Wednesday, 21 December 2011

On Choosing Ebooks

I've been thinking once again about ebooks, self-publishing and traditional publishing, after reading this post by author Richard Parks.

This time around, I've been thinking about ebooks from the point of view of a reader. I think it would be fair to say that I'm an occasional reader of ebooks, but I still do most of my reading on paper.

I want to read ebooks. I really do. Every surface in my house is covered in books. The garage is completely full of boxes of them, and I can never find the one I want.

But here's my real problem:

I don't know how to choose ebooks. I don't know how to find good ebooks in the vast and deepening electronic sea.

Obviously, there are two largely different classes of ebooks: self-published and traditionally-published.

Traditionally-published books, produced by a commercial, non-independent publisher, have well-established channels. They often turn up in bookstores. They get reviewed in established venues. They have, to some degree, at least, a basic guarantee of quality, if not of matching my particular taste. I can find them in libraries.

Now, I know there are plenty of traditionally-published books that never see a review, never see a bookstore shelf, never get near a library. But nonetheless, I know how to find a traditionally-published book that I will like, and I can easily find the ebook version.

I don't know how to do the same with self-/indie-published books, and I guess I am not alone.


The problem is, there are no gatekeepers in self-publishing. 'Gatekeepers' is often seen as a dirty word, and undoubtedly some great books are never published because there are too many 'gatekeepers' in the publishing industry.

But having gatekeepers gives the reader a certain security: someone, somewhere (probably several someones) whose job relies on them getting it right, believes that this book is good enough. I might not like that book. I might not agree with them. But my chances are higher with a traditionally-published book.

When it comes to a self-published ebook, I have two issues:
  • How do I know it will be any good?
  • How do I know there is a decent chance I will like it?

A part of a solution?

One solution is something that traditional publishers could and should be doing, but by-and-large don't.

That is branding of lines.

Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm using another swear word. First gatekeepers, now branding. Ugh.

I'm not advocating authors turning themselves into 'brands'. Personally, I hate that. I'm simply talking about a way of identifying books beyond genre or author. The 'brand' here is simply a way of saying essentially "if you like book X, here are some similar books". Similar in terms of genre, style, type, whatever.

Some publishers do this. Look at the Harlequin bookstore. There are dozens of very clearly branded lines. The SF Masterworks is an effective branded line of books. Baen by itself is close to a branded line of books.

But there could be a lot more of this. That there isn't is a failure on the part of traditional publishing. The closest most seem to come is simply cover-style (YA paranormal romances, for example, seem to have almost interchangeable covers, as do many thrillers).

However, if traditional publishers aren't doing this, there's no reason why self-published authors can't.

By getting together with other self-published authors, it should be easy to set up branded lines of books, allowing your readers to find other books. I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often.

And back to those gatekeepers...

Of course, this is where the gatekeepers reappear. For any kind of branded list of books, someone has to make sure that the books actually fit the 'brand' and that they are of high quality. If they don't or they're not, that brand will fail and readers won't trust it.

That means, I guess, being picky about the authors involved, and setting up clear guidelines about what books fit the 'brand' and which don't.

Right now, from the perspective of a reader, self-publishing in ebooks seems a bit too wild west. It seems to be every person for themself. And I get that. But it's a barrier to new readers, and I'd love to see it evolve.

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