Where Indie Authors Go Wrong: A Reader’s Perspective

I bought myself a Kindle almost six months ago. Since then, I’ve read numerous independently published ebooks, and I thought I’d share my thoughts thus far.

Now, I’ve done a bit of self-publishing of my own, producing a few short stories and a novel as ebooks, but I’ve decided here to write this post as a reader and not as a writer. Any suggestions I might make or advice I might offer will be based on my reading enjoyment of these self-pubbed books and short stories and that’s it. Honestly, I’m not advanced enough in my own “career” as a writer to give writing advice—but I’ve got quite a bit of experience as a reader.

To be clear, most of the indie books I’ve read have been thrillers, no lit stuff. So what have I learned?

For the most part, plots and characterization aren’t the issue. Yes, too often a cool but undeveloped premise is mistaken for a proper plot, and the characters are clichéd, but this can be said of traditionally published thrillers as well. There are, however, very specific things indie authors should do to raise the quality of their work.


Show, then shut the hell up

Join any writing circle or workshop and you’ll soon be reciting it like dogma: Show Don’t Tell. It’s freaking gospel and, as with aspects of any religion, it’s often followed without thought or understanding. But whether you’ve guzzled the Kool Aid or not, there’s one thing with which any writer—and more importantly any reader—will agree: don’t repeat yourself.

Time and again, I’ve come across scenes in which the author will show that, for example, her character is angry (“He frowned.”), then told me he was angry (“ ‘Well, that just pisses me off,’ he said, angrily.”)

Just show me or tell me he’s angry, but don’t do both.


Honestly, the adverbs are rarely necessary

Again, the “avoid adverbs’ axiom is so tired it’s almost a how-to-write cliché, but damned if indie authors still haven’t heard it enough. And I’m speaking as a reader here; I’ve seen it over and over.

And believe me, as a reader, every extra adverb (which is most of them) is followed by an eye-roll. Some of these indie-pubbed books caused ocular muscle strain.

Yes, at times a well-placed adverb can add punch to a sentence. Check out Carl Hiaasen’s work to see how it’s done. But this is one of those rules you can’t break until you’ve mastered it. Until then, if in doubt, cut them out.


Watch those dialogue attributions and action tags

The common mistake is to stray from the classic “he said” and to get too fancy, mucking things up with “he growled”, “she cried”, “he ejaculated”. But, to be quite honest, I didn’t notice the indie authors breaking this particular rule any more often than the traditionally published ones. At least not enough to yank me out of the story.

Here’s where the indie authors do go wrong, not just yanking but launching me right out of the story: They allow their characters to speak through their actions. So “‘That was great,’ she said” becomes “‘That was great,’ she jumped atop the table.”

How does someone jump speech? No idea, but apparently certain characters can do it.

My guess, though, is that something like the above example was actually the result of sloppy rewrites. Here’s how it probably happened:

The line began as “‘That was great,’ she said, and jumped atop the table.”

Then the author realizes that dialogue attribution isn’t required and that the action tag is plenty. So she intends to modify it to “‘That was great.” She jumped atop the table.” But she forgets to switch the comma for a period and to capitalize ‘she’.

You’d be shocked (shocked, I tell you) at just how often I’ve come across this error—in just six months of reading.


Edit, edit, edit

You may have noticed that, not only are all of the above errors fixable, they could all be fixed with rather minor rewrites. That’s the real tragedy: one extra editing session, one more rewrite, could’ve been all it took to bring any particular indie book up to the level of the average traditionally published novel.


If anything is holding indie publishing back, it’s a lack of proper editing. This goes for the small indie writers and the bigger ones who’ve made a name for themselves in the e-publishing world.

And, speaking now as a writer, it’s pretty scary to read an ebook by one of these name authors, knowing they can afford to have their work professionally edited, and to find errors of the sort listed above. I mean, hell, if they’re missing these things, what am I missing in my own work?

But that kind of fear is good, it forces you to edit carefully, to rewrite and rewrite some more, to have others read your work before you publish it.

As far as I see it, that’s the one main advantage the traditionally published authors have over the indie published ones: proper editing. So if you can afford an editor, hire her, then read and reread her work. If you can’t afford an editor, give in to the fear. Your readers (like me) will thank you.