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Opinion: Spotting The Elephant In The Self-Publishing Room

Opinion: Spotting The Elephant in the Self-Publishing Room

ALLi's blog editor Debbie Young, who co-authored the organisation's latest handbook, “Opening Up To Indie Authors”, speaks out about what sometimes seems taboo in the self-publishing community – the fact that there are so many poor quality self-published books.

Debbie Young seated, speaking into a microphone, reading from a script

Debbie Young reads an excerpt from “Opening Up to Indie Authors” at the London Book Fair

Now and again, when in conversation with members of the book trade, I'm conscious of a cloud crossing their faces as I raise the subject of self-publishing and pledge my allegiance to its cause.

“We might have to agree to differ on this one,” is a typical response. “You see, I've read some dreadful self-published books.”

Cue apologetic look from those who don't want to upset me, and some embarrassed shuffling of feet as they wait for my reaction.

Of course there is terrible self-published work out there,” I hasten to agree. “And there always will be, so long as it is so easy for anyone in the world to press the ‘publish' button and upload their work to Amazon or any other ebook platform.”

Their relief is almost palpable when they realise I'm by no means out to defend all self-published books, but to encourage indie authors to raise their standards to match those expected of the traditional publishing trade.

I explain to them that one of the reasons that many people have a low opinion of self-published books is that only the bad ones are readily identifiable as self-published. Those of better quality are generally assumed to be trade-published, as they feature strong writing, flawless editing, appropriate cover, high quality production, and all those other things associated with professional standards in publishing.

But now is the era of “professional self-publishing”. That's not a contradiction in terms, but the way forward for self-publishers who want to be judged on an equal footing with trade-published writers.

Professional Quality in Self-publishing

Debbie Young with Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey came to congratulate the ALLi team after the launch event

This drive for quality is a key theme from ALLi's new book, Opening Up To Indie Authors, which it was my privilege to co-author with Dan Holloway, steered by editor Orna Ross. As well as offering advice on how to be treated on an equal footing with trade published authors, it is a rallying cry for self-published authors to strive for the highest standards.

It was heartening for the launch team to be congratulated by both Hugh Howey, self-publisher extraordinaire, and the distinguished publishing journalist Porter Anderson after the book's launch recently at the London Book Fair. Both Hugh Howey and Porter Anderson are sticklers for quality and professionalism. Porter's most recent #etherissue Twitter debate included the following constructive exchange to which many members of ALLi contributed:


This Post Has 29 Comments
  1. But what determines quality in a book cover? When there isn’t exactly a standard in book covers for experimental genres, I find it difficult to sympathize and empathize with people saying most book covers are bad.

    As with editing, anyone with a lick of critical thinking knows editing is subjective. And I’ve met the Plan 9 From Outer Space of editors. You can tell they love what they do, just not cut out for it.

    What I want is a quality standard. But honestly self pub may need agents to pair with top nitch editors. Thats one thing I miss about trade.

  2. […] Many were also quick to point out the one crucial point that should be stressed to both audiences is that the self-published author should always be applying all the processes to their own work that a trade publisher would – copy editing, proofreading, cover design, etc. Too many indie authors still don’t do that, and publish sub-standard work simply because they can. For some possible answers on that score, read my opinion piece, The Elephant in the Self-Publishing Room. […]

  3. Excellent article. I am reminded of parallels in the design industry in the ’90s when everyone reckoned they didn’t need designers because they could do it themselves on their PC. Vast quantities of garbage design was churned out and professionals who cared about quality went through a really tough time. The same thing happened with web design in the noughties.

    Now, it’s the turn of publishing. We may feel satisfied by the demise of the gatekeepers, but it’s not only the quality writers who are rejoicing at the gates being flung wide open. Every Tom, Denise and Harriet who feels they have something to say now feels empowered to say it, regardless of whether or not they are equipped to do so in terms of linguistic skill or technical expertise. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that people don’t like being told they’re doing it wrong – we need to tread carefully, or the mood could sour very quickly.

    ALLi needs to take the role of educator, not just elite.

  4. “one of the reasons that many people have a low opinion of self-published books is that only the bad ones are readily identifiable as self-published”
    YES, YES, YES. thank you for saying it so clearly

  5. The majority of self-published books may be crap but definitely that wich is by traditional publishers, especially those by established and famous writers because they guarantee financial returns. I think traditional publishers don’t even bother reading the last product of their “star”, even less bother to edit that product properly.

  6. Debbie, Thanks for a superb article here and for all you do. Of course all of us indies should aim for the highest of standards. I think it’s an excellent idea that all of us who are part of ALLi do all that we can to encourage professionalism in all writers who publish their own work. Michael Marcus who commented above is absolutely right, we owe it to our readers to do our best and be the best. And we owe it to ourselves and each other too. After all if a job’s worth doing…

    1. Thank you, Anne, for your kind words. And you’re spot on there – it’s something we can ALL which will ultimately raise the status of self-publishing, and we will all benefit from that as individuals in the long run. 🙂

  7. Emily, many successful self-published authors won’t allow themselves to be cherry-picked by traditional publishers, because they relish their independence and can usually make more money by remaining entirely indie – or they may hang on to the parts of the process they prefer to keep while signing up for a deal that they have dictated. The prime example is Hugh Howey, who was only interested in having his print books handled by a trade publisher, while hanging on to his ebook rights as an indie.

    Equally, many previously trade published authors are moving across to self-publishing, having realised that they can make more money and have more creative freedom that way.

    I believe this two-way traffic will be healthy for all parts of the publishing arena, whether indie or trade. And hurrah for that!

    Best wishes for your debut book – you’ll find heaps of advice that will help you on this blog and, should you decide to join ALLi, within its private members’ discussion groups – just one great reason for being a member!

  8. I agree that there isn’t much quality control in the self publishing world at the moment which leads to some very varied output. I’m self publishing my first book very soon and trying to do it as professionally as possible by hiring a book cover designer and an editor. It’s definitely an exciting time to be a writer. I wonder if good quality self-published books will continue to be cherry picked by traditional publishers therefore leaving many self-published authors being seen as ones who ‘couldn’t get a deal’. I really hope not as I think it’s important self-publishing and traditional publishing become established choices.

    1. Neat way of putting it, Michael. I agree, not bothering about the quality of your output is discourteous to readers – the very people who we should all be doing our utmost to court, if we’re going to succeed as writers.

  9. With you all the way, Debbie. The doors are now wide open, which is great for democracy but not so good for visibility. The marketplace is now a free-for-all and that makes informed selection difficult. With everybody shouting and touting it’s difficult to be heard, but I believe there’s an obligation on all alli members and others of independent mind to band together and insist on quality. We want more Guardian-type initiatives, more column inches and reviews in ‘quality’ magazines, more fairs and bookfests stressing the quality of much, or hopefully most, independent work. Music did it; we can do it!

    1. Thanks, David. We’re hoping the new book will be a real door-opener in this regard. When the paperback is published in the summer, we’ll be taking it to many influential people in the trade to encourage them to lend their support to the self-publishing sector. How much harder it would be to band together if it were not for ALLi!

    1. Thanks, Theo, I really appreciate your comment! As Dan Meadows hinted in his comment, it really should come as no surprise that there are a lot of bad self-publishing books around, and I think it’s helpful to bring it out into the open rather than deny it, or try to fend off criticism by only talking about the best quality ones. Acknowledging the issue gives us much more credibility in the debate with those not as familiar with self-publishing as we are, which can only be helpful to all those involved.

      1. Yes, again: there obviously are going to be loads of useless self-published books about, and we have to make sure nobody who matters is left imagining we don’t know, care, or acknowledge this! Especially bookshops and other book outlets.

  10. I’m not sure why it surprises anyone that there’s a lot of low quality material out there, there’s a ton of people doing it who have little to no experience with publishing. People in general, not just writers, have never had this kind of ability or reach at any point in history. I think we can understate things we ask how this change will affect Simon & Schuster or Barnes & Noble or even the industry itself. The question really is how will this affect society? How will it impact the human experience moreso than the immediate concerns of a handful of corporations who happen to be influential at this moment in time? I believe quality will rise, if for no other reason than those doing It now will improve and learn with experience and the next generation will be native to this. Each advancing generation will start out on a higher plane of quality, whatever that happens to mean to them at the time.

    I don’t think self publishers should raise their standards simply to match that of traditional publishing, I think we should aim to exceed them, push boundaries, set entirely new standards they’ll have to match. After all, they’re not the pinnacle of thought for all time in publishing. They got where they are, with their standards established as “the” standard, because they happened to have the right business model in the right social and economic climate at the right time. It’s like the evolutionary argument, survival of the fittest doesn’t mean survival of the best, it means survival of those most able to successfully adapt to their environment. We’re now entering a new environment of global human communication. Emulating what worked in the previous environment is just a short step along along the path to expanding on it. But that’s my two cents, anyway.

    1. Dan, thank you for that long and thoughtful response – so much in there to think about.

      I completely embrace your call to EXCEED the standards of traditional publishing, and there is the potential to do that in lots of ways: more creative, less formulaic writing that the trade wouldn’t dare take a punt on; more inventive marketing; different means of delivery (I read a book recently that included a video clip with every chapter, for example), and much more.

      And yes, it is exciting to question how the new democratisation of publishing might affect society, as it surely must.

      I am very hopeful that quality will naturally improve, not least because there are so many resources now available to help writers raise their game, and a lot of these resources are free of charge (such as this blog, of course). The challenge for this emerging brand of writers is to prioritise their time, torn between learning and growing, and actually writing what they want and need to write.

      Whatever the long-term outcome in the continuing evolution of publishing, I’m sure there has never been a better time to be a writer – and there may be even better yet to come.

      Thank you, Dan, for your contribution to the discussion on this blog, and best of luck to you with your own writing in this exciting new environment.

      1. “….more creative, less formulaic writing…” says Debbie: YES. Basically, in fiction, there has been a drift to formulaic genre writing (well, I think I’ve notice a drift!) where once something is established as successful, many other lesser versions follow – sure sellers… sometimes noticeably not well written or well edited…These must be blocking the whole concept/function of variety, and quality, and thoughtfulness…leading readers to stick to the thing they know and (think they) love, and it becomes circular… If indie publishing can break this so that there is a place for books which break this mould, that’s certainly a great plus.

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