The Grand Conversation on ebooks: Nathan Lowell (repost)

There has been plenty of feedback on my post the other day about testing yourself as an author. One of the comments was from indie podcaster and author Nathan Lowell. Nathan’s comment was quite detailed, and in it, he had a couple of interesting points of view. I wrote to him to ask whether I could repost his comment and include it – front and centre – in the Grand Conversation. He was happy to oblige.

Before reading Nathan’s thoughts, please read my post again to understand the context.

Here’s what Nathan said:

There’s an interesting duality of thread here, I think.

First, the gatekeeper function of “quality” has always been a code word for “sales.” Publishers value authors who *sell* and the “quality” of the work is now and always has been secondary. The characteristics they name as quality grow directly out of their experiences in the marketplace.

Many of the comments here and elsewhere about the dreadful work that appears in self-pub point out the things that keep books from selling in any format, in any publishing model. I think what we’re seeing today represents nothing more than confirmation of Sturgeon’s Law – 90% of everything is crap. With the barriers to entry lowered, there’s just a lot more of it readily available.

Second, the supremacy of story over execution points to a major flaw in the gate-keeper mentality and in a marketplace where entry is controlled by so few points of entry. The kinds of stories that get through tend to be the kinds of stories that got through in the past. The search for the next break-out novel founders on the very agent/publisher system that seems designed to prevent anybody who is not writing in the current hot market from being discovered. Publishers “know” what sells. They train agents to forward those things that fit that pattern. Those that fit the pattern get passed on, pushed out to consumers, and get sold because that’s all consumers can buy. The cycle repeats.

Once in a while, something strange happens and you get a Stephanie Meyer or a Steig Larsen or a J. K. Rowling. I maintain they hurt the system rather than help it by focusing attention on finding more stories like that rather than causing the field to examine why these anomalies happened.

From my perspective, and it’s a limited one, to be sure, the real driver here is not the technology that allows untested authors to enter the marketplace. The true driver is the pent up demand for new and different stories – stories that are “not commercial enough” to get past an agent, stories that don’t fit neatly into established marketing genres, stories that aren’t like the rest of the market.

There’s one last point that needs making. There’s a corollary to Sturgeon’s Law that the virtual marketplace underscores. While 90% of everything is crap, one person’s crap is another person’s treasure.

When shelf space limits selection, only those titles predicted to satisfy the largest audiences can be produced. In the virtual market, there are no shelves, nor are there inventory costs. In the ebook virtual market, there aren’t even significant distribution costs. What matters is whether or not there’s a market for a particular story and the controlling factor in this virtual marketplace is not some arbitrary imprimatur of “quality”, but rather, the crushing weight of obscurity.

I believe that what we’re seeing at the moment represents a fundamental shift in the way we test quality. We’re no longer testing against an indirect standard imposed at the production level, but rather testing directly against the consumer. Those works that find a place may fail to find critical acclaim but will satisfy the basic criteria of quality that publishers have always held most dear: they’ll sell a lot of books.

Nathan Lowell writes science fiction and fantasy. He gives his books away in podcast form on and through the iTunes Music Store. Since 2007, his work has been downloaded over 2.5 million times, and he is blessed with 15,000 fans worldwide. His first book went to text publication in May, 2010.

Nathan’s books include The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series. You can grab his latest Solar Clipper book here.

The Grand Conversation on ebooks will run here at until February 28. If you’d like to contribute a guest blog post, email me at