In a bid to further understand the wonderful world of ebooks, I joined a couple of the more popular message boards. I have to say, I was warmly welcomed, but when the opportunity came up to weigh in on the subject of ebook quality – specifically, the notion that much of what is currently self published is sub-standard – I couldn’t help myself, and so I added a couple of cents to that discussion.
“It’s a golden age for self publishing, and I think too much of that shiny golden glare is getting into people’s eyes and causing them to have delusions of competence … I’ve tested myself against the market for years (although I operate largely in the shorter forms – stories and novellas), working with editors to learn, improve, and eventually, master my craft. Sadly, I think too many other self publishers out there don’t test themselves – or if they do and fail, many don’t take the hint.”
On a board full of indie self publishers, this went down like a lead balloon. One reply in particular caused me to really ponder where I was coming from as an author (but more on this later).
When it comes to discussing self publishing ebooks, there are some clear lines – the self publishers believe in themselves and their books (and good on ’em) and the traditional publishers, agents, and editors believe their approach is best (i.e. to act as gatekeepers and dictate what the reading public consume). There are a few unclear lines, too, such as the bewilderment a lot of print-published authors currently feel, and of course, the reading public, who are kind of going with the flow until publishing settles into a new long-term stable model.
In reading through the indie message boards, I gleaned that a lot of the indie authors object to the traditional ‘gatekeeper’ model. Some have tried that route and failed. Others have bypassed the gatekeeper model altogether.
I’ve always viewed those gatekeepers as the people against whom I should test myself. When I write a short story, for example, the first thing I do once it’s ready for publication is to submit it to a paying short story market (magazine or anthology). It’s a tried and true method, and although there are factors such as the editor’s tastes and the parameters of that particular market, the editors of such publications are fairly astute. They’ll reject stories that aren’t up to scratch because they’ve just read hundreds of other stories in the slush pile. They see the best and worst stories – and everything in between.
Taste aside, I believe many editors will acknowledge quality. If your story isn’t right for their publication, they will often say so in a rejection letter. Personalised rejections, often with helpful tips or praise, are one of the best tools a writer can possess. Even better, if your story is bought by the editor, you then benefit from the process of working with that editor to prepare the story for publication. The editing process exposes writers to the back end of publications – you see galleys and you’re part of the process. It’s a learning process, a building process, and it strengthens you as a writer.
Or as one commenter on the forum put it:
“Sometimes I think about the amazing opportunity this whole self-publishing gives us. There are no agents, no acquisition editors, no story editors, line editors, proof readers. There is no one to tell us that this book is flawed. There are no censors to tell us that you can’t publish that. Or worse, to politely decline our work without telling us why. It’s liberating, but it also should give us pause.”
Now, back to my original point. The response to my forum comment that started me thinking was this:
“This is a golden age for writers and readers and world culture as a whole. Forget worrying about quality or spending a minute writing about it; the self-sorting nature of the web pulls the good to the top much more efficiently than paper publishing ever could.”
I’ve tested myself for years against the gatekeepers. I embraced the process and learned more than I ever could on my own. I think what many traditionally published authors find unsettling and bewildering is that they’ve spent years testing themselves against the gatekeepers, and they’ve spent years building their careers as published authors. They clawed their way to the top of the slushpile, only for that slushpile to be effectively reset to zero.
Now, traditionally published authors are competing with indie self publishers, some of whom have tested themselves and failed against the gatekeepers, and some of whom bypassed the gatekeepers altogether, not testing themselves at all. [Note: I’m leaving out of this equation self publishers who come from a traditionally published background – i.e. those authors self publishing their backlist]
These print authors have the advantage of an established reputation, but as the current ebook boom has proved, you don’t need a reputation to sell very well (or in some cases, extremely well).
They presumably have the advantage of quality (and by that I mean flawless or near-flawless execution of punctuation, grammar, spelling, flow of ideas, paragraphing, weaving of plots and sub-plots – the ‘technical’ component of writing a story – as opposed to simply spewing words forth and going with your gut on what’s right and what’s not), but it’s been my observation that the majority of the reading (as well as the writing) public don’t really care about the nuances of grammar and punctuation if there’s a good story on offer.
I’m not arrogant enough to say quality doesn’t matter, but I am asserting that story is more important these days (otherwise, how would Stephanie Meyer be the bestseller she is?), and a never-previously-published indie self publisher is just as capable of writing a good story as an established print novelist.
So with no gatekeepers to test their quality, and the technical quality of writing itself becoming less of an issue with readers (as evidenced by the prevalence of poor quality writing in some bestselling books), how then do indie authors test themselves? As my correspondent on the message board pointed out: “the self-sorting nature of the web pulls the good to the top.”
I read that statement to mean “good quality books will sell well and poor quality books will not”. I guess this is the new form of testing one’s self as a writer. Put your book out there, and if word of mouth results in lots of people buying your book, then write another! I guess this would eventually weed out the self publishers who were soundly rejected by the traditional gatekeepers for being, basically, crap. Sales cannot be an iron-clad guarantee of quality, but at the end of the day, does it matter?
This is the paradigm shift I’m struggling with. To me, the delivery system of stories (ebooks, print books, audio books, etc.) does not matter. It is
quality sales that counts. Yeah, I’m really going to struggle to come to terms with this one as I was raised with the concept that quality is paramount. Sales as the new indicator of quality feels too simplistic to me, but I’m scratching my head trying to come up with something better.
Part of me feels like I’ve wasted my time all of these years trying to hone my craft when I suspect ‘good enough’ will become the new ‘good” (in terms of the craft of storytelling, not story). Another part of me thinks I’m just being ridiculous (I’m struggling with a paradigm shift, remember?).
Regardless, I’m looking forward to testing myself as an author through sales, but it’s a big scary world out there, so wish me luck, okay? 🙂[Edit: It occured to me that award nominations are a form of quality control, but from first hand experience, I know awards are very much a couple of years behind the ebook revolution, but I’m interested to see how awards adapt to ebooks in the coming years, and what affect, if any, awards will have on ebook sales. Presumably, they may help with word of mouth but I’m not convinced.]
The Smoke Dragon is available for FREE in all ebook formats from Smashwords.
The Grand Conversation on ebooks will run here at www.jiraiya.com.au until February 28. If you’d like to contribute a guest blog post, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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