"The most essential gift for a writer is a built-in shockproof shit-detector."
~ ERNEST HEMINGWAY
This is a level of egalitarianism that I highly approve of, but with freedom comes responsibility. That's one of those words whose meaning has changed over time until the only definition most people recognize these days is that you have a responsibility to make my life better, but I refer to the old, original definition, in which everyone has the responsibility to provide their best product, and also to be aware of what they're buying. In other words, if you sell me a piece of garbage, and I had every opportunity to see that it was garbage before I bought it, then I have no complaint with you.
Returning to the subject of independent, or self-published books, where does the responsibility lie? How much does the author of the opus in question bear, and how much lands in the lap of the purchaser?
It is difficult to label an author a charlatan in the absence of absolute proof that he or she is dashing off crappy novels with neither plot nor punctuation solely for the purpose of harvesting money from consumers. This seems a difficult way to make a living for the same reason that it's easy to publish; the feedback is as instant as the publishing, and if you're doing this, you'll pretty quickly be outed. But what about the honest people who believe they can write, but they just aren't actually as good as they think they are? They aren't trying to swindle anyone, but when you, the reader, buy a book that turns out to be unreadable, you're still out some money whether you were cheated or not. Who's responsible for that?
The writer certainly has some responsibility. I recently undertook two reading projects that were unreadable by me for completely different reasons. One book came recommended, and was well-executed in its mechanics and dynamics, but I couldn't finish it because it wasn't the book for me. The other began with a huge info dump (we talked about that here, remember?), and having given me a complete history of the fictional world and how it came to be that way, the author then repeated the procedure for every character that was introduced. Unreadable, like a dry textbook. So, who is at fault here?
In the first case, certainly not the author. This was a polished narrative in every way. The author did a fine job. It just wasn't my cup of tea. That happens, no matter the source. I have certainly bought books from traditional publishers that have disappointed me, including most recently the final book in a twenty-year series by my favorite author, so I can hardly hold it against someone who I've never read for not meeting my expectations; I should have done more homework.
In the second case, the responsibility began with the author. You cannot write in a vacuum. You can't, I can't, R.A. Salvatore can't. The pros, those with traditional publishers, have staffs of professionals, from agents to editors, helping them clean up their work. We indies don't, and we have to acquire them, because we are unable to evaluate our own work. The reason we wrote a passage the way we wrote it is that what we wrote was the best that we could manage; if we knew a better way, that's the way we would have written it.
"But wait!" you cry. "Self-publishers, by definition, don't have those things."
No, usually not professionals, but services are out there. There are on-line editors like Lynda Dietz who work freelance through the internet, and can be retained for reasonable prices. And no, that isn't a plug. Lynda is not my editor, but I have had a number of delightful conversations with her, and feel more than comfortable recommending her as a starting point. If you can't afford an editor, then connect with a writing group. This can be tricky, and you may have to go through a few to find the one that's right for you. Mine is Scribblers' Den, which will be useless to you in the details if you don't write steampunk, but we also discuss general applications, and you're welcome to visit, partake, and join if it looks like we have anything to offer you. Maybe our round-table discussion style doesn't suit you. That's fine, try some others. The ones to avoid are those that tear you down or try to beat you back into the pack if it looks like you're going to break out, and at the other end of the scale, the ones who always tell you that everything you write is great. You have yourself to tell you that; you need a group to tell you what to fix. All of these groups have an institutional personality created by their members, and you may have to look around to find the one for you, but if you are serious about being taken seriously as an author, find one!
Another source for the minutia is the blogs of enthusiasts. I list a good number of quality blogs on my welcome page. In an interesting post that went up just this morning, the Cogpunk Steamscribe, an Australian blogger, discusses Thematic Characters in Fiction. The point? You as an author have a responsibility to us readers to present your very best work, all the time, every time. No exceptions. If you called yourself a baker, you wouldn't present us with a lopsided cake. If you were an accountant, I would not expect to be audited every year if you were doing my taxes. Writing is no exception. It's hard work; if it wasn't, we'd all be on the best-sellers list. If you aren't prepared to do the work, then stop wasting our time.
Of course, no reader who buys a bad book is completely blameless. There are too many ways to find out what they're like before you lay your money down, and in the second case, I neglected to do my part of the work. Reading the blurb, honestly, isn't going to be very helpful. It will tell you what the story is about, but doesn't address the quality. Blurbs, without exception, are written by the authors, which is as it should be; who knows more about my book than I do? But I have yet to see one admit that "This is an unedited first-draft that no one has proofread except me. Expect glaring errors in punctuation and grammar, gaping plot-holes, and stylistic problems too numerous to mention." That would be helpful, but you aren't going to see it.
So, what can you see? Well, reviews of course. The trouble with indies is that they aren't widely read, and often don't have more than a handful of reviews. Sometimes they don't have any. But search anyway. Two great sources are amazon.com, of course, and Goodreads. With many millions of users, if there are going to be reviews, you will find them there. The other indicator is Amazon's "Look Inside" feature that allows you to read the first few pages. If the book is poorly constructed, it should show up right away, and that's fair. You browse in a brick-and-mortar bookstore; you shouldn't have to send off a handful of dollars for a pig in a poke just because you're buying on-line. So yeah, readers, if you didn't do your homework, don't blame the author.
Now all this may sound like an indictment of indie authors, and you may be surprised to learn that I read indies almost exclusively. Why? Because indies, first of all, tell the stories that they want to tell. No publisher is blackmailing them (with the threat of non-publication) into modifying their story to fit a formula they're chasing, usually the last big thing... Zombies and vampires and Game of Thrones, sound familiar? 'Nuff said. So you get original stories, untainted by what the publisher thinks will appeal to the widest possible audience, or in other words, generate the most revenue. The price of an indie is usually lower, though I've seen Kindle titles for more than a hardback, but usually. And the quality is out there. You just have to look for it. Accept your responsibility. It's nothing new. The Romans had a saying: caveat emptor, Let the buyer beware. It still applies, maybe now more than ever, and when it comes to books, boy is it worth it!
I'm going to wrap up with a plug for what I'm reading right now, Brutal Valour: The Tragedy of Isandlwana by James Mace, an Iraq War veteran. This is a work of historical fiction following the lives of two privates (and the historical figures around them) as they depart England to join Chelmsford's ill-fated columns setting off to subjugate Cetshwayo, king of the Zulus. I've only just begun and am but a few chapters into it, but I'm already hooked. This is an indie who knows his history, and knows how to write it, and it wasn't hard to find. And that's the point of all this. Quality indies are out there, and they really aren't hard to find. Seek them out, do the homework, and broaden your horizons. Stop reading the Last Big Thing over and over and over. Support your local indie. You'll be amazed, and richly rewarded.
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!