An American Editor

March 16, 2011

The Missing Ingredient: Quality Control in Indie eBooks

To me, the lack of quality control is a big deterrent to paying more than a dollar or two for an indie ebook from an author whose books I have not previously read. In the beginning, Smashwords was a great place to find indie books and give them a try, but that is rapidly changing as the number of indie ebooks rapidly increases. As Smashwords has grown, as indie publishing has grown with the rise of ebooks, and as the needle in the haystack has become increasingly difficult to find, we need to implement a method that imposes some sort of quality control.

A common response to this puzzle is to suggest looking at reader reviews on ebookseller sites like Amazon, on social sites like Goodreads, and on book review blogs. Perhaps in the very infancy of ebooks these were good and practical ways to determine quality, but that has changed with the rapid growth of indie ebooks. Not only are many of the indie ebooks simply not reviewed, those that are reviewed are often not well reviewed except in the sense of whether or not the reviewer liked the story. The insight of a professional reviewer is missing.

I began to notice the problems with reviews when readers began giving 1-star ratings because of price; that is, they were protesting the price of the ebook rather than evaluating the content. Price should not be a determining factor because each of us is capable of determining whether we are willing to pay the price, independent of whether someone else believes a particular price is too high, regardless of the book’s other qualities or lack thereof.

Compounding the price boycott review problem are the reviews that give a book 4 or 5 stars but do not detail what is good or bad about the book. One book I was interested in had a rating of between 4.5 and 5 stars. Of the 23 reviews, only 2 mentioned that book clearly had not been edited or proofread and, thus, reading it was difficult. This is not to suggest that the other 21 reviewers either didn’t or shouldn’t have enjoyed the book; rather, it reflects another concern of mine: Perhaps readers are unable to discern the difference between there and their, seen and scene, or seem and seam, and thus do not know that a book has errors. Some readers have told me that, as long as they get the idea, they do not care. I’m not convinced that bodes well for the future of literacy.

Yet another problem with these reviews is that it takes a leap of faith to accept that they are legitimate and made knowledgeably. This is the result of a lack of uniform, accepted criteria against which a book is judged by everyone — the gatekeeper role. When someone with the screen name “opus941” and no other identification tells me that so-and-so’s ebook was by far the best fantasy ebook he/she has read since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but doesn’t mention that there are 4 homonym errors, 2 run-on sentences, and the same character’s name spelled differently within the first 3 paragraphs, I wonder whether opus941 ever read LOTR or simply watched the video, and I wonder how much credence to give to the review and the reviewer.

It is true that with a lot of work on my part, I can overcome many of the problems. For example, if I discover that opus941 has reviewed 42 ebooks and that I have read 10 of them and agreed with his/her reviews, I can probably move toward the end of the spectrum that says I can gamble on an ebook with a good opus941 review. But such trust is rapidly shattered by the first ebook opus941 raves about where I can’t get past the first few paragraphs because of poor grammar and editing, an occurrence that happens much too frequently with indie publishing.

The real question, however, is why should I have to do so much work to find a decent indie ebook to read? The consequence is that I am unwilling to pay much, if anything, for an indie author’s ebooks until I have read 1 or 2 and am convinced that the author can actually write a coherent sentence that captivates my attention. There are just too many things competing for my attention for me to undertake yet another major project, and looking for indie ebooks that worth reading is becoming such a project. Clearly, this is neither good for authors nor for their distributors. Yet, in the absence of traditional publishing that assures at least a minimal gatekeeping, this hurdle needs to addressed by 90% of indie authors (yes, there will always be a percentage for whom none of this is a hurdle to overcome).

The solution may be for distributors to become the new gatekeepers, either themselves doing the gatekeeping or requiring authors to attest that their ebooks meet certain prestated editorial criteria. I am not talking about storyline, plot, or other content related to the storyline or plot. I am talking about quality control — that the book has been professionally edited and professionally produced. The question is how to implement such a system at the distribution level.

I suppose one way to do it is to require every ebook to have a minimum price of 99¢ and to require the author to offer a double-your-money-back guarantee should the buyer find x number of grammar and/or spelling errors. (I accept, and think everyone must accept, that no book, professionally edited and proofread or not, is wholly error free. The question really is one of numbers: 1 error every 2 to 3 pages may be acceptable whereas 1 error every paragraph would not.)

Another way might be to require reviewers to respond to certain questions as part of the review process: “Did you find any spelling errors? Give examples. Did the ebook appear to have been edited? What is the basis for your conclusion?” Perhaps 2 or 3 more standardized questions should be asked and answers required before a more general review about the story or plot can be posted and a star rating awarded. Then the star rating can be given as weighted to include the answers to the required questions. For example, if a reviewer gave the story a 5-star rating but said that spelling errors had been found and the ebook appeared not to have been edited, the weighted rating might be 4 stars. However, a reader could see the review, the answers to the questions, and the story rating, as well as the overall weighted rating, and can assign his/her own weights.

I’m sure there are other creative ways to get a truer sense of an ebook, we only need to collaborate to find them. Authors and distributors should agree to the method ultimately settled on should be agreed and it should be applied uniformly across distribution channels. Authors would still be free to do as they please. However, readers would be better served and the better authors — those who really do care about their relationship with their readers — would profit more because readers would feel assured of getting a quality read from these authors and thus be more willing to spend a reasonable sum to buy the author’s ebooks.

It could only be good for all concerned when distributors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, authors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, and readers can improve their odds of finding that proverbial needle in the haystack. Certainly, it is worth thinking about.



  1. […] by Rich Adin […]


    Pingback by The Missing Ingredient: Quality Control in Indie eBooks | The Digital Reader — March 16, 2011 @ 6:32 am | Reply

  2. I find the free sample feature helpful in filtering out not only indie books with errors, but trade press books with bad formatting. I urge everyone to use that free sample button, even if they’re only paying 99¢ for the book. I am against encouraging slackers.


    Comment by Karen Wester Newton — March 16, 2011 @ 11:58 am | Reply

    • This. I put little faith in reviews really, and I really base my judgement on whether to buy a book based on the sample. Most bookstores (for example Amazon) has made it very convenient to just read a short sample and have a good idea about the format/editing of an ebook, whether indie or not.


      Comment by RandomizeME — March 18, 2011 @ 1:44 am | Reply

    • Sampling and/or recommendations from people and sites I trust.

      Like RandomizeME, I don’t pay too much attention to reviews.


      Comment by Vicki — March 18, 2011 @ 11:53 pm | Reply

  3. […] by Rich Adin […]


    Pingback by The Missing Ingredient: Quality Control in Indie eBooks | Write Your Own E-book — March 17, 2011 @ 12:31 am | Reply

  4. Hi Rich,

    Great article. Pls take a look at IndieReader (, the essential guide to indie books and the people who write them (and our recent article–similar to yours–on the need for professional indie book reviews).

    IR’s original content is a mix of Gawker-type commentary and Rolling Stone-type profile stories combined with news, reviews, best-of rankings and more.

    IR also features a Library of professionally reviewed books, linked to sales sites for easy purchase.

    Let us know what you think!



    Comment by Amy — March 17, 2011 @ 8:35 am | Reply

    • Amy, I took a look and found the site interesting but not an answer to the review problem. For example, I looked at the review of The Flower Man’s Daughter by Jack Sobel. The review was written by Sam Dillard. I have no idea who Dillard is and I wonder what the basis is for the statement “. . . it is immediately noticeable how well-researched Sobel’s subject is. . . .” Dillard may well know of the historical accuracy of the book, but there is nothing in the review that indicates Dillard has any special knowledge of the history involved nor is there a bio of Dillard that I could find that might give a clue as to his expertise. I don’t see anything to indicate that his review should be given greater credence than a review by “opus941.”


      Comment by americaneditor — March 17, 2011 @ 11:43 am | Reply

      • Good point, Rich. I’d ask what makes you trust a review by Kirkus or PW (or People magazine for that matter!)–the former two don’t even give you the reviewer’s name–but I know your answer (rightfully so) would be that those sources have credibility where IR does not (as yet). So my challenge is to build consumer’s trust for the book’s reviewed on IR. I’m open to any ideas you might have in that direction.


        Comment by Amy — March 24, 2011 @ 10:52 am | Reply

        • Actually, Amy, I wouldn’t trust a People magazine review at all. My top review place is The New York Review of Books followed by The New York Times Book Review, The Economist reviews, and The Atlantic reviews. What builds trust in my eyes is how a reviewer relates and compares the book to other books in the subject/genre. Of course, I also trust my own reviews. 🙂


          Comment by americaneditor — March 24, 2011 @ 2:17 pm | Reply

  5. You’ve made some good points. I tend to take a look at many of the prior reviews of a reviewer (on Amazon or on the reviewer’s own blog) just to get an idea of how other books have been rated. I end up discounting many of the reviews that way. I think some sort of guarantee that a book was actually edited by someone other than the author and her second cousin (who graduated high school) would go a long way. I am sometimes disgusted at how many errors there are in some of the Indie books I read.

    That being said, I do like that the “gate” of traditional publishing has been lifted somewhat by this insurgence of self-publishing. Now I have more choices, and it’s up to me to decide what I consider to be a quality book. I have read some great books that were denied traditional publishing because someone in charge didn’t like the story. This torrential stream of self-published work is a relatively new phenomenon, and the downside is the flooding of poorly edited books full of drivel. I am guessing that the quality control will come up as time goes on and readers start clamoring for well-written, interesting books, just as you’re doing now. This topic of quality control is big and has been echoed quite a bit on various sites. There are many individuals out there trying to help sort through the “slush pile,” but it’s not yet a coordinated effort. I guess at this point, it’s more a “buyer beware” consumer market with Indie books.



    Comment by GraceKrispy — March 17, 2011 @ 5:38 pm | Reply

  6. […] An American Editor on the lack of quality control in indie ebooks. […]


    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: Another episode of linkity in which there are no explosions — March 18, 2011 @ 2:02 am | Reply

  7. […] The Missing Ingredient: Quality Control in Indie eBooks […]


    Pingback by The Great Geek Manual » Geek Media Round-Up: March 21, 2011 — March 22, 2011 @ 4:06 am | Reply

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