What Makes a Good Ebook?
Ask anyone that question, and they’ll probably give you an answer based on plot, characters, flow, grammar, or presentation. Each reader will expect to read, in their view, a perfect ebook, and this is where the problem of defining whether it’s good or not, lies. The book loving population is huge. Each reader is different from another, all of them unique, and everyone with their own distinct view of what makes a good book. I believe, the perceived quality of a book depends just as much on the perceptions of the reader as on the prowess of the author.
The Perceptions of the Reader
There are many things readers like or dislike about ebooks, and these tastes are also transient. What someone likes in one book, they may hate in another. What they abhorred last year they may love now. Tastes are so varied they are impossible to pin down. How book enthusiasts view their reading matter is also related to their knowledge. Someone who’s studied grammar and literature will be less tolerant of errors than those with only a little knowledge of these subjects. Those who don’t know the intricacies of grammar are likely to ignore punctuation mistakes, occasional word misuse, or typos.
The Prowess of the Author
There are clearly huge differences between ebooks produced by established authors, with their team of support professionals, and those publications marketed by first time writers. The new authors will often try to do the editing, proofreading, and the cover design themselves. Even though they might have a fantastic story to tell, it’s almost impossible to produce an error free book without the help of a copy editor or proofreader, yet it’s necessary if funding is not there.
I think the main reasons there are complaints about the standard of some ebooks is because first time writers are competing for the same readership as accomplished authors. There is nothing on the outside of the ebook to distinguish whether the book is from a novice or a professional. Someone buying an ebook and then finding it has errors will be disappointed, and this can lead to bad reviews. Poor reviews discourage writers who are only just learning the ropes. If new writers are discouraged from the start, there would soon be a shortage of authors.
Novice writers producing their first book shouldn’t be expected to produce the same standard of excellence as the author who’s had the experience of writing many books. Think how we treat learner drivers with respect and care, how we make allowances for them when they are navigating our busy roads. They’re not expected to have advanced driving skills. Why can’t the same privileges and courtesy be shown to aspiring writers?
A Possible Solution
I would suggest presenting the work of new authors on a different platform than the one used by established wordsmiths. If an alternative sales point cannot be achieved, labelling them as ‘Self-Edited’, ‘Debut Book’ or something else might be helpful, to show the more discerning readers it is likely to fall below their standards, and they should avoid it. This would save them both money and frustration, and help amateur writers reach their less selective readers, those who value new writers for their originality. Surely an arrangement along these lines isn’t too hard to organise?
Price could also be a quality guide to ebooks. A bar of say £1.99 could be set, where ebooks of experienced authors are above it, and ebooks of first time authors are on, or below it.
I think these simple steps would take the guesswork out of purchasing an ebook, helpful for buyers and authors alike. What do you think? I’d love to hear your views on this.
I think separating self-published ebooks from trad published books would be very damaging. A lot of people have worked hard and continue to do so, to remove the status of second-rate from indie books. I’ve also read a few recently that could easily, both in terms of lack of errors, writing style, plot etc hold their own against trad pub authors, and see no reason why they should be lumped in with the also-rans.
On your other main point about affordability and novice writers, I’m not sure learning to drive is an appropriate parallel. The learner driver, in contrast to what you are saying about some writers, is paying for lessons from a teacher to practise, improve, and hopefully pass a test. I don’t think you are saying that cash-strapped writers are doing any of these. To carry the parallel further, if the potential driver can’t afford the lessons they don’t learn to drive.
To continue on the money, I did a post recently comparing editing costs. These ranged from £500 to £3000 to have a book of 100,000 words edited and proofread. I don’t know how long your book is, but looking at Amazon, you’ve got an estimated 244 pages, so let’s say it comes in at something over 50,000 words. The cheapest price in the range of firms I looked at charged £2 per thousand, so you would be looking at £100 (plus, depending on how much over 50 thou you are) to at least have Tissue of Lies proofread. Are you saying you couldn’t put £2 a week away to save up for that? Because one successful self-publishing author I know saved up for some time before she published her first book because she wanted to get it right. To include editing you’d be looking at £250 plus, so that would be saving five pounds a week.
Those are cheap prices, but there are cheap editors/proofreaders out there. It doesn’t need to cost thousands to self-publish.
I’m not sure that publishing sub-standard books does anyone any favours. Interestingly I asked readers on my last blog post about whether or not people should write negative reviews, and the outstanding reply was yes. But if the authors don’t accept the criticism …
Thank you for letting me know your views; I value your input.
I’d like to make it clear my post didn’t suggest all Indie ebooks should be separated from traditionally published ebooks, only the ones that haven’t been professionally edited and proofread. The ones that have been professionally finished should be on the same platform as traditionally published ebooks.
I’m pleased you’ve read many Indie ebooks that compare well with those sold by large publishing companies. I have also read some great ones.
I agree with you that authors should accept criticism with an open mind, and not take offence. Without doubt, it is up to the reader how they review a book. Then again, if you accept the previous statement, it is also up to the author, how they perceive a review.
I’ve recently come across this. My book went up after being checked over my many friends and family. I have dysgraphia, which is a problem with handwriting that manifests on some levels as grammar blindness especially when using computers. None of my friends pointed out that I write in fragments. Since then I have invested in some software to help point out the issues and have re-edited with that.
Is it perfect? No, far from it, but it is an option for cash strapped authors. My reviewers have been a wide mix of loving the story and hating the editing.
Being held to the same standard as those that have money to throw at a problem is aggravating in many ways, but its also a challenge, something to aspire to.
Separating indie/self-published books from the rest would create divisions, in my mind, that are not healthy to the viability of authors without a team.
We just need to toughen up and let it strengthen us rather than be discouraged.
Thank you so much for responding with your point of view. This is turning into a lively discussion. I must say, from looking at your website and your response here, your handwriting disadvantage isn’t apparent. I wasn’t quite sure what you meant by: “Separating indie/self-published books from the rest would create divisions, in my mind, that are not healthy to the viability of authors without a team.”. Could you be a bit more specific please? It must be a point I haven’t considered. The above post is purely my opinion. I am open to persuasion.
If indies are separated from say, the big six then it will set back the validity of self publishing. It has taken a long time for self-pubs to be accepted as more than the red headed stepchild. and the process is still on going. If a gulf is created beyond what already exists then what happens to the booming selfpublishing industry?
I totally spaced on the compliment Thank you. It may be invisible to you but it is a constant issue on my end.
Thank you for alerting me to the potential problem of a different platform. You are right and I’m glad you’ve pointed this out to me. I have to say it looks like I didnt think it through enough. My post was a gut response from seeing an appalling review given to another Indie writer whose book I had just read. Instead of giving instructive criticism, the reviewer just banged on about how it wasn’t what they wanted to read; it wasn’t this it wasn’t that. I couldn’t understand why they bought it in the first place. All the criticism was about the content you can quickly ascertain in the book blurb, and in the first chapter freely availble on Amazon. I was trying to think of a way where Indies, without the resources to fund professional polishers, can reach a more forgiving audience. By the way, that review never mentioned editing, even though there were a few.
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I was surprised by your sentence, “There is nothing on the outside of the ebook to distinguish whether the book is from a novice or a professional.” On Amazon, and I assume most other ebook platforms, there is a lot of such information. For instance on your Amazon page for Tissue of Lies
your name is displayed as a link, which, when hovered over, offers me to “Visit Amazon’s Carole Parkes Page”
On this page, I can see that you only have one book, and from that and other information I can adjust my expectations accordingly.
What other information might I use along with the simple fact of number of books?
Well, for comparison (and here I mean no offense to you, it is just a comparison), let’s look at the author page for Matti Friedman
Like you, he, too, has only one book for sale on Amazon: The Aleppo Codex. But I can see, when looking at his book’s Amazon page, that it comes from a well-known publisher (Algonquin Books). If I’m not familiar with that publisher, e.g. it is not well-known to me, I can do an Advanced Search
to get a look at the kind of books they publish, and see if there are any I recognize as high-quality, so as to get a sense of their reputation.
Now, admittedly, it is not clear how much you can rely on the quality control processes of even well-known publishers. This is particularly true of ebooks, where many well-known publishers produce work far shoddier than diligent self-published authors do. In fact first-time authors have a big quality advantage in one regard: it is unlikely that their ebook was created from OCR. Authors and publishers certainly foul up ebook conversions in a variety of other ways, but as long as OCR is not used, certain types of conversion errors are not possible.
But let’s get back to the topic at hand. Where were we… You can see how many books the author has for sale, and who their publisher is. Each of these is an unreliable judge of quality, but often if you combine several unreliable sources, you can begin to form a more reliable aggregate guess of quality.
What other information might I use to get a better guess at quality? I might use sales rankings, and I might of course use reviews. I might Google the authors to get a sense of their reputation.
Finally, I might use Amazon’s “Look inside” feature, or use its “Send sample now” feature. To be fair, I framed this discussion in response to your claim about what could be found on the outside of the book, but I think it is a small stretch from “on the outside” to “before purchase.” Even after purchase, on Amazon you have seven days in which to return it.
I agree with the spirit of openness you advocate readers to have with regard to forgiving novice authors if their work lacks some of the polished niceties that appear in the work of more experienced and/or publisher-assisted authors.
I just wanted to point out some of the resources you can use on Amazon (and presumably other platforms) to get a guess of quality. It is a separate and interesting question, how harshly should you judge a book based on your guess, e.g. whether you should purchase a book despite your misgivings based on the circumstantial evidence you have access to outside the book.
Thank you for your detailed comments; you have enlightened me. I see now, if someone is keen enough to find out about the author, and the likely standard of the book, then they can.
Its not just new authors that have problems. I recently bought a Cadfeal mystery A Morbid taste for Bones ebook. It was full of spelling errors, problems with the layout and missing punctuation, and my grammatical knowledge is terrible so it must have been bad for me to notice. It put me off buying anymore ebooks so now I’m trawling through the charity shops to find secondhand copies.
What a disappointment for you Elle. This book has some wonderful reviews too. Could it have been the old English style of writing that put you off? I had a brief look and noticed ‘wont’ instead of ‘want’. It’s supposed to be about the 1100s, so the spellings would definitely be different than we use today. Please don’t be put off ebooks altogether; there are some excellent ones out there.
Don’t worry Carole I haven’t been put off. I’ve had other ebooks which have been fine. I wasn’t too put out as I paid a reduced price for the book but I would begrudgingly pay the full price for any more on the series which have been produced by that particular e-publishers hence the reason I will only buy more of Ellis Peters books in paperback.
I’m pleased you weren’t totally put off. I do agree with you about how much you pay. I think price is the key to the level of disappointed we feel when we read a book full of errors. If it’s cheap enough, we’ll give it a go, but if the book has more than a few mistakes, we probably wouldn’t read any more of that particular author’s books.
Its funny but i’m very forgiving when it comes to errors in printed book, I think its makes them quirky and I tend to keep them. But errors in ebooks really annoy me.
That is funny Elle. I wonder why that is?
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Sounds pretty good…
I’m pleased you agree.
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I know that new authors often feel they can’t afford quality editing and proof-reading, but there are alternatives that will get a new author part-way there. Critique groups are one way to get a bunch of people looking at the plot and characters, reality of action and emotion, and general punctuation/grammar problems. Then, trading “polished” books with other authors for final proofreads can help provide a fresh set of eyes. Are these solutions perfect? Nope. But they are better than nothing. I read a lot of new-author books and am frequently shocked that these basic “free” steps seem ignored.
Thank you for your detailed reply. I liked your solutions to help writers less fortunate than others, particularly the last one, which I’ve used.
This week I have been specifically seeking out quality self-published books as friends have asked me for recommendations. I have made a number of purchases, but not until reading the sample provided at Amazon. I admit that few of those previewed made the mark, with problematic grammar and cookie-cutter plots. But quality self-published books do exist and should not be, by default, forced out of competition with “professionals”. If readers are really concerned with buying quality books, they will take the time to glance at the first chapter before buying. It’s something I have always done when buying print books in actual stores.
My problem with how authors are put up against each other has less to do with their method of getting their book published as it does with the categories where their books is placed. I don’t like that my book about recovery from childhood sexual abuse, specifically written to be mindful of triggers, is place for sale beside “taboo erotica” books which deal with child sexual abuse as a kink. But, that’s another topic altogether.
One way or another, I think Amazon is going to have to make adjustments to help customers find what they really want to read.
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I understand your feelings about your book’s placement; that seems so wrong. Your readers who may have suffered a similar experience would have to search amongst those ‘taboo erotica’ books to find yours. On the other hand, its position there might lead to someone’s enlightenment about the suffering that type of abuse causes.
“But quality self-published books do exist and should not be, by default, forced out of competition with “professionals”.”
I do agree with you on this, but I also think it would be advantageous to place those books in a separate group from ‘best selling’ well-known authors. In a different group, those quality self-published books would shine, and maybe become ‘best sellers’ of the new-author/self-published category.
Interesting Post and I agree. I think it’s important to invest and hire in top notch editors/graphic designers who give honest feedback to first time authors. One of my weakest areas in writing is grammar and self publishing a first novel would be kryptonite without a strong editor or a proof reader. Great post.
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Now put yourself in the position of not being able to hire any editor, never mind a ‘strong’ one. What would you do then?
I would get someone I know with an English background.. someone who has the skills that I lack. I would seek them out either by taking night classes or networking in seminars or conferences. I understand and get that most people do not have that option. However when it comes to self publishing.. why put money into something when it hasn’t been edited or proofread. Self Publishing is an investment to start out.. a book costs generally costs about 15,000- 25,000 when covering all the people that need to be hired. No authors should not stop writing.. write short stories until it is polished and then expand to a book. Stephen King did that in the beginning to master the craft.
Thank you for commenting again. Good answer! Yes I agree, that’s definitely the way to go, and I suspect most self-published writers do that.
I asked the question because authors are all from different backgrounds and circumstances. Some have really low incomes, Some may be stuck at home for various reasons, maybe caring for a sick relative, or because they are incapacitated themselves. Others may be both, financially strapped and stuck at home. This doesn’t mean they won’t produce a great story, but it does mean they can’t afford to pay the book ‘polishers’, or find outside helpers, and therefore, they don’t have a level playing field to compete. I believe all self-edited books, and books edited by friends, deserve to be given a chance by giving them a different selling platform. There are many buyers who’ll give them a chance if the price is kept low. For those who don’t want to buy books that haven’t been finished professionally, They’d know to avoid this particular category.
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Pingback: The Booketry » What Makes a Good Ebook? | Author -Carole Parkes
Thank you for your comments. I’m sure most authors would agree, like you, how important it is to have their work professionally edited, but it doesn’t alter the fact that some writers, are just not in a position to do that. Should they just stop writing? I don’t think that’s the best solution. There’s great deal of talent out there, and it comes from people in all walks of life. Often, it’s the grittiest writers who’ve led the most deprived lives who write the best stories. Those stories should not be dismissed simply because of poor editing. Some of them would shine just as brightly as the best sellers if they were given the full treatment.