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The New Gatekeepers of Publishing Quality

19 Sep 2014

by Simon Denman


Kilted soldier guarding the main gate to Edinburgh Castle
Guarding the main gate at Edinburgh Castle, by Mike Pennington
Once upon a time, the lush and fertile gardens of literary success were encircled by a high and impregnable wall. The only way in was through a few narrow, closely guarded gates. Of the thousands scrambling for entry outside, only a tiny fraction would ever make it as far as the gatekeepers. Of those that did, a still tinier fraction would be granted entry.

But those in the gardens were content, for the gatekeepers, while able to assess only a fraction of the potential entrants, were at least able to maintain certain standards of quality, and the limited supply ensured that the spoils remained high enough for many inside to receive a cut.

Then one day, a mighty, fire-breathing dragon from Seattle flew clean over the wall, landing in the gardens and striking terror into the hearts of all. Feasting on the easy pickings within, the dragon grew larger and hungrier until its appetite outgrew the limited supply making it through the gates. Finally, with one thunderous fiery roar, the wall was incinerated, and with it, centuries of publishing tradition. Without the wall, thousands of new entrants flooded into the gardens un-vetted by the gatekeepers, and chaos ensued.

And this is probably where the mixed metaphor (along with the wall) breaks down. So where does that leave the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry?

There had always existed a vanity press where, for sufficient personal investment, anyone could see their literary creation in print and celebrate the somewhat pyrrhic victory of calling themselves a published author. And for years the new flood of self-published books and authors were seen in the same light - as somehow inferior and not really to be taken seriously. But as a growing number of independent authors find both commercial success as well as critical acclaim, this perception is gradually starting to change. Add to this the small but increasing number of successful authors who have turned down traditional publishing contracts in favour of independence, and it seems likely that the effects of this change will be both far-reaching and irreversible.

But what about quality?
Now that so few of the books available online have been processed by the machinery of the traditional publishing industry, how can we know which ones meet the standards of writing, editing, design and printing that we have come to expect?

To ignore the millions of new books now available purely on the basis of their being independently published would be to throw out the baby with the bathwater, since many are of a quality equal to, or greater than, that produced by the big publishers. But it is also true that a great many, perhaps even the majority, are extremely poor, apparently not even having benefited from a basic spell-checker, let alone professional editing and proof-reading. The answer of course, at least for online book selection, is that we, the readers, must now be the ones who determine whether or not a book is worth buying. But how can we be expected to do that?

Amazon's “Look Inside” feature can be used to check basic writing and editing quality, but given the huge pool from which we now have to choose, it can only really be used as a final check before purchase, not as a pre-selection filter. A better guide is perhaps the number and average rating of customer reviews, although unless the number is large, these can often prove misleading.

What's needed are better tools to help readers narrow down the initial huge pool of books available to a smaller subset which more closely matches their preferences. The problem is that not even Amazon has sufficient information about the books it sells to be able to do that in a sufficiently granular way.

Seals of Approval
In an attempt to resolve the quality issue, various seals of approval have been proposed over the last few years. Some book sites such as Awesome Indies have created their own, while not-for-profit organisations such as IndieBrag and have proposed more independent alternatives. Of these, IndieBrag might seem a promising solution. However, some authors have reported that the process can take up to six months and in fact the site now carries a notice explaining that no further unsolicited submissions can be accepted. To me this rather suggests that while their goals may be laudable, their resources are not, and so unless that changes, it seems unlikely to be able to address the growing challenge of filtering the huge number of books now entering the market.

Just recently, it has been rumoured that the Alliance of Independent Authors may soon be setting up a voluntary code, with some kind of quality assurance seal that authors can use to claim alignment with certain predefined standards and perhaps even a code of ethics. Although the success of such a seal will depend heavily on the details of implementation and enforcement, the self-assessment approach is interesting as it removes the resource barrier that seems to hamper other solutions.

If such a seal were to become widely accepted, then book promotion sites such as this one, Readers in the Know, would be able to add its checkbox to the many other available selection criteria, resulting in yet more ways for readers to narrow down their search.

Whether this and other solutions become adopted or not, one thing seems certain. The new gatekeepers are now the readers, and only when some kind of merit-based solution to the huge problem of book discoverability is found, will peace be restored in the gardens of literary success.


Bohdan O. Szuprowicz commented at 02:09 19 Sep 2014:

"Jolly good how Old Chap
Indeed the readers are now in the saddle but the traditionals are still struggling to demean them and this will last for a while.

We are using a number of critique sessions to look at the writings of new authors in particular. Unfortunately most of it is rather boring although it may be extremely well written otherwise.

I think it is time to follow the basics and stick to what TV and media are excited about to get some attention namely: Politics, Religion, Sex and Scandals(Celebrity not Royal in USA)"

Simon Denman commented at 02:09 19 Sep 2014:

"I think you're right, Bohdan, insofar as the mass market for books will continue to echo mass market media such as TV, but unlike TV, where budgets largely prohibit the release of material without mass-market appeal, books will hopefully always be able to fill this gap."

Steven Paul Leiva commented at 09:09 19 Sep 2014:

"By way of comment:"

Simon Denman commented at 12:10 12 Oct 2014:

"Thanks Julia,
My comment about resources actually related to specific feedback on IndieBrag not although I admit that wasn't very clear in the post.
I would actually love to know more about your organisation as would our authors too I'm sure.
I'll contact you via email (thanks for registering)."

Stuart Aken commented at 12:11 13 Nov 2014:

"A good post, and a great refutation of the fashionable 'indie-bashing' brigade. I've posted links on Twitter, FB and LinkedIn."

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