GUEST POST: Indie e-books: A Fantastic Opportunity or a Disaster Waiting to Happen? by Rachel Abbott

Indie e-books: A Fantastic Opportunity or a Disaster Waiting to Happen

I must start by saying that I am a huge fan of indie e-books – but I needed to get your attention!

I love the fact that writers everywhere are now able not only to publish books, but to take the vast majority of the revenue too. Unlike in a traditional bookstore, each book is given the same prominence – the same amount of shelf space – so even though most indie publishers, myself included, are working to a tight budget for publicity and have to rely on their own hard marketing efforts, I think it's a great step in the right direction.


I want to raise a small note of caution. I suspect that the majority of books published in the early days were from authors who have been writing for some time, and either haven't managed to get a publishing deal, or didn't like the ones they were offered. But the point is, they wrote their books because they wanted to write. We might all dream of being the next J K Rowling, but we are probably all equally aware that we are unlikely to become rich on our efforts. We write because we love writing, and any financial gain is a huge plus. Most of us would have completed our novels with or without the e-book explosion, and the quality of the writing and the experience that our readers get is tremendously important. As it should be.

I read an article today that said many authors are now selling over a thousand e-books a month, which is brilliant news for the successful ones. Equally I read a different article last week that said that most e-books sell less than a hundred copies.  But the lure of potential riches is starting to bring a plethora of poorly written books into the Amazon store, and something could – and probably will – break. Some commentators suggest that this is already happening. Maybe Amazon will decide to put some kind of restriction on publishing, charge for book uploads, or – possibly the worst case scenario – our readers get so fed up of buying indie published books that are poorly written, badly formatted and full of errors that they decide to go back to reading books only from recognised publishers. We don't want either of these to happen – do we?

All of this reminds me of my early days in the educational software business. We are going back a lot of years here – but essentially there were two sorts of products; those devised by teachers who understood fully the educational requirements but who perhaps had only a rudimentary understanding of programming so the software didn't work properly and looked pretty awful, or products designed by programmers that were swish and sophisticated, but actually didn't deliver any educational gains. The programmers believed, of course, that as they had themselves been to school, they must automatically have an understanding of education. A very flaky premise! The net result was a whole heap of stuff that was poor in one respect or another (and – of course – some real gems). Teachers lost faith in independently published products – and the industry stayed that way for a long time. I was one of the lucky ones – I built my company by employing both educationalists and programmers. Not that difficult a concept, really! But it was a higher risk strategy than just ploughing away on my own at home, because it involved investment.

So how does this apply to us, here and now? The writers have perhaps been the equivalent of the teachers – producing great stuff that people want to read. And the publishers have been the programmers, making it all work and packaging it professionally – proof read, error checked and formatted correctly. Some indie publishers are paying for these services; most aren't.

So where does this leave us? We've got people who are passionate about their writing, and to be fair the majority (but not all) seem to care enormously about the quality of the experience for their readers. But increasingly we will be seeing books from those who think they can write because they can read, and who see it as an opportunity to make easy money. I read the other week about a woman who aims to write six books a year in her spare time, purely to maximise her financial gain. I genuinely don't know how that is possible, and I can only suspect that she hasn't yet tried!

So what can we do to keep this as a successful business, serving writers and readers everywhere?

One thing that I have noticed in the short time that I have been an indie e-book publisher is that other serious authors are generally immensely kind people, who are looking for success themselves but equally are happy to lend a hand to other writers along the way. So with this spirit of kinship in mind, maybe we can proactively help each other by reading each other's work, pointing out any issues that are found – whether they be formatting, grammatical or just mistakes in timelines or point of view. And we, as authors, need to be receptive to constructive criticism so that we are constantly improving the readers' experience of our books.

Our individual views regarding the quality of the plot will always be subjective, and should be covered by reviewers of the genre in question. But my final plea would be to those reviewers. If a book is not going to provide a good experience to the reader – even if the plot is brilliant – I really think that the author should be informed of the flaws and given an opportunity to put them right before a misleading 5 star review is published. I don't mean the odd missed full stop – but I do mean consistently poor editing.

Perhaps the time will come when we have to create some sort of Indie Authors' Association, where we have a recognised quality mark that we assign to any book which meets the relevant criteria. And no, this is not like getting back to the old publisher model. The quality mark would show only that the book was well presented and error free. Judgement about the plot and the reading experience would remain in the hands of the readers and the reviewers.

But in the meantime, we all need to continue to take enormous pride in the quality of our own work, and be as supportive as possible to other indie authors to ensure that this industry continues to thrive and maintain a high level of professionalism.

I would love to hear what others think.

20 responses to “GUEST POST: Indie e-books: A Fantastic Opportunity or a Disaster Waiting to Happen? by Rachel Abbott”

  1. This has always been the big bugaboo with self-publishing… open access. Now I am goignt o say something, and this may seen cruel, but a big problem is, a lot of people who want to write… welll… they can't write. Andsince we want to be supportive ofe ach other, no one wants to tell someone that they can not write. But self-pblishing is a lot like American idol try-outs… people have dreams, and when a pro tells them that they're just not very good, they become angry and defensive. Just becasue you want to write doesn't always mean you have the talent to. I've put down a bunch of Indie books simply ecause they were so bad. And on another note… the editing issue. Sure, we should all be edited. But I'll be honest (again), I've read several indie books that have been “edited” by a lot of these small proof-reading and copy-editing services that have been popping up, and the editing is just awful (mostly poor comma and semi colon use). So just because “pro” editing is done by someone with a bachelor's degree in English does not mean it is actuallt being edited for good grammar. And ont he last hand… yes, I have three… there are so many Indies out there that to try and put some organization together with a “stamp of approval” may be impossible. They would be soooo bombarded that you would need full-time readers to get anything done, so people would have to start to pay… and what you end up with is a littl editing house instead that needs to start pickign and choosing because there is not enough time in the day…. Wheww. And I'm done. And if there are spelling/grammar editors, I am sorry. I am writing this between patients

  2. I think indie e-books are a fantastic opportunity for a lot of good authors who would otherwise be overlooked by publishers because their lists are limited each year, or because the authors are writing for a niche market that is not large enough to interest a big publisher.

    However, the ease of putting up ebooks also seems to make a lot of writers believe that they don't need to be professional, to learn to spell or obey basic grammar rules, etc., and a plethora of bad ebooks can drag down the whole indie field (aka guilt by association). It would be nice to see some sort of filter/rating service to ensure a certain basic quality.

    But the authors who have mastered their craft and assembled a decent story and e-published still have a major challenge: getting found among the other millions simultaneously jumping online. This is where traditional publishers still have an edge with the popular reviewers, libraries, bookstores, newspapers, and so forth. That's why, for now, I'm pursuing both traditional and indie routes with my books, and hoping to benefit from both worlds.

  3. Amazon, for one, is now contacting authors as well as PULLING books that have typos and formattings errors. This is not rumor — this is fact. I work for an organization, I have clients, I KNOW.

    And for the record, not every book they've pulled has been an indie. 😉

    I understand your point, Rachel and Brad. But I feel the argument is somewhat old. It is what it is. I personally have paid well-researched money for amazing services by professionals — not just someone “with a degree.” My books have hit #1 on several list & one made the Kindle Top 100.

    I've been approached by 2 NYC agents — neither of whom I queried — based strictly on the quality on my books. But enough about me.

    Indie doesn't mean suck. There doesn't have to be either or. Readers determine what they like, love, or hate & can simply return a book & write a scathing review (believe me, I've got those, too!) if they truly do hate it.

    We all can make a living. I agree that a book must be edited/formatted and put together well before it sees the light of day. But it reflects poorly on the author if it's not — those books don't usually (Amanda Hocking) sell. Yea, sure.

    Good luck with your work. Truly.

  4. Delighted to see some healthy debate. I had hoped there would be loads of different points of view, but the underlying message seems to be the same. There are some real stars that will shine through – no matter what – and then there are those that shouldn't be published at all.

    I agree that to have some stamp of approval would be a massive (and therefore probably unachievable) goal, and also that it would be almost like getting back to publishing (although the agents / publishers do take a significant view on the ability of a book to sell in the current market, rather than just the quality of the wirting).

    But the more I read, the more I hear rumours that Amazon may start to charge for uploading indie books, and also somebody mentioned a forum for people working out strategies to AVOID indie published books.

    Personally, I love the whole indie publishing spirit. It's been enormous fun and I've been more successful than I ever dared hope, and 'met' some great people.

    But I still do worry about the future!

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my ramblings – and let's hope there's more opinion to come.

  5. I am crossed on this. While I put my stuff up, after 4 literary agents and over 24 editor passes because my stuff was either too “literary” or too “genre”, I was happy to see almost 1,000 books sell in two days. However, there are dangers that readers may either get frustrated (as you said), or will no longer be able to tell the difference in good vs bad vs brilliant. I tend to think it will be the former.

    Like every creative field, writers form the typical pyramid representative of all human talents. That is to say, by nature, the largest category of writers are bad writer and at the bottom. These are the folks who blindly write, thinking their penning God's masterpiece and unaware of the cringing of the muses. The second tier up is the “good” writers, people who can tell a story and understand the basic language structure. These are people who might write “His strong, determined chin” but who can keep a story moving forward. The third tier is the really good writers, folks who may write “The man's chin was square and tight and, coupled with his eyes, reminded me of someone driven to succeed.” Above the great writers are the geniuses, whose work can be so obscure that it may be mistaken as dirge.

    Of course, as the pyramid goes higher, the count gets lower. That's just the way it is. In this fashion, should a book like The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson get the same “shelf space” as one of the poorly written, slops on Kindle published by an Indie? I would hope not, or folks like Stephen King and JK Rowling and Ernest Hemingway will no longer exist, and future writers of that capacity will likewise never come to light. That would be a very sad day for people buying books and looking for a get-away. Sorry, you won't get a 5-star retreat with most of the writers out there; it's why Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and Dean Koontz are very rich, and why F. Scott Fitzgerald work are still in print almost a 100 years after her wrote them. Great artists and art are rare, and they should be placed on a pedestal to stand above the others…at least I believe so.

    I like the idea of having my stuff “out there”, since it didn't “fit” with publishing houses marketing plans or risk-comfort level. However, I don't like my stuff next to writers who will write “The ringing phone reached its hand into the dark of his sleep and pulled him out of it.” How can the ring of a phone reach its hand into someone's sleep? Or another beauty: “She gave him a look.” What look? I've read at least 50 free samples since I put my stuff up, to check the competition, and I am terribly disturbed by the poor books. That is not to say my stuff is gospel, or I'm Hemingway or King, but it is to say I value my efforts and believe the gaps are apparent. Talent needs to be seen, and it gets jealous when less apt writers are at the helm, to use a cliche.

    My belief is that all readers have an instinct for “good” in the creative field. “Great” and “genius” often isn't apparent initially, but “good” is. We can look at a painting and say it's “good' vs. someone who can't blend colors. The same goes with music and movie making. We know when something is off-key or filmed badly. People intelligent enough to read books will know the difference between a writer who writers “He was electrocuted with energy” vs. “He was excited”. In the same capacity, readers should have a sense that to describe a beat-up, haggard women in a mental hospital as “She looked dead” or “She looked crazy” vs “She was humming to herself in uneven, halting tones like a broken doll whose string had been pulled too many times” represents a distance of light-years in the authors' talent.

    I hope this is true, not just for my aspirations as a writer who believes he has at least some talent, but as a reader who cannot read about characters who “Laugh crazily or fight roughly” or about the same rehashed, uncreative stories.

    Rob Heinze
    Author of more than 15 novels

  6. We have a huge responsibility as Indie authors to ensure that we compete on even terms with the traditionally published authors. This means no short cuts, no rushing, no 'that'll do' attitude. I personally have my work proof read by a professional and my covers designed by a professional. To me, there is no choice in this. The good books will rise to the top; the bad will sink. Reviews are important – the book buying public are a discerning lot – they know when they're reading quality and they know when they're reading dross. If all indie writers took the eBook boom seriously instead of jumping on the bandwagon with half-baked novels and poor covers we wouldn't need to worry about what steps Amazon may or may not take to filter out the dodgy stuff. Still, human nature being what it is, I don't reckon we can rely on every Indie author to take that level of care. Let's hope Amazon don't do anything drastic. As, by Rachel's criteria, I am one of those successful indie authors (I shift around 6,500 copies per month) I wait with bated breath to see what the future holds … great post and some interesting views, all. See you next time!

  7. Interesting debate, as usual. Good writers are going to make sure their books are as polished as possible before placing them out there for public consumption. I find numerous errors in some traditionally published books also. The important thing is to take pride in our work, believe in the finished product and thereby make sure everything is done properly. I've published three novels and a memoir and find no reason to apologize; however, I took the required time to make sure they were quality books in every way. The SP stigma, I believe, is waning somewhat – and about time.

    Excellent posts.

  8. Great post, Rachel. It is an old debate; unfortunately, few have been able to move it forward beyond the beginning of “some indie books are great, some are bad.”

    While poor books will most likely remain unsold and unread, there are many very good ones that don't rise to the top because getting huge sales requires either great promotion or great luck.

    I think your idea of an indie authors' association is great. I have been trying to organize such a group, myself. I see it as a bartering system where authors exchange services they're qualified to deliver, such as editing, proofreading, design or marketing. In this way, the indie author would have all the services and support the legacy publisher used to provide, but would still be in control of his or her work.

    To be a part of the group and take advantage of these services, an author would have to contribute, say, a book edit. In return, once his or her book gets edited by a qualified member of the group, that book would be allowed to post a colophon of the group – an imprimatur.

    What do you think of this?

  9. While I agree that a book should be polished up (perfectly edited), it's impossible to get a book that will get the seal of approval with everyone who reads it. I have gone through many editors and many proofreaders, and every single time, someone missed a typo that I later found while doing a final read. It's very frustrating because I get 1 and 2-star reviews for crappy editing on books with one single typo in it (that three other people I hired to look it over and myself missed). I've gotten blamed for crappy editing when I have used qualified editors and followed their advice. I can't win. Meanwhile, I catch traditionally published books with a sentence that is chopped off in the middle, a hair/eye color that changes, incomplete plot points, a dozen typos, commas not in the right place, etc, and they get a free pass.

    I strive to publish professional books, and I can't make everyone happy no matter what I do. I've gotten the Amazon emails on typos that weren't actually typos, but if the person who complained about the book took the time to read the complete sentence or knew the meaning of the word I used, they would have understood I didn't make those mistakes. If Amazon starts pulling books based on these kind of complaints then anyone can make a complaint about a book and get it pulled. And that someone might be a jealous author who doesn't like another author's success.

    I've been self-publishing since 2002. I do it becasue I love the story and have to write. I wasn't doing it to make easy money. I understand the other side of the equation to what you're saying and do see a lot of people writing books and publishing them because it's considered easy money. Those are people who shouldn't be publishing books. Writing should always be about the story, and when it's not, it shows in the book.

    BTW, I average publishing six novels a year. I've been doing it since 2008. Editors and proofreaders save me a ton of time so I can focus on writing, and I limit my online time. I can write 500 words in 30 minutes. In two hours, I can get 2000 words in. I don't see why writing six books in a year is impossible. Last year I made $133,000. I'm not a big shot on Amazon, but I do well across the board at Smashwords and its distribution channels with 23 romances (a couple novellas but most novels). I'm not saying I'm the best author ever, but my readers are happy and as long as they're happy, I've done my job. As long as writing is fun, it's easy to make word count. 🙂

  10. I certainly did resonate with the points you made, Rachel. An enjoyment of the entire process of writing did not come to me until I began to write a memoir of the 3 yrs as Care Bear to my mother. I had journaled throughout to maintain some sense of sanity. It was my niece-in-law who encouraged me to publish. I must have edited the memoir at least 4 times! Throughout my career, editing proposals and work-related procedures was always fun for me. My mother died in late 2009 and I wrote our memoir in 2010. It was a cathartic experience for me. I've just now gotten more involved in the venues of book promotion. What a different kind of world it is for the publishing and promotion of books! From my point of view as an indie author, I agree with your points.
    As an avid reader, I've always purchased my books using one of two thermometers. I read the first few pages and get that tingle within my gut or not. Or, a friend offers a book to read. I must say that I put down these books if it seems as if I am forcing myself to read the book. Quality of an author's work has always been important to me. When I offer a book, even my own, to someone, my comment is usually, “Check it out. If it rings your chimes, keep reading. If not, let me know.”
    All in all, my favorite words are “points of view,” or “opinion.” I enjoy considering many opinions so have enjoyed reading all the responses towards your article!

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