indie authorFirst came this one, at one of my favorite e-book blogs, Good e-Reader: ‘Self-Published Authors are Destroying Literature.’ Then, a day later, this one from the same writer: ‘The Vast Majority of Indie Authors Will Never be Taken Seriously‘. So … what’s going on? Did somebody kick Michael Kozlowski’s puppy, or does he have a point?

I think the genesis of this stuff seems to be the recent report from Bowker Market Research, saying that self-published e-books now account for 12 percent of the market. This is a significant enough chunk of the share that it’s prompted a slew of navel-gazing. A quick Google News search turned up coverage by The Guardian and The Washington Times, among others.

Personally, I didn’t get too alarmed; I think a little disintermediation never hurt anybody, and while I suppose there are many crap self-published books, I have seen my share of crap real ones too. But Kozlowski’s two articles in as many days broadcast a clear and firm opinion.

So, is that all it is? Here are some of the claims Kozlowski makes. Is there some truth in here, for authors and readers both?

1. Self-Published authors ‘spam social media.’

Sorry, authors—he’s right about this. And sadly, they often don’t even do a very good job. When I used to review self-published books more regularly, I had very clear submission guidelines and most people didn’t read them. I expected that—people are lazy—but I was surprised at how many authors seemed to read them but then ignore them completely. I received many a query which began with ‘I know you don’t read young adult fantasy, but…’ to which my answer was, If you know I don’t read it, why are you wasting both of our time by sending it to me? I think I’d like to see less shouting from the virtual rooftops and more targeted marketing efforts from the indie crew if they want to be taken more seriously.

2. They put out a ‘maelstrom of poorly written and poorly edited books.’

Well, sort of. I’ll give them points for quantity—man, can the self-pubbers crank this stuff out—and I will concede that many of them are poorly written and edited. But I’ve found that with commercially published books, too. I’ve paid money for big pub releases so riddled with typos that I took screenshots and sent them back to the vendor for a refund. In my entire e-book reading life, there was only one book I read that made me truly feel that if a professional publisher and editor got their hands on it and cleaned it up, it would be the next big thing. The rest were either so terrible I didn’t bother getting past the sample (which, again, is true for many commercially published books I’ve seen), or else they were just fine (which, again, is also true for many mainstream releases).

3. Smashwords ‘will accept anything.’

True, but why is that a bad thing? Is it worth having the biggest slushpile in the world if it will give us a few gems pulled from its trenches? I vote yes, and I’m trusting crowd-sourcing to help me weed out the clunkers. The stuff I truly want to read finds its way to me somehow, in spite of big publishing, Smashwords, or any other player vying for my eyeballs. It’s always been that way. The only thing that’s changed is the scope of it all.

4. ‘One thing indie authors have done is devalue the work of legitimate published authors.’

On this point, I categorically disagree. Sorry, Michael! I think what’s driven down the cost of the average e-book is that customers are unwilling to pay paperback prices for pixels which don’t need ink, binding, paper, warehousing or shipping. Say what you will about how much or how little those costs actually add to a real book, but to most e-book customers it simply defies logical sense to pay the same for an e-book version, and any protests you make to the contrary will not go over as well as you might hope. $6.99 paper books going for a few dollars less in e-book is about the cost of paper, not the cost of an indie book.

5. ‘The vast majority of indie authors don’t contribute anything good to the literary world and often incur the ire of many of the greatest writers of our time.’

Well, so do the vast majority of commercially published genre authors. There is a difference between being snobby and being right!

I’m not sure if there truly is more noise about ‘indie vs traditional’ as a result of this Bowker report, or if Kozlowski has just done a better job of compiling it all together than anyone else. He makes some good points about the professionalism and overall behavior of the typical self-published writer.

But on the quality side, I’ve seen just as many clunker ‘real’ books. And he overlooks completely the issue of profit margins and how much higher they can be for an even modestly successful self-published writer. For some authors, it’s not about whether they could or could not get a ‘real’ contract. It’s about the financial aspects of self-publishing, which are right now more favorable than the old establishment.

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  1. I will agree that a lot of self-published authors are spammers, but I don’t think it’s truly ALL of us. I try to maintain a balance between being generally informative and presenting info on my work on my blog, and I post a lot of info about ereaders and about ebook production, as well as occasional book reviews. While I do tweet or post links on Facebook, I don’t just scream “Buy my book!”

    Note that I mind if people buy them, but I try not to get in anyone’s face because I don’t want anyone in mine. I write stories to make a connection to readers, and I am very grateful self-publishing lets me do that, Every fan email, every review (even bad reviews), tells me I did that, and that’s worth it to me.

    I view both self publishing and traditional publishing as pyramids. The books at the top are better written and more entertaining. The sides might be steeper in the traditional publishing pyramid, but it still has a broader base than a top.

  2. Whatever they write, however they publish, authors are always under fire from someone, including other authors.

    People look down on you and write nasty screeds–

    If you write genre. If you write literary fiction. If you write for a particular publisher. If you write fiction instead of nonfiction or nonfiction instead of fiction. Paperback rather than hardcover. Digital instead of paper. Etc., etc.

    Authors and their books are easy targets for those justifying their own prejudices and opinions as well as easy targets for bullies.

  3. I’ve a read a little over a dozen self-published books and they were all mediocre, poor, or incompetent. Even Hugh Howey’s famous book was only lukewarm, IMHO. Not really worth my time to pursue more.

    As for devaluing literature, I can’t say he is wrong if mediocre becomes the new good. As a lot of readers seem happy enough with the lower costs they become happy with a lower quality, and the value of literature as a whole goes down.

  4. Hey Joe, thanks for covering this! I don’t know what was the exact catalyst that sent me over the deep end on this. Its mainly because indie authors show solidarity too much, and defend even the poorest of books because its self-published. Most books are not just written poorly, but have bad formatting errors, table of contents errors and are overall horrible.

    Mercy and Myself are doing a live spreecast tomorrow and many indie authors and publishers are joining in, joe, you are invited to join in if you want

  5. Michael: You mean like these?

    Oh, wait! Those aren’t independent books, are they? They’re a best-selling long-running young adult series put out by a major publisher! And yet, all that major publisher money and major publisher expertise somehow couldn’t produce typo-free e-books…

  6. @Michael, thanks so much for inviting Joanna to participate in the spreecast; I hope she’ll have time to take part. (Although I’ll look forward to it regardless.) However! Joanna is a woman, so I’m not quite sure “Joe” is an appropriate nickname! (Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t really speak for someone else. Whaddya say, Joe?)

  7. I have no idea what a ‘spreecast’ is. How do I join? I am so glad you could pop over to join the dialogue, Michael. I read your blog regularly and respect the work you do. I was a bit worried you’d take my comments the wrong way 🙂 I think you make a good point about the hive mentality—many indie authors do rush to defend other authors just *because* they are authors. That doesn’t help the credibility issue.

    That said, I think that you and I diverge just a little on the acknowledgement of why some people choose this path. I think there are reasons other than ‘couldn’t hack it with the legacy guys’ and I recognize too that the big guys put out their fair share of trash.

  8. Its basically a 4 cam web-chat with text chatting that’s live, so you can chat via video cam, or you can live chat and people will answer your questions. We have had good success with it interviewing authors and having people join and ask questions. It will be a great debate.

    Of course, i would not take your article the wrong way, i think this is a good conversation to have, without the quintessential indie author army rushing in to defend themselves from anyone that would question them.

    I am not saying a traditionally published book is well written by any means, but it is readable. They have editors, backup support, sales and tech people insuring the end result is properly formatted, has reasonable cover art and will try and promote the book.

    Indie titles, don’t even get me started. I looked at the first 3 pages of “Smashwords” titles today. One book had 1 paragraph per page, the rest negative space. one had pixelated cover art. Finally another, had half the page in a normal font and half in BOLD text. It could be the best written book in the history of humankind, but i wouldn’t read it due to these mistakes.

  9. I think this article was well balanced. Speaking for myself, as a reader I’m not easily pleased. I notice faults and rarely persist past typos, poor formatting and just bad writing – unless the story grabs me. My husband, though, is a reader pure and simple. He reads indies and he reads lots of free stuff. At least a book a week. He does not buy over-expensive mainstream e-books for the reasons given. Of the books he does download – sure, sometimes he complains they are rubbish. But quite often he’ll enjoy a book and go and buy that author’s other work.
    There’s a lot of garbage out there – much of it mainstream big publishers churning out mediocre work with a big name tacked on. James Patterson, anyone? Star Wars?
    So… readers should do what they do in a bookshop. Read the sample and decide from that. You can discard the rubbish – and you just might find a gem in there.

  10. Just because a book is self-published does not mean it is worse than one published by a traditional publisher. In fact, a self-published book can be better than a book published by a traditional publisher.

    I started self-publishing in 1989 and have self-published several titles. I have also had books published by traditional publishers. There are pros and cons for going either route.

    A successful writer (with over 20 books published) recently contacted me about problems with her major publisher (one of the top 3 in the world) and asked me about whether she should self-publish, and whether there still was a stigma about being self-published.

    This was part of my response to her.

    I don’t care about the stigma of self-publishing. Most of the people who run down self-publishing are unsuccessful writers or idiot bloggers who think of themselves as being so cool. But most of them are broke. I would rather be nerdy and rich than cool and broke. (Ever notice how most people who think of themselves as “cool” are normally broke?)

    My book “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” is self-published because it was turned down by over 35 American and British publishers. This book has already sold over 175,000 copies and has been published in 8 foreign languages since it was released. The book has made over $750,000 in pretax profits for me.

    Conduct a search for “retirement” or “retire” on and “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” appears in the number 1 position. So why does my self-published book beat out all the other retirement books, including retirement books by AARP, the Wall Street Journal, and major publishers such as Random House (including What Color Is Your Parachute for Retirement)? The answer is that my self-published book is better than all the other retirement books done by the major publishers. Results don’t lie, in other words.

    I intend to sell 500,000 copies of this book and I sure wouldn’t be able to do this with the thinking patterns, beliefs, and behaviors of the “cool” writers and idiot bloggers who run down self-publishing.

    When Random House bought Ten Speed Press in 2009, they immediately cancelled the distribution Agreement I had with Ten Speed Press for the distribution of my self-published “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”, but they wanted to take over the publication of the book in a normal publisher/author relationship. This would have meant that I would be earning less than a third of what I was earning with the book being self-published.

    Despite the fact many people would love to have a book published by a major publisher such as Random House, I had the pleasure of rejecting Random House.

    I immediately got National Book Network to distribute “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” for me and it has been selling about 60 percent more copies per month than it was selling in the last eight months it was with Ten Speed Press.

    Since then, Wiley has contacted me wanting to take over the book. I told them to take a hike just like I told Random House to take a hike.

    I am already well over $300,000 ahead by having rejected Random House and over the next few years I will earn several hundreds of thousand of dollars more. This book will be my first book to earn me over $1 million in profits.

    Moral of the Story: Self-Publishing Can Be Much More Profitable than Being Published by a Major Publisher! And a Self-Published Book Can Be Much Better Than One Published by a Tradtional Publisher.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 175,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  11. Michael – I think indie authors come together and defend even the bad self-published book (do they really?) because they are each others support, if not in defense of the writing itself (as has been established, some writing everywhere is bad) than in defense of the (valid) notion that big publishers, out to make money, aren’t the best or the only judge of what people want to read, and that self publishing is a valuable tool for those whose work will appeal to readers but is not accepted by publishers because it lacks that *something* they’re looking for.

    When you’re an author trying to act as writer, publisher, publicist, and marketer – and really, who’s truly skilled in all of those areas at once? – the weight gets to be overwhelming, and being told consistently that self-published/indie work is substandard simply because it’s indie can inspire people to unite.

  12. I buy and read a lot of books. I buy a lot of ebooks from Smashwords directly or that are distributed by Smashwords to B&N. I agree that a lot of those books are terrible for any number of reasons, but most often from a lack of professional editing. For every self-published book that I buy that I find to be at least good, there are 25 whose authors should be drawn and quartered for having inflicted their mess on readers — and I’m not here complaining about the storyline; I’m complaining about the English grammar and spelling and word choice and structure and repetition and inconsistent characterizations and the myriad other fundamentals to basic competent writing.

    However, that one readable book is as good as, and often better than, similar genre books put out by traditional publishers.

    I agree that it is a small cadre of self-published authors who seem to care. The problem that needs to be addressed is the education of self-publishing authors of the value of investing in proper support. Unfortunately, we can no longer point to traditional publishers as role models because they are rapidly falling to meet the self-pub standard rather than trying to raise the self-pubbers to the older traditional pub standard.

    But I agree with Joanna — it is better to have all the garbage published so I can find the gem that traditional publishers miss or refuse to publish than to not have that opportunity.

  13. The self-publishing surge is the authors’ self-reading surge. Self-reading is exactly the tutorial that all authors, excellent and less, utilize. A difference is that on-line connectivity and screen and print on demand technologies have greatly eased the transmission cycle.

  14. Actually, Michael, I don’t think they do ensure quality. Otherwise, why would so many commercially published ebook releases be so riddled with typos? I have to give advantage to the self-pubbers here, because they are generally nimble enough to fix them when the errors are pointed out. Try getting a legacy book corrected—I have written to authors on this and the kindest of the responses was an offer to mail me a paperback for the cost of postage. It is too red-tapey for anyone in the chain to even tell you who is in charge of fixing it.

  15. Well, i am spent after this debate. I wrote my final piece on the issue today and actually learned a fair bit. Many self-publishers paying for reviews and artificially inflate their position in eBook ranking on Amazon, kobo, barnes and noble and others by paying people to download their book, paying people to write reviews and paying people to leave 5 star ratings. I was aware of John Locke, he did this and sold over a million kindle books. The guy who did the 4 four workout, whatshisname, gave 1,000 books away early, to make sure on release day, people wrote positive reviews.

    Mainstream authors are doing this, indie authors are doing this, so self-publishing? Not only is the average title riddled with errors, bad cover art, non-functioning table of contents or font errors, but now authors with the deepest pockets are inflating their own sales? Its hard to have trust, when so many people abuse the system or have terrible quality books, or just the content itself is sub-par.

    There is an air of distrust when it comes to self-publishing. The stigma their books weren’t good enough to get a real deal. To indies can’t edit, to paying for reviews. There is a cloud of negativity surrounding this issue, that is as engulfing as the cloud of dust following PigPen.

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