Problems with indie publishing were not invented here

by Rich on May 13, 2011

I see a steady stream of posts on the problems with indie/self publishing. Some are thoughtful and reasonable (e.g. The downside of the e-revolution in publishing). Some are much less so, and not worth a link. Good and bad, though, share a common trait: They identify problems faced by self publishing authors as indie problems when those same issues are faced by any publisher.

They tend to boil down to a set of completely valid issues:

  • What to publish
  • Quality control of the finished work (manuscript, formatting, cover art)
  • Poor or unprofessional marketing, promotion and distribution

They get sliced and diced lots of ways, and I’ve seen them stretched into lists twenty items long. But these three are the main categories.

Every single one of them occurs in traditional publishing. Every single one of them is challenging. And, while they may be less wrong more often than most self publishers, traditional publishers are entirely capable of screwing up each and every step.

So what’s the real difference? Too many self publishers fail to treat the publishing process as different than the writing process or as a serious and important effort.

That piece of news should not be revelatory. Saying that the problem with self publishing is that too many people  don’t work hard enough at the publishing part is the same as saying that the problem with writing is too many people don’t work hard enough at the writing part. As a reader, you still have to avoid bad books.

So what do you do? For readers, pay attention. It’s no different than any other source of information these days. When the advent of blogging allowed millions of monkeys to connect their keyboards to your browser, how long did it take for you to filter out most of the garbage and find reliable, high quality sources of information you trust and enjoy? Self publishers are the same way. Many will be bad, many will be good, some will be great.  Pay attention to recommendations, reputation, and take advantage of opportunities to sample.

For self publishing writers, read every post by Dean Wesley Smith, grit your teeth, and put the same care into publishing as you put into writing. Make a good impression, because that’s what will bring your readers back.

  • Bernadette

     You’re right Rich, most of the problems I see in self-published stuff can and does happen via traditional publishing. For me though it’s about risk management – what is my risk of getting a bad book? If I read 10 traditionally published books and they were all typo-ridden, poorly edited dross I’d probably find another hobby. My experience is that it just doesn’t happen that way for me whereas I’ve tried about 30-35 self-published books and 2 have had what I would call acceptable publishing status. I’ve excluded from that second number the self-published backlist titles by traditionally published authors where I assume the books have already been edited, proofread etc and the author has merely bought their own e-rights back and published the book. 2 out of 35 is unacceptable and I don’t want to play the game anymore. So far I have not found anywhere to see where the good stuff is rising to the top – star-ratings at places like Amazon and Smashwords don’t work (they’re clearly gamed because I’ve tried a couple of 5-star recipients and they were in my dross category) and most of the book bloggers I trust are in the same boat as me and are not reading self-published titles. Am I guilty of tarring all self-published writers with the same brush? Yes but it’s not my problem – I have enough to read. Even with traditional publishing in decline there are enough books of the kind I enjoy being published to keep me supplied with my 150-200 books a year. And if that suddenly stops I’m more likely to go back and read all the books I missed rather than turn to self-published stuff. The reality is I don’t need to rely on self-published authors to keep me supplied with books. I’d like to support some new, self-published authors but I’m not prepared to wade through the morass to do it.

  • Rich Friedeman

     I think that’s a fair perspective, Bernadette. I certainly appreciate your thinking of it as risk management — I’ve posted about exactly that in the past. I’ll give you the point that there are a lot of poorly prepared books out there. I’ve had some very good experiences and some very bad ones. The point that’s important to me is that it’s not fundamental to self publishing, it’s fundamental to lazy publishing. Barry Eisler, who just turned down a very large traditional deal to self publish, is going to do it right. I believe the product that he puts out is going to be indistinguishable from a quality perspective from what he produced traditionally. That’s because he’s making the effort and investment in doing all of the hard work that comes after he produces a manuscript.You’re right that the recommendation system isn’t there yet, and recommendation and reputation are going to be critical for self publishers. People don’t discover traditional midlist authors through the force of huge advertising budgets. They discover midlist authors through a combination of luck and recommendations. There’s no reason I see to think that process would be different for a self published author than it is for a traditionally published one. I think that system will come.I do agree that self publishing in general has a lot of growing up to do. The words get thrown around in funny and confusing ways, but I tend to think about “self publishing” as akin to someone who, without a lot of planning or effort, throws up a blog and approaches it in a haphazard way. These are the publishing-lazy authors. To me, indie publishing is when they/we treat the publishing side of it as real work and a real business. 

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