I’ll be the first to admit there can be quite a few problems with independent publishing, but the persistence of the refrain “solve the problems of indie publishing by making it more like traditional publishing!” is becoming ridiculous.
This is in response to “Curation, Please!”, a column by James Patrick Kelly in the March 2015 edition of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Kelly goes through the five things he knows about self-publishing*, and I agree with him, and talks about editors and gatekeepers as “curators”.
“In an ideal world, where we were all immortal and lived in a post-scarcity utopia, there would be time enough for us to sample all new stories personally. But until that happy day arrives, we have to rely on curators to read and make recommendations for us.”
There is no “indie curator” that Kelly trusts, and he doesn’t trust on-site reviews because of the possibility of buying reviews. Leaving aside the fact that trust is a very subjective thing, and it’s pretty easy to distinguish a paid-for review from an honest one once you’ve read a few, we don’t have to rely on curators at all. Assuming there’s a decent number of reviews (on Amazon), just look at the top-ranked positive review and the top-ranked negative review, and that should give you a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the book.
More useful than that is the automatic recommendations Amazon generates, which suggests books based on the purchases of other people who have bought the book you’re looking at: These are books they’ve forked out money for, so you know the recommendations haven’t been “bought”. This isn’t perfect, of course, since people have a wide variety of tastes that don’t always go together, and it’s theoretically possible that a lot of them bought the recommended book because it was on the “also bought” list, but they didn’t actually like it. However, if you see two books on this list by the same author, that’s a pretty good sign that those who bought the first book liked it enough to buy the second.
“So here’s my modest proposal for self-publishing: we need some curation…maybe the indie writer community could steer some of its promotional savvy toward creating its own curation infrastructure.”
Apparently Kelly has missed the point that any curator established by the “indie writer community” would probably be considered biased by himself, and therefore not trusted. Let’s consider how this curator would get paid – obviously a writer paying the curator to review their work is a pretty dubious affair. Perhaps all the independent writers could pay a certain amount to fund the salary of the curator, except they’re probably going to get annoyed at the time it takes the curator to get around to reviewing their own work, and therefore resent the fee. Maybe the curator could create a magazine that people subscribed to, that included reviews of independent books and authors, and perhaps some short stories that the curator feels are worth reading. They’d have to pay the author for the stories, of course. What a fantastic business model, I wonder why no-one has thought of that?
Hopefully this demonstrates that the whole idea of a curator of independent publishing defeats the purpose, because once that happens the publishing isn’t independent, but rather based on the tastes of the curator, ie: Traditional publishing.
On this whole topic I have only a couple more points to make. First, a comment on Kelly’s “post-scarcity utopia”. Time is only one lack that people have, the other is money. Indie books are rarely above $5 each, there’s often discounts and promotions, series collected into one low purchase price and so on. If an indie author has written a series the first book is usually free or 99c, a very cheap way to try the author out. The authors still make money because their royalty rate is so much higher. In traditional publishing the cheapest book is $10, most are even higher, and new books spend an inordinate amount of time in hardcover at $25-30. In this very issue of Asimov’s there was a book review that I found interesting, but it was hardcover for $25 so I know it’s going to be a long time before that’s cheap enough that I’m willing to buy it…and by that stage I will have forgotten all about the review. Publishing online removes this problem, which I’ll talk about below.
The final point I want to make is the most obvious one, in that it all comes down to personal taste. It’s very rare that I’ll read a magazine and like every story published in it, because the curator and I have different tastes. The best I can hope for are a couple of stories I think are awesome and a few that I think are reasonably good, and that there aren’t too many I thought were a complete waste of time. So it’s not that much different from checking out different indie authors. One of the problems with editors is that they have to appeal to their entire readerships, so they’re looking for stories that will appeal to the majority of their tens-or-hundreds of thousands of readers. It’s inevitable a certain amount of homogenisation will creep into the selection. This might be what Kelly wants – I had a recent conversation about Terry Pratchett** that clearly demonstrated that quite a lot of people do seek this – clear knowledge of what to expect from a story.
Myself, I like having my expectations challenged. I like reading things I find strange or surreal, things that have knew thoughts or show me different ways of thinking. Now, it’s true that a lot of this stuff is mediocre at best, but after dropping 99c on a new author I’m not really that concerned. When I was a kid looking for books I’d walk into something like Dymocks or Barnes and Noble, and I left dissatisfied more often than not. Either I could find nothing I wanted to read – or at least, nothing I wanted to drop $15 on for a test – or there were many books I wanted to read and I could only afford to buy one or two. Sometimes there was a book from a new author that looked interesting, and if it was in paperback and there was nothing else I wanted I’d buy it. More often this book was published at the same time as a few other books I was interested in reading, books that I knew I would like, so I’d buy those books instead. The next time I went to the bookstore and there was nothing to interest me there’s a good chance that new interesting book would have completely slipped my mind, and if I did remember it there was a good chance it was no longer in stock because the bookstore hadn’t sold enough copies to keep it on the shelves.
Now everything is digital, and a lot easier. Books are always on the shelves, and there’s often new authors I can try out for a dollar rather than fifteen dollars. If I don’t want to buy the untested book at that time, it goes on the wish list and is not forgotten. Or I can try 101 authors for free, such as the example below.
So the main point of this post is: Considering the ability to buy from home and have the books instantly delivered, the wide range of ways to get an idea about a book before you read it, and the incredibly low prices, the barriers are lower than ever for you to find stories that you like yourself rather than passing off that selection to a third party. So why not have a go?
* The five things James Patrick Kelly knows about self-publishing:
1) “Indie authors” can be confused with Indie Publishing or Small Press, which are publishers with less than $50 million per year according to Wikipedia.
2) More control is in the hands of authors.
3) Responsibility for the quality of the work rests entirely on the author.
4) Promotional acumen is the survival skill for all writers.
5) Vanishingly few writers of any persuasion, indie or traditional, earn a living wage. He also notes that because of indie publishing the definition of “professional” needs to change, for things like SFWA.
** Someone was going to try the Discworld series for the first time, and asked where to start. I suggested at the beginning, not just because Julie Andrews suggested it, but because I think that’s where Pratchett’s best books are most highly concentrated. Others suggested starting towards the end of his oeuvre, because he had developed as a writer and worked out his style. I found that his later books became predictable and repetitive, both the plot and the jokes, and weren’t as exciting and original as his first books (still really good though, for sure). Basically, I picked up The Colour of Magic because of the Josh Kirby cover and was blown away by fast-paced original writing that was really unlike anything I’d read before. Others want a more formulaic approach, they want to know what they’re getting when they buy a book. That’s perfectly fine, and they’re going to get a lot more out of curators than I do.