First 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.