Book Bloggers: The New Publishing Gatekeepers

Indie publishing and its effect on traditional publishing is a work in progress, and we can’t fully measure its impact. But as we head into a holiday season where ereaders are likely to be a popular gift, it seems clear that book bloggers and reviewers are the next gatekeepers in the world of publishing.

Originally, publishers had that role. Then they (mostly) stopped taking unagented manuscripts, outsourcing the role to agents. Agents have been the first hurdle for many authors to clear for years now. Then came ebooks and Kindle Direct/PubIt/Smashwords and all of a sudden authors could go direct to readers. No gatekeepers! Complete freedom from constraints. Um, no.

Once there is no gatekeeper at the publication point, anybody can publish. And as legions of slush pile readers at agencies and publishing houses can attest to, that means there are a lot of bad books out there. There also are at least as many mediocre ones. As has always been the case, only a small percentage of the books that are written are good, never mind great. But in the past, readers could assume that if a book was published, it met a certain level of quality. (Yes, sometimes that isn’t true. But as a general rule, let’s stipulate it.)

We now have millions of books published each year as ebooks and POD books. Major retailers have review sections for each books, but it’s easy to game those. Get a bunch of friends and family to log on and review your book and you’ll rack up a couple of dozen five-star reviews pretty quickly. Likewise, there’s a segment of anti-indie readers who go around leaving one-star reviews (and admitting to it on various book forums) for any indie, even if they haven’t read them.

Because of the easy ability to manipulate reviews, those are becoming less trustworthy. Some readers have even said (again, on book forums) that they won’t consider an indie book that only has glowing reviews because they don’t trust that they’re honest.

Another popular indie tactic has been to discount to 99 cents or price at 99 cents to get readers. It’s proven to drive sales, but some authors, such as Selena Kitt are starting to question if it actually has long-term benefits. Again, because there is so much dross out there, and much of it is at the lower price points, serious indie authors are having discussions about whether they need to price in the $3.99-$5.99 range to signal to people that they’re producing quality books. But if they do and are successful, how long will it be before the lower-quality books follow the tactics and price again becomes an unreliable metric?

As I said back before I published Thrown Out, I think this is where indie publishing will start taking on some of the conventions of fan fiction communities, namely recommendation sites.

The person who will have the most power in the publishing world in three years is the one who creates a site that offers honest reviews of indie books that readers can rely on.

Keys to Success

  •  It would have to have several reviewers so all genres are covered and so the backlog can be kept manageable.
  • It would have to have a strict ethics policy to keep reviewers from reviewing their friends’ books and so there was never a question of authors buying reviews, and that policy would have to be clearly stated on the site.
  • The reviewers would have to be willing to honestly evaluate books – top ratings should be difficult to get and there should be some mediocre reviews. The rating criteria should be clearly stated, and uniform across reviewers. One thing that might help would be to have reviewers post bio information with examples of well-known traditionally published books that fall into each of the rating categories.
  • The site would have to promote itself at existing book sites such as Goodreads, Amazon, etc., to start drawing in the readers that are the other half of the equation.

If somebody could create a site like this and get the number of reviews to critical mass quickly enough to build a reputation as THE place to find recommendations for quality indie fiction, that site would have a lot of clout in the future of publishing because a review there would carry weight among readers. Done well, you create a system where readers are willing to buy based on the site’s reviews because they trust that the site honestly evaluates the quality of the books. And on the other end of the equation, the site is able to get review copies from the best authors because they know that a good review there is worth well more than the single ARC in additional sales.

Absent a single clearinghouse, individual book bloggers in various genres will start to build reputations that for that genre become make or break.

Who are the book bloggers you rely on for reviews? 

11 Comments on “Book Bloggers: The New Publishing Gatekeepers”

    1. Thanks, Laurie! I’ll have to check those out, and I’m looking forward to exploring your site more, too. I saw it used to be affiliated with the Brockton library – my dad used to teach down that way at B-R HS before he retired.

  1. This is such an interesting concept! I know I’m sometimes gunshy about new indie authors, because of quality. And you just never know about reviews. I read a self-pubbed book by small press author I quite enjoy. I bought it based on the two dozen 5 star reviews, but I couldn’t get past the dozens of typos per PAGE. Obviously, this woman is very heavily edited by her small press company, and needed it for her indie stuff. The reviews were just wrong–it wasn’t pristine or clean in the least!

    Some kind of a network would be very helpful! I just have no idea how the logistics would work for something like that!

    1. Thanks, JG! It would be a big undertaking, but it has some decent potential, and if it becomes a go-to site, it should be possible to get enough ad revenue to support it. I’ll be curious to see what emerges. Something almost has to if indie publishing is going to become a solid part of the market, not just a few success stories.

  2. Hi Jennie,

    We are new TweetMates and I am so glad that I followed the link to your blog.

    You’re absolutely right about the quality of/pricing of/review credibility of IndiePub work. I’ve been in the business of coaching IndieAuthors for over a year now and will not coach a writer whose work is not peer-review edited.

    The biggest challenge – for sincere, long term, authors – is to ePub a manuscript that is totally free of typos. It’s the bane and embarrassment of authors who see their future in IndiePub.

    But…it’s expensive to hire an editor. So, in the small town I am from (a writer’s haven, actually), we established a ‘publishing co-operative’ and cross-edit for each other. I also have a buy-first circle of internet author-contacts and we proof-read-after purchase for each other. For goodness knows what reason typos that an author has looked at for two weeks on the PC screen appear so much more vividly when in eBook format!

    The saddest situation of all in this phenom of self publishing is that fully 50% of the titles on Amazon have. not. sold. one. copy. Eight million titles – and nearly four million are just sitting there! Slapping up something one just yanked out of the typewriter,

    1. Thanks, Emily. If you haven’t seen Porter Anderson’s Writing on the Ether today, he hits on a lot of these same issues – it’s a good analysis: http://janefriedman.com/2011/11/10/writing-on-the-ether-11/

      Typos are a challenge in any publishing endeavor. I know at my newspaper, we try to catch all of them and we never do. There are fewer and fewer eyes available to look at pages before we go to press, and the same is true in publishing. Unfortunately, time and careful attention by multiple people are the only way to eliminate them, and that can be tough to get.

  3. Love the idea of the site – and agree it would need some serious rules for quality reviewing. Something about it reminds me of the Project Greenlight that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon tried some years ago for filmmakers – writers submitted screenplays to the site and were reviewed by fellow writers. The one with the best reviews were placed. Problem was, your work might be reviewed by a handful of teenagers or such who did not understand or appreciate what they read. It became a popularity contest of sorts and I’m not sure anyone even remembers any of the films that were made. I don’t think it made any careers, either.

    It is a risk, but there is something to be said for having an educated, experienced eye on the work. Because someone is well-read does not always translate to having a strong critical sense. If we’ve got to have gatekeepers, they should have some credibility. I have a hard time with plenty of bloggers and amateur reviewers who, for the most part, only review friend’s works or pieces in a given genre, like science fiction. Blogging is part of pop culture and there are few blogs out there truly dedicated to critical theory and the examination of literature. I can see how a site like this might work for genre books, but for literature that aspires to a higher quality, not likely.

    Keep in mind, too, what you are describing is almost precisely what groups like Kirkus Reviews have always done – how long before a site like that became another example of that?

    1. Oh, there are definitely lots of ways it could go wrong. But I haven’t heard of a better suggestion for handling the growing mass of indies to make it easy for readers to find quality that doesn’t start to drift back toward traditional publishing models.

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