Saturday, 18 February 2012

Why we still need the gatekeepers

With all the discussions flying around about self-publishing, the evil of Amazon and the future of the industry, I feel the need to stick my head above the precipice and shout “what about us?” You know, the readers, the people that buy these books.

In theory self-publishing is a good thing, letting authors get their work out into the open and read, but you only need to look around a handful of book blogs to see that bloggers aren't accepting them for review, either through bad experience or the sheer number of requests we receive for them. I think, in all likelihood it's a little bit of both. If I only had a few requests a year, I'd be more inclined to say yes. Instead, I expect a personalised pitch and a sample for me to judge their style by and still I feel like these books are a chore to review. Which is sad because I genuinely love reading and reviewing. Maybe if I read more self-published work, I'd find one I loved but I'm not prepared to wade through the slush pile to get there.

Because that's what publishers do. The team behind your books read them, like them, edit them and market them to (mostly) the correct audience. You start to trust in imprints that publish books you've enjoyed. You're not going to like everything, but there's a good chance you're not going to be put off reading for life.

The general reading masses do not care that Amazon are “taking over” and mostly they like the company for selling everything including the kitchen sink for low prices and free delivery. They do care if all their bargain ebooks turn out to be boring or badly constructed. You can only gauge so much by Amazon reviews, I have witnessed “advice” for authors to get their friends to leave positive reviews and discourage negative ones. Due to the abuse of the unhelpful vote, genuine reviewers may be less inclined to leave a negative review and just not leave one at all. Lets face it, most users of Amazon don't even consider reviewing books.

I wonder, if after the initial excitement of new toys wears off, readers will stop buying so many ebooks just because they're 99p. We all do it, but in my case, it's mostly traditionally published books that have been reduced to increase sales. 95% of the time you can spot a self-published book a mile off as cover designers don't seem to be high on the list of things to acquire before publishing. I love a good cover design, and a bad one makes me wonder how much thought the author put into the whole process. Has it been edited by a professional or just their friends? Or, worse, not at all? Has it even been proofread (spell-checkers are no substitute)? Have they researched the places, customs and events that occur within the story?

Publishers are so often portrayed as the snobbish gatekeepers that keep the talented authors out of book heaven. That's just not fair and I'm not just saying that because they send me books. I'm sure they would be kicking themselves if they overlooked a gifted author and they went on to be a huge self-publishing success.

There are plenty of new digital publishers starting up, doing the same important things but more likely to pick up your novel...if it's good. Because whilst maybe everyone has a book inside them, not everyone has the skill to write one that others will enjoy.

19 comments:

  1. 'Maybe everyone has a book inside them, not everyone has the skill to write one that others will enjoy' - brilliantly said.

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  2. I totally agree with you Ellie. I too stopped accepting self-published books, but only if they are in ebook form. If the author has taken the effort to actually print his or her book, I kind of expect the quality to be sufficient. At least I hope that the spelling errors will have been taken out.

    I have read some self-published books that were truly, truly awful. I am someone that keeps on reading, no matter what. But some of them I had to quit after just 10 pages, because the grammar was so bad. Even though this was just one case, it really put me off.

    I guess a difference has to be made between authors that self-publish because they can't get a contract, and authors that make it as a concious decision. There probably are amazing self-published stories out there, with proper covers and professionally edited, but I'm just not going to wade through all the crap to get there.

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    1. I used to loathe self-published books on principle because I thought it was all crappy, but after being in the book industry for longer than I care to admit, I have to say that there's just as much bad stuff being published than there is good stuff. If publishers stopped paying top dollar for crap (another reality TV star's ghostwritten memoir, for example), and really reduced the amount of crap that the publish, it might actually leave room for those really good self-published books to find a real publisher.

      One thing self-published authors will have to do more of before they can be taken seriously by serious readers is to pay for good editing and design. There are tons of freelance editors and designers out there in every town and city and there's no reason for self-pubbed authors not to invest that much time in writing a book and not invest the money to bring their work some dignity.

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    2. Entirely agree about the editing - 99% of the time this is the reason I put an indie book down, and it's a shame because it is something that can so easily be fixed. I hate to think how many great stories have passed me by because the author has chosen to self-edit, or skip the process altogether.

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  3. when I started posting on books I was of the opinion that to get to the place, where I was offered books to be reviewed as reaching Valhalla, but have since learnt that for every good one you get there's those that you wouldn't use to mop up with, I'm now in a position, where I get unsolicited requests & have to turn them down, partly time, partly interest (or lack off). I thought this would be an envious position to be in, I was wrong, although you do get good stuff as well, just normally from established sources.

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  4. I agree with you, the few self-published books I have read have been honestly not very good. And I don't trust amazon reviews either - I have seen some dodgy books being given higher ratings than Jane Austen novels!

    As a blogger, I also dislike reviewing self-published books because of the interaction with the author. I reviewed a book through netgalley once (so not self-published) and gave it a negative, but fair and non-personal review and the author emailed me to list all the reasons why I was wrong. I didn't like that...

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  5. Amazon reviews make me shake my head. Especially when it's a review from someone who has never read it, but bought it as a gift for someone else, for example.

    Yes, self publishing makes it easy to get your work out there for consumption but that doesn't mean that everyone should. Personally I'd rather risk rejection from the publishing houses.

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  6. Great post! I totally agree. I have read some amazing self-published books but they are few and far between. I've gotten much pickier about the books I accept for review because of the lack of editing especially. I'll choose a traditionally published book in a heartbeat!

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  7. As a writer and a reader, I celebrate the whole Indie movement. I have read Indie books that surpass many of those published by the Big Six. Granted, there are a whole slew on Amazon that I consider vanity published, terribly written, and devoid of editing and proper grammar. But for those writers who are actually treating their writing as a business--their work is just as good as the traditionally published ones. I feel lucky to have found such authors who normally would not be chosen by the Big Six because they lack the skill of writing a stellar query letter.

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    1. There are more than 6 publishers in the world. I am writing from a British perspective and we have plenty of fabulous smaller publishers. I'm not saying all self published work is bad, it's just so hard to find the good without any real curators.

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  8. I'm wondering about the future of the book these days. I can see the argument in favor of self-publishing in ebook format. I also see the value of gate-keepers as you call them.

    I don't take ARCs at all anymore. The offers for real books have basically dried up, and I don't do ebooks. When I did, I found the self-published stuff to be very iffy. While I didn't enjoy every professionally published ARC I got, I did find a consistent level of professional quality in them that I did not find in self-published work. That said, a few of the self-published ARCs ended up on my favorite reads of the year lists.

    But as books become more and more digital, why do authors need publishers at all? What value do they add that can't be found elsewhere? If I can hire an editor, hire a 'cover' designer, and then keep the rest of the proceeds without giving a publisher a cut, why would I bother looking for a publisher at all?

    I'd be very worried if I made my living publishing books.

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    1. Nicola May is a self published author I have read and follow on twitter and she is finding it a lot of hard work doing all the marketing and distribution herself. She also self publishes paper books so does bookshop signings and things. She would love a publisher to organise this for her so she has more time to write - I don't think publishers are dead in the water yet.

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  9. Here's a solution: if you're worried about encountering bad self-published books, how about treating them like you would a traditionally published book from an author you've never heard of? In other words, ignore their existence unless a friend or trusted blogger recommends them, then pick up a sample and decide whether to read on. Simple!

    The existence of self-published books does not in any way stop you from reading traditionally published books. Publishing will grind on whatever self-publishers do and you and I will enjoy the output of publishing houses for many years to come. There's no obligation to "wade through" anything. Some people will read self-published books, and some won't. That fact hurts neither group.

    As for the idea that it's so much hard work to do all the marketing and distribution as a self-publisher - there's few things simpler than uploading an ebook. Promotion is entirely optional. From my experience (having sold thousands of ebooks and gained my own small following of readers), it's far better to work on getting the next book out (and, of course, ensuring that it's of the highest possible standard) than it is to do all the twittering - let alone bookshop signing, which traditionally published authors frequently claim is a waste of time.

    There's room in the reading world for all sorts of books. Best of luck finding the ones you want to read!

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    1. If someone I trust recommends a self-published book, I may read it if it sounds like something I might enjoy. I didn't say I never read them. And if we all took your advice no one would ever read new books because someone always has to be the first to read an unknown work. In traditional publishing, this role would be the agent and then the editor and then the publicist. Not everyone is going to trust these people either and that's the individual's choice. The above is only my personal opinion as is everything I write on this blog.

      The fact that you say publishing is as simple as just uploading an ebook is exactly why many bloggers avoid them. I expect EVERY book I read to have gone through the editing process, whether it's done by a progessional freelancer or through a traditional publisher. Again that's just my opinion and maybe others don't care, but from the comments above from readers, I think they do.

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    2. I said that uploading an ebook is simple. Creating a good book is very difficult. Editing is part of that process.

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  10. Great post!

    Whilst I do agree with you, I personally don't think self-published authors should be written off entirely. If a self-published author has taken the time to have their work edited and proofread, and put in the time and effort to publicise their work whether they do it themselves or find a publicist willing to help them, then chances are the book has had love, time and care put into it. Even better if they've taken the time to give it a decent cover, though that's not *always* important.

    I won't accept a book unless I can read other people's reviews (and if they're ALL 5 stars then major alarm bells ring) and/or an excerpt. That's the only way you can tell the good from the bad.

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  11. Really interesting piece Ellie. I agree on a number of things (and I don't take any self published novels as a rule, been bitten too many times, so I was once upon a time open to the idea of them) that you have said. I do have an issue with amazon and these daily deals and 99p offers for Kindles, but maybe I shouldnt start venting on that one ;)

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  12. About four or five years ago, I queried a New York agent about a novel and sent her the first five pages. She responded that she loved it but she wanted me to make some minor changes - I did. She sent the manuscript around to major publishers - HarperCollins, etc. They wrote back to say they liked it but they felt it was too literary for their list, a few said it was "too quiet." So she sent it to some of the smaller literary publishers but they weren't interested because they said the market was really tough.

    The agent and I parted company. Friends who'd read it and liked it asked why I didn't self-publish. I told them I thought that was cheating and the manuscript languished in a cupboard. Then I started reading about more and more authors who were self publishing - J. A. Konrath, Stephen King, other writers - all with their own reasons.

    I'll be self-publishing that novel in June because I believe in that book and in the story. I've gotten a professional designer and I've hired an editor. A few kind bloggers have agreed to give reviews and I'm going to see how it goes. I understand completely what you're saying about the lack of editing for some of these books and the poor covers but there are a lot of authors out there for whom epublishing is a chance to put out books that publishing houses just won't support.

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  13. Could not agree with you more - I wrote a very similar article just before Christmas and came to man of the same conclusions. As a book blogger, I definitely consider indie books, but quality is so enormously variable that, as you say, it becomes more of a hassle than anything.

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