Why Indie Authors Don’t Get No Respect

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By all indications, you’d expect that readers and traditional media alike would be wrapping their arms collectively around indie authors and their books into something akin to a big ‘ole hug. And yet…not so much.

Columns, Featured, Guest Author, Guest Column, Homepage Sub  •  Jan 30, 2012

by Melissa Foster and Amy Edelman

Several predictions have stated that 2012 will be “The Year of the Indie Author”.  After all, 2011 saw some awfully big moments.

John Locke became the first indie to break the Kindle million-seller mark.  Amanda Hocking, Queen of the indie vampire books, signed a ginormous contract with St. Martins Press.  And The New York Times deigned to include indies on their best seller list, where every week at least one title—often more— are contained.  By all indications, you’d expect that readers and traditional media alike would be wrapping their arms collectively around indie authors and their books into something akin to a big ‘ole hug.

And yet…not so much.

Big Reason #1: Bad Editing

The main complaint about the indie book category is the lack of editing.  It’s true that this situation has changed a bit in the past few years, due in part to better and more diligent indie authors and—on the flip side—slack in the editing of traditionally published books.

An anonymous letter sent by a group of successful traditionally published authors on M.J. Rose’s blog, Buzz Balls and Hype, requested the following: “PLEASE EDIT MY BOOK. Even if you know it will sell and get reviewed because of my name and my previous books, even though you recognize the many good qualities in the manuscript I have turned in, if you think it needs a serious revision, please, please, ask me to do it…Please do not let me go out in public this time with my slip showing and parsley on my tooth…And while we are on the subject, please employ a copy editor who understands the basic rules of grammar and has a working knowledge of the subject of the book sufficient to make useful and necessary changes in the manuscript instead of adding egregious errors while omitting to find crucial mistakes and typos. I love our nice expense account lunches, and I love you, but above all, I really, really want you to edit my book…”

It wouldn’t hurt for indie authors to demand the same.  Why don’t they?  For some it comes down simply to money.  They “put their first book out there” to see how it does, with the assumption that they’ll take the profits from that book and use them to edit the second book. But that plan often fails because readers who find a book difficult to navigate because of poor editing and grammar are not likely to pick up the author’s second book, even if it is offered for under a buck.

A scarier issue is that some independent authors simply believe that their work does not need to be edited.  Writers are often too close to their work to make the critical structural and grammatical changes that might make the story more succinct.  Let us simply say here that every writer benefits from a good editor.

Big Reason #2: Quantity Over Quality

Number 5, in Chuck Wendig’s brilliant “25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing” is Stop Hurrying.  “The rise of self-publishing has seen a comparative surge forward in quantity. As if we’re all rushing forward to squat out as huge a litter of squalling word-babies as our fragile penmonkey uteruses (uteri?) can handle…But generation and creativity should not come at the cost of quality.”

Writing a book should not be a race to the finish line.  While certain authors seem to toss off a title a month, copy and structure editing alone can take three to four weeks, receiving feedback from beta readers can take another three weeks, not to mention crafting the novel.  The model of pumping several books out in a year might be fine for someone like James Patterson who has a slew of hot and cold running editors, but for many indies, it means skipping important steps such as editing and trying to go straight to the payoff.  If independent authors want to write books that will be taken seriously, they need to present themselves with the same marked quality as the traditionally published books out there.

Women’s Literary Cafe recently queried readers on their thoughts about the necessity of editing in traditional and independently published books. The overwhelming response was that independently published books were in need of stronger editing. While several readers pointed out that traditionally published books were also lacking in the editing department, the majority felt they were not. Perhaps most importantly, the majority of readers polled said that they would pay a higher cost for a better edited book.

Not everyone feels that way.  Gary Henry, known on Twitter as @LiteraryGary, and writer of Honest Indie Reviews, says, “I look at indie books the same way I look at amateur athletics. It’s about fun. As long as they’re free or 99 cents, all they need to cover for editing are the basic mechanics of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Indie writers who want to charge more–turn pro essentially–owe their readers a more highly edited story–one that’s edited professionally for style, as well as mechanics.”

Terri Guiliano Long, bestselling author of In Leah’s Wake, thinks that “Basic quality should be a requirement for all published books.  The work should be structurally sound, the writing clear, the book free of grammatical and typographical errors. For the indie movement to thrive, to end the stigma, we need to be sure that all published books meet these basic standards. Editors or editorial teams, charged with assessing quality based on objective criteria, perhaps equipped with a checklist, would assure that they do.”

Big Reason #3 The Lack of Gatekeepers

We totally get that being an indie gives authors the freedom to create a brilliant work, unsullied by the sales and marketing formula of the publishers of today.  And we believe that self publishers are among the last of the underestimated, struggling artist’s of the world.  But no man (or writer) is an island.  In the words of Eminem, “Why do I act like I’m all high and mighty, When inside, I’m dying, I am finally realizing I need help.”

In the old days, an author needed an agent to get to a publisher and a miracle to get to an agent.  Reaching readers any other way was totally out of the question.  But ebooks and print on demand technology have made it possible for self-published authors to slip right under the velvet rope and onto ereaders everywhere, gaining thousands of readers in the process.

The problem comes from the hardly edited and badly written indie books that taint the category, making it all the more difficult for the great authors to get recognized.  A quality control gatekeeper might quell the flow of those poorly written books from getting to the Kindles.

Having a trusted place to find credible reviews would certainly help separate the good from the terrible.  And while there are a growing number of outlets which will review indie titles, most traditional media still prefer to pretend, like gays in the military, that they don’t exist (while The New York Times does include indie books on their best seller list, they don’t include them in their book reviews).

Big Reason #4 – Crappy Covers

As with many things in life, first impressions are 90% of the game. In order for authors and their books to be taken seriously, they must present themselves in a professional fashion; strong cover art, succinct and exciting blurbs, and a professional author photo, are must have items.  The decision to skip these important steps can hinder current and future sales.  As Biba Pearce states on Jane Friedman’s blog, “An ebook cover has an important job to do. Not only does it present your book to the world, but it also says a lot about you, the author. It can be a powerful selling and marketing tool, or it can damage your image as an author and lead to dismal sales.”.

So will 2012 will be “The Year of the Indie Author”?  That depends.  While it’s certainly true that indie authors yearn for respect, the plethora of unedited, badly written books with god-awful covers still taint the category.   The truth is, while there are many incredible authors out there, in order for them to be taken seriously by readers and the traditional media, they have to first take their work seriously themselves.

Just as every writer deserves the chance to write and publish, every reader deserves to receive an edited—and polished—book.

Melissa Foster is the award-winning author of three International bestselling novels, Megan’s Way, Chasing Amanda, and Come Back to Me. She has also been published in Indie Chicks, and anthology. She is the founder of the Women’s Nest, a social and support community for women, and the WoMen’s Literary Cafe, a cross-promotional site for authors, reviewers, bloggers, and readers. Melissa is currently collaborating in the film production of Megan’s Way, and hard at work on her next novel. www.MelissaFoster.com

Amy Edelman is the author of The Little Black Dress (Simon & Schuster) and Manless in Montclair (Crown) and the founder of IndieReader (www.indiereader.com), the essential consumer guide to self-published books and the people who write them.

  • http://venturegalleries.com Stephen Woodfin

    Good points all. Actually I think an indie book has to better than one from a big house, which really puts the emphasis on editing, covers, etc.

    On the gatekeeper issue, I don’t see anyway to implement such a thing. The only way to do it would be for a large number of indies to submit to some entity that could give them an “approved author” button or some such. And I believe indie authors fear such a development because it sounds too much like the old regime where they couldn’t get a foot in the door.

    • http://www.melissafoster.com Melissa Foster

      Hi Stephen,
      Perhaps just proof of editing prior to publishing would be a good start:-)
      Melissa

  • http://magicprose.com Belinda Vasquez Garcia

    If you want to get out all the spelling and grammer errors, it isn’t enough just to do a spell check with Word. My book, The Witch Narratives, Reincarnation is coming out next week on Amazon. I started this book in 1997 and have rewritten it so many times over the years (while writing other books in between) and done so many spell checks and grammer checks on it. Yet, when I read the pdf proof, I found like 50 errors in the 101k words. Then, my husband read the actual book proof and found a few more. I was amazed by this. As writers, our eyes become numb to the words, since the work was manufacturerd by our brains. I’m finally coming out of the writing closet and publishing my work. With self-publishing, I have creative control.

  • http://magicprose.com Belinda Vasquez Garcia

    Oops, forgot one other thing. And yes, I know I should have type grammar. Anyway I, also, put my title with the self-publisher the end of September and didn’t approve the final proof of the book until four months later because I wanted it to be as perfect as possible. I’m not saying every indie author should do this. I confess to being a perfectionist and obsessive compulsive. I’m not trying to preach at anyone, but authors should think about the fact that their name is on the cover of their book.

    • http://www.MelissaFoster.com Melissa Foster

      Yes, if you want respect, work for it.

  • http://www.heatherhummel.net Heather Hummel

    Great article with succinct points. My feeling is that the indie author craze will phase out in about five years, leaving the steadfast, devoted ones still writing diligently and producing quality books. Who knows where technology will have us by then (perhaps Amazon knows!), but the truth remains that everything you point out comes into play regardless of the device we’re reading from. My prediction is that the future of publishing will be: great editors, great cover designers, and the need (once again) to be a great writer.

    • http://www.MelissaFoster.com Melissa Foster

      Hi Heather, I think it might not take that long…

  • http://www.MarketingForRomanceWriters.com Biba Pearce

    Hi Melissa, great post. It’s incredible how many Indie authors underestimate the impact that a badly edited book or cover has. Readers are spoilt for choice these days and a book that looks unprofessional will not be downloaded as readers automatically assume it won’t be worth the money or the read. Thanks for the mention.

    • http://www.MelissaFoster.com Melissa Foster

      Hi Biba, thanks for stopping by and reading. Yes, I’m always amazed at the lack of editing. I understand when a writer can’t afford an editor, but in that case, maybe submitting to a small press or waiting until they can afford proper editing is best.

      Melissa

  • http://judahleedavis.wordpress.com Judah Lee Davis

    Good article. I’ve found that book review sites make a good gatekeeper. If a book continues to get bad reviews, eventually people will lose interest. This happens a lot with movies, too.

    I love how the rise of Indie publishing lets readers decide for themselves.

    • http://www.MelissaFoster.com Melissa Foster

      To a point I do agree, but there are some mind-numbing fake reviewers out there who do nothing but give one-star reviews to indies – as many as 2-300 books in a row, and then make negative comments to legitimate readers who have reviewed the books. It’s almost as though reviews also need to be taken with a grain of salt, and the point is to get the book polished BEFORE it is reviewed:-)

  • http://tobecomeawriter.com Renee Pawlish

    Great points – it’s funny, I’ve been saying these things on my blog for some time and it’s surprising the number of indie authors who will argue the points, or just say “the cream will rise to the top”. But those that say this (and those that don’t edit etc) miss the point that they are hurting their own sales, they are hurting the sales of others (because there’s more crap to weed through to find the good stuff), and they just plain miss that it takes time to become a good/great writer. Most people don’t understand the nuances of creating a story until they’ve been writing a while – yet too many indies publish the first thing they write – and heaven forbid if someone says it’s bad. That, in my humble opinion, is not acting very wisely, because as you say, many times we can’t see the faults in our own work. And that attitude prevents them from succeeding (at least if you measure success in terms of sales :))

    • Amy Edelman

      Agreed! Thx for responding!

  • Catherine Murray

    I thought this was a really useful article. Perhaps you would like to make some suggestions about what you think is a good cover.

    • http://www.MelissaFoster.com Melissa Foster

      I’m not the cover judge, but I think covers should look professional, speak to the story, and be the right size:-)

  • http://me2industries.com/book/passwordkeeper.htm Michael Pipkins

    Nice post. One thing I have found that helps a little is to simply put the book away for a couple of days and then re-read it when you are in a different state of mind. Still, having another person (or four) to edit it is a must.

    • http://www.MelissaFoster.com Melissa Foster

      Walking away is always a good idea. I do my best revisions after I’ve been away from a ms for two weeks.

  • http://www.petemorin.com Pete

    I like Gary Henry’s simile to amateur athletics, but I still wanna know a guy can throw overhand before I chuck him spare change.

    And Stephen’s idea about a “Seal of Literacy” of some sort ought to catch on.

    Eventually.

    What burns me up is the reader with his nose in the air. Dude, just read the first page before you choke on that attitude.

    • http://www.MelissaFoster.com Melissa Foster

      I have to laugh, because I’m amazed at the harsh critics of indie readers. It’s okay not to like books, but why read only free, or only indie and then snark about them? I never buy a book without reading at least the first three pages, and Amazon makes it easy with their samples and “Look Inside” options.

  • http://joannamuses.com Joanna

    Very good points. There is certainly some good indies out there but they get buried under so much rubbish.

    The covers is the area that particularly astounds me. I see so many that look like they were created in 3 minutes by someone who is colourblind, using MS paint and with photos taken on an early model camera phone. Even if you can’t afford professional design it isn’t that hard to make sure that the dimensions of the cover are correct, the colours don’t clash, the fonts are legible and you’ve found a clear and appropriate royalty free stock image. I would almost never download an ebook with a bad cover (even if it is free) because I figure if the author can’t be bothered with the relatively simple task of getting a passable cover, chances are they haven’t bothered with the much harder tasks of editing and good plot development.

    I think another issue that could come to damage the reputation of indies is the huge amounts of insubstantial content passed off as books. I see so many “books” on the kindle store that based on their file size cannot be much more than 1000-3000 word articles. I suspect that for many consumers it won’t take being tricked into buying something they thought was a book but in reality was little more than a single blog post many times before they are wary of all indies.

    • http://www.MelissaFoster.com Melissa Foster

      That’s an interesting point, and I hadn’t noticed it until recently. Perhaps since Kindle doesn’t allow page counts, there should be a word count on the Product Description.

      • http://joannamuses.com Joanna

        Kindle actually does allow page counts in their listings but it is not mandatory to include one. You can sometimes get a rough estimate based on the file size (which is always included) but that can easily be inflated by the cover image or in-text images.

  • http://www.ingridricks.com Ingrid Ricks

    Great piece, Melissa and Amy. I agree with EVERYTHING said here. I think in some ways, the bar is already set higher for indie authors because of the bias that still exists — and poorly edited/designed books hurt us all. But I also know that we are in the middle of an incredible evolution in the publishing industry and believe that self publishing with the help of an editor/design team will soon be the norm. And though it make take a little time, I’m confident the junk will get weeded out.

  • http://rpdahlke.com Rebecca Phillips Dahlke

    Enjoying this site, and the columns! I’m an Indie author, and yes, I will admit I’ve made some of the mistakes when I published my first e-book on Amazon. It took me about a nanosecond to realize I had to get a really good editor, not just my cousin and various readers, and since then I’ve worked hard at layering one well written, well edited book on top of the other.
    As an author and an artist, I always have a pretty clear vision of what I want for a book cover, especially for the e-book covers for Amazon and B&N. I’ve had three book cover artists for three different books and except for the first book cover, the rest were like pulling teeth to get the designer to accept my ideas. I think I’ve finally discovered my best match for a cover designer in a woman who got my ideas for my newest book in one take, and she’s cheap at $150.00 a book cover.
    I’ve just submitted my first book cover, A Dead Red Cadillac to the Book Designer for his monthly award for best book cover…. this cover was designed by a 16 yr. old artist who does covers for several terrific authors…. Tim Hallinana and Carolyn J. Rose to name two.
    BTW: WLC has been retitled to World Literary Cafe… and it’s a pretty darn good place for any Indie to be… besides this one, of course.

  • Reiblynn

    Don’t forget that the reader is the final decider in ALL sales. Most books have sample chapters for free. No one ever has to buy ebooks site unseen. And if the book you are contemplating buying does not offer a free look? run, run like the wind.

  • http://www.romanceauthorcynthiaroberts.com Cynthia

    This was truly a great piece and spot on. I launched my last two books as an indie author because even when I had a traditional publisher debut my first, there were more than a few editing errors. It’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place …. frustrating !!!! I agree, if you want respect as a great author, you have to take pride in the finished product. Otherwise, you reap what you publish.

  • Mighty Munk

    Aaaaah! ” last of the underestimated, struggling artist’s of the world”!!!!
    yes, bad editing!

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