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.

reposted with permission from An American Editor


  1. Mike Cane16 March, 2011

    I don’t understand your complaint. It seems to me it takes just as much time — maybe more — to read unknown “reviewers” as it would to download a sample of a book to decide if it’s worth buying. And with SW, especially, you can instantly preview a work in your browser with HTML. I don’t pay attention to any Comments for a book listing. I figure they’re primarily astroturfing or illiterate morons. Just from word of mouth alone, my backlog of books — good books — has grown.

  2. Baldur Bjarnason16 March, 2011

    It’s usually the big publisher ebooks that have quality control problems, in my experience, very often verging on the unreadable.

    I find OCR errors on every screen, horrendous layout/margin bugs and sudden spurious indents to be much more distracting than an occasional ‘their’ instead of ‘they’re’, or a forgivable run-on sentence, and I’m sure most readers and reviewers will agree with me, much to the chagrin of underemployed professional editors worldwide.

  3. JulieB16 March, 2011

    I’ve given up on reading the high and low reviews and concentrating on the 3-star reviews. Those tend to be more balanced.

  4. […] Adin over at The Digital Reader posts about the appalling lack of quality amongst self published books. Rich finds that the reviews out there on indie published books are sparse and unhelpful and that […]

  5. Elena16 March, 2011

    I agree – please do not categorize it as an indie eBook and then charge an indie eFortune for it. Isn’t that contradictory of the very meaning of being indie?
    I get my digital reading from NOVOink > I like them and they are great priced, good specials, I think they are developing a membership program too. Best to you all

  6. Diana16 March, 2011

    Sample pages are definitely becoming a crucial factor for people who are looking for value for money in their eBooks – 99c or otherwise!
    You should be able to judge from these, whether or not the style, and quality of the book design will meet your expectations. Those who pay attention to constructing their samples properly, to showcase the book effectively and truthfully, will increase their chances of long term success.
    I hope that reader purchase power will drive up standards, and that those who thought they could get away with badly scanned/converted/proofread eBooks, will accept that people will come to expect much much better, after the initial rush to fill the Kindle.
    It may be too optimistic to hope for any sort of collaboration on this issue. Who can dictate ‘acceptable standards’ ? What is fine for me, may be unreadable to another.
    Having a couple of options on the review box would help a lot, and this should be incorporated. Writing a review that also gives you the chance to rate the copy quality, quickly and easily should be easy to set up..we should start a campaign with Amazon, and let them take the lead 🙂

  7. Amy Edelman17 March, 2011

    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!


  8. E-Book Consumers Look for Digital Quality Control | rapidBOOKS5 October, 2011

    […] publishing. There is no shortage of complaints about e-book quality on the internet, and this article suggests that it is the reason many e-books are priced at $.99.  If consumer trust in the industry is low, […]

  9. Will Zeilinger1 November, 2011

    Quality control plagues every aspect of publishing from national magazines to indie authors. Why? Because so much is “direct to press” As a graphic designer I’ve seen this occur with dramatic results because of the nature of the digital world – several steps or “speed bumps” have disappeared, like typesetters, platemakers, negative strippers and eagle eyed press operators. It now goes from my computer to press. The same goes for independent authors. In a rush to see results, we all have to slow down and take time to run that fine toothed comb through our work – several times. Others need to see it before it goes online – that is a must.


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