by Jack Shakely
To actively avoid all independently-published books is like saying you'll never listen to a garage band. There is some good stuff out there if you know where, and how, to look.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you I am the author of a self-published historical novel, The Confederate War Bonnet. During my research for this book, which deals with the Creek nation in Indian Territory during the Civil War, I found that many of the books, both fiction and nonfiction, that dealt with this Civil War backwater were self-published. In a few cases the books, even some of the less polished ones, were so chock-full of information and anecdotes that they were very much worth the read.
Eventually I met other historical novelists on-line, and we discovered that most of us were self published. Last year we formed a loose affiliation called the Independent Authors Guild. It's still very much a work in progress, but it's a start on a segment of the book publishing world that is bound to grow as the number of agents, book stores and traditional publishing houses diminish.
Here are some things I have observed: the best independent books are likely to be found in historical nonfiction, historical fiction and memoirs. The reason is obvious -- these are often first-person accounts or thinly-veiled family histories that traditional publishers felt didn't have enough potential audience to justify the expense. Some of these books are darn good.
Many self-published books, of course, are just plain lousy. I have found this especially true in the romance fiction, science fiction and erotic fiction genres. And you might want to avoid books with titles like Twenty Things Mr. Whiskers Taught Me About God, especially if there is a photo of the author and a cat on the cover.
Increasingly, however, through sophisticated key word searches, Amazon's "Search Inside" feature, growing on-line book review opportunities, and author web sites that allow the reader to "sample" a book the same way we can sample a musical album, you can get a pretty good idea of the quality of a book before you buy.
The future success of publish on demand books may be when large independent publishing houses, like Amazon's Book Surge and Barnes and Noble's Author's House/iUniverse, provide publishing plateaus that are earned, not purchased. iUniverse has something like this with its "editors' choice" and "publisher's choice" designations, but it is not industry-wide and not fully understood.
Don't give up on self-publishing just yet. It has a long way to go, but it is light-years ahead of the old vanity press days, and developing technology is going to make it even better.