I recently read a book by a first time author, that was independently published, or "self-published" if you prefer. I won't go into its plot or characters, except that it was a book I generally liked. I then let someone else borrow it. I don't know whether this was a mistake or not, because the person who borrowed it, and then returned, who is a writer, gave their professional opinion. It was not as good as mine. Now I understand that different people have different tastes in fiction, and the reader didn't have any "trouble" with the substance of the story. However, this reader was much more critical of things that I noticed, mostly about the struggles of this character in an alien environment, than I was. The reader of the book felt that the author had just, as they put it, "taken a novel writing course and written a bunch of character notes, to fill in the character, but didn't really fill them in, in depth. What I noticed was that the lead character seemed to have an awfully easy time adjusting to the alien environment in which they found themselves, which did seem somewhat "off" too me, and probably should have been shown more. But the book was reasonably well-written, and enjoyable in its way, so I can say I rather liked it, even if my borrowing friend didn't, and I wish that author well in the future.
There were, however, things about the book that were kind of annoying. They weren't very obvious, if you weren't looking for them, but they were there, and I think this can be a real problem in "independently published" books. In this case, there were paragraphs in the book that looked as if the line heights were somewhat different. Only a little, but they kind of stood out, as if whoever was responsible for printing the book had violated some computer code, or the code got oddly "translated" from one word processing program to another. This sometimes happens to me, when, on occasion, I am sending copies of the second draft of the first book of my Invaders trilogy, to people I trust to tell me how well the story flows. I should note that I need to know this so I know where to tighten, loosen, consolidate,etc, in the next draft, which, I hope, will be good enough to peddle to agents. Naturally, I want the writing as smooth and polished as possible, so the agents will want to read it, and sell it. It's hard enough as it is for a first time, unknown author, to do this.
At this point, I should say that I think that "independent" publishing is probably going to end up being a pretty big chunk of the book business in the not-too-distant future. It may not be for everyone, but because of the nature of the publishing business today, there are authors who may be able to make some money from the "niche" markets they write for, or their work just doesn't fit neatly into some category. My fiction, for example, is set in historical time, but it's not strictly "historical novel". And it's not set in ever-popular Tudor times(I think this time period is way overdone, myself, but that's probably just me). I have a strong, and I hope, interesting female lead character, but Illg is not, shall we say, strictly "human"(at least not "modern" human, though she acts in recognizable and understandable ways). So my book(s) might not "fly" with a lot of agents and publishers. And I've heard similar things from other authors, and not just here in the US, either. So, for many people, "independent" publishing might well be an option. Whether it may be for me, I don't know. We'll see. But in any case, I want whatever I finally get published, to look professional, as if a "real" publishing house did it.
Which brings me to another problem. I read another "self published" book not long ago. The writing and characterization was much more to the taste of the aforementioned, nameless critic, I think, but for various reasons I won't go into here, the author felt that their work was too "niche-y" to be "traditionally" published. So the author published the book on their own. Which was fine -- but. . . .
While the dialogue and paragraphs were recognizable as dialogue and paragraphs, they weren't formatted properly. There were no indents at the beginning of each line, either in the dialogue or in paragraphs describing actions or scenes. It basically looked as though it had been originally published to some web page.
Again, I'll recount my own experiences here. When I first started writing, I "fully justified" my pages, more or less like a legal document. I didn't know, at the time, that when writing fiction or most nonfiction, you are supposed to left-justify your writing, but in the first critique group I joined, someone who had once been a copy editor or the like, rather quickly pointed this out to me. So I changed to left justification. The other thing I did, which this copy editor didn't notice, was that I put "widow and orphan" spaces in the pages. Nobody pointed this out to me, but it began "arranging" paragraphs in a really weird-looking way. It was so weird-looking that I soon abandoned this, and my pages looked much, much more like a "professional" job, even though my writing at the time was hardly "professional". Heck, I'm still learning. But at that time, I was pretty much at the "apprentice" stage. Or worse. And if I'd been stupid enough to try to self-publish that material at the time, and then try to use that as a way to interest an agent, they probably would have thrown me out the door. Professional agents notice these kinds of goofs. And they don't like them. Which is one reason why, still, many people who have self-published, don't get anywhere.
Maybe this is "too picky" on the part of agents, but I know for a fact that agents have to wade through a lot of literary "slop" before they find something they think they can sell. Not only that, but they tend to complain about such things, though usually not from authors who are at that point, trying to self publish.
But there is also something else going on here. And it's my guess that a lot of would-be writers may just not know the "rules" here. I also critique, and have my own work critiqued, on some web sites. The critiquers are good at what they do, most of them not being "professionals" or published, but it kind of seems like they don't understand certain formatting conventions. And in some cases, they may not even care. For example, I've read manuscripts where , when the author starts a new scene, they don't indent the first paragraph. Why? These people aren't writing "arty" stuff that deliberately defies literary convention; they're writing what are supposed to be readable, "popular" stories. Some of these same writers do things like indicate scene changes by a space and asterisks -- in the middle of the page! Again, I've been in other critique groups where the writer tries to justify this by saying they "like" it, but in the case where the author tried to justify this,they were writing something that was supposed to be literary fiction, with an overlay of "mystery". The author deliberately wanted this "artiness". But normally, when you shift a scene, you just leave several blank spaces, if it's in the middle of a page. Only at the end of a page, or the beginning of the next, do you put asterisks if there is a "scene break". That's because, when you turn the page, that's the only way you know there is a scene break! Otherwise, this may confuse the reader. They might start asking themselves, whether this is another scene! And if you send this kind of thing to an agent? It could possibly be a deal-breaker.
I'm not against new ways of doing things, as long as they "do something" for the writing, and the person doing the writing knows what he or she is doing. But these writers don't appear to have a clue about these simple conventions of formatting. For a novel, you don't make your work look like a web page. You don't have lines that are different heights or sentences in formats different from one another(e.g. one paragraph in Times New Roman 12 and another paragraph in Arial italics, unless you're doing something like having the person write a letter or the writer visualizes, say, a poster or a sign at a demonstration or the like. If writing is self-published this way, it's very unlikely that any agent will fulfill their dream of picking it up and being impressed, and successfully peddling it to a publishing house. However, if they pay attention to the normal conventions, and make sure that whatever they published doesn't look like an "amateurish" job, they may well have a chance, especially as markets change, open up, and readers become more aggressive about making their buying choices.