Saturday, June 12th, 2010 | Posted by: Henry Baum
Winning a Gold IPPY award recently for my novel is sort of a strange feeling. In a way, it’s like the acceptance of a publisher, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time arguing that the acceptance of a publisher doesn’t mean that your book is good or bad – or else all traditionally published books would be good and all self-published books would be bad. That said, I’ve also made the argument that getting accepted by a publisher is a profoundly good feeling. How can it not be? Someone believes in your work. And one of the things self-publishers miss out on is this very great feeling of finally being accepted by a publisher. Doesn’t mean your book is automatically a work of genius, but that validation is a good feeling.
And so it is for an award – which, as a self-publisher, is probably the closest thing to being accepted by an editor. It’s also helped sell the book. If nothing else, it’s helped the book get a lot of downloads. I just put the book up on Feedbooks, and I’ve had 2000 downloads in a couple of weeks – in part, I think, because it says “Winner of…”
That’s not the only thing, though. An award or a publishing house is also a buffer against certain kinds of criticism. A person going into a book by an unknown author might just give up if it doesn’t move them. An award or a publisher tells a reader that someone believed in this book, I won’t give up. Or: I won’t write some scathing review saying something like, “Of course this was self-published.” If you spend any amount of time online, you find that people are mean. Comment sections are like a collection of playground bullies. A book could get ripped apart. A gatekeeper can be a kind of armor.
So gatekeepers are useful. They help sell books. It’s just that in the new era of publishing, the term gatekeeper has to be expanded to a much wider degree of sources than just agent or publisher. Awards, reviews, and word of mouth are all also valid forms of gatekeeping. Consensus is the best form of gatekeeping – in fact way better than one editor’s stamp of approval. Why should that one editor’s opinion override the opinions of 100 other readers? It shouldn’t, and so the definition of gatekeeper needs to change.
The Future of Gatekeeping
Nathan Bransford has a good post about the future of agenting/publishing in the digital world. As someone under 40 (I’m guessing) the bulk of his career as an agent is going to be in the age of ebooks, so he’s more progressive about how the agent process is going to be restructured. About digital publishing, he has this very good point:
No one sits around thinking, “You know what the problem with the Internet is? Too many web pages.” Would you even notice if suddenly there were a million more sites on the Internet? How would you even know? We all benefit from the seemingly infinite scope of the Internet and we’ve devised a means of navigating the greatest concentration of information and knowledge the world has ever seen.
So what’s the big deal if a few hundred thousand more books hit the digital stores every year? We will find a way to find the books we want to read, just as surely as we’re able to find the restaurants we eat at and the movies we want to see and the shoes we want to buy out of the many, many available options.
My response was:
There’s a major difference though: the internet is free. If you come upon a god-awful blog, you can just move on. If you buy a god-awful book, that’s money you’ve lost. There’s only so much money people can spend.
So that’s what gets people annoyed – the loss of a possible sale. No way around this really. People will just have to get used to it, and readers will have to get more savvy about knowing what something is before they shell out $.
Someone else also counters:
No one sits around thinking, “You know what the problem with the Internet is? Too many web pages.”
Quite the contrary. I think about that A LOT. It’s precisely the problem indicated by phrases such as “drinking from a firehose”, “Finding a needle in a needlestack”. “everybody will be famous to 15 people”, etc.
I call it the problem of finite human bandwidth. Think also signal to noise ratio. The bigger the Internet, the more places for the good stuff to hide.
The thing that people don’t seem to get is that change isn’t always for the better. I’m a self-publishing advocate and I can see the problem with hoards of unreadable books cluttering up the system. That’s the side effect of something that is, on balance, very positive – the lack of a barrier for getting words out into the world. Digital publishing has problems, but those problems don’t outweigh the benefits. With self-publishing people tend to have the knee-jerk reaction that the bad implications outweigh the good. Do you think blogs are, on balance, a good thing, even if most blogs are terrible? I do. Self-publishing is no different, even if there’s money changing hands – the basic purpose is the same: giving people new tools for writing.
Other arguments there are about how gatekeepers ensure quality and people will release books before they’re ready. If writers do that, they’re probably not very good writers. As for the former, there are a lot of other of gatekeepers – namely, readers themselves. They can read an excerpt, read reviews from fellow readers, and weigh whether or not a book is worth reading. With book samples and increasing review sources (despite the complaints that review sections in newspapers are being cut, book reviews are actually growing), readers have a number of ways to make a decision to buy a book. They don’t need someone else to tell them what they’ll enjoy.
In short, self-publishing doesn’t just increase power to the writer, it increases power to the reader.
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