It’s easy to publish an e-book (part 2): Too easy?

by limebirdsally

This is the second in a series of three posts on independently publishing an e-book. The first discussed the common mistakes made by indie authors, while the third next week is more of a ‘how to’ guide on how to go about indie publishing an e-book. This post is a little musing on the impact that bad indie books are having on the industry and what could be done about this.

I think we can take as fact that there are some bad indie e-books out that that weren’t ready for publication. Perhaps a more contentious issue is whether this is a problem. After all, surely writers are only hurting themselves if they choose to publish sub-standard novels?

I’d argue no, the damage is much wider-reaching than the individual writer. Okay, so perhaps an e-book was free so you’ve not really lost anything. Then again, perhaps the book was so terrible you don’t care if it was free or not and you’re outraged that the writer has had the cheek to market this book so effectively that it wound up on your kindle and now you’ve lost a few hours of your life that you’ll never get back (okay so I’m thinking of a specific example here and the frighteningly mean reviews by other readers indicate I’m not the only one who thought this). Worse still if you actually paid for it!

Most importantly, how many terrible indie e-books would you read before making a generalised assessment that indie e-books just aren’t worth the electric paper they’re written on? This denies the indie authors who have approached publication in a professional manner the opportunity to share their work. Further, to what extent does a reader then assume that any free/ cheaply priced e-book is an indie, which means books released by publishing houses are also caught up by the negative halo effect? I’ve also seen recent stateside blog posts and articles recommend that indie authors price their e-books above the $.99 mark to offer the indie industry credibility, but surely that just means instead of just swamping the market with free/cheap unfinished indie books, the market will be inundated over-priced unfinished indie books.

I very much doubt that any writer publishes an e-book thinking they’re putting out a terrible book so is it arrogance, delusion or simple ignorance that causes a writer to think that their draft novel is ready for publication? There might also be an element of disrespect and naivety if a writer knows that this isn’t a polished work but the ease with which e-books can be amended and republished makes them chuck it out there anyway with a, “Hey, what have I got to lose?” mentality.

So what can be done about this? In the first instance writers need to take responsibility for themselves, but of course a writer who has spent years putting their heart and soul into their work is far too close to it to recognise whether their book is ready for publication or not. Sometimes this is very much one of those ‘not being aware of what you don’t know’ situations (this is “unconscious incompetence,” I’m sorry but I can’t find the originator of the leadership model to be able to attribute it).

I certainly don’t think brutal and soul-destroying reviews are the answer and I don’t feel writers should be publishing books to test the water and thinking they can use reviews to further refine their books. What I’d like to see is something, somewhere in the industry encouraging and supporting indie writers to treat the publication of e-books in a professional manner (i.e. avoiding the common mistakes I discussed in last week’s first post in this series).

But what?

The blogging community offers a great deal of support and advice. I’ve probably developed my writing more in the past four months spent in the online writing community than the past fifteen years. But not all writers are active in the blogging community and not all are aware of what they need to know.

I started by imagining some kind of independent regulator for the indie publishing industry so anyone who wishes to independently publish an e-book has to register with this regulator and receives advice and the ‘rules’ on how to go about it.

– The upside = every indie writer will be made familiar with the processes of editing and proofing and must demonstrate a clear commitment to upholding basic publishing standards.

– The downsides = cost and time. How is this regulatory body going to be funded without imposing huge additional costs on indie publishers and in terms of practicality, who has the authority to set up such a regulator anyway?

Okay, so perhaps a regulator requires a bit more thought, but what about the aims of something like this, which is to ensure that indie writers are fully equipped with the knowledge on how to develop their novel to publishable standards?

It’s here I feel that aggregators and publishing platforms could play more of a role. For example Smashwords has a fantastic style guide on the mechanics of formatting your completed ms, and a very good marketing guide on what to do both before and after you publish. I don’t recall seeing any guides to having your work edited or proofed and how to ensure it is ready for publication. Similarly I don’t recall Amazon having any checks in place to make a writer pause and take stock before they directly publish. Of course it could well be that there are such warnings in place and I’ve missed them, so I’m happy to stand corrected on this.

Ideally I’d like to see publisher and aggregators to work together to ensure that minimum standards are met by indie-publishers, but I get the feeling that Amazon and Barnes & Noble are currently a bit busy poking their tongues out at each other and playing a game of one-up-manship. Personally if I was an aggregator or distributor I’d want to take the lead on enforcing minimum standards (e.g. a self-declaration that a book has been professionally edited before publishing?) and in a complete dream world I would have a team responsible for checking a writer’s novel to ensure it is ready for publication before allowing them to publish. Of course the business model for that would be untenable in terms of costs to writers, making even the best of indie-authors just go elsewhere, which brings me back round to the (equally dream-world scenario?) of an industry-wide measure.

Again I may not be aware of it, but is there a professional body of editors and proofreaders? The rise of the electronic indie publishing industry has seen the rise of the making-money-out-of-indie-writers-industry and it’s very difficult for a writer who is new to all this to identify where investment does need to be made and who to go to.

The fact is, aside from ensuring that information is available to indie-writers, or campaigning to publishers to introduce what I can see are clearly untenable changes financially, I’m not sure what can be done to curb the alarming proliferation of sub-standard indie novels! But is the best we can really do really just to write blog posts, share our experiences and hope that aspiring writers invest in their work before publication?

What do you feel? Are bad indie books a problem for the industry? If so, what can be done to reduce the volume of unfinished/poor quality indie books being published?

The words of warning now aired, in the final post in this series next week, “It’s easy to publish an e-book (part 3)” I talk through the e-book publication process. Of course if this was one of those books in the aforementioned making-money-out-of-indie-writers-industry it would be titled, “How to make your fortune publishing an e-book in less than three hours,” with the final conclusion being you should publish your own book titled, “How to make your fortune publishing an e-book in less than three hours.

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36 Responses to “It’s easy to publish an e-book (part 2): Too easy?”

  1. I think the problem is already here in that the e-market is already flooded with poorly written books priced at .99, or free. Makes finding a decently written book that much more difficult, to the point I will only buy an e-book from a known publisher, known author or on a friend’s recommendation. I predict the industry will go full circle, with agents taking on renewed importance as the first gatekeeper – in the path to e-book publication and marketing from the big guys like Random House for placement in their e-book “imprints.”

    • Yes I’ve come back round to only picking up indies when it’s come through recommendation or someone I’ve encountered in the blogging community. I think I’ve mentally made this full circle you mention with my own publishing aspirations in terms of starting out seeing the indie route as a valid option with huge advantages, but coming round to thinking I’d prefer the traditional route because of the endorsement. I really don’t want to think that because I know that if I were to indie publish something in future I would have it creative edited; and re-edited; and copy-edited, and give the novel all the same quality control that a publishing house would. My understanding is that it’s very rare for a publishing house to invest a great deal of time or effort into marketing, and an agent’s involvement in this will vary a great deal, which means the onus is still on the writer to sell his or her work.

      If the main benefit of the traditional route is that a potential reader is able to pick up that book and see it’s from a known publisher and therefore meets minimum standards it’s a real shame, but unfortunately that does seem to be the way the market is heading!

  2. The problem is, if it becomes too regulated and controlled then it takes away a lot of what makes it indie. The point is, it’s a free market that anyone can enter, if they have to be “approved” to enter then it’s not a whole lot different to having to get a approval from an agent or publisher via the traditional publishing route. Maybe as has been said in the comment above, it will go full circle.

    I can imagine perhaps some kind of quality mark that indie books can achieve – it wouldn’t prevent others publishing, but the quality mark would show that it has passed some independent reviewing process, however the author would probably have to pay to submit their manuscript and have it reviewed, and depending on the cost, some may not be able to afford to.

    • Hi Vanessa. I like the idea of a quality mark of some sort. Yes the regulation idea was a bit heavy, so this kind of opt-in independent review feels like a nicer approach – something industry-wide, but run by a not-for-profit so it doesn’t just become another way to make money out of people’s dreams.

  3. I agree with D.J. on this — I think there is already a lot of garbage out there. Of course, some publishers put out garbage as well. I won’t take a chance on an unknown unless they offer up a sample chapter. I’ll know by that if it’s a run-of-the-mill piece or a carefully crafted work.

    The quality mark is an interesting idea and would certainly help the author as well, if done right.

    It’s tough in this digital age. Anyone can publish, anyone can make a movie, anyone can be an artist or photographer — in theory, in name. But I hold out hope the level of committment, desire to improve, and knowledge of the craft, exhibited by the true artists & craftsmen will rise to the surface.

    • Yes I like the quality mark idea too, but like you say would need to be done right! The sample chapter is a good point as I never bother looking at those when the book’s cheap, I probably should but in line with D.J’s point, I am reaching the point where I essentially want someone else to have done the quality control for me before I pick a book up.

      It’s a shame as really your comment should be, ‘it’s easy in this digital age’ if you consider the options available to people that we never had before! Obviously even the most acclaimed of directors or writers is still constantly learning his or her craft, but it’s now too easy for someone to go public with their work while their talent is still a little too raw and under-developed. Thank you for calling by and commenting.

  4. If anything, publishing an e-book should be made simpler.

    Who am I to say that the next man or woman’s work is rubbish? And even if I / they go through all the quality checks in terms of editing and presentation the end result may still be a terrible read. This is the case for both independent authors and those with a publishing deal.

    The indie market would benefit hugely from having a standard workflow for publishing with quality gates in place and a single recognised guide book (that adhered to the same high standards it was promoting!) In this way there would be less opportunity for someone to plummet into the various ignorance-based pitfalls.

    The other factor that needs to change (and probably won’t) is replacing the emphasis on getting a book out to market in the shortest time possible with a focus on what will make your writing more attractive to readers.

    • Definitely, some kind of independent guide to indie-publishing, with no agenda or profit-making objectives would be so useful to the industry. Currently a google search brings up so many different advertisement-heavy sites that are clearly money-making platforms that it’s difficult to know whether you’re getting a full picture on how to go about it. I imagine there are a fair few indie books on indie-publishing and hopefully they do cover the essentials, but most industries have some kind of professional body that releases material on standards, so it’s not that strange to think there should be one for novels – and like you say, the same principals apply regardless of indie or publishing deal route.

      Of course one of the huge benefits of the indie route is the speed, but like you say, it can take precedence over more important quality attributes. I’ve also read sites encouraging quantity, making the obvious point that the more books you get out there, the more readers will be likely to find you, but again, that’s not necessarily conducive to high quality!

  5. While I am often offended by poor writing, indie isn’t the only place to find it and perhaps wears the label of “couldn’t do it any other way so do it myself” tag unfairly in some cases. A publisher doesn’t mean quality. With the demise of the editor, standards have fallen. I recently read an indie success story – Karen McQuestion, who’s book, A Scattered Life was picked up by a publisher and a movie studio. That didn’t stop one of the characters from changing names and another changing fields of teaching mid way through. It didn’t stop there and their, and then and than coming out worse for wear.

    • I have read books published by publishing houses that I was surprised they picked up, and I’ve seen minor proofing slips, but my feeling is generally they seem to trouble-shoot the more frequent writing slips that some indie writers are more likely to fall into. I tend to just be a bit sad when I see low standards in an indie writer, but I’d be really angry at low standards from a publishing house! I agree though, not all indies are doing it because they can’t go the traditional route, and a publishing deal definitely doesn’t always = good book.

      Was Karen McQuestion’s book edited after it was picked up by a publisher though, or did they just launch the book with the errors still there? It’s a shame that she published what I assume from its success was a good book with typos and continuity errors in it, but great that she’s been successful!

  6. The problem is that as long as e-publishing is free, there can be no control. The world is full of well-intentioned people who are sure they know how to write. This is something of a mystery, because the same people would never assume that they could be brain surgeons or specialists in quantum physics. I suppose the reason might be that since they speak English, they feel they know enough to write it expertly. And that misconception dies hard.

    What if Amazon and the other e-publishers charged $500.00 to publish an e-book? That would eliminate a lot of people who wouldn’t be willing to put that much money into publishing a book that might pay them back with half a dozen piddling royalties. Of course, it might also keep some really good authors from publishing. But that risk might be worth it. I personally would pay such a fee to publish certain books that I’ve written, because I’m not looking to make a big profit. I want people to read my stories – to discover that they provide an absorbing reading experience and also have something evocative to say.

    • Hi Lorinda, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Personally I think that as e-publishers already take a large commission it would be hard for them to justify charging a publishing fee unless it was offset by waiving the value in royalties in some way but the principal of ensuring that authors do invest in their book would definitely help to put off people who are just ‘playing with the market’. Perhaps if there was a benefit to the writer, for example creative editing or some kind of evaluation of the book to ensure it is ready for publication?

      • The only problem there is that if Amazon had to set up an editorial staff, they’d probably have to charge more than $500! I would hope there would be an opt-out feature, too, because the last thing I want is somebody who knows nothing about my books tinkering around with them – telling me how my 30th-century spellings are all wrong and how nobody will ever read a book with a conlang in it! So the free system does have its advantages! Freedom to do as one likes is one of the reasons I’m self-publishing!

  7. Poorly written books come from all sources, not just from indie authors. While I have purchased a few indie “lemons”, I am still excited by the rise of the indie author and what they have to offer. That said, most of the books that I do purchase come from recommendations of friends or from various blog communities that I belong too. I seldom buy a book “cold” without knowing more about the author and the book first.

    This has been an interesting series. I’m looking forward to the rest of the posts. 🙂

    • Thank you Wendy I’m really glad you’ve enjoyed it. I do love hearing indie success stories. There are a lot of talented writers out there who either haven’t had the luck to gain a publishing deal, or simply haven’t tried to get one and I always desperately want to enjoy the indie book I’m reading – much more than if it’s being published by a publishing house. There are definitely some bad publishing deal books out there, but I am more likely to dislike a deal book because it’s just not to my taste or I don’t like their style rather than thinking it’s not well written. That said, I do tend to stick to genre and writers I know these days so I’ve probably learnt to wean out the ones I don’t like! I’m not sure that’s a good thing – perhaps I should try to branch out a bit more!

      • I would encourage you to explore new authors, especially those that are Indie. Don’t sample blind, buy from recommendations of people that you trust. One of the topics of conversation at my local writer’s group is to talk about new Indie books that we’ve read and liked. I’ve purchased several books from new authors that way.

      • That sounds really useful. Maybe I’ll start a discussion on the limebird forums to see if we can share good indies!

  8. I’m going to have to go look for it, but awhile back (a month or two?) I read an article indicating that there are people who PURPOSEFULLY publish junk with the idea of making a profit. Obviously, this won’t work for free material, but since they can spend a few hours (with software) and generate a pile of trash, charge 99 cents or a buck fifty for it, keep half, and don’t get “caught” for awhile, they make money. Some people will gladly pay a small amount for something untested (until they are burned enough times – which is where the problem comes in).

    I don’t know if this is true, after all, I read it on the internet, but there were some specifics. I think it said amazon’s kindle was the worst because they reimburse authors monthly, so they can get paid before complaints pile up.

    However, there are plenty of horrible books in bookstores, so it’s not JUST an indie problem. I’m at the point where I really only read books by recommendation. Actually, the last ten books or so I’ve read I had no clue what they were about, but read them on recommendations only (or got into the series that way). I’m on my FIRST non-recommended book in ages right now.

    If there *is* a solution, it might be in the way of some sort of non-profit organization created specifically to put a stamp on indie books that says “this passes basic muster.” The problem here is that all rules of grammar are broken at some point (I remember learning never to start a sentence with “and” while reading something by Mark Twain where several sentences began with “And.”).

    Rules would have to be clear, specific, and allow for variation. For instance, I don’t know how to properly use a hyphen or semicolon, but when I use them, people can read and understand what I’m saying.

    I’m going to have to think more on this. Mind, I’ve not got the spare time to develop an independent indie-review organization, but it might make a good blog post….

    • One of the “lemons” I recently purchased was what was supposed to be a historical novel about the time of the American Revolutionary War. I purchased the book for 99 cents. When I opened it, I suddenly discovered that this was merely a short story of around 20 pages and not a novel at all! I felt ripped off. The short story was not stellar, but acceptable in quality. Had it been of novel length I would have been satisfied. Since the advertising of the length was false, I will never purchase another “book” from this author again. Nothing about the length of the book was on Amazon and there were a few positive reviews, probably from friends of the author or purchased in a review mill. This was a story that I had purchased “cold” without a recommendation from a friend. I will return to my previous method of screening new authors and books.

      • I wonder if that was the author being naive, or deliberately misleading, Wendy. I hadn’t even considered the people deliberately abusing the system when I wrote this blog post!

    • The use of “and” and “but” to start sentences is supposed to be incorrect, but it’s a matter of usage, which will often be informal. It depends on feel and rhythm; I will sometimes start a sentence with “and” and I often do with “but” because too much use of “however” sounds stilted. This is especially true in dialogue, where you’re trying to mirror actual speech patterns.

      As for hyphens and semicolons, sure, people will know what you mean, but members of the grammar police like me will notice right off. Use a dictionary if you aren’t sure whether a word should be hyphenated, one word, or two words. Learn a few basic rules. Example: Compound adjectives like “coal-black” are hyphenated. And semicolons bother a lot of people, but they really aren’t that difficult. There are lots of good grammar sources on the web. It pays to bone up on grammar and punctuation if one is going to write.

      Note that in the sentence above beginning, “And semicolons … ” the word “and” functions as a transition.

    • I normally get a sense of these complete rip off ones by their heavily sales-jargon promotional material but there are a lot of complete chumps out there. I would guess they’ve got one programme running shoddy books and another sending out spam mail!

      You’re right that the subjectivity of what makes a book good muddies the idea of an independent review. It’s more than just ‘rules’ of writing, particularly as a book written that conforms tightly to the grammar we’re taught at school wouldn’t necessarily have much personality! I think a creative editor’s role is to help the writer identify how they can improve their book, which isn’t necessarily a case of “you’ve broken this writing rule,” but more, this could be so much better if you looked at this, but that is just one person’s view. So essentially an independent review is either simply a proofing service, which only solves some of the problem, or an editing service, which is essentially making it a requirement to have a book edited before publication.

      I would love to set up and run some kind of non-profit organisation because I know it would be coming from a good place, but alas I have no authority to do so, so it would essentially just be a commercial venture as there would need to be a charge to cover costs even if the objective wasn’t to make a profit (perhaps a social enterprise) but like you, far too many existing demands on my time!

      Glad it’s got you thinking – look forward to seeing that blog post!

  9. I am a grammar-obsessive teacher who still ended up with a rather alarming typo in my e-book. I am in the process of giving my book another once-over before resubmitting it. I was mortified when I discovered my mistake (shit instead of shirt >_<! This isn't the same thing as publishng a terrible or unfinished book. Maybe my book sucks (I don't think so), but getting the opinions of others before you send your work into cyberspace is the best advice I've read as well as learning to write in an interesting way! I agree that many online self-publishers are delusional. Thanks for your post!

    • I think people will forgive an occasional overlooked typo, especially when it’s funny! 🙂

      • Thanks! It’s always best to see the humor in the situation:D

      • Lorinda, I agree entirely.

        For that matter, I recall a moment in my life (ok, there have been many) when I was so absorbed in the book I misread words that were correctly spelled. Once, instead of a copse on the horizon, I read that the character saw a corpse.

        Humor always helps. My English teacher thought it was so funny, she didn’t downgrade my essay.

    • Oh no, you poor thing, J M Naszady! No absolutely not, that isn’t a case of publishing a terrible or unfinished book as there will always be little typos and even hiring a professional proofreader doesn’t guarantee one or two won’t slip through. Like Lorinda says below, little things like that are always forgiven!

  10. Excellent post. I agree with the commenters above that poor quality isn’t limited to e-publishing. I’ve been left wondering what some agents and editors were thinking when they took on some books.

    The playing field has changed so rapidly, and it’s hard to know where publishing of any kind will be in ten years. Some type of “seal of approval” from an independent body might help—if it was affordable to authors. But I don’t know who that body should be or how it would work. It might even be something “outside the box” like a good blogger’s network, or an e-publishing verson of “Angie’s List.”

    • Thank you J.M. I think the people who are part of a blogging community are already reading around and learning from other people’s experiences, so building on that is definitely beneficial. I wish the publishing platforms would work together for the good of the industry as that would have the strongest impact, but I suspect that of all its merchandisers, indie authors are pretty low on Amazon’s list of priorities! I suspect that the best we can do is continue to share our experiences and learn from each other.

  11. Basic editing is a must. I can’t see how any writer would have a problem with that kind of quality control.

    Pendulums swing. This indie option is new and the pendulum is way over to one side–maybe it hasn’t reached its final destination–but it will come back to something of a mixture of indie options with sponsorship from some kind of standard-setting body (that will make money from the services it provides) to ensure technical quality of a manuscript.

    • Yes hopefully and as others have mentioned, some way to weed out those who take deliberately advantage of the indie industry’s simplicity to publish deliberately misleading books just to make money! It’s such a shame. Thank you for adding your comments to the discussion!

  12. Hey Sally,

    You have a lot of helpful, thoughtful comments here. What a huge topic, phew! Just reading this post and all of the comments overwhelmed me.

    As we all know, I have not ventured into the e-publishing jungle yet and I don’t have any immediate plans to. The main reason for this is simply I always envisioned my book traditionally published.

    I don’t know enough about indie publishing to really add to the comments above. But I soooo appreciate this post and the discussion. I’m learning more and more about this controversial issue. Thanks!

  13. I just reread your post and the comments. I chose to become a painter (not a writer) to control the product as long as possible. The whole publishing process seemed cumbersome and unavailable before bolgging and ebooks. What is the meaning of ‘professional’ in this context? Is ‘buyer beware’ not the best standard?

    We each have different motives. Writers may be reading ebooks to learn what the market will bear. Published or successful authors may be looking for new readers. I might be trying to conquer a new medium just for the challenge. Most of all, write. Share when the work demands it. Stay positive expecting acceptance and success.

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