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Debunking the "Self-Pub Shit Volcano" – Not Shit, Nor a Problem, And is it Not Going Away

There’s been a story building over the past week about self-published ebooks. According to Chuck Wendig, the massive volume of self-published titles has resulted in a "shit volcano" of worthless content. Another blogger picked up the story, and then yesterday Mike Cane jumped in with the prediction that Amazon would eventually take steps to clean up the Kindle Store.

If you have time today you might want to read these posts. But if you don’t have time, don’t worry. This line of reasoning is arguably flawed in that it is focusing the wrong problem, and it is safe to simply ignore it (especially since Chuck Wendig’s post is so long).

That last link leads to one of Mike Cane’s post which was published yesterday. Mike is usually right about these kind of things, which is why I posted that article last night.

But in this case it’s much more likely that he is wrong. As Mackay Bell pointed out in the comments, this is the new normal:

We heard the exact same arguments about blogging and You Tube. How can Blogger continue to allow anyone to create a site for free? They will have to start charging. Not yet. Same with You Tube. Google can’t possibly continue to allow people to post any video on line, they’ll have to start limiting it. Didn’t happen. (Same arguments about photo sharing sites, as I recall.)

Welcome to the digital age. It costs almost nothing to allow people to post this stuff, and the benefits to the companies that allow it are enormous for the small portion of stuff that turns out to be valuable.

This is true, and the same generalized comment could be made about every platform that is built on user-generated content, including Tumblr, Facebook, WordPress, Flickr, etc.

And now that we have a new perspective on the problem, I have a question for you: Would you describe the many, many Youtube channels with poor quality video as a shit volcano? Would you say that about the many badly written blogs?

What about the many podcasts in iTunes, or the excessive number of duplicate apps in iTunes, Google Play, and elsewhere? Surely those are shit volcanoes which need to be cleaned up, right?

I wouldn’t say so; all that content is merely the dross which I ignore while searching for the good stuff. In fact, I hadn’t even thought of the unwanted content on Youtube, et al until Mackay left that comment, that’s how well I have ignored it. All that excess and possibly bad content isn’t a problem for me, much less one deserving of the title of shit volcano.

And if we don’t call that other user-generated content a shit volcano then is it really correct to apply the term to self-published ebooks?

Again, I would say no.

I think Chuck Wendig’s original argument is flawed. The problem we should be looking at isn’t the volume of content or its quality; the problem is how to sort through the dross and find the good stuff.

The term we’re looking for now is discovery, which basically means connecting readers with their next read, and I’m not convinced discovery is a problem, either.

This whole discussion started with Chuck telling us to go look at 10 ebooks at random in the Kindle Store so we cans see how many are terrible.

Okay, we can do that but does anyone really use that as a way to find new content?

I don’t. Like most other readers I listen to recommendations, check free ebook sites, and read descriptions and reviews in order to tell whether I might like a book. I don’t usually grab ebooks at random in the Kindle Store, so the enormous mass of ebooks don’t bother me at all.

In short, the "self-pub shit volcano" is no more of a problem than my current dilemma of deciding whether I should get my morning sandwich from McDonalds, Panera, or the local coffee shop.

It’s the new normal, so there’s little reason to complain about it.

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Peter February 6, 2014 um 8:27 am

It’s also worth noting that you can pick 10 books from the print section of Amazon (or B&N or any other treebook vendor) at random and the vast majority of *those* will be terrible too.

Nate Hoffelder February 6, 2014 um 8:37 am

Or you could grab 10 blogs at random, with the same result.

fjtorres February 6, 2014 um 9:36 am

Instead of looking at 10 random ebooks at Amazon, the typical paying customer is far more likely to look at the top 10 selling ebooks in his/her genre/subgenre of choice.

And nowadays, the odds are that for many genres the majority of the those will on any given day be indie titles. Which…irritates… to no end those whose interests are vested in the ancien regime. Hence the efforts to muddy the waters with these sweeping, meaningless pronouncements.

(Of course, the majority of ebook sales are driven by word of mouth, alsobots, promo deals, and good reviews, but none of those support the desired conclusion as well as injecting total randomness into the rant.)

Andrew February 6, 2014 um 10:01 am

I want to find and support (i.e. buy their ebooks) new authors who have written good books I will enjoy reading. If 100,000+ authors I don’t want to read clog up the search pages of the ebookstores I frequent, this becomes very hard. It’s not that these authors are bad or unwanted, and they certainly should not be sworn at, they just aren’t writing what I want to read.

If anyone knows of a solution to this problem – a better way of searching, or some smart tool that can examine what I have already read and make good suggestions, I would sincerely like to hear it.

Meryl Yourish February 6, 2014 um 12:26 pm

Well, Amazon has a tool like you’re asking for, Andrew, but if you don’t shop for books on Amazon, it won’t do much.

I wish I had an answer for you. Goodreads was flooded by enough indies advertising their books that they now segregate authors from readers, making discoverability more difficult. Few online review sites take indie authors. And the trade pubs' price ads for indie authors rather high and with no guarantee of placement that will do you any good (e.g., Kirkus Reviews). So what’s an indie author to do?

I can shout to the rooftops that my story is good, yes, I hired a professional copy editor, and I have professional quality cover art. It doesn’t do much good when only a few hundred people know my work exists.

Of course, that’s not going to stop me. I figure eventually, one person with a high enough profile is going to mention me.

Besides, I like a challenge.

Valentine February 6, 2014 um 3:17 pm

Good for you! I mean it.

As a reader, I can’t help wondering how many books were lost, never printed because of the publishers limited resources.

asotir February 6, 2014 um 10:03 am

Remember also that this is a numbers games for platforms. Just as iOS and Android are in a race for 'most apps in our app store' so Kindle, Nook, Google Play, iBooks et al are in a race for 'most ebooks in our ebookstore.'

It matters less whether the store as all the books or apps you would want to use. This is a big sales point and biggest number wins.

yuzutea February 6, 2014 um 11:18 am

I think the bigger problem economically is the supply v. demand issue rather than a lower-avg-quality issue. An "okay-stuff-volcano" (which is simultaneously occurring, one could argue) will also mean it’s harder to get discovered because readers already have books to read. See some of the arguments over in-app-purchasing going on about games in mobile. This may lead to different methods of selling/monetizing books online.

Sandra Vail February 6, 2014 um 11:33 am

I’d like to take a different point of view. What the Internet has done is reveal that far more of us are driven to create than we may have realized, AND THAT’S A GOOD THING. Yes, a lot what is created is amateurish, but who hasn’t received a handmade gift that made you wince? Should every community theater or sports league be removed from the public eye until they achieve mastery? I’d rather recognize the value of creative thought and encourage the journey — that’s the font of innovation. A world in which everyone turns in their creativity card somewhere between 10 and 22 is a world that does not progress.

Now, airy fairyness aside, if one wishes to create for a paying market, they need to execute on a professional level. That’s the gap many self-publishing artists (of all ilk) have not minded. It’s understandable: hiring professional help is expensive, and it’s hard to receive criticism, no matter how constructive it may be.

I don’t want to turn this response into a marketing spiel but I will be launching a ebook review network in the coming weeks that will help address this problem for both readers AND authors. All reviews will be completely objective, providing guidance readers can trust while giving authors specific feedback on their work. It’s called Kindred Readers (, and I’m happy to share information with anyone who’s interested. Just drop me a note at Info at (domain name).

Doug February 6, 2014 um 11:52 am

Over the years so many novels have sat in a drawer, never to be read by anyone. Now those flawed first novels can be published easily. On balance I think that’s good. Publish. Find out if anyone likes it. Find out if you like it. If you do, write more, get better. If your early work embarrasses you, pull it yourself.

Discovery is one challenge and feedback is another. If you’re getting hundreds of reviews you have fine-grained feedback, but a lot of people at the low end could use frank 1-to-1 responses, not broadcast to the world. It would be good if the Amazon provided a mechanism for this.

LKC February 6, 2014 um 12:45 pm

I do think that there’s a fundamental difference between blogs, videos, etc, and books. I can watch as many YouTube videos as I have time for. And they aren’t something I go looking for anyway–I don’t browse YouTube or blogs. I either have ones I follow, or I go look at ones that people recommend. But books I have to PAY for. It’s actual money out of my pocket and I resent spending my money on crap. I also resent browsing mile after mile of crap to find something I want, which is what happens even if I have already narrowed down by genre, sub-genre, and even sub-sub-genre.

My experience with self-pubbed work has been almost entirely negative. Not 100%, but I would say that at maximum only 10% of the things I have tried have been worth reading. Another very few were ill-described. Not bad books, but not what I would have chosen to read, not what I would have bought had the author had any experience writing cover copy. The rest were just, well, shit volcano level. Badly written, unedited or badly edited, just…bad.

I’m inclined to say there’s nothing that can be done about it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t resent the heck out of it. It’s time and money wasted. And it makes it very difficult for me to find the things I DO want to spend my time and money on.

It takes about three times as many recommendations from people I know to make me read a self-pubbed book than it does a traditionally published one. I am aware that when my self-published book comes out in the spring, I will face that same kind of prejudice from people exactly like me.

And yes, I do think discoverability is a bit of a problem. It’s the biggest problem created by the volcano. But again, I am not sure there’s anything that can be done about it.

Mackay Bell February 7, 2014 um 11:43 am

If you can’t trust the book recommendations of people you know, I suggest you get to know some more people.

Greg M. February 6, 2014 um 1:01 pm

I’m going with the active shit volcano. I’ve read about a dozen self published books over the past few years and the best of the lot were only mediocre. Most were closer to the shit spew. Maybe my criteria when picking self published works is a bit off, but how much more effort should I place in trying to find good self published books?

Would any one read a thirteenth book by an author whose previous twelve books weren’t very good?

Meryl Yourish February 6, 2014 um 2:40 pm

Come on, Greg. There are many tradpubbed novelists who are at best mediocre. They may have started with a good book or three, but then, for whatever reason, their writing got worse and worse over the years. And their fans still put them on the bestsellers list.

And yes, there are people who will buy that thirteenth book, because they don’t think the first twelve were bad.

Now you’re talking taste, I think. I’ll buy everything Patricia McKillip publishes, but there are some authors whose books are now radioactive for me.

Greg M. February 6, 2014 um 3:48 pm

Of course there are mediocre books from traditional publishers – perhaps even the bulk of published works fit that bill. But the thing about self published books are the mediocre are as good as you’re going to get – at least that’s the indication from the ones I’ve read. And it would be rare to find blatant mistakes from traditional publishers like misusing grizzy for grisly as I have found in a self published book.

If I had to pull numbers out of my backside, I’d guess 90% of self published books aren’t ready for "publication" yet with fully half or more of them never going to be ready; maybe 9% could get up to readiness if they didn’t rush to self publish; only 1% or less are good enough to release to general readers. I’ve never found one that’s fully ready, but I’m playing the odds that if there are enough self published works out there, a few must be good. But that could be a fallacy along the lines of an infinite number of monkeys on typewriter eventually creating the works of Shakespeare.

If a self published work gets traditionally published, I might take a look.
Maybe it will still be mediocre; maybe not. As for self published works, I’m going to keep saying No Thank – until some one proves me wrong.

Meryl Yourish February 6, 2014 um 6:28 pm

Send me your email address. Kindle or Nook? I’ll prove you wrong. I think my work is at least above average. 🙂

Uneducated Guess February 6, 2014 um 7:01 pm

The irony is that you’re reading and commenting on a self-published blog.

Nate Hoffelder February 6, 2014 um 7:11 pm


I hadn’t realized that, but you’re right. And just to heighten the irony, the entire debate has taken place on self-published blogs.

Bob W February 6, 2014 um 1:36 pm

I guess that "slush pile" wasn’t derogatory enough so they’re now ratcheting up the rhetoric.

Robert Nagle February 6, 2014 um 1:59 pm

One of the problem is that many of the low quality uploads are less than 10 pages and sold to unsuspecting people. I once looked for a Milan Kundera novel as an ebook on and was surprised to see several titles which were not Kundera novels but 10-20 page "study-guides" which by anyone’s account would be a rip off.

I think it would be helpful for Amazon to provide a word count function in its product descriptions.

Good works have always been overlooked, so it’s saying nothing new that overlooked works will consist of a certain number of great titles. I think Amazon can easily solve this issue by sorting through sales, rating, date, etc.

Robert Nagle February 6, 2014 um 2:06 pm

I just wanted to say: I read lots of ebook titles — and I go out of my way to read indie/unknown titles. Sure, some of them are awful, but a lot of them are impressive and even great….. As an indie publisher and author, I am aware of how easy it is to be overlooked. I love taking chances on titles under $3 and finding hidden gems…. (Of course, it helps to have price drop alerts set through ereaderiq and to learn about new titles through bookbub). Another thing. I have a number of friends who have published ebooks. Maybe not the all American novel, but all of these titles were certainly worth reading….. But even though I am an adventurous reader, I no longer can use the search function — and has eliminated or downplayed certain community features (like lists, etc) which make it easier to hear what other reviewers are recommending. Instead we have Amazon Vine providing tons of reviews for a select number of titles — and the lion’s share of titles being ignored.

Juli Monroe February 6, 2014 um 5:20 pm

I’d considered responding to Mike Cane’s post on TeleRead, but by the time I got back to my computer, you’d posted this and said basically everything I was going to, so I’m not going to bother.

However, one point you didn’t cover (unless I missed it). It’s pretty clear that Amazon doesn’t care about how much a book sells based on their recent decision to eliminate the payout threshold. If they are willing to pay me monthly even if I only sell 1 book in a month, then they aren’t worried about the cost of hosting that book.

And yeah, discovery is only a "problem" for publishers (and maybe some authors). Readers don’t give a crap. They are having no trouble finding stuff they want to read. Publishers just hate that readers might not be finding *their* stuff. As an author, I have faith enough people will find my books often enough to continue the sales growth I’ve seen over the last three years.

The shit volcano was, however, an interesting image to have in my head last night as I tried to go to sleep.

Nate Hoffelder February 6, 2014 um 5:42 pm

I hadn’t considered the payment threshold, but you’re right. That defeats Mike’s argument.

Meryl Yourish February 6, 2014 um 9:31 pm

Gee, thanks for that last paragraph, Juli. I was doing a great job of NOT seeing an image in my head until I read that. 🙂

(Wow. I got the basic math of the CAPTCHA wrong. See how powerful that image can be?)

Juli Monroe February 7, 2014 um 10:11 am

Sorry about that Meryl. 🙂

By the way, I took a look at your book. Excellent cover. I added it to my Wishlist.

Greg M. February 7, 2014 um 11:53 am

I’ll have to pass on Darkness Rising, assuming that is the book you think is above average. It’s isn’t the type of book I’d read even from a traditional publisher. Fantasy doesn’t float my boat. Just to be fair, I did download the sample and read a few pages (not the whole sample) butI found the style too sketchy and thin for my tastes.

But let me know if you think there are above average self published books that fit in the catagories of hard science fiction, crime fiction, literary fiction, or biography. I’m not too keen on episodic character series, cozy mysteries, or too much emphasis on fast paced action.

Juli Monroe February 7, 2014 um 12:23 pm

Greg, I think you’ll continue to have a tough time with self-published works, considering your tastes. Most self-publishing gravitates toward other genres, as I’m sure you’ve discovered. There is one hard sci-fi book I started that was self-published. The author is a friend of mine, but I found it too hard for my tastes. You might enjoy it, though.

Greg M. February 9, 2014 um 10:41 pm

Juli, I downloaded a sample and will take a closer look when I have more time.

Bart Anderson February 6, 2014 um 8:22 pm

I really don’t think having too many books available is a problem. There have always been many more books than any one individual could read. That is why God made book reviewers.

In fact, we are better off now than ever before. There are many thousands of people on the web making recommendations and giving summaries. Most competent writers have a website of their own, which you can visit to see if their writing appeals to you.

There is one trick that I use constantly to find books to read. When there is an author I like, I check out his/her literary influences. And then I check out the authors that influenced them.

A friend had another trick. He collected lists of the "100 best novels", "100 best short stories," etc., and then read through them.

One can’t go wrong reading the classics – Tolstoy, Dickens, Poe… And after having done so, one has developed taste and is better able to judge the new authors.

Finally, we should all keep in mind sf writer Theodore Sturgeon’s Law: "ninety percent of everything is crap."

Mackay Bell February 7, 2014 um 11:57 am

For those who are upset about buying horrible self-published books, you might want to try this thing called the "internet." There is a program, well, it’s actually a "webpage" called "Google." Type in the name of the book you are considering, or the author, and you can learn a lot about it. You can find, almost in real time, reviews, bios, etc. If you don’t read good things about the book, or worse find nothing, then don’t buy it. Often you can find samples and even entire books for free from the author that you can check out first before purchasing. Good luck!

Seriously, this "crisis" of bad self-published books seems like disingenuous spin. Both from people desperate to find ways to defend the traditional publishing system, and by self-publishers who resent competition.

Most people I know can’t keep up with all the books they want to read. Who is really desperate to find something to read and doesn’t know how to find good stuff? And there are so many self-published authors who give away free books and long samples, that I can’t understand why anyone "angry" about paying for bad books wouldn’t simply stop paying until they know for sure they are buying something worth it. (Not to mention a lot of self-published books are less that 3 bucks, so… is it really going to break you to take a chance now and then?) Amazon prime gives you a free book a month. You can also subscribe to one of the "Netflix" of books and not have to pay for individual books again.

But for those who are genuinely confused and upset, the "internet" does offer help. I suggest finding some websites devoted to your genre, read some reviews until you feel you can trust the reviewers, and then go out and buy. Problem solved.

And thanks for the shout out, Nate!

Nate Hoffelder February 12, 2014 um 5:11 pm

"Seriously, this “crisis” of bad self-published books seems like disingenuous spin. Both from people desperate to find ways to defend the traditional publishing system, and by self-publishers who resent competition."

Someone pointed out a couple days ago that Chuck’s article was written for authors, which means you’re right about self-pubbers dumping on their competition.

I responded with the remark that I envied indie authors who only have to contend with a shit volcano; I have to compete on a daily basis with independently published blogs that are good and often times better than me. I don’t have time to focus on the shit that Chuck is complaining about.

Greg Strandberg February 7, 2014 um 3:21 pm

Am I the only one tired of authors and publishers complaining all the time in 2014? Are we going to have to put up with this crap all year?

The door is wide open for smart folks to just take the audience from those sites.

William Ockham February 9, 2014 um 11:36 pm

I think it is time to call this what it is: bigotry. Read through the negative comments about books by self-published authors and mentally substitute 'black' or 'Muslim' or 'Jewish' for 'self-published'. I am not trying to tell people that the books they read weren’t terrible. I just want them to think about whether it is just to vilify a entire class of people.

Every person and book should be judged on its own, not based on some external criteria. I can’t stand Dan Brown’s writing. I mean, seriously, the dude refers to every character by putting their job title in front of their name. But that isn’t going to put me off reading books by other writers whose name begins with B. Why should it?

Greg M. February 10, 2014 um 4:12 pm

William O.,

Comparing the dislike of self publishing to racist bigotry completely miss the mark. Imagine, instead, shopping at a small grocery store a dozen times but finding only mediocre to poor quality produce. So you decide to shop elsewhere for your fruits and vegetables. Then the owner of store says your biased against Asian. Disingenuous. The bad produce is the thing, not the race of the owner.

I dismiss self publishing because the odds of finding a good book aren’t favorable. And the outhouse stench of the all writers manqué erupting on the scene is something best avoided .

My advice: if your writing is good enough, get published for real. If not, stick it in a drawer or leave it on your hard drive.

William Ockham February 10, 2014 um 5:53 pm

No, that’s just silly. Here’s a better analogy, sticking with your produce model. You went to a Farmer’s Market which has many sellers, walked up to the first stand you saw and bought some produce without even looking at it. You get home and discover that it is all rotten. You know that the Farmer’s Market has a guarantee that says if you buy rotten produce there, they’ll come to your house, remove it, and refund you your money. But you don’t do that. Instead, you go around telling everybody how terrible the produce from the Farmer’s Market is and how they should buy their produce from the supermarket.

If you want to buy your produce from the supermarket, that’s fine. But why insult thousands of farmers that you know nothing about because you had a bad experience with a few? There are no self-published writers accusing you of bigotry. I’m just a reader who prefers many types of books that mainstream publishers don’t publish at all or publish at extortionate prices.

Bill Smith April 6, 2014 um 1:08 pm

"Get published for real" … and give up 75-85% of the revenue derived from my work.

Absolutely no way am I ever going to allow that to happen.

As has been stated multiple times in multiple ways, quality product is found by users despite the flood of content, whether it is music, video, news or blogs. It will be the same with ebooks, no matter how much the establishment tries to demonize those filthy, untalented Muggle independent authors.

Not all readers want the same types of content…the options afforded by self-publishing give writers a chance to connect with readers, even if they appeal to only a small niche.

sara July 2, 2015 um 4:42 pm

Really? Did you REALLY just compare being a self published author to being a minority? Check your privilege. You were never sold as a slave or physically harmed for being a self published author. Way to show how self centered and entitled you are.

Shiloh Walker March 3, 2014 um 4:54 pm

If I hear one more idiotic comparison of self publishing to a marginalized group be it by sex, race, religion, sexual preference or whatever, I’m going to scream.

No self published author has ever been raped simply by being.

No self published author has been hung from a branch simply for being.

No self published author has been chased down and beaten simply for being.

Shut up with these analogies already. They don’t work.

And that’s coming from self published author.

William Ockham March 3, 2014 um 9:08 pm

You are exactly right. Making that sort of comparison would be idiotic. Which is why I didn’t make any such comparison. I compared the attitudes of people who make gross generalizations about self-published work with bigots because the operative mental framework is the same. Books, like people, should be judged on their own qualities, not labels. Is that wrong?

sara July 2, 2015 um 4:44 pm

Yes. You’re trivializing deeper issues to prove an invalid point.

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