On September 7 of this year, Michael Kozlowski published a piece on his GoodEReader site entitled ‘We live in a literary world of terrible self-published books’ (I’m loathe to link to it but, as you might need some context, and right now my site is so new I’m not passing him any SEO juice, here you go). To say he was poking a hornet’s nest with one big stick is to underplay it. Kozlowski routinely gets a handful of comments on his blog pieces – at the time of writing this one has some 133 people weighing in, and it’s hard to estimate how many comments he’s deleted (including one of mine, and a few others that I know of). In terms of traffic via trolling, mission accomplished.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of this riposte let’s just say that, buried somewhere inside his piece is a kernel of truth. There are lots of self-published authors who aren’t particularly good writers and don’t get their books produced, designed, formatted, edited and proofed to a professional level. Do they deserve opprobrium, to be ignored or to be gently cajoled to try harder, edit better, get a professional to do their cover? I prefer the latter path. There are thousands and thousands of self-published authors applying best practice and sharing it too, on forums, through courses, via blogs. So yes, there’s increasingly little excuse for shabby amateurism, but it’s not like the self-publishing world doesn’t already know all about it. And it’s not like the world of traditional publishing is exempt from criticism either.
But, as we’ll see, Kozlowski’s willingness to pour scorn on self-publishing seems to be in inverse proportion to his actual ability to do so in a coherent manner. As the saying goes, ‘let he who hasn’t self-published a truly awfully edited and designed ebook cast the first stone’. Something like that, anyway.
Many of the commentators took umbrage at his chiding of SP authors for their writing style when his blog post itself seemed to be written in perhaps his second or third language. It was full of sentences like:
– This is a 24% higher
– The lionshare of the revenue
– Even if it just a few sales per title
And perhaps my favourite of all:
– This is because indie titles have no quality and control
In other words, ‘listen to me when I tell you about quality and control’ – or quality control as most of us would call it – ‘while I show a complete lack of it’.
Perhaps we’re giving Mr Kozlowski more grief than he deserves over his writing abilities. To me, this must surely be a perfectly achieved spoof – he’s purposely written his piece with all the finesse of a Czech computer from 1979 translating some badly written piece into English using out-of-date software, to highlight the issues around self-publishing. Right? Because if not, he’s got some cheek criticising indie authors for their abilities when he’s a completely graceless writer.
But what of the core of his argument? Well, let’s take those key assertions of his one by one and see how they stand up to scrutiny.
1) Traditional publishing is a wonderful gatekeeper that does only good and is a bulwark protecting readers from poor books.
Wrong. There are many fine people working for publishers, many diligent editors and marketers, and there are also some idiots. I put my first book out through a major publisher and despite them assigning a PR to work on it – something that I was paying for out of book proceeds – I achieved 85% of the coverage myself. If you can’t find my readers for me, why don’t I just do it myself and keep more of the money? And as for the repeated assertion above and below the line on Kozlowkski’s piece that trad publishing is a mark of quality, I think we all know that’s notalways true. I was last pitching to publishers a couple of years back and the questions I received weren’t about writing or editing, vision or inspiration, they were ‘how many instagram followers do you have?’ and ‘do you have a YouTube channel?’ The flood of books by influencers, many of whom can’t write – or which are entirely ghostwritten – reinforces the sense that many publishers are only interested in what’s marketable. Again, this is a generalisation, but that’s what we’re all doing here, right?
2) Indies can’t write, can’t edit, choose bad covers, just click and send to Amazon etc.
Yes, many do. And always will. In the same way some musicians sign record deals and others busk. There’s room for all, but an increasing number of indies are adopting best practice in terms of using copy editors, good cover designers and are prepared to share hints and tips, which will drive quality up. You’ll still find duffers, certainly, but you’ll also find that in trade publishing. I picked up a well-regarded book from a major publisher in paperback from my local Waterstones recently – it had the word ‘stood’ spelled as ‘sttod’ in the very first line of the novel. Top work, trade publishing gatekeepers!
When Kozlowski decided on these assertions, who was he referring to? I assume it was to the author of the e-Reader Buyers Guide for Spring 2015. If so, I can see why he reached that conclusion – it has a terrible cover, no reviews, is riddled with typos, double-spaces and grammatical errors, and appears to have been formatted by randomly mashing buttons with a fist. You don’t have to be a grammar Nazi to conclude that this collection of reheated press releases and blog posts. should never have been published. What a small world in that the author of that shambles is also called Michael Kozlowski.
3) The glut of indies is ruining discoverability.
This is just nonsense. How is he unable to discover books? Can his fingers only click ‘next page’ a limited number of times? Does he not know how to filter? By review number, by rating? Is he not able to use the ‘look inside’ feature? (I am – I sincerely recommend people don’t use it on the aforementioned ‘e-Reader Buyers Guide for Spring 2015’.) Is he unable to read review sections of newspapers, magazines? Does word-of-mouth pass him by?
Badly written, edited and designed ebooks generally don’t sell, get low reviews and thus plummet to the bottom of their categories. The market automatically rewards those books that readers respect – it’s built into the system.
4) Ebook sales are falling.
They’re not. Traditional ebook sales might be, but perhaps they want to look at their pricing and marketing. Indie sales are buoyant but they’re not tracked by ISBN, but by ASIN and similar. I personally buy and use ISBN’s for various reasons, but I can also understand why many don’t – they’re completely unnecessary for most people who sell through Amazon and other ebook stores. Not using an ISBN doesn’t denote a lack of professionalism, it denotes that people don’t really need them and it’s meaningless to customers, so why waste the money? Some of the most respected, best-selling self-published authors don’t use ISBN’s and so the sales they accrue don’t show up as part of these occasional ‘woe is ebooks’ round-ups.
5) Charles Darwin begs to differ.
As part of his piece (and something that he’s refused to edit even though myself and other commenters pointed his error out to him), Kozlowski cites a theory and attributes it, and a quote, to Charles Darwin. Darwin begs to differ? Er, no he doesn’t. Charles Darwin didn’t develop the theory of the Dunning-Kruger effect (what with it being developed in 1999) and the quote isn’t from him. Along with most of his error-strewn piece, this wouldn’t make it through the first pass of an even halfway competent editor. Thankfully I use one for my indie books – he should heed his own advice.
6) Indie books are trash.
He repeats this one a few times, especially in his intemperate replies to comments. Well, clearly Kozlowski’s is, because I’ve looked at it. But even the very worst independent author, one who can’t string two sentences together and whose Comic Sans-using cover is an eyesore in the Kindle store, can be safe from his barbs. When someone writes a piece as shoddy and inaccurate as this – complete with a misattributed quote that shows he can’t even use Wikipedia properly – they’re probably doing something better than him.