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.

January 20, 2010

A Modest Proposal III: Dying Days of Giant Publishers (Part 1)

In two earlier Modest Proposal posts (A 21st Century Publishing Model and Book Warranty) I offered suggestions for changes publishers could (and should) consider to their business model. The first proposal, to make ebooks the new paperbacks and to publish only hardcover and ebook versions of books, was not well received by consumers. (Interestingly, some of the most vocal opposition to demising paperbacks came from people who claim to only buy ebooks!) The second proposal was much better received, probably because everyone loves perfection and loves the idea that something comes with a warranty.

Now comes my third modest proposal, which begins with a prediction: The big, multinational book publishers have begun their funeral march. Within a decade or two, possibly sooner, there will no longer be giants of publishing; instead there will be a reversion to the preconsolidation era with numerous small (by comparison to today’s Hachettes and Random Houses) publishers dominating the industry.

Before getting to my suggestions about what today’s giants can do to stave off their funeral orations, let’s consider why they are now walking that funeral path. What follows are a sample of publishing’s self-destruct problems.

First, they are too big to react with grace and ease to changes in the publishing world. Imagine a sumo wrestler dancing Swan Lake. Decisions that need to be made quickly and locally cannot be made because there is always another corporate level to consult. It’s hard to survive when you need to turn on a dime but can only turn on a half dollar.

Second, they haven’t learned what I call the Dell lesson: Tell the customer he can have it his way and then limit the options. Dell always touted how customizable their computers were. Yet try to really customize a Dell computer — you can’t; Dell has limited options for particular computer models and you can’t take options from one model line to another. This is no different from what the automobile industry has done for decades. To get one feature you want, you have to buy an option package or do without. Or, better yet, cable TV. Few choices there. You pay for sports channels whether you want them or not. Unlike other industries, publishers let others dictate what they will do and offer. Publishers need to rethink this action model.

Third, publishers haven’t yet recognized where they are in the policy-setting chain. Although they should be in the catbird’s seat, instead it is the distributors and the retailers who drive publisher policies. What is the single most hurtful policy to publishers’ bottom line today? My guess is the returns policy. Who does this policy help: distributors and retailers because they do not have to pay for ordered product. No other industry has such a policy and no industry — including publishing — offers such a system to the consumer. This policy of returns for books started decades ago for a reason that was valid decades ago but is no longer valid or sustainable, yet publishers can’t stop killing themselves — it’s the fear of being first.

Publishers need to regain the catbird’s seat and immediately do away with returns. If, say, Random House were to unilaterally declare an end to the current returns system, most publishers would soon follow. Unlike computers and automobiles, there is no substitute for a Dan Brown best-selling novel that would give a competitor a leg up by keeping the return policy. Readers either want Brown’s novel or they don’t; no retailer is going to tell a customer that they can’t buy the Brown novel because the publisher doesn’t accept returns so the retailer won’t stock the book, but here is Joe Unknowns’ similar novel instead.

The returns problem highlights a fourth reason: Publishers are confused about who are their customers. Until recently, except occasionally, the giant publishers didn’t sell books directly to readers. Although the publisher has to produce books that readers want to buy, their immediate customers today are the middlemen between publishers and the readers. With the changes that ebooks are bringing to publishing, the giants will die on the vine if they do not rethink who their customers will be in the coming years and their relationship with them.

Alas, there is more to say, so this discussion continues in tomorrow’s post, wherein I reveal my modest proposal.

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