Saturday, August 25, 2012

Do Self-Published Authors Flood The Market With Junk?

Yesterday, while mowing my lawn, I fell into an argument with myself about the notion of self-published authors flooding the market with poor quality novels. I often talk to myself when I'm alone, and, yes, sometimes it leads to an argument.

Four hours on a riding mower can make the voices inside my head a bit combative. We had quite a discussion, me and myself, and came to a conclusion. But first, the argument:

In full disclosure (and because it's a great opportunity for a plug), I self-published my novel, The Night Train this past February on Amazon. In April I published the print version with Amazon's CreateSpace. Last week I published the Nook version on Barnes and Noble.

Until recently, an author who self-published was labeled "vain" (hence the name, vanity press, for the companies which catered to them). An author basically paid these small press companies to print their books. It was expensive and frowned upon by the writing community in general. But Amazon changed that.

The story of Amazon, and what it has done for (or to, depending upon whom you ask) the publishing industry has been talked to death, so I won't repeat the repeats. If you don't know the story then you probably landed on this blog by accident.

The lawn mower argument basically confined  itself to the theory that Amazon's kicking down the gate has flooded the market with sub-quality books. That argument contends that readers have been done a disservice because they are forced to wade through poorly-written, unedited, typo-riddled books uploaded by unprofessional authors. The flip side points out that the cream will rise to the top. Shoppers on Amazon are  presented with the top-selling/top-rated books first. Getting inside Amazon's Top 100 is no easy task. You won't get there and stay there with a book that is not appealing to readers. No one goes to Amazon, clicks a book category, then jumps to page 1000 to browse for books. That's like going to Barnes and Noble, walking past the front shelves, past the bargain counters, and asking if it's okay for you to dig through the garbage bin out back of the store. No one does that.

I can't tell you how many times I've walked into our local bookstores and left with nothing. Rarely did I find anything in the New Releases section, or even among the top sellers. I began to think I was so out of touch with literary trends that I might as well give up reading. Or, I told myself, I can WRITE the kind of books I wanted to find on the shelves but couldn't. Surely I'm not the only reader who doesn't care for zombies and vampires.

The Big Six know what readers are buying, my anti-self-pub side screamed. Yes, but they also control what readers CAN buy. The big publishing houses certainly have tons of sales data. No telling how many people they employ to analyze that data to mine out the trends. Then, as good business people will do, they accept authors who write to those trends. All others need not apply. Write to that model or continue to tack that damnedable adjective aspiring in front of author. So, one could contend, readers and writers were trapped in a circular game of reading/writing what sells because they are only offered what has sold in the past.

My more intelligent side (I say intelligent because I agree with it) thought of an analogy: Amazon set up the equivalent of a book flea market. Flea markets are very popular in the South. Not sure about other areas, so if you don't know what they are let me offer a brief explanation: flea markets allow individuals to rent a space, set up a table, and sell whatever their heart desires (within the confines of the law). No one vets the merchandize except the seller and the buyer. You can set up a table and offer dirt clods for sell if you want. No one is required to buy it and no one is prevented from selling it.

The argument could certainly be made that flea markets do a disservice to consumers because so much of the stuff for sale is useless junk. Potential buyers may pass a hundred tables of junk before they find something of value. On the flip side, a potential buyer may have been looking for that junk on a table everyone else is passing by with a shake of the head (who'd buy that crap?). Certainly the big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target know what people are buying. They track sales. If it was of value to consumers, wouldn't they be the ones to know? Wouldn't they offer it in their stores?

It's the same argument with books. Yes, flea markets invite kooks with junk to sell, but consumers flock to these venues and spend money. People like variety. Consumers like searching for that oddity they can't find in the big box stores. Can readers be that much less capable of deciding what to buy and what to pass up?

Amazon allows readers to download free samples of books, or read free samples straight from the website, just like when you browse a bookstore. Barnes and Noble allows you to read the entire e-book from their website, or on your Nook if you are within reach of a store's WiFi. Readers are intelligent. They are capable of deciding what interests them.

The lawn is mowed now. I am at peace with myself once again. There are some very good writers out there who self-publish. One book that comes to mind is Since Tomorrow, by Morgan Nyberg. It's an excellent read, and he published it without permission from any gatekeeper. Author Suzan Tisdale gave us Laiden's Daughter, and not once did she have to check with a corporate decision maker to predict sales. She wrote the book from her heart and, guess what? It sold. It sold well. Suzan will soon release book two in her historical romance series, and I'd bet she would tell you her readers are not the least bit inferior to those who purchased works from authors represented by traditional publishers.

But what about the notion that self-published authors can't possibly produce the kind of works put out by the likes of Hemingway, Hugo, Dickens, and Tolstoy, to name a few? Surely it takes a collaboration of author, editor, and publisher to crank out real literature. Don't tell that to Mark Beyer, author of The Village Wit. I'm five chapters into The Village Wit at the moment and I would stand it beside any work of classic literature on my shelf. Mark is an artist. He paints his masterpiece with words and sentences instead of colors and brush strokes. Perhaps Mark didn't get the memo that he's not supposed to be able to do that on his own.

There are many more examples, and I don't mean to leave anyone out. Take Andrew E. Kaufman, for example and the shock waves his success has sent through the publishing world. Andrew's dream-come-true story should inspire all of us to reach deeper and work harder. Success is possible, even for the self-published writers who, like me, just want the opportunity to write what we want and offer it to the reading public.

Ashley Barron, author of Ava, understands self-publishing perhaps more than anyone I know. Her blog is a wealth of information for writers, both established and up-and-coming. Is Ashley hurting readers with her in-depth discussions on writing, publishing, and marketing?

I don't mean to sound smug. I'm not opposed to traditional publishers. I don't want them to fail. It breaks my heart to see brick and mortar bookstores closing. There's room for all of us. Keep the big box publishers and the services they provide, but leave me the flea market. I like to read, too.


  1. We all have voices in our heads that argue, don't we? I mean, that's kinda why we're writers, right?

    On to the argument:

    You hit the main points, Carl. Yes, Amazon has kicked down the doors for ANYONE to publish. And, yes, a lot of those people perhaps shouldn't be putting their opuses out for perusal (I'm looking at you, Mr. Write-in-the-Present-Tense-and-Use-Dialogue-Tags-Endlessly-While-Burying-Us-in-Typos-and-Atrocious-Grammar).

    But does the cream always rise to the top? Not sure about that one.

    Although I've no doubt the books you've mentioned are very well written and could stand toe-to-toe with anything from the Big 6, some of the success stories ... (cough) 50 Shades (cough) ... excuse me ... are abysmal. Could they have benefited from an editor? I think so. Is the writing the level that should be applauded with record breaking sales? Maybe not, IMO.

    I do love the point you make about the Big 6 tracking sales and catering to those markets and Readers turning to self-pubbed authors to find books that aren't necessarily the Flavor of the Week. Can't tell you how many times I've walked into a bookstore, looked through the New Releases and left empty-handed. Like you.

    This gives us writers an opportunity, and one we're evidently seizing, to write the kinds of books we'd like to read regardless of what the market is dictating. That's certainly something I'm doing, seeing a noticeable glut in horror novels driven by Immortals with nary a hunky vampire or hot werewolf in sight.

    And I do agree that one can find success self-publishing. But, and I'm aware you didn't touch on this because this wasn't the article you were writing, it takes more than writing an amazing book.

    People have to know you exist. And, in an Amazonian marketplace flooded neck deep with drivel, that's often not an easy thing to do.

    But writing a great book is a good start.

    1. Marketing is, indeed, an major factor in success. I, too, have seen some books that are wildly successful but, in my opinion, poorly written. Is it because they have a great marketing approach? Perhaps. It could be that it actually appeals to readers who don't share my interpretation of "poorly written".

      But you are correct, the cream doesn't always rise, and what rises isn't always cream. No difference there with traditional publishing. Stephen King recently said he could send in his grocery list and it would get published. No doubt it would sell, too. Wouldn't we all like to be Stephen King (success-wise, I mean)?

      This post deals with opportunity and open-market. Give writers the opportunity to put their work out there. Give readers the opportunity to accept or reject that work. Not to drag politics into this discussion, but I recently heard a politician remark that "equal opportunity" should be the guarantee, not "equal success".

      I haven't read 50 Shades. It's not my thing. I, too, have heard it is poorly written. Someone likes it, though. A lot of someones, and that's the point.

      Thank you for your insightful comment. You are so very right: people have to know we exist. A great book is a start, but marketing it is a lot of hard work.

    2. I read ten pages of 50 Shades and had to put it down before I lost all faith in grammar and the correct use of dialogue tags. Not my cup of tea anyway, but this was a case where curiosity damn near killed the (literary) cat.

      Another good point is that the Big 6 also can't lay claim to publishing oceans of delicious cream. But at least their drivel will be relatively typo-free and edited somewhat professionally. We self-pubbed authors need to make sure ours is as well. (^~^)

      As for open-market and opportunity, Amazon has certainly given us that guarantee.

      Now I'm off to edit my grocery list for publishing. I'm sure the narrative arc from the sweet corn to the box of sugary cereal will no doubt enrapture many. And just wait until the big ice cream finish! Oh boy.

    3. The last few traditionally published novels I've read have been riddled with typos. Why? Some say it's because of budget cuts (some die-harders even blame that on the self-pubbers) at the big houses.

      But you are right, we self-pubbed authors have to step up and make our work as error-free as we possibly can.

      Sometimes I swear the keys on my keyboard dodge my fingertips.

  2. Feel free to sound nepotistic if you'd like, Suzan, and thanks for your kind words. The writers I mentioned in this post were mentioned because I feel they truly stand out as examples of how this new open-market approach to publishing can benefit readers.

  3. Carl, your flea-market analogy is spot on. I think we could think that of all publishing these days, given what's out there, how its put out there, and for whom, at any level, taste, and quality. Thank you for plugging my book, btw, and ... I'm quite humbled by your praise. I guess this social media stuff is starting to pay dividends ;-)

    But... four hours on a lawn mower? You need either a table-mounted laptop to surf and blog, or a 6-pack of half-quarts. Or maybe both?

    Keep on writing!


    1. What I really need is a finishing mower to pull behind my tractor, or more electric fencing for the goats, or the money to hire it done. It's a rural place though -- country -- with ground as rough as an alligator's back.

  4. Great post! LOVE the flea market analogy.

    1. Thanks, Susan. I thought it fit pretty well.

  5. A very thoughtful, well-stated, and relevant post, Carl...and not just because you mentioned me ;)

    You hit on a very key point when you talk about choices. We all have them, not just in books but in each aspect of retailing and in our everyday lives. Widgets come on the market all the time. Some sell. Some don't. Some aren't worth the money for which they are sold, or for that matter, worth a damn. What we're talking about here is the retail version of Survival of the Fittest. It's capitalism. Still, as you mentioned, nobody complains that the people selling them are diluting market with garbage. They simply don't buy them and move on to the next.

    Amazon has essentially done the same thing--they've given the consumer more choices, and in doing so, have also given authors never-before-heard-of opportunities. For me--one who faced more rejections than I care to recall--that was a very big deal. If legacy publishing were still the only game in town, I'd still be trying to get my foot through a door that has no hinges or handles. Are there books being put out that shouldn't be? Sure. Are readers intelligent enough to sift through and tell the wheat from the chaff? Absolutely. Amazon understands that. They get it. They've also put faith and trust in the consumers, knowing they have the ability to make those decisions and choices.

    Legacy publishing wasn't doing that. They were deciding what was best for the consumer. Please understand that I don't fault them for it; I fault a system that fell into place years ago and then eventually fell out of whack and became antiquated. Amazon changed that with the advent of the e-reader. It was bound to happen in some way, shape, or form.

    It's so easy to criticize a visionary who isn't afraid to step out and do something different, and there will always be those who will oppose them, no matter what.

    As for me, I will always commend them.

    1. Thanks for stopping in and taking the time to comment, Andrew. What some people don't seem to get is that Amazon isn't doing this to help writers. Amazon is doing it to make a profit. Writers uploading books to Amazon's servers wouldn't make a penny for Amazon if people didn't buy those books. Amazon was just smart enough to understand the concept that more variety equals more purchases, and they understand that the variety comes from opening their shelves to new talent. Barnes and Nobel, while they have Pubit, hasn't seemed to grasp that concept yet.

    2. What a great reply, Andrew. That's another point to hit, the opportunity we, as authors most have never heard of before, now have to get out there and build an audience (hopefully).

      I published my first book almost six months ago. Did I dip my toe in the legacy publishing waters? A bit. Kinda. Not really.

      And that's because, or at least this is how I saw it, I could spend several weeks perfecting a query letter, several months trying to find an agent, several more months whipping the MS into something the agent thought would get the best response -- and perhaps losing the Voice --, and then several years finding a Publisher willing to take me. And then perhaps ending up in the mid-range of authors who get very few advertising dollars, almost no editing advice, scant attention, and, you know, eventually it's Hello Bargain Bin!

      Or ...

      I could get my MS as clean as possible, self-publish, and then spend all that time finding readers who enjoy my work.

      The answer to me was pretty clear.

      So I, too, thank Amazon. I figure if you suspect your work is closer to cream than not, hanging in there, understanding it's a marathon and not a sprint, and continuing to put out comparable work your growing readership will enjoy is a lot better than signing with a Publisher and hoping they believe the same.

      Because oftentimes they don't. (^~^)

      Jonathan Winn

    3. Writing those queries is an art in and of itself. I hope to never have to write another one.

    4. When people now ask me why I self-publish, I answer that my talent lies in writing books, not queries.


      Jonathan Winn

  6. Well argued, Carl. I'm new to your site, and impressed with both the post itself and with the quality of the majority of the comments.

    My books are poetry and non-fiction, to date. I'm working on my first fiction, and finding it more challenging than both non-fiction and poetry.

    I'm a retired school teacher, and an editor, reviewer and proof-reader by definition. I'm not too worried about the slippery keys (though they do slip now and then) but am in awe of what authors like Andrew Kaufman are able to do. My simple story pales in comparison, but I will work at it. Reading his work inspires me to work at it.

    And I will bookmark your site, for more reading ahead!

    1. Thanks, Terry. I have more author interviews in the queue, and look forward to rolling them out in the near future. It's always interesting to me to see the different ways my fellow writers view their craft.

      And thank you for bookmarking my site. It's a young blog, and I'm feeling my way through it with the help and advice of some great friends. Becoming part of the writing community has been a rewarding experience.

  7. Carl, great post, as always. Interesting question you pose about how much readers should know about the work we self-publishers put into getting our novels out there. It's time for some polling data!

    1. Thanks, Ashley. I'll leave the polling to you. I wouldn't know where to start. :)

  8. Fantastic post, Carl.

    This page has been up on one of my closed Firefox windows for, like, five days and I've been meaning to post, actually.

    At the end of the day, there is collaborative responsibility between self-published authors and readers in the modern market. For authors, they need to present themselves in a professional light; a website, an author photo (as opposed to a dog or Obama or some cartoon), an engaging biography, a social media presence, etc. If they look fly-by-night, it's likely their publishing process may be, too.

    For readers, they need to do some research. If there isn't a shred of information about the author on Google, there's a chance they may be preparing to waste a little money if they buy that book. Why should the reader make an investment in a book if the author didn't (besides, ya know, writing it)...

    That doesn't mean that every self-published author without those things isn't producing great work; but, it is the author's job to make sure they look the part.

    1. Very true. With great opportunity comes great responsibility. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.