There has been a lot of hand wringing over the state of book publishing the last several years. Large publishing houses in financial distress and complaints that online giants like Amazon are undercutting the industry. Add to that the many, many books now being self-published in print and digitally (many of low quality) and it is overwhelming for readers, making it difficult to choose what to read. Most readers, when in doubt, stick to their favorite authors. That’s pretty safe, but what if you want to reach out, try something new, where do you look?
Just a few decades ago, the book publishing industry was a kind of a closed club, with a handful of publishers controlling the vast majority of new books released. They decided what books we saw on the shelves of bookstores and what books were presented to critics. The choices were safe, books that would sell in the tens of thousands and appeal to a lot of readers. When The New York Times would put a book on its best seller list, that author was guaranteed success. Pretty simple, but also pretty stifling if your audience was small.
That was Before the Floodgates were Opened
Fast forward to 2015. Anyone can publish a book the instant they finish writing it. It doesn’t have to be edited, reviewed, or even spell checked. Just press the publish button and up it goes onto Amazon, a Blog, Smashwords, or wherever. Just like that, you are a published author. That’s good for the author, bad for the old publishing industry and difficult for readers.
How do you Find a Single Diamond in a Sea of Glass?
I love listening to audiobook. Recently, I started reviewing them for a web site called AudioBookReviewer.com so I could hear new titles. Like all things, a few books are very good, many are OK, and some are just horrible. It got me thinking about how the democratization of the web has made too many things available, but also how it helps us sift through huge amounts of choices with relative ease.
Amazon.com is a good example here. Let’s say you’re looking for a new gift for a child, you type in a general idea of what you want, then narrow it down to one of the products that looks good. Now you choose which brand. If you’re like me, you read the reviews. Let’s say there are 400 reviews; that’s good, they probably can’t fake that many. Maybe you look at the one star reviews first. Did the toy break the first day, shatter in the toddler’s mouth and choke him to death, or are the reviewers just whiners who hate anything with blue in it. And you pick. For the most part, you do fine, and your baby makes it to his second birthday without lead poisoning.
Books are not quite there yet, but this is the same process. Someone like me reads or listens to many books and “grades” them one to five stars. One for awful, five for Tolstoy. You like what I’ve reviewed in the past and perhaps follow my choices forward. Multiply this by thousands of reviewers and we get through the tens of thousands of new books together – kind of.
Here’s the big problem. The review system is rigged, loaded with lies. How do I know? Because I listen to horrible books that have five star ratings. Five stars is a perfect book, something that should move us to tears or rapture, Melville or Hugo. Right? There is nothing to stop authors from getting friends or family to load great reviews for their book. We all know this and try to sift through, but it messes up the system. The truth is, it’s not so different from what the publishing industry has done to us for decades, just more obvious and not so professional.
This organic system of review and selection is new, still being polished and perfected. Wikipedia, just a few years ago, was not the reliable, trusted source it is today. Anyone could post some trivia or undocumented statement diluting the quality of the whole. But through a series of checks and self-policing policies, it has become quite good (not flawless), but truly amazing in its scope and general accuracy, which you can verify yourself. No printed encyclopedia can come close to this towering online reference resource.
I chose to review audiobooks, not printed ones, because there is a higher barrier to entry. Audiobooks aren’t inexpensive to produce and this requires the author/publisher to put more effort into the quality of their book before they release it. I like websites like AudioBookReviewer.com because they tend to review the book, more than critique them. In other words, the reviewer gives an overview of the book even if he or she doesn’t like it personally, often going into great detail. In fact, you might choose to listen to a book I didn’t like for whatever quirky thing that bugged me, but you look for in books. A critique on the other hand, gushes over great books and shreds a bad one. You love or hate it, which doesn’t really help you sift through the many books that you might enjoy for a light read. Think of movie reviews here.
The Future is Bright for Book Publishing
A large publisher, no matter how good or how much they like a new book, will not publish it if the audience is too small. It just isn’t worth it. This is not true for self-publishing. Now there is a way for the many strange and wonderful books that would never see the light of day a decade ago, to find their small, but discerning audience. This is great news for you the reader, especially, if you are like me and love the rare and unusual.