Indies Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges. Or Do We?

As the indie movement continues to rattle the Goliaths of the publishing world (have you heard that Houghton Mifflin filed for bankruptcy protection?), many authors can find themselves on shaky ground.

Just a quick trip around the Kindle forums—if you dare—will tell most of the story. Readers are ticked off. They don’t want to pay twenty bucks for an e-book. (Heck, I don’t either, and it will be interesting to see how many people snag J.K. Rowling’s new novel at $19.99.) But spend less than four bucks on an unknown? They’ve been burned before. They’ve been bombarded with cheap books, some rampant with typos, grammatical errors, formatting problems, plot problems, and writing that reads like a first draft. Some readers gleefully tell their forum peers that they will NEVER purchase another indie book. On the other side of cyberstreet, at B&, self-published books are locked into the “PubIt!” section, neatly severed from Big Guy Books. Forum haunters write that they are glad for this line of demarcation because, as one reader wrote, “I know to stay away from it.”


An interesting process is afoot. Traditional publishing means impressing the gatekeepers. I railed plenty about them when I was trying to go this route with my earlier novels. Sour grapes? Maybe a little; I was inexperienced. But like it or not, good or bad, having a certain indicia on your spine used to mean something. It gave you the literary equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. While you might not count a particular author’s newest work among your favorites, at least you felt confident that the writing was soundly edited and well presented. Sure, those standards have been falling over the last ten or fifteen years, as budgets shrink and editors are let go. There’s no guarantee that a “Big Six” book will have any fewer errors or plot flaws than a selection from the PubIt! department.

But to many readers, the old perceptions stick.

There’s been some backroom rumbling about how IndieLand authors might claim their own vetted glory, or if we even need to. I can see both arguments. The very essence of the indie movement is gatekeepers be damned, we’re here and we’re…publishing our blippin’ books, and none of you suits can stop us.

The other is a concern for reader perception. If my work is not available at the local bookstore, if no one has ever heard of me, if it the story doesn’t fit into the tidy boundaries of the genres people love to read, if someone just got burned by purchasing an unknown promising to be the next Stephen King or Nora Roberts that turned out to be anything but, then why will they spend their hard-earned latte money on me?

Here lies a problem and an opportunity. As often happens in shaky times, entrepreneurs step forward and offer a solution. Some are ethical; some are flea-bitten Nerf herders. Many hope to prey upon your insecurity and your dream of becoming a bestselling (or at least decently-selling) author. Sometimes it’s too early to tell. Recently another writer told me about Grub Street Reads. The company was started by two indie authors, Jessica Bennett and Leslie Ramey, who want to crush the remaining stigma of self-publication and “keep quality books from being drowned out.” So they offer—for a small fee, calculated by word count—an evaluation by their QC-controlled, trained staff. Pass and you’ll get an endorsement. [In the interest of full disclosure, I submitted one of my books during a free promotional period, and I’m waiting for their reply, which they say could take up to five weeks.] Grub Street Reads operates an online bookstore of “endorsed” indie books, to which you will be added if you are approved. So GSR sees themselves as performing a service for authors and readers, but they’re not doing it solely out of the goodness of their hearts. Check it out and make up your own mind.

Perhaps another solution to this image problem might be in a governing board, a body of independent editors or reviewers. Or, frustrated with returns and customer complaints, it might be the Almighty Amazon itself. But every solution has its problems. Every organized vetting machine can smack of the very gatekeeper-type elitism that we publish our own books to avoid.

One thing I can say for sure is that it’s an interesting time to be an indie writer.

What do you think? Would you submit your book to an outfit like Grub Street Reads? Do indies even need gatekeepers? Will a good product conquer all? Or do we need those stinkin’ badges?

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Laurie Boris is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and award-winning author of THE JOKE’S ON ME and DRAWING BREATH. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and her website:

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

53 thoughts on “Indies Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges. Or Do We?”

  1. It's a hell of a question. We stormed the walls and are crawling all over castle. The old kings are gone or going, but few take us seriously as having credibility. So, do we keep doing what we're doing or find someway to get some credibility from some third party. Ah but then the question becomes "How credible is that third parties word?" and "Did they pay for the endorsement?" A sticky wicket, this whole thing.

  2. I'm all for freedom for Indie writers, but the quality issue needs to be solved. A provocative way to put it might be: if you're sure your writing is good enough for the market, what are you afraid of with submitting it for a quality check?

    The problem is that time is passing. All those readers who've been burned by bad quality Indie books are going to need some serious persuasion to come back. In the meantime, this can only play into the mainstreams' hands.

    Right now the biggest lie is that the "cream will rise to the top" which I don't buy at all.

    Great post, Laurie, thanks.

    1. Chris, I agree with what you say, but – to play devil's advocate – if I have a good product, why should I have to PAY to have it endorsed?

      This truly is a conundrum. I hope that readers will take the time to look at how a book is presented as well as scanning its preview. That should give them a good idea as to the quality of the book.

      1. I hope so, too, but in this era of short attention spans, I doubt too many readers are checking under the hood. Now we have a conundrum, and two clichés to boot! 😉

  3. I'm part of a collective that charges nothing – all it takes is nomination by a peer and a collective vote from a board – and everyone gets to vote. It does mean we have to read one another's books, but hey, we should be reading indie anyway.

    And I don't see the collective as a badge – I see it as a group of peers who I recognise as high quality, supporting one another, blogging and sharing knowledge (uhm…isn't that what Indies Unlimited is in a way?). It's not to say those outside of the collective are not of the same quality – just that we warrant that there is a minimum level of work put into each book. And it works for us.

    After all, being indie is about exactly that. Whether being part of the collective makes no difference to them or not is beyond the point – as authors we are setting standards and meeting/exceeding them. The feedback I've had so far from our readers though is WHOLLY positive. And I get the feedback – I'm the webmistress – which I donated time to do.

    I'd say 'don't pay' unless you're paying for professional services – and being part of a collective, for now, isn't a pro service. You can still be rejected from it. If it comes with editing and cover design, you're not in a collective, you're in a publishing house. Then, you take your lumps if you're rejected. Collectives should be for now and for always, free – and I'm totally behind the one that I'm involved with. And if people are interested, I talk about it on my blog.

      1. It is very informative and interesting. I've read over Kai's indie collective. Shoot, I'm considering being a part of it myself. It address too things – indie "credibility" (also help with problems should another in the collective find something you missed), and approaching book stores that want a "credibility" stamp (who are you published through?).

        BC Brown ~ Paranormal, Mystery, Romance, Fantasy

        "Because Weird is Good."

  4. I guess am just unclear why a reader would find some "seal of approval" from a start-up certification agency (or whatever we want to call it) they have never heard of to be persuasive. Unless, of course, the intent is just to give the impression that somebody, *anybody* has actually reviewed the book in question, which definitely does not seem to be the case with any number of Indie books. But really, that's not about a standard of quality, that's just about giving the *appearence* of a standard of quality. And any Indie can do that by slapping their own badge on their own book, which means all "certification agencies" will probably be worthless in six months. Or a few groups will have built enough rep to be, in fact, gatekeepers.

      1. I agree with Yvonne. And I do see your point, Ed. Who says ANYBODY has the right, with their stamp, to anoint you and your work as "quality?" But look at the hordes of readers lining up to purchase anything Oprah breathes on. It's all subjective. And of course starts with a good product.

  5. As a literate writer with a traditionally published background, I'd welcome some form of 'seal' to set me apart from the grammatically challenged.

    Having said that I would have plenty of company. I've read some excellent indie books that certainly deserve to be in print.

    The logistics are the problem. With thousands of books spewing out continually, who would have the time, could take the responsibility, or could be trusted for objectivity? It would likely end up as a fee paying system and great writers without funds would be excluded.

    In real terms, I think book samples are going to have to continue to speak for us. Amazon has the Look Inside feature, Smashwords encourages 20% sampling. A well-written (or badly written) synopsis speaks volumes.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jaq. I think we need a better educated consumer, too, if book samples continue to speak for us. Many don't look at the samples. Many (and I've heard from several readers on this) only look at the cover art and the description. Someone with good marketing skills and flair can write a sizzling blurb. Whether the steak is decent is another story, so to speak.

  6. Am I allowed to disagree with Chris? 🙂

    I've waffled on this question myself a few times, so I may again in the future, but I think the cream does rise to the top. If you consider cream to be the kind of book the most readers want. If you mean "quality literature" based on some other metric, that has never happened. Joe Konrath has made the comparison to individual websites (or even webpages) and Youtube videos. Readers or, in the case of Youtube, viewers, somehow find their way to the funniest or most instructive videos or the most informative webpages.

    The worst ebooks from indies I've seen are almost always ranked somewhere south of 500,000 on Amazon. They aren't selling. Reading the blurb, sampling (or reading the first few pages using "look inside") will usually be enough for all by the most non-fussy reader to exclude them.

    The kind of things readers used to select books in the day of B&M stores and paper books all still exist in some form, although slightly changed (often for the better) in some instances. There are other tools available today that didn't exist ten years ago (or weren't as common) such as Goodreads, book blogs, etc.

    That doesn't mean that new tools shouldn't be considered and possibly adopted. The collective idea Kai talks about, might be one of those. Any idea that can help readers find the books that are a good fit for them is good. But anything that smacks as a new gatekeeper, that would exclude books, makes me nervous.

    1. Disagree away, Al, by all means; I think you certainly have a better picture overall of the current state of play.

      My feeling is that in the present situation, with 10k books being published every week, it's the slick self-publicist who's going to get noticed. A writer with a good book who can't really market themselves stands very little chance against a hack who's bashed out a trite, cliched story and uses every trick in the book to hassle 4- and 5-star reviews out of everyone he comes into contact with on Twitter.

      While I don't doubt that good reviews from established, reliable sources can help promote the shy and awkward writer, there is still fertile ground for the hack who thinks that "Kindle" means "Klondike".

      While this is going on, cream will only rise to the top through dumb luck.

      1. And that is the problem for many of us. We write good stuff but suck at locating our audience and hooking them into taking a chance. While what I write sits a bit of a niche, which limits its appeal, I believe that I have two good stories out there, well written and edited, worth a few bucks. But I sell almost none. Why – because I don't have the savvy, the time or the nerve to get it in front of enough noses.In other words, I'm a writer not a sales person.

          1. Do they have good coffee in Poland? I'll let you in on a secret – I don't drink spirits. (crap, now everyone knows) And I just reread my previous reply – I need an editor. lol

        1. Maybe I should modify what I said to "the cream tends to rise to the top," Chris. In the past, when the only way to get a book out there was via trad publishing, I'm sure there were plenty of deserving books published that never found their audience. A lot of that is, as both you and Yvonne mention, promotion. Most of that promotion was done by the author unless they managed a monster advance and the publisher pulled out all the stop for them. However, those books also had a limited amount of time to find their audience. At least in the case of a self-published book, the time to find the audience doesn't expire in 6 weeks or so. There is still time for Yvonne's stories to find their audience. The great thing about Amazon's recommendation algorithms is they tend to help keep momentum going for a book that gains that first bit of traction.

          There are definitely some books that do well, at least for some period of time, because the author is great promoter, even if they aren't a great writer. I would say that probably held true with some traditionally published books too. (Snooki comes to mind as one possibility.)

          1. Totally agree with you, Al, especially with the mainstream books that in the bad old days only had a few weeks to sell. At least today we can all hold on to the possibility that things will get better in the future.

      2. "the kind of book the most readers want" therein lies the real problem Chris. Some readers want an intellectual challenge, some want an easy fun read, and rather too many want Twilight no matter how badly written.

        Grammar and spelling can be certified, but content is just too subjective.

  7. As others say, it stands to reason that sampling must suffice for now. Often it is enough to read the opening of most books to get a pretty good idea of the style of writing as much as the quality.

    The only problem there is the "buying impulse" – it's shiny and looks nice so I want it NOW! Often with strictly unnecessary items, if we slow down and think and consider the choice, we'll have second thoughts about making the purchase. This applies to books too: the cover is neat, the synopsis pulls you in, so you decide to buy (and then realise it's a stinker).

    A reader may want to browse a lot of titles in a genre quickly and may see the requirement to read all of the opening chapters available as too cumbersome, with the result that they'll stick to mainstreams.

    1. So how would we educate potential readers to take that time? Why read a ton of sample chapter when they could just grab a known name or something their friends liked?

  8. I'm having a hard time figuring out what makes any group of people "qualified" to offer their stamp of approval? And where will it stop? Too much profanity? No stamp for you! Too much sex? No stamp for you! Too much violence? No stamp for you! I think if readers put a little more time into reading the "look inside" feature, reviews, and synopsis of a book they are considering, instead of just downloading any free book that comes their way, that would go a long way to separating the good, bad, & ugly.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Elena! But, really, what qualifies anyone? What qualifies a literary agent, who might not even come from a literary background? What qualifies Oprah, other than she likes to read and knows a lot of authors? What qualifies a publisher? This is art we're talking about. It's all subjective. There are already some promotion sites where you can select a book based on your preferences for sex, profanity, violence…some publishers will not publish books with sex or profanity. Oy, I'm giving myself a headache!

  9. Paid for reviews have a long and checkered history. This seems like just another variation. Not like it hasn't been around either, back in 2001, I recall being Editor in Chief of Foreword Reviews, Foreword Magazine's pay to play review outlet. I don't recall how it went, just that for a long while, it tarnished the magazine rather than taking off itself. I also learned that the CEO of Overdrive was an arrogant asshole. But that is ancient history. Nevertheless, there are plenty of review outlets that support indies. The trick is to get readers to READ THEM and to not assume that just because some Indies stink, that all Indies stink. Hard to reverse a bad impression, though. Very hard.

    1. I refuse to pay for reviews. I chose to investigate Grub Street because it was a free promotion and I was curious. I don't know what it will mean or what it won't mean. But to your point, it's great that more publications are opening themselves to indie reviews. But equally as many open up demanding payment.

  10. The readers are filtering the cream from the dregs – and on many readers groups, they're voting Indie books down for the reasons Laurie gives. Why not strive for quality? How do we reverse the bad impression? And why do we not take control and say, let's set basic standards like a minimum of spelling and grammatical errors, or professional behavior? If we don't do it, the reading public surely will, but voting with their feet. If an Indie writer offers a book at $2.99 but a traditional author offers one at $12.99, why wouldn't a reader buy the one for $2.99 and save $10? Maybe because the look inside feature showed crappy editing, or the lack of a good hook.

    So what seal of approval from some start-up agency can be offered? At least the guarantee of the most basic editing – spell-check and grammar. That would be a massive improvement over many of the books I've seen. That would be the only gatekeeper function. Chris has a point – what are you afraid of in submitting to a quality check.

    If we as Indie writers don't get a handle on the quality issue, it will be decided for us… We'll return to the marginalized status of ego driven vanity publishers who couldn't get a book accepted by the Big Six gatekeepers – the standard argument now, and many of us are proving it. We'll drown amid the thousands of schlock books written by those people who think all they have to do is write a book to get rich.

    Personally, I think Ed's books are too good for that.

    And BTW no one should pay for a review.

    I also have to add – in the interests of public disclosure – tat I created a collective for that purpose. It was to be my post for tomorrow….

  11. "That would be a massive improvement over many of the books I’ve seen. That would be the only gatekeeper function."

    Is it really a gatekeeper function if a book doesn't have to have the seal of approval to be published? Thinks like this or Red Adept Selects that Christine mentions are tools a reader might use in making a purchasing decision, kind of like the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" (does that even exist anymore?) But I think these kind of things are something in between a gatekeeper and "anything goes." These don't concern me in the same way as long as they are looking at presentation and not content. As far as that goes, I'll bet there are some smart readers out there who do a search on Lynn O'Dell's name (she shows up in the author section as 'editor') because they know the book has at least received a good copy-edit and proofing.

  12. My editor is the founder of Red Adept reviews (which is now defunct). During its time, this was the premier review site for indie books.

    In order to highlight the books she loved, but couldn't review because she edited them, she started Red Adept Selects. You get a badge and a spot on her site.

    If anyone could make this vetting thing work, I believe she could.

    Did I bask in the warm glow of validation? Yep. Do I like the badge? Yes I do. Did being a select help my sales? Dunno, but I can't quit my day job.

  13. Good article, Laurie.

    As for Grub Street, it appears to be a lot of flash and nothing else. Between the two organizers, they have themselves a single paranormal romance novel, a short story and a novella. Not a stellar body of work to base this sort of endeavor on.

    I have a very low tolerance for predatory shysters. I think I’ll pass.

  14. All this is occurring very early in the process of the evolutionary formation of whatever publishing will become. I find it difficult to understand why any indie casting about for an answer would be interested in replicating the most objectionable and clearly failed part of the old publishing model.

    But who knows at this point what will really work? If it turns out that readers tend to look at books with a seal of approval and think to themselves, “If it’s good enough for the Indie Author Gestapo, it’s good enough for me,” well, then maybe there is something to it.

    I’ll wait for hard data.

    Great post, Laurie. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Stephen. What really influences book choice, anyway? A review? A friend read it and liked it? They know the author's brother and he's a pretty cool dude? They got it for free from an Amazon giveaway? Oprah suddenly decides indie is where it's at? Yeah, if you're about to drop a few hundred on a washing machine, you'll ask your friends, you'll check Consumer Reports. Wish we could have something like that for books. Until then, we have to just to wing it. I'd be interested in the hard data, too.

      1. “Indie Author Gestapo”…

        You know it’s going to take some serious self-discipline now to resist starting an organisation by that name. 😉

  15. This is a very tough question because even within Indies there is an old guard.

    As a new author I am a sponge, constantly absorbing the opinions of experienced writers I have come to respect.

    I am very interested in the motivations of people who would seek to review the work of others. Christine seemed to have a good point above. I would love to have an opinion of such an editor, but I already know that my book, unfortunately, has some errors that potential gatekeepers would consider unpardonable.

    What is interesting about this is that the women who read it, my book, don't care. In my post about book clubs I pointed out the disagreement of two attendees – the one who cared was a copy-editor, and the one who didn't care was a nurse. She said to me privately, and I mean no offense to anyone on this thread, "I don't need a book written by an English teacher. I want to read something like what you wrote."

    What do I do with that information? I continue to write what I like. I've learned an incredible amount from this site and the people here. My next book will be scrubbed within an inch of its life. I believe a review board would have been hard on my first novel, and this might have been discouraging to me. Instead, I've found that the support, encouragement, and staggering information I've gleaned here and elsewhere have pushed me forward.

    I will not be squashed. Women want to read my books, and I am finding them, slowly but surely. If that makes anyone uncomfortable that is unfortunate.

    Wonderful post!

    1. Lois, I too, have readers who love what I write and can't wait for the next installment. In the first version of Book One I had two (small) inconsistencies. Some noticed. Most didn't. They are fixed in the current version, but it goes to prove your point that it did not detract from their experience of enjoyment, despite the errors. I know there are still a few typos in both, in spite of professional editing, but trad books are riddled with those as well. So I will continue to put out the best I can and believe my fans will forgive the odd mistake.

  16. And how has that gatekeeper model worked out for us indies in the past? Hmmmm. How about this? We let readers filter out the creme from the dregs by using the ‘preview the book’ feature.

  17. Why would I want to be endorsed by some entity that for one might not even like the genre I write? I can't even imagine how they could ever possibly read the books submitted to them. It feels like the slush pile all over again. I won't and don't pay for reviews, I beg and plead and give away an occasional book. Some reviewers actually buy the books they review, that's great when it happens. I write my books for my readers not somebody who thinks they have the right to judge others. It's bad that there are indie writers out there that don't do it right and make us all look bad, but we can't cave in and quit. I plan to forge ahead and continue to write and publish the best books I can and hope you all do the same. 🙂

  18. I'm working hard on qulaity.

    Whether a reader likes it or not is still subjective.

    Regardless, I'll continue to do my best, writing, marketing, networking and let the chips fall where they may.

    Great blog and comments.

  19. My last novel had typos and grammatical errors. Some found them, some didn't. I DID find them, however, and corrected where they were needed. Then re-released. I've found one typo in my latest novel, but it is a simple comma misplacement that isn't going to make me re-release…yet.

    I think it has to come down to the "Look Inside" programs. Yes, a lot of readers want now, now, now downloads or purchases. But many are selective, browsing readers. (Guilty.) If enough 'want it now' readers decide they're sick of the crap they've been reading, they'll either learn to slow down and sample the work or they'll stop buying. A real reader probably isn't going to stop buying, though.

    Kai's (free) collective is definitely a way to go. It's not really a stamp of approval, but it does offer an avenue to make sure we are putting out quality work. That said, a critique group (something every writer should have prior to publication) should be doing the same thing. So why not utilize both – collectives and critique groups?

    Book reviews, in my opinion, should never be paid for. The closest to payment an author should ever come would be to provide the book for free. Then again I have never understood paying for reviews.

    But, as many have stated, what this new world of publishing is going to do is speculative. It's young and evolving, gaining steam at a tremendous and wonderful rate. The question is will the reader evolve with us? They've stepped into the digital world readily, but are they ready to take the time and care researching the books that many indie authors put into writing them?

    BC Brown ~ Paranormal, Mystery, Romance, Fantasy

    "Because Weird is Good."

  20. Well, it looks like we are a little late to this party. Leslie from Grub Street Reads here. We are really excited to see all this conversation taking place about our little idea and wanted to take just a moment to clarify and respond to some of the great questions that some of you have regarding our service. For starters, we are not predators. Oh wait, that’s exactly what a predator would say… The whole goal of GSR is to support writers and encourage readers to try out some of the fresh new talent.

    As to the legitimacy of our endorsements, we have spent months developing and testing an evaluation system that focuses on identifying and endorsing novels that contain the key components of a good story regardless of genre. In this way, we’ve tried to make our system as objective as possible (while still acknowledging that we can’t be complete objective, because, well, we aren’t robots). If you want to know exactly how our evaluation system works, it’s all right out in the open on our website under the “The Endorsement” section in our menu. We have endorsed a number of books that our evaluators would not have read on their own. Some of our evaluator are now even fans of these genres. This system and our belief in being as objective as possible sets us apart from the collectives that are springing up. To be blunt, we are a third party that doesn’t have a vested interest in your work. Although, between you and me, it makes us very sad when we can’t approve a submission. We know how hard you worked on your project and we respect that effort.

    There was quite a bit of talk about our credentials. You all made great points. We did not list all of the work we have done in the publishing industry nor did we list our CV (but thanks to this, we have added it to our site now). Our biggest strength is that we are writers and readers. We know what it is like to compete with books that may not have gone through critique groups, beta readers and a quality copyeditor. As readers, we have felt cheated by spending our money and time on low-quality indie books. We think that a service like GSR will ultimately strengthen the indie book industry. These experiences led us to develop a mission that supports indie authors and the readers who dare to give them a shot.

    The last big area we wanted to bring up is about our service fees. For starters, you cannot purchase a Grub Street Reads endorsement. You pay for an evaluation and the opportunity to earn our endorsement if your book passes our evaluation criteria. Once you are endorsed we invest a lot of energy and money into promoting your work. This is an added benefit that we have not seen offered by any of the similar groups out there. Our fee covers the time it takes our trained evaluators to read and evaluate each submission and the cost of the promotion we do on behalf of our endorsed authors. We have made the service as affordable as possible. By paying for our service you are also paying for a guarantee that your book will be treated with respect and compassion and be put to the same standards as every other submission we receive.

    Thanks so much for letting us be a part of this conversation. We hope that these details helped clear a few things up about us. We are big fans of open debate, and appreciate all your comments, even those of you who are not quite sold of GSR yet. Feel free to visits our website and email us questions. We believe in being transparent. We want to earn your trust and someday hope to be removed from that nasty predator list.

    1. As you've seen, we do like our healthy conversations on Indies Unlimited, Leslie, and thank you so much for stopping by. As indie authors, you can understand the questions that come up about this subject. We ask everyone to educate themselves and make their own decisions.

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