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The Quality of Self-Published Books- The Conclusion

Posted by erinlausten on August 16, 2012

In the first post of this series I posed the question: Is there a high level of low quality material published through self-published models? And if so, does it matter? In the second post I evaluated the first part to the question. Do we indeed see a significant level of low quality material published through the self-publishing model? I ran through that exercise for a variety of reasons, but most importantly to explore the variety of influences that impact the question. In addition, it has helped me to focus my thoughts on the issue. Because the main purpose of this entire thing is to examine the implications.

So, let’s assume I was able to come up with conclusive evidence that there is a glut of bad books being produced through the self-publishing model. Remember, what constitutes a “bad” book is determined by a variety of criteria, but if we simplify it to its basic root, I think we can move on. I am going to define a “bad” or “poorly written” book as one that readers as a whole hate. It can be unedited, poorly structured, topically irrelevant, etc. Whatever it is that makes it bad, we’ll count it in the pool of awful reading material.

Now, what does it matter? What implications does a surplus of bad books have on writers (traditionally published, self-published and aspiring)? I believe much of the concern stems from a fear that discoverability will be adversely impacted if a reader must sort through the excess and choose a book that they will enjoy. It is hard enough being discovered amid the stacks of good stuff, how can we compete when readers have to sort through the crud too?

The point is valid. But there are a number of things running in favor of good books. First, readers are intelligent. They know what they like and what they want to read. They can find it, evaluate it, and make a choice based on a number of criteria they have developed. Some they developed through experience in the traditional book process, such as understanding genre, evaluating blurbs, and trying out a few pages. All of these options are still available.

It is amazing how fast a reader can disregard books they know they won’t like. Have faith. If they make a mistake and choose something they don’t like, they file that away in the cabinet of things to watch out for, and move on. They are not going to give up reading because they read a book they didn’t like. There is a belief that readers may become so frustrated with the number of books they don’t like that they will give up. But we forget how many great books they are also discovering. Why would they stop when there is good with the bad?

Another thing in favor of good books is that this is all brand new. Electronic book discovery is in its infancy. The technology that enabled this model is still growing and the systems haven’t caught up yet. Discovering the most relevant information on the web is a constantly evolving process. Entire platforms are developed just to facilitate discovery in the most effective ways and Amazon is not the only stakeholder in creating superior discovery methods. Academic databases and search engines are also in the business. The need to retrieve information in a reliable way that can target relevant resources faster and effectively is an ongoing issue across the digital world. With the need expanding, the tools will be developed and improved upon. We are only at the beginning of this process and while the tools may be clunky now, we will see significant changes in the next five to ten years that will make what we have today look like stone tools.

Today we are limited to sorting through giant pools of options based on things like genre, cost, format, sales figures, and reader reviews. But imagine if someone comes along like Pandora and classifies books into categories that are even more specific and minute? What would the discovery experience look like then? What gems would I find among the vast options when I simply type in the name of a book I like and see what shows up with similar elements? And that is just one option. I honestly believe we will see amazing developments in what is possible as the world adapts to the new publishing models.

That does not mean that I believe the current criteria we use will disappear or lose value. Reviews are gaining steam as a means to discover great books. We are seeing some of the flaws in the system, but they will work themselves out over time as well. For instance, the issue has come up that just about any author can come up with a handful of friends that will post glowing reviews about their books. And this is true. But what does that do? What happens when those reviews work? People buy the books and if they are unhappy about it, they can write their own reviews. As this happens, the value of the original favorable reviews lesson and it evens out. So why worry?

The great equalizer is time. There is this feeling that if a book is going to succeed it must happen now. What does it matter if my book is successful today instead of tomorrow? A year from now or even three it may take off as it finds its audience and develops a reputation. Don’t get me wrong, I wish it would happen today, but based on how things are shaping out in the business, I think this will be the biggest shift. They are calling it the long-tail, and if a writer is in this for the long haul, it is the piece that will create the most success.

The decision to go through the traditional or the self-publishing model is a personal choice based on a variety of circumstances. Do some people self-publish out of impatience, a fear of rejection, and an expectation of making it big off of one badly written book? Sure. And just as many people work their tail off learning the craft, studying the business and making sound, economical decisions on how to go about the process.

We can’t tell people not to publish before they are ready. The determination is their own and is dependent on a number of factors. And that is the key. If a writer simply wants to finish that one book and put it up to see what happens, then that is what they will do. They may not want to build a career, write another book, or even find a significant audience. And we will continue to see writers in various levels of their craft development. A first book may not be the best, but ideally we will see improvement over time. I have read numerous “first books” by authors I now love, and you can see the difference. I don’t stop reading the bestseller’s newest book because I tracked down an early book and found it wanting. They have grown as a writer just as many of the self-publishing writers will.

Those that do not grow and develop their skills may keep writing, though I find it unlikely. I expect to see a number of self-published authors with only one or two publications but significantly fewer that keep at it and publish more. Those that do will begin to see the success over time. Because even writing badly takes a lot of work. If they don’t want to put in the effort to develop the skill, why would they keep working so hard writing the next book? Eventually the realization that there needs to be improvement will hit and then the choice will be made: Do they learn or quit?

I completely agree with Sue Grafton when she tells new writers to “master your craft.” That is the key to a lasting career. And it is an ongoing journey. But I would not agree with the statement “Stop worrying about publishing.” When your head is in the book and you are learning the craft, then yes, don’t think about the publishing aspect. Focus on the task at hand. But you do need to learn the business and that includes “worrying about publishing.” There are choices that need to be made and plans to enact. In a recent clarification, Sue Grafton admits that she does not understand the new model and may not have a complete understanding of the situation. I think this illustrates more than anything that at every point in your career, you should do the work and learn your craft and your business.

The issue of quality in self-published books won’t go away, but I don’t believe it will unduly impact the market as tools are developed to better assist readers in discovery. Additionally, I feel it is far too early in the process to make sweeping judgments on how it will impact writers as a whole. It’s new. The situation hasn’t settled and until it does, we will see all kinds of possible issues that in the end won’t be an issue at all.

What will be important is the personal side. The decisions each writer makes to develop their work and skill will improve the possibilities of success. The patience required to really grow and make a career of this new publishing landscape will weed out just as many writers as it did/does in the Traditional process. How a writer copes with rejection, the time commitment, and the immense effort will determine who keeps going and who slips to the side.

And that is why the best advice to new writers will always be the same: Master your craft. Learn the business. And keep writing.

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10 Responses to “The Quality of Self-Published Books- The Conclusion”

  1. Great post!

    It’s absolutely true, we do have to master our craft… which would be one of the few things I’d agree with Ms. Grafton on.

    And I have to agree that there are too many out there who self publish out of impatience. They’re not taking the long view of things, and in doing so, they’re compromising themselves.

    • Patience is something I struggle with myself, but I know that and do my best to combat it. The tough question really is knowing when enough is enough. Perfection is a terrible mistress, so finding the point when you can say good enough is the key. All we can do is learn from past experiences and know that what we are aspiring to and do our best to come as close to that as possible!

  2. RD Meyer said

    When Grafton says, “stop worrying about publishing,” I chuckle, mostly because she doesn’t worry about it. She can write and know she’ll be able to eat(quite well), but some of us remember that writing is a business. I totally agree that we must work to master our craft, but hers seems to be an attitude of passivity, that if you just write well, good things will happen. The “it’ll come to me” philosophy has never been one I’ve subscribed to.

    Also, saw an interesting point on The Passive Voice – yes, lots of bad self published books out there(and not a few stinkers on the traditional side too), but doesn’t that help the good books stand out?

    • I think that is an interesting question as well. I am fascinated by human behavior and how we make choices. It seems to be something that we rarely understand, and so the question as to having to choose when all things are equal over choosing when there are definite distinctions in quality or even in relevance is worth some thought and maybe study.

      And I am on the same boat as you regarding the “it’ll come to me” philosophy. We may not be able to control all the circumstances, or determine when something will happen, but we can certainly do the best we can to set ourselves up to make it more probable!

  3. Readers can download sample chapters of the books they’re interested in, and if the first pages are bad (or simply not to their taste) they don’t need to buy the book.
    Most readers cherish this choice, the freedom to decide what they want to read. Personally, I love it, even if it means downloading twenty or more samples for every book I buy.
    But some people don’t like the choice; they get unhappy when they have to form their own opinion and make their own decisions, prefer someone else to make their choices for them. Those people naturally miss the publisher-gatekeepers who used to tell them what was worth reading. I believe that these people will eventually turn to reviewers, and make their book-buying choices based on the opinions of established reviewers.
    Rayne Hall

  4. The good news is that anyone can self-publish. The bad news: anyone can self-publish, So while, as a traditionally-published author who chose the freedom of self-publishing, I resent Sue Grafton’s willingness to lump all of us together, I have to admit that there are a lot of really, really bad books out there.

    I agree with William and with RD Meyer.

  5. Thanks for taking the time to explore and write about this. So much panic and fear is expressed over self-publishing. Look at the podcast/vlog market; anyone can do it and some people flourish while others flounder. But it’s all out there, available to the rest of us to explore, experiment, and enjoy.

  6. Thanks for sharing your views – a real consolation, because I’ll confess that I panic when I see how many titles are out there, some 300,000 new books each year! Of course, there’ll be bad books in the lot, but yes, readers do defend themselves and know how to choose what they like, thanks for reminding us! And I know it’s true, I’m a writer but I’m a reader too and I ALWAYS try out the free sample before buying!

  7. ABE said

    “What gems would I find among the vast options when I simply type in the name of a book I like and see what shows up with similar elements? ”

    Hope someone does figure out how to do this. Even in a synthetic, machine-executed way this would reduce the number of items humans have to sort through personally. You might miss some winners – but you will, anyway, as you can’t keep up with all the recommendations and lists available already.

    A minimalist version of this already exists if you check through the keywords and tags associated with stuff you know you like, and use those as search words. I use Amazon sometimes just to go see what has been written about the books I know I like, especially since I am one of those weird people who are different from most others in their reading tastes (just comparing my tastes to those of my friends and family).

    BTW, free samples are NOT enough – in a real bookstore I can page through sections later in the book to see if standards are being maintained. I know I can try that in online books (via search), but it doesn’t seem as easy to come up with search terms (to get around what the Look Inside feature offers), as it is to stand with a book in hand and flip pages. Pesky humans!

  8. AJSikes said

    I’m closing in on the endgame of Fahrenheit 451, and the whole way through the story I’ve been struck by the questions posed here and elsewhere surrounding the issue of self-publishing. Porter Anderson has been tackling it with gusto in his Extra Ether posts, but he really focuses his attention around the question you start with. “What implications does a surplus of bad books have on writers?”

    Reading through Bradbury’s tale, I’m starting to see Porter’s worry, and while I have to snicker a bit at the idea that we should really be afraid of the firemen showing up any minute, I also have to acknowledge that, yeah, there is a problem here. The glut of filth and folly that readers are being inundated with is problematic. It does jam up the communications highway between writers and readers, and I honestly think some people will develop a disdain for reading as a result. Aren’t we already seeing a drop off in younger readers? I know that’s more to do with screen captivity than with being hit over the head with bad books, but yeesh and if it ain’t the truth, younger readers aren’t getting treated any better than adults. And the real killer, it isn’t just self-publishing that’s doing it. Last month I wrote a review of a professionally *cough cough* published book (maybe I should just say traditionally published). That thing was bloody awful. A mess of bad storytelling, bad or absent character development, typos here and there, and nothing resembling craft apparent anywhere throughout.

    I agree without reservation that writers need to write, hone their craft, know their business. But we’re also saddled with the need to act as guardians of that business. I think it’s incumbent upon us who would bear the title of ‘good writer’ to seek out the dross and chaff or at the very least accept it when it falls into our lap of our own mistake. We need to review it fairly (but also fearlessly and honestly), and warn readers in advance. On some small, I’ll even say infinitesimally small, level, the firemen were doing a good thing.

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