Like many indie-publishing authors, allonymbooks was delighted to read Alison Flood’s blog last week in the Guardian newspaper, announcing that not only had she read her first self-published novel (Kerry Wilkinson’s first Jessica Daniel novel, Locked In), but that she was now looking for more. It is to her credit that she acknowledges some of her assumptions: that she was “expecting little”, that she expected the book had “only been through the filter of one person’s brain”, and that her instinct says that if a book is free, it probably isn’t much good. As readers of this blog will know, the issue of editing for content was discussed in a recent column, and it is a rather generalised preconception about the process of self-criticism that indie-publishing authors put themselves through.
Nonetheless, what cheers us is that the key points of Ms Flood’s blog were these. What is she going to read next from the indie-published realm? And how on earth is she to sift through the possibilities to settle on something that will be equally worth her time?
To begin with, her strategy is based on the Kindle free chart, which as she notes is a guide only to people reading the books, but not to their quality. But that too is of course a flawed assumption, as any reader of the Kindle self-publishing forums will know. The Amazon option to price your books for free from time to time is one that many authors employ simply to rocket their books up the chart and, as was noted two weeks ago on this blog, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that a book that is downloaded is a book which is then read, any more than a print one that is bought is one that is read. Indeed, the opposite assumption may well be true: that given how many free books are available, a reader is only likely to be able, let alone willing, to read a small proportion of them. The chart has limited value as a measure of quality, and given the recent fracas over the authenticity of Amazon reviews, what other means is there to rely on?
Nonetheless, Ms Flood bravely opened the discussion to Guardian readers to make their suggestions. The quanitity of the response suggests that there is a slowly gathering interest in the books that are being published this way, not least from the number of readers offering books they had read, as opposed to writers promoting their own work. But the challenge for the Guardian Books team is how to revisit their review structure in order to embrace effectively what independent publishing offers the reader.
There is potential here for massive reconstruction of the whole book review culture, not just by incrementally adjusting to every new development but perhaps by tearing up the existing model and starting again. As Dan Holloway pointed out in his excellent follow up blog on Monday, while at one end of the spectrum independent publishing has done a great deal to open up opportunities to the authors of “mid-list” novels of traditional print publishing appeal, at the other end of the spectrum it has blasted open the opportunities to challenge conventional formulae of novels, what Holloway calls ” the new, the playful, the awkward, the uncategorisable”. Evie Woolmore, in the allonymbooks stable, represents the mid-list end, rejected by print publishing because of a narrow generic cross-section which publishing house marketing teams said they just couldn’t work out how to place. Independent publishing has provided an outlet for writers pursuing ever narrower, more precise intersections between genres, especially in the fantasy, paranormal and science fiction genres, and these developments which have been taking place more quietly for years could now be explored in a much more public forum in a space like The Guardian.
So Ms Flood’s announcement that The Guardian is finally going to take note of this enormous sphere of published content in its Books section can only be a good thing. allonymbooks has, like many other authors, been posting to all the British broadsheets online, asking for a segment of the Books section to take account of this market. It is long overdue and will offer a way to bring the process of credible, quality reviewing to the credible, quality indie-published books that are out there. But to make the most of this new step, allonymbooks hopes that the Guardian will not treat indie-published books as one category of their own. If, as Ms Flood notes, a quarter of a million self-published books were published last year, then it is going to take organisation, patience and a clear strategy to enable readers not only to navigate their way through what is available, but also to celebrate the originality and diversity that indie-publishing has made possible.
It is likely that the scope of the project will outstrip the existing capacity of The Guardian’s website and print editions. Given the flaws pointed out by commenters on Dan Holloway’s blog of the existing review sites for indie-published fiction, there is clearly a gap in the market. Add to that, commenter Sean Murray’s suggestion that writers find a new way to present their work by, for example, providing an opening extract for readers without even having to download a sample to Kindle, and there are already several pointers for a new way forward for book culture, not merely for responding to the growth in indie-published books. Does The Guardian have the option to set up a brand new ‘Guardian Books’ website, devoted purely and simply to engaging readers for all published material beyond the scope of what the newspaper already does? It might be a good place to start.
And, perhaps surprisingly given allonymbooks’ continual aspiration for recognition of quality indie-published novels, we also hope that, despite all the comments after Ms Flood’s article about how much “crap” has been indie-published, that there will be an acknowledgement that there is a market for books that are less stylistically or breathtakingly written, however small that market is. Indie-publishing should no more discriminate on the grounds of market than it does on the grounds of quality. Anyone can write and publish, so anyone can read. For if the market has changed, then so must our appreciation of it.