We Need a Better Filter for Self-Published Books

June 11, 2012 · 17 comments

Years ago, when someone wrote a book, you knew it was probably decent. Just because of the mere fact that it existed, that a publishing house had bothered to put it on shelves, you knew it had merit.

Now, with the ease of self-publishing, anyone can publish a book. This is fabulous for so many reasons, including the opportunity it provides those of us who are entrepreneurial and enjoy overseeing the entire process. But it also has a downside: not everything that’s published is decent. Self-publishing lets writers put a lot of crap out into the world, which waters down the overall quality of books.

This, of course, is why self-publishing still has a stigma. But what about the self-published books that are really great? While the massive pool of self-published books includes plenty of reads that aren’t as polished as books that are backed by a traditional house, there are still lots of self-published stories out there that are worth your while.

Love at the Speed of Email

Self-published, but you'd never know it.

Case in point: Lisa McKay’s about-to-launch book, Love at the Speed of Email. I had lunch with Lisa last week (we’ve long been online friends, but this was the first time we’d met in person), and she showed me her beautiful cover design. Lisa already has one traditionally published book, but she couldn’t convince a publisher to buy her memoir. So she hired her own editor and designer, and published herself. Of course, it wasn’t that easy — all the details of self-publishing can be time-consuming to wade through — but Lisa’s book launches TODAY. Yay!

(If you’re interested in picking her brain, she’ll be here for a Q&A sometime during the next two weeks.)

Another good example is Torre DeRoche‘s Swept, which was self-published until a publisher — and film director! — bought rights to the book. I’m one of the lucky few who has it on my bookshelf in original form.

But back to my conversation with Lisa. She mentioned the need for a better filter for self-published books, and I think she’s totally right. Now that anyone can put a book out there, how can consumers figure out which books are actually, well, good? Which ones the author put a ton of time and effort into, as opposed to simply finishing a draft and making it available to the world?

Amazon’s star-rating system is one way to determine whether a book’s worth reading, and word of mouth often factors heavily into our book-buying decisions. But I don’t think that’s enough. Some other filter system has GOT to develop as self-published books become more and more popular. (Think this idea is interesting? Tweet it!)

What do you think? Have you ever considered buying a self-published book? How’d you choose whether to purchase or pass?

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Clare June 11, 2012 at 8:34 am

I agree with you, Alexis. I think there’s a big difference between self-published books that are done as personal, solo projects vs those where the author hires a designer, editor and copywriter to improve their work. As with many things, I think the quality rises to the top and that the market will sort things out, albeit messily and with contradiction.

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Guest October 1, 2012 at 3:06 am

Those three things — editor, designer and copywriter — are absolutely essential for an e-pub author. But they’re prohibitively expensive. How can one afford these kind of essential services if one hopes to make money by selling the “best possible” book, one that won’t be the “best possible” unless one can afford those things first?

Chicken/egg catch-22 here. :(

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Lisa McKay June 11, 2012 at 8:54 am

Clare, I wonder if the market can sort this out without help, though? I mean, it will for some lucky few, obviously. But just as traditional publishers proved to be some sort of gatekeeper with regards to quality, I think a new sort of gatekeeper will spring up. I hope so, actually, otherwise self-publishing will just become a social-media-driven popularity contest. And I suspect those most popular in the self-publishing realm will not always have the time or inclination to be uber-careful with the quality of their work.

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Alexis Grant June 11, 2012 at 10:53 am

Yes! And that conversation in the Facebook group for travel memoir writers is really related to this, whether to spend money when you self-publish, etc.

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Andi of My Beautiful Adventures June 11, 2012 at 10:23 am

I am definitely considering it when the time comes do to Torre’s success!

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Clare June 11, 2012 at 10:42 am

That’s the fear alright, Lisa. That the lowest common denominator stuff will thrive in a self-publishing world characterized by mediocrity and poor standards. I hope that the audience will have the wisdom to reward the ‘real’ writers by buying their work, rather than succumbing to clever, fear-based marketing. Reading over the weekend, I was reminded again just how wide the gap in quality can be between blogs (mine included!) and professionally published books, newspapers and magazines. Best of luck with the launch, Clare.

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Albert The Student Loan CPA June 11, 2012 at 10:54 am

CreateSpace has a reviewing service. I think some of you folks who are excellent readers and writers should do this. Seriously – why not? I’d pay a few hundred bucks to have someone credible read my book and write an honest review. Of course, I shouldn’t be able to control whether the review is published or not.

At the end of the day, self-publishing is hustling, and will be subject to the inherent unfairness that comes with any business with low barriers to entry. Another idea would be for the right people to create a small publishing company or co-op and build a brand that says each book has had XYZ done to it. That would not assure quality, but it would assure EFFORT on the part of the creator….

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Shona Patel June 11, 2012 at 11:01 am

There is a new agented publishing- Argo Narvis Author Services (a division of Perseus Books, a very respected publisher) which is a hybrid platform for agented authors who want to self publish. My agent and I were seriously considering this. It has its drawbacks but in a way it separates the wheat from the chaff because being agented (you agent has to sign up with Argo Navis) means somebody is putting in the muscle to market you. Argo counts on the agent/gate-keeper factor to insure the work is above par. It is controversial though, because the author pays for everything just like traditional self publishing, yet loses on a big percent of royalties. But it does have more snob value than straight forward self publishing which dumps writers straight into a landfill of crap. These are confusing times to be sure. I have no doubt some kind of grading system will eventually evolve for self publishing. It’s almost better to wait, I think, till things sort themselves out…

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Esther June 11, 2012 at 10:52 pm

I love books, but I don’t buy books. (The library is my second home.) I’ve definitely never bought a self-published book, although if it was a practical kind of guide by someone fairly established online that I already followed and trusted, I might. I don’t see myself ever buying self-published fiction.
Esther recently posted…egesther: Would love to see a local version of this. http://t.co/4jAEfnLKMy Profile

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Peggy Frezon June 12, 2012 at 9:48 am

I would love to see a better filter. I have an agent and I have published both traditionally and self published. While I feel that both books are equally worthy, I like publishing traditionally better because it is taken more seriously.
Peggy Frezon recently posted…The Book about the Healing Love of AnimalsMy Profile

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Pam Stucky June 12, 2012 at 1:21 pm

I think we also need to be careful about this statement:

“Just because of the mere fact that it existed, that a publishing house had bothered to put it on shelves, you knew it had merit.”

That has changed, too. Publishers and agents now seem to be more concerned about sales than about quality. I will reference Snooki and leave it at that.

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Alexis Grant June 12, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Wish there was a LIKE button for this comment, Pam!

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Pam Stucky June 12, 2012 at 1:38 pm

:) Thanks, Alexis! Best wishes to you in your writing and adventures!

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Normandie June 12, 2012 at 2:23 pm

I wish I’d bought Torre’s original paperback, but I downloaded the Kindle version, wrote a few reviews of it, and was never happier than when I saw that her work had hit it big. It deserved the accolades. I buy a lot of self-published travel memoirs (keep me in mind when yours is ready) and sailing stories because I love to travel and I’m a sailor. But a lot of these find their way back into the cloud via my Delete button. (I buy fewer paper books because I do so much reading and writing from the boat, and my husband said I was coming close to sinking it.) Why do many self-published and even a large number of traditionally published books slide right on off my virtual or real shelf? Because someone didn’t take the time or care that Torre did to create a beautiful package and a great story. (I’ll hit that “Like” button with you for Pam’s comment, Alexis.)
Normandie recently posted…New Site, New ProblemsMy Profile

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Maria June 14, 2012 at 2:21 am

I have written and self-published five books, the first one as far back as 2007.
As I take my craft seriously, I have always spent money on an editor and proofreader.

Since 2010 it has become much easier to publish ebooks and the temptation is is big to hit that ‘publish’ button, before the manuscript is ready. Unfortunately many people do it.
And I am not just talking about people who have originally written content, but also people who copy texts from the internet to sell as an ebook and private label sites, who sell the ‘rights’ to bits of text to gullible people who then publish it as an ebook.
Amazon has been cracking down on those last two a lot in the past 6 months and it seems to work.

Those people who genuinly write their own manuscrips are of couse more difficult to ‘manage’. But will a filter work? I don’t think so. Then we again get the problem that ‘a firm’ decides what is good and what is bad, just like what happens with traditional publishing.

I truely believe that market will take care of it. Amazon has indeed a star-rating review system, but more importantly it has a ‘look inside’ feature for each book. It is up to the customer to make use of these things. Read the reviews, but above all, use the look inside feature, or download a sample.
Looking at the sample, it will be clear very soon if the book is good enough. Bad book don’t get sold. If it doesn’t get sold it will drift to the bottom of the rankings, where it is virtualy invisible.

Book that are good will get good star-ratings and reviews. They will appear on the ‘custumors who bought this…’ feature and if it still sells more, they will become visible in the rankings.
But this takes time, and it seems that impatient authors don’t want to wait. They want to put their book on Amazon, sell loads of books the next day and be rich the week after. They will soon discover that it doesn’t work like that and disappear.

Lately on the different forums the quality of the writing has become a big topic. Unexperienced authors also read these forums and who knows, they might even pick up some tips.

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Jan June 14, 2012 at 8:45 am

If anything needs a filter for quality its the NYT best sellers list.
The NYT best sellers list is typically lined with garbage. Just because a corporation cranked something out, marketed it, and a million people bought it, is NOT an indication of enduring and serious quality in literature. TV and the movie industry illustrates this dynamic all too well.
The music industry has undergone purgings of the corporate influence to its benefit, as independent artists embraced a DIY aesthetic to rail against market-driven music — that’s how Alternative Music evolved and rescued the music industry from the marketers. It was an alternative to crap. Now the publishing industry is undergoing the same purge, and the best works will arise from out of it — unfiltered by “markets.”
Not everyone considers “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Marley and Me,” as great works of literature. In fact, typically if a book sells a million copies, it’s geared toward the same sales realm which has made “Jersey Shore” a TV hit, the consumer markets. Those books are products of a certain reality-show aesthetic (some might call narcissism) which is popular in entertainment markets currently. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with targeting the mainstream markets, that’s your business, but let’s not pretend the mainstream is noted for an ability to “filter” quality art from consumer crap.
But the truth is, a lot of authors would gladly accept low-quality in their efforts in exchange for corporate “credibility” and big sales, and that’s why the literary world is a more like a big marketing campaign, and less like a rich venue for great cutting-edge works of art. Just look at what burgeoning authors discuss online — query letters, proposals, sales platforms, networking, and the like. It’s rare to hear an author discuss the creative aesthetic which drives them, and much more common to see goals of publication and career goals in reference to a new author’s book.
Need a filter for DIY, organic, art? I propose your own judgement suffices. Peruse the self-published realm, which invariably must harbor the gems which corporations can’t touch — books which are too unlike “Jersey Shore” in one way or another. When you find them, review them, and tell others. This is what saved music, and what will save literature from the scourge of the NYT best sellers list.

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Bruce Dunn August 15, 2012 at 12:46 am

I would not be surprised in the best books are self published. I’m sure the worst are. How do does one have the time to sort through the thousands to know which are which? Traditional publishing only saves one from having to sort through the worst. I use word of mouth and reviews on book covers. It is not a super valid approach, but it is all I have time for. I haven’t used the Amazon in side the cover program. I may try that. If I am typical what I’m saying should say something to authors.

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