To me, the lack of quality control is a big deterrent to paying more than a dollar or two for an indie ebook from an author whose books I have not previously read. In the beginning, Smashwords was a great place to find indie books and give them a try, but that is rapidly changing as the number of indie ebooks rapidly increases. As Smashwords has grown, as indie publishing has grown with the rise of ebooks, and as the needle in the haystack has become increasingly difficult to find, we need to implement a method that imposes some sort of quality control.

A common response to this puzzle is to suggest looking at reader reviews on ebookseller sites like Amazon, on social sites like Goodreads, and on book review blogs. Perhaps in the very infancy of ebooks these were good and practical ways to determine quality, but that has changed with the rapid growth of indie ebooks. Not only are many of the indie ebooks simply not reviewed, those that are reviewed are often not well reviewed except in the sense of whether or not the reviewer liked the story. The insight of a professional reviewer is missing.

I began to notice the problems with reviews when readers began giving 1-star ratings because of price; that is, they were protesting the price of the ebook rather than evaluating the content. Price should not be a determining factor because each of us is capable of determining whether we are willing to pay the price, independent of whether someone else believes a particular price is too high, regardless of the book’s other qualities or lack thereof.

Compounding the price boycott review problem are the reviews that give a book 4 or 5 stars but do not detail what is good or bad about the book. One book I was interested in had a rating of between 4.5 and 5 stars. Of the 23 reviews, only 2 mentioned that book clearly had not been edited or proofread and, thus, reading it was difficult. This is not to suggest that the other 21 reviewers either didn’t or shouldn’t have enjoyed the book; rather, it reflects another concern of mine: Perhaps readers are unable to discern the difference between there and theirseen andscene, or seem and seam, and thus do not know that a book has errors. Some readers have told me that, as long as they get the idea, they do not care. I’m not convinced that bodes well for the future of literacy.

Yet another problem with these reviews is that it takes a leap of faith to accept that they are legitimate and made knowledgeably. This is the result of a lack of uniform, accepted criteria against which a book is judged by everyone — the gatekeeper role. When someone with the screen name “opus941″ and no other identification tells me that so-and-so’s ebook was by far the best fantasy ebook he/she has read since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but doesn’t mention that there are 4 homonym errors, 2 run-on sentences, and the same character’s name spelled differently within the first 3 paragraphs, I wonder whether opus941 ever read LOTR or simply watched the video, and I wonder how much credence to give to the review and the reviewer.

It is true that with a lot of work on my part, I can overcome many of the problems. For example, if I discover that opus941 has reviewed 42 ebooks and that I have read 10 of them and agreed with his/her reviews, I can probably move toward the end of the spectrum that says I can gamble on an ebook with a good opus941 review. But such trust is rapidly shattered by the first ebook opus941 raves about where I can’t get past the first few paragraphs because of poor grammar and editing, an occurrence that happens much too frequently with indie publishing.

The real question, however, is why should I have to do so much work to find a decent indie ebook to read? The consequence is that I am unwilling to pay much, if anything, for an indie author’s ebooks until I have read 1 or 2 and am convinced that the author can actually write a coherent sentence that captivates my attention. There are just too many things competing for my attention for me to undertake yet another major project, and looking for indie ebooks that worth reading is becoming such a project. Clearly, this is neither good for authors nor for their distributors. Yet, in the absence of traditional publishing that assures at least a minimal gatekeeping, this hurdle needs to addressed by 90% of indie authors (yes, there will always be a percentage for whom none of this is a hurdle to overcome).

The solution may be for distributors to become the new gatekeepers, either themselves doing the gatekeeping or requiring authors to attest that their ebooks meet certain prestated editorial criteria. I am not talking about storyline, plot, or other content related to the storyline or plot. I am talking about quality control – that the book has been professionally edited and professionally produced. The question is how to implement such a system at the distribution level.

I suppose one way to do it is to require every ebook to have a minimum price of 99¢ and to require the author to offer a double-your-money-back guarantee should the buyer find x number of grammar and/or spelling errors. (I accept, and think everyone must accept, that no book, professionally edited and proofread or not, is wholly error free. The question really is one of numbers: 1 error every 2 to 3 pages may be acceptable whereas 1 error every paragraph would not.)

Another way might be to require reviewers to respond to certain questions as part of the review process: “Did you find any spelling errors? Give examples. Did the ebook appear to have been edited? What is the basis for your conclusion?” Perhaps 2 or 3 more standardized questions should be asked and answers required before a more general review about the story or plot can be posted and a star rating awarded. Then the star rating can be given as weighted to include the answers to the required questions. For example, if a reviewer gave the story a 5-star rating but said that spelling errors had been found and the ebook appeared not to have been edited, the weighted rating might be 4 stars. However, a reader could see the review, the answers to the questions, and the story rating, as well as the overall weighted rating, and can assign his/her own weights.

I’m sure there are other creative ways to get a truer sense of an ebook, we only need to collaborate to find them. Authors and distributors should agree to the method ultimately settled on should be agreed and it should be applied uniformly across distribution channels. Authors would still be free to do as they please. However, readers would be better served and the better authors — those who really do care about their relationship with their readers — would profit more because readers would feel assured of getting a quality read from these authors and thus be more willing to spend a reasonable sum to buy the author’s ebooks.

It could only be good for all concerned when distributors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, authors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, and readers can improve their odds of finding that proverbial needle in the haystack. Certainly, it is worth thinking about.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog


  1. Lack of quality control is definitely an issue with e-books, although I can’t say I’ve noticed that “indies” are any worse in this regard than the Big Six – quite the opposite, from my experience. I do find it a little more forgiveable when I spend a dollar or two on a book that surfers form spill chucker decease compared to spending 15 on a book the first Jew pages olt ar filkjl;j w*&*( OCR errors, though.

  2. Reliable reviewing of new works: In the present atmosphere, it’s a tall order. I’m all for reliable reviews, of course, but setting up a system where all reviewers have to submit a battery of qualifications or comparisons to the review may be asking too much… especially when (and I think this it the bigger problem) so many of those reviewers are simple readers registering their approval or disapproval of a book… not professional critics that are expected to provide more than just a yay or nay.

    On the other hand, a system where “professional reviewers” must go through all content will create a bottleneck on reviewed new works comparable to the present print publishing system’s output. As I expect that would end up being a pay service (if, for no other reason, to try to expedite your work through the system), I’d bet plenty of authors would bypass such a system, either because they couldn’t or refuse to pay, or because they didn’t want to wait. And works whose authors could afford to “grease the wheels” would get all the reviews.

    One thing I believe would improve the present review system would be to present credentials for even casual reviewers, including full names, so as to remove the ability to hide behind anonymity. Obviously reviewers can decline to do so, but more weight will be put on the reviews of those who take full responsibility, whose credentials suggest they are superior reviewers, and whose opinions can be traced back to a source.

    I suspect, however, that the answer will eventually be websites with credentialed reviewers, going through material as fast as they can, possibly being supported by ad or subscription models or sponsors, and followed by those interested in their chosen genre. Eventually some of these websites will rise to the top of their fields, the cream of the crop, and become the place to go for reliable reviews of new works. And there will still be major books and authors being moved to the front of the line, indies being shoved back, and inequality in the system. But with the volume of books being produced, I doubt we can change that.

  3. Can we impose this quality requirement on non-indie published books? Traditional publishers seem equally able to put out product that is low quality: poor storytelling, typos, poor grammar.

    I don’t think you can paint the indie publishers, or self publishers with such a broad brush.

  4. At Kirkus Reviews, we hold the self-pubbed authors of our Indie section to the same editorial standards as our Fiction, Nonfiction and Childrens sections. There is certainly a wide range of quality in self-published books, but our reviews acknowledge when an indie book of great merit comes through our system, we note it by giving it a Kirkus Star. I’d invite people to take a look at our selection of Indie titles (, paying particular attention to those with a star next to it.

  5. My experience is one of major publishers’ errors being a lot worse than indies I have read. We appear to be in a period of rampant casual contempt for readers. A spell check and a read through should be solving 99.9% of these errors, yet this simple task is not being done.

  6. There are several indie authors that have become my new favorites and their books are impeccably edited, I rarely find an error. And if I do, I can contact the author directly, who then makes the correction. I challenge you to do the same with a traditionally published book.

    Indie authors who are serious about their craft know that the professionalism of their books reflects on them personally, their reputation is at stake.

  7. I really don’t see how ‘credentials’ for reviewers is going to improve things. If the reviewer reviews in a style that’s helpful to you and/or shares your tastes, you’ll appreciate their information. If they don’t, you won’t. Credentials don’t enter into it. And my experience from my days as a professional journalist suggest that’s true for all types of journalism. If you had useful experience and a flair for the type of writing a publication wanted, they’d hire you even if you didn’t have a ‘degree.’ Product trumped everything.

    As for the ‘answer,’ I don’t think there IS one necessarily, because the nature of any ‘indie’ market is its unregulation. Once you start regulating and gate-keeping, it becomes a mainstream market, not an indie one. What will happen with reviewers is the same thing that’s happening with authors. Some will get a reputation/name for themselves and get an audience (the Hocking or Konrath of the reviewing world) and be a sort of taste-maker; others will operate on a lower-key frequency and have their own audience, whatever it might be.

    I know that some of the reviewers whose blogs get more traffic than mine are working harder at the networking stuff, running contests, starting/joining memes from other blogs etc. They are not necessarily writing more or better reviews; they are just marketing themselves in a different way, with a different goal in mind. I simply don’t have the time. I am happy to just let the reviews be what they will be.

    One thing I did do is set up the Indie eBook Hall of Fame, which HAS gotten me some indie press, because a book can’t be listed there unless it gets three good reviews from independent bloggers. So that’s a sort of curated collection right there. I think we’ll see more people setting up little projects like that to give people a starting point. Eventually, some of those projects will take off and become destinations. But if they become TOO successful, they run the same risks as Smashwords has, of people complaining there are TOO many choices and they don’t know what to pick. So that’s why I think smaller blogs and reviewers will have more staying power than large aggregators; people will find ones they like who share their tastes, and follow them, and have a smaller, easier to manage pool of books to choose from.

  8. To be clear, when I mentioned “credentials,” I didn’t necessarily mean “degrees,” but information about reviewing history (number of reviews, associations, subjects and specialties, sites that have posted reviews, etc). That kind of info can tell you a lot about whether a person’s reviews are likely to speak to you.

    As far as the future, yes, review sites stand to become so popular that they may have a lot of choices to go through… but that’s what metadata is for, as well as tracking reviews according to who gave them, indexing content, providing review blurbs, etc… there are a number of tools to make searching easier. The key to doing it is having enough reviewers/staff to get through the morass (and being relatively influence-free, to prevent those authors with the deepest pockets always rising to the top).

  9. I can only add that indie sites need to offer previews of their books. This is common at Smashwords but is, I think, up to each author. In the case of multiple goofs in the opening, it’s clearly an I’ll omen for any reader whose sensibilities simply will not let typos and misspellings go.

  10. I’ll second the call for more (and decently-sized) previews, and not just on “indie” sites. Amazon is generally good for this, but compare Sony (no previews at all) and Kobo (“preview” generally consisting of the cover page and the copyright/indicia section, perhaps the acknowledgements).

    I’ve taken to using Amazon’s previews not so much to see if I’ll like the book as to check the quality of the electronic version before purchasing; having been burned a few times and had to go through the incredibly tedious and painful customer disservice procedures at Sony and Kobo makes me much less likely to shop anywhere I can’t check a chapter-or-better length preview again.

  11. I’m not sure that reviews are the answer for quality issues. For most quality issues, it seems that most reviewers don’t recognize them and most readers don’t really care.

    There are also different kinds of quality issues. Here are four that come to mind:
    1) Quality of e-book formatting such as cover images and chapter links,
    2) quality of text production such as absence of OCR scannos,
    3) quality of written English [or whichever language], and
    4) quality of writing craft such as controlling Point of View.

    Another complication is the ease with which corrected versions of e-books can be released. A comment on the quality of last week’s version doesn’t necessarily apply to this week’s version. I was personally asked by Mark Coker to remove a comment about poor e-book formatting in a review that I’d left at Smashwords because the formatting had since been corrected. I took him at his word that it’d been corrected; it wasn’t worth the trouble for me to verify it personally. My review had specifically mentioned the release date of the version that I was reviewing, but apparently that wasn’t sufficient.

  12. I’m currently reading a free Kindle edition of Two Years before the Mast that I got from Amazon. Every few pages there’s an irritating typo that even the most basic proofing would have caught. That makes me wonder if there could be something more serious, say two pages stuck together and not scanned.

    The big question is why Amazon foisted this version on me rather than putting a carefully proofed and equally free Gutenberg edition at the top of the list. Maybe we don’t need elaborate schemes to improve the quality of ebooks, particularly those in the public domain. Those who supply ebooks could offer a way for readers to rate the texts they download. Books that rate highly for accuracy would go to the top of the list even if free. Books that rate poorly would move to the bottom whatever their price. That’d be a lot easier for readers than review and pricing schemes. They’d just pick the book at the top of the list or perhaps the one nearest the top with a price they like.

    That’d also be a lot better than the surrogate for quality testing I often use: assuming the most popular or most downloaded version is the best. Popularity is driven by downloads by people who haven’t seen what they’re about to read. It’s not a good measure of quality.

    Of course, as an alternative I download the version with an attractive cover under the reasonable assumption that effort put into a cover may indicate effort in the text itself.

  13. You bring up some very good points. And the anonymous review system is, IMHO, badly flawed. I have no idea if the reviewer (a) shares my tastes, (b) can differentiate between proper and improper grammar, (c) is impartial or a shill (which could be a friend OR enemy/competitor of the author), or (d) even read the book.

    I also wish there was some sort of objective “Seal of Quality” that attests that the book has at least been properly formatted and proof-read. Something that says, “This book is certified to have fewer than X errors.” I’ve even thought about running a contest: “Spot an error in one of my e-books and get one of my other e-books free,” but I don’t know if anyone would take me up on it. And I’d love an option to allow refunds if people find X number of errors — I’m definitely confident enough to make that guarantee.

    Unfortunately for “the future of literacy” as you put it, I don’t know if a large percentage of readers really care about near-perfect grammar and proof-reading. Sure, there are a few outspoken people who do, but I’ve seen so many 5-star reviews of poorly-edited books (and 1-star reviews of well-edited ones, without even a mention of the pristine grammar), that it just doesn’t seem to be a huge factor for most readers. But I, for one, would be all for some sort of grammatical quality vetting system. Until then, I just recommend that everyone read a sample — I can tell pretty quickly if the author’s grammar is up to par.

  14. I’m afraid I seem to be going against the views above on all of these issues. I have no great interest in reviews of books by third parties unless I know who they are and they have a reputation that I am already familiar with. Anonymous or not makes no difference to me.
    I believe people DO care about typos. The problem is most people are not complainers and don’t take part in discussions like these, like we do.
    As regards grammar, ‘perfect’ grammar is not an absolute necessity. The reason is almost no one I know has perfect grammar. A story told in slightly flawed grammar, if it is consistent, is more true to life. And quoted speech by characters with flawed grammar is also often more real to life.

    And again .. the preview thing … I really don’t see the need to have huge previews. I just want to see if it flows smoothly, lacking typos, and seems engaging. I am not paying more than 5 or 6 euros anyway so it’s not the end of the world and I honestly suspect that is enough for most people.

  15. One commenter mentioned a “Seal of Approval”, and after reading this post I had a similiar idea. Suppose there is a universally recognized “seal” issued by a group of people, either professionals or amateurs or both, who themselves have been approved to give out a seal of approval. Indie authors could submit their work to be reviewed by the editors, and if they passed certain preordained criteria, would be allowed to say “Book Approved by the Guild of Editors”.

    It may not filter quality of content, but readers might be more inclined to purchase a book that has been certified by a universally trusted source to contain few grammatical errors. This could then remove the onus of reviewers from having to report on errors and instead focus on craft and story.

  16. ZT Burian – I understand where you are coming from and it sounds like a nice idea. However it is a Sledge hammer to crack a nut.

    The problem is one that is easily solved and cheaply. It is not rocket science or expensive.

    What is lacking is the ‘Will’ to solve it.

  17. “The question is how to implement such a system at the distribution level”

    Couldn’t Amazon, Barnes and Noble, et. al. simply offer their own opt-in professional review services?

    Create a curated space on the website where certified error-free, professional quality books are listed. The authors and/or publishers would pay for the review process, and agree to correct mistakes until the submission is considered acceptable. The bookstores are directly accountable to consumers- so thay have a pretty big incentive to do more than just “rubber-stamp” every submission.

    This review wouldn’t be applied to every ebook available for sale- just the ones that want to be put at the “big boy” table, so to speak.

    This seems like a way that publishers and book retailers could justify their existence in the eyes of the consumer. I don’t think people would mind the pricing schemes and proprietary formats as much if they felt there was value added along the chain.

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