What About the Readers?

Most of you are probably a bit tired of reading about the e-book/self-publishing revolution, but today I’m going to jump into the fray with a question I’ve been thinking about.

As traditional publishing is no longer the only or even the best option for writers to get their work published, more and more people will go the route of self-publishing their books. I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I don’t have a philosophical problem with this, and in fact, in private conversations I find myself encouraging some writers to go this route.

But as I’ve considered the proliferation of self-published books that will surely grow exponentially over the next few years, I began to wonder: Who benefits from all of this?

Surely not the reader, who already has thousands of books from which to choose, and who will never in a lifetime run out of choices even if all publishing were to cease today. Right now, it’s not readers who feel like they’re in crisis. It’s writers—and to a certain extent, publishers. So writers are looking at alternate ways of getting their work in front of readers, and publishers are working to keep up with the times. And meanwhile, readers walk into Barnes and Noble or click on Amazon and find no shortage of books to read.

My conclusion: This trend toward self-publishing serves primarily the writer.

(Not readers and not the publishing industry as a whole.)

It’s a way for writers to get their books out to an audience, to get published, and hopefully get read. It serves the writer’s need and desire. (I’m not saying this is a bad thing.)

The reader, meanwhile, is faced with an increasingly mind-boggling array of choices, and the difficult task of trying to ascertain which of those choices will suit their tastes.

I realize it can (and will) be argued that “more choice” is an advantage for the consumer. I don’t necessarily buy this view and in fact, I think it makes it tougher for readers to choose.

Traditional publishers, for all the complaints against them, have been serving the reader for decades. In their gatekeeper role, they’ve tried to publish only those books they believe the readers will buy and appreciate. They’ve worked with authors, often for months or years, to revise, edit and polish prose so that the reader receives a quality product. They’ve worked with all the old-fashioned distribution channels to see that books appear in the places (i.e. retail stores) where readers will find them.

Who will serve the reader now? Who amongst us has the reader’s best interest in mind, rather than the writer’s? Who will help readers identify “good books”? Who’s going to tell us which books represent excellence in the use of language and in the expression of stories and ideas? I believe most readers still want this kind of assurance and gatekeeping—they have neither the time nor the inclination (or even the skill) to do it themselves.

Who’s going to successfully identify what readers really want, and figure out how to give it to them? (Hint: Companies like Goodreads are doing a pretty good job.)

My proposition today is this:

The publishers, agents, booksellers, and writers who can come up with increasingly better ways to serve readers rather than writers will be the big winners in the long run.

What say you?


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  • Nathan

    >Maybe a slight side note, and maybe it's been covered in conversations out of my hearing, but I think that the purchase of an actual physical copy of a book should now include the digital copy, just like is offered with DVDs. That would certainly serve the readers very well, allowing physical to serve and digital to thrive. I gue$$ we know why no publi$her$ have gone thi$ route.

  • Sheila

    >Ultimately, I think readers serve readers.

    When it comes to a good read, the recommendation of a friend whose literacy I trust carries more weight than any platform or campaign.

  • Chris

    >Good call, Rachelle. This is the fundamental problem of self-publishing, which so many writers overlook when they praise the "democratization of publishing." Publishing, unlike writing, is a service industry, and a publisher must be concerned with attracting and retaining its customers.

    I think what most writers miss about self-publishing companies is that their customers are not readers – their customers are writers. This is why so many of them embrace that "democratization of publishing" message.

    Readers don't want democratization. No diner would want to eat at a restaurant where the food is provided by any schlub who wanders into the kitchen. They rely on the restaurant manager to choose a qualified chef who can be relied on to produce a consistent, enjoyable product – and some of them go further, relying on critics to point them to well-managed restaurants that have done this successfully. In the same way, readers aren't going to shop from self-publishers, who employ little to no quality control to their inventory. Readers will always gravitate to sellers and services that can provide them a consistent, satisfying experience.

    Certainly, methods for such selection are evolving, as they have for other industries. We now have Yelp for restaurants and Rotten Tomatoes for movies, and as a result Zagat and Roger Ebert have lost some of their market dominance. Similarly, as services like Goodreads gain popularity, the old method of reading the NYT Book Review or trusting the shelf at Barnes and Noble may lessen in their impact, but for readers the process is not greatly changed – the gatekeepers just look a little different.

  • Katherine Hyde

    >Rachelle, this is exactly the problem I've had with self-publishing all along. If we lose the gatekeepers, we have to provide some substitute in terms of helping readers find what they want to read. I think traditional publishing has some serious problems–mainly the fact that very few writers can actually make a living through it–but its role in providing a quality product must be filled by somebody, or we're all in trouble.

  • Chris

    >@Nathan:

    I agree completely. If I were self-publishing, this would be my policy – buy the paper book, and get the e-book for free. If I am ever published with the clout to push for it, I will encourage my publisher to follow such a policy – if they aren't already.

    I might further follow the model that many recording artists have established, and develop a "premium edition" of the book, autographed and with a more ornate cover, better paper stock, or some other incentive, that would sell at a higher price.

    Back to your point: I recently purchased Portal 2 for the Playstation 3, and was pleased to find that the purchase included Portal 2 for my Mac (or PC). Similarly, most Blu-Ray purchases now come with a DVD and a "digital copy" included. I suspect it won't be long before some publishers start following this model as well.

  • Bryce Daniels

    >AMEN to your proposition, Rachelle. It should always be about the end-users.

    The comment above about WOM rings true. I'm reminded of one of my favorite movies, Field of Dreams.

    "If you build it, they will come."
    Just gotta substitute "deliver an experience" for "build it."

  • Lisa

    >As a reader, here’s what I would like to see, Rachelle: I’d like to see all of the books that agents love but don’t think they can sell (or can’t sell) be fast-tracked and sold as eBooks. Targeting a minority readership is really no different than writing for a niche or sub-niche; it’s definitely more challenging, but I believe that every well-written book has an audience. I also believe, based on the books that I’ve downloaded – and all of them without exception were written by “close but no cigar” writers — that these books better appeal to my preferences as a reader.

    I think that readers are in no danger of suffering from a book deficit, at least not right now. But no one knows how that might change in the coming years. The music industry is useless to me, for example. Once the big labels started focusing on a few big acts and cutting out their own “mid-listers,” it was all Lady Gaga, Ke$ha and other auto-tune artists. There’s no reason to turn on the radio. It's all the same thing. I had a nightmare a few nights ago that I walked into the bookstore, and the only books available were either about celebrities or written by celebrities. I think that’s pretty telling. ☺

  • Rebekah

    >Agree, agree, agree. Writers need to be patient, keep at it, work hard, and wait for the hard work to pay off. I think self-publishing is like instant gratification…which never leaves a person satisfied in the long run.

  • Anthony

    >Rachelle,

    You always make for a thought provoking post. Love it.

    I believe you took a myopic path to get to your conclusion.

    A team of publishers, agents, booksellers and writers working in cahoots will of course come up with some great stuff.

    Alluding that self-publishing is noise and needs some type of filter is missing the point of a general trend.

    As a reader, I don't need publishers, agents or booksellers. What I need is word-of-mouth. It's always been that way for me and so many people like me. My reading list is composed of much of what my friends recommend.

    This plays completely against your view. That there are hundreds of thousands of self-published works, most of which one could argue have poor quality, is a separate issue. I already know how to mine my social network for good books. I almost do it unconsciously.

    Put it this way: let's say 99% of self-published works have poor quality.

    Someday that number will go to 98%.

    Then it will go to 97%.

    It will continue to drop. Will it end at 90% crap, 10% goodness? 70%? Who knows?

    Now, one could argue that the quality of self-published books will never improve.

    I would counter-argue that assertion is flawed. That is not how social networks backed by technology works.

    Publishing a book is a team endeavor. Self-publishing, when done correctly, rallies against its name and also is a team endeavor. That's what the internet does. That's the information age. That's technology connecting people. That's how literature is trending.

    In your last statement, you talked about a team of people. That team of people ignores the self-empowering other team of people at its peril.

  • Adam Heine

    >"I realize it can (and will) be argued that “more choice” is an advantage for the consumer. I don’t necessarily buy this view and in fact, I think it makes it tougher for readers to choose."

    You're right about this. It's believed that too many choices causes a person to freeze up, and can even cause anxiety. (I don't know about the studies that support this; it's just what I've read).

    And in fact, too many choices is bad for the writer in that it causes more people to resort to the familiar.

    I think you're right about Goodreads and others (Amazon's ratings and recommendations come to mind) that help us sort through the chaff. I think in the long run things will shake out to be about the same, honestly. Just with different gatekeepers.

  • Nancy Kelley

    >I write in a genre that has a proliferation of self-published works, and I plan to publish my own novel this fall. My friend and I are looking at your final question right now, Rachelle–how can we serve the reader?

    To that end, we are launching a website at the end of June that will strive to bring the authors and readers together in a community. There will be resources for the authors and community activities that will give the readers a chance to learn more about the authors and which books they might be interested in reading.

    You're right; in the end, the group that serves the reader is the one that will prosper.

  • Chris

    >@Rebekah: So we are talking about self-publishing as instant gratification…I think there is another (appropriate) term for self-administered instant gratification, isn't there? :-)

  • Ted Cross

    >I think that self-publishers mostly dislike to hear about the gatekeeper, but it is very relevant. For every reader who is happy with discovering self-published works via word of mouth or social networking, there are more readers who are overwhelmed by choices, not as comfortable with networking, and prefer to have a gatekeeper of some sort to ensure quality. I know that sales of self-published books are skyrocketing, but I also know so many people, including myself, who have never bought a self-published book and don't really intend to anytime soon.

  • Anonymous

    >I like what Mike Stackpole has to say in his latest blog. There is just way too much fear-mongering going on in publishing right now.

    http://www.michaelastackpole.com/?p=2547

  • Mike

    >Readers should serve themselves when it comes to deciding what they like or don't like, and perhaps stick to the authors they love.

    What I get tired of reading are opinions from the higher educated pompous people who look down their noses at the less educated who have the same dreams to become authors. The poverty stricken people with good hearts who simply want to write stories but never could because publishers wouldn't give them the time of day, now have their chance at their dreams because of ebooks.

    Yes, I admit I'm in this category with no college education and having done poorly in school due to a broken home and moving so much most of my life. And yes I am new with ebook writing. It excites me to know I can publish and hopefully be read by others. I love writing stories. I love including Jesus in them too! Say what you will about me. Laugh at my expense for all I care. Jesus has my back. I just started an ebook series called Silent Thoughts. A literary collection of memoirs and letters of the life I've lived, and my thoughts. It's all my own words, and not words decided by an editor or publisher. It's all my work any reader can read and hopefully enjoy and/or relate too. If anyone has negative remarks about my work, don't buy anymore. It's that simple. Readers serve themselves. Once again I could just ramble on about this topic. I feel I've made my point. If you're still reading this, thank you for giving me your time. God Bless!

  • Lisa

    >@Ted

    I’ve heard it argued that the types of readers who buy self-published books and those who go into a bookstore and purchase hardcopy are almost two different demographics entirely. I can’t remember who blogged about this, but the inference was that young adults and romance readers who prefer certain subgenres (erotic romance, for example) are more likely to buy self-pubbed. Each has purchasing power. However, I maintain that it would be folly to self-publish mainstream genre fiction that competes with books published under the traditional model. Self-pubbed writers must discover where the gaps are — which readers are being neglected — and target that niche readership.

  • Jackie

    >I agree with you, Rachelle, about the gate-keeping role of traditional publishing but I have the same reservations as Lisa. As an avid reader as well as a fiction writer, I find myself getting frustrated when I comb the shelves of the major book stores. Traditional publishing seems to be playing it so economically safe in only going for the sure fire markets that, as a reader, I have the feeling that a lot of the books I flick through on the shelves these days are just clones of something else. Like other commenters, I choose what I read on the basis of recommendation, but reading taste is so subjective, I still end up with some personal duds. As a reader, I accept that the majority of stuff I read will have such transient impact, it will have disappeared from my memory in less than six months. Only a shining few live on, and they're usually by writers who've managed to break the mould in some way and present me with something breath-taking, innovative and new.

  • Anonymous

    >Sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing, and bloggers.

  • Sofie Bird

    >You're right about the glut of supply. But the corollery to that is that the effect of an oversupply does not increase proportionately with the level of excess.

    There comes a point when the reader is overwhelmed, and adding more won't actually make much difference. In my opinion / experience, we reached that point several years ago. There are so many books that readers won't even notice the sudden increase in books due to self-publishing.

    Now, they may notice that it's harder to find a good book – that finding a "high quality" book becomes harder as the overall "quality average" of the book pool is diluted by authors who didn't do their homework. But even that comes down to personal taste more than anything.

    The current 'gatekeepers' can't reliably pick winners. If they could, they wouldn't be in this mess in the first place – they'd have a business model where everything they sold was pretty much a sure thing.

    Their guess is little better than the average joe (arguably better, because they spend their time reading books, but arguably also worse, because spending your time reading books makes you picky about things normal people don't care about).

    I think word-of-mouth based projects will server readers far better than another lot of gatekeepers. So will a better way of categorising, tagging or sorting fiction uniformly, so people who really want to read suburban dramas about washing machine repairmen can find them easily.

  • Lauren B.

    >I don't know that readers will become overwhelmed. I already agonize over what to read next, and rely heavily on reviews on sites like GoodReads and Amazon, as well as recommendations by friends. As long as the price of self-published ebooks remains low, there's little risk for the reader. Buy it, and if you're not getting into it, move on to the next one.

    As I reader, I know the thing I would love most would be some kind of subscription model. Now that I have a Kindle, I'm tempted to buy many more books than I ever did print, but also really reluctant to drop $12.99 on something I can't even give away if it turns out not to be my cup of tea.

  • Catherine Kane

    >While I admire the concept of this post, I don't know as I totally agree with it.

    There are certainly more books out there than any person can read in a life time; however this does not always mean that they are the books that readers want and need, especially in niche markets.

    Editors and publishers tend to publish what they think will sell, and this can mean plying it safe as opposed to striving to cover new ground or meet the actual needs of readers. There is a difference between the perceived market and the actual readers needs. Thus, we see the same material repackaged and resold, rather than ground breaking material, because groundbreaking is untested and less safe from a marketable standpoint.

    That being said, from the reader's standpoint, I think there's a need for both regular publishing and self publishing. The point is not the number of books out there- the point is can each reader obtain the books he wants and needs….

  • patriciazell

    >I think that you are overlooking a couple of tremendous advantages of self-publishing a book. First is the aspect of freedom–I don't have to meet any requirements of anyone in order to see my book in print and I am working my own time schedule as far as marketing my book is concerned. Rather than worry about a publisher pulling my book because it doesn't sell enough copies quick enough, I have time to build a slow, steady fire.

    Then there is the matter of speed–from the moment I sent my files to my publisher to the moment I held my book in my hands was four months. During those months, I made all the editorial decisions myself and completed two thorough editings.

    All the fretting about poorly written books misses the whole point. If a book is poorly written and/or the content is lacking, it won't sell. As a self-published author, I have the same responsibility as one who is traditionally published–to write the best book I can.

  • Katie Ganshert

    >patriciazell, I think maybe you missed the point of Rachelle's post. She's not talking about the advantages of self-publishing for writers. In fact, she said self-publishing serves writers in many ways (just as you listed in your comment – speed, control, etc).

    She's talking about readers.

    I think Rachelle brings up an awesome, awesome question. Who will serve the reader? In all this self-publishing hubbub, the whole thing has turned very writer-focused. But truly….what about our readers?

    Putting our focus on them, whether we self-publish or traditionally publish, seems like a wise thing to do.

  • Neil

    >My agent tells me that 99% of submissions her agency receives are from people 'who can't write.' Presumably all these people believe they are ready for publication or else they wouldn't have sent off their MSS and would therefore be willing to consider self-publishing. It may be that an occasional masterpiece slips through the net and ends up self-published, but it's going to be hard to find it amongst all the dross.
    I find myself amazed by the level of people's self-belief – I am a successful published author and still have a crisis of confidence every time I write. Surely it is doubting yourself that leads to the constant quest for self-improvement. I had to have the validation of an agent and publisher before I could begin to believe that I could write something of value. When I was younger and received rejections I assumed it meant I hadn't quite got there yet, and I went back to the drawing board until I finally cracked it.
    Nowadays people seem to just assume that the problem lies with the gatekeepers rather than their work, and put it out there anyway, filling the market with unsaleable juvenilia.
    I don't want to offend anyone, but my advice would be to write, and write, get better and get better, and in the end someone will pay you large sums of money for the privilege of publishing your work rather than you stumping up the money out of your hard-earned savings. Self-publishing may be a lot cheaper than it once was because of e-readers and so on, butg it's still usually Vanity Publishing by another name.

  • Maria Zannini

    >Re: The reader, meanwhile, is faced with an increasingly mind-boggling array of choices, and the difficult task of trying to ascertain which of those choices will suit their tastes.

    ***
    But that's the way of all products and services. How many different phone companies did we have in the 1950s? How many do we have now?

    And I don't believe traditional publishers have the reader's interest at heart. They're in it for the bottom line like everyone else.

  • Najela

    >I think readers will most likely become their own gatekeepers. They know what they like and they'll rate accordingly. If a self published book is crap, I don't think they have a problem saying so. The same with traditionally published books. Over time, the books with good reviews and sales will probably generate better quality books and the ones that don't fair so well will fade into obscurity. The thing with self/indie publishing is that readers don't have to wait for their favorite books to come out. If they demand a sequel, it comes out as soon as the author can write it and edit it. If a writer is smart, they will write their best book possible as well as hire some editors and book cover artists and what not. There are so many people willing to do this and excel at their jobs. I think readers can take care of themselves, though that is not to say that writers shouldn't keep readers in mind. Readers can take care of themselves and have been doing well so far.

  • Katie Ganshert

    >Maria Zannini – just to push back a little. The bottom line for the publisher is getting customers to buy the product – which leads back to the reader. The publishers have to think, ultimately, of the reader. Whether this is for noble reasons or not, doesn't matter.

    That's not always the same thing when self-publishing. Sometimes (not all the time) writers who self-publish are so eager to be published, that getting their book published becomes their bottom line.

    Can you all tell I'm procrastinating this morning!? I should be getting ready for work, but this is an intriguing conversation!

  • Timothy Fish

    >Rachelle,

    I agree with your statement that writers, et al. who serve the readers will be the winners in the long run. I can also agree that much of self-publishing is self-serving for authors. I believe that one of the big mistakes authors make is writing the book that they know they can write rather than addressing a problem that needs to be solved.

    That being said, self-publishing isn’t inherently self-serving. Look at O’Reilly Media, for example. That company began as a self-publishing venture, but it has become a well-respected traditional publisher through their commitment to providing their readers with the answers they need.

    The problem with seeing agents and publishers as gatekeepers is that there are too many gates. If one publisher doesn’t like your work, you take it to another gate and that publisher may let it through. Often, the only thing a publisher wants to know is whether they can sell the book. Granted, quality helps increase book sales, but what publisher would reject a poorly written book if they thought it would sell a million copies?

    Consider that you self-publish on a daily basis. You don’t hand your blog posts off to an editorial board before you post it on the web. And why should you? Your blog is what you believe will help those who read it. There are blogs about what people ate for supper that I don’t read. Likewise, some self-publishers are putting out stuff that is of interest to no one but them. Others are putting out stuff that is helpful to other people. With the search tools we have available today, my experience has been with Church Website Design and Book Cover Design Wizardry that those who are looking for books like these can find them with pinpoint accuracy. The millions of other books out there that are unrelated to the topic is just noise. A book that serves the reader will sell whether it is self-published or traditionally published.

  • David Kazzie

    >I disagree that self-publishing has made it harder than ever for readers to decide.

    Three years ago, when I walked into a bookstore, there were ALREADY more books printed than I would ever have time to read.

    And as much as I love being in bookstores, it takes a long time to physically remove, look at the cover and book description, and perhaps take in a few paragraphs of a LOT of books.

    With digital books, it makes it a lot easier, and, yes, while there are more books to choose from, given that there were so many BEFORE self-publishing took off, I don't really notice any difference.

  • Anonymous

    >When Snookie can publish a book, I'm having a hard time thinking that it's "good" for publishers to be making these decisions.

    Less choice is good? That sounds a bit paternalistic. Also, maybe there are books that people need to read (i.e., from underrepresented voices) that they are not currently getting because it's a risk for the publisher. I'd still like to have access to those books and love that indie publishers are more willing to go there.

  • Sarah Forgrave

    >I agree 100%, Rachelle.

    As a writer, I can see why some writers go the self-publishing route. But as a reader, it makes it much harder to filter through the junk (sort of like my mailbox at home).

    In fact, I'm a reader who always looks at the publisher listed on Amazon, and it plays a major role in my decision. I've seen too many bad books by certain vanity publishers that I've learned to steer clear of anyone who publishes under that imprint. (So for the stellar writer who published with them, I guess it doesn't really help them after all.) The exception would be if I know the author personally and/or have received enough personal references from trusted sources.

    Wow, lots to chew on here. Great discussion starter! :)

  • Laura@LifeOverseas

    >I totally understand this perspective of the masses of options for the reader being incredibly overwhelming. It's so difficult to find quality books, if you have 1,000 to choose from. But, when you move that number to 10,000, well, the needle in the haystack just got a lot harder to discover. I think the role of the publisher as "gate keeper" is a valuable one.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post– again.

  • M.E.

    >I don't think there are many readers who need someone to tell them what's good. Plenty of people already know what they like and while it may seem as if they like really crappy books that's up to each person to decide for themselves.

    When the average reader picks up a book they don't look at the language used or the writing style. Mostly they're paying attention to the story and when they start reading they want to care about the characters.

    I feel like traditional publishing would be a more fulfilling experience for me, but plenty of people find success the self publishing route. Let's be honest, we all want to be accepted and to have people love our stories, but it won't always be like that.

    I was talking about self publishing the other day and sometimes it bothers me when people say "Now anyone can be published". It's true and others will respond "Not everyone should be published"; that's also true. Can't it be the same for traditional publishing? I want the "ultimate critics" to love what I write, but I don't want my story to be published because of it is expected to be wildly successful or because it will be accepted by readers everywhere. The latter would be awesome, but I want people to like it because it's good and makes them think, not because everyone else likes it or it's the same old story that's been told a million times before and this time someone did it just right.

    Who has the reader's best interest in mind? Someone said the reader, maybe that's it because they at least know what they want and the rest of us can only guess based on stats and generalizations. No one knows what the individual reader wants except that reader

  • Wendy Paine Miller

    >This post reminds me of your guest post not long ago (the backyard BBQ one inside Blogger’s belly because it swallowed it whole). Establishing connection. Who you write for. Tie those two together and you reach the heart of what I understand you’re saying here.

    Becoming a writer (and pursuing traditional publication), in some ways, might be one of the most selfless career choices out there.

    Fascinating discussion.

    Nancy Kelley’s comment struck me. I respect the proactive move she’s making while deciding to self-pub.

    I hope we all continue to brainstorm through solutions. As for me and my road, I want the team. I’m walking the traditional pub route (even if it takes me a little longer to get there). There are roses to smell on the way.

    Ultimately, I think it comes down to who we want to trust with our work.
    ~ Wendy

  • David A. Todd

    >Neil said, "…my advice would be to write, and write, get better and get better, and in the end someone will pay you large sums of money for the privilege of publishing your work rather than you stumping up the money out of your hard-earned savings."

    If only that were true. Publishers are choosing what to publish not based on the quality of the writing, but on what they think will sell 18-24 months in the future. Write a good book and it will sell may have been true at one time, but no more, at least not with a traditional publisher.

    Now you sell a book after you've spent years learning the art and honing your craft (as you should), developing a platform, perfecting a pitch, and learning how to write a good proposal. Most of these things have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. A certain baseline of quality is essential, I agree. After this it is mostly luck or interpersonal skills, not writing. Luck that you don't mispeak in your 15 minute appointment with an agent. And it's significantly more expensive to traditionally publish than to self-publish. Consider the opportunity cost of not having a book for sale. Consider the cost of conference after conference. Consider the cost of hiring editors or trading beta reader time.

    But Rachelle's post was about how the reader is best served. I'm having difficulty believing that the reader is best served by fewer choices rather than more choices.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Laura: Once the haystack gets past a certain size (in this case more than 1 million books), the increase in difficulty as we add hay begins to slow. It makes little difference if we have one ton of hay or two tons of hay. We aren’t going to sort through the stack one blade of grass at a time. Instead, we’ll probably use a strong magnet and ignore anything that isn’t the needle. Doubling the number of books changes little because each reader focuses on a small subset anyway.

    M.E.: I agree in that I think that readers know what they think is good when they see it. However, I don’t think there are many readers who really know what they want to read. If they did, we could poll the readers and write the book they want us to write. But the job of the writer is to give the reader what he wants before the reader knows it is what he wants. We must begin with the vague idea of what the reader thinks he wants and give the reader something better.

  • Patricia Raybon

    >Great post, Rachelle. Journalist Patti Thorn is serving readers with her new venture, BlueInk Reviews, which provides professional reviews of self-published books. Just months old, her business is growing like wildfire. Why? She's doing a great service–helping readers cut through the dross to find the gold.

  • Timothy F. McKracken

    >Oh, my goodness, I agree: we desperately need gatekeepers, so that can keep spoonfeeding us more teen vampire romances. Just imagine the tripe we'll be left otherwise!

  • Anonymous

    >I think Amanda Hocking is probably the best counter-example to this argument. It's clear the 'traditional publishing' gatekeepers didn't want anything to do with her until she was already proven to be fiscally successful.

    They weren't interested in what the readers wanted; they were interested in money.

    How many times do I read on blogs about the books that get passed on, only to go on to be blockbuster hits?

    It's easy to say, as someone entrenched in the industry, that self-publishing is writer-focused and traditional publishing is reader-focused (ignoring, of course, that readers have no say in what gets published, except indirectly and in aggregate).

    I'm certain some people "in the industry" have the best interests of the reader in mind, but I think one of the draws of self-publishing is that many writers aren't completely convinced that's true.

    this line of reasoning ignores the greater variety and choice provided to a reader with the advent of self-publishing.

    It sounds like the publishing industry, with all its moving parts, has no more idea of what the reader wants than the reader does. And in that atmosphere, what makes traditional publishing so powerful?

    Or rather, what makes the publisher's word better than the 5-star ratings of two hundred other adventurous readers?

  • Marcia

    >What Neil said, with the possible deletion of the adjective "large" to describe "sums of money." :)

  • Abra

    >Boy, I'm no self-pub apologist, but I don't at all buy the argument that more books make it more difficult for the consumer to choose. I don't believe readers are mostly browsing; I believe they're mostly buying specific things they want and maybe something else that catches their eye. Nobody's stumped what to read next, everybody has a TBL.

    I also don't believe that traditional publishers are MORE interested in serving readers than self-publishers are. Everyone wants to sell as many copies as possible.

    There will always be awards and academics to find the books that contribute significantly to our culture and discourse, no matter who published them.

    As for your proposition…if all book production ceased immediately, every reader in the world would still have access to enough existing books to last the rest of their lives. Do they really need served?

  • Carradee

    >Though there are so many books, some of us have difficulty finding books that are precisely what we want to read.

    For example, I'm a Christian. I love urban fantasy and paranormals, and I enjoy a romance side plot—but name some authors of those genres whose characters don't misuse God's name, consider sex a physical necessity, or ignore religion (if not be hostile towards devout believers).

    I also love genre mixes. Traditional publishing has profit margins, shelf space limits, and such that make it difficult to push a dual-genre book to the best effect.

    I have a hard time finding books that are my "ideal" read.

    Ever visited FictionPress.com or FanFiction.net? That's self-publishing at its worst. Some folks there are serious about writing, but some just want their egos stoked, and some just write to unwind.

    Yet, back when I was active there, I found writers I wanted to read, and readers found me. The story title and summary description usually give a good indication of the writer's grasp on grammar. Once you find a writer you liked, you check their other stories—and the writer's "favorite stories" and "favorite authors" pages, to find other writers who might be up your alley.

    It works.

  • Anonymous

    >The rise of sites like Goodreads and the proliferation of book review blogs is the natural response to publishers trading their once proud roll of gatekeeper for that of carnival barker. Over-hyped carbon copy junk fills the shelves of most big box book stores. Diligence and research can still uncover gems and sites like Goodreads or Librarything are there to help. The wisdom of the masses is the new gatekeeper. Agents often express frustration in their inability to find homes for works they love. I suspect that behind closed doors, that frustration is exponentially greater. That downward spiral that big publishing finds itself in is the flush that's been a long time in coming.

  • Anonymous

    >And what about the books that have won or finaled in countless prestigious contests, possibly were even agented, made all the NY submission rounds with tons of excellent feedback, but ultimately didn't sell because they were deemed "too niche"? Just because NY doesn't want to take the time to market to that niche doesn't mean that I'm not "serving the reader" by doing so. In fact, I'd argue that I'd be doing the reader a disservice because theirs is an underserved niche and I'm providing books to that niche.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Abra,
    I’m not sure that it can be said we all want to sell as many copies as possible (though it only helps your point if we aren’t). There are a lot of people I would just as soon didn’t read my books. I don’t go around telling people they shouldn’t read my book. I figure most people are smart enough to figure out whether my books are for them or not, but I would just as soon the people who aren’t going to get anything of value from my books would stay away.

  • Lynn O’Dell

    >With the emergence of Indie publishing, we now have a greater amount of reviewing blogs.

    I started mine simply because I was annoyed when I purchased a book filled with formatting and editing errors. With that first "bad" bookd, I didn't even know what an "Indie" was; I just wanted to warn readers away from these books.

    I quickly discovered that readers did want to be warned. My blog serves readers. Sure, some authors benefit, at least those that publish professional books. However, readers are my top priority.

    Now, there are review blogs popping up all over the place. Generally, like me, these reviewers post their reviews on Amazon and elsewhere to help readers choose wisely.

    We are not "gatekeepers," though. We don't stop anyone from offering their books to the public. Hopefully, we just make someone think twice before publishing unedited manuscripts.

  • Timothy F. McKracken

    >Agents touting their roles as gatekeepers of culture should list the books they've sold which the world could not live without.

  • A.L. Sonnichsen

    >Incredible post, Rachelle. Retweet!

    Amy

  • Carrie Schmeck

    >I think of it like the evolution of network vs. cable television. Once networks were our gatekeepers. When cable came along, history buffs could watch WWII documentaries in bliss for hours. Foodies got all the food shows they wanted.

    Niche books are rejected by traditional houses because of their narrow scope. It doesn't mean some readers don't want the content. It means we need to try another route. If we are doing the work, creating our platforms, gaining an audience through blogs, social media, and speaking, we writers are essentially doing our gatekeeping. If we are effective, our readers will trust us and assume our work will be worthwhile. If not, they won't bother.

    We can exist together. It'll just be different.

  • Jill

    >Blogger just ate my comment. So w/o going into it too deeply again, I'll just say that I'm an arrogant reader. Self-publishing serves my needs as a reader because I can filter through work that was rejected by trad. publishers. You've said yourself that Christian publishers aren't accepting spec. fic. right now. Honestly, I'm savvy enough to look for what I want, find it, and buy it.

    As a writer, I lack the same arrogance. Self-publishing wouldn't serve me. It wouldn't serve me to publish my work w/ awkward sentences that slipped through my radar, misspellings, or other deeper problems I haven't worked through yet. Might it someday serve me as a writer? Maybe. I can't see into the future.

    Right now, self-publishing only serves me as a reader.

  • Jaime Wright

    >As an avid reader, I am intimidated by the idea of sifting through self-published books. I have read a few that I enjoyed, but the safety net that traditional publishing offers is HUGE. For example, I will preorder books from debut authors simply based on my specific favorite publishing house. I trust their authors because I trust their editing, pickiness (if you want to call it that), and therefore I know the book will be quality reading.

  • Anonymous

    >Why don't readers just ask the writers?

    I'm not being snide: Communication between a writer and individual members of his audience has never been easier. Sure, JK Rowling can't reply to everyone who asks her what she likes to read, but she's a deep outlier.

    Here's how I read the math: If I, as a writer, get $2.50 from each eBook of mine that gets sold, I don't need to maintain an audiences of multiple thousands to keep bread in my larder. Most people who buy my work don't care to contact me, which is fine. But I get emails and tweets from readers all the time. They ask questions and I answer them. If they asked me to recommend books, I would.

    I don't think most readers walk into a bookstore and think "Ooh, edited by Ed Stackler? YOU JUST GOT MY MONEY!" or "Hm, what's the new hotness from Bantam Spectra?" For better or worse, I suspect cold picks (that is, something that they didn't go to get because of a review of recommendation) are based on (1) author, (2) title, (3) flap copy and (4) the cover illo. If the reader doesn't know the author, some combination of the last three. None of those are the exclusive domain of a gate-layered agent-editor-publisher system.

    Really, it looks like the dilemma for the publisher is finding a way to ensure the readers' loyalty to them, a massive collective serving millions, rather than to individual authors who can respond, make jokes and be personable.

    -G.

  • K.C. Shaw

    >I'm a voracious reader with a book review blog that's almost two years old now. Last week I reviewed four recently-published books. One was self-published and three were released by big commercial publishers. One was poorly-written, badly edited, and had a terrible plot, while three were excellent. But the badly written book was not the self-published book. Not all self-published books are self-serving crap, just as not all commercially published books are masterpieces.

    I'm also a writer. It's unbelievably frustrating to try to break in right now. I know I'm writing on a professional level, and I have friends who are at the same stage as me. Ten years ago we'd all be under contract and have agents. Now we're lucky if we even get a response from the agents we approach–so many have gone to the 'no response means no' policy–and there are fewer big publishers than ever who will look at unagented submissions.

    I write two full-length books a year. What am I supposed to do with the 'old' books that no agent is interested in? Delete them? I've placed several with small publishers, but I'm considering self-publishing because I think I can do at least as well as the small publishers are doing with the marketing (or lack thereof). That doesn't make me self-serving or any less of a writer.

  • Todd Russell

    >Hi Rachelle,

    I have faith in the power and spirit of fellow readers.

    I'm a new self-published author too, yes, but I've been a reader for a long time and love reading great stories and discovering new authors.

    I'm not worried that there will ever be too many choices for me to have the "inclination" or "ability" to choose great reads.

    I know I can always turn to the search engines, social friend networks (Facebook, Goodreads, etc) for assistance.

  • Garannamom

    >There is something to be said for a publisher to act as a filter for terrible material. However, is it really so important that an agent and publisher change an author's labor of love to mold it into something that they believe is what readers want to read? After all, they are just using their best guess as to what readers will take to. What about true originality? Isn't their also something to be said for that?

  • Jimmie Hammel

    >Epubbing allows readers to sample any work that catches their eye. I don't need to sixty pages to tell me that something is bad. If a writer gets me past the first page and holds my attention all the way to end of the sample, then I buy their work. If I like it, I will generally buy every other reasonably priced work that they have for sale.

    I don't need a perfectly polished masterpiece work. I just want to be entertained for a few hours.

  • M. R. Pursselley

    >Personally, I see the whole digital self-publishing revolution as having some similarities to the government's subsidizing of corn a few years back, when Ethanol became the 'big thing' that was going to save us all and bring down the gas prices. Everybody and their uncle started growing corn because it was suddenly in very high demand and they could make money at it. For a while it was tough for the decades-old, 1000+ acre farms to make it financially because suddenly everyone was selling corn, not just them. After a while, though, things started going back to normal. As I'm sure we're all aware, gas prices didn't exactly drop through the floor following the advent of Ethanol. Most of the backyard corn farmers gradually washed out of the market. But guess who's still growing and selling corn today? The decades-old 1000+ acre corn farms.
    I'm no expert, but I see the current situation in the publishing world much the same way. All of a sudden, we have technology that allows anyone to publish their own book with the potential to sell millions of copies online. Once again, everybody and their uncle is jumping on the e-book bandwagon to publish their own book and get rich quick.
    Don't get me wrong – I know there are many extremely talented writers self-publishing quality work online. But I'm convinced that there are also a lot of writers who either aren't ready for publishing or who simply don't have what it takes to publish, self-publishing their books because they can. I believe that sooner or later, these people will wash out of the market. As long as readers continue to demand quality, the balance should correct itself.

  • Chris Shaughness

    >You make a good arguement, Rachelle, but I don't agree with you. As a self-published author, I wrote my book and chose the self-publishing route specifically for my readers. I filled a niche that was in desperate need of a book, and mine was the first of its kind. Yes, it's a niche but still nonetheless very important for those readers. They simply could not wait the 2+ years for my book to come out if I had waited to find a traditional publisher. The book is nonfiction which may be a completely different ballgame from fiction. You may want to make that distinction in another post. Is there a difference from non-fiction and fiction when it comes to self-publishing and who is being served?

  • Larry Carney

    >Lovely discussion. Though with all the great responses so far, there is one thing that I think has yet to be mentioned:

    Has any author in the history of publishing ever sought to serve the reader?

    Is it all ego? The audacity to believe that one has something important to say; and the further audacity to believe people will actually listen.

    Not only that, but to believe that one is as good –or even better– than not only everything which is being published now, but all that has come before. That somebody should pick your work over not only the latest trend, but Dickens, Thackery, James, Welty, and so forth.

    And should one write considering what they feel would meet the needs of the reader, what are they accused of? Jumping on a bandwagon. Of not being sincere.

    Even when one considers the work of those who tried to create social change through their work, can it be said they were trying to serve the reader? For while the topic and information may have served for the betterment of society and by extension the reader, does the actual prose itself serve the reader, or is the book merely a vehicle for a social crusade?

    That is not to say that there are writers who are incapable of being humble. Many sincerely give thanks to God for the talent He has given to them. Yet Flannery O'Connor once wrote that when asked why she writes that she replied, "Because I am good at it." So even one of the most celebrated Christian authors shows that pesonal choice to become an author involves the writer determining that what they have to say is actually good enough to get published. If not, why even bother trying to get published?

    And yet……and yet…. is the ego of the writer what is truly serving readers?

    Consider this: Every industry blog mentions hard it is to get published. We all juggle other responsibilities to pursue our craft. Is it not egotistical to thus continue?

    Like I said, lovely discussion. What do agents think? You are on the other end of the equation: what is it that motivates a writer to write, if it is not ultimately some measure of ego?

  • Michael

    >Interesting article, thanks for posting it. I agree with a lot of this:

    My conclusion: This trend toward self-publishing serves primarily the writer.

    (Not readers and not the publishing industry as a whole.)

    90% true. The main way that readers will benefit is that the self-published titles will eventually help control the price of all books.

    It’s a way for writers to get their books out to an audience, to get published, and hopefully get read. It serves the writer’s need and desire. (I'm not saying this is a bad thing.)

    Absolutely. As someone who has been rejected by traditional gatekeepers hundreds of times, yet has sold tens of thousands of ebooks, this is exactly why I'm doing it. I want my books to be read and enjoyed. More different people are reading my work right at this very moment than all the friends, family, crit-group members, agents, and editors combined who ever looked at one of my books.

    The reader, meanwhile, is faced with an increasingly mind-boggling array of choices, and the difficult task of trying to ascertain which of those choices will suit their tastes.

    This is the part I disagree with. I don't think there's much difference between the 200,000 books available before and the 2,000,000 books available now. It's like trying to find a lost ring on a small beach or a big beach. You won't find it either way unless you have a metal detector. The only difference now is that you need a different kind of metal detector.

  • Anonymous

    >This post today pulled me from lurking. Only to say this.

    I think readers will moderate the shaping of the development of this new market. I had no idea how much I, as a writer and reader, valued the gate keeping effect of publishing houses until last night.

    I wanted to read an out of print novel only available through kindle. I downloaded kindle for pc. That was a month ago. I was glad to be able to get the book this way. An author referred me to the currently available free download of her first novel. Having read her currant release I just purchased in trade paperback, I jumped at the chance. I saw lots of free books and passed over one with a good cover (a free one) because the publisher was the same as the author's name.

    I just have visions of the worst of the American Idol rejects being given a microphone in a stadium packed full of 50,000 people. At least for me, I trust the traditional publishers to have done the weeding out. And I'm afraid to think what I would have done to my writing career had I self-published that debut novel when I thought it was ready.

  • Nathan

    >@Chris Shaughness
    I believe the situation you described is the very definition of the exception most informed individuals raise about self-publishing. In any case where the audience is already established and waiting, it's usually better to just serve them directly, then perhaps later look to a broader audience through traditional venues.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller

    >I think if publishers are smart, they will try to hold onto the reigns that control the runaway self-publishing horse. I suppose some are doing that by opening up a self-pub imprint. But I think it needs to be more than that. They need to throw in some meaningful promotion for, say a percentage of the profit. That way they'll be invested in their book's success, but they won't be out the thousands of production dollars if the book doesn't do well.

    Agents could offer promotion, too, as part of their package, I think.

    In some regards, I think the "democratization" is good because a lot of the not ready books will stop going to agents and publishers and will go straight to Amazon. It might unclog the regular channels.

    At the same time, I think it's comforting to know that a writer can reach readers, however few. It's sort of like blogging. I'd never get a job writing a column for a newspaper without working my way up to it, but I can sign up for a free blog and start slinging copy into cyberspace. I may not have millions reading my words, but I do have more readers than if I had no opportunity to post my thoughts in a public forum.

    As a reader, I too, as others said, will rely on those I trust to steer me to the material I read. In that regard, I don't think much has changed for the reader.

    Becky

  • steadymom

    >It doesn't seem to me that readers mind whether or not a book is traditionally published or self-published in many cases–what matters to them is that they have a connection to the material.

    If someone reads a blog regularly and that blogger comes out with a book, it's likely that the reader will buy the book–b/c they already feel a connection. This is why bloggers with large platforms have been able to forego traditional publishing in favor of self-publishing. I don't think this hurts the reader in any case. It gets them information they want based on a relationship they already have. A win-win for both!

    Jamie

  • Anonymous

    >Speaking as a reader, I do not buy self-published books. Traditional Publishers put out enough variety that I normally do not have trouble finding a book to read. I read anywhere from two hundred to five hundred mass market paperbacks in a year. I don't buy hardbacks because I can't afford to purchase that many hardbacks in a year.

    Considering how much easier it is to self-published, I will be even less likely in the future to consider a self-published novel. Writers can jump on the self-publishing bandwagon and gloryhallalujah the democratization of publishing, but the Amanda Hockings of the self-published world will only get noticed by me once they are traditionally published.

    One thing traditional publishers can do to keep their sales strong is to make sure that every book that they publish including those written by New York Times bestselling authors is meticulously edited before publication. Right now there are several bestselling authors that I no longer purchase because their recent books are in need of serious editing. One in particular to the point of being almost unreadable.

  • Marcia Richards

    >While I agree that the traditional publishers have put out great quality for readers and that some of the self-published books are of inferior quality, what I think serves readers is the low cost of ebooks. It is far more affordable to buy a book through your Kindle or Nook than off a bookshelf. Ereaders are continually being improved and I believe one area that will be among the improvement will be the search. Making it easier for the reader to search the genre they wish to read along with Amazon & B&N recommending more books on the home pages, the reader will have no trouble finding something good to read. This economic crisis, while slowly improving, has changed the way people spend their money. If I can buy a Steve Berry book for my Kindle for $5.99 or $9.99 instead of $25, I'm more likely to do that. If I can try out a new author for $ .99, I'm not losing much if I hate the story or if it's poorly written. Self-publishing serves the reader and the writer and makes the traditional publisher find a way to adapt.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Larry asks, “Has any author in the history of publishing ever sought to serve the reader?”

    It isn’t mutually exclusive. Whatever an author’s other motives, the author can still desire to serve the reader. I love when readers write to tell me how much they enjoyed one of my books. I don’t believe that is because I want someone to stroke my ego, I sincerely want people to enjoy reading my books. I can only assume that the same is true for other authors as well. I’ve encountered some that I thought had become a little too big for their britches, but most of the authors I know love their readers and treat them like dear friends.

  • Ruth Madison

    >For my particular niche, I am one of maybe three books in the entire world. Publishers don't want to take me on because I have such a small niche and potential market, but for the people that are in it, my books benefit them tremendously.

    I self-published my book and I get frequent messages from people who are so grateful that I wrote it, that I was willing to talk about something that no one is talking about.

    I definitely think my self-published books is benefiting readers.

  • Clair LaVaye

    >I am interested in the use of the term "instant gratification" used here with regard to the reader. Recently, I wanted to read "Hell Rig" by JE Gurley. I was kicking myself that I didn't buy the paperback at the World Horror Convention in Austin.

    I went to Amazon, downloaded the sample on my Kindle, read to the end of the sample, and hit "buy book." I read the entire book that day/night (it's a great book, by the way, and I can't wait to see it made into a movie because the author has great visuals in there). Talk about instant gratification for the reader!

    I also find that after a week or two of wallowing in book after book, I wind up with a big pile of…books. What do you get? A house full of books piled next to beds, couches. In the end I have do something with the dusty remains of my entertainment.

    In contrast, my Kindle sits neatly by the bed with about 185 books stored on it, looking very small and humble.

    I have spoken as a reader on the advantages of having digital reading options. But I am also a writer. I am always amused by writers who worry aloud about the lack of quality in self-published books. If you are a great writer, then write great stuff. Don't worry about whether there are many other not-so-great books out there.

    If someone wants to post their writing to Amazon without extensive proofing and editing and revision, what of it? I self-published my illustrated novel, THE HOUSE OF DEBAUCH. I slaved over it for two years. But if readers don't like the novel enough to suggest it to their friends, even a big push from Doubleday would not make me immortal.

    The readers will sort out whether our work is any good or not, over time…sometime long after most of us are dead and gone. There has always been clutter in the marketplace. Always tough to find the good stuff. Change can be good. Choices are usually good. As a reader, I love choices. As a writer, ditto. Complaining because there are not enough gatekeepers to the readers smells like fear.

    I give my readers the choice of reading my work on Kindle Amazon, on Wowio.com, with Nook, Apple Bookstore, wherever I can find to place it for sale. I even sell my books, plays, and comic books in Second Life. :-) I am also submitting the novel to indie book publishers to see if someone is willing to spend the money to print it. That would be really awesome and there is not that much crossover between digital sales and print sales for my market, since collectors want to collect as much as they want to read.

    Respectfully,

    Clair LaVaye
    House of Debauch
    (I won't spam with links, if you want to sample my writing just google House of Debauch)

  • David A. Todd

    >I offer this challenge to traditional publishers (the NY Big 6 plus the major CBA houses): If you want to serve your readers, you need to be giving them more choices, not less. I know you are rejecting a lot of good books, books of high writing quality and excellent story-telling, all because you don't think they will sell. I have heard this multiple times from agents and editors: "Your writing is great! I can't sell it."

    Okay, then, open a new imprint—call it Breakout Books, or something similar. Use it to e-publish that next tier of books that you really want to paper publish but don't think you can make money on. Figure out how to do it on the cheap. Produce good covers, but don't agonize over them in committee. Mini-edit the book, rather than apply sequential story, line, copy, proof-reading; make it just good enough. Ditch all publicity except catalogue listing. Heck, that's pretty much how it is anyhow, right? Get the book to the market in 4 months instead of 24. Price them competitively with indie books.

    Do this for about double the number of books you publish in the traditional way, or maybe for any book the acquisitions editor brings to the pub committee (indicating the book has obvious merit), but which doesn't pass the committee. Try this for a couple of years. These books will have the backing of a major house, the vetting by an agent and acquisitions editor, a little attention by the ones readers consider gatekeepers, and thus might attract the traditional audiences of your house. Do it for books you really like but aren't sure will sell.

    You might be surprised at the results. You might find a few books that will self-fund their subsequent paper production. The ones that won't sell will have minimal overhead expense, no warehousing expense, no distribution costs, and almost no returns.

    You would be serving your readers, I believe. I don't see how you can go wrong, and it might just save your rapidly shrinking businesses.

  • Sandra Ulbrich Almazan

    >Each reader is different, and an individual's tastes can vary from day to day. Therefore, I'd rather have more books out there, even if it makes it harder to sort through the To Be Read folder on my Kindle.

    As a e-book reader, I really like being able to read a sample of the book before deciding whether or not to buy it. When I was buying paper books in a store, I let myself be swayed by the cover or back blurb, but I didn't make a regular habit of reading the first few pages before deciding if I wanted to buy the book. Now, the cover or blurb may entice me to download the sample, but the book itself has to clinch the sale.

    As for self-published books, I would like to see indie writers come together in a guild (or several guilds, if they want to band together by genre). They could work together on craft. Perhaps the guilds could even recognize outstanding self-published books with awards to attract readers.

  • The Pen and Ink Blog

    >I think the best thing that ever happened for the readers is Amazon's first pages preview. As a reader, I have been burned one to many times. I don't want to jump blind into a book anymore. I have to physically hold the book and read the first page/paragraph and the jacket copy OR I want to see it on Amazon's first pages. I blog a lot of first lines/paragraphs. While I cannot copy and paste from Amazon's first pages, I can hand copy the ones I want to blog. Save me a lot of Library and Bookstore time. When I blogged first line/paragraphs from the Cybill's, I only blogged about books where publishers had used the first pages feature on Amazon.

  • Vinny

    >True I don't envy the reader looking through the book lists clogged with self-published works of dubious quality. However publishers have forsaken their gatekeeper role by paying millions for the flavor of the month ghost written biographies while very capable writers get passed by simply because the market isn't right. Self-publishing is the new slush pile for better or worse only time will tell which it shall be better or worse for the reader.

  • tamarapaulin

    >I love GoodReads, but … doesn't it seem like most books with more than 5,000 reviews have basically the same rating? It's somewhere between 3.4 and 3.6 for nearly everything.

    As a book grows in popularity, its rating seems to go down, pulled by people who say "everyone keeps shoving this book in my face so I finally read it and blah blah blah don't see what the fuss is about."

    I don't think we'll ever have a "Roger Ebert of books" because they take so much longer to read than it does to watch a movie … plus there are so many of them!

  • terri de

    >Bravo, Bravo, I believe I have several MSs that would in the best interest of readers to find a home at a publishing house but I have not found that home for my fiction yet. I firmly believe that my gift is story telling and not self-publishing. I will continue to work hard at perfecting my writing and finding a home for my MSs.

  • Heather Marsten

    >What an interesting post! I can understand an author, wanting to be published, taking the risk to self-publish. Perhaps, for some books without wide audience appeal, that is a viable option. Sadly, many electronically self-published books could benefit from editing from agents and publishers.

    The publishing process (and I'm not published yet :)) is a longer process fraught with potential disappointment and rejection. Yet, I think authors who persist benefit from the input of agents and publishers.

    I am opting to take my time and try to work with agents and publishers.

    Thank you for your insightful and helpful posts. Hopefully your advice will permit me to get that contract.

    Heather

  • Wendy Dewar Hughes

    >I find this view incredibly smug and patronizing. To presume that readers are too dim to decide for themselves what they want to read and must have "professional" gatekeepers in the publishing industry do their thinking for them is insulting.

    Hundreds of books are published every year that make one wonder how they were ever chosen. Editorial mistakes in books are not unheard-of either. To claim that traditional publishing always produces a better product is simply not true.

    Clearly, self-publishing is not the right choice for everyone because there are lots of steps involved in producing a quality product. However, the recent proliferation of self-publishing and editorial services make this a viable choice for authors who want to get their work out to an audience.

    In what way does this differ from a artist offering his or her work directly to the public rather than through a gallery? Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, why not let the beholder decide what is beautiful?

  • Jerry Eckert

    >Is some kind of rating system possible? An industry standard?

  • TL Jeffcoat

    >I have to say I've read several books the last few months. Some were Self-Published and some Traditional. The last few books I read from a book store were pretty much… well; I don't recommend them to my friends. I wasn't excited about them. That's not saying I've never read a good traditionally published book, because I have read some really great ones (loved Under the Dome by King). But the last month or so I've been downloading self-published books by authors I've actually chatted with in various social networks instead, trying to understand what is so great or not so great about this e-book thing. And so far every self-pub book I've read has been good or even great. I've seen crap floating around in the Self-Pub pool on the web as well, and that's where the "I only read traditional published books because they are better" attitudes come from I'm sure. Well, those people are really missing out, their loss. The Self-Published books I've read so far are just as good (even edited equally as well) as the books I've read the last few years from bookstores.

    I was never one to think that I should trust any other entity to make up my mind for me as a reader. This is why I investigated this rise in Self-Publishing.

    I'm not against Traditional Publishing at all, but after the last book I bought at Borders left a bad taste in my mouth, I'm not going to ever say that the current gatekeepers are the best source to shop for books. I've read a lot of duds those companies have published. Like another comment above said, it looks more like they are playing it safe on what they think will sell. Safe is boring.

    I don't see the Big 6 as the gatekeepers going away. If anything, Self-Publishing authors should strive to reach the same quality of editing, art, etc. I know I do. I've already hired my team and it hasn't been cheap, but I'll take my chances.

  • mooderino

    >The current system doesn't serve me as a reader either. I already have to find out stuff for myself as publisher/booksellers/gatekeepers try to influence me with their views.

    I'm happy to find my own treasure rather than be spoonfed whatever they think will make them most money.

    If I was afraid of a little effort I wouldn't read books.

    @mooderino

  • Crotchety Old Fan

    >Neal said: "My agent tells me that 99% of submissions her agency receives are from people 'who can't write.' Presumably all these people believe they are ready for publication or else they wouldn't have sent off their MSS and would therefore be willing to consider self-publishing."

    I'm actually beginning to think that the problem is worse than that: I'm thinking that 99% of those submitting that 99% crap literally don't know what 'good' writing is. They don't think their crap is good because of wishful thinking or hubris, they think it's good enough for submission through ignorance.

    The comment from the guy who Jesus is covering: the slush readers at publishing houses have no clue as to the economic status of the people who submit ms – unless you tell them so in your cover letter.

    On the validity of "less choice"; you don't realize it, but most of your consumer choices are the result of someone, somewhere, deciding whether it will be available to you or not: you might very well have liked a car model that never made it out of design better than the one you have; or maybe that squash-based chocolate bar would appeal more than coconut to you – but you never saw it because some 'gatekeeper', somewhere, someone with a fair degree of expertise in their field, decided 'no' without ever consulting you.

    In most cases, quality over quantity is the correct way to go. If you think the gatekeepers are not serving you – announce your publishing company and an open submission process. I have a very strong feeling that you will be thinking about amending your arguments in very short order.

  • Angus Muller

    >Good post Rachelle and a good point, I work for a self publishing service provider and the "gatekeeper" issue has been a big one on my mind – our authors are paying authors and so as we are providing a publishing service should we have a say in what should and what should not get published? As the author is paying to be published you could say the answer is no but we ourselves came to the conclusion there should be at least some "gate keeping" duties on our end.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Angus,

    Just because an author is willing to pay doesn't mean that you have to take his money. One of the things that make some of the better subsidy presses stand out is that they are more selective in which clients they accept. The clients you reject always have the option of self-publishing, but it would be beneficial to your company and the clients you accept if you have some standard of quality.

  • Ane Mulligan

    >I wholeheartedly agree. I've been horribly disappointed by every single self-published book I've read. As a reviewer, I'm asked all the time to read and/or endorse self-published books. I now refuse without exception. I simply don't have the time to read bad books. While I realize a few writers have theirs professionally edited, and the rare good one exists, the majority are so poorly written, they aren't worth the paper they're written on.
    They do not serve the reader at all, only the author's ego.

  • Sarah McCabe

    >I think you've got it backwards. More books is always better! As long as there are always tools for finding what you want, like sampling and reviews, (and there's no reason there won't always be) wading through the piles of books is really not a problem.

    These changes are actually empowering readers. Instead of publishers being the gatekeepers and keeping certain kinds of stories out of readers' hands, readers are now their own gatekeepers. Readers alone decide if a book will succeed or fail in self publishing.

    As a reader, I think these changes are fantastic.

  • Judith van Praag

    >Sandra Ulbrich Almazan comes up with an interesting solution re: Quality Control – An Indie Writers Quild.

    Just like the beer brewers of yore who had to sit in their lederhosen on a puddle of their own beer to prove that they hadn't use sugar, Indie writers have to prove their craft before they can enter the guild.

    No sugar coating in the Age of Self- and e-Pub!

  • Claude Nougat

    >Great post, Rachelle!

    You've zeroed in on what's at the heart of the publisher's and agent's role: sifting out the pearls from the slushpile, i.e. the "gatekeeper role" and that's a role for readers, to ensure good reads!

    If publishers remember their gatekeeper role and strengthen it, I'm sure they'll ride out the digital revolution as winners! I believe some of them have realized this when they created Bookish…

  • Tricia Clasen

    >I found this whole conversation so engaging. It's a new twist on a very hot topic. I can't help but process it from multiple identities. As a writer, I can totally understand what leads people to self-pub, and it's something I've pondered doing myself. I'm not philosophically opposed to the concept, though I still believe in the benefits of traditional publisher.

    On the other hand, I am a reader, too. I have yet to read a self-published book. I'm open to it, but I think it's more the fact that I and many readers already have established gatekeeping means. I don't trust that just because a book has been published traditionally that it is either particularly good or good for me. There are so many subjective opinions and tastes that I must use other filters. What are they? Friends, best seller lists, reviews, social networking, etc. In other words, I tend to think gatekeeping may be the same in self-pubbling and traditional pubbling. It's just that there are more options coming to the gate.

  • ChrisB

    >My experience with self-published works is mostly limited to Kindle ebooks — a lot of the .99 and free stuff appears to be self-published, and I have to wade through a lot of sub-standard stuff to get a few gems. In traditional publishing, someone has already sifted those books out.

  • amber polo

    >As an author and former librarian, I want to sell books (of course) but I also remember when libraries served as gatekeepers as they built collections stocked with only the best books published.
    With reduced budgets, lack of staff for quality book selection, and the high volume of titles published, I doubt few libraries are keeping up.

  • Ulysses

    >The point you make is vital and is far too often forgotten. My own take on this is here.

    But, a few thoughts:

    Readers want good books (the definition of "good" being relative), and they are willing to put in a certain amount of effort to find them. They will read reviews and ask recommendations from friends and browse an acre of shelves at the bookstore. But how much work are they willing to do?

    No one can doubt that the rise of the web and e-books has dramatically lowered the barriers to "publishing" (the definition of which is only slightly less fuzzy than that of "good"). But the new ease of publishing has created a glut in the low-quality end of the market. There is no one, currently, who is willing to act as the reader's advocate by wading through the dross and promoting the gems.

    As a reader, I have neither the time nor the inclination to wade through 200 or 2000 or 20000 listings for self-published books in the hope of finding something worth the 8 hours of my time it will take to read… regardless of the price point. I can make $.99 or even $10.99 back in a fraction of a working day. I can't retrieve the time spent trying to find a good book or trying to read a bad book.

    As a reader, I WANT gatekeepers. I want agents to be selective, and publishers to know that their reputation rests on the quality of the product in my hand (or on my screen). I want to know that a group of people read through that book before me and believed it was good enough to sacrifice their time and money to put it in my hand. I want that implicit assurance that a lot of people believed this book would entertain, or educate, or enlighten me.

    With self-publishing, the only thing of which I can be sure is that the author believed it was good enough to publish. I don't question their judgement. However, it's no guarantee that it's good enough for me to read.

  • Rebecca Stroud

    >@Ane Mulligan – While I also wholeheartedly agree that there is a plethora of crap floating around in the publishing world (both trad and indie), I do take a bit of exception to your remark, "They do not serve the reader at all, only the author's ego" regarding self-published books.

    I am a writer. I have been for over a decade. As a former journalist, my features were frequent cover stories and my column was anchored.

    I decided to "do my own thing" because of the horrendously long lapse of time in trad publishing between agent & an actual book on the shelf…if that would've even happened.

    So I'm writing now to serve the reader…just as I've always done. I'm certainly not doing it for my health nor my ego. It is what I do. Period.

    I understand that you are not lumping every indie author into one "yucky writing" basket. However, I know for a fact that there is more quality in self-pubbed books than you've apparently seen. In other words, it is not all that rare…

  • Trisha Wolfe

    >As a writer and YA book blogger, I talk to published authors from all areas–self, indie, and traditional–as well as many readers. YA loving readers tend to find their next read from book bloggers and places like Goodreads as opposed to high priced marketing gimmicks by the big six. They say they tend to tune it out, just as they do a commercial pushing a product on them. Honest reviewers are needed more then ever as we move toward this new era in publishing. Also, an author that puts herself/himself out there and blogs or social networks with the public and offers free sample downloads of their work before the reader invests in it, I feel will be the ones to rise to the top in this digital world.

  • Mary Johnson

    >Recently, for some work I had to do, I read a pile of not-very-well written novels (from traditional publishers). After the fourth one, I found that for the first time in my life, I just didn't feel like reading anymore. Poor writing does more than just clutter up our field of choices–it can impact readers' willingness to read.This is why it would be so helpful to have someone doing some sorting of these newly available e-books, self-pubbed choices, and even the traditional publishers who are producing shoddy work. I trust that the field will settle down eventually and we'll get more and more review sites.

  • Mark Asher

    >Many of the self-published books are from traditionally published writers. Some are new works and some are backlist with reverted rights.

    There are a lot of really good self-published work, though nearly all of it tends to be genre stuff.

    Readers will recommend books to one another — that's what social media is for, sharing and recommending. They will not have too many problems finding books.

    And you know what's great about the problem of too many books? If I want to read a western with zombies in it, I have a much better chance of finding one now that the gates have been thrown open.

  • Kathi Oram Peterson

    >You've raised some great questions. And isn't it the readers who writers are working for? We absolutely need to find a way to make the new market easier for them to find the books they want. Thanks for turning this sideways and giving us another view.

  • Anonymous

    >What about the Listeners?

    The rise of the internet and digital recording options has made it possible for many to place their music "out there", by-passing the traditional gatekeepers of the music industry.

    But as I’ve considered the proliferation of indie music that will surely grow exponentially over the next few years, I began to wonder: Who benefits from all of this?

    Surely not the listeners, who already have thousands of songs from which to choose, and who will never in a lifetime run out of choices even if all recording were to cease today.

    The listener is faced with an increasingly mind-boggling array of choices, and the difficult task of trying to ascertain which of those choices will suit their tastes.

    Record executives, for all the complaints against them, have been serving the listener for decades. In their gatekeeper role, they’ve tried to release only those songs they believe the listeners will pay for and appreciate. They’ve worked with songwriters, often for months or years, to revise, edit and polish lyrics so that the listener receives a quality product. They’ve worked with all the old-fashioned distribution channels to see that songs appear in the places (i.e. retail stores) where listeners will find them.

    Who will serve the listener now? Who amongst us has the listener's best interest in mind, rather than the songwriter's? Who will help listeners identify “good songs”? Who’s going to tell us which songs represent excellence in the use of instruments and in the expression of lyrics? I believe most listeners still want this kind of assurance and gatekeeping—they have neither the time nor the inclination (or even the skill) to do it themselves.

    The argument that "more books = bad thing" is such a strange one. Readers have a selection process that they're comfortable with, just as listeners find their music via a particular radio station, or out clubbing, or from friends, or by surfing random music and clips and YouTube. Some of these selection processes mean they will never hear anything but a tiny sub-genre of music. Some will fall in love with music that only a tiny minority thinks is even passable.

    Limiting choice is not "thinking of the readers".

  • Jesse

    >>Who will help readers
    >identify “good books”?

    Other readers and sample chapters.

    The ebook movement serves the reader in a couple of different ways. It lowers the price of books, unless they are put out by the Big Six (who don't seem to understand the economics of all this). It also gives readers a better selection in particular genres or topics that traditional publishers ignore or (at best) put out infrequently. Erotica and certain types of horror are two good examples of that on the fiction side of things. There are too many examples to list when it comes to non-fiction.

    Ultimately, the only ones who are losing out are the big traditional publishers. Since they really aren't fulfilling their "gatekeeping" duties these days, anyway (particularly when it comes to editing), I don't really feel sorry for them (just for their employees).

  • mulligangirl

    >Chiming in a bit late here, but I find this topic fascinating. Publishers, I think, will continue to be trusted to serve the reader. I expect the way they do that will shift from a one-way broadcast to more of a two-way dialogue. They will probably listen to the reader’s voice more than ever because it’s never been easier for a reader’s voice to be heard.

    But a publisher’s seal of approval will only be one component in the sea of voices, and I see readers relying increasingly on recommendations from “friends”—especially through digital media. That digital word of mouth—positive or negative will serve the reader. “Ratings” or reputation of some sort from others will help readers decide whose recommendation to trust, and on-line organizations, groups, forums, etc. of common interests will help get the word to like-minded individuals.

    Writers will need to continue to place ‘serving the reader’ at top of mind (has it ever been any other way?), which means putting out a valuable product—valuable to their targeted audience. On top of that, those writers who figure out how to connect with and engage their readers in an organic, meaningful, non ‘salesy’ way will help create promoters of their work to build and keep that WOM going. This is fast becoming a writer’s reality, whether they e pub or not. I can see agents adding another layer of value here by helping their writers focus on how to do this best for their brand, which in turn will serve the readers.

    I think there’s room for everyone in this game. It’s just the way it’s played that will change, and the reader will come out the winner in the long run—because readers are smart, and they will quickly figure out how to find the work they most enjoy and they’ll get it more quickly, at a lower cost, and via their format of choice.

  • Nancy Beck

    >Wendy Dewar Hughes said, I find this view incredibly smug and patronizing. To presume that readers are too dim to decide for themselves what they want to read and must have "professional" gatekeepers in the publishing industry do their thinking for them is insulting.

    QFT. IMHO, anyway. :-)

    So what if readers are faced with more and more choices – this is a bad thing? How? I now can SAMPLE an ebook and decide, after reading the first few pages, whether or not it's worth my time. If it doesn't interest me, I move onto the next one. Wow, that's hard to do.

    Finding the really good stories among the flotsam and jetsam? Review blogs, social networking, etc. Everyone has an opinion. And, again, you can sample before buying anything.

    Better ways to serve readers? How about getting a story out to them in less than two years? Yes, editing, marketing, cover, et al. figure into the mix, but having to wait two years? And sometimes revising the story to death to get it to fit a certain house style or something?

    No thanks.

  • Selena Kitt

    >I find this view incredibly smug and patronizing. To presume that readers are too dim to decide for themselves what they want to read and must have "professional" gatekeepers in the publishing industry do their thinking for them is insulting.

    Thank you. It's incredibly insulting and patronizing. As a reader, I'm offended.

    But I don't know that this was ever meant as a real "argument" – all you need to do nowadays is pick a side in the ebook debate and post it on your blog and people will come and argue. Way to bring in traffic!

    Everyone's out for themselves, even when they're talking about being "for" something or someone else. There are very few people in the world whose motivations are truly altruistic. Being "for the reader" is just an angle.

    If you're going to be selfish, at least be honest about it.

    Me, I'm going to go cash my great big checks from Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Pubit and keep writing books the Big 6 wouldn't publish…….

    :P

  • Alastair Mayer

    >The "gatekeepers" certainly weren't helping this reader when they decided to drop a favored author mid-series because sales figures weren't quite what they were hoping for. As has happened more than a few times.

    Let's face it, the gatekeeping function in traditional publishing is driven by the P&L statement, not (directly) by the quality of the writing.

  • Alastair Mayer

    >I'm highly amused at the method by which a reader chooses a book as implied by Rachelle's concern.

    When I go into a bookstore (or log on to Amazon) I do not pick up the first book I come to, examine it to see if it's something I want to read, and put it back (or not), then move onto the next book and so on through all the books on all the shelves in the store (or on Amazon) until I've chosen the books I want.

    If that was the method by which readers chose books, Rachelle's point might be valid — self- or indie-pubbed work would add to the volume through which to search, presumably with a somewhat worse wheat-to-chaff ratio.

    I don't know anyone who chooses books that way.

    At the very least, I know which kind of book I'm interested in — genre fiction, non-fiction, what subject, etc. (If I'm looking for light-hearted space adventure SF I'm apparently out of luck, though — a (very) senior editor at one of the big publishers tells me that bookstores aren't buying that sort of thing at the moment, so neither is she.) I know what authors I like, what kind of cover illustration typically (not always) goes with the kind of story I might like, and — on Amazon — I get the automatic recommendations tying in what I've already bought or looked at to what others have. I also get the rankings from other readers, and — just as in a bookstore — I get to browse a sample of the book.

    If the sample sucks, I won't buy it — and that has applied to more than a few books by "bestselling authors" on the supermarket shelves, too. (No names, but there's a techno-thriller author whose command of the "techno" blows dead bunnies, and apparently whose publisher doesn't want to pay for a good technical editor. So much for gatekeeping.)

    There have been times when I've taken a chance on a book based solely on the publisher — when the publishing house was new and started by someone with an established reputation in the field (Del Rey and Baen, and that time is long past for both of them). But mostly I — like other readers — make choices based on the recommendations of people I know and my own knowledge of the field.

    I think it's pretty silly to assume that most readers do otherwise.

  • Cathy Webster (Olliffe)

    >I think the best thing about self-publishing is the need for gatekeepers disappears. Limiting choice is never a good idea. Never.

  • Gary

    >There is no question that there are many poorly written self published books, however, there are also a lot of poorly written books from traditional publishers. It is very frustrating for a new author to see poorly written novels coming out of main stream publishers who will not even look at the new authors quality work.

    With some of the Christian publishers being bought up my non-Christian companies the lines between Christian and Secular publishing are being blurred.

    Recently, I was told that less than 3% of all books published sell more than 1000 copies. If that is true then, the novel I self published last summer through the WestBow division of Thomas Nelson is in the top 3% and that is without any promotion to speak of. You can not judge a book by its cover just as you can't judge it by being traditionally published or self published.
    Gary P. Hansen

  • Livia

    >I'll have to disagree (strongly) with you on this one. Publishers don't serve readers. They serve the bottom line. Not that there's anything wrong with that, they're a business after all. But consider…

    1. $35 hardbacks, with the paperback kept purposefully back for six months so readers have to pay a higher price? Self published writers right now are the only publishers listening to readers about price.

    2. Who is more likely to cancel a series halfway through due to low sales, leaving readers dangling, a traditional publisher, or an indie author?

    3. Who is more likely to NOT publish a book because it is too niche?

    4. Out of print backlists! If you love an author, soon you will be able to access all her works -because of self publishing.

    5. A self published authors also much more in touch with her readers than the publishing group. She has to be. She sells directly to them. She's the one who receives the fan mail. If readers have complaints about cover art, misleading cover copy, anything else, who is more likely to respond in a quick way? A self published author, or a big six publishing house? Who is more likely to print a book cover that changes the African American main character into a white girl?

    If your only worry for readers is that they will be buried under a whole bunch of books, then that's way too short sighted a view of things. There are already too many books in the market for readers to handle. My guess is that most readers won't even notice the increase in number of books. And readers will continue to choose books the way they always have, by recommendation and reputation.

  • jesswords10

    >Wow Rachelle, yours is the first opinion I've heard that makes this idea clear. I hadn't even thought to challenge the notion of self-publishing because every agent, editor, author I heard at the last conference I went to said it's the way of the future for most authors. I'm glad you've provided an alternative way to look at it. The conference panel also stated we're in the Wild Wild West of Publishing right now and I think that's very true. It really is too early to predict exactly how e-books will shape our publishing industry, writer wages, reader accessibility, literacy rates, and economics. Will kindles and amazons one day be a necessity in school, and textbooks could be downloaded? It's interesting. What will our future be?

  • Anonymous

    >One of the biggest complaints I have with the 'gatekeepers' is their assumption that they understand what readers want more than the readers themselves do. Frankly, I'd like to see some more variety. As much as I like paranormal I'd really like to see some more selection on the bookshelves. I understand there's limited shelf space but this is where the gatekeepers fail. Their purpose is not to serve the reader, but to serve the publisher, to generate sales. They follow trends, sometimes slavishly. Everything now is urban fantasy or YA, what about those readers who want something different? It's been a long time since I found a book on the bookshelves that I wanted to read. I'm tired of dark and dreary, of angst-ridden alpha males with a surly curl to their lip who treat the women in their lives poorly (perpetuating a very bad myth) until they discover they can't live without them. I want some variety, some selection, and that is what I'm not getting.

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