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Self-Publishing’s Quality Problem

Cement Mixer ©Mike Spinak

Cement Mixer ©Mike Spinak

A couple weeks ago I posted an article about why self-publishing might be more appealing to authors, and a week ago I posted a companion article about why self-published books might be appealing to readers. However, I didn’t address the main concern readers have with self-published books: quality. We’ll discuss the quality issue today.

It’s popularly believed that (1) publishing houses serve as gatekeepers, maintaining publishing quality standards; (2) self-publishing has a lower barrier to entry, allowing people to publish junk; (3) authors self-publish as a last resort, when they fail to get past the publishing house gate-keepers, because their books aren’t good enough; and (4) books published outside the publishing houses don’t go through a team of book experts to be proofread, formatted, designed, etc., and so are terribly flawed by amateurish production values. There’s some truth to each of those, but they’re not the whole story.

Publishing houses do serve as gatekeepers, but – from a quality perspective – they do a poor job of it. Many excellent books don’t make it past their gates for a variety of reasons, from poor editorial judgment to crass commercialism – while many terrible books do get through, for the same kinds of reasons. Likewise, many books with poor editing and other sub-par production values are released by the big publishers, albeit the percentages are lower than in self-publishing. Believing that the publishing industry has done well at selecting good books from bad is like believing that Housing and Urban Development has done well at maximizing safe and affordable housing.

Self-publishing does have a low barrier to entry, and many people are indeed publishing junk. I would venture to guess that the vast majority of self-published books are awful. However, that doesn’t mean that the only reason people self-publish is because there are no barriers, nor does it mean that all independently published books are rubbish. There are lots of superb self-pubbed books mixed in with the garbage.

Perhaps some self-published authors went that route as a last resort, after failing to get past the gatekeepers because their books weren’t good enough. However, as I discussed in Dreaming of Middlemen, there are plenty of other good reasons to self-publish – such as keeping full creative control, avoiding unconscionable contract terms, and getting substantially higher profit margins. In short, publishers are often asking too much, and offering too little in return. In many instances, the authors rejected the publishers, not the other way around. For example, I never submitted my book to a publisher, because I thought I could do better on my own. (Statistically speaking, I was correct.)

Most of the dreadful self-published books out there probably didn’t go through a team of editors, formatters, designers, etc. Nonetheless, many self-published books, like mine, did. All of those responsible for the production values of a book can be hired freelance. In fact, authors can often get help better suited to their particular book through hiring freelancers than they’d be able to at a publishing house; they have a much larger pool of potential hirees to chose from.

I’ve explained that there are plenty of good self-published books, some even better than most books from publishing houses. Yet it’s undeniable that the vast majority of self-published books are horrendous. As long as this is the case, many are reluctant to try indie books.

I’m not sure that the overwhelming preponderance of terrible self-published books would actually present a problem for readers. To some degree, “the cream rises to the top.” The converse is even much more true. In other words, the bad books usually sink so far down that you’re not likely to come across them, no matter how large of a majority they are. When your friends recommend books to you, they don’t recommend the bad ones. The bestseller lists and the top-rated lists are also unlikely to include the incompetently amateurish books. Book review blogs don’t recommend them. They don’t show up in Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” feature. And so on. The horrible books tend to be mostly invisible, no matter how many are out there. You have to actively search for them in order to find them.

That said, let’s suppose that you’re trying to decide whether to purchase a particular self-published book, and you don’t know if it’s good or bad. How can you tell the difference, so you don’t get burned? There are indicators you can look at, which will usually provide you enough clues to choose with confidence. Books on Amazon let you read a sample of the first few pages. Are those pages interesting, well written, and relatively free from errors? You can also look at the customer reviews and the ratings of the book on Amazon (and  other places, such as Goodreads, if you want to read even more reviews). Are the reviews positive? How many reviews are there? How detailed are they? Are any from independent book reviewing organizations, from the top-rated reviewers on Amazon or Goodreads, or the like?  You can usually get a fair idea about a book by reading its reviews and ratings. (You need to be careful about inflated ratings and glowing reviews that come only from friends and relatives, or perhaps even from a service the author hired. Generally speaking, this is less of a problem for books with many reviews than books with just a few; and longer, more detailed reviews are likely to be reliable and informative.) Is the cover professional looking, or is it not? Does the book list a credit for a professional editor? If you look at such things, it’s normally not difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Between the facts that (1) the offensively unprofessional self-published books generally have low discoverability, and (2) there are usually plenty of solid clues to discern the better books from the worse ones, I think the risks of buying bad self-published books are low, if you take simple precautions. You don’t have to go out of your way to get self-published books, but there’s no need to go out of your way to avoid them, either.