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Once upon a time thieving bastiches would adulterate gold or silver with cheaper metal and then sell it off to the public as the real thing.  Somewhere in about the 13th century French Kings and presumably their subjects got tired of being shafted by merchants (after all shafting is noble prerogative, and if everyone was allowed to do it there’d  be no fun in it any more) and introduced the marking of gold and silver ware, which the Brits actually made better if more complicated (which shows that stereotypes have some truth in their origins) meaning that the consumer of said items, suitably marked knew the gold really was gold and not. Ergo, there was a standard to measure quality by.

I was part of discussion the other day where several legacy published authors were lamenting the the unfair price competition that self-published e-books were putting on their obviously superior offerings.  Someone – could have been me – pointed out that an unknown at 99 cents was a lot more tempting than an unknown at $19.99.

The howl thence became well ANYONE can put up a book on Kindle and Amazon make no attempt to ensure these books have any kind of quality… culminating in this statement:

“How long will readers keep taking risks and tossing their money away if
those standards aren’t met?”

Hmm. It’s a good question and a bad one.  Yes, there really is a flood of books hitting kindle, and anyone who has ever read slush will tell you,  90% of subs are so bad they really are unpublishable, and unreadable.

The issue of course is that of the remaining 10% maybe 0.001% shines so bright that it easy to say ‘that’s good for a lot of readers.’

The other 9.999%… well, one man’s poison is another woman’s meal for her husband.  Probably half of those 9.999% have a possibly 10K+ audience somewhere if you can find them.  The trouble is finding which half, and winnowing the 10K from 100K sellers.

Historically this was done by a degree of thumb-suck based on experience. An editor who got it wrong too often was fired or his publisher went out of business. Most books from reasonable sized houses had much the same distribution, covers that really didn’t help much and zero marketing.  Tested in the fire of the market, publishers works that kept them in business soon sorted those trying to sell dross as gold.  A longstanding publisher accepting an author’s work for publication became a sign that it had a certain quality.  As only publishers could get the books into bookstores, any book that made it there… had the mark of at least a minimum quality. The numbers sold gave publishers a real handle on what people liked. What’s more, you had a handle on just how many books the book-buying public would read. That ratio directly proportional to the number of literate people, and disposable income remained the same. If your country had a population of x million literate people with an average disposable income of Y, XY(constant)/ average book cost = books sold

Then… came big box chain stores, vast changes in covers, and enormous changes in distribution and of course marketing and promotion.  Publishing rejoiced and pushed their pet projects to great success. The trouble was no one in publishing seemed to do basic maths.  Or maybe no one had all the figures. But while literate population and disposable income were both increasing fast… the ratio of books per literate reader was dropping. We could talk about reasons and excuses, but no one actually tried to find out why. The answer IMO was that the assay of quality having been masked by distribution marketing and promotion was no longer working. Yes, publishers knew what was selling. But they had no idea just how much of this was due to popularity, and how much was due to marketing et al.

And readers stopped tossing their money away because their standard (which was still a book they enjoyed) wasn’t met.

So I am afraid I’ve reached a very different answer to the young lady author who felt her book was being drowned in the self-pub flood. I think – because the factors that skewed the assay of quality so much are being turfed by e-books, we may finally start getting publishers again who, by buying your book do give it a hallmark.  It won’t happen overnight of course. But in time that ratio may actually re-assert itself. In which case… I might not be published, or make living out of writing, but literature will be saved.

It’s a chance I’d rather take than hope that someone in marketing decides I’m one of the cool kids ;-/

  1. Dave, we know you’re one of the cool kids, even if the old guard hasn’t figured it out 😉

    There has been a lot of discussion about the flood of self-published books on the kindle boards. A number of those taking part in the discussion say they won’t buy any novel priced at 99 cents because that is a hallmark that it comes from a writer who never could be published traditionally, ie a writer who stinks. Others point out that this attitude may be preventing them from finding a writer they really like. I think it is a bit of both.

    I find myself looking at the book details when I get ready to download an ebook from Amazon. After reading the book description, I skip down to the part of the page that tells me how long it is, publication date and publisher. I often will google the publisher. I find I’m more likely to buy something from someone who is up front about the book being self-published than I am if that writer tries to hide the fact it’s self-published (and I’m talking a new writer here, not an established one).

    But what those authors who lament about the low price seem to forget is that there is a preview function from Amazon, B&N and other e-book retailers. More and more readers use that function before they buy a title. So it does come down to the quality of writing and the hook of the story.

    I guess this is all a long-winded way of saying that those authors who complain about the 99 cent sales price some authors put on their books ought to quit worrying about that so much and worry more about the quality of their own work because, frankly, I am finding more interesting books from small publishers and self-published authors now than I am from the legacy publishers.

    July 25, 2011
  2. I don’t have time to read previews. With four kids who are still young enough to think spending time with daddy is cool and a job, I have enough on my plate without doing slush.

    Mostly I discover new authors through their non-fiction writing. I discovered Sarah Hoyt here, for example. I may also trust existing authors to tell me about new ones. If Dave Freer says “X is funny”, I can trust him.

    July 25, 2011
    • Kate Paulk #

      I understand the lack of time – honestly, right now that’s mostly how I handle things as well, although when I do have a little loose time serendipity happens (something looks interesting, I take a look – aka the preview function – I either like or don’t like and the rest follows).

      Besides, Dave’s sense of humor can’t possibly match yours 100%. The two of you lead different lives – I hope! It would be awfully awkward you shadowing his every move. So sooner or later he’ll recommend something that you utterly detest. Does that make him less reliable? Nope – it just means there are areas where his idea of “good” and yours don’t match up.

      It’s worth considering that preview function when you do have more time. That and a bit of serendipity in the form of link-hopping browsing can get you some really interesting places.

      July 25, 2011
  3. Amanda, the cool kids are young, female (or if male, ambivalent) liberal arts graduates, PC to the extreme, upper middle class with parent/s who are also liberal arts grads, imitative of their cool kid peers, win awards (the kind where the same cool kids nominate and vote for each other, or you get for being exceptionally PC), spend at least 5 hours a day on social media for at least 4 years, usually kissing up other cool kids, or the previous generation of cool kids, at their sites (this is non-negotiable). They are socially well-adjusted, at least to their peers, and communicate well, at least to their peers. They get multiple Locus reviews in the same issue. They complain virulently about gender/color/orientation bias in sf (often while not having a the slightest grasp of 4th grade math or chemistry, and assuming software interchangable with hard engineering, and getting published in SF despite this, and in romance or YA – which is gender discriminatory in their favor, which is just fine) get big advances and get paid trips (by their publisher) to go and sign books and/or have lunches with booksellers. Or at least 80% of the above. Nope, I’m not a cool kid. I fail every requirement. Of course some cool kids can write well. Their social media skills do help marketing and may help their writing appeal (and can help with e-book sales), at least to their peers, of which there are a reasonably large number. But in legacy publishing at present cool kids are 90% of what they put on the bookstore shelf, and therefore sell. Other non-cool factors like life experience or hard work at the craft side, or perhaps knowing about science will count, with the large group of readers not in their peer group. The cool kids -at least those who can write- will still sell books, and having to compete may make them better. Un-cool kids will become successful, in a way that was not possible before. And some of them will sell at 99 cents. People will preview and follow ‘also bought’.

    July 25, 2011
    • Hi, Dave. I’m glad I’m not the only one worried about people who don’t know science or engineering publishing SF:)

      July 25, 2011
  4. Ori, I can act as a gatekeeper or spend my time writing. Which should I do :-)?

    July 25, 2011
    • I want you writing. However, what I want is mostly irrelevant. Do you read recreationally? If so, and if you post here that X is a good author, I’d be tempted to read X – especially if you said X is funny. I discovered Terry Pratchett before I discovered you, but if I hadn’t, I think I would have gotten his books on your recommendation.

      Eric Flint has a ton of collaborations, which are usually the second published book of the other author. I assume this means he read the first book, and liked it enough to collaborate. I don’t think it hurt his writing career.

      July 25, 2011
  5. Dave,

    (And Ori) I use the preview function a lot, and much like I would use the stand-in-bookstore-and-read-first-ten-pages. Because I’m cheap and the economy sucks, I always browse low-price first. However, honestly, that 90% of slush doesn’t even come into consideration most of the time. Why not? Well… the first thing I do is look at book description. That has a way of revealing most “bad stuff acoming.” If I read something like this “An entirely new concept, with a female heroine that fights instead of waiting to be rescued”? Deep six. the writer or publisher hasn’t read sf/f since the seventies, if at all, and also hasn’t watched tv, including cartoons, and never mind buffy. If I read “this is really cool because it’s set in an Earth like ours but not ours, because it has magic” — deep six. The ijit publisher doesn’t even know the term “parallel earth.” And so on and so on. This leaves about ten percent. Of those ten percent, 99% can be ignored because “I don’t read that.” Yes, I read almost everything, but say something starts with “a sexual journey” or “a zombie romance” or… the proportion of what I read or don’t still is skewed towards “we, I don’t read that.” Then there’s another cut by “what do I feel like reading.” Not to put too blunt a point on it, I’ve been chain reading regencies. Why? Easy. Simple. Low demand and ALL my emotions are tied up in the book I’m writing, right now. Usually the “recovery” period means I hit SF/F HEAVILLY. (Toni has promised me I can read Dog and Dragon when I deliver this book. 🙂 ) Rainy days call for mystery. No, don’t ask me why. Summer is more sf/f. Brain fried is romance. TRULY brain fried is Disney comics (not available to fkindle.) What this means is that I end up downloading MAYBE 10 beginnings. And guess what, Kris Rusch is right, most of those are “recital pieces” — someone slaved over them for ten years, and beat every morsel of flavor out of them. So, out of it, I find MAYBE one book. Strangely, when not chain reading cheap regencies, what I’ve read recently were authors I once loved, who had completely (I THOUGHT) disappeared. Turns out they were still writing, changing series, etc, but I never SAW them. When you get a chance try Edward Marston restoration mysteries.
    Anyway, I did a post about this, from my days reading at It’s as close to raw slush as possible. No gatekeepers. Anyone can post a chapter or a story. In its hey day, you’d get as many as fifty posts a day, maybe 20 new stories. How did I cope with the flood? Well… First, I don’t read contemporary retellings of Austen. Second, there are certain types of retellings that put me off: historically inaccurate; ones in which say Lady Catherine is a mad woman killing people for fun, etc. This left one to two posts a week that I read. Now, after a while, those would be from people I’d read in the past and enjoyed. And you know, tracking popularity, both by number of comments posted and by those people requesting “more” I found my taste was pretty average. The stories I thought were excellent were the ones everyone else wanted more of as well. Oh, there was a distinct subset, the stories I thought were HORRIBLE that were well loved — but there’s an explanation for that. You see, I hate purple prose, but a LOT of people like it. That falls under chaqun son gout. (Which as we all know means it’s a chackra with gout.) I could see why those stories were loved, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. BUT my taste coincided with ‘bestseller’ about 99% of the time. In a group of women of all ages from around the world. (Though most of us are relatively well educated, but then most readers are.) Now explain to me, oh, wise monkey, why I can’t read most bestsellers, let alone like them.

    July 25, 2011
    • 'nother Mike #

      Not wise monkey, but… the target profile for a bestseller is not a person who reads that much? In other words, you read too much to enjoy a bestseller.

      July 25, 2011
      • No. I don’t think so. It’s more a matter of taste. My taste seems to be “average median” for my age, etc.

        The thing I was hinting at — which Dave knows, I think — is that bestsellers in the US are not JUST dependent on “push” though that’s huge, of course. Casual readers are more likely to pick up someone in a massive display in the middle of the store. They’re often based on laydown — i.e. books sent to the store. It has NOTHING to do with how many sold. There was a scandal on that a couple years ago.

        In fact, with distribution and information controlled the way it is, the only way to tell if a bestseller matches public taste is to look at whether figures for “bestseller” are steady, or going up, or going down. They’ve been going down for ten years.

        July 26, 2011
  6. oh, yeah, and yeah I’m back. In case that wasn’t obvious.

    July 25, 2011

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