Self-Publishing And Quality: Mutually Exclusive Terms?

Self-publishing your book, like everything else, has its pros and cons. In my view, the biggest of the pros is that you have complete control over your work; the worst of the cons is that no mainstream reviewer – someone who might really be able to help get your book in front of a lot of people – will touch your work with a ten-foot pole.

Some self-published authors may claim that there’s an evil cabal led by the major publishers that’s dedicated to keeping out the little guys. There may be some truth to that, even if it’s in the form of momentum in the relationships between the publishers, bookstores, and so forth. The big houses have been doing this for a long time, and they’ve certainly got the inside track, not to mention big bucks to spend on marketing and promotion (not that they’ll necessarily spend it on any given author).

But let’s set that argument aside for a moment. You see, before we – as self-published authors or even small press publishers – can throw stones at the big publishers’ glass houses, we need to take a close look at our own.

To do that, let’s start with looking at self-published books from a reviewer’s perspective, because they’re generally seen as a critical factor in spreading the word about your book. If your book is self-published, virtually every major reviewer (and by “major,” I mean someone who has a following of thousands of people, if not more) won’t even consider looking at it. Even many blog reviewers – and there are lots of them across the different genres – with much smaller (but collectively significant) followings won’t look at self-published books. Why?

The answer, my friend, is that the quality of much of what we self-published authors put out is – to use that highly technical publishing term – crap. Many reviewers have gotten tons of self-published books, only to be repeatedly disappointed and disgusted by them. Many reviewers have a stated policy up front that they won’t review self-published (or small press) books. Others will accept them, but send them to the bottom of the review pile. Still others happily accept them, and then expose all their flaws (to the author’s dismay – but what did the author expect?).

The fact is that we can’t expect to have our work viewed in the same light as the major houses unless we can polish the inches-thick tarnish from the term “self-published” and stop producing reams of crap.

Before your head explodes with righteous indignation, let’s go over a quick check list to see if we can further define “crap” in this context, starting from the outside of your book and working our way in:

  • Would the cover (front, back, and spine) of your book stand out – in a bad way – on the shelves of a bookstore?
  • Is it outrageously priced compared to similar books (genre, length, etc.)?
  • Do the first pages leading into the main body of the text – the title page(s), copyright page, etc. – follow the general norms for “real” books? Do you even have any of those pages?
  • Are the margins, font face and size, leading, and headers/footers consistent with the norms for “real” books?
  • If someone were to flip to a random place in the text, would they find a typo or grammatical error in the first five minutes of reading? The first thirty seconds?
  • Assuming we’re talking about a work of fiction, is the story good? That’s something that only folks who don’t have a vested interest in your ego can properly answer.
  • And if the story is good overall, are there any major breaks in logic, sequence, etc. – anything that jars the reader’s experience and kills suspension of disbelief?

Now, I will stand here and tell you face to face (in a very virtual sort of way) that I’m not going to claim that my first novel or any of my other writing is the greatest thing since sliced bread, or that I’ve “passed” all of the tests above with the proverbial flying colors. This is not about me saying, “Hey, I know what I’m doing, bub, how about you?”

No. This is about stepping back and critiquing ourselves to improve the standards of our work, with the end objective being to make our books indistinguishable from those by major publishers.

Let me repeat/rephrase that: we want our self-published books to look just like “real” books. We want them to read just like “real” books (is my use of “real” annoying you?), or maybe even better (hey, I don’t know about you, but I’ve read my share of books from the big houses that were stinkers with bad stories, typos and bloopers, etc.).

As self-published authors and small press publishers – independents (indies!) – we have a lot of things standing against us (anybody remember David and Goliath?), but we also have some significant advantages over the big boys. We have complete control of our work, and we have the freedom to explore fresh ideas that offer readers something more than the same-old, same-old (which essentially is another form of “crap”) churned out by the big houses. Technology – primarily print-on-demand (POD) and ebook platforms such as the Amazon Kindle and Mobipocket Reader – is our friend, and allows us to get into the game with at least the major on-line retailers wth almost no out of pocket cost and, for the most part, reasonable pricing for our books.

Quality. It’s all about quality, and remaking the term “self-published” into something that’s sought after – or at least respected – and not shunned.

How do we do that? I don’t claim to have any magic bullets, but we’ll take a look at some ideas in the next post on this topic, so stay tuned!

Michael R. Hicks is the author of In Her Name. You can learn more about Michael and his work at his blog.