This has been an eventful week, with Hugh Howie’s groundbreaking analysis of book sales on Amazon creating a hell of a stir.
One of the things that struck me, and probably many others, about his report and its conclusions, is that self-pubbed titles tend to average higher review ratings than trad-pubbed books. I was discussing this with someone yesterday, going back and forth at possible explanations, which included that self-pubbed authors tend to work the review mines harder than their trad pubbed peers, or have more support from other indie authors reviewing, or get higher ratings due to the generally lower price of the work (greater satisfaction due to a price/performance expectation).
Which led into a lively chat about the ocean of sewage out there: the plethora of bad books self-pubbed (never mind the sea of lousy trad pubbed books).
I’ve developed a more tolerant perspective about this over the last year. I used to take it as a personal affront when I saw bad indie book after bad indie book. Now, I don’t really care. Because I’m convinced of two things: that bad books will sink to the bottom fairly quickly and thus don’t really pose much of a nuisance to me, and that the only ones who are ultimately hurt by bad books are the authors putting them out.
I know that readers are also hurt, but there are mechanisms for redress, the foremost being the return. Sure, you’ll never get your time back, but you will get your money back. And frankly, if you couldn’t tell the book was going to suck after the Look Inside, much less several chapters, hey, takes two to tango.
That, and quality varies depending upon who you’re talking to. An acquisitions editor is going to have a whole different perspective than someone looking to kill time on a flight from San Diego to Maine. Readers who delighted in 50 Shades obviously have a different definition of meritorious than a literature professor. The point being that just because you think something is ill-crafted dross, doesn’t mean that the person beside you on the bus won’t think it a hoot. And you’re both right. For your taste and situation, and most importantly, for how you spend our money.
Ultimately, readers determine what’s adequate and what isn’t.
That’s fine by me. So far my little stories seem to entertain more than they offend, and since they keep selling, I’m going to go with they must be filling a niche. Fifty bad self-pubbed thrillers don’t make mine any worse, and in some ways, the bad ones make them better by comparison. So I say, you want to publish poorly edited stuff with a homemade cover and a horrible blurb? Go ahead. Think having a friend or one of your parents skimming it instead of a professional team polishing it is adequate? Nice. It’s your movie. Let me know how it turns out.
There have been posts recently that argue for higher standards for self-published work, but they’re generally filled with impractical suggestions/solutions. Not that I wouldn’t love to see more high-quality self-pubbed books. I’m just not sure it’s practical to do collective gatekeeping or any of the rest of it that’s proposed time and time again.
Most of these polemics argue that all self-publishers are harmed by the crap, and that we’re viewed pejoratively as a group due to the low quality of so many self-pubbed books. I don’t think that’s true. Or rather, I think it’s an incomplete position. For every person who insists upon judging all self-pubbed books as dung because of bad experiences, Howie’s data makes a compelling argument that there’s another who is delighted with the offerings, either because of lower price, or perceived originality, or any of a host of possible reasons. The point is, the market is self-adjusting and dynamic, and plenty of self-pubbed offerings are hitting the lists, indicating that those who paint all self-pubbed books as garbage aren’t hurting many self-pubbed authors’ chances.
In business, over time, the shoddily-run enterprises generally fail. I find that reassuring. Not that all businesses that succeed produce fine work. Quite the opposite – many produce barely adequate stuff I’d never consume (think most fast food). But the marketplace determines what will succeed, not some self-policing league of better restaurants, or an effete group of epicurean gatekeepers. If McD’s is what millions want to eat, it doesn’t matter whether I think it’s brilliant or rubbish – it only matters what those millions of consumers think. I’m free to avoid it, and if someone wants to open a higher quality restaurant across the street, hey, I wish them well, and might patronize their place.
Does it bug me to see a tsunami of crap, as Konrath likes to call it? At an intellectual level, sure, a little. And from a competitive standpoint it annoys me due to the additional background noise it creates, making it harder for my work to be discovered. But overall, I can compensate for that by writing material I deem the sort I’d read myself and by being innovative in my marketing approach.
And as a reader I can filter out most of it by reading the Look Inside and glancing at the packaging and reviews. So I’m not harmed, except in a general sense of being offended by bad/sloppy writing and storytelling.
My belief is not that cream rises to the top. I mean, it’s super-duper when it does. But it doesn’t necessarily rise. Just as not all stinkers sink to the bottom. Still, my belief is that over time, quality will matter, and that those who will have long, noteworthy careers selling books will produce work that not only finds an audience, but satisfies it. Readers are the weighing mechanism. I’m fine with them being their own gatekeepers. I see nothing wrong with that.
Trad publishers put out more than their share of excrement too, which readers also get to embrace or reject. In the end, to readers, I’m pretty sure that books are books, regardless of who publishes them, and carefully crafted, interesting work that’s professionally edited and packaged will do better than amateur night garbage.
One could say that’s a fundamental tenet of my business plan. To produce high-quality genre fiction at a rapid clip that withstands the test of time, leaving readers, old and new, satisfied.
If the next guy wants to take shortcuts and screw the reader with what I perceive as inferior product, it’s his career that will ultimately nosedive, not mine. There’s some natural selection going on there. I’m okay with natural selection. I celebrate it. I prefer a meritocracy to a curated market where I might not be able to get my products seen because I don’t fit someone’s idea of what’s commercial this year. From a purely selfish standpoint, I’d rather compete on an even playing field, where my determination, work ethic and commitment to quality are advantages. Let my competitors decide that quality doesn’t matter. I say good for them. Let’s see what the market says about it over time.
I tend to be judgmental when offering counsel to authors. I obviously believe that my approach, of striving to produce the best work possible and holding the reader in high esteem, is the right way to go. But there are plenty who disagree with my counsel, and every day thousands of new books hit the virtual shelves, the overwhelming majority of which will never go anywhere. When I offer advice, it’s on how to improve one’s odds for having a prosperous publishing career. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way to go about it. Just that it’s the best way I’ve found.
I prefer a marketplace where you’re able to put your product out as you see fit and the reader is the ultimate arbiter of quality. If gatekeeping really has added value, then I’m quite sure that readers will determine what additional value it has, and will reward the curated offerings with higher sales and prices. I have no problem with that. Often times I’ll pay more for something because an expert has determined it’s great. I don’t have time to be an expert in all things, so I am willing to part with the premium. But many aren’t willing to, and that’s fine to. It’s their money. Let them decide how they want to spend it.
To summarize, if you want to put out unedited pap that makes Nancy Drew read like Tolstoy, it’s your prerogative. I’m not going to read it, but it’s your career, not mine. I’m in no way challenged by you doing so, nor am I diminished.
I’m okay letting the market figure out what’s adequate. I’m not nearly smart enough to do so, and I would have probably laughed many of the last decade’s bestsellers out of the room, if asked. I would have been wrong in every case. So all I can really do is determine what I like, and what I don’t, and act accordingly. I can’t decide for all, or even most, readers. Nobody can.
Except the readers.
What a great time to be an author.