t before last September when I bought my eReader.

The only word I can use to describe the experience is depressing. If you’re a bit ‘iffy’ about the whole eBook thing anyway a quick trip to the site or one like it is guaranteed to turn you off completely (and no I don’t mean to pick on Smashwords particularly, I know there are other sites too and not everything at Smashwords is junk but Smashwords is probably the best-known of these sites and the ratio of junk:good stuff at any of the ones I have visited is about 9,999:1 in my experience).

Leaving aside for the moment the sadly obvious fact that much of the self-published material was clearly rejected for a jolly good reason, virtually none of it has even had the treatment that traditional publishing would provide. It is this treatment which transforms a manuscript into a book and it is this treatment that all books, regardless of the way they are born, should go through before they are presented to the reading public. The treatment includes professional editing (objectively helping to shape the prose and flow of the book), proofreading, continuity/conflict checking, permission checking when quotations or song lyrics have been used, cover design, and providing a readable and eye-pleasing page layout. As far as I am concerned without such treatment a manuscript is still a manuscript.

I’ll finish off with some advice from a reading blogger’s perspective to self-publishing writers (everyone else is giving you advice these days, at least I’m not trying to sell you this lot):

  1. Think carefully about what you want to self-publish. Would you be better to restrict your self-published efforts to some short-stories which you can use to build name recognition and get some feedback while keeping any full-length manuscripts for a more traditional form of publishing? [As a reader I am much more likely to read a small anthology of short stories from an unknown author than I am a full length, self-published novel]
  2. If you do decide to self-publish your manuscript obtain the services of professionals to do the major activities that a publisher would normally provide. At a minimum this would include editing, proofreading, graphic design (covers are still important to readers in the eBook world). and page layout (though you can probably do this yourself if you buy some decent software and take some time to learn how to use it properly). Note: editing does not mean getting your Aunty Sharon who was always good at spelling to check your manuscript (aside from anything else your family will not be objective critics) (even if you find a family member that doesn’t like you they’re still not being objective).
  3. If you are going to ask random strangers (i.e. book bloggers you’ve never met) to read your book then take 30 seconds to skim their ‘about’ page and (if they have one) their review policy. If you happen upon a book blog at which the blogger’s ‘about’ page and/or review policy says they don’t read the genre of book that you’ve written then pass that blogger by in your quest to be reviewed/discussed. They will not suddenly develop an interest in your genre simply because a random stranger has a book in that genre to flog. Even if some other random stranger on Amazon/Good Reads/Smashwords has given said book a 5-star rating.
  4. If a book blogger politely declines your invitation to review your book do not, under any circumstances, try to cajole, browbeat or otherwise argue them into thinking that yours is the genre novel that will make them love steamy sex/talking cats or whatever other quirk you’ve used. Accept that some people are not your readers and move on.
  5. Don’t do this (which came from here). You wonder why a whole host of people don’t take self-publishing seriously? Behaviour like that. Sure you can ask people nicely to post a review, but requesting 5-stars is simply not on and if you ask someone contrary like me it’s almost guaranteed to generate a snarky bad review just ‘cos I can.
  6. If you tweet (or blog or do whatever it is one does at facebook) have a semblance of balance between blatant self-promotion and other content. See this post at Jen’s Book Thoughts if you need more tips on not being annoying in social media.
  7. Think really carefully about the price of your book. Every man and his dog appears to be doing some kind of experiment about the sweet-spot for eBook pricing these so I won’t presume to tell you what the price should be but I will tell you that as a reader if I’ve only paid $0.99 for your book I don’t value it much and if it doesn’t grab me in a few pages I’ll happily consign it (and everything you write in future) to the digital scrapheap. You need to give me a bit of incentive to keep reading.
So, have I alienated everyone now? I didn’t set out to but if that is the result so be it. As a long time book reader and a new eBook reader this glut of dross in the reading marketplace is the single most annoying thing in my reading life and it has, perversely, sent me shuttling back to mainstream publishers in a way that I might once have scoffed at. 
This entry was posted in eAdventure, rant or rave. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to The downside of the e-revolution in publishing

  1. bibliolathas says:

    I subscribe to a couple of RSS feeds for free e-reader books (kindle) to source special offers on mainstream e-books. Most of the feeds contain oceans of self-published, forgettable dross, and in such numbers that even if there is something there worth reading, it cannot stand out from its amateurish peers. Your assessment of the situation as ‘depressing’ is spot on. Very depressing. The price vs. value thing is interesting isn’t it, esp. for Australians who’ve been bled dry by expensive price-fixed books for years? I’m quite suspicious of cheap books! 😉 Yes, what you say could be alienating (and, by all means, let everyone write and publish what they want!), but you’ve said it very well indeed. (And, of course, even professionally published e-books can be riddled with errors.)


  2. Bernadette – One of the most important points I think you make here is how important it is to do quality control. The big problem with E-publishing – especially self-publishing – is that a lot of people think it means one can sidestep things like revising, editing, proofreading and so on. All of those things matter. They really do. That doesn’t mean there are no well-written self-published books; there are. It means, though, that too many people cut corners.

    And I also agree about the whole 5-star review thing. You’ve no idea how many times I’ve been asked to give lots of stars to something when it’s not even a genre I know anything about, let alone have an interest in…


  3. @bibliolathas I did wonder about point 7 – I suspect that one might be an Aussie thing – given that $20 is cheap for a book here $0.99 just seems to have no value at all but it might be different for others who have had cheap ($5-7) paperbacks for years (I know ‘cos I used to bring home suitcases full when my brother moved to the US – in the pre-amazon days)

    @Margot you’re right there are good self-published books – but if I (and other readers) can’t find them they may as well not exist


  4. You’re quite right, Bernadette! That’s the thing. If readers can’t find them, what’s the good for the reader or the author?


  5. Bernadette,
    I can’t disagree with any of your points, but I think, by and large, it applies to all publishing. 1, 2, and 7 are clearly self publishing specific. Those are “How to publish” or “How to sell” decisions that, in the traditional world, the publisher makes. With the shift to self publishing, those are the main questions for an author-as-publisher.

    3-6 really apply to anyone with a book no matter how it’s published. Authors who go through traditional publishing can make all of those stupid mistakes, hurting their reputation and their sales.



  6. Maxine says:

    Hear Hear, Bernadette. For example, ever since I started blogging I have recieved a steady stream of emails asking me to read/review etc someone’s book- now they have not only increased dramatically but often have the darn thing attached. If I don’t reply (as I don’t have time to send polite “nos” and when I have, I’ve received arguments back), I get them sent again sometimes. It is a bit like when publicists from some other continent send you emails listing books available for review and then have to admit they can’t or won’t send them overseas.
    That 5 star Amazon thing really gets me. As I wrote in my post this am, Amazon is getting impossible now as its listings (which are jumbled up Kindle and print anyway) are now full of utter dross, with no way for the reader to tell what is self-pub and what is not. If you click through to the product page, there is usually the name of a “publisher” (made up? the author’s pseudonym?) and oodles of 5 star reviews which mean nothing! I too subscribed to a Kindle blog which lists about 10 free or very cheap Kindle books a day, with how many starred reviews each got. It is meaningless! I put in a comment a couple of times to say how pointless it is for a person to receive 10 (or more) book recommendations a DAY. That was not very popular (the blogger calls these authors “indie” which is so wrong. they are “self published”. Independent publishing is someone else taking a chance on you and publishing your book). To me, oodles of 5-star reviews of a self-published ebook are meaningless, especially when the reviews consist of two illiterate sentences. I don’t know what amazon is going to do about this, but if it is to maintain itself as the world’s leading book retailer, it has to do something or it will end up like Smashwords – which when I checked it out looked like a front for p**n.

    Oh well, I hope you do not get pushback for your post. I wish these authors would show more respect for their putative readers, as publishers (with all their faults!) do.


  7. @Rich you’re right, all authors can and do make those mistakes. I just happen to be smarting from a mailbox full of missives from self-published authors – though I’ll concede that on twitter it’s mostly names who I’ve unfollowed for breaking the BSP rule


  8. Kathy D. says:

    All interesting. Living as I do in the U.S., I still would like book prices to be lower. Hardcovers, when adding tax can be $30. Paperbacks used to be $6-8; now with tax they’re more than $16 for one read. I find that a bit much — and my revenge is to make sure 6 friends read each book. And then to donate it to a charitable bookstore which resells books to provide housing for disabled people. Otherwise, for those of us who don’t have high incomes, it’s the library, used bookstores or online sellers, swapping with friends and the occasional Book Depository splurge.
    On self-publishing that is a dilemma. Friends are self-publishing; the books are edited and proofread with nice graphics. But things like this arise: The friend may be very dug-in on certain aspects of the book which a publisher would ask to be revised but the person doesn’t want to hear it from friends; all tread lightly.
    Yet we all need to be supportive in all ways. As I wrote in a previous post, my parents said in such situations, give accolades over the book and say it’s great.


  9. Maria says:

    As an indie author, I just can say that I benefit from platforms such as Smashwords or Xinxii. They allow me to create my own online shop and author page.


  10. Maxine says:

    I would suggest “self published” is a better term than “indie”. An “independent” author could be defined as one who is published independently (ie by someone else).


  11. Dorte H says:

    No, you have not alienated me. I´d just like to point out that some of us try to follow your very sensible advice.


  12. Pingback: Problems with indie publishing were not invented here

  13. @Maria/Maxine – I do agree there is a huge difference between independently published (which to me means not published by ‘the big 6’ but by some company or person that still uses some form of the traditional publishing process which includes at least the most important features of the process that transforms the manuscript to a book) and self-published.

    @Dorte I think you’ve done the exact right thing – used self-publishing for your flash fiction to out your toe in the market so to speak


  14. I second Dorte’s comments. You make solid points, Bernadette. My pet peeve: starred reviews for books is becoming a farce. No doubt a great many self-published authors are rushing into it in more ways than one and giving others a bad name. But I think there’s a danger of painting all self-pubbers with the same brush. Self-pubbers worth reading vary from the established author putting out a backlist to authors who have worked hard on their craft and haven’t had the luck of getting through that very small and narrow door leading to traditional publishing. Tons of crap indie bands and crap bloggers exist, but no one seems to be too annoyed by them. Then again, they aren’t flooding your inbox with unreasonable requests or crowding twitter feeds with loud ads. I get that, and it makes me cringe. Still, this issue is far from black and white and changing by the minute. Hopefully one of the changes to come will be an easier way to identify self-publishers of quality. It’s probably already here.


  15. @Steve if the easy way to identify self-published stuff of quality is already here then I wish someone would share it. And quickly.

    As for ‘indie’ content in other art forms I would beg to differ that no one is complaining. A friend of mine is an music journalist and he bangs on endlessly about poor-quality products flooding the market (as in the production qualities of the tracks not the artistic quality of the song-writing/singing). And as a paid-up subscriber of the community radio station in my city (run by all volunteers, plays 75% independently produced music) I can tell you that I have despaired at the quality of some of the dross myself). I suspect you’re just much more aware of the complaints about self-published writing because you’re involved with it.

    The reality for new authors though is that, for the moment, you (writers) need us (readers) much more than the other way around. This might change in the future if traditional publishing continues to implode in the way it has been but for now there are enough products being published traditionally to supply most of us readers with enough decent-quality content to keep us supplied with all the books we can read. So I don’t need to go looking through thousands of Smashwords books for the handful of gems I am sure are there. Will I miss out on some good books? Yes, but I already can’t read all the books I want to read so I can live with that. And I don’t feel the need to do anything about the problem (except publish reviews of any decent self-published books I happen across as I have done a couple of times here on the blog). If I was desperate for good books to read this would feel like my problem to fix but I’m not so it doesn’t. It’s yours (i.e. authors collectively).


  16. Bernadette, I wish someone would share it with me too. No arguments from me on the rest. I’m sure you’re flooded with ARCs from big publishers alone. That’s one more reason why I’m still betting on my agent to help get me through that door. And I think we writers (of any stripe) will still need readers more than they need us for a long time to come. And more hours in the day — we could use a few of those.


  17. Nobilis Reed says:

    Nobody goes to the Smashwords website looking for something to read. Well, nobody except snarky bloggers looking for a reason to rant.

    Smashwords doesn’t do curation. All they do is distribution. Would you go to an Amazon warehouse to look for a book to read? No. That’s not what they do.

    People go to Smashwords after they’ve already been to a site somewhere–an author’s blog, a book-blogger, whatever–and they’ve decided to pick up a book by the author in question. They might check out some previews to see WHICH book on that site they’re going to buy, or to make a last-minute check to make sure that’s what they want, but they will already be pretty sure before they go there.

    Curation, in the ebook market, now happens in blogs, on twitter and facebook, and by word of mouth. People talk to each other about what they’re reading, and make decisions based on personal recommendation.

    Take a look at slide #31. The two most important factors in book buying behavior for avid readers are 1. Author reputation and 2. Personal recommendation.

    Price is #3. Which means that while it may not be terribly important to Bernadette, it’s important to avid readers. Personally, I’d much rather pick up ten books for my $30 than two, and given that I’ve got dozens of friends (real ones, not twitter and facebook connections) who are also readers, it’s pretty easy for me to get ten recommendations in an afternoon–and because my friends have recommended them, I’m pretty sure those ten books are going to be worth my time.

    #4 on the list is book reviews, but the numbers show that it’s still pretty significant.

    Something that’s NOT on the list is, “I just walked in and tried something at random.” Readers don’t do this. They are smart. They know there is a lot of drek out there, and they know how to navigate it.

    Bernadette, Steve, you ask how to find out where the good stuff is. You act like it’s a secret. It’s not. It really isn’t.

    Join a site like Goodreads. Put up a list of books you like. Use the site to compare the books you like with the books your friends and contacts like. You’ll probably find more than a few people with books in common. Then look at the books that the other person likes, that you haven’t read. If you’re not familiar with the author, go to their site and read some samples. That’s why authors put samples up; so you can see whether you will like their work.

    OR let’s say you don’t have friends. Your email contacts list has your clients, your colleagues, and your contacts, none of whom are people with whom you want to share book recommendations. That’s fine. Go find the blogs of authors whose work you like. Chances are good at least a few of them have one. Neil Gaiman’s blog is an excellent place to start. One of the things you’ll often find on such blogs are reports or reviews of the books THEY are reading. Chances are good, if you like a book an author wrote, you’ll also like a book that author reads. And then when you find an author you like…read HIS blog.

    OR let’s say all your favorite authors are dead, or else they are 20th century style recluses and compose their books on typewriters rather than computers because the internet is evil. Chances are good that each of those authors have a fan-supported email list out there, where said fans discuss his work. Chances are good they also discuss related authors. Ask folks on the list what else they’re reading, they’ll tell you.

    Or do all three.

    Is it work? Yeah, a little. Once you get started and make a habit of using them, you’ll probably end up with more recommendations than you know what to do with.

    So that’s the secret that’s really no secret.


  18. @Nobilis Reed – I will agree that the good books I have read from Smashwords have all been found via off-site curation. But if Smashwords doesn’t see itself as a curator then why the facility for reviews? Why break their catalogue up into genres and all that? The Amazon warehouse isn’t arranged in genre categories so Smashwords is fundamentally different than the Amazon warehouse and far closer to the Amazon website which is the online equivalent of a bookstore in which to browse.

    But I think you may have missed the point of this rant. It’s not a rant about book recommendations (I have plenty). It’s a rant about self-publishing.

    I am a member at Good Reads, I do have book blogging friends and real friends too and am a member of several online groups that discuss the kinds of books I like to read. I get recommendations from all those sources. So I already do all the things you have said and I already have more recommendations than I know what to do with. Virtually none of them are for self-published books though.

    I wanted to branch out and try some self-published stuff because I truly do believe that you can’t knock what you haven’t tried. Because none of the people I know and trust were recommending self-published books I tried some recommendations for self-published titles from loose connections (i.e. people on GR who I don’t know but whose books are similar to mine) and they have been utter pants. I tried a few almost random selections (based on genre listing and blurb at Smashwords) and they were utter pants too. I’ve got nowhere else to go for recommendations because no one among my friends, the book bloggers whose taste and judgement I trust, the online groups I belong to is reading self-published stuff. I even trawled back through the past year’s worth of nominations for group discussion books at one of the biggest online groups discussing crime fiction (my preferred genre). Although there are 8-10 books nominated each month I couldn’t find a single nomination for a self-published book. I didn’t spot any self-published titles in last year’s collective ‘best reads of the year’ tally either. No one, at least in the genre I mostly read, is reading and recommending self-published books.

    So I’ll live with the notion I am a reading snob and I want my books to have been transformed from being a manuscript by people who know what they’re doing. It’s not like I don’t have plenty of good books to read.


    • It looks to me like your taste in books parallels that of the people running things over in big-6/mainstream/traditional/whatever publishing. Great! Good on you. Stay there, there’s really no reason to go anywhere else for your books. You say you’re not having any trouble finding good books to read. You dipped your toe over in the other pond, found it a bit too scummy, and now you’re back to where you started, and you’re happy there.

      Why the complaint?

      Some folks find that what comes out of New York never really quite does it for them, for one reason or another. Through the means that I posted earlier, they find other authors whose work is well-written (or at least well-written enough for them) and who are writing the kind of books they want to read.

      They’re not you, and there’s really no reason to belittle them or the authors they like.


      • Why the complaint? I originally wrote the post because
        – self-published authors keep begging me to read their stuff (and it always feel like an author’s pushiness on this front is inverse proportion to their talent)
        – there is a certain segment of the ‘community’ (I’m so tired of that word being thrown about) who keep asking the same question (why don’t you read self-published stuff?”

        and I got bored repeating myself and wanted to clarify my thoughts in writing. Kinda the point of my whole blog really – clarifying my thoughts. The points at the end were genuinely my thoughts about what would get me (a voracious reader) to view self-published stuff differently. I wrote it here so I can refer people to it when they ask me why I won’t read their stuff (as still happens).

        If anyone feels belittled by these thoughts then there are other places to go. I didn’t set out to offend or belittle any reader (and on re-reading I don’t feel that I have) but I’m not going to lose sleep if someone interprets something I have written as belittling to them personally (I am comfortable with my intent, I cannot control the thoughts of others). If an author who has produced a typo-ridden, unedited piece of dross feels a little bad for foisting it on the world I won’t lose sleep over that either but I guarantee they won’t – because no one will think I am talking about them.


  19. Maxine says:

    Too right, Berndatte. And to Nobilis Reed- I am a very keen reader and up until about a year ago I regularly browsed Amazon for new-to-me authors as I am always keen to try them. However, nowadays is it just awful as there are so many self-published authors on there cluttering up the listings often with inappropriately categorised books. I’ve ranted on my blog about wishing Amazon could have a kite mark for “independently published” authors, and also make it clearer in the listings what are novels and what short stories.

    I am also a member of Goodreads but frankly what NR is suggesting is too time consuming, and also Goodreads is quite polluted by self-pubbed authors “friending” you (or trying to) and pushing their books and every event to do with their books. Like Bernadette, I have a vast quantity of good books to choose from (and although I get some proofs/advance copies, I buy most of mine) so I don’t “need” to wade through all this rubbish to find a few gems. It is such a pity, though, that the current tide of “self pubbed” authors gaming the system via using tools such as starred reviews or mis-labelling their books mean that other authors are being swamped and thus more likely to be ignored.

    Book publishing is a bit like peer-review, which filters out most things so the reader has an averagely higher quality to choose from. That’s what I used to have and now i don’t any more.


    • If you don’t like Amazon, then go over to Powell’s. There are very few self-published books there, as they have nothing like Kindle Direct or CreateSpace. The reason the self-published books are listed alongside the traditional ones, is because Amazon makes a bigger slice of money when they’re selling the self-pubs. It’s in their best interest (financially speaking) to get you to buy those. It’s not like you haven’t got options.


  20. @Nobilis, thanks for providing that helpful breakdown. I’ve been on Goodreads and similar sites regularly and have been a while. GR is great. But I don’t think finding the right books is a secret so much as unsettled and time-consuming. We’re in a huge transition now, facing a myriad of (albeit user-friendly) options, and it’s creating confusion and annoyance, especially among those guided by traditional publishing for so long. What we’re witnessing here on this post is and will be playing out in a zillion ways for some time. For good or bad. I don’t love it either, but it’s a fact I’m trying to accept and far better than what came before — for writers, in any case.


    • It’s not that unsettled. The old ways are still there. There are still brick-and-mortar stores to browse, and (as I said to Maxine) there are online sites without the self-dealing that Amazon does. You’ll miss out on a million crappy books and a thousand good ones, but if you’re getting what you want, then you’re good.


  21. It’s disappointing when you can longer believe customer reviews. But I guess, with the ability to read the first chapter for free, you should be able to work out which books deserve their ratings before you purchase – or at least, which books definitely don’t. Great post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  22. As I see it, there are 2 reasons people self publish these days:

    (1) They can’t sell their manuscript to an agent or publisher
    (2) They believe that the publishing industry is undergoing a revolution and make a business decision about going in for themselves.

    In my experience, those writers who fall into camp (2) tend to do things the right way (i.e. lots of editing, good covers, not overly promotional, etc.). Selling a book is tough even when you have a quality product, no matter who publishes it, and these folks know that.

    I would encourage writers in camp (1) to rethink their strategy about self-pubbing. There is a reason the manuscript isn’t selling. Either the idea isn’t good enough, the writing isn’t good enough, or the gatekeepers don’t think the book will sell. My advice is: put the manuscript away and write another. And another. And another. Having a manuscript (or two or three) gathering dust in the back of your closet is NOT a bad thing. I learn boatloads every time I write a new novel, whether it sells or not.

    Anyway, that’s my $0.02 on the subject.


    • Nobilis Reed says:

      “…or the gatekeepers don’t think the book will sell.”

      Slight rephrase:

      “…or the gatekeepers don’t think the book will sell more than the other manuscripts they can publish this cycle.”

      If your market is niche enough that you are one of only a few authors publishing your kind of fiction (yes, they exist) and you have a good hold on that niche, then self-publishing can make sense even though mainstream publishing won’t.


  23. As a Self Published author I abhor the idea of going begging for reviews, it just doesn’t feel professional. Your points are very clear, and it is interesting and enlightening seeing the comments made here. As a person who finds 90% of what is published through the “traditional” venues boring and a waste of my limited time, I turned to Self published and Indi Published books for a better variety and I have found good ones and bad ones. Are there quality issues in some of them? Absolutely. Is there stuff up that should never ever have seen the light of day? Yes! But there is stuff out there that is worth it, and if you know where to look and are willing to look, you can find them. It is like walking through a used bookstore, some of them are really nicely laid out, some of them are a jumbled mess that is not worth digging through piles of books to find something you might like.

    I can’t speak for all self pubbed authors but I will say this; If I would not submit my work to an editor or agent, if I didn’t feel it would find a home in a traditional venue, I will not self-pub it. Revising, editing, cover art… those things matter to me because I know it matters to those who might be interested in my work.
    Thank you for this post btw, and to the folks commenting, thanks also.


  24. Although my knee jerk reaction is to agree with many of your points there is a very important aspect of non-self-publishing which you are overlooking. Book selling is an increasingly tough game. Most of the big publishers will only publish books that they believe will sell well. This is not necessarily the same as books with any form of literary merit. Ghost written ‘celebrity’ books which are snapped up by major publishers because the apparent author’s name will sell the book, no matter what is inside the cover, are not necesssarily any better than the worst self published books! New authors who are not already famous for something else or who can demonstrate that they can generate a huge buying public are not welcome. So there is a plethora of ‘celebrity’ or ‘I was in a famous news event’ books published by big publishing houses. Also there have always been many ‘penny dreadful’ non-self-published books. Many of these sell very well. Your rubbish may be someone else’s ideal read. The world changes, we all have to move with it!


Comments are closed.