As a self-published author, I was almost surprised to find how easy it was to get my book out there. Back in 2011, when I published First Name Basis, I used the tools available to me through my “print on demand” publisher of choice: CreateSpace. From the cover creator to the interior template, all the work I did on my book was my own. Sure, I had a few people read through it and give me some notes on proofreading errors and other minor tweaks, but in the end, I did all my own writing, editing, and formatting so that the story I wrote would be available to a broad audience. Since then, I have learned just how much more work must go into self-publishing a book. Still, it remains a free endeavor for anyone who wants to publish their own book.
Self-publishing a book is surprisingly easy.
Fast forward to today, and I have read more than my fair share of independent and self-published authors. When I was starting out, I was almost offended that these types of writers were looked down upon merely because they weren’t “traditionally” published. Now I know why. The best explanation I can give comes from a quote from The Incredibles. “When everyone’s super . . . no one will be.” For decades, if not centuries, authors had to pass through the “gateway” of traditional publishing. Those who chose to “self-publish” were usually relegated to the Kinko’s down the street, producing an inferior product when compared to the paperback and hardcover books that these publishers were putting out. When the digital revolution of the 21st Century came around, suddenly all you needed was a Microsoft Word document and an internet connection, and you could have a professional-looking book in your hand that you wrote. Furthermore, the batch sizes decreased to the point where a self-published author didn’t need to go to a vanity press to get 1,000 copies of their book made, and thus figure out what to do with that many copies. The “print on demand” structure allowed authors like me to print off exactly as many books as we need.
Adding to the ease of printing a professional-looking book, was the rise of e-books. I still have to pay for the raw materials and shipping for any book I have made through the print on demand service, but in a digital world where everything travels across the electromagnetic spectrum for free, costs were practically negligent for a self-published author. The problem this still enforces is that there’s no risk to the author. No money is tied up in their book, other than the amount they want to spend on editors, cover artists, and other marketing services. Suddenly, anyone who thought they had written a good book could make that book available at no cost to them. This flooded the system with books that had no quality control and no way to ensure that they were good.
The ease of self-publishing inundates the market with sub-par books.
Many people thought the rise of e-books and free self-publishing resources (like print on demand) would spell the end of the traditional publishing empire. I would almost wager that it has made it stronger. Sure, it’s tough to find an agent, and even tougher to have a manuscript published by a traditional publisher, but they are the gatekeepers who make sure only the “great” books make it to publication. Yes, I admit that not every book published by traditional publishers is “good,” but at least most of them have some commercial value. People want to buy these books because the idea is good enough to pass through the vetting process that involves agents and publishers, eventually making money for the publisher, and by proxy the author.
Unfortunately, some people see the challenge of obtaining an agent and querying to publishers as a non-starter. This wall forces them to find another way to get their book into the hands of their readers. I’ll admit that I’m certainly someone who doesn’t like rejection and therefore will never try to get an agent or submit my work to publishers. Still, I do enjoy maintaining the creative control of my craft. In the end, my writing is a hobby, and not something that I need to make a living. Sure, I’m serious about it, but I’m not going to necessarily rush something out the door before I’ve had a chance to make it into the best product I can. I still want to appear professional, especially to my readers.
Nobody takes self-published authors seriously if they don’t put out a professional product.
I cannot say that other authors share my eye for detail or commitment to creating a professional-level product. Having now read about two-dozen books by self-published and independently published authors, I have found many issues that keep cropping up that annoy me as a reader. These errors annoy me more as a self-published author since they make us all look bad. I understand that the “starving artist” stereotype can be applied to writers, and therefore any self-published author might not have the money to spend on editors or cover artists. Still, these small omissions noticeably degrade the quality of a self-published book. I’ve already mentioned two areas of quality control that are lacking in self-published books, but there are four in total that I would like to discuss:
- Covers: A good cover must be clean, distinct, and grab the reader’s attention. So many covers are muddled, use “standard” fonts (or too many different fonts), or use overused stock images. Add to this an ambiguous title that doesn’t give the reader a sense of what the book’s about and you’re left with a dud.
- Editing: A good editor is worth their weight in gold, so a lot of it comes down to “you get what you pay for.” If a self-published author is having their manuscript edited for free by their friends and family, there’s no way to ensure they’ll find all the incorrect homophones or that the punctuation stays consistent with an accepted style. I find these errors to be the most jarring to me as a reader, mainly because I would notice them in my own manuscript.
- Plot: A good content editor (who can be the same as the editor mentioned above) will show a self-published author where their plot holes are. Not only does a good plot need a hook, but each scene in the plot must answer the question, “so what?” Scenes added as exposition dumps don’t feel natural, and other scenes don’t progress the plot at all, so a good content editor will recognize these pitfalls and help trim the plot into something that isn’t bloated and slow.
- Characters: While there are plenty of good plot-based stories, some of the best books out there focus on the characters. Once more, an editor will let a self-published author know if their characters are flat, acting out of character, or just plain clichés. Nothing kills a story faster than having a tiresome character as the protagonist. A reader must be able to relate to the characters in some way that’s meaningful; otherwise, they’ll just tune out.
Finally, because there is a glut of self-published books now available online, every self-published author is trying to get their book out there and seen by a larger audience. One of the ways to do this is to offer a free copy to someone for an honest review. Although, in their heads, I think a lot of self-published authors are too close to their work to realize that a truly honest review might not be one that paints the book in a positive light. I get the sense that they think, “I gave this person a free copy of a book. That must mean they’ll give me a five-star review since I’m so generous.” While I could see this with a physical copy of a book, about 80% of these authors who send me a review request offer the “free” option: an e-book. What annoys me most about this is that they obviously have not read the requirements I put forth on my Amazon profile. I ignore probably a quarter of these request upon reading the first two sentences of their e-mail. My time is worth something, and I understand how important reviews are to gain exposure, so I want to be compensated by something more than a book that probably isn’t very good. Furthermore, the e-mails I get from self-published authors come off as a desperate marketing ploy by someone who really wants to sell their book. From comparisons to much better books to e-mails that look more like spam a computer cooked up, the lack of professionalism I see in these requests is quite appalling.
Respect your reviewers, as they’ll make or break your book.
Partly because I have noticed all these errors time and again, I started my vlog, “Writer Rant” on YouTube. I would urge self-published authors to subscribe to my channel so they can get a peek into the annoyances of a reviewer, reader, and writer such as myself. If we can nip these types of egregious errors in the bud, then maybe readers will start taking us more seriously. As it is right now, I’m embarrassed for the lot of us.