Are Indies Really That Bad?

This is an updated version of a post I originally published in May 2015. It came about when, at a loss for something to blog about, I went to FB, looking for inspiration. Needless to say, it didn’t take long to find something. Of course, it also raised my blood pressure and had me gnashing my teeth, never good things. I’ve taken the original post and updated it.

Anyway. . . .

Here’s the set-up. An traditionally published author took FB to bemoan the fact that she had bought an e-book and had been so disappointed in it. According to this traditionally published author, the book had been touted along the lines of “If you love Jim Butcher, you will love this” or words to that effect. Seems this particular author adores Jim Butcher’s work and found this particular book sadly lacking. Okay, I can get that. Those are big shoes to fill. But she didn’t leave it at that and that is where my issue with her begins.

First, she didn’t say where she saw the book touted in such a way. Was it a cover quote, given to the author by someone else? Those are always tricky. I know. Our own Sarah gave me a cover quote for Vengeance from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 1) that compares VfA to early David Weber. The quote thrilled me because I knew Sarah meant it. But it also scared the crap out of me because I knew there would be those who wouldn’t agree — and I was right. Several of my reviewers have said they didn’t see it. But that’s okay. The quote was Sarah’s opinion and one I was honored to have received.

But we don’t know if the Butcher quote was a cover quote or it was part of the product description written by the author or if it was part of an ad campaign. If the author or publisher was foolish enough to compare the work to Butcher, well, that is just asking for trouble. At least it is in my opinion. That’s like walking up to someone with your dog, who just happens to be the world’s ugliest dog ever, and telling folks it looks just like Lassie and expecting them to agree with you. If, on the other hand, it was part of ad copy, well, the condemning author should have known better than to take it at anything more than hype.

I always think twice about a book when the author touts their work as being just like so-and-so best selling author. I especially do when the author uses the description part of the Amazon page to tell me that. It’s one thing to have someone else comparing the book to another. It is something completely different when the author does so. When that comparison is the first thing I see in the product description, and there is no attribution for the comparison, it smacks of desperation.

Now back to the author complaining about how bad the book was.

Second, and this is my real issue with the complaining author, is when she went on to point out that it had been an indie published book. Okay, fair enough–if she had left it at that. But no. It seems if she had known it was an indie book, she never would have bought it. She seems to thins indies, at least “unknown” indies, should never publish until they submit a book to a traditional publisher and have it accepted and published. Then the unknown indie author will know she is good enough to call herself an author.

Yep, you read that right. Each of us who indie publish, should go the traditional route first — and successfully land a publishing contract — before self-publishing. That will get rid of all the dreck out there if we do.

Fair is fair, she does admit there is some dreck being published by traditional publishers but that’s okay. It made it through the gatekeepers.

All hail the gatekeepers!

Now, how many problems are there with what she proposes? Too many to number, so let’s just discuss the major ones.

To submit to most traditional publishers, you have to do more than send your manuscript to the publishing house and wait for them to get back to you. Almost every major house, and most of the mid-sized ones, have in place systems that require authors find an agent first. From everything I am seeing and hearing right now, it is as difficult — if not more so — to find an agent as it is to find an publisher. So, you can have your manuscript making the rounds for months, even years, trying to find an agent, especially since so many of them do not want you sim-subbing your work to other agents. Then, assuming you get find an agent and come to an agreement, you have just signed away something in the area of 15% of all your earnings, plus expenses, to someone and often for the life of your work’s copyright.

Now your agent starts trying to earn money for both of you by submitting your work to publishers. This is yet another waiting period of months or more in all too many cases. Assuming they do manage to land you a contract, yet another time of waiting follows.  All this could add up to two years or more from the time you start shopping your book around. What are you supposed to do in the meantime? That is something the reviewing author didn’t address. However, since she feels you shouldn’t self-publish until you have that contract, my guess is she thinks you can now self-publish because you are, by her definition, “good enough”.

And here is the big rub. Most publishing contracts include the right of first refusal. What that means is the author won’t be able to self-publish while waiting for their traditionally published book to come out. There have been a few examples where a publisher has require an author to return their advance and has canceled the contract because the author — gasp — indie published something while waiting for their traditionally published book to come out. The publishers say it is to prevent diluting their brand but it is more simple than that — they want to control the author’s career. Sorry, but no.

But let’s look at it another way. There is a very limited number of slots available for new authors with any given publisher. Big Publisher isn’t about to give up a Stephen King slot for a nobody.

Then we need to remember that the reviewing author admitted, albeit reluctantly, that these same wonderful traditional publishers have published dreck. But we are to trust them to decide if we are good enough to self-publish or not.

Give me a break.

Anyone who starts off by saying they wouldn’t waste their money on an indie book loses credibility. That is especially true when you realize there are a number of indie authors who make very good livings off their work. Add to that the fact that traditional publishers troll the best sellers lists for indie authors to try to entice over to the traditional side of the business. Many of whom we never hear from again once they go trad. Finally, there is a little bit of responsibility any reader has to have when choosing a book, no matter how it came to the market. You don’t take sales copy at face value. You check the reviews. You look at the sample. You check to see what else the author has put out.

But there is more to consider as well. The number of bookstores continues to decline in much of the country. We are down to basically one national bookstore chain–B&N. To say it is struggling is to understate the fact. Traditional publishers are in a quandary about what to do because they no longer have as many storefronts to display their wares. Yet, those who still condemn indie publishing as being a short cut and the place for dreck don’t see a problem. They don’t recognize the fact that the number of new titles being published has decreased over time. That means even fewer new slots for new authors.

Then there’s the news from this past week that Baker & Taylor is getting out of the retail wholesale business. That means Ingram is the only entity filling that role now. I don’t have the link at hand right now, but Publisher’s Weekly had a piece about how this is concerning the indie bookstores. When you leave distribution in only one company’s hands, they have the industry over a barrel. That means not just bookstores but publishers as well.

But we are supposed to continue using the antiquated gatekeepers to prove we are “real writers”.

Sorry, but no.

Are there bad indie books out there? You bet. But there are bad traditionally published books as well. Being indie does not, on its face, make a book less of a book than one that is traditionally published. For an author to say differently leaves me wondering if said author is scared by indies and by the success so many have had.

There are gatekeepers out there. But they don’t reside with the agents and publishers. They reside where they should–with the readers. After all, aren’t they the ones whose opinions we should really worry about?


  1. Her publisher told her she was special.
    And she took it to heart.
    You should see her helmet.

    Ok, in all fairness, rationalizing reasons why you’re better than someone else is one of humanity’s favorite sins.
    That said, preening is never a good look.

  2. I have read good Indie books and weak indie books. Ditto for pro-published books.

    I edit Tightbeam, the review zine of the National Fantasy Fan Federation. We publish book reviews, among other things. Reviews are important. If there were enough of them, the fine material would be sorted from the not-so-great. Last year we managed to run reviews of most of the Dragon nominees, though not before the awards were given. After all, ‘nominee’ implies ‘probably good’. This year, in addition to the Dragons, I tried to get reviewers to cover the Hugo novel nominees. For some reason my usual review pool was, let us say, disenthused with my suggestion.

    In any event readers willing to validate Amanda’s remarks by writing reviews for us, including reviews of the fine novels published by Mad Genii, are urged to do so. for submissions. for back issues.

    1. I’d have to

      And probably review anonymously.

      I don’t get as many Amazon reviews in as I ought but on those I wouldn’t do one that was outright critical, at least not unless there were special circumstances. I did give a one star to a category romance once.

  3. Thank you, I needed the laugh 🙂

    A couple more problems with that modest proposal:

    What trad publishers want to produce does not necessarily match what millions of readers want to read. In many cases (genres like military sf, for example), publishers hate to cater to large audiences that they consider “beneath” them (“toxic” male readers being but one such demographic). So writers tending to those audiences would never be accepted by trad publishers, regardless of their work’s quality. The few exceptions to that rule (Baen, Castalia) don’t have the bandwidth to meet the demand, unfortunately.

    Quality is in the eye of the beholder. If enough people want to read grammatically-dubious pastiches of assorted genres, then anybody who meets that demand deserves to profit from it. Book critics may find such books awful, but they aren’t the target audience. And yes, there are a lot of truly awful indie books out there, but sifting through them is relatively easy: checking the sample chapters should reveal enough about a book’s quality to make an informed decision. And thanks to services like Kindle Unlimited, one loses nothing but time when picking up a bad book.

    I have been recently delving into LitRPG (thinking about trying my hand at the genre) and gone through dozens of KU books, often dropping them after a chapter or two. Some I found entertaining, others were painful to get through, and yet many of the books I disliked had hundreds of reviews, indicating sales in the tens of thousands of copies. They might not be to my taste, but plenty of people disagreed. And that’s the great thing about indies: they can meet the needs of a large variety of audiences. That is true diversity.

    1. Same with the western genre (which I sort of write in) – when I was going through the motions of trying to get an agent and a traditional publisher for my first two novels (which were historicals set on the 19th century American frontier) I was hobbled at the get-go because most of the agencies were very snooty about “westerns.”
      Still a huge audience out there for them, though. And not all male. Trad publishing just preferred to walk away from that niche market.

      1. Thing is, tradpub is like Hollywood–it is exceedingly insular and provincial. I suspect that there is no market for Westerns among the Manhattan literati, and Manhattan literati make up the vast majority of tradpub employees.
        They don’t believe the market exists.

      2. Cowboy *romances* are going strong, though they’re usually set in “today” rather than Historical.

        Since Historical romances are such a big genre there ought to be a market there, but I haven’t seen many.

    2. My question is “where is the second Bicentennial War book”? 😉

        1. Huh? How can we have the book before we have the war itself? Or is it the Second Bicentennial War HANDbook? And do we run it with AD&D 3rd Edition Rules, or the latest GURPs rule set? I’m so confused! 😉

          1. LOL 😆

            C.J. Carella has a MilSF series called “Warp Marine Corps” that has a US that survived a massive alien attack on Earth and thanks to the help of a friendly alien starship has reached for the stars so that nobody will attack Earth again.

            The Bicentennial War is a follow up series and is called that because it starts around 200 years after “First Contact” between humans and non-humans. 😉

          2. A new edition of Torg came out last year (though I prefer the original). I’d say to with that so other players can have characters from other universes in the game. I want to play someone from Anderson’s and Hoyt’s Arcane America world. 🙂

    3. “Critically acclaimed.” tends to mean, “It’s absolute rubbish.[1]”

      [1] I’m being kind. The actual term used is much more… scatological.

    4. If you find yourself disliking a lot of popular genre examples, there is a risk that writing in that genre is not for you.

      The trick is discovering whether the ones you like are the ones whose appeal crosses over with readers outside the genre. Or are they a subgenre? What are the cookies that sell the genre, and how do they appeal to genre readers?

      Reading intensively distorts one’s taste. You may find yourself dropping stuff that you could see the appeal of if you were simply trying to kill time, had that available, and nothing else. A reader with very narrow genre tastes may tolerate more roughly written stories in that genre, and read further to discover that it does a particular cookie very well.

      Which is to say that a) at one point I was reading a lot of translations of Asian LitRPG, b) I’ve bounced off a large number of stories I ended up loving c) I may simply be bad at figuring out how genres work, but I’ve had some interesting realizations after getting enough reading in. I don’t know Amazon’s English language LitRPG market, so don’t have any opinions to compare.

      I think I’m going to be shooting you an email about a site.

      1. Usually the stuff I stopped reading was simply atrocious. This is homework for me so I didn’t stop unless I figured I couldn’t learn anything from a particular book. But I’m getting a handle on the tropes and what stuff I like in the genre. But it was the same with mil-sf. A lot of it I can’t stand but I can write stuff that appeals to a segment of the audience and it’s enough to pay my bills 🙂

        Looking forward to the email.

      2. Right now, the English litrpg market is led by the Russian litrpg market.

        There are a buttload of isekai/game novels, a buttload of “games are better than real life” novels, a fair number of “men’s adventure/harem” ones, and a few that actually balance game plot with real world/near future sf/cyberpunk plot. There are also a lot of dungeon core novels where the dungeon is the protagonist/DM, and a few novels with mysterious dungeon towers appearing in the real world (ie, file the serial numbers off their Magi – Labyrinth of Magic anime fanfic).

        A lot of the pleasure is the ingenious gaming ideas and crazy situations.

        1. I’ve tried a couple of the Adventure/Harem ones, and while somewhat amusing, none of them were terribly moving or memorable. But then they were worth the price via KU.

      3. Oddly enough, the rule I found was that if I read for research purposes to scope out the genre, the work was stunningly bad.

  4. F*** the “gatekeepers” with a chainsaw. A rusty one. Sideways. And twice on Sundays. Hell, I’ll go so far to actively AVOID Tor-branded [MANURE]. I want some chance of… quality.

  5. When I reads “if you liked so and so you’re going to love this and that” I immediately reach for my industrial strength salt shaker.
    At best it means the blurb writer thinks their product is at least in the same sub genre as the famous writer’s works. Sometimes they are correct, but often opinion fails to meet reality.
    And none of that speaks to the new writer’s qualities as a story teller.
    For a writer going the trad pub route it’s a maze of gates starting with actually finishing your book, then finding an agent, the agent finding a publisher, signing a contract and getting what has become a piddling advance of which the agent takes a big bite. Then hoping and praying that the publisher at least places your book properly, hoping for actual push is becoming increasingly rare unless you’ve written a political tell-all. With a lot of luck the book will earn out and the publisher will want another, just like the first of course only different. And they will expect you to produce about one a year until their old school business model designed to kill off midlist authors finally gets you and they decline further submissions.
    With indie you finish your manuscript, hopefully get a good scrub by a competent editor either for pay or as a favor, obtain an appealing genre suitable cover, format for Kindle, and upload to Amazon. Then set back and wait for the direct deposits to start rolling in just a month delayed from the Zon. Actually not as while you’re waiting you should be furiously working on the next several books. No one or two a year for you as a popular indie author. One a month seems to be much more lucrative for those who can sustain such a pace, or at least one a quarter.

    1. In my experience, the only time it works is when the blurb writer compares the work to the author’s last work.

    2. No one or two a year for you as a popular indie author. One a month seems to be much more lucrative for those who can sustain such a pace, or at least one a quarter.

      Sadly, I think this is the kind of thing that sends authors off to Fiverr land or wherever looking for ghostwritten books. I guess I’m just old but I’m kind of shocked at how openly this sort of thing is done these days. If I buy a book by Mary Smith I buy it in the expectation she wrote it, not that it was written by Jane Jones. Yet that Brazilian woman now getting sued by Nora Roberts flat out blamed her ghostwriters for the plagiarism at first, and I saw lots of objections to the plagiary, but none to the fact that she just flat out admitted she hadn’t written the books with her name on them. How out of step with life in 2019 I apparently am.

      Yes, everybody knew celebrity memoirs or self-help books from businessmen are all ghost-written, but that’s it. Not fiction.

      1. Lumpenprole – one of those dirty industry secrets is that when you picked up a trad pub book by author A, expecting it to be Author A? No guarantees. Ghostwriters have a long-established tradition of picking up contracts for books that other authors were supposed to do and didn’t, for one reason or another – and with writing books for “house names”, which means the name slapped on the cover is a marketing ploy, not a real person.

        I know more than one trad author who’s a name in their own right, but got a contract for a book because it was less than 3 months til publication, and the author who’s name is on the front hadn’t turned in anything… and they had a rep for being able to turn in something quickly.

        Also, the practice of “cowriting” can often mean “wrote complete book, with maybe a vague email or sketchy outline of sort of a plot from Famous Author, or maybe not.” At this point, I think the public realizes this in general about James Patterson books, but it’s far more widespread than that.

        The difference these days is that some indies will openly admit to hiring ghostwriters in public on the internet, where readers can openly see it. These sorts of discussions used to be kept confined to the bar at the convention, or the email list. Now? Not so much.

        Personally, I’m against the practice, because I like truth in advertising, but sadly I recognize when I’m tilting at windmills.

      2. There were a fair few who objected to the ghostwriting… I just saw it more on the blog comments than on facebook et ala. (Honestly I didn’t see much of it on facebook at all.)

  6. I try indie 99 cent e-books using my Amazon Prime no rush money. Normally they are the first book in the series If I like them I usually but them in paper.

  7. “But we are supposed to continue using the antiquated gatekeepers to prove we are “real writers”.”

    Of course we are. If there’s no bottleneck to squeeze out all the politically questionable and morally undesirable, well heavens, ANYONE could write a book!

    Some individuals simply cannot stand a loss of regulatory leverage, even if it isn’t theirs. Because people are stupid, you know. They have to be controlled.

    1. BTW, I’m a Real Writer because I have my “Real Writer Certificate” from Sarah Hoyt, who as a Real Writer herself is empowered to declare other people Real as well.

      So cram it, Lefty doofi.

  8. Gatekeepers do not exist for the benefit of the users. Gatekeepers exist to restrict access to the system. Quite literally, any system using gatekeepers, does not really want people to use it. There may be valid reasons for the restriction (legal, licensing, privacy, embarrassing data, etc.), but system is not designed for maximum utilization.

    Any system that requires you to hire a flapper before the company will look at your work, much less publish and sell it; is broken beyond all redemption. I think Jonathan Swift would have agreed with me.

    Serious question: Has anyone heard of an instance where a traditional publisher paid an author to never publish again?

    I’d like to thank Dr. Jerry Pournelle (May he rest in peace), and Sarah Hoyt (Hope the airline doesn’t lose her luggage, again!) for leaving a trail of bread crumbs to the indie e-publishing world. I can’t cure my reading addiction, but boy I sure can feed it now!

    1. …I’d argue that this isn’t always the case. Just as “the idea becomes the institution”, there are lots of people who get into publishing, curating, and working at / owning bookstores because they love reading / love the genre. Heck, one of the rules of thumb to keep in mind with small presses and indie bookstores is that they’re usually owned by well-intentioned people who love the genre… and have no business sense.

      However, I won’t argue in the least that Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy comes into play, and the longer the gatekeepers have existed, the more they go from people who want to focus on supporting and spreading their passion to people who want to keep their power and increase their position.

      1. Now we get the “Cause” variable as well, where publishers are intent on advancing a Cause, and look for books that support the Cause, no matter what the reading public might care for.

  9. or, she found out that said ‘indie’ book sold more than her tradpub book and was mad.

  10. There HAS to be a niche for authors that are not “big enough” for tradpub or are “niche” for the same, but there is still an audience. Get out and away from the Manhattan scene and put your base of operations in Denver or Houston or maybe even Atlanta (or all three!), and provide for authors those vital services like competent editing, advertising, getting good cover artists, and everything else an author would need. You want to aim for volume, and get books out in those niches that are considered “too small,” and the people in them have already read everything there already.

    Avoid the issues that make it harder for people to break in, provide the services needed for an author to shine. And, most importantly, treat them fairly and kindly, because you know indie authors are gossiping hens where nobody in Manhattan can see them.

    Sell the books individually, or in packages of five for $10? $12? per month. You buy one author, they work really hard to match you up with authors that are the same in your package. Keep your overhead low, don’t do physical books unless you can justify the print run on pre-orders,

    With digital devices, impulse buying is easier, but a lot of the “impulse” material is bad (I’ve tried out a few of the litrpg stories and harem tales and it’s like “I could have had lunch and dinner in SF for what I paid and still be better off. I can write better shit than this.”)

    (And, I’m still WRITING right now…)

    The point is, make it easier for you to get money from your customer for a service, and provide them with a service they want, at a price that they feel good about paying, and make them think they’re getting a value. Simple, right?

    1. If I could write a story that would become a best seller among plain old ordinary red-necks that they talk about over their beer and bar-b-que, I’d have it made. To Perdition with the woke crowd.

      1. And, that’s what I want-I want to write the stories that the guy puts down the cost of a beer or two and feels like he got the better end of the deal.

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