Do You Read Self-Published Books Differently? Yes, You Do!


A while back I asked you if you thought that you read self-published books differently, and it occurred to me today that I never shared the results. So here they are:


Keeping in mind that this is in no way scientific and is only a small fraction of the people who read the post, let alone a microscopic dot in the world of people who read self-published books, the feedback was that:

  • 33% of you said that yes, you were sure you read self-published books differently
  • 25% of you said that you wish you didn’t, but you can’t help it
  • Which when combined, makes it 58% of respondents who say they read self-published books differently, i.e. judge them differently to traditionally published books
  • 33% said they didn’t read them differently
  • 8% said they didn’t know
  • 4% said they didn’t and no one else did either. (The sun must’ve been shining bright over on Unicorn Meadow that day… )

What’s more interesting though are the potential explanations for why readers might have a different experience with self-published books that people came up with in the comments.

A few commenters said that when they read a self-published book and spot an error, they know something can be done about it: they can contact the self-published author, who is probably easily located online, and let them know. Then the error can be removed and future editions will be free of it.

I have to say this horrifies me a bit, because while typos are cut and dried, it comes back to the main point of the original post which is why do you assume it’s a mistake? As an Irish author writing in British English (and I know I’m always on about this but it’s a problem that self-publishing created and a major point of bother for me), I get e-mails from people correcting not my mistakes, but British English into US English, among other things. Even on Robert Doran’s post about copy-editing recently, we had this:

Picture 3

And I have never, in my entire reading life, picked up a book I bought and said to myself gleefully, ‘Time to play editor!’ I’m there for the story. But then, of course, if something is riddled with errors, you won’t even get that far…

I do wonder how a self-published author could ever write an experimental novel, or one that plays with language like, say, Everything Is Illuminated. If that novel was self-published, would Jonathan Safran Foer get e-mails complaining about Alex and his broken, thesaurus-powered English?

Another point raised was the perception (or misperception) that self-published books aren’t ‘finished’. This may not be a conscious thought, but I can see how readers would, somewhere in the back of their mind, greet a self-published book as a work in progress. Hence, reviews that talk about the gap between what the book was and what the book could be if only the author would listen to the reviewer’s suggestions.

I think the most important issue raised, though, was that of trust. In a few weeks’ time when I open The Gods of Guilt on my 12th Annual Drop Everything and Read Michael Connelly’s New Novel In One Sitting Day, I’ll dive right in, safe in the knowledge that Connelly knows what he’s doing, and so did everyone else who was involved in the book. But self-published authors don’t always instill that ‘safe’ feeling in readers, and maybe we haven’t earned that right yet.

What I’d really like to know, and what I can’t imagine there’s a way to find out, is what percentage of all readers regularly read self-published books. That’s a figure I’d like to get my hands on.

In the meantime, what can we do? There’s only one answer: our best. Keep striving to produce the best and most professionally polished books we can.

Trust is earned, after all.

I didn’t post anything around the start of the month so I didn’t get to say: if you’re doing NaNo, good luck! I hope it’s going well. I’m doing my own mini-version of it, which I’m calling NaFiThBlBoOrElMo (National Finish This Bloody Book Or ELSE Month), so I feel your pain. And if anyone has rolled their eyes at you, send them this

54 thoughts on “Do You Read Self-Published Books Differently? Yes, You Do!

  1. timamarialacoba Lacoba says:

    I’m an author too, Catherine and to me writing is writing. I read both traditionally published and indie works, and rarely do I find a difference. If anything, I tend to scrutinise the trad. pubbed work much more critically than the the former, as they have a bevy of editors to get it right!

    • jenniferbgraham says:

      Your comment makes me feel better Timamaria. While I strive for excellence, having reviewed my work (plus other pairs of eyes) a gazillion times, errors still up – not necessarily my errors but errors done during the formatting of my publisher – i.e. changing from PDF to Word or InDesign – a preposition may be dropped here and there. It’s highly frustrating.

      • jenniferbgraham says:

        speaking of errors, one CROPPED up in my comment – darn it! Would that I had a team of editors at my beck and call!

  2. Diana Jackson says:

    Interesting! I try not to. I think we are more forgiving for traditionally published books if there’s a grammatical or spelling mistake….of course it’s all down to style, literacy freedom of speech etc. I’ve read many great self published books though

    • Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

      Did you mean to say that you’re more forgiving of errors in trad pub? There’s much less excuse, in my mind, for errors in a book that’s definitely been through a professional editor. HarperCollins are really slack about editing, and it irritates me immensely.

      (On the OP: I’ll admit to being one of those readers who emails the author lists of corrections. I used to work in trad pub as an editor, and it’s a hard habit to break. I make sure they’re real errors, though, not just differences of usage. I consider it my contribution to future readers’ enjoyment and the overall quality of the indiesphere.)

      • Diana Jackson says:

        No I agree with you Mike. People are far less forgiving for SP books and trad publishers have no real excuse for grammatical errors or spelling mistakes, but we’re all human. I try to read what inspires me regardless…with an open mind. I’ve gone through both routes as a writer and now know that it’s so hard to get it perfect, even with Beta readers and a professional proof read. Your comments in an email must be so helpful and I hope writers see it as that.

        • jenniferbgraham says:

          If I should come across the likes of Mike, I will take corrections in the spirit in which they were sent. Some people can be mean-spirited and destructive in their comments, but then again it says something about the commenter.

          Re professional proofreaders, someone in the business told me to be cautious about throwing good money after bad as there are proofreaders out there who use proofreading software that’s tantamount to glorified spell and grammar checkers. So, they don’t necessarily take the context and so forth into account and your work might still come up with errors.

  3. robdarke says:

    I self-published my first novel just under four weeks ago and the reaction from friends (who probably feel reluctantly obliged to read it) has been interesting: one admitted to me that she turned to her husband when half way through my book and said, ‘This is just like a real book!’ Which is a nice complement in a back-handed sort of way but does indicate low expectations. Another friend who is a librarian (and therefore reads loads of books) said, ‘I’m really enjoying your book.’ She sounded so genuinely surprised by this that I actually asked her and she replied, ‘Well, you know, we get given so many awful self-published books!’ I feel very pleased with this feedback which along with several positive reviews on Amazon is incredibly gratifying and encouraging but it definitely confirms your findings that most self-published debut authors work is approached with lower expectations than traditionally published work. Even my son, who after reading it on a long train journey, admitted he had to finish the book in a station car park before driving home said, ‘I’m so relieved it wasn’t crap, dad, because I didn’t know how I was going to tell you if it was!’

  4. Cassandra Black says:

    I, too, read self-published books differently. For example, I’m very forgiving of typos and formatting in self-published works, especially if it’s a good story.

    • jenniferbgraham says:

      That’s good to know Cassandra. I feel badly about typos that come up that’s not necessarily my fault – that happened during layout and formatting by the printers

  5. Monica Michelle says:

    Great article. I self published and I have a friend who can’t seem to get the ought the story. I noticed on here reader that she had a few things flagged in the chapters she had read. I asked what the flags were, she said mistakes (there were probably 3 flags in as many chapters). I asked, are you reading it to look for errors or reading it to read the story. If you are editing the book, no wonder it is taking you forever to read it. By the way, I have it professionally edited and proof read but even they leaves errors in at times.

    Thanks for this article and statistic.

  6. Doug Daniel says:

    I think some people are more tolerant of errors in a self-published work, and others are less forgiving. I think people are still making up their minds about how to approach self-pubbed work.

    As for NaFiThBlBoOrElMo, I like the idea, esp. since it’s where I’ve been for the last six months on my current novel. But November has to be my drop-dead, do or die month. Really, I mean it. Christmas looms.

  7. TymberDalton says:

    Considering how many glaring errors and typos I’m seeing lately in “traditionally published” books, honestly? I don’t pay attention to how the book is published. This is why unless the book is free to start with, I use the free preview feature. If the preview is riddled with typos and obvious errors, I don’t buy. (If it’s a free book and after the first few pages it’s obvious editing wasn’t a priority, I DNF and delete it.) I couldn’t care less if a book is self- or traditionally published if it’s well-written.

    No book is “error free,” even if it comes down to a difference of opinion in comma placement. If the errors are infrequent, as in just a couple throughout the whole book, I’m forgiving. If I’m finding multiple errors per page, that’s a huge red flag and I won’t finish it because it pulls me out of the story too often.

  8. Rebecca Nolen says:

    I am so happy you posted this. Yes, we as self-published authors must work to earn the reading public’s trust.

    When my self-published book Deadly Thyme comes out at the end of the month – the people you mention who want to copy-edit are going to have a heyday with my combination of British English and American English. Because the book is set in Cornwall, and most characters are, of course, from there – but then one character is from Texas. Yikes!

  9. Fred Henney says:

    I have truly enjoyed your post on reading self-published books. I am not aware that I read self-published books differently, but I do notice typos and usage that is different from my own in any book I read, probably because I spent 25 years teaching (American)English. I particularly recall one trade paperback that was seemingly errorless until midpoint, and from there on was difficult to read because of the many typos and misspellings. Cheers. Fred Henney

  10. Lillie Ammann says:

    The most interesting thing about this to me is that readers actually pay attention to whether a book is self-published or not. I am a freelance editor for indie authors, and I would put my clients’ books against traditionally published books any day. I review every book I read for pleasure, and I’m closing in on 200 reviews this year. I couldn’t tell you for most of those books whether they were traditionally or self-published. That’s just not something I look at. As others have said, there’s no perfect book. I tend to overlook a few small errors, but I significant errors pull me from the story, and I probably won’t finish the book. Even then, I generally look to see who the publisher is.

  11. Linda K says:

    A book is a book, self-published or not. I read for the story and when I encounter errors, well, an error is an error. Either the high-priced editor or the self-publisher fell asleep on the job. In general, self-published books have more errors, often very glaring errors, but I have read traditionally published books that have missing verbs and other little glitches. When it comes to editing my own, I do my best to get it right. It isn’t easy. And, yes, I am amused by those who say they are surprised that they didn’t find lots of errors because they know I’m self-published. And I am offended by those who will not pick up my book and give it a read because they know it’s self-published.

  12. bmellor2013 says:

    I start out the same. But if I begin to think ‘this could have been so much better if you’d hired an editor’ then I find it hard to get out of that mind-set as I read on. I start looking for things. I don’t mean to, but it happens.
    My own book has just been published. My publisher deals mainly in self-published works, but has recently started putting his company name to what he considers ones worth taking a chance on. In reality, for the author there’s very little difference – so much so that he actually asked me which I’d prefer! I opted to be published by his company for the very reason that many people do take you more seriously when you’ve not self-published. I’ve seen expressions change and heard a different tone of voice when people discover I’ve ‘got a publisher’. It makes me smile, given how casual the arrangement actually is.

  13. marykate77 says:

    really interesting.

    As a writer I do share your frustration with the idea that the book is a rough copy waiting for readers to cut and polish it into a decent shape, however I have seen – not read in entirety – books that most definitely should not be in print, and that is what every self published author has to distance themselves from. The only way is to build yourself a reputation.

  14. chemistken says:

    One difference I’ve noticed between the way people read self-published and trad published authors is the way readers treat inconsistencies. For example, if a trad author has a character say something that doesn’t add up, the reader will often assume that this is a clue that the character is lying and that the writer deliberately put it in there. If the reader comes across the same thing from a self-published writer, the tendency is to assume it was a mistake.

  15. curiouserediting says:

    I would just like to say that I am so glad I found your blog. I love the overall design. 🙂
    I am participating in NaNoWriMo too. It’s my third year, but I actually plan on finishing this time. Great blog post about self-publishing books. I can’t wait to read more.

  16. lovelytl33 says:

    I had never read, until recently (as in a week ago) a self published book (I don’t count Beatrix Potter). I think I read this story though, purely for the entertainment of the story. If I noticed a typo, it’s because I notice typos in any book just as I look for inconsistencies in films. Basically, I’m an anal retentive pain in the neck, but I’m one who enjoys a good story and I am so aware of my own shortcomings in editing that I could never presume to correct someone’s work when I am so bad at “the rules” myself.

  17. Roslyn McFarland says:

    Well written, well said.
    One self pub award I was thinking of applying for mentions a maximum of eight spelling and/or grammatical errors allowable. Sheesh! I found more than that in the original Pride and Prejudice! And another thing, is that eight errors in a 50k word middle grade novel, or a 250k word epic fantasy for adult? Yes, the bar has most definitely been raised for us indies. Time to step up and show ’em who’s got the stuff! 🙂

  18. Elle Knowles says:

    I never paid attention to whether a book was traditionally published or self-published until I self-published one of my own. Actually since I did that I tend to read more self-published books and am amazed at the quality of some and at how many there are on the market. I think self-publishing is coming into its own and we as writers have to be on our toes to keep positive responses to our books.

  19. Amy says:

    I do read them differently. I read a lot of self-published books when I first got my Kindle. (I was wary of it, since I love holding a book in my hand.) I had some many terrible experiences (horrible editing errors, weak writing, bad stories) with inexpensive, self-published books, that for over a year I refused to buy any book that wasn’t from an author I knew or had been reliably recommended to me. It really shook me. Slowly I’ve been trying self-published works again, and I’m very careful with my selections (I still won’t buy a .99 e-book now.) and things have been much better. Ripley Patton’s, Ghost Hand, is an example of a wonderful, self-published book I was thrilled to get a hold of. But so many prior bad experiences really have left me wary.

  20. Averill Buchanan says:

    What a fascinating blog post! First of all, I have to admit that I definitely distinguish between traditionally published and self-published when I pick up a book to read. I edit and proofread (mostly) self-published fiction professionally, and *only* read traditionally published novels for pleasure – I need to be able to switch off my editing head. It’s not so much typos and ‘errors’ in self-published novels that bother me, but clumsy writing, plot holes, poor structure and limited vocabulary.

    To stop myself going off on a rant about Americans’ need to ‘correct’ UK English, I’d like to comment on your observation about self-published novels as ‘works-in-progress’.

    The problem is that self-publishers are their own worst enemies when it comes to this. They cultivate the perception that they’ve published a draft of their work by their willingness to make changes to their novel after it has been published, usually in response to readers’ reviews. I’m not talking here about correcting just typos and errors – some self-publishers add sentences to make a plotline clearer, or whole paragraphs because a reader didn’t understand something. Sticking patches on novels, in which characters, language, plot, story, dialogue must come together seamlessly to help the reader suspend his/her disbelief, doesn’t work.*

    One of the good things about digital publishing is that it’s easy to make changes to text; but it’s also one of the bad things and perpetuates the idea of a text never being completed, of never being finished – of always being a manuscript and never a book.

    The ability to change text easily after it has been published needs to be treated with respect, not abused. I think there are two things self-publishers can do to address the perception that their novels are works-in-progress: firstly, they can do their best to get it right first time (this takes time and some financial investment; it can’t be rushed and it’s not cheap); secondly, once they’ve gone to all that trouble they should foster a sense of integrity about their work – be willing to stand by it, as it is when it’s published, no matter what others think.

    *The other problem with ‘patching’ is that you may introduce new errors; if you’ve had your book professionally edited and/or proofread and named your editor or proofreader in your acknowledgements, they’re not going to be too happy about that.

  21. Michelle Louring says:

    I have long been thinking about why I treat self-published books differently, and you finally provided a reason!
    I really do think I subconsciously label self-published books as ‘unfinished’, even though I’m a self-published author myself. It’s completely unfair, but I don’t think most people can help it.

  22. donnawhiteglaser says:

    As a writer, I have found that I read trad pubbed books differently than self-pubbed, which is a backhanded way to say “Yes” to your question. But, really, the emphasis for me is on hooting in laughter when I find a typo in a trad pubbed book. And I’ve been known to underline them, too. 🙂

  23. T.K. Marnell says:

    Maybe the phenomenon is especially enhanced for self-published books–or at least self-published authors perceive it that way–but reviewers have begun to treat even traditionally published books as “works in progress.” My father recommended the Divergent series to me, so I checked it out on Amazon, and the top review of the third book on the US Amazon site is a one-star dissertation on how the author didn’t meet the reader’s expectations. The first three you see complain that the two main protagonists’ voices weren’t distinct enough, the characters weren’t consistent enough, there was too little romance, etc. etc.

    In the modern world, almost every media can be updated on the fly. News outlets don’t publish corrections in the next day’s paper; they just add to or delete from the existing online article. Propaganda offices Photoshop in a few missiles here, a dignitary there, and maybe a fluttering flag in the background. Bloggers and self-publishers “ninja edit” their live work with very little effort.

    For example, Catherine, your textual recount of the survey results doesn’t match the pie chart. Thirty-one percent of respondents said they read self-published works differently, not thirty-three, so the total for the first two categories is really fifty-six. Now, after I point this out, you can go into WordPress and fix the numbers lickity-split, and no-one would be the wiser.

    Today’s media is constantly in an “unfinished” state, and people have cottoned on that they can change it with a single complaint. Retail giants immediately pull any books the tabloid muckrakers complain about. Publishers push improved versions of books to customers’ Kindles without notice. Authors are also much more accessible than they used to be, with Twitter and email etc. They may even be literal “friends” on Facebook or Goodreads. So it’s not that surprising that modern readers try to “help” by emailing all of their complaints to writers like we’re AT&T customer service reps.

    • jenniferbgraham says:

      Insightful comment T.K. for an old bird like me who grew up “old school” before the advent of the internet!

  24. Iola Goulton says:

    Here’s the US/UK difference that always baffles me. Perhaps someone can explain it. If the Americans call # the pound symbol, why is this a #hashtag?

    (As someone raised with British English, I know # is the hash key, so #hashtag makes perfect sense. After all, the pound symbol is £, a symbol of currency.)

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Apparently it has something to do with # being used in the US to denote pounds of weight, as in lbs. God forbid, the #poundtag? I think we all dodged a bullet there… Maybe there was a Brit working at Twitter. (Or better yet, an Irishman! Or woman.) ;-D

      Speaking of strange US/UK things, Rx? How does THAT mean a prescription? Confused me so much when I first lived in the States, I had to ask what it meant!

      • James F. Brown says:

        LOL. The # is the least of US/UK differences in English. My two faves are “fanny” (US = arse) and “fag” (UK = cigarette). These two different trans-Atlantic meanings have caused considerable confusion.

        When I was in Europe, I needed to get a fanny pack while (whilst) waking around to keep things in. I won’t soon forget the shocked look on the sporting goods store clerk when I asked for one.

        And a Brit expat coworker told me about the time she said she needed to get a fag on her break…

  25. R M Nicholls says:

    Great question, and I’ve found people’s comments above really interesting too.

    I think that I read all books differently now. I’m less tolerant, less inclined to stick with a book that I’m not enjoying. Because there are so many wonderful books – squillions of them being published every second. I’ve only got my three score and ten to read them all – it’s not enough time! Maybe the next one that I try will be one of those books that I can completely lose myself in…

    In the olden days, before e-books and the growth of self publishing, there were a lot less books being published and they were harder to buy. I had to get dressed in actual clothes and go to an actual shop…. ‘What did you do in the Nineties, Mummy?’ ‘I got the bus into town, then stood in a queue to pay over a tenner for a not-particularly-good book’ ‘Oh Mummy it must have been awful. Why didn’t you just send your robot to do it?’

    Thanks for linking to your NaNo rant – I hadn’t discovered your blog back then. Total brilliance.

  26. R P says:

    I’m reading The Club Dumas on my kindle right. Professionally published, big-name author…the kindle is riddled with typos, missing punctuation, and misspellings. I know from the errors just what happened. Rather than have the text retyped, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt decided to save a buck and did an OCR scan of the book – with ZERO copy-editing of the resulting text. (Aside: how can you tell? Look for missing punctuation and misspelled words like ft instead of it, wam instead or warn, all sure signs of OCR errors. That’s why you copy-edit OCR-generated text.) This is a multi-million-dollar company playing fast and loose. I’ve seen things like this again and again in my long years as a reader. Missing pages, bad book design, no copy-editing – now with ebooks, it’s just the same. Not to knock certain writers, but when you read them, you ask yourself: “Who did he bribe to get a publishing contract?” So please, let’s hear no more about the supposed superiority of conventional publishing.

  27. Lee Drugan says:

    Thanks for sharing your findings. Self-publishing is a somewhat new phenomenon and it’s likely that self-published books may be read differently just because there isn’t that barrier to entry. However, once a reader finds a self-published book that they love it’s likely that whatever preconceived notions they have may fade away.

  28. Carol Bodensteiner says:

    I’m with you in NaFiThBlBoOrElMo, Catherine! Received feedback from my editor (American – Chicago style), and am delving into adding a few scenes and polishing.

    Interesting survey results. I throw myself in with the majority. I read many indie-published books and I’m harsh. When I find bad/no editing, over use of adverbs, and schlocky writing, I quit. When I find a well written indie book, I am delighted, revel in the reading and then tell everyone they need to read it, too.

  29. Becki says:

    Most of the people here have been commenting on the number of errors in self- versus traditionally-published books. There are some traditionally-published series that I won’t read anymore because the growing number of errors was interfering with my ability to enjoy the story.

    I wanted to make a comment about the “work in progress” opinion of self-published books that you brought up. So many people who self-publish do so only with e-books, not with printed books. The sites that allow you to upload the files often emphasize that updated files can replace the original files for the e-books. I suspect that most people consider self-published books as “works in progress” for this reason: an author can (usually) easily upload a corrected file to remove the errors. And some authors do this, so yes, these e-books are works in progress.

    However, I suspect that few people would even consider sending in corrections for a printed book they read. Printed books cost something to produce, and I’ve yet to come across someone who purchased one of my husband’s self-published books and then came back to tell him they found a typo.

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