Article: Is an Indie Book for Christmas?

It’s the boom time of the year for publishing, Christmas shoppers are out in force and a good book is still one of the easiest and most pleasing gifts to give or receive. People happily pick bestsellers off the shelf and offer them up to loved ones, with nothing more to recommend the titles than their presence on the shelves of a major retailer, but how many of us would be happy gifting an Indie book we’d never before read?

After reading No Room at the Inn for Indies I began thinking about many people’s attitudes to indie books and how valid or otherwise these opinions are.

The author of the article I link to above describes a large newspaper’s flat out refusal to consider an independently published book for review - despite the author having previously been on the newspaper’s staff! They cite several reasons for their rejection; but the main thrust of their argument is that, with a huge volume of requests being submitted, indie books just aren’t of a consistently high enough quality to justify the newspaper staff’s time sifting through the applications to find the diamonds amongst the rubbish.

So is this fair comment or the short-sighted approach indicative a dying medium? Do we all carry pre-conceptions about what it is to be published that are in need of straightening out?

It was these questions in combination with the festive time of year that led me to wonder whether I would be prepared to take the plunge and give an indie book as a gift come December 25th, and whether by even having to ask myself the question, I already had the answer. Certainly, if I were going to give a book as a present I’d want to be fairly confident that the recipient was going to enjoy it, without having to read it first myself. But are we yet at a point where we can gift an indie book with this degree of confidence?

When it comes to picking out a gift, the main advantage that indie books have over the offerings from big publishing houses is the sheer volume of content to choose from. Whereas the same few bestsellers sit hopefully on the shelves of all the major retailers up and down the land, the breadth of selection when it comes to indie books is mind-blowing; if you want a book about blood-sucking koala bears, set somewhere east of Mars, and written in rhyming couplets, then (i) you need to take a long look at your life and, (ii) the chances are there’s an indie book out there for you. Try asking at your local Waterstones on the other hand… 

Whilst the sheer volume of indie books published means you needn’t worry about the recipient having read your gift before, it is also causes one of the greatest problems; with that number of loosely-edited books floating around it is inevitable that a good number will be of fairly low quality. The real problem is how to sort the good from the bad - a problem that is yet to be solved.

Literature is a very subjective topic, and one person’s opinion can never be definitive but community sites like GoodReads and Amazon at least allowed potential buyers to read reviews before deciding whether to make a purchase or not. Today the validity of such reviews is in question, with many believing paid-reviewers to be seriously skewing the picture. Indeed, whether through generous reviewers, underhand means, or sheer brilliance, it’s rare to find an indie book that averages lower than 4 stars out of 5, making it all but impossible to distinguish the winners from the losers, and buy with any confidence.   

As a reviewer myself, I receive plenty of requests from indie author and publishers, and from personal experience I can say that over 90% of the manuscripts I receive are poorly edited, with consistent grammatical and spelling errors littering the text. This irritates me no end, and frankly with a hit rate like that I’d never consider gifting an indie book without having read it thoroughly first. Worse still, is the quality of the writing. Some of the indie work I receive is great, with lively writing and well-drawn characters. Most though, is fairly mediocre, with monotonous dialogue, and a write-it-by-numbers feel. There is a standard of quality that is more-or-less assured from the big publishing houses that you don’t get with independent books, and it’s this uncertainty that means I couldn’t consider gifting an indie book, no matter how good the reviews.

Another big aspect of indie publishing is the quality of the packaging. I’ve seen some fantastic books from small publishers, which would easily stand comparison with the mainstream titles on my book shelves. However, an awful lot of indie publishers scrimp on the cover design, and sell their books short by slapping on a roughly photoshopped image, which, nine times out of ten, looks awful. The best example of a book published by a small or independent house that I’ve received lately is The Black Sea by VP Von Hoehen – published in hardback originally, the book has a professionally designed, glossy dust jacket, the text is properly set, and the whole thing oozes class. If I’m going to gift an indie book this is the impression I want to give.

It’s this cared for, lovingly put-together feel that, ironically, so many indie books lack. I’d love to see everything slow down a little bit, writers stop churning out a new book every 6 months, and indie publishers taking the time to edit, package, and generally show their product some love. After all, the publisher’s emotional investment should be higher in indie books than mainstream fiction; it would be nice if this showed in the product’s presentation.

The indie publishing revolution is hugely exciting, and still incredibly new. I love sharing indie authors with my friends, and turning them on to something new, but until I can hand someone an indie book, wrapped in my own cack-handed style, and feel confident that I won’t see their face drop when they rip open the paper, then I think there is still room for improvement.

Will I be giving any books this Christmas? Yes, I absolutely love sharing good books with the people closest to me. Will any of them be by indie authors/publishers? In a word, no.

So am I being as short-sighted as the newspaper editor from the link article, do I need to embrace this new form more? Maybe you’re giving or receiving indie books this year. Let me know below…


Terry J. Newman said...

Hi Matthew. I'm sticking my head above the parapet by commenting here, because, as you know, you've already agreed to review my first (indie) novel, Drayling - and I don't yet know what your reaction is going to be. I'm certainly hoping that it won't fall into your category of "fairly mediocre, with monotonous dialogue, and a write-it-by-numbers feel." However, I particularly wanted to lend my voice to what you say. Of course there are indie gems out there to be found - and there will be many that are grammatical, well-edited, well-written and well thought out - in short, worth the effort of discovering. Logic says that, in time, the established media will no longer be able to ignore the huge volume of indie stuff being produced, and will have to find a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Gold prospecting isn't easy, but the effort can be extremely rewarding...and the gold is there. Terry J. Newman

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting Terry - it's really good to hear from someone who's been through the publication process.

You'll be happy to know that I'm almost halfway through Drayling, and I can honestly say, it's very well edited - in fact it's grammatically the best written book I've had from a small or indie publisher, so have no fear. The cover too is fantastic too - an excellent example for those looking to publish their own books.

As you say, there are definitely good quality indie authors out there. My suspicion, though, is that the established media and possibly in time the big online sources, will continue to accept only material published by the big houses, and that the burden of finding the gems will fall to the publishers, with a little help from the masses on the Internet. I suppose in a similar way to how the music industry is evolving, artist/authors can build a reputation online and do very nicely out of it, but if they're worth a dime one of the major labels pick them up. Whatever the method, my opinion is, if you have the talent, you'll make it :)

Sophie Gonzales said...

Great article! I had to laugh at the koala vampire reference. I get a lot of review requests from independent authors and publishers as well, and the way I usually judge whether or not I want to read their work is by the brief synopsis they enclose. If that's badly written, I don't accept it. I'm also really reluctant to read anything fantasy or sci-fi that's been self-published as I think there's a very low chance that it's been well executed... though having said that I did read a fantastic one last summer which I still can't get out of my head. And the covers are so important. If I were a publisher, there would be no way I'd settle for cheap design. I definitely think indie books will have to step it up inside and out to be able to contend with the big boys in publishing. Though, as you say, what's up with all the former's high ratings on sites like Goodreads and Amazon? A slightly curious thing.

Sophie @ Life Between Pages dot net

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for the comment Sophie - I think all us book review bloggers know the feeling!

I think the truth is, indie publishing won't ever compete with the big houses, because there simply isn't the quality control. If anyone is able to put something out, the overall pool of talent is diluted. When you pick up a book from a big publishing house you are almost guarenteed a certain level of quality. That just doesn't, and won't ever, exist for indie books by their very nature.

Having said that, I agree, there are some good writers publishing independently, and I think authors who work with both large publishing houses and independents get the best of both worlds. That is potentially the most exciting thing about the boom of indie publishing brought about by the Internet for me; an established author's ability to write without needing to cater for the lowest common denominator and then go out and self-publish if their established publisher isn't interested. I'd love to see more authors deliver side projects, short stories, etc. to supplement their work, or to take it in new experimental directions.

Couldn't agree more about the cover design - that has got to be one of the most important elements of an indie book's publication process. And as for Amazon ratings - I ignore them entirely, well no, in actual fact, if I see a book that has received ten 5 star ratings I actually steer clear, almost on principle.

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