Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

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Hillsy
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Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

Post by Hillsy » September 17th, 2012, 8:20 am

A name popped up on a blog I follow, M.R.Mathias, and I recalled the Mathias Meltdown I'd read about before. If you don't know the controversy - plug in either "mathais meltdown" or "the man who thought he was king" into google and have a read...don't worry, I'll wait.

Anyway, I analysed my opinion, realised I'd only really read the negative comments, so went looking for thoughts from the other side of the coin. I found a post in which Mathias commented heavily and brought me up sort of short. The blogger was a book reviewer who was cataloguing reasons why he'd never review self-pubbed novels: One point he made caused much consternation (it was also slightly misread by said affronted people, which is often the way) was that....

"the default opinion that the quality of their work isn’t going to be as good as those books that have been through agents, editors, publishing committees, copy editors, book buyers for retailers – most of whom they have needed to get past in order to get published."

....The reaction was interesting. Many self-pubbers defended themselves by actually admitting there was a lot of garbage out there (percentages varied from 90% down to an equal footing with Trad publishing, which by their tone felt like 89%) - but that many authors also knuckled down and took a critical sledghammer to their work before putting it out there (paying for cover art, editors, copyeditors, and putting the book through a rigorous critiquing regieme). So I immediately thought: Well done to you, that's the kind of author I'd be interested in reading, self or trad pubbed. However, the question then became apparent: if both sides are in agreement the number of self-pubs out there that don't achieve minimum standards of quality is a hurdle of intederminate size to good self pubs novels, how do we filter?

Now this is where Mathias comes back into it. The modern, market theory would be that sales equate quality; readers wont continually buy dreck given far wider choice. Mathias hammers at this point continuously in a rather obnoxious, self-aggradising but eye-opening way. His sales figures, profits, and market exposure all seems to point towards a good quality of work (indeed many people, while annoyed by his attitude, did concede he had ability as a writer).

Reading between the lines, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say his ugly marketing strategy is borne of frustration at the traditional industry. Fine, but the problem with linking quality to sales is manyfold. Do you need to print your sales figures eveywhere along with your blurb? What about buying your own books to manufacture sales? How do you overcome clever marketing tricks like sockpuppetting over negative reviews, or purchasing good reviews, that make the product seem more appealing to generate false sales figures? What about the great books written by poor marketers - wasn't self publishing supposed to eradiacate great books falling through the cracks?....

The more I read the more I saw all the issues voiced against the perceived poor quality of trad publishing mirrored in self publishing, but without the addaitional stamp of approval of publishing house backing. Linking success to quality has problems, and without some kind of in depth review I wouldn't like to say how large or small they are....but it got me thinking.

...Why hasn't the self pub community got together somehow and formed some kind of minimal standard that it will adhere too (objective stuff like spell checks, copy editing and so on....not opinions on the quality of the writing), then put a system in place that would divide, at a glance, the write-paste-upload crowd from those taking a more measured, serious approach? I immediately though of the peer review system in the scientific community, but upon closer examination while the concept of tough self-regulation to maintain credibility is laudable, the practise seems to have a few errors.

So have at it, think tank it up: How would you look to create a filter that readers - and reviewers - can use to quickly split the rigorously tested self-pubbed novels from the fire-and-forget dreck?

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Re: Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

Post by Sommer Leigh » September 17th, 2012, 11:43 am

I think it's the one big draw of self-pubbing is also it's biggest fault - anyone can do it.

And not everyone should.

Harsh, but honest. There's been much said about the "gatekeeper" hate, but I think it is a very necessary cog in the system. We need someone who can tell a writer they aren't ready, they aren't good enough, or that their work isn't up to snuff (caveat: yet. How many of us think our first novel attempt was worth showing to the world? That doesn't mean all future attempts won't get progressively better.) And we need a place in the system that offers trust and confidence to readers that they're buying quality.

Since there is no self-pub gatekeepers, the influx is immeasurable.

Because of the mass volume, I don't think there's any one system that will ever keep up with it, though I think at some point in the future we are going to see a site or a series of sites dedicated to various genres that will become the next gen gatekeepers, except these will be made up of readers, writers, librarians, teachers, bloggers...people with a certain skill set. Kind of like Kirkus on a bigger scale and specifically for self-pub writers. You get a starred review from them and you're in. If not, you stay in the big pond with all the other little fish.

I hope we see more a la carte companies popping up that can offer editing, marketing, cover design, promotional materials, and advising all in a one stop shop sort of place. Sort of like hiring your own publishing team. These teams will separate those who are willing to fork over the cash to give their book a shot from those who aren't as serious.

Right now I think there are way too many self published books filling the virtual shelves and way too many of them are just bad. They're bad and aren't ready. Not to say an author won't ever be ready, but authors are usually poor judges on when that sacred moment finally occurs. Maybe we'll see more indie e-publishers filling in the inbetween of traditional and self-pubs in specific genres. Romance has already started doing this.
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Re: Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

Post by Doug Pardee » September 17th, 2012, 12:27 pm

Hillsy wrote:The modern, market theory would be that sales equate quality; readers wont continually buy dreck given far wider choice.
The difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no difference.

I personally haven't read it so I can't vouch for the poor writing, but I've heard that a certain notorious trilogy that has been in the top 5 sellers for the past few months is quite poorly written. I've heard that it was poorly written when it was self-pubbed, and now that it's got a "real" publisher, it's still poorly written.

My impression is that Americans (and maybe others) generally are either ignorant or apathetic about writing quality, at least in genre fiction. They read to be entertained. They'll even deal with a poorly-constructed story is fine as long as it's entertaining. My personal guess is that maybe 10-15% of Americans recognize quality writing and care about it. That leaves 85-90% of the market as "low-hanging fruit" that can be plucked with sloppy writing.

From my experience (perhaps with a tainted perspective), even the big publishers are cutting back on quality control for genre fiction.

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Re: Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

Post by Hillsy » September 17th, 2012, 6:59 pm

Sommer Leigh wrote:Because of the mass volume, I don't think there's any one system that will ever keep up with it, though I think at some point in the future we are going to see a site or a series of sites dedicated to various genres that will become the next gen gatekeepers, except these will be made up of readers, writers, librarians, teachers, bloggers...people with a certain skill set. Kind of like Kirkus on a bigger scale and specifically for self-pub writers. You get a starred review from them and you're in. If not, you stay in the big pond with all the other little fish.
Taking the gatekeeper cog and replacing it is one way of getting that "credibility level" self-pubbing seems to have difficulty with. And when authors within that system themselves are saying there is a real difference between "good" and "bad" self-pubbing methods, that question of credibility does carry a lot of importance. The big task is building a "gatekeeper" system that the self-pub world will accept as valid. As good intentioned as all the people are in the example you gave I think there's two key points that might catch with the authors themselves. 1) These will be essentially volunteers (albeit skilled ones) who may or may not have the time to review ALL the books, or perhaps just not quickly enough. Therefore a self-pubber is waiting months for the network of volunteers to get round to evaluating. 2) A reviewing team actually doesn't have anything riding on it, which may prompt a self-pubber to ask if those reviewing are truly any better than the agent "gatekeepers" they so riled against before. Or can they be bribed? Will they sell starred reviews for 500 bucks?

I agree entirely that the selection system from shop front to reader's hands will likely involve a far more robust review system that will collate reviews from "experts" to mark/catagorise novels so a reader can make a better choice.

I think the a la carte production team will be a go-er in the future, definitely. But again, is it anymore streamlined to check each novel for copyeditors, proofreaders, workshop teams, artists etc than what we have now? Plus you'll get some idiot who'll set up fake companies just the get an approved stamp in this manner..

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Re: Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

Post by Hillsy » September 17th, 2012, 7:19 pm

Doug Pardee wrote: My impression is that Americans (and maybe others) generally are either ignorant or apathetic about writing quality, at least in genre fiction. They read to be entertained. They'll even deal with a poorly-constructed story is fine as long as it's entertaining. My personal guess is that maybe 10-15% of Americans recognize quality writing and care about it. That leaves 85-90% of the market as "low-hanging fruit" that can be plucked with sloppy writing.
Be that as it may, much of the "stonewalling" self-pubbers come up against is based on perceived quality control. In the case of the meltdown by Mathias, it was about what constitutes a published vs a self-published author, and later about why review sites turn away self-pubbed books out of hand. And lets be honest we're talking about a level of writing well below even that of "that trilogy" here.

You're right to focus on the entertainment aspect, and I think that is one reason people do go down the self-pubbing route is to say "here, it may not be Shakespeare, but be entertained!". By bypassing the trad publishing world they can connect more readers to more entertainment without the need for marketing and genre and "trends" to get in the way of all that. That's fine but there still seems, even within that self-pubbing community, a desire to separate the "professionals" from the "deluded" so that self-pubbers can at least get the some of the access into the mainstream media as the trad published novels.

And reading the comments on the threads around these controversies, an attitude of allowing everything through and emboldening the reader to do all the research is annoying as many self-pubbers as it is trad-pubbers

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Re: Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

Post by Mira » September 18th, 2012, 4:29 pm

Maybe I'm in the minority, but I'm cool with letting readers sort through all the books to find the books they want to read. They do it with You-tube and I-tunes. and it seems to work okay.

If people are concerned that folks aren't familiar with what quality literature is, however, I think that's an issue for the educational system. I don't think it's something that should be "controlled" through the marketplace.

But I do agree that systems to help readers sort through books will arise, because they will be very useful for readers, and readers will want them.

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Re: Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

Post by MattLarkin » September 19th, 2012, 11:04 pm

Mira wrote:Maybe I'm in the minority, but I'm cool with letting readers sort through all the books to find the books they want to read. They do it with You-tube and I-tunes. and it seems to work okay.

If people are concerned that folks aren't familiar with what quality literature is, however, I think that's an issue for the educational system. I don't think it's something that should be "controlled" through the marketplace.

But I do agree that systems to help readers sort through books will arise, because they will be very useful for readers, and readers will want them.
I agree. Readers are not going to drown in the dreck, because that's not how searching a virtual marketplace works. No one literally wades through hundreds of pages of listings in the genre when looking for a new book.

Goodreads and LibraryThing (and Amazon) already kind of do this. Can reviews be artificial and misleading? Sure. But a review is only one person's opinion. When it starts to be many, many people's opinion, it becomes harder to discount, of course.

Besides, you can sample ebooks before you buy them. If we're talking about astute readers seeking more than mere entertainment, they should be able to determine quality after a few pages. The reading of which takes no more time than reading a bunch of reviews.


Edit: Also, if you want to find indies you like, find book bloggers willing to try them. Most are honest. If you find you generally share the bloggers opinion about what he or she likes to read... There you go.
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Re: Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

Post by Hillsy » September 20th, 2012, 9:59 am

There's 2 points at work here and I think you're not considering both of them:

1) Reader searches
2) Self-Pub writers wanting a way to signify that they are professionals

Point 1) is what you're talking about (I'll come to it later). However, Point 2 is the interesting thing because judging by many of the commenters on the various threads connected to the Mathias Meltdown (and I'd like to think is the driving factor behind Mathias' unpleasent behaviour in the first place) is to get across that "NOT ALL SELF PUBBERS ARE THE SAME"! This is something they want - a means to say "Look. I'm doing all the same things I would be doing WERE I WITH A PUBLISHER!" and to distance themselve from the fire-and-forget mentality of those showing poor practise. Their attitude isn't "There are too many rubbish books out there". It's "All those rubbish books are giving ME a bad name!".

There appears to be a default opinion reviewers [the ones not accepting self-pubbers] have: With Trad books there's a sort of minimum standard guarantee. The world can argue til it's blue in the face what that standard is. But there is one (Even if it's only a 95% correction of format and spelling issues). Many readers hold the same default opinion. And so there seems to be an unsaid desire for some form of "accreditation". By opting out of Trad publishing, they've lost some of its...err..."reflected assumptions". Therefore by finding something to replace the Trad publishing Watermark that's stringently controlled will bypass the "default opinion" around self publishing and create something with a new "default opinion".

This isn't my opinion, this is taken from the comments made by self-pubbed authors themselves. I'm just proposing working towards a solution rather than lamenting the fact and going "but, but, but...not ALL of us are like that". My own personal inclination would be a self-regulation system not unlike the scientific journals peer review...but that comes with it's own problems. But it would be my starting point of choice.

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Re: Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

Post by Hillsy » September 20th, 2012, 11:25 am

******Warning - this post contains a rant. This is largely an outpouring of annoyed, frustrated thoughts and is not designed to be a fully coherent, well constructed argument. If you wish to take up any of these points please remember that the opinions within are put down in the full knowledge they are largely generalisations. They are also intended to prompt THINKING rather than agreement or argument******

OK here we go: Rant-o-bots Unite to form: Tirade-a-tron!!!

Here’s some things about the future of book searching, which will largely be done solely online in the future. The points I’m going to make are pretty broad, but at the end of the day are representative of the new culture we’re entering into. Now whether you like/loathe it, I don’t care. Just make sure you’re entering it with your eyes open.

1) Gaming the system
Possibly the easiest concept to get your head round. The future of online searching will revolve around SEO, tagwords, reviews etc etc. These inbuilt devices are there to pre-filter information (OK sod It – from now on I’m going to use “books” as a representation of all online things)….pre-filter books into categories so that the website search engines can whittle the choices down really quickly. Now think if you are an author…you want your book in front of as many eyes as possible to sell copies, right? So why in the name of Harry Potter’s virginity would you only tick the “thriller” box of your novel? Why not thriller AND crime? Thriller AND Horror? Thriller, Horror AND Urban Fantasy? You are competing for the attention of the online shopper whether you like it or not because you have to get your book in front of their eyes. It’s the internet for crying out loud – targeted selling is pointless when you can just game the system to localise carpet bomb a website. Yes, you have to be at least partially sensible so your novel can at least claim to be near the genre you’ve tagged just to be on the safe side, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Think of everything the internet searches at a time – meta data, content, links, twitter, images….think of all the things you can do to optimise. How many times have you searched for something on google and got something completely random and unrelated on the first page. Why? Because search engines are an unthinking amalgamation of programs, devoid of deductive reasoning. And if you know how they work, they can be tricked into spitting out the results YOU want.

The same goes for anything that’s quantifiable and numeric. The Amazon sellers list – easy. Customer reviews – harder but you can still influence them if you put in the time, or just buy them wholesale from companies, or sock puppet them yourself. Internet presence – there’s a reason you can take an SEO course. Look up “game theory”, it’s all there. There’s also a brilliant documentary by adam curtis called “the trap” which talks about using the illusion of freedom to get people to conform by freeing people to achieve arbitary targets by anymeans they want. Which brings me to…

2) Algorithms of choice illusion and inequality
Yeah – The Amazon algorithm actually limits choice. It’s centred around a graph theory component called “k”. This is a measure of interconnectivity, of how heavily entwined something is. Think of “K“ as the rate a virus spreads – so a person who only ever visits 1 person once a month spreads the virus very slowly. A person who goes clubbing every single night in a big city spreads it much faster. Anyway – this is how the algorithmic structure of the amazon book search works. And as such it creates wild inequalities between individual items because once a book gets some momentum then the number of links it has increases causing it to appear on more peoples searches, monopolising the search and redirecting it back to either itself or something equally large that it’s heavily networked to. What happens is you create an elite groups of books that rise up out of the general unknown and steal the attention for a time away from the huge numbers of other books.

If you like – it’s similar to market capitalism. Anyone can, in theory, explode out of poverty and become rich. But the price you pay is a massive inequality between the wages of the top 1% of the population. Why? Because wealth generates its own returns, so once you get above a certain level you skyrocket away from everything else.

Therefore you’re freedom to try anything to get yourself noticed enslaves you to the Amazon algorithm, and those with the money/know-how/contacts to affect it, win.

3) Read up first
Just a final point – I’m sorry this is pie in the sky as a search option when you start talking about scale. Rip down all the barriers between author and reader. Brilliant right? Wrong. Drowning in a sea of dreck isn’t the right term for the problems that will arise. That infers that a human reader will be unable to make choices due to the sheer quantity of choice and become frustrated. Wrong. What will happen is the initial quality of our decision making will drop.

Think of it in terms of buying a house. Increase the number on the market tenfold and now people can’t go into intricate detail of each one – view all the photos, check the schools and areas and so on….they will seek to whittle it down quickly, making snap judgments about whole areas, streets, just a gut-feeling looking at the thumb-nail. So once whittled down to a manageable number of the type and style you want you feel empowered because of all the choice. Problem is that the overall quality has reduced, leaving you with the actually less viable choice than you had in the first place. Nwqfkwfe

And as for reading reviews and samples….please….you’ve just increased the number of books available to buy by a factor of 10 and now I’ve got to rely on a ten minute study of each one to see if it’s got good reviews (by likeminded, not sock puppet reviewers) and read the first 2 pages…yeah I’ve got that kind of time. So I’ll fall back on snap judgements or established decisions (like an author I already like and read).

More choice sometimes isn’t….

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Re: Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

Post by Margo » September 21st, 2012, 6:24 pm

Bad bad bad, extremely presumptuous and naive idea. I won't spend time going over all the reasons this wouldn't work, hasn't worked, and shouldn't work. I will only point out the foremost reason this will never work. Writers are extremely jealous of one another's success. Think about that. Imagine how this would play out with that factor in mind. Nuff said.
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Re: Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

Post by MattLarkin » September 21st, 2012, 9:07 pm

Lol, Hillsy. Prefacing a rant by saying it's not intended to be well-thoughtout is an unusual tactic. To be honest, I did kind of lose whatever point you were trying to make, so I'll focus on the first one.

On Amazon, for example, you can only choose two categories. Common strategy on this is to choose two fairly narrow categories, in the hopes of rising to the top. Choosing a category that doesn't actually apply to you book is counterproductive, because you're giving up one that does. The majority of people searching for urban fantasy are not going to buy your crime thriller, unless it is urban fantasy. And if they do buy, they're gonna pissed if it's NOT urban fantasy if you labeled it as such. There is no benefit to what you're suggesting.

Also, last I heard, Amazon sells over 2 million different books, only a small percentage of which are self-published. Readers still find the book they want. Is it possible I never hear about a good book? Sure. Is the reason that there are 2 million other books out there. No, 10,000 books would be more than I would ever look through -- 2 million or 200 million are imaginary numbers, in terms of numbers of products for readers searching for books, and as such there is no difference between them.

If Amazon increased its selection by a factor of 10 in the next month, it wouldn't make it any harder for me to shop there. It wouldn't change anything for me as a reader. It wouldn't even change that much for as a writer. Because, fortunately, as you say, Amazon does not recommend titles at random, it recommends titles bought by other people that bought the book you're looking at (and therefore may share similarities, in theory).
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Re: Think Tank: Fashioning an "approved" stamp

Post by Hillsy » September 24th, 2012, 7:01 am

MattLarkin wrote: On Amazon, for example, you can only choose two categories. Common strategy on this is to choose two fairly narrow categories, in the hopes of rising to the top. Choosing a category that doesn't actually apply to you book is counterproductive, because you're giving up one that does. The majority of people searching for urban fantasy are not going to buy your crime thriller, unless it is urban fantasy. And if they do buy, they're gonna pissed if it's NOT urban fantasy if you labeled it as such. There is no benefit to what you're suggesting.
OK - 2 quick things. 1) ok I didn't know amazon put a limit at 2, and I don't know about goodreads/smashwords/etc, but you can still game that to a small extent (epic fantasy AND something else), plus there's all the other indicators all over the internet. 2) The thing I'm talking about isn't trying to sell something under false pretenses, but to get people to see it.
Say, for example, a psychological thriller got snagged in all the searches/lists you accessed, but didn't promo itself as anything other than a pychological thriller....a number of people who are generally browsing might still take a look, increasing exposure, "hits", and making a few sales. There's a reason why pre-2000 a lot of companies employed door-to-door "marketing companies", as there was documented evidence that 1-in-7 people would buy on the door given a need for that product/service and all the information. Link the two approaches together and infiltrating all the lists would be akin to politely saying "Hey, I know you're looking for science fiction, but are you possibly interested in my Crime thriller?". More importantly, the click throughs and purchases would then link the novel to novels outside the genre. System gamed.
I'm not saying that for any 1 facility this is absolute truth - but it is an indication of a broader approach, leaning towards more machevellian "game theory"
MattLarkin wrote:Readers still find the book they want - [...] - Amazon does not recommend titles at random, it recommends titles bought by other people that bought the book you're looking at
Well, yes and no. Readers still find A book they like the sound of...which is fine. It's just the choices layed out before the reader are far more limited than alleged, and the algorithm itself will constantly re-direct to the same books due to its programing.
A simple example of this is: Person Q buys 5 books. a Tolkien, a G.R.R.Martin, a Sanderson, a Karen Miller, and then tries a new novellist - Matt Larkin. Person R then clicks on the same Tolkien book and the algorithm kicks in. It looks at the other 5 books person Q bought, then looks at all the other purchases other people have made and builds up "most likely" other purchases. Now ask yourself: How many other people who bought Tolkein have also bought Martin, Sanderson and Miller? absolutely loads. Now how many of those same people have bought Matt Larkin? Nowhere near as many. What does the algorithm return? Martin, Sanderson and Miller. So they then go and buy one of them....Do you see how the "hardening" of these choices (not dissimilar to the thickening of neural connections in the human brain that deal with memory and repetition) will tend towards the more popular choices? Readers may well end up with a book they like and enjoy - it's just the choices are always limited by the algorithm's programming.

My point is quite overarching and nebulous - but it's basically: Amazon/google/goodreads etc - all of these things that are designed to help connect books to readers - aren't perfect. They have got some pretty ugly drawbacks that aren't often talked about because they are 1) pretty complex, 2) pretty untangible 3) pretty negative should the companies reveal the flaws. Therefore just be aware that we're pretty low on the ladder of true 'freedom of choice', one where our "choice" is being negatively affected in an attempt to make it totally "free", and that the problems faced are both on the algorithm developers side AND those wishing to use those tools for their own (busuness) ends.

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