Learning to Swim in the Self-Published Fiction Lake

A while ago I did a guest post on another blog about my experiences with self-publishing. Now, not much older and only a bit wiser, I thought I had a few more things to say about it. There are so many issues raised by the explosion of self-publishing that in this post I’m going to concentrate on only one issue: the problem of finding a self-published book you might want to read from the mass of books available.

The first point to make, in case anyone is living in lala land, is that self-publishing will not go away. Sorry traditional publishers, but it is a phenomenon which is contemporary not temporary.

Secondly, self-publishing is a bit of a mess. It’s no-one’s fault but there it is. It’s a car crash. Why? Well can you think of any example in the planet’s history when people were given a space to fill as they pleased and it all worked out great? I’m sure the analogy of Pandora’s Box has been used before and whilst I don’t think it’s necessarily that apt, it does get you in the right general area. I noticed a comment recently that self-publishing has brought happiness for authors. I understand the basic point being made but if happiness for an author is that someone is reading your book then I’m not so sure that self-publishing currently brings you that.

When I first came across Amazon Kindle Publishing I was astonished. What, so you mean you just load up your book manuscript and it puts it on the web for sale? Wow! It can’t be that easy, can it? Why did I bother sending it to agents for a year or so? Sign me up at once!

What can I say? I was a novice – I still am a novice, an innocent virgin in the world of publishing. Of course I realised from the start that the open access nature of Amazon – and other such routes – meant that there would be some rubbish out there for sale. But it didn’t matter because my book wasn’t rubbish – obviously. What I had not fully grasped was the scale of the whole thing, the sheer number of books against which I would be competing for visibility. Bloody hell! And, as each hour goes by, it gets worse as more and more writers launch their books and their hopes into cyberspace. And why shouldn’t they? Well, probably one or two shouldn’t.

But as a result, it’s a mess. Searching for a book you’d like to read is very difficult, despite all the various search mechanisms put in place for that very purpose. The evidence for this is pretty clear by the number of people on forums asking for suggestions.

Before all this digital stuff how on earth did we choose books?

1. We might have read a review of the book.

These were few enough in number not to take your whole lifetime to read. They gave you a fairly unbiased view of the book, a flavour of it at least.

But now, reviews…lol [had to get that in somewhere!].

Reviews online fall into several categories: those written by friends and relatives, those written by book bloggers because they like books, those written for specific book reviews such as you might find on newspaper sites and last, but definitely not least, reviews by ordinary readers. I’m ignoring the ones written by authors themselves – tempting, I admit, but also professional suicide and just a bit tacky.

I have said several times before that I am in awe of book reviewers because I don’t know how they have time to do anything else. So many authors are looking for reviews – me included! – that it just can’t be done. One result of the surfeit of books needing reviews is that book reviewers have to be more selective and one of the chief ways in which many of them do this is to avoid self-published books. It’s a no-brainer because a lot of them could be badly written, badly edited or full of inaccuracies – maybe all three. I know some book bloggers who started off reviewing self-published but, after several stressful experiences, gave up. The result is that the ever increasing number of self-published books is chasing an ever decreasing number of reviewers. Thus any reviewer who is prepared to accept self-published books is being increasingly weighed down by requests and the logical conclusion is that there will be even fewer such reviewers tomorrow than there are today. This makes the whole exercise a bit more of a lottery every day. 

Now let me say before I get shouted at that there are many self-published books which are as well written, as well edited and as accurate as many traditionally published books.

2. Another method we used to find a book in the pre-digital age was to go to a bookshop. For those who don’t know what that is, it looks like Waterstones. We would browse – before there were browsers  – we would pick up a book, read the first page, the blurb on the back, etc. But on what basis would we pick up the book to start with? Perhaps by recognising the author’s name in bold letters on the front, or quite likely, by the look of the cover. Failing either of those, we might browse the shelves – and here’s the difference: we could walk the length of the shelving and easily see each book in the historical fiction section – all of them!

Now… you know what’s coming…try browsing all the historical fiction on Amazon and let me know when you’ve finished – if I’m still alive!

It’s true that you will still be drawn online to a book by the prominence of the author’s name but as far as covers go, how far down the rankings are you prepared to look? And browsing online is a needle in a haystack exercise.

We have some tools to help us narrow our browsing field: one option is websites such as http://www.bragmedallion.com  that check for the reader that a self-published book is fit for purpose, i.e. it is worth reading; another is sites like goodreads.com where readers can comment on and rate books. But even so the potential reader is swamped.

Alright, so if one accepts that the number of self-published books is already unmanageable, what’s the answer? You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

There is a great deal of discussion currently about these issues but no solutions that seem viable. I’ve still seen comments along the lines that 99% of all self-published work is rubbish. Such comments only irritate me in so far as generalisations invariably do. Such views are, I’m afraid, rather ostrich-like and they don’t actually help much. There is still something of a stigma attached to self-published books and I can see why but the problems which it has brought will not be solved by pretending they don’t exist.

I would like to see a more constructive approach to the reviewing of self-published books by the media and publishing community as a whole. At present when a self-published book is “discovered” it is backed to the hilt; everyone wants to review it and talk about it. The rest, by and large, can go hang because the rest have become the internet equivalent of the old “slush pile”.

Whilst I don’t want to get into the whole pricing issue in this post, I find it instructive that there are many sites to promote free or cheap books, many of which are self-published, but fewer to promote good self-published books. This suggests that readers would rather have cheap books that might be good than books which might cost a little more but are good. As a reader, I don’t think that way but perhaps I am not typical.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t have the answers but if there is an answer out there it’s not going to be more of the same. It will have to be different but the problem with new ideas is that they tend to polarise opinion at the outset. Hence I think there is need for constructive ideas to be constructively explored and criticised, not rejected out of hand as too often appears to be the case. The solutions are likely to have little in common with traditional publishing, not because it is intrinsically bad, but because the solutions have to be digital and forward looking.

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