self-published books
When I read the Michael Kozlowski’s article this morning about segregating small press and self-published books, my emotional reaction was “What a horrible idea!”

Several hours later, my non-emotional reaction is still “What a horrible idea!” The difference is that I’ve had time to think about why it’s a bad idea. Leaving aside the “is it right?” or “is it fair?” questions, I can’t think of any practical way it could be achieved.

Kozlowski proposes online retailers create a separate section for small press and indie published titles. Okay, leaving aside the (not inconsiderable) technical challenges of that, how would the determination be made? “Small press?” What’s that exactly? Anything that’s not one of the Big 5? Publishers like Deadite Press and Samhain Publishing would be pretty upset, and rightfully so. Number of books in print? That’s arbitrary, and again, no indication of quality. There are some new presses doing great work but with few books currently in print.

So determining the characteristics of small press is problematic. Well, self-published is pretty obvious, right? We can go with that!

Okay, how would you define a New York Times bestselling author like Brandon Sanderson, who has self-published several books. Or Amanda Hocking? Several of her books are still self-published. Or, my favorite conundrum: Hugh Howey. So stores would put the paper version of Wool in one section and the ebook version in the other? Yeah, that makes sense.

I put Kozlowski’s post in the reactionary column, which was exactly what I was cautioning against yesterday. Do I think there needs to be something in place to keep questionable content out of the hands of children? Probably. Will setting up separate sections in stores accomplish it? No. Well, not unless you want to wave a red flag in front of Internet-savvy kids. A separate section would pretty much yell “Look over here!” to them.

Next idea?


  1. That is simply a stupid idea, and it is proof that its originator doesn’t understand shit about publishing. Glad to see you saw through it.

    Do you know how many pro authors I know that have gotten their rights back and then republished as indies? Dozens, and I mean that literally.

    Under this idea all those ebooks would be segregated in the ghetto, but the older paper books would be sold elsewhere. How exactly does that make any sense?

  2. Kozlowski doesn’t just understand Jack Shit about publishing, he also demonstrates a breath-taking lack of a grasp on book consumers. Since when did Joe Public start buying books based on WHO published them? This is another case of a knee-jerk piece from someone who should know better, and yet is happy to donkey-walk after the carrot laid out by a reactionary and tabloid-driven mainstream media. That’s simply to go along with the mooted idea that this is a self-publishing issue alone. It isn’t and should not be used as a scapegoat.

    The challenge here are multifold:

    1. Properly integrate and improve the quality of self-published books leading to a greater choice for readers. In other words – stop creating ghettoes and sub-ghettoes of books.

    2. Self-publishing platforms and e-distributors can’t celebrate the lack of the gatekeeper while washing their hands of the need for some kind of filtering and assessment.

    3. This whole issue has exposed the absolute inadequacies of e-distributors and retailers backend systems. It’s no wonder discoverability is such a challenge for the general reader if the retailers/distributors can’t filter and remove certain content without having to shut down an entire site and service.

  3. “Parents who buy innocently sounding books like “Daddy’s Playtime” might scar their kids for life” is such an unbelievably nonsensical comment that I am still struggling to comprehend how Kozlowski could have been so stupid. Much of the scandalizing in the UK gutter press revolved around how explicit the covers of these books were – and yes, with such titles, and with the minimal oversight by some ebook platforms, adult porn might end up in the children’s section where it could be seen by minors. But does Kozlowski really imagine that a parent is going to buy an ebook for their child without checking what it’s about?

  4. FWIW, I think Amazon’s system – on paper – is a pretty good one, namely:

    1. Ban the most extreme content.

    2. Filter the remaining adult content.

    3. Have a dedicated erotica section.

    4. Restrict erotica to only appearing in that section.

    5. Restrict certain terms (e.g. Daddy) from appearing in the metadata of erotica (keywords and titles) that triggers search.

    If Kobo had a similar system, they wouldn’t be in this mess. But then they can’t even figure out rudimentary search, let alone filtering or keyword restricting…

  5. Glad to see this is getting a good response. And that you all agree with me. 😉

    I thought about adding at the end that this is the man who believes that self-publishing is destroying literature, but I decided against giving him a second link.

    @David Gaughran, I do agree that Amazon’s system is good in principle, but as I read through some of the discussion on KBoards, there are some authors gaming that system as well. Which still doesn’t justify creating a ghetto.

    And there’s some pretty raunchy stuff in kid’s books. I remember reading one book to my son when he was pretty little. It was about a dog, so, hey, how bad could it be? We ended up censoring as we read when the author discussed the dog sniffing the air after the parents had … err … private time. Not what I wanted to try to explain to a three year old.

  6. I read the bit on self-publishers ‘abusing the system’ through “duplicate content […] listed in different categories” and thought about how a ‘proper’ publisher had done something similar to sell Harry Potter books with alternative covers for adult readers. I might try it myself now that Mr Kozlowski has kindly reminded me of it…

  7. @Juli

    Once you have any kind of system, people will try and game it. And, btw, even the Daily Mail admitted that not all the books they identified were from self-publishers. Some were from publishers. But Kobo’s actions are aimed exclusively at self-publishers.

    With regard to content being listed in other categories, that’s BS. On Amazon, if you select Erotica as a category, you can’t choose another (normally you get two, and can get additional ones depending on your keyword choices). I don’t know how it works on Kobo (I don’t write erotica), but they *should* have some similar system in place.

    The Daily Mail (and by extension, Kozlowski) are incorrect when they state that these books were appearing beside children’s books because erotica authors put their books in children’s categories.

    What happened was something quite different. All retailers will return search results based on keywords customers enter. They decide to populate those search results based on various metadata (keywords authors choose, titles of books, etc.). What retailers *should* have in place is a restriction on certain terms (e.g. Daddy) acting as search-triggering-metadata for adult content. This has long been best practice in e-commerce, and I can’t see why retailers can’t get it right. In tech terms, it’s a relatively trivial fix.

    • @David, I’m well aware that people will game a system. I’m a role player. Gaming character generation systems is in my blood. Which doesn’t mean you destroy a perfectly good system just because a few are abusing it. Sorry if my comment came across a different way. And the gaming I was referring to doesn’t involve getting books into another category. Just being creative with how they appear in the erotica category to downplay the subject matter. All of this has taught me so much about cover design, blurb writing and tagging…

      @Steph B, yes and drawing attention to how to game the system in an article like Kozlowski’s is a double-edged sword.

  8. While I don’t disagree that this is not the solution to the specific problem it is trying to address, a few things have jumped out at me and taken me by surprise.

    1. Three different people in the comments section have referred to an “indie” section as “the ghetto.” I found that kind of shocking and disrespectful. Taking into account that in some cases the line between indie and mainstream can be fuzzy and over time the same work can move from one category to the other – in many cases it is more clear cut. In those cases, you are either indie or you are not. If you are saying that having a special indie section would be the same as sending independent works into the “ghetto” are you not actually saying that they already are ghetto material it is just that most people can’t see the ghetto because they are mixed in with the upper and middle class? I am not a writer, but I find that kind of classification as being more wrong than providing the actual ability to sort by indie vs traditionally published.

    2. While I agree that there are issues involved with determining indie classification in certain cases and the algorithm for determining whether or not something is classified as indie might be complex and imperfect – to say that the technical challenges are not inconsiderable is just wrong. As a software engineer, I can tell you that technically, this is one of the simpler things to program and implement – as long as you first come up with a standard uniform definition of “indie.”

    3. I am not as horrified by this suggestion as most of the commenters appear to be. It appears to me that the horror stems from a certain fear that being labeled as indie is the same thing as being sent to the ghetto. While I don’t think this is the proper answer to the problem being addressed, I do think that making it possible for customers to identify “indie” vs “traditionally published” work (again, assuming some sort of definition can be established) would be a tragedy. There are some readers who just don’t want to buy independent work. Would it be a terrible thing for them to filter out indies from their searches? They aren’t going to buy it anyway. And there are quite a few people who have had it with the traditional publishers and prefer to buy independent work (either because of pricing concerns, because of wanting to support indie authors, or because indie work can contain content that is not mainstream enough for the big 5 publishers). Would it be horrible for those people to be able to run a search that filters out traditionally published books. I am not talking about a system that constantly keeps the two categories separate – most people I suspect are like me and don’t care as much about how the book was published but instead care about whether the book meets their other criteria. Just a system that will allow the customer to filter out one or the other if he/she chooses to do so.

    I guess I just don’t think it would be such a bad thing to flag books as being one or the other (or perhaps as being both for those tougher cases) in the database and then allow the customer to filter one or the other out if he/she chooses. In most cases, I can come to a conclusion about whether a book is indie or traditionally published based on the information available – adding a flag and filter system will only help customers find what they are specifically looking for more efficiently. But just assuming that being able to separate out indie books is the same thing as sending them to the gutter shows a huge disrespect for indie books in general

  9. In my post above, for number 3, I meant to say:

    While I don’t think this is the proper answer to the problem being addressed, I do ***NOT*** think that making it possible for customers to identify “indie” vs “traditionally published” work (again, assuming some sort of definition can be established) would be a tragedy.

    Couldn’t find a way to edit my comment.

    • @Vonda, I also don’t see a problem with being able to easily identify and filter one vs the other, if a customer wants, and assuming some sort of definition could be created. It’s the “we need separate sections of the store” that I had a problem with. Filtering would be relatively easy from a technical perspective, assuming one could come up with the definition. Setting up separate sections of a storefront would not be as straightforward.

  10. Segregation is not the answer.

    Mostly I wondered why is there not a better screening process. I understand that reading all the amount of books that come in to a system is exceptionally long. But there isn’t a system that flag certain keywords within a book title?

    Once those keywords are flagged, someone should then check the book to see where it fits into their system. Those keywords should also never be revealed so people don’t know what the trigger is.

    I just a large overreaction from people on this topic.

  11. I refuse to visit due to a previous Kozwalski posting so without reading his article, I say he is wrong.

    I think retailers could do a better job with filters and I think the authors/publishers that try to game the system should be penalized in some way but beyond that, just no.

  12. I’m not a fan of self-published books, but nonetheless I’m highly doubtful segregation or filtering would work in an open system. There are too many ways for people to game the system without a central authority making the rules and authors having to follow them. I also think the authors will behave more like cats than cattle and resist any attempts at herding.

    I didn’t know how others fare, but I’m pretty apt at spotting the self published books, then avoiding them.

  13. @Juli Monroe – I read the article again and see where you are coming from regarding segregation. When I read it the first time, I interpreted creating a self-published/indie section as more like creating a category option for indie vs traditional publisher like those that show up on the left hand side of Amazon’s website. It would behave no differently than filtering for fiction vs nonfiction – it is available, but up to the user whether or not to use it.

    Forcing a separate storefront on customers is never going to happen because it is not a customer-centric implementation, end of story. Such a setup would make the average customer (the one who is looking for a specific book or type of book regardless of how it was published) confused, frustrated, and annoyed. The customer wants one stop shopping. If you take that away, it is only going to result in unhappy customers and lost sales as readers cannot find the works they are looking for because they can’t navigate the invisible (to most readers) distinction between indie and traditionally published works. Forget about how difficult it would be for the retailer to categorize the books – imagine how difficult it would be for the reader to know where to find it. It wouldn’t matter how good the retailer’s algorithm – the customer will still end up confused and frustrated.

    That said, I still strongly dislike the ghetto reference with regard to the collective of indie works. It really comes off as if you believe that the mass of indie works is equivalent to a ghetto and you don’t want to create one because then everyone would be able to see it as the ghetto that it is. This expression leaves that impression on others, perpetuating a perception that is the opposite of what you want to convey. Unless, of course, you really do believe that indie work belongs in a “ghetto.” Then you should go ahead and continue to refer to it as such.

  14. Separating independent publishers into their own category isn’t necessarily a problem, if it results in the independents getting more visibility. However, creating a separate self-published section does, in my opinion, ghettoize the category. Putting small presses in with self-published works confuses things rather than helps. The small press category includes university presses and some of the best literary publishers in the business–they’re hardly part of the mistagged eBook problem. And, when Random House’s biggest titles last year were the “50 Shades of Grey” trilogy, which many people found offensive, it becomes clear that getting an eBook from a Big 5 publisher is no guarantee of “purity.”

    The real problem is that the eRetailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and others) have been unwilling to review individual titles for content and accuracy of metadata. They rely on software scans and the goodwill of publishers and self-publishers. These kinds of problems will keep occurring until the eRetailers commit themselves to a manual review of every submitted title, along with automated reviews.

  15. I took the implied problem statement to be, “How can I find books that I want to read without working very hard?” Letting someone else do that is certainly easy but as the comments here have amply shown, that tactic is fraught with difficulty.
    Still, there is so much to sort through and with that volume the increasing chance of missing something really desirable.
    Were the text transparently available to third party analysis (no DRM), we might reasonably expect to have objective empirical data as to what defined category or categories it seems to fit into and perhaps even some index of linguistic quality.

  16. I’m always wary of an argument that boils down to, “Won’t someone think of the children.” Yes, there are many books that offend the delicate sensibilities of some readers. I have written some of them. As a reader, I’ve also shopped for some of them. I see nothing but a strawman argument when Mr. Kozlowski suggests that there is a danger that some poor unfortunate child will mistakenly buy something written by Selena Kitt rather than the latest adventures of the Goat Who Loved Spaghetti or whatever pablum they are writing for kids. Kozlowski’s argument is simple. He’s a “real” writer and doesn’t want his revenue stream sullied by “those people” and their silly little books.

    Indie writers and self-publishers are the envelope-pushers of the written word. Is all of it good? Of course not. It’s up to readers to browse and choose what they like from a full buffet of items. Perhaps if Mr. Kozlowski and his brethren took a few more chances with their work, they wouldn’t have to be segregated into a section labeled Sanitized For Your Protection.

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