As an aspiring mystery writer, I hang out on a listserve called “Murder Must Advertise” (named after the Dorothy L. Sayers book). And I glean a lot from their approaches, techniques etc. But the discussion of late has noticeably shifted from “what do you do at a signing” type conversations to “how is our world different in the world of e-books and e-book publishing”. Recently, a professor from England asked if the new “business model” was affecting reviews, and more specifically, if the independent world we were living in was creating a “killer online review site” that everyone trusted. I think this is a fantastic topic as it pulls a lot of business pieces together in the e-book world and gets to the heart of the question for readers — how do they find out about new books and what is worth reading?
Getting the book out there
The opening gambit of this chess game is that the new e-book world is rife with opportunity. Just as the vanity presses (both scammers and souvenir producers) and POD presses (a legitimate business model for some people) promised, you no longer need the Big Publisher with the Big Advance to help you. If you can write a book, you can see it published — no more angling for an agent, submitting query letters, getting picked out of a slush pile, hobnobbing with industry people, begging, pleading, praying, hoping for discovery. In a sense, you “discover” yourself — and become writer, agent, editor, publisher and publicist all in one.
Traditional publishers are aghast at the idea — after all, who is going to vet what comes out? Of course, independent writers groups have scoffed for a long time, saying those agents, editors and publishers were all just gatekeepers keeping them from really making it big, because the “powers that be” had no vision. Or there were too many steps in the way. Or too many fingers in the pie. Or, to continue the original metaphor, two many silly pawns in the way until you could get to the really powerful chess-pieces that could actually DO something.
But, as any chess master could tell you, there is no such thing as a worthless pawn. In fact, one of their key rolls is defense. And those publishing pawns of the big houses were playing defense too — making sure that only the truly “worthwhile” writing makes it to the final pile. Unfortunately, not all aspiring pawns make it to the endgame. Slush pile wannabes who couldn’t even avoid typos? Gone. Mid-list authors who barely made back their last advance? Gone. Innovative creators trying to publish “weird” stuff outside of the poetry realm? Gone. Those upper-level pawns “knew” what good writing looked like — frequently the same as what was already out there, but with flashier titles.
Yet, with all that “weeding out” as you go up the chain, there are three friendly-fire casualties too. The first casualty is trust. Yes, it tended to weed out some crud, but it also tends to annoint some crud too. After all, if the latest Dan Brown or James Patterson book passes through the editing gauntlet, it must be good, right? Which is not to say that their plots are not fast-paced or popular, but rather that it isn’t necessarily “good” writing. But it will indeed sell. And readers frequently flock to buy the latest best-seller by their favorite author only to decide later it was only so-so. The vetting doesn’t guarantee quality, it just guarantees somebody somewhere liked it.
The second casualty is the aspiring author who isn’t quite “there” yet, needs a little assistance to produce a final product, but who can’t quite break into the publishing world. Some don’t know where to start, some don’t have the resources to attend conferences, some don’t know how to write the proper query letter. After all, their skill set lay in writing the book, not in writing solicitation letters. And while they are willing to learn, the learning curve is too steep for them. Or, more positively put perhaps, the odds are at least not in their favour. And, without such skill, or luck, they languish in anonymity.
The third casualty though is the truly introverted writer — the one who has no interest whatsoever in that business world. They don’t want to be a publicist. They don’t want to be their own agent. They don’t want to spend their time researching the business of publishing. They want to be writers that write. And so, they never learn those skills, guaranteeing their books reside in the bottom drawers of their desks.
So the traditional publishing model weeds out some promise while sometimes annointing the less-than-stellar productions of popular authors. In comes the “independent world” of self-publishing.
For some, this anarchy is looked upon as the death of quality publishing, and in some ways, they have reason to fear. There will indeed be the author of a fabulous story about the cat that saved her life by meowing loudly in a fire and leading her to safety, complete with cliches about how her cat speaks to her, typos, grammatically questionable structures, and a complete in ability to avoid digression. Not to mention that it is 500,000 words for what should have been a short story at best. Yep, that type of crud can be published too.
But the successful ebook author knows that quality sells. And just because they don’t have access to the resources of the traditional publishing model, that’s no excuse for not ensuring the best possible product. Some will have it “vetted” repeatedly by a writers group; some will have it read and commented upon by a successful writer; some will pay an editor to do a complete review and analysis; some will pay professional layout and ebook copyeditors to format the book to perfection; and some will do all of the above. What they won’t do is publish their first draft.
The best part for these aspiring authors, including former midlist authors who have been dropped by their publishers or even highly successful authors who want more control of their work, the independent world of Amazon and Smashwords rewards them for being author, agent, editor and publicist all in one — higher royalties per book. The reader benefits too, as they often can buy the book for a lower price than what the paperback would have been under the traditional model. For the traditionalist reader, many are also making the books available in paperback in a Print-On-Demand model too.
Finding the Books
In the world of paperbacks, many readers find the books the old fashion way. They go to this large commercial centre where there are these things called STORES, who actually have HARDCOPIES of the books already published and ready for immediate purchase. Don’t know what you want to read? No problem, browse around, paw the books for awhile. Watch how many of them end up in your hand as you head for the cashier. The approaches to finding books in this world are basically the flipside of publishers’ marketing approaches — get it reviewed in book review magazines, take out advertisements in magazines, try and get libraries to buy it, send it to Oprah, and focus heavily on the display copy so that it leaps off the shelf at people. Quite frankly, not a whole lot different from any other company’s model.
But the ebook world is completely different. You don’t have a store to go to in person and wander around. Instead, you have an online store to browse. If you think this is remotely the same, you are not a bookstore lover. In a bookstore, you take your time, you look at things that catch your eye, and you probably hang out in your genre section most of the time. More importantly though, you can peruse every book in your favorite section if you want. With (a false sense of) confidence that all the books there have been vetted by someone. Online, there are thousands of books. Millions of words advertising them. And, theoretically, you could browse every discussion, but how do you find out if the book is any good? How do you get the equivalent if false sense of confidence that the book is worth the purchase?
As a small digression for comparison purposes, in other industries like appliance sales, you only have about 10 different major models of appliances for sale in an appliance store. Which means you can look at ratings and reviews pretty quickly. You will likely focus heavily on trusted reviewers like Consumer Reports — but bear in mind they also choose their sample by popularity. So, if there’s a private manufacturer in your city who makes really good pizza ovens, but nobody has ever heard of them, they’re not going to get reviewed in CR. The magazine will cover the biggies, but not everything. Which most of the time is okay.
Video game magazines, for example, often cover all major game releases, and 90% of smaller game releases. Online electronics reviewers, like PC Magazine, can cover all major software and hardware releases, and perhaps 40-50% of the rest, particularly if it’s innovative or unique. Even the movie industry can cover all major releases, and the majority of smaller releases. In all cases, the volume is relatively manageable.
But the music industry, software application, and publishing industry are vastly different from that model. The volumes become completely unmanageable when the independent producer can put up multiple products themselves. The current hub of music sales, iTunes, has millions of songs available. It also has hundreds of thousands of applications for your iPhone available, and other retailers are releasing other app stores for their platforms, quickly climbing to tens of thousands of apps to choose from. Millions of books are available. You can’t look at all of them, so how do you choose?
This is the great part of the ebook world — the power of cloud computing basically gives you different options.
First and foremost, the book or song or application is published. I know I said above that a lot of crud will get through in the book world, but the reality is that the vast majority of aspiring authors never finish their story. Close to 90%, according to some studies, and a lot of the time, that’s a good thing. Which means that the books on the sites have something way above them — the story is actually FINISHED. Similarly with songs or applications — lots of people have ideas, not every one makes it to market.
Second, price thresholds come into play really fast on these purchases. While readers might not take a chance as quickly on a new author’s paperback costing $10 or a new band’s CD costing $15, the threshold is a lot lower if the price is $1, $2 or $3. Particularly if you can look at samples too.
Third, unlike book or music stores, you can do COMPLETE searches to focus on what you are looking for…interested in mysteries about paranormal vampire romance? They’re a lot easier to find in a search engine than a bookstore that files them under a very large “fantasy” section. Or another that puts them all in romance. And they don’t stock EVERY book all the time.
Fourth, purchasers have a simple and easy feedback mechanism — the instant rating. They can even write and upload reviews. Which benefits you as a future purchaser — enough positive ratings, or reviews, and you might purchase with a bit more confidence. Plus, you can sort lists by ratings, etc., so the higher ratings come to the top.
Fifth, there are reviewers who do write detailed reviews that can help you decide. These can be broken into four types of reviewers:
- the bush league reviewer who posts reviews like “This book sucks” or “This is the greatest book ever”, often with reviews at one extreme or the other, and thinks it is somehow helpful or meaningful to anyone;
- the casual reviewer who reviews a few books a year, usually a para or two about what they like or hate;
- the amateur reviewer who reviews a LOT of books a year, takes it seriously, maybe has a common look and feel to their reviews, starting to build a name for themselves; and,
- the professional reviewer, often affiliated with major newspapers or magazines.
On Amazon, for example, there are amateur reviewers who have reviewed hundreds or thousands of books — if you like their reviews, you can click on their profile and just look at their list of reviews. In addition to the fact that you can see if they like the book or not, you already have one piece of info in favour of the book — they liked the book enough to read it in the first place, a kind of pre-selection produce that tells you it at least looked interesting to them.
The future of searching
I think the future for searching will fall into three types — manual live searches, saved manual data mining and live computerized data mining.
The first “manual live search” is the world of google. You type in what you’re looking for, and you hope to get lucky. Just as Google searches now return way too much information to process, tag searching or keywords only take you so far before volume will overwhelm you.
The saved manual data mining method is what I like to think of as “value-added information aggregation”. This is the type of site that has individual people who are knowledgeable in an area doing your search for you. Some sites, like the YummyMummyClub has bloggers on a variety of subjects, including say, a kick-ass music blogger (who is former DJ of a morning radio station with indy cred). So, if you are interested in music, you’ll check out her blog. Or, if you particularly like up-and-coming independent bands, you might check out a website like www.myspoonful.com. It basically aggregates music searches for you and tells you what you might want to consider. You can’t listen to everything iTunes has to offer, and their search engine, well, okay I’ll dumb it down — it really sucks (yep, I said above such a review isn’t helpful, but I’m saying it anyway). Search engines are supposed to help you FIND things — finding “new” stuff on iTunes is painful to the extreme. Particularly for applications for your phone — search for an organizer and you’ll get dozens if not hundreds of choices. That is NOT helpful, that’s just info overload. By contrast, sites like MySpoonful will give you quick and easily digestible chunks of “Top Ten Rock Bands to consider”. In the app world, do a search for “Top Ten Business Apps” and you’ll get lots of hits — lots of people have done the work for you and are sharing their results. Think of it as a distributed form of Wikipaedia, often with better results. There are also sites for the app world that preview new releases, just as there are new sites that feature new releases in the ebook world. Plus hundreds of “LISTS” on Amazon’s LISTMANIA feature. All designed by humans for humans.
The live computerized model of data mining scares people in some streams. If you go on Facebook, and it says, “Hey, you’re friends with Jane and Steve and Mike, and they’re all friends with Mary, would you like to be friends with her too?”, you are probably okay with it now. However, when FB first started rolling this datamining out (seeing linkages across networks), it was too blunt — “Would you like to be friends with Mary?”. That freaked some people out — “How the heck did FB know I knew Mary????”. Equally, when they merged some features with various mail servers, it asked if it could read your contact list — if you said “yes”, it then searched for all your contact names on FB and where it found matches, asked you if you wanted to be friends. Again, some people freaked. This is computerized data mining. Some of it happens with your consent (as above, even if you didn’t know what you were agreeing to it!), others show up more benignly and seemingly more helpful. Think of it as the NETFLIX model of datamining.
The way this works is simple. Suppose you rent or buy movies from a site (like NETFLIX) and you provide positive ratings to three movies — Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sophie’s Choice, and Bridges of Madison County. And, lo and behold, suppose that Jane Smothers from Anywhere, Iowa also liked those same three movies. But, suppose further, that Jane ALSO liked Eat, Pray, Love. The lovely data mining algorithm running on Netflix says, “Hmmm…You liked these three, Jane likes these three; Jane likes this other one, maybe YOU would like it too?”. So it suggests it to you as “People who liked x also liked y”. Note it doesn’t tell you Jane Smothers liked it, it just says “people” (and to be fair, it isn’t one person had similar tastes to you, their algorithm culled data from thousands of users).
I call it the NETFLIX model because they ran a contest for several years offering up two datasets to mathematicians, movie reviewers, statisticians, anybody with a numerical bent. The first was the “data source” — a whack of information about individual likes and dislikes provided by customers, with all the personal info removed. The goal was to take this dataset, come up with a predictive algorithm that would predict what other movies the various customers would like, and then run it on the second dataset. The second dataset was just like the first set — it was likes and dislikes of the users. So, the second set was the test — how close did the algorithm come to predicting what people actually said they liked? If you beat the existing algorithm by 10%, $1M in prize money. After several years of trying, a team finally won in 2009.
If you ask why Netflix would do this, the answer should be obvious — to increase reliability of their recommendations. If their algorithm tells you that you will probably like “Eat, Pray, Love”, and you do, you’ll trust it next time. And rent more movies that you trust from a company that you trust. A company that knows even better than you do what you might like.
In an Amazon world, this basically amounts to telling the server how you rate the book you bought…it already knows you bought it, so why not improve your future suggestions by saying if you chose right in the first place? Sure, Amazon will add it to the ratings and use it for their own purposes, but if it helps you too, not a bad model from my perspective. And with millions of new ebooks on the way, you’ll need all the help you can get. But note that this isn’t perfect. If you normally read hardcore mystery thrillers, but you buy a sweet book about cats for your friend, the computer doesn’t know the cat book was a gift. So it adds “likes cats” to your dataset. I bought a Debbie Macomber knitting book for my wife two Christmases ago — now every time one comes out, Amazon alerts me in case I want to buy it too. There are ways to edit this type of info, but if you don’t, the algorithm is off. Unless you want to know so you can buy another gift!
I wish I had one. I’m sure that the ebook world isn’t a fad, nor is the app world, nor are the past changes to the music world. I think the music world is about 10 years ahead of the ebook world, and about 5 ahead of the app world, but it won’t take either that long to catch up to the same model. About all I’m sure of is that the ebook revolution is unidirectional…there is no “undo” button.