The "Self-Pub Is Crap" Debate

I’m reaching an exhaustion level with the following two viewpoints:

Most self-published work is crap. Anyone can “publish” their e-book and call themselves an author. None of these “books” are edited. It’s a huge pile of crap that’s just getting harder and harder to sift through. (God save us from the crap!)

And the retort from self-published authors:

Traditional publishing produces a lot of crap. Their standards are declining, and they don’t even know what readers want. They are “out of touch” and unneeded gatekeepers.

First, it’s stupid for self-published authors to justify their stance by trying to argue that traditional publishers put out work that’s just as bad. It’s disingenuous. A reader is more likely to find a quality book among traditionally published titles than self-published ones … for now.

I’m not saying that traditional publishers don’t put out bad books—and a lot of them—but it’s nowhere near the number of bad self-published titles.

There’s a simple economic reason why: Traditional publishers couldn’t survive if they published work that’s consistently as bad as what you find in the self-published arena.

Now, you might argue the situation is changing, and traditional publishers are on the road to irrelevancy and bankruptcy, but it’s not because of the quality of their books. It’s because of changing technology and distribution systems, and new methods of retailing books that can make it more profitable for a successful author to do the same thing as their publisher, on their own.

So that’s why I’m also impatient with those who adamantly defend traditional publishing.

If an author is a known quantity, or has a platform, no one really cares how he or she published. If you’re a brand, people care that YOU wrote the book, not who published it.

And given that it’s becoming easier (but not easy) for authors to become known and trusted to their readership without the help of a publisher, self-publishing becomes a more viable option and more associated with quality work and quality names.

So I don’t trust anyone 100% behind JUST traditional publishing, or anyone 100% behind JUST self-publishing.

Things are changing far too quickly for any one route (or one type of book) to be vilified or glorified. I’d like to see people stop picking arguments—or picking sides—on this issue. There is no winning side to this game.

Photo credit: tkamenick

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36 thoughts on “The "Self-Pub Is Crap" Debate

  1. Sandra Kerns

    As I am sitting on the fence making my decision on which way to go, I read this post and appreciated the candor. One thing that everyone seems to keep complaining about is typos and mistakes; the need for professional editors; the better job traditional publishers do on editing. While I have to admit, I haven’t read a large number of e-pubbed books, I’ve read hundreds of traditionally published books. Typos and mistakes abound in those as well. I’ve read books where the blurb on the back had the heroine’s hair one color and the actual story had it another. And yes, typos are irritating and pull you out of the story – but I have yet to read a perfectly typo free book, traditionally published or e-pubbed. If you are talking about more than typos (which seemed to be the main thread of complaints) and commas, to say, poor/missing plots, flat characters, pacing all being off, then yes, I agree editing/critiquing and re-editing are important, essential even. Which means I need to get back to my own work and do some more checking. Thanks for the interesting comments.
    Sandra

  2. Irene Vernardis

    I’m tired of this conflict. I’ve posted too, posts about the subject, advocating that there is no right or wrong with either way of publishing. The right way is the way that will get a book published. And authors should choose the way that fits them, either traditional or indie or a combination of both.
    The good thing is that now authors do have a choice.

    Too much debate on both.

    Thank you for the interesting post :)

  3. dirtywhitecandy

    Bravo, Jane! It’s so nice to find a balanced discussion of this issue. There is clearly a lot wrong with the system at the moment, but a lot of exciting things emerging too. What I would like to see is writers, publishers, agents and other bodies proposing solutions, not banging the drum about why their corner is the right one to be in.

    I recently posted on my blog about an idea where agents could showcase authors who were talented but difficult to place – I called it the Discovery Imprint (and thank you for including it in your Twitter daily). There were resounding cheers from authors… and howls of infamy from staunch self-publishers. Although some of them kicked the tyres of my idea for a bit and by doing so I now seem to have devised a system that wouldn’t cause a conflict of interest and could be a real step forward. The problem is, I’m not an agent so can do no more than discuss. For those who are interested, it’s all in the comments to my post – http://nailyournovel.wordpress.com/2011/05/11/a-new-mission-for-literary-agents/

    But my main point is this. We know very well what the problems are. Now let’s invent some solutions.

  4. K. A. Hitchens

    As a producer of ebooks (conversion house), I see every side of the discussion and I certainly see both ends of the spectrum come through my door and across my desk. I have wonderful authors–Cristy and Edgar-winners amongst them, as well as several NYTimes Bestselling authors (and, coincidentally, a novelist named S.K. Epperson!)–and first-time novelists.

    I see novels that should not see the light of day, and frankly, no editor in the world could fix them without a torch. I see novels that are lovely, and should have been found by a publisher long ago. I have new series now being launched digitally by long-time traditionally-published authors (like Tim Hallinan).

    The Holy Grail of e-publishing today, for both those put out by Bix 6 Houses versus the self-published or "indie" published, is separating the wheat from the chaff, and rising to the top of what is now the buyers’ slush pile. We’ve gone from throwing our manuscripts over the transom to throwing them over the KDP (Kindle Digital Publishing platform). Everyone wants to be the next Karen McQuestion, or Stephen Carpenter, or Amanda Hocking…but I know that no one knows precisely what that takes; what the secret incantation is that makes a book catch fire–other than Social Networking as a hammer.

    Ten years ago, 15,000 new titles would come on the English-speaking market; last year, 175,000 new titles came on the market. How does ANYONE sort through a slush pile that high?

    I will say that the lack of editing is a serious problem in today’s self-published world, and I know I keep a list of available, affordable line editors and developmental editors (proven, not merely "self-proclaimed") handy for any author that asks for referrals…I see many books that are literally incoherent; some so bad I’ve declined to put my book production credit in it, even though all we do is convert the format(s). I’d also recommend writer’s groups (although they are hard to find)…the worst ms’s I see are from writers without any critique support other than immediate family.

    However, I concur that taking an inflexible position–that Big 6 is "good" and indie is "bad" is absurdist…and obviously, I’m biased, as indie publishing is my bread-and-butter. ;-)

  5. S.K.Epperson

    Let me bend the spectrum and offer comment as both a professionally published and self published author. My first two novels were published at St. Martin’s Press, then my editor left to become a comic book editor and the new editor said my third novel was too much of a departure from my first two, so we shopped it elsewhere and landed at Donald I. Fine, now owned by Penguin. I published six more books with DIF, including a western under a pseudonym, and went through another two editors (my editors were always leaving to do other things) who felt free to change my titles, alter the endings of my books, all while still paying peanuts (after six books) and then became incensed when I shopped another pseudonymous title to a different house, Kensington. All nine novels were published in hardcover and every single one had typos that escaped detection. Now I’m writing again and I’m new to self-publishing obviously, but I can already tell you I love knowing none of my story will be altered and the titles I choose will stay my titles. (Just as an example, the people at DIF renamed one of my books and called it NIGHTMARE. Could you be more generic?) So yeah, looking forward to being my own happy little publisher and I know I won’t be alone out there. Thanks for the forum. :)

  6. Beth MacKinney

    I think the biggest issues with self-publishing are:

    • Not all of them are legit. There are a lot of scammers out there. It’s definitely writer beware.

    • Too many self-publishing writers are willing to bypass good objective help in producing a nearly flawless book, whether for money reasons or because they just think they don’t need it. Personally, I’m frustrated by the poor English by most writers who think they have a ready manuscript. Go back to school and get some basic education to start with. Take the time to learn your craft. Often many self-publishing writers are jumping into a market before they’re ready. It will undermine their credibility in the end, because there aren’t any shortcuts to writing. For writers who follow traditional routes but don’t wait for their writing to mature, they form the miry sludge of the slush pile we have to wade through.

  7. David Rory O'Neill

    Thank Jane for a well thought out and well balanced argument. I can see why people see self-published as being deserving of universal dismissal. My first attempt was dreadful and has been much regretted. A few copies of the withdrawn first edition leaked on to Amazon and now sit there as a constant and painful reprimand. The rest have been and will be eBook. I did get a genuine non-friend review that was utterly thrilling and gratifying for being real and unsolicited.
    I was once told, on a writer’s forum, that absolutely none of my opinions counted for anything because I had self-published.
    We do it for different reasons. Mine was the knowledge that my work was too non-mainstream and alternative to stand any chance with the gatekeepers.
    An agent responded by saying the work was worthy, well written, fabulously evolving, but too left-field to be sellable.
    What is one then to do? Give up, throw away ten novels and start again trying to please the gatekeeper?
    Or go it alone and risk dismissal and the brickbats of the middle ground that have gotten past the gatekeepers with what is often with pap and pulp.
    I have tried to avoid too much active selling on my blog and in tweets and have not chased meaningless numbers – result low numbers. But I can hold my head up and know that that precious review was truly earned by the work.
    David Rory O’Neill

  8. Anthony StClair

    It’s a such a damn tiresome debate. It’s like the "tourist vs. traveler" debate you see in a lot of travel circles. Endless argument, never-ending, yadda-yadda.

    My take: whether independent or traditional, if a book is crap, the fault is the author’s and the publisher’s. If independent, the author is also the publisher, and they should have done a better job getting a good editor and making sure the book was the best expression of their intent for it. If traditional, the publisher got shoddy, and the author didn’t do enough to keep a poor book from seeing print.

    Traditional and independent publishing are different means to the same end: getting a book to market. Shoddy is shoddy, no matter which path is taken. Same for quality.

    BTW Jane, looking forward to meeting you at the Willamette Writers Conference this August!

  9. David Mark Brown

    Amen and Amen. Recently I have stumbled across a couple of titles online and jumped over to kindle store or iBooks and grabbed the free sample to check them out. One of them was self-pubbed but it took me going back to the front to realize it. When I stumble across a "piece of crap" it costs me nothing but a few minutes of my time to deduce the fact and move on.
    The only piece lacking, in my opinion for self-pubbing to take its place along side the big boys is a more effective reviewing network/system in place. It is forming, but just taking a while to gel. With help to sift the pile the self-pubbed cream will start to rise.

  10. Gary Clark

    “Self-Pub is crap?”

    I’m a self published author by night and a venture capitalist by day. I invest millions in the creative destruction of traditional business models, and the creation of new, more efficient ones. As the digital sword of technology slashes through the publishing world, a flatter, cheaper ecosystem will arise.

    Traditional publishers have, and will provide valuable services to authors and readers. But their business model will forever be changed in the digital world, and sooner, rather than later.

    I read a quote by a $0.99 self publishing millionaire author the other day that crystallized it all for me – “I don’t have to prove my books are as good as a $9.99 publishing house – they have to prove they’re 10 times better than me.”

    That’s it in a nutshell. Fast, cheap… and good enough. That’s what the double-edged sword of revolution demands. Yes, there will be crap, oceans of crap. But for the adventurous, the risk will be worth the reward. We’ll discover uncharted islands of brilliant new authors, thrilling stories and strange new worlds.

    Revolutions can be messy. Via la revolution.

  11. Peter Crowell

    I’ve managed to cover my costs as a self-published author of kid’s fantasy adventure. I love the act of publishing and I love what I write. What I really want is to just get paid for my creativity.

    I’d be delighted by a shot with a big publisher, but I won’t wait around for someone else to decide if I can live my dream or not.

    In the mean time, I do my very best to create the highest quality books I’m capable of. I’m no hack. But I definitely appreciate the value of a professional editor.

    But this is my life and my dream and I don’t need a giant publisher or a small publisher to give me permission to live it.

    Let the cream rise to the top, I say!

  12. eden baylee

    Being a self pubbed author is less of a stigma today than in the past because there have been success stories on the self-publishing front. By success, I don’t just mean in sales, but in quality. These are the well-edited, well written, and professionally designed books ( or at least have the appearance as such).

    At the end of the day, the constant has to be the quality of the writing. If authors of self-published books are guided by this goal, then the gap will eventually diminish between the two platforms.

  13. Heather McCorkle

    Brilliantly put! I’ve read excellent books published both ways. I love your point about having the platform and selling based off that. It’s proven. It would be nice to see some kind of quality control on self-publishing though. I think it would revolutionize it and bring a certain prestige to it that it badly needs. Excellent post!

  14. Glynis Smy

    Interesting article. Both have their place. It gets quite confusing to read both sides. I am hoping for the traditional route, that has been my dream. Should I not succeed, I will consider s/p.

  15. Tony McFadden

    The ‘self-published work is crap’ view allows those authors who take their time with editing and formatting the opportunity to rise above the sludge. I’ve picked up six self-puubbed books in the past couple of weeks, and the range of quality is remarkable.

    A well-executed paranormal police procedural (potential new killer genre?) balanced against a poorly formatted, even more poorly edited dystopian something or other – I couldn’t really tell what it was about. I couldn’t read it. I gave up after the second chapter.

    There isn’t enough patience out there. Authors need to make the effort. And when they do, they’ll stand out.

    At least for now (and a long time to come, by the looks of it).

  16. Veronica

    I completely agree. Obviously there is going to be more crap among self published books, because anyone can do it. However, ‘anyone’ includes very talented writers who’s books are well edited, as well as those who still need some work but are okay, and some who are just plain delusional about their writing skills. Just because there are more bad books than in traditional publishing, doesn’t mean all the books are bad.

    Sure as a reader it’s more difficult to know what’s worth my time, and as an aspiring writer it’s difficult because of all the extra competition…but despite the extra work, I will always believe that more choices and more information are always better than less.

    My personal opinion is that people with extreme views simply find it easier to jump to conclusions instead of looking at facts. It’s true in politics, religion, and almost every other issue people deal with. Learning makes us question what we have previously believed, and some people just aren’t cut out for that.

    Thank you for bringing this up. It’s always nice to hear the opinions of someone who looks at things from an unbiased viewpoint.

  17. tara tyler

    I wish the extremists would settle down. It isn’t necessary to bash to prove a point.

    I would also like to see requirements or standards for self/e-publishing put into place somehow. Reviews seem skewed. I agree that it is getting harder to sift thru the throngs of epub offerings, it was hard enough to find a keeper in the bookstore…

  18. Ann Best

    I’ve read some superb self-published books/stories lately. Also some that aren’t good for a number of reasons, including format. But I think/hope those trying to self-publish are working harder to raise the standard.

    Bottom line: like it or not, self-publishing is in. I’m just glad a small press published my first book so that whoever buys it knows I write well and might buy another book by me even if it’s self-published.

    I look for a well-written book no matter how it was published. And before I buy a self-published one, I want to read a sample. No sample, I don’t buy–even if it has four/five stars, which are probably by friends. This latter is a problem, too. (I like the brick and mortar bookstore where you can open the book and glance at the writing in hand.)

    The publishing industry is indeed at a crossroads/in flux. It will be interesting, in the next few years, to see how it all plays out.

  19. Steven M Moore

    Hi Jane,
    Your last paragraph says it all. Kudos to you for saying it like it is.
    For those who read and misinterpreted my comments yesterday (perhaps even you?–e-mail is so fickle as a media), let me set the record straight: my modus operandi is to keep all options open. Things are too volatile right now to choose one extreme over the other. Technology can truly be a roulette wheel. My backing betamax over VHS many years ago because it was the better technology comes to mind! LOL.
    Usually what I do is try the traditional route first, agents and all that. Yes, they’re gatekeepers, but maybe some are just like St. Peter, trying to keep publishing heaven a better place for those who pass through. That’s why I keep doing it: in all stories about St. Peter I’ve heard he lets you know why you don’t pass the mustard–in other words, I’m waiting for feedback. Silly me, though. 99.99% of the time it’s a form letter (e-mail now more often) saying something like "your work is not quite right for our agency right now." If the agent elaborates, he or she might say "to promote a work, I have to be passionate about it, and I’m not passionate about your novel."
    What defines an agent’s passion? That N.Y. Times bestseller! The Big 6 want them. Agents want them. From their POV, it makes absolute sense.
    For me, I just want readers. I can’t give my stuff away because I have to recover costs, even though self-publishing is not expensive.
    The point is, the agents are probably right–with all the good competition out there (I think readers are smart enough to filter bad from good), I won’t write a N.Y. Times bestseller, legacy- published or otherwise. Consequently, following the legacy route will also mean my novel has a short life before it’s returned from the bookstores.
    Nonetheless, I keep submitting to agents, hoping for some feedback, and that illusive contract. Until I reach a threshold (it’s hovering around 50 rejections now), it’s just my way of doing business. I’m not in a hurry. I have stories to write!
    r/Steve

  20. Marleen Gagnon

    Self publishing will not go away, but there will be a transitioning of publishers who survive. It will be interesting to see how the two will meld. I liken it to Wal-Mart and Main Street America. Change is inevitable in anything. I’ve read crap in both types of books, self published because the book wasn’t ready and published because the writers were placed on a production line to put-it-out, put-it-out, put-it-out. As for myself, for now, I read an excerpt from the book to see if it’s worth buying at any price and wait to see what happens next.

  21. Dan Lubart

    Well spoken point of view. I analyze a lot of raw data on the eBook marketplace and I can add something of possible relevence to the discussion.
    The average rating of titles on the Kindle Bestsellers list yesterday between $0-$2.99 (the typical realms of self-published with some promo thrown in) is 3.98. For eBooks from $3-$7.99 it was 4.16. For eBooks from $8-$9.99 it was 4.28. The numbers fluctuate day to day but that is very representative of the splits (I won’t count books over $10 because of the obvious downrating problem associated with that price point).

    I will leave it to others to debate if those differences are significant or not, but my personal opinion is that it *might* validate that there is a slight quantitative difference in user perception of quality between self-published and traditional-published, which shouldn’t offend or surprise anyone. I dont’ think anyone is arguing against the idea that professional editing benefits the final product.

    If you are buying in the sub-$3 price point, you are probably aware of the slightly higher risk of disapointment, but this comes with lower financial risk. I think market efficiency is ‘doing its thing’ and that’s a good thing. There’s more choice for a substantial segment of readers who are willing to take that risk, and nothing taken away from those who prefer to stick with bestselling authors.

  22. Theresa Milstein

    You’re right. It’s the same problem with any extremist argument because it doesn’t give the whole picture. Very few issues in this world are black and white.

    That said, I’ve read several ebooks that were just awful in the beginning. I couldn’t stick with them. A couple clearly weren’t line edited. And the other two were probably rejected by traditional publishers for obvious reasons like tell instead of show.

    Because it’s so easy to self-publish, it makes the authors who are making a valiant effort have to work that much harder. We’re at a crossroads for both self-published and traditional. If unqualified people flood the market with garbage, it could make readers return to traditional. But if traditional publishers take fewer chances on new, fresh voices, it could continue to hurt them.

    As for me, I had started to give self-published a chance, but it’s been difficult to find gems. I’m beginning to think it’s too difficult. Blogging buddies give 5 stars to every friend’s book. This is a problem with both traditional and self-published, but self-published books aren’t rated by non-friends very much. In addition, self-published bloggers are less fun to follow because they promote constantly. Many blogs and Facebook posts (and Twitter too, I’m sure) have become advertisements.

    As a result, I’m wary of self-published authors and sometimes their blogs as well.

  23. Lynn Dove

    I think the lines are blurring between traditional and self-publishing with the e-book technology taking over the market place. The key to success for any author is to ensure the product you are putting out there is of the highest quality and I knew before I self-published that part of my cost HAD to go towards getting my books edited. It is money well spent! My books are best-sellers AND award winners.

  24. Susan Helene Gottfried

    Jane, I liked and admired you before this post. Now, you’re my hero.

    The Pennwriters Conference is kicking off about now. I will miss your presence this year (You were there when I reported the news Miss Snark had retired! I feel a connection), but we’re getting Chuck. Should be fun. Hope you’ll join us again in the future.

  25. Kimberly Fain

    @Jane: I appreciate your perspective. I think one of the big differences between self-published and traditional publishers is the editing process. Generally, self-published authors have to pay an independent contractor or pay the vanity publishers extra costs (thousands) to edit. Many self-published books have typos or proofreading errors. I appreciated the freedom that came with publishing my novel, BEDLAM REIGNS. However, I was frustrated that I continued to find errors during the drafting process after I had paid thousands to others. There are positives and negatives on both sides. Nevertheless, one can hardly dispute that experienced and skilled editors is a plus side of traditionally publishing. With that being said…thanks Jane for keeping it real. I’m definitely a fan of your articles!

  26. Colleen Fong

    They can and do coexist. Self-publishing, and more to the point, the technology that allows it, is leveling the playing field and opening doors. Using a blend of both seems to be the best bet whenever possible.

  27. Evelyn Lafont

    I agree–traditional and self-publishing each have a very important place in the literary world and what is right for one author may not be right for another. They can co-exist.

    But I wish that you would mention the new generation of self-published authors who ARE putting out edited, quality products. Many of the self-published authors I know–including myself–are hiring editors, proofreaders, artists, layout designers and using critique partners and beta readers to put out the same quality work as one would expect from a traditional publisher. We understand the difference between vanity publishing and the BUSINESS of being an author, and we are in this for the long haul–not just for the temporary rush of seeing our name over at the Amazon.com. :)

  28. Sarra Cannon

    The important thing is that authors have a choice. Yes, there’s a lot of crap out there that’s self-published, but there’s also a growing number of quality books. Authors have a choice now as far as which route to pursue and bashing one over the other is mostly just a waste of time.

  29. jfxmcl

    Traditional publishers are moving to the sure thing, celebrities or brand names who can generate their own publicity and get on the media circuit, rather than developing a name. Newer authors now have an outlet to fend for themselves. When freelance (laid-off) editors become available to independent authors a balance will be met.

  30. Julee Adams

    Amen, sisters. It is especially frustrating for those of us who are trying to make the decision of where to go to start the road to become published right now. And while I worked as an editor for technical pieces and my mss. is pretty clean, I too will be putting any fiction under a microscope and have outside eyes look at it. Because, let’s all say it out loud–amateur night pieces and editing don’t look good no matter where they come from. Thanks again, Jane.

  31. Fiona

    I think self publishing has made me appreciate the quality of publishing house books so much more. I worked for weeks with an editor and other friends proof reading and we were still picking up mistakes. It’s really a fine tooth comb job.

    I think complaining about other modes of publishing is a waste of time. You choose the route you want to take and then go all out for it. If you self publish then you have to do it and do it as well as you can and be prepared to take responsibility for the finished product.

    As someone who loves reading I just try to give my readers what I want – a book that makes you do everything three times faster so you can get back to it!

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