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Diva Chat: Should there be minimum publishing standards for self-published authors

This week’s Diva chat topic: a straightforward question that speaks for itself. With so many indie authors flooding the publishing scene daily, readers are treated to a wide variety of new and interesting books. But there are some doozies that pop up more times than not. The topic of the chat today addresses if we as industry professionals think that a universal standard should be in place.

As an editor, I would say heck yes! I want every book to be at X level of editing and quality, but that really isn’t very realistic. But the question is more open ended.

What kind of standards do any self-published authors adhere to now?

It really depends on the author. Some slap up a book without a care while others toil and agonize, spending good money to make their book stand out so they can be proud of their product. Is either one better than the other? It’s in the eye of the beholder. For places like Amazon or Smashwords to put a “standard” for the books they let people publish on their platform would only take business away from them. I don’t foresee this happening anytime soon. Nor would I sit here and suggest that there should be a standard even though I would love to see some issued. (But that again it’s the editor in me saying that). Self-publishing is a very liberal business for authors. Here they are free to put out their products the way they see fit, to put a standard on them would only serve as a pair of shackles. It’s also a place where creativity can flow freely and putting a standard on that will only squash those efforts.

I support all indie authors, no matter what caliber. It’s a hard thing to put out a book, it’s something I have yet to do, but I’m striving to accomplish. I wouldn’t want someone coming along and telling me how to write, edit, or format my book unless I paid them to do it.

Diva Jen

I’m a huge supporter of the self-published author. As a freelance editor and partner of an editing house where the largest percentage of our clientele is self-published authors, I’d be crazy to be anything else. But even if I weren’t a partner or an editor, I think I’d still be on the side of the indie author, who’s working on her own to get her book out there—published, marketed, talked about, etc. I love the freedom these authors have, the sense of accomplishment, their ownership and pride in knowing they achieved their goal free of the traditional publisher.

However, it seems the market has become saturated with self-published titles, and the reader cannot always rely on positive reviews as a true determination of quality. Unfortunately that’s because it’s easy to publish a book these days, editing costs are more than some are willing to part with, and everyone’s got enough friends and family to say their book’s phenomenal—even if it’s not. As a reader, I devour the negative reviews before the positive ones; those are the ones that will tell me if I want to read a book or not. There are certain trigger words I look for: flat, two-dimensional, lack of depth or growth, etc. And most of the negative reviews will shout from the rooftops if the book needed a good editor.

So back to the question: Should all self-published titles be held to a minimum standard? In a perfect world, yes. All books should be held to some minimum standard of quality. And traditional publishing houses—for the most part, as long as they’re ethical—hold their titles to a certain standard. I’m not saying that all major publishing houses publish only great books (not when Reality TV stars get books deals, please), just that they’re given standard editing and formatting.

That being said, who’s going to police the independent authors? Each of the major e-book platforms would have to agree upon a standard and then uphold it, but that doesn’t take into consideration print copies. Are self-published titles to be held to the same standards as traditionally published books? Even in a perfect world, I don’t think that’s possible. Traditional publishers have resources available that independent authors just don’t.  And none of this takes into consideration the subjectivity of what constitutes deviation from a standard in the first place. Who’s going to read each title and say, “No, that one’s got seven misspelled words. That’s past our threshold of errors and this title no longer meets minimum requirements.” No one, that’s who.

In theory, a minimum publishing standard is a good idea, but it’s just not practical.

Diva Shay

I believe that self-publishing by its very nature is intrinsically free from regulation and should remain so. It is an example of true free markets, actually. It’s self-managed, and the public decides what should be successful and what shouldn’t. I find that model fascinating and I think it works well. Of course, it would be nice if everything out there had across the board standards of quality. As an editor, I appreciate a well-written story just as much as anyone, but shouldn’t one have the right to say what they want and publish it how they want? At the end of the day, it’s the author’s name on the cover, not mine. What’s it to me if they publish a piece of crap? Because just as they have the right to publish it, I have the right not to read something I find subpar or offensive.

The question makes me wonder why it is as a society we think we have to preemptively protect the public from “awful” things. Consumers are big boys and girls. They are adults or have adults making proper decisions for them. I don’t see the need to inhibit their freedom, even if such regulation is meant to improve the type of product that is put out. To me, the market will do that eventually without interference. Why? Because authoring is a business, a creative business, but a business nonetheless. And like any business out there, if your competition is putting out a better product than you are, you are either going to improve your quality or shut your doors. What’s more, no one will have to step in with ponderous regulations to make that happen.

The thought of some regulating body telling independent authors what to write, how to write it, and how to format it just offends something deep within me. Besides, who would regulate it? Who would appoint those people? And it bears asking the question if the creative process should have oversight. Didn’t these authors pick the independent market to get away from that type of micromanagement? Many authors find the strictures of traditional publishing problematic, and I don’t blame them.

The beauty of the indie movement is that there are no standards. If you want standards, regulation and oversight, go the traditional route. The indie market is the place to take risks, think outside the publishing box, and to write something fantastic that wouldn’t be given the time of day by the a business that is seeking only to make a profit.

So the short answer to the question of whether the indie market should be regulated by being given minimum publishing standards is no. In fact, it’s HELL NO.

Yes, it’s messy and the quality isn’t always the best, but I don’t think I would have it any other way because I’m digging this form of literary anarchy and great things are being born in its midst. Regulation and strictures kill creativity. And the death of creativity is more a tragedy than publishing a badly edited or formatted manuscript could ever be.

Diva Janine

This is a tough question to answer. The self-publishing movement has allowed many talented authors, who might not be published, to publish their books. It has also allowed many authors who skip the revision and editing process to bring their books to market too early when more work is needed. This has made finding a good book from the self-published list a lot like playing Russian roulette. You don’t know what you’re going to get. Add to that the many readers who give books that probably needed work a five-star rating.

It has created a situation where many reviewers and bloggers refuse to read, review, and promote self-published books because there’s no standard of quality. I’ve talked with many readers who will only purchase books from publishing houses because they’ve bought one too many self-published books that did not measure up to the quality of traditionally published books.

While I feel that the idea of minimum standards for self-published authors is a worthy one, the execution or enforcement of minimum standards is next to impossible. First, it defeats the fundamental purpose of self-publishing: to publish your own work and not be held to someone else’s idea of what your book should be. Second, once minimum standards are enforced, the entity that enforces begins to look a lot like a publisher. Third, implementing and policing minimum standards is like herding cats—everyone has their own idea of the quality of their own story and will do what they want. Fourth, it can undermine creativity because the decision on whether a book is good or bad is up to the reader.

So what is to be done? Proposed voluntary standards, a seal of quality, or some other litmus test could  be used, but who wants to manage it? Trying to get self-published authors to commit to a certain level of writing might be harder than it sounds. Self-published authors are typically go-getters who want things their way. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s that entrepreneurial spirit that makes self-publishing so successful. But the comment I’ve heard the most from self-published authors who don’t invest in editing or publish their manuscript without going through a revision process is, “Why should I? My readers don’t seem to mind, so why should I?”

Book resellers could demand that the books they sell are of a higher quality, but they too seem to have the mindset of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In other words, they’re making money on it the way it is. Trying to enforce a higher quality book means waiting lists, hiring people to verify quality, and the possibility of authors taking their books elsewhere because the quality check takes too long.

For now I believe there’s not workable answer to this question. Personally, I would like to see better quality from the self-publishing arena, not because I’m an editor, but because in the end, I see the quality issue as something that will limit the success of the self-publishing movement.



  1. Another excellent post, ladies, one that had me nodding my head so much I’m half-dizzy now! I think in a perfect world, authors would want to publish ONLY the best of their work, instead of cranking out book after book after book (going back to your “It’s Not a Race” post). Unfortunately, a lot of what’s being self-published right now is motivated by one thing…money.

    I recently downloaded a free book from an author I hadn’t read before, thinking “Okay, it’s not my usual download preference, but I’ll give it a try.” She’s self-published multiple books, the covers were good, and by the number of (mostly positive) reviews, has a large loyal fanbase as well. I started it…and in the first line, not even the first sentence but the first LINE of the book, there was a glaring error. There were two more on the first page. I stopped at that point and deleted it from my Kindle, feeling absolutely disgusted and not a little let-down by the reviewers (and the author). Much like politics, though, it’s not in how good you are, but who you know/how many fans you have.

    Diva Jen – I always go straight for the negative reviews as well. If more than one mentions spelling, grammar, etc. errors, I skip it. Even the greatest storytelling is going to grate on my nerves every time I’m thrown out of it by an error that should have been caught, but was left in for one reason…laziness.

    Ooooof, okay, rant over! -Kate

    • I too look at the lower ratings first for the same reasons as Diva Jen and you. Recently, I started reading a first book in a very popular indie series that had positives reviews but I couldn’t get past the first chapter. While the grammar wasn’t bad, the substantive content was so lacking. I just gave up. I don’t have time anymore to stick it through a book that won’t catch me from the beginning.

    • Kate,
      I’m a copy editor at heart, so if there are too many grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors–don’t even get me started on homophones–I just flounce. Quietly, of course. But flounce away. Negative reviews have become more useful a tool than positive ones, and I’m quick to note to the reviewer that her words were helpful and appreciated.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Anne Hammond Says: April 24, 2014 at 2:53 am

    I recently read a book where in two places it referred to someone’s interest being peaked. It’s the sort of error you can easily make and the spell-check (obviously) won’t pick up. But it’s enough to make you put a book back on the shelf and find something else. And sadly there is no guarantee anyone will pick it up except a good, experienced editor. If an author can’t get a good editor, she should at least make sure that one of her readers can spell and has a basic grasp of the English language.

  3. What if books were tagged as “edited” or “non-edited”? That’s explanation enough for readers to know what to expect. Another idea is to categorize books as apprentice, novice or master. After all writing books is a journey of improvement. And I’m more likely to buy an apprentice book to offer encouragement for a writer to keep going. But if I’m looking for a book by a master, I don’t buy self-published ones and I might be missing out.

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