This month, I visit with one of the first organizations to tackle one of the fundamental librarian concerns about self-publishing: quality.
Few libraries have ever had enough money to buy everything—nor would they if they could. Some books are better than others, and we’d like to think we buy the best. (Or failing that, at least what’s popular.) How do we find what’s good? We read book reviews.
And book reviews follow the market. Until recently, there was anticipated demand, and there was a presumption of availability. Until now, the publisher had some credibility based on past performance and reputation, and there were reliable distribution channels from publisher to library. But self-publishing is different. The market has changed.
Enter BlueInk Review. This company is the four-and-a-half year old business venture of Patti Thorn, former book review editor for Denver’s now defunct newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, and Patricia Moosbrugger, a longstanding book agent. When the Rocky closed, Thorn found herself unemployed, and rightly predicted the growth of self-publishing as an industry trend. But having seen a 150-year old newspaper close its doors when advertising revenue failed to transition from print to newspaper website, she thought long and hard about a business model. She thought there was a real need for professional reviews of self-published titles. But how could they make it pay?
While at the Rocky, Thorn was approached by several authors who wrote their own books, printed them up, then tried to order a positive review to boost sales. Many—most—of these books were simply not very good. Of course, not every book that comes from traditional publishing is either a bestseller or a work of great literature, either; however, it has usually been at least copyedited. It has been vetted by the gatekeepers, and vetted again by reviewers. Could BlueInk contribute to the quest for quality?
Today, BlueInk reviews about a hundred titles a month. The reviews are professional and candid; most of the reviewers (about 100 contribute) have written for magazines, have worked as editors at publishing houses, and are highly skilled. The reviews are distributed to Ingram, Publishing Perspectives, and the aggregator, iDream Books. They can also be subscribed to by libraries at no charge.
Authors pay for the reviews: $500 per title. Reviewers are anonymous, and they are candid. The whole book is carefully read, and for some books, that’s difficult, even painful. There is no guarantee that the review will be positive—although once having seen the review, an author may choose not to have it distributed, preferring to rework the book based on the critique. (However, BlueInk does not provide editing services as such, seeing that, rightly, as a conflict of interest.)
Of the hundred titles, only five to ten percent receive starred (positive) reviews. Things are getting better, marginally, Thorn and Moosbrugger say. But clearly, a vast majority of their reviews are negative. The slush pile endures.
I asked what kinds of manuscripts BlueInk receives. They agreed that there were a few recurring categories: lots of personal memoirs (often from people who have never written a book before, but believe their story has meaning and value), lots of science fiction and fantasy, and lots of Christian writing (both devotionals and impassioned defenses of creationism). There’s a surprising number of works by Nigerian and African immigrants. BlueInk gets a fair number of academic non-fiction works, often the raw doctoral thesis looking for a popular audience. There’s not much in the way of romance—probably because there are many other support websites with their own built-in consumers. Beyond that, BlueInk gets the usual mix of works on education, business and finance, and self-help titles.
I asked Thorn and Moosbrugger what they thought would happen in the world of self-publishing. They predicted:
- There will be more and better self-published books, and more bestsellers. How many more? It’s hard to say. Even Bowker doesn’t know how fast self-publishing is growing: it tracks publications by ISBNs, and many self-published authors don’t use them. Amazon offers its own alternative, for instance.
- The marketing of such titles will get savvier.
- Dropped midlist authors (people whose first or second books may have been good, but didn’t sell well) will move to self-publishing as a matter of course.
- Publishers and libraries will pay more attention to self-published works—as indeed is now happening.
- Eventually, self-publishing supply chains will settle into systems, moving into the mainstream.
- We’ll see more vetted self-publishing services (editing, cover design, etc.)— as the more fly-by-night operations get exposed. And more authors will understand the need for quality editing before they put their books out there.
- I asked if they thought self-publishing, and its greater revenue slice for authors, would influence existing publisher deals with authors. They didn’t think so. It’s hard to market one’s own book, and many authors will sacrifice potential revenue not to have to worry about that.
- Interestingly, they think the hardback book won’t go away, at least not for a while—the demand is still there.
Again, BlueInk isn’t the only reviewing service out there, or the only business model. But they’ve been at it since near the beginning, and I find their insights astute.
Nonetheless, one company isn’t enough. While useful, reviewing 100 titles a month hardly makes a dent in the vast bulwark of new works. But more about that next month.