Ether for Authors: More Gatekeeping? Sisyphus Could Relate

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

12 November 2013 iStock_000021650766XSmall photog ArdenSchmidt texted story image 2

Table of Contents

  1. Self-Publishing and the Grav­ity of the Marketplace
  2. The Right Prob­lem to Have
  3. Conference de la semaine
  4. Rogue Refreshed
  5. Conferences
  6. Last Gas: The­saurus, Please, at Pub­lish­ers Weekly

Self-Publishing and the Grav­ity of the Marketplace

There was some understandable rejoicing in the UK’s self-publishing camp this week, as word was put about that the Bristol CrimeFest next May will include a “self-publishing/hybrid crime fiction author” on one of its panel discussions, “Emerging Indie Voices: Crime Fiction From the Edge.”

Bristol CrimeFestWord of this comes from a submission form for the spot. Independent authors are invited to apply for the seat as one of four panelists, “with the aim of bringing quality, new crime authors to the attention of avid readers.”

Now, depending on where you stand (or fall, as it were) on the Digital Adoption Spectrum (I made that up, don’t Google it), this development may strike you as a breakthrough or as evidence of things moving too slowly, with entrepreneurial authors becoming steadily more influential in publishing.

Lest anybody want to propose that the UK is “behind” the US on these things, note that last weekend, the New England Crime Bake near Boston included a seminar titled “The Attack of the eBook: The Book Business Goes Digital.”

New England Crime BakeYes, in late 2013, a sister mystery-conference to CrimeFest in the Newer World was (correctly) trying to help its audience of writers and readers understand that this digital thing is really happening, folks, better get on the joystick.

Ever get that Sisyphus feeling? Me, too.

Where the magical mystery of all this takes us, though, is toward a more progressive point than you might expect. Here is some of the text of the Bristol CrimeFest’s submission form for that self-publishing seat on the “From the Edge” panel:

Given the reputation of self-publishing, it is critical that the authors and books chosen are the best of the best, and although your book might be amazing, we cannot accommodate everyone. Standards of professionalism are critical and the following questions will help us in assessment. You will be considered if you have had traditionally published books before, but we will favour new authors.

The criteria for consideration for the panel seat are encapsulated in questions including “is your book available in print as well as ebook format?”…”Does your book have more than 10 good reviews on a book retail site?” (The applicant is then asked for links to listings on Amazon.com and Goodreads.)…”Are you a member of a professional organization?”…”Did you use a professional editor for the book?”

This is the kind of vetting a reputable, well-known organization feels it needs to undertake in order to start bringing self-publishing writers into the fold without a sacrifice in quality. While this may feel onerous to a top-notch self-publishing author, it’s also not that hard to understand why an organization may feel it needs to go this route to accommodate the growing entrepreneurial-author element in publishing.

International Thriller WritersIn fact, last year, there was quite a discussion, covered in Writing on the Ether, around the International Thriller Writers‘ (ITW) stance on issues of membership and awards eligibility for self-publishing authors. Author James Scott Bell was the first self-published finalist in the ITW’s awards program for his novella One More Lie, even as that organization worked its way through some confusion about the fact that its board was making every effort to consider applications from self-publishers on a case-by-case basis.

James Scott Bell

James Scott Bell

That organization, which produces the annual ThrillerFest event, writes, in part, about its policy on self-published authors this way:

Such factors as the work itself, the breadth of its marketing, the extent of its distribution, the editorial process, its sales, the author’s personal history, reviews in recognized publications, and any other factor relevant to the particular situation may be considered in making such determination [of eligibility]. Self-published writers are not automatically excluded from being a qualified publisher [for purposes of award submissions], but they bear a higher burden to demonstrate their status.

From organization to organization—and in more genres than mystery—such debates are undertaken these days. And it’s not hard to understand both sides of the issue.

 A long-standing, well regarded association of writers and/or readers in a given market, surely, needs to move prudently, especially when its tradition has been to limit membership and/or awards eligibility to a finite set of “approved” publishers in the field.

And, of course, a writer who feels that his or her work is every bit the professionally written and produced equal of books by authors from those approved publishers is likely to resent requirements to prove his or her merit because that work is self-published.

But here’s an even more interesting dimension in the evolution of the self-publishing dynamic: what happens when self-pubishers, themselves, begin creating awards and accolades for each other’s (self-published) work?  Have self-publishing authors at that point not begun to reflect some patterns of quality-delineation, selectivity…gatekeeping?

Alliance of Independent Authors 2 (ALLi) @IndieAuthorALLiThe question is a worthy one. And it’s on good display right now, thanks to the UK-based Alliance of Independent Authors’ (called “ALLi”) healthy willingness to support serious discussion of such issues.

On one hand, an article there headlined Read an Indie Author: ALLi Book of the Month Awards tells of how the organization is smartly expanding its own awards program:

Since ALLi (The Alliance of Independent Authors) began, back at London Book Fair 2012, we have used a reading panel to choose our Monthly Book picks and Book of the Month. Now, in January, we are going to be launching an exciting reader competition [to nominate winners], which we hope will take your books to a much wider readership.

The new initiative, the story tells us, will “have award badges and prizes for the winning authors and also giveaways and prizes for the readers, kindly sponsored by Kobo.”

Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway

Published a day later, also on the ALLi site, an editorial by Alliance member and author Dan Holloway is headlined Opinion: If Indieland Must Have Gatekeepers.

Here is ALLi at its best, really, essentially carrying two viewpoints.

Holloway doesn’t directly address the organization’s awards program. But his commentary easily brings to mind common awards efforts in the field and makes it important to ask how to think about a self-publishing community developing and widening its own editions of the prize tradition.

The self-publishing evaluative sites you’ll see Holloway mention are Awesome Indies, which has an “AIA Seal of Excellence” for work deemed “quality independent fiction,” and Compulsion Reads.

Awesome IndiesThese sites are the kind of thing some of the organization’s intelligent members have been thinking about. One tells me, off the record, that such sites tend to be too inclusive, bringing “humdrum” standards to the task so that unremarkable material is awarded as quality work; in short, a failure to dependably identify higher quality books.

Holloway starts with a careful declaration of friendship for the cause:

Whatever meteorological metaphor you use to describe the proliferation of self-published titles, if you are a serious-minded self-publisher you will probably be relieved at the growth of websites that promise to sort out the very best from the tsunami/flood/avalanche/deluge of also-rans. Sites like Awesome Indies and Compulsion Reads do what all the best inventions are supposed to do. They have identified a problem (lack of quality control amongst self-published books), and they have solved it. Win for readers. Win for authors.

Compulsion ReadsAnd then he lets the other shoe fall gently:

I want to say something about the metrics used for judging quality, though. If you’re like me then your first thought is probably “how on earth would you do that?” Awesome Indies and Compulsion Reads take very similar approaches. In addition to proofreading requirements, they emphasise the mechanics of the writing – plot, pace, and characterisation. The problem is, as the old adage sort of goes, “measures are great at measuring what measures measure.”

And from there, Holloway writes with engaging candor about being placed in the self-publishing camp by his own “awkwardness, nicheness, overweening artistic vanity, an outsider complex, a passionate belief that no one knows my readers better than me, and an equally passionate belief that art cannot be distilled to quantifiables or commodity status.”

He goes on to elaborate on his regard for the diversity of the self-publishing community:

We don’t want to build a mall, we want to build a bustling market full of the myriad sensual treats of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. And that means not claiming to single out “the best” as though the best saffron were the same as the best silk hijab. It means celebrating the differences and championing “the best” within each very small section, acknowledging that it will mean different things for each.

As happens in so many quarters of the digitally dizzying industry today, Holloway is correct and so are the proponents of awards—at least responsibly administered awards, as ALLi’s are.

It’s easy to understand the ideal of the independent authors’ movement. Holloway is fielding the same Elysian dreams that have meant so much to, at times, Impressionists, bohemians, Flower Children, the Beat Generation, Bauhaus masters and parkour’s dervishes.

The marketplace, however, is less kind to such egalitarian impulses. Not unlike corporations, which love to cite “creativity” as their watchword while stamping out every creative glimmer in the workforce (too disruptive), a wide swath of the consumer base earnestly will swear its allegiance to “trying new things” while actually searching high and low for what’s familiar, comfortable, and safe.

The awards, badges, prizes, and giveaways that ALLi is mounting might be seen by some, yes, as a kind of gatekeeping, although the impulse behind them is hardly that. Just about any determination that this apple is better than that apple—or, for Holloway, that this apple is better than that orange—is a judgment call. And making judgment calls is the stuff of gatekeeping. Better sales may accrue to the author whose book has someone’s seal of approval on it. A certain gate has been opened for that writer and not for another.

But if the self-publishing community is to mature and present itself in the plaka as a coherent professional wing of publishing, then some criteria of evaluation will need to prevail. Even Holloway’s Grand Bazaar has some merchants rated better than others, some purveyors ranked above their competition, some almonds prized above walnuts.

There are interesting parallels in recent writings to these, too. In Living in Paradox, the literary agent Rachelle Gardner looks at the familiar competition between creative and business work so familiar in publishing long before the advent of entrepreneurial digital self-publishing.

And author Hugh Howey touches on the frequently heard line “not every book should be published” in his short essay They All Have a Right To.

As easy as it is to understand Holloway’s desire to see self-publishing avoid the authority manifestation of what he calls “the quantifying teacher,” it’s probably too much to ask. The Bristol CrimeFest administration is not wrong when it says that self-publishers “bear a higher burden to demonstrate their status.” This may not seem fair, but neither is the marketplace.

ALLi is right to try to create carefully juried awards with fearlessly high standards, not least to communicate to the wider industry and readership that self-publishing authors are working to raise the bar and to help consumers identify the best.

To find the readership it deserves, the independent authors’ community may well have to help its customers with a little gatekeeping.

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The Right Prob­lem to Have

Penguin came along and snapped up the McLean books. Such was the success of the first two, that even before The Hangman’s Song is published, I was made an offer for three more in the series that I really couldn’t decline.

James Oswald

James Oswald

Not that anybody’s going to weep big Highland Cattle tears for Scotland’s James Oswald, “author and farmer.” (He raises those lovely Highland beasties along with New Zealand Romney Sheep on 350 acres in North East Fife.) But what an interesting issue to face, too. Oswald had another quite different series under way at the time, “The Ballad of Sir Benfro” books. In The good news and the bad…, he fills in his readers on his site:

There hasn’t been a week since I self-published the first three books in The Ballad of Sir Benfro when someone hasn’t contacted me through email, Twitter, Facebook or comments here asking when book four, The Broken World, is coming out. My intention last year (was it only last year?) was to finish the third McLean book, The Hangman’s Song, in time for self-publishing in the run-up to Christmas, following which I would get stuck into writing The Broken World for publication this summer. It’s November now, and neither book are available yet.

The Book of Souls by James Oswald @sirbenfroIt turns out that his new deal for the McLean series with Penguin has caused him to put The Broken World on hold. Again, the right problem to have, but a fascinating one for authors who are studying not just the challenges of the self-published approach but also the delightful successes that can turn up when self-published work becomes a calling card so good that traditional publishers “can’t decline,” in Oswald’s good words. And, in fact, he has another such surprise up his sleeve:

Penguin, it seems, so love my writing that they’re going to publish the whole of The Ballad of Sir Benfro – five books in total – starting next autumn. The deal was announced just as World Fantasy Con opened last weekend.

Yes, both of this guy’s series have been picked up. And now they’re dueling for his creative attention, along with the sheep and the cattle. Again, don’t cry for Oswald:

Of course I’m delighted, over the moon, speechless, my gast well and truly flabbered and many, many superlatives to boot. My little dragon, Benfro, who first began to form in my mind almost ten years ago, is going to be published, and by Penguin. Excited doesn’t begin to cover it. But on the other hand, it does mean that all you lovely people who have read the first three books, loved them and come begging for more are going to have to be just a little bit patient.

Dreamwalker by James Oswald @SirBenfroI’m especially glad that our great colleague in Dublin, Eoin Purcell, brought Oswald’s situation to my attention because it’s important at times to remember that this, too, can be what we mean when we talk about “reader connection” and the trials and tribulations that entails.

On Wednesday and Thursday this week, the Get Read online conference is focused squarely on what authors need to think about in terms of forming the right links with readers. And, naturally just about anybody might initially think, “Oh, that conference has to be about how hard it is to set up the right audience relationship to get readers and keep readers.”

Sure. But we mustn’t forget, there are authors—even farmers amid drop-dead natural scenery—who actually find their biggest problem keeping all their happy readers patient enough when not one but two ongoing series are picked up by major publishers in mid-flight.

Read on into the next section here because Oswald has kindly led us (don’t say sheep) handily into a quick mention of “the conference of the week,” if you will, and I want to tell you about it.

For now, double congratulations to Oswald and that storied livestock of his. I’d say his situation is pretty easy for any fan of his work to forgive:

I really don’t like breaking my promises, and I promised that Benfro book four would be out this Summer. Alas, circumstance has made a liar of me, and for that I really am sorry. On the other hand, Penguin are going to publish Sir Benfro! Squeeee!

A shot by author James Oswald of his pedigree Highland Cattle near North East Fife. JamesOswald.co.uk

A shot by author James Oswald of his pedigree Highland Cattle near North East Fife. JamesOswald.co.uk

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Conference de la semaine

Get Read drop inGet Read: Marketing Strategies for Writers, on Wednesday and Thursday (hash it #GetRead), has a roster of more than 30 speakers and its focus is on that author-reader connection you see James Oswald working so carefully to handle in the section above.

On Wednesday, I’ll be doing a live interview, in fact, with author Barbara Freethy, who was the first independent author to sell more than one million books at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Today, she has more than three million copies out there. (When is she going to get this career into gear, you know what I mean?)

Later in the conference, I’ll also speak with London’s Roz Morris, who has “about a dozen” books selling more than 500,000 copies each … and her name isn’t on them. She’s a ghost now working to find an audience as a writer under her own name.

And I’ll talk with James Scott Bell in Los Angeles. Call this one “The Eight Faces of Jim”—he’s a hybrid author writing in multiple genres and somehow maintaining readerships for them all. Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep may be among his audiences, too, we’ll ask.

I’m also having a special session with literary agent Rachelle Gardner and Bookigee’s founding CEO Kristen McLean, accomplished author-reader experts in two corners of the industry: agency representation and data-driven entrepreneurship, respectively. There’s more information below in our Conferences section. Back to Table of Contents

Rogue Refreshed

Major Rogue logoTouting “the romance of skid rows like San Francisco’s Tenderloin and New York’s Times Square,” Movable Type’s Adam Chromy has announced a relaunch of The Rogue Reader.

The agency-curated collective of noir/thriller writers has reached its anniversary and gives us an update on its new season.

Our recent Publishing Perspectives focus pieces on the development and first year of operation are: The Agents’ View: A Case Study in Agent-Assisted Publishing“My Agent By My Side”: An Author’s Assisted Publishing Experience; and A Rogue By Any Other Name: What Was Learned?

Court Haslett

Court Haslett

While offering the ebooks of Rogue stalwarts Ro Cuzon and Mark T. Conard at special rates for the month, Chromy has added author Court Haslett to the roster of writers chosen for this assisted self-publishing program, which uses Hugh McGuire’s Pressbooks publishing platform.

Haslett’s Tenderloin (A Sleeper Hayes Mystery) is the new entry on the Rogue list, its title referring to the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco.

Haslett is also going to be editing the Rogue Reader site, which serves to bolster the group’s work with outside interviews and supplemental material to their books.

And Rogue author Don Rearden has had his The Raven’s Gift published by the Penguin Pintail imprint.

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Confer­ences

If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term. Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion. As a service, I also list any discount codes that might be of use to readers.

Get Read conferenceNovember 13-14, Online: Get Read – Marketing Strategies for Writers: Dan Blank’s We Grow Media presents this two-day Internet conference for authors, “focused on helping you ensure your books get read.” Speakers are to include Rachelle Gardner, Kristen McLean, Eve Bridburg, Roz Morris, James Scott Bell, Bethanne Patrick, Kate Rados, Rebecca Schinsky, Jeffrey Yamaguchi, Joanna Penn, Ashleigh GardnerJason Ashlock, Claire Cook, Elizabeth S. Craig, Jane Friedman, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Ami Greko, Rachel Fershleiser, Richard Nash, MJ Rose, Therese Walsh, Chuck Wendig, and more. (Hashtag: #GetRead) Use code “porter” to save on registration.

November 21, London: The Bookseller FutureBook Conference: Once again at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, the conference is industry-focused and usually includes both plenary and breakout sessions during the course of the day. Announced speakers include Brad Stone, Charlie Redmayne, Ziyad Marar, Dale Peters, Charlie Campbell, Patrick Brown, Ashleigh Gardner, Frank Chambers, Joanna Penn, Richard NashMatthew Cashmore and Stephen Page. (Hashtag: #fbook13) ** See our story at Publishing Perspectives on the shortlisted FutureBook Innovation Awards candidates Last week to register.

DBW Conference 2014January 13-15, 2014, New York City: Digital Book World Conference & Expo: “Digital Book World’s sessions strive to offer you the most practical, relevant and actionable programming on everything from eBook publishing and internet marketing to digital solutions for selling and marketing your books. While we’re still building the final program, registration is officially open.” Speakers include Brad StoneTim O’Reilly, Simon Lipskar, Peter McCarthyDominique RaccahMike Shatzkin, and more. (Hashtag: #DBW14)  Use code PORTER14 to save 5 percent on a full registration.

February 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.”

Yale Publishing CourseJuly 13-18, 2014: New Haven: Leadership Strategies in Magazine and Digital Media: “The Yale Publishing Course [YPC] is designed for mid- to senior-level professionals from all over the world. Our mission is to provide participants with the knowledge and skills that will enable them to be more effective leaders and advance their careers. YPC tackles the most important issues facing publishers in this time of ever-accelerating change….The program provides a mixture of overviews of the current and future state of the industry and in-depth explorations of specific topics in editorial content, design, marketing, circulation, advertising, finance, and management.

Yale Publishing CourseJuly 20-25, 2014: New Haven: Leadership Strategies in Book Publishing: “Yale Publishing Course [YPC] tackles the most important issues facing publishers in this time of ever-accelerating change. The curriculum concentrates on: best practices in business and management; understanding and utilizing the latest advances in technology; implementing innovative strategies for discoverability, audience development, and brand extension; ways to increase revenue in a global economy in which print and digital publishing co-exist profitably; managing organizational change and finding new sources of revenue. Speakers confirmed include Craig ModMarcus LeaverKirsty MelvilleLiisa McCloy-Kelley, and Carolyn Pittis.

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Last Gas: The­saurus, Please, at Pub­lish­ers Weekly

PW‘s reviews director has issued a ban on the words compellingunique, and poignant in our reviews. When I wrote to my reviewers asking them to avoid these overused terms, they had some creative replies.

[Such as:] Can we portmanteau our way out of this? I’d like to describe a book as “poignelling.” Or maybe “compique.”

Rose Fox

Rose Fox

Rose Fox is the editor of science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, and erotica reviews with Publishers Weekly.

In Uniquely Compelling and Poignant, she quickly goes over the kind of reception reviewers have had to the news that three of literary criticism’s favorite words have been tossed.

For example, another critic suggested:

Just replace the word with the definition. “The author rendered the main character’s loss in a poignant manner.” becomes “The author rendered the main character’s loss in a manner painfully sharp to the emotions or senses.”

Publishers Weekly PWSuggesting alternative terms (something apparently asked for), writes Fox, is right out because, “It makes much more sense to let each reviewer find their own gripping, unusual, and vibrant (or fascinating, standout, and heartstring-tugging) alternatives.”

And another reviewer might just have made PW’s management think twice about nixing any words at all.

This critic brings us far too close to the star-rating system; or thumbs up (way up) or down; or those horrid little cartoon men jumping up and down in their movie seats to rate films at a certain newspaper in California. He or she offers us this grotesque possibility to overused words:

Maybe I’ll just switch to various smiley faces.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. His London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+


Main image – iStockphoto: Arden Schmidt

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.