By Jack Andrew Urquhart
Recently, after reviewing my author page on Amazon, I passed an hour perusing several of the customer discussion threads that proliferate on the site. A writer for over twenty-five years, I am yet a novice in the universe of Indie publishing and thus unfamiliar for the most part with how readers feel about Independent authors (and Indie-friendly vendors like Amazon) who are changing the face of publishing. That is why one discussion thread caught my eye right away. How could it not, given the heading?
“How to Avoid Indie Authors.”
The real subject, of course, was reader satisfaction, and I must say, the individual posts on the thread gave this Indie-author newbie a quick and very dirty education. Here is an excerpt from a post near the top of the thread:
I have no problem with amateurs posting their stuff to share online in a writer’s forum, but must their writings be intermingled with real books in the kindle store? Is there some way to hide them or weed them out when browsing and searching? It’s annoying to have to wade through all that garbage which has multiplied like a rat infestation in the Kindle store.
Amateurs, garbage, books that aren’t ‘real’ books at all, rat infestations—these are, indeed, strong condemnations; but surely they represent the rantings of one or two pseudo-intellectuals, a handful of armchair aesthetes, Frank Rich wannabes, Ruth Franklin pretenders. That’s what one would like to think. But think again. The thread I cite here ran to over 80 pages at last check—most of the comments decidedly Indie-negative. Granted, the damning drift was broken here and there by a few articulate dissenters, some of them Independent author/publishers; and, yes, more than once the fabric of discourse frayed to the kind of nasty volleying that one frequently encounters in online forums (You’re a jerk; No! You’re a jerk!).
And yet, the general flow of negative opinion was pretty swift and overwhelming. Consider this post:
Kindle and Nook ought to flag books that are self-published… For me it’s the copyediting that makes me gnash my teeth!
And this one:
I propose two completely separate Kindle stores. One for your indie revolution, and the other for elitist snobs like myself.
Or this one, arguably the most disturbing:
If this idea of indie books really annoys you, e-mail Amazon and ask them to start flagging the indie books. If a lot of people demand that, Amazon should comply, don’t you think?
Now there’s a thought-provoking question—one that set this writer gnashing his teeth and ranting away in private about the egregious snobbery and hypocrisy of readers who routinely propel mountains of pulp, much of it superficial (albeit, carefully copyedited and expensively hyped), straight to the top of mainstream best-seller lists. And yet, one can’t help wondering about that question. Just how might Amazon and other retailers respond, given enough customer demand—especially when a number of the issues cited by the naysayers are impossible to refute?
Take, for example, the most commonly cited complaint in Amazon’s discussion thread—quality control. Again and again, readers decry the poor-to-non-existent copyediting in Indie-authored books and stories: typos, poor formatting, HTML squiggles at the top of the page, bad grammar. Some of the customer respondents went so far as to cite sentences from Indie novels. Here’s one (slightly disguised to protect the not-so-innocent):
Amanda awakes from a sound sleep, but was to tired to get out of bed. So she placed her head back on the pillow…
Talk about a set up for a slam-dunk! Little wonder the commenter’s parting shot:
Apparently Indie characters set new standards in sci-fi super-hero-dom; not only are they tense shifters—apparently they possess detachable heads!
Here’s another example—this time, from a short story—cited by a jokester complaining of copyediting/proofing negligence:
Everybody new Monica. Best tables, best theater seats. She got it all whenever. Afterall, she was the biggest trader on Wall Street.
Perhaps you can guess the punch line? Do I hear a:
How big was Monica? Bigger than a breadbasket? Bigger than a Hippopotamus?
Yikes! To the many Independent authors who invest hundreds, even thousands of dollars in quality control—in copyediting, in graphics and design—so that their manuscripts meet and even exceed professional standards, reader criticisms in this vein must surely sting. And yet, how to deflect these slings and arrows when the world of Independent publishing, as currently configured, presents so many obvious targets, and so few quality control filters?
Speaking of which, reader-respondents on the Amazon discussion thread point out that Indie book reviews too often don’t separate the wheat from the chaff. Consider this comment—one of several bemoaning reviews and reviewers:
I don’t know how many misleading 5-Star reviews posted by so-called e-book critics I’ve read. 5-stars for novels and memoirs my eleven-year-old would’ve been embarrassed to claim.
Some reviews are sort of wonky, as in, manipulated by Facebook friends…friends and family give sock puppet five star reviews.
I should point out that a smattering of commenters insist there are “many diamonds in the Indie bunch”; but then they go on to say that finding those gems is too much trouble, too time consuming. Or as one respondent put it:
‘Sampling’ is painful to me. I should not have to be the one doing the vetting…
Okay. So who, then? Who should be ‘doing the vetting’?
Surely common sense says the Indie author bears that responsibility—the ultimate responsibility for doing all they can to ensure the quality of their manuscripts. But if they won’t? Are writers who do then fated to share in the inevitable losses—lost credibility, lost readership, lost sales? And what about writers who, for a variety of reasons, can’t shoulder the burdens of quality control?
As a blogger on another site recently wrote, and I’m approximating her post here, not everyone who is driven to write, driven to tell their stories, has been privileged to receive an expensive, quality education. Not every writer has the resources to pay for copyeditors, for top-quality formatting and art services. Does this mean they shouldn’t be allowed equal access to the expanded market place?
Well, does it?
And what of the quality control issues so many e-book customers cite in their criticisms of independently authored works? Are there possible filters out there waiting to be tested and/or implemented? Or are Indie authors simply the latest target of an inescapable reality that has challenged authors since pen first touched parchment—critical subjectivity? A fact of life we will simply have to live with?