Higher rated: indies or traditionally published?

Higher rated: indies or traditionally published?

One of the arguments you hear in favor of buying traditionally published (tradpubbed) books over indies (independently published) books is that there is a lot more quality control in the former.

After all, there are important judgments made before a tradpubbed book is in readers’ hands:

  • The author needs to find an agent. The agent makes decisions based on the quality of the book, and the likelihood that it will be purchased by a publisher. This agent (and there have been famous ones) can’t “fool” the publisher, or the companies simply won’t buy from that agent again
  • An editor then has to buy the book for a publisher. That statement simplifies what can be a complex process. There may be “readers” at an initial level (they may even read books not submitted through agents, but it’s uncommon that those would be published). It may go through more than one level of editor. The editor likely needs to take it to an editorial board, where there is a lot more discussion
  • The editor also works with the author to improve the book. That can sometimes result in significant changes (supposedly, To Kill a Mockingbird was originally written from the viewpoint of an adult Scout, for example)
  • Nowadays, there may be beta readers and focus groups

An indie book may simply be published by the author, with no prior editorial review of any kind.

Based on that, many consumers reason that they are more likely to enjoy a book from a traditional publisher than from an indie.

Is that really the result, though?

I could see arguments why it might go either way. Perhaps the tradpub has  saleability as a higher standard than literary quality. Maybe the indie actually does go through a thorough process of review…just not from a publishing company.

I don’t like to just guess (although that can be fun). I thought I’d take a look at the star ratings in the Kindle store for indies and for tradpubs, and see how they compare.

Defining an “indie” can be a bit tricky at times. We can figure that books from the Big 5 (the five largest USA trade publishers…trade books are the books you would have bought in a bookstore…not textbooks and such) are not indies. I would extend that same classification to books from next tier publishers, like Scholastic (American publisher of Harry Potter).

If Amazon publishes a book under one of its imprints (Thomas & Mercer, 47North, and so on), I would also not consider that an indie.

It really would have to do with how the book was selected for publication…and that’s not always obvious. Fortunately, Amazon gives us a separate bestseller list for what it defines as indies.

Best Sellers in Kindle Indie Books (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

For this analysis, I’m going to accept their classification.

Let’s start out with comparing the ten bestselling books on the indie list with the ten bestselling books on the Kindle stores general list. I’m going to start out without weeding out any indies on the general list:

The Indies

Rank Stars Reviews
1 4.1 557
2 4.4 6194
3 4.4 394
4 4.8 463
5 4.7 222
6 4.6 341
7 3.9 950
8 4.7 268
9 4.6 441
10 4.8 33
Avg 4.5 986.3

General list

Rank Stars Reviews
1 4.1 11586
2 4.4 30
3 4.4 38
4 4.5 85
5 3.9 50
6 4.8 136
7 4.2 525
8 4.0 564
9 4.6 441
10 3.7 9
Avg 4.26 1346.4

The indies are quite a bit higher rated…nearly a quarter of a star on a five star range is a lot.

There is one book on the general list which has an anomalously high number of reviews…you might be wondering why so many of the general list have such a low number of reviews.

It’s because four of the top ones are part of the Kindle First program…they are available to get for free for eligible Prime members (one of the four for free this month), and otherwise discounted before publication on May 1st. Those are tradpubbed, but by Amazon.

I want to also look at this as a comparison between indies and the Big 5.

Here are the top ten sellers (paid…free is a different list) in the USA Kindle store from the Big 5 (Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Random, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster):

Big 5

Rank Stars Reviews Publisher
1 4.1 11586 PRH
7 4.2 525 PRH
8 4.0 564 HC
10 3.8 10 HC
11 4.6 6790 Hachette
12 4.5 11700 PRH
14 4.8 3065 Macmillan
17 4.6 10392 S&S
18 4.5 263 Hachette
21 4.5 478 PRH
Avg 4.36 4537.3

The indies are still considerably above the Big 5 titles in terms of stars…but the average number of reviews for the Big 5 absolutely dominate.

It’s important to not here that I am only looking at the bestsellers. It’s quite possible that the best indies are comparable to the best tradpubs…but that there are more “lemons” amongst the indies. In fact, I would expect that to be the case, intuitively…but that’s a bit harder for me to test.

One more comparison…price:

Indies General Big 5
3.99 6.99 6.99
1.59 4.99 10.99
0.99 4.99 1.99
3.99 4.99 14.44
3.99 4.99 5.39
3.99 3.99 1.99
3.99 10.99 12.99
3.99 1.99 12.99
2.51 4.99 9.99
6.99 14.44 10.99
$3.60 $6.34 $8.88

If, and this is a big if, we can say that the average star rating is a predictor of how much you will be satisfied with the book, you get “better books” from indies for less than half the price of Big 5 books.

That’s definitely an interesting finding…

Now, you may not find that your tastes parallel the number of stars. I’m sure I like some books which don’t have great ratings. I will say, though, that if a book has a significant number of reviews and a high star rating, I find that I don’t think it’s poorly written, even if it isn’t particularly my cup of tea.

One thing to remember: Amazon has a generous seven day return policy for books you purchase from the Kindle store. You can “return” a book for a refund within seven days of purchase by going to


There are many people in the Amazon Kindle forums who think it is inappropriate to return a book just because you didn’t like it, but Amazon doesn’t say that themselves. It appears to be that if you return “too many” (whatever that may be), they may take away the option for you to return it yourself by using the MYK page, but you can still contact them and return it.

While that policy is a great reason to shop from Amazon, I think it’s safe to say that most people would rather read a book they enjoy than return one.

Perhaps, instead of looking at the “People Magazine books”, more people should be looking at the bestselling indies…

What do you think? Do you feel like you are more at risk when you buy an indie of getting one you don’t like? Would you be more likely to gift a tradpub you hadn’t read than an indie you hadn’t read? Do you think tradpubs tend to be more in the middle…not the best books, not the worst? Do you use the star ratings as any kind of guide in purchasing? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

2 Responses to “Higher rated: indies or traditionally published?”

  1. Glenn Says:

    This is unrelated to today’s topic, but I think it’s worthy of a look. New features added to Fire TV and Fire Stick.


    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Glenn!

      I thought I had written about that already, but perhaps not.

      The one that I may use in particular is the Bluetooth headphones…I’m often exercising before my Significant Other is awake. I’d have to buy a pair, first, and I haven’t picked yet. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: