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Is genre fiction creating a market for lemons?

In 1970 George Akerlof (Nobel Prize winner in Economics 2001) wrote a scholarly article called “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.” In true academic fashion, the article was deemed trivial by the top journals and he finally landed it in a highly-ranked but not flagship publication. It has since gone on to become one of the most cited economics articles and his insights about the used-car market in the US have been shown to have a much wider application.

Briefly put, a market for lemons can be created when buyers and sellers have asymmetric information. In the olden days, sellers of used cars would withhold information about the cars’ past performance and repair history in order to fetch the highest prices. Sometimes this was borderline or outright unethical behavior, and sometimes they just didn’t know. As a result, people approached buying a used car with the enthusiasm they generally reserved for root canal surgery.

“Wow, I got a great deal on this used car! It is better than I thought it would be!” said almost no one, anywhere, ever, in those days. If you did get a good deal and a good car, it was basically a miracle. This was mostly because people who had good cars to sell knew they wouldn’t get the price the car was worth, because there was often no way to convince the seller that it was a good car. So they found other ways to offload the car (sell to friends, trade it in, etc.) and many good cars were kept out of the market. That turned the used car market into a market for “lemons,” slang for a bad car.

It wasn’t that good cars weren’t around, or that no one could buy them, it was that the market didn’t have a reliable way to signal to sellers which were the good and which were the bad cars. Today we have Carfax and other computerized, easily available information about used cars, and the market thrives for both buyers and sellers. The information asymmetry has basically been erased.

What does this have to do with books, you might ask? Well, thanks to the brouhaha over the Author Earnings report and the influx of new commenters to my DA post, I wound up reading a number of threads at the Kindleboards. Most of the time I forget that the Kboards community exists, given I don’t share their interests, and since I gave up Amazon discussion groups and Goodreads I don’t notice mentions of them in my various Twitter and blog streams.

While I was immersed in the Kboards threads, my Twitter stream happened to be featuring a conversation about self-published books that purportedly featured purchased reviews (here is a roundup by Mike Cane of the blog posts they were discussing). And then Jane wrote a column asking readers about their price-sensitivity in reviewing books, and it started to come together for me.

The phrase “Gresham’s Law” had been bouncing around in my head, but I knew that wasn’t quite the right concept. Gresham’s Law is about currency circulation, where everyone knows that two currencies that have the same official value may differ on other value dimensions (e.g., gold coins and base-metal coins that have the same value when used as currency). But the book market seemed to me to be an asymmetric information situation.*

The result of the two processes is the same: the bad product drives the good product out of the market. But the way it occurs and why it occurs are different. In the case of Gresham’s Law the good money leaves because its official valuation is lower than its real valuation (people take the good money out of circulation). In the case of lemons it’s because the better product cannot be sold for more than the worse product, since there is no transparent way to guarantee to buyers that a quality difference exists.

Two decisions have converged during the rise of ebooks to make low-production-value, low-priced books much more commonplace. The first is the original decision by the Big 6 publishers to conspire illegally to set and maintain high prices for their ebooks. The second is the decision of authors to self-publish their books and price them much lower than Big 6 books in order to gain market share. The second decision was facilitated on a large scale by Amazon’s willingness to provide a retail portal for these author-publishers.

By the time the Big 6 (now the Big 5) were forced to stop price-fixing, the average price of ebooks had decreased because of the influx of self-publishers and the willingness of readers to take a chance on these books. This trend was especially true in genre categories like romance and SFF. As a result, a $7.99 book not only looked awfully expensive to the average high-volume romance reader, it was competing with many lower-priced and even free books in the same genre. (An aside: this is Jane’s point about anchoring. $7.99 wouldn’t look nearly as bad if it weren’t near the top end of a price scale that begins at $0.00.)

Worse, the price points didn’t necessarily reflect quality differences, or even easily measurable criteria like length. Consider the following examples:

  • A “self-published” rerelease of a NY-published author’s backlist
  • A new self-published book from a previously NY-published author
  • A self-published debut from an unknown, newbie author
  • A loss leader from a NY publisher trying to drum up readership

Four very different types of provenance, but all four books could have price points of $3.99. With that price confusion, what rational consumer is going to take a chance on a $7.99 book unless she has additional information about the book or the author?

So the primary differentiator, price, is becoming a very noisy signal. At $3.99 you can get a very good book or a very bad book or something in between.

Price, of course, is not the only signal. A second signal is review rating. Amazon has review ratings for everything from hair dryers to Montblanc fountain pens to The Great Gatsby (1-star review: “I was really glad when the story was over. I felt no depth in any of the characters and was not intrigued by his writing style.”). Amazon loves reviews of the products they sell, and all you have to do to write one for any product is buy one thing from Amazon, once. Reviews range from careful, well-thought-out critiques to “this book had a torn cover when I received it: 1-star.” This is not surprising, since practically anyone can post a review, and in my opinion it’s fair, because the consumer is buying a product and has the right to review the purchase as a product.

Book reviews exhibit an interesting pattern: reviews of popular and best-selling genre books are systematically higher than reviews of corresponding general fiction and literary fiction. Some have hundreds of ratings with very, very few in the 1-star category. Looking at the list as I’m writing this, I see that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has a 3.8 rating, while H.M. Ward’s Stripped (The Ferro Family) has a 4.7. In addition, well-known self-published books often have very high rankings, especially compared to Big 5 and other major publishers’ releases. For example, compare the positive (4- and 5-star reviews)  percentage of Wool to the percentages of other well-known SFF books:

Wool (Omnibus): 93.6%
Harry Potter #1: 94.4%
Neuromancer: 71.7%
Cryptonomicon: 77.6%
Ender’s Game: 90.1%
Ready Player One: 89.4%

Only Rowling’s first Harry Potter book has a higher reviewer rating than Wool, and of the rest, only Ender’s Game reached 90%. Neuromancer arguably established a genre, Cryptonomicon and Ender’s Game are both critically and popularly acclaimed, and Ready Player One was a word-of-mouth hit. All have substantially lower approval ratings, and the three books that are clearly targeted at not-young adults have far fewer ratings than the YA-friendly novels. Neuromancer, which is 30 years old this year, has 726 ratings, which is less than a tenth of the total numbers racked up by Howey, Rowling, and Card.

It’s entirely possible that readers of the Ward and Howey books were more satisfied with their reading experience than readers of the Tartt, Gibson, etc. (I tend to think of Rowling as being in a category of her own).  I have more trouble with the idea that the Ward and Howey books are better books. And herein lies the problem with Amazon reviews. They’re only partially about quality.

Quite apart from whether reviews are genuine or fake, written by people with a stake in the book/author or by an unconnected reader, I don’t find it believable when a best-selling book has a 93.6% positive rating. But even if I were convinced of the overwhelming love for it, when so many books get 4.5+ star averages, two things happen to me, the unconnected reader:

  1. I have trouble knowing which book to pick;
  2. When I read it and find out it is not a 4.5 star book in objective terms, i.e., technique/production issues, I start to mistrust reviews. A lot.

And when I mistrust reviews, there goes my second signal. Rather than having helpful signals, I now have two measures that provide noise. So how do I choose among the vast numbers of books Amazon offers me? I can flip a coin, read a lot of samples, or throw up my hands and decide to stream something on Netflix or Amazon Prime instead.

Because the ultimate competition to books isn’t other books. It comes from other forms of entertainment. If sifting through the book recommendations becomes too difficult, a lot of people will just turn to other media. I’ll keep looking because I have a lifelong investment in being a reader. But for younger people who don’t, why should they bother?

Right now we have ways of sorting amongst the enormous slush pile that is the Kindle bookstore. We can follow NY authors to their self-published efforts and hope they have kept their same standards. We can feast on the backlist releases (there are luckily many, many of those). We can follow word-of-mouth and reviews from people we trust to discover new writers.

Two of those three options involve people with connections to traditional publishing, that hoary old dinosaur that self-publishing is supposed to render irrelevant. Right now, the majority of self-publishing success is almost certainly built on the foundation provided by New York. You won’t find that information in most evangelical tracts about self-publishing, including the Author Earnings report, because it undermines the “all self-publishing is great and we are all in this together!” message. But I haven’t seen any evidence to disprove it.

If you vanquish New York, though, you undermine self-publishing. What will be left, in overwhelming numbers, will be the inexperienced, still-working-on-the-writing-thing authors, and that will make good authors wary of entering, for fear of being lost in the slushpile.  And that’s when readers will realize they’re shopping in a market full of lemons.

______________

*ETA: I’m not the first person to use the Akerlof paper to talk about the book market. See this post by Balder Bjarnason written last year. We have slightly different foci but lots of overlap as well.

Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

198 Comments

  1. Rosario
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 04:51:18

    Really thought-provoking post, Sunita, thank you. And I love you for taking Akerlof’s paper as a starting point to look at the problem! As an economist who trained during the (unfortunaely still ongoing) econometrics arms race, I look at that paper as the symbol of what we should aspire to.

    Anyway, back to self-publishing, I think there are a couple of areas where we might not be in the classic assumptions of adverse selection, and I wonder if this might not affect the mechanisms that can be used to sort it out.

    First, the basic assumption there is that the seller (author) has more information than the buyer (reader) about the quality of the product. That’s true here, but is it accurate information that the seller has? I’m sure there are many authors cynically trying to sell products they know are subpar, but a lot seem completely convinced that their shoddily written and plotted books are amazing and the best thing ever. So this might cloud mechanisms such as signalling. The first one that comes to mind (although it’s not quite right) is authors offering their money back to readers who don’t think the book is good. If sellers really did have objective information about what they’re selling, you’d assume that only authors selling good quality books would do this. But in this case, you would probably get a lot of deluded ones, too. Yes, you’d get your money back if that was the case, but for many readers the issue isn’t the money, but the time wasted.

    Also, it would be problematic to assume that there is an objective measure of… well, not quality, because there sort of is one, but of what makes a book that readers want. There seem to be plenty of readers who read only for “the feels” and don’t give a crap about objective writing quality. So there can’t be a universal screening mechanism (say, a ‘board’ you can submit your books to so that they can be rated -guess that’s sort of the model of traditional publishing), because it won’t succeed in delivering for all kinds of readers.

    Hmm, I’ll definitely have to keep thinking about this!

  2. Baldur Bjarnason (@fakebaldur)
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 07:56:33

    I wrote about this possibility last year on by blog ( http://studiotendra.com/2013/07/12/this-ebook-is-a-lemon/ and http://studiotendra.com/2013/07/16/followup-to-this-ebook-is-a-lemon/ ). It was a very unpopular idea at the time (got a lot of pushback).

    I think that the self-publishing industry’s inability to push prices up above $3.99 is symptomatic of a market in the early days of transitioning to the toxic dynamic Akerlof described. I have no idea how to solve the problem, especially since a lot of people refuse to even acknowledge the possibility.

  3. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 08:22:58

    @Rosario: Thanks, Rosario! And I couldn’t agree more about the downside of the econometrics arms race. Luckily I get to spend time with other economists who agree with you.

    Your points are of course correct, and I think that in the book market the problem is quality uncertainty as much as information asymmetry. Akerlof emphasizes the information asymmetry that results from incentives for dishonesty. But we get quality uncertainty even if everyone is being honest, as long as they don’t have the proper information (for whatever reason). Someone who thinks their books are great when they are (objectively) not is going to screw up the market without meaning to, for example. Your point about money-back guarantees is a great one that fits with this argument, I think.

    That said, we’re getting all kinds of behavior that is pushing books up lists regardless not only of quality, but sincere reader interest. Fiverr and other paid review systems are an obvious problem, but so are sites like Bookbub, which highlight books that haven’t been read by the endorsers. And with discoverability being the big worry, there’s an incentive for authors to find ways to find ways to make their books popular that are independent of whether readers are actually reading and talking about them.

    I agree that quality in books is a subjective issue and one that we cannot make entirely objective, ever. At one end we have books that almost everyone agrees are of low quality (whether they enjoy reading them or not) and at the other we have books that everyone agrees are of high quality (whether enjoyable or not). But most books fall into the vast middle. And we can’t do much about that.

    However, the fact that bad books sell is reinforcing self-published authors’ arguments about not paying for work that can make a book objectively better, and that’s a problem. You regularly see posts about how self-pubbers don’t need to hire editors, etc. And conversations among authors about book quality are not always welcome on author boards. I see this as a separate problem from the subjective quality issue, and it’s one that will drive down the overall quality and increase convergence toward lemons.

  4. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 08:24:51

    People don’t listen. I’ve given up, but everything I predicted a few years ago is coming to pass, and it wasn’t just me, either. I think you were one of them, Sunita. And the people who didn’t listen then are complaining. I instinctively distrust the “everything is wonderful, now we’ve found the snake oil” brigade, and I’ve basically decided to do what’s best for my own career, and take into account what I’ve learned about where things are going. I’m keeping quiet about the Next Big Thing but this year I’m taking a huge punt on it. We shall see.
    I agree with you and Baldur. It does look uncomfortably like a lemon market right now. But say that in certain quarters, and you’ll be shouted down.

  5. Bona
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 08:28:46

    What I find more interesting in this post is the possibility that badly written self-published books have lowered the price, and pushed good genre books out of the market. I would never have imagined that.
    But it could be true. You don’t pay more money for a good romance novel then for a bad one. I have to think about it.
    The second idea is reviews. I have to recognise that I read Amazon’s reviews, but I don’t trust them, even if I have written some myself.
    I read several webpages -The Romance Reader, All About Romance, SBTB, dear author, RT Book Reviews and some other,…-. There are many books out there and I don’t want to waste time & money in something I will not like. So I only buy those books that several of those pages consider OK.

  6. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 08:30:31

    @Baldur Bjarnason (@fakebaldur): Thank you for your comment and the link, I’ve updated my post to include it. I didn’t google to see if anyone else had used the Akerlof example, but I should have.

    You did get a lot of pushback, that’s for sure. In some ways it’s to be expected (“lemons” instinctively sets up people’s hackles), but it may also be that readers fixated on the returns/free aspect of the post. Either way, I think we basically are saying the same thing, and I don’t know how to solve the problem either. Letting the review rating system reflect what actual, unprompted readers think would be a start. I know that some books have big fan bases, but there shouldn’t be a tenfold difference between Wool and Neuromancer, in my opinion, regardless of how much people love the former.

  7. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 08:35:16

    On the quality issue? (what happened to the edit button here?) – to a certain extent, quality can be assessed. There are certain “mechanical” issues that can be checked in a book. The obvious are grammar and spelling, but most people know that. There are also other factors – tension, pacing and the way the story unfolds – is every scene necessary, does the story change the main protagonists, so they are different people at the end than they are at the beginning? Or is it a series of sex scenes strung together, as was one book I read recently? Sometimes a really badly written book can do it for a large number of people, but can that author do it again?
    Recently it’s become obvious that a lucky author can make a fortune off one book, or one series, so much that she or he never needs to put fingers to keyboard again. But an author who wants a career will keep writing. JK Rowling is currently proving that it’s more than the money to her. But whether by design or luck or clever marketing, that’s one big disincentive to write.
    However, most of us hacks have to rely on the next book, the next series, to generate interest in the backlist. And it has to be good. Good enough to get people to come back. That million-selling book is largely a lottery, so there are a lot of people betting on long odds, as people often do. There are bound to be a few winners, and well done, because it lifts the perception of books in the popular media and it’s good all round. As a pretty typical writer of erotic romance, I can say that 50 Shades did a lot towards my bank balance. More for people who write BDSM (I write vanilla erotic).
    Those poorly-written, badly edited books on Amazon? The ones that have all the paid reviews? They’ll melt into the ether, because readers won’t come back for more. Unless there’s a lot of word of mouth.

  8. Elizabeth McCoy
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 09:42:45

    I think there’s something else that confuses the issue as well, about those reviews: the honest reviews on an indie book are also likely to be self-selected from people who heard word-of-mouth or otherwise had a trusted source give them a pointer. The people who are dubious but “I’ll give it a try” for a trad-pub book are more likely to save their money/time for a self-pub, if they notice it’s self-pub.

    Further, the people who like it because it’s appealing to something different than many traditional publishers… may indeed like it all out of proportion: “I love books about elephants, and books about balloons, and this ballooning elephant book is THE BEST THING EVER. EVERYONE MUST READ THIS.” Or “I never realized that ballooning elephants could be so cool, so when one showed up in this book, I was just amazed; everyone must read this book! Unless they don’t like elephants or are afraid of heights, I guess.”

    (In theory, this should combine with higher-priced self-published books (which people are “primed” to believe are higher quality, so long as they’re basic quality) having even more good reviews, because the people who took a risk on it will be extra-giddy that it was good — and the risk-avoiding people will only get it if a trusted source says, “No, you’ll love it. Hint: there’s a ballooning elephant.”)

    So both fake ratios and real ratios are likely to be biased towards the higher-stars, and the faster test is often to examine the more detailed 3-and-below reviews for validity.

    The other issue is whether a given price is going to drive the better books away. Hybrid authors, in particular, do have an advantage of an existing fanbase to spread word-of-mouth that X self-published work is just as good as Y traditionally-published work. This can allow the author to 1: price the book a bit above the curve (I will pay $5 for a short story from a very specific author, yes), and 2: even if they don’t, their ebook can still make them quite a tidy sum because of the better royalties that self-publishing currently enjoys. (Three months of 500-700 sales-per-month of a $4.99 book* = around $5K. Not enough to retire on, especially if sales-rate slows to a few hundred dollars a month, but not shabby.)

    (*On Amazon alone, with the majority of sales getting 70% royalties, minus no more than a dime for transmission costs, but not participating in the exclusive lending program.)

    I’d agree with you that removing the hybrid option would cause some issues… But Wool isn’t a hybrid thing, right? It was just a cheap little story that caught mindshare and got hugely popular. For that matter, 50 Shades started life as one fanfic among a bazillion (and fanfic is even less likely to have professional-quality editing; beta-readers will vary a lot on how well they can catch stuff), somehow got mindshare there, took its fandom with it to self-publishing, and then to traditional publishing.

    Even if the big publishers do collapse (which I don’t think they’re going to do anytime soon), I think there will still be enough readers who plow through slush quickly to form communities that can recommend new authors/books*, and hopefully the trusted reviewer sites (e.g., DA & SBTB) will be able to help the people who don’t have a trusted community already established.

    * (so GoodReads (if it’s not totally gutted) and similar services will become more useful as well — and possibly more… Hm. Capable of being more insular; savvy readers will latch onto good reviewers whose tastes are similar to theirs (or whose reviews are good at pointing out where those tastes will differ) and use them to get book recs.

    I mean, I’m already sort of prodding my preferred genre’s shelves at the brick and mortar B&N, and going, “Another one of these, another one of those, read that, read this, would that thing really be any good?” So most of the time, I’m going home with an author I trust (if one is available). And I’m relying on trusted friends to flail around on Twitter about how great some book was, so I can go, “Hey, I should pick that up.”

    So… would it be harder to find a good book in a sea of lemons? In some-to-many-ways, yeah; I’m not campaigning for the loss of traditional publishing! (Good friend of mine is going to be traditionally published and I want her to be amazingly successful, write a long series, and get enough money to roll around in it, because she writes good stuff.) If we get that lemon sea, would workarounds and new quality-testing resources show up? Yes. The prototypes are already here.

    …I am very disappointed in myself that I cannot close with a joke about lemonade, though.

  9. Ros
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 10:02:01

    @Sunita: What’s really noticeable on KBoards is how little discussion there is about writing. It’s all marketing, pricing, and discoverability. Product quality is only discussed in terms of cover design, formatting and proof-reading. Editing is thought to be synonymous with grammar and spell checking. The main obstacle to becoming a successful author is always assumed to be some problem in the business plan.

    So, yes, we’re making a market for lemons and no, I have no idea how to stop it.

  10. Ros
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 10:05:54

    @Sunita: I forget where I was reading this lately but someone was pointing out that the high numbers of reviews on the successful SP books is a direct result of services like Bookbub requiring a certain number of reviews and a certain rating. Once reviews had that specific value to authors, they deliberately set out to get them. And in so doing, of course, the reviews and ratings are devalued.

  11. pamelia
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 10:09:15

    As someone who used to hang my hat on my Degree in English and deride poorly edited books, but who now finds a great deal of reading joy in self-pubbed books with all the feels, I can’t help but nod my head reading this post even though I’m likely part of the problem. Pricing plays into it. As you stated the big publishers really did their authors a disservice by letting their professionally produced works get so underbid in the ebook market. It takes a lot of faith for me to hit the buy button on a $7 or $8 book anymore.
    As for Amazon reviews, I have learned to never go by overall star rating or percentage of positive reviews; instead I read the negative reviews first and then look for the most informative 5-star reviews ( the ones that cover plot, themes and the reviewers thoughts rather than the squee-filled rants of FANS) then I read a sample and make the decision. Given that that decision may cost me less than $1 and certainly less than $5 I don’t agonize overly long on it.
    I think part of the issue is that there is a shift towards “reviewers” caring more about feelings and story than craft. FSOG may be the patient zero for this trend or maybe it’s our overall culture where we communicate via FB and twitter and Instagram— why should writing well matter in books if we can successfully and excessively communicate without relying on spelling, grammar and punctuation every minute of every day? Could those of us who care about a glut of lemons in the market be swimming upstream against an inevitable change in our culture?
    On a somewhat relevant tangent, did anyone else note the kerfuffle Lynn Shepherd stirred up when she wrote her huff po article urging jK Rowling to stop writing to let other authors gain some shelf space? Check out the reviews of Shepherds books on Amazon written by angry JKR fans. It says something about relying on Amazon review rankings if knee jerk internet butthurt can torpedo a books ratings like that. (I’m not saying I disagree with the impulse but it does draw attention to just how impulsive reviews have become).

  12. Courtney Milan
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 10:32:07

    I think the main reason why Howey has as many reviews, and as many positive reviews as he does, is (a) because WOOL is a good book and lots of people really like it, and (b) his backmatter.

    This is what he says in the Q&A that immediately follows the end of WOOL:

    Q: Can I tell you how awesome I think these books are?

    A: Why yes you can! And I would prefer you did it with Amazon reviews. I read every single one of them, I promise. This is how the series is discovered, so if you want other readers to find and enjoy them as you have, take a few minutes and review anything of mine you’ve read. Bonus fan-points for reviewing the books individually!

    There are authors who go farther–authors who promise readers a free copy of the next book if she leaves a review on this one, for instance. That clearly crosses the line of ethics.

    I think one factor in reviews that is not getting mentioned here (or in the Author Earnings report) is that self-published authors are asking readers to leave reviews in the book itself. And the method of asking, and the promise thereof, even if they are not actual purchases of reviews on Fiverr, can cross the line. But no matter how you slice it, I think self-publishers are engaging in more aggressive marketing practices on the review front.

    IMO, Hugh’s is about the most aggressive marketing practice that I’ve seen that I would say doesn’t cross the ethics line, and it’s aggressive enough that I wouldn’t do it.

    For full disclosure, my line on reviews from my backmatter is:

    Reviews help other readers find books. I appreciate all reviews, whether positive or negative.

    And I argued with myself for months on the ethics of including even that line.

  13. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 10:46:31

    @Bona: I don’t know the extent to which good books are being pushed out of the market, especially since self-published authors get a vastly bigger cut of the price. But it might change an author decision calculus for those who don’t want to self-publish but are afraid they won’t be able to get contracts from traditional publishers. There are a lot of variables here and we have very little useful information. My fear is that whatever the number is now, that number is going to increase.

    @Lynne Connolly: Yes, we have been talking about this for a while; Baldur B.’s post was criticized last year as being misguided and inaccurate, but this year it looks a lot more prescient.

    It’s true that the bad books will sink (or vanish into the ether), but what will they take along with them? You have to have authors who want to take the chance, and you have to have readers (and reviewers) willing to brave the slushpile.

  14. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 10:53:32

    @Elizabeth McCoy: No, Wool wasn’t a hybrid-author book. There are definitely cases of debut self-published authors hitting it big. But in the romance genre, which is the one I know the most about, there are a LOT of previously trad-published authors who are the big sellers.

    I should emphasize here that I am not only talking about Big 5 publishers only as the foundation of quality signals. Each subgenre has publishers that provide these kinds of signals: Harlequin in romance, Baen in SFF, and so on.

    It would be useful if higher-priced books received higher ratings in the way you hypothesize, but the (anecdotal) data we have runs the other way, that is, readers cut cheaper books more slack on errors/problems and hold expensive books to a higher standard. When the expensive books meet the standard it’s expected rather than something to be commented upon.

    There will always be readers willing to go through the slush pile, just as there were always used cars being offered and purchased. But as a reviewer, I can tell you than I can’t even keep up with the requests that come directly to DA, so I spend very little time looking on my own. We’re already deep in a slush pile.

  15. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 11:02:19

    @Ros: I noticed that in my brief excursion to the Kindle boards as well. And thanks for the reminder about the Bookbub rules. I noticed somewhere (Nate at Digital Reader, maybe) that a new book-discovery service was launching. Again, authors pay for placement. Again, the person running it is unlikely to have read the books. There is a huge market for discoverability tools and people are rushing to fill it.

    @pamelia: I think the publishers did a lot of stupid (and illegal) things, but the underbidding is a structural issue. As long as publishers keep the financial structure they have, self-published authors are going to be able to underbid them and still make good money. So that was bound to happen. It was worsened, though, by the no-discounts, no-specials mentality, as if pretending that anchor points weren’t shifting would somehow make a difference.

    And I agree with you that reviews have become a different animal. Who knew that the Epinions model would be the one that lasted? And it’s not just self-publishers and the promo-obsessed. Check out this review and comment thread. Two Ph.D. scientists taking their evolution-creation feud to the Amazon review space. Good grief.

  16. Ros
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 11:02:38

    @Sunita: In Beverley Kendall’s self-publishing survey, having been traditionally published was definitely one of the indicators for success in self-publishing.

  17. Erin Satie
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 11:03:44

    When I first started using Amazon reviews, they were a revelation. So much better than going to a bookstore and picking at random. But eventually I began to wish for something better–all the problems that Sunita lists began to take their toll.

    My first solution was to browse on Amazon by reviewer. You can click on a reviewer’s name and get a list of all the reviews they’ve ever written. If you find that a reviewer rates similarly to you, that’s a great way to get a huge pool of books to browse from.

    My second solution, the one that really WORKED, was goodreads. Because goodreads actually solves this problem beautifully–once you’ve assembled a group of friends. Then, when you browse around, the first thing you see is a list of reviews from your friends & after reading through them, I usually had a good sense of how I’d feel (how I tend to differ from my friends, whose tastes I had come to know).

    I’ve quit goodreads and I miss it, because IMO it had the right answer.

    I know when I was still a member, it bothered me the way that authors would focus on things like average rating–I always felt like they’d missed the point. The real value of goodreads was that I never looked at the average rating and never really cared what the bulk of reviews actually said. I cared about the ones that I’d handpicked.

  18. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 11:17:46

    @Courtney Milan: Thanks for commenting and providing your professional insight and expertise.

    Honestly, I had forgotten about the review requests in the back of self-published books (and I think I’ve might have seen them in small-press books as well, but I’m not sure). I ignore them because I hate being asked to review a book I’ve just finished; I’m sure many authors hate asking. But it’s also clear that many readers are happy to help out an author whose work they’ve just enjoyed.

    Wool may be a very good book and I have no doubt whatsoever that many, many readers genuinely like it a lot. But that is true for Neuromance and for Cryptonomicon, so I would guess that at least some of the vast difference in number of reviews is the way the author emphasizes the importance of reviews, especially “take a few minutes and review anything of mine you’ve read. Bonus fan-points for reviewing the books individually!” That’s some detailed direction: don’t write me an email, write me a review, preferably on Amazon, and write about all my books if you can.

    Your much more gentle nudge, by contrast, has resulted in far fewer reviews. I believe the most-rated book is A Governess Affair with 403 as of this moment, and your positive percentage is 84.4%. And you are an author with a reputation for high-quality works and a loyal fan base who keeps track of when your books are coming out.

    To me, the unconnected reader, your reviews and ratings are more credible *for me* as a reader. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of sincere ratings in the 7000 reviews for Wool, just that I am more skeptical that they are telling me what I want to know.

  19. DS
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 11:36:15

    I listened to Wool. It was a very well done book and it was in a subgenre that doesn’t have a lot of excellent entries. I haven’t reviewed it yet but it was a 4.5 star read for me paired as it was with a good narrator. I had no idea what to expect when I started it, but was hooked after the first section.

    I just checked and I got Wool as a freebie but ended up buying the attached Audible version.

    I remember how much much I loved Neuromancer in1986 but I’ve never wanted to reread it. However, I just dug out my old copy and I paid $2.95 for it.

    Remembering that the first paperback books I bought were 35 cents and 50 cents, it has just seemed to me over the years that the price of mass market paperbacks kept going up and up for both the good books and schlock. $7.95 paperbacks was sticker shock territory and I vaguely remember someone trying to start a boycott when some best seller– Grisham? went to $8.95.

  20. Bev
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 11:41:52

    I believe I noted in my survey that traditionally published authors do better with their self-published books than those who’d never been published previously. And I think that stands to reason. Yes, there are some outliers out there but in terms of current successes (quantatively), I don’t think that’s the norm of those making the most money.

    In terms of reviews, I think we all know that no matter what readers say, they do have sway. Self-published authors (because they are able to format and put content in their own books) are more able to get readers to leave reviews for their books than those who have traditionally published books. But that doesn’t mean that traditionally published don’t try to get reviews any way they can. They do. But in this they are at an advantage because of the reason I stated above.

    I think we need to give readers more credit. They are able to sample books–a nice little chunk–and they tell us what they like with their $s.

  21. Carolyn Jewel
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 11:48:24

    @Baldur Bjarnason (@fakebaldur):

    Baldur: I love your site, by the way, however, I think the idea that prices are somehow stuck at $3.99 is incorrect. Most of the authors I know — nearly all of them formerly traditionally published — price higher than that. They have done extensive research into pricing and sales on their titles and and the “sweet spot” is $4.99 to 5.99. This is a result I have heard multiple times from several authors independently watching sales, profits, and pricing. And yes, this is a flavor of argument by anecdote, since I have not done any broad independent study of my own. I only know that the Romance authors who do well are either 1) able to price higher because they have a large fan base willing to pay more and/or 2) they are simply correct that a higher price (within that sweet spot) is a better place to be.

    I also know, however, that several years ago, before self-publishing, Romance publishers raised the price of the MMPB from 5.99 to 6.99 and then from 6.99 to 7.99. And readers were dismayed by that price. I heard from lots of readers who felt that was too much. There was nothing I could do about that, as I had no control over pricing. But this mattered because there are Romance readers who read a book a day or several books a week, and that price hike meant they could buy fewer books. When your core audience is also a group that tends to make less money across the board (0.75 for every dollar earned by a man) then price matters and in that group, buying one or two fewer books in every book buying acquisition has an impact on sales and on word-of-mouth.

    So, price sensitivity is a real thing, and I am wary of arguments that the highest price is somehow necessarily better. Note that I say “highest” price, because that is not the same thing as “higher” price.

    Lastly, one of the things that clouds the issue of self-publishing is the the authors themselves have varying degrees of knowledge about their own business. Looking at data scrapes does not tell us which authors are making informed decisions based on their sales and product data.

  22. Holly Bush
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 11:53:41

    Very interesting essay, @Sunita. There have been quite a few of these conversations lately about the economics of where and how the traditional publishing world met self-publishing, and the less tangible quality factors that have an impact on a book’s visibility, price, and perceived value. I’m always interested to read them.

    I use the same method as @Pam when checking out a new author. Throw out the 5′s and the 1′s, unless there are an overwhelming amount of either, and find a few reviews that talk about the plot and characters, and then read a sample, which can quickly tell me if a book is for me. Although, I don’t use that method only on Indies. Long before some Indies spewed some pretty dreadful books, traditional publishers were, and continue to, pump out some really craptastic ones. Have Indies lowered the bar? Yes. The bar was eliminated. As a reader, I negotiate a bigger ocean of product.

    And while all these conversations are interesting, I tend to feel we’re looking at this dynamic change from too close a vantage point. In ten years or, most likely, less, this conversation will be irrelevant. There will be gate keepers because the market will demand it, just different ones. Some technology or trend will solve some of these problems for readers. Some solutions are already emerging. Capitalism will find a way to sort things out, even though the product is wholly subjective, and that solution will empower some that do not deserve it, based strictly on a quality standard, (like that doesn’t happen now, duh, Holly) and will leave some deserving shut out.

    As far as an invitation to review, @Courtney, I don’t offer a book or any reward for a review, but I do mention it. The exact wording is below and I don’t feel I have crossed a line. I do feel that most readers, not the ones that follow blogs or websites like this, and are not connected in any way to how and why books are available and sold, don’t have the foggiest notion how critical reviews or word of mouth can be for an author. I make request – the reader is well able to engage or ignore or tell me to pound sand. And they have!

    ‘Reader reviews and recommendations are critical for an Indie author like myself. If you liked Cross the Ocean, please tell a friend or post a review wherever you purchased this book.’

  23. Baldur Bjarnason (@fakebaldur)
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 12:08:44

    @Carolyn Jewel:

    Thanks :-)

    Anecdata or not, it’s good to hear examples that contradict the often repeated doctrine that self-publishers should price low and make it up in volume.

    I really do hope that I am wrong on the ‘market for lemons’ thing and that the overall dynamic of the ebook market isn’t turning toxic. Even if I were right, in theory there’d still be room for authors and publishers who differentiate themselves to price their titles more realistically. That is, the reputation of the seller/publisher/author and individual efforts to decrease information asymmetry should work to mitigate the pressures on pricing.

  24. Courtney Milan
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 12:35:37

    @Sunita:

    The more I think about it, the less fair I think it is to compare the number of reviews on Crytonomicon or Neuromancer to Wool. There’s one other (massive) biasing factor that I just remembered.

    At the end of 2012, Amazon started emailing customers about 2 or so weeks after they bought a book asking for a review. The result of that is that books whose sales have been highest in very late 2012, 2013, and 2014 have way more reviews than books that came out earlier.

    Compare, for instance, the number of reviews on Sherry Thomas’s Fitzhugh trilogy (between 40-60 per book, out in mid-2012, before Amazon started sending the emails) with the number of reviews on Luckiest Lady In London (almost 100, out in 2013). Or compare Tessa Dare’s A NIGHT TO SURRENDER with ANY DUCHESS WILL DO. (And that’s not quite comparable, because ANTS was discounted heavily for portions of 2013–so even though the book came out in 2011, 50% of the reviews were written in 2013 and beyond). Or even compare John Grisham’s October 2013 release, SYCAMORE ROW, which has 8140 reviews even though A TIME TO KILL is only at 1,010. Or NAKED IN DEATH has 670 reviews, while all the J.D. Robb books that came out in 2013 have more than 1000, and CONCEALED IN DEATH (out 10 days ago) has almost as many reviews as GLORY IN DEATH (out in 1995)…. I don’t think you have to look that hard to get verification for what I’m saying. Later books have more reviews than earlier ones.

    The original WOOL omnibus came out in early 2012, but a quick check shows that more than 50% of its reviews came in 2013 and beyond.

    So I don’t think you can compare review counts from books without taking into account the 2013-Amazon-review biasing factors. I don’t know how much of a factor this is–only Amazon knows–but it certainly is a factor, and it’s possibly a larger biasing factor than even the backmatter.

    And I wouldn’t compare positive percentages on WOOL to THE GOVERNESS AFFAIR for multiple reasons. THE GOVERNESS AFFAIR has been free for almost a year, and that tends to bring down the review average because more people are trying the book who are not likely candidates to enjoy the book–people who don’t normally read romances or historicals or novellas. And Hugh has sold many many more books than i have and has a much more rabid fanbase. Hugh Howey’s the only author where I’ve gotten e-mails from my old sci-fi reading buddies–some of whom I haven’t heard from in years–saying, “Did you read this yet?”

    In short, I’m not sure there exists an apples-to-apples comparison for WOOL. There is no other book I can think of that was released around the same time and had the same kind of buzz and sales trajectory.

  25. P. J. Dean
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 12:38:27

    @Ros: @ Ros I so agree. It’s all about the promo push now. The mechanics of coherent writing get tossed out in the quest for that metric. It’s so disheartening to see readers say that they don’t mind if a book is not well written because THEY aren’t good spellers or grammar police. Uh? They should be very vocal about the quality of what they buy. I have never seen such a flood of below-par constructed books as I have seen in the last 10 years. Spin a wild theme, no matter how poorly crafted and they will come Oh well. This is how the lemons rise to the top.

  26. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 12:55:37

    @DS: I checked the real (adjusted for inflation, etc.) price of books when I was writing this post. Romance novels cost $5.99-$6.50 18-20 years ago. In today’s money that would be $9-10. So the price of mass market paperbacks has gone down, not up. But the anchoring points have changed.

    @Erin Satie: It’s great that Goodreads worked for you. It sounds as if you used it along the lines chatboards and similar venues provided ways to converse about books. For me GR became unusable when I had to scroll through endless GIF reviews to find one I could read, and when my feed became full of squeeing about the same book over and over again. It wasn’t worth the effort. But then I never utilized it much in the way that you did, so I had less to lose.

  27. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 13:00:43

    @Bev: Sampling is a costly signal. You have to download the sample (and remember where you downloaded it if you have more than one reading platform), read it, and then if you buy it, have a full-book experience that mirrors the sample experience. If all these things don’t work positively, then you have another noisy signal that costs something to obtain. I used to download samples all the time and recommend that method to others. But my time is not without value, and that small burden per book started to add up when I sampled a lot.

    @Holly Bush: Some conversations from the past are irrelevant today, some are prescient. I have no idea which one this conversation will fall into. As for “Capitalism will find a way,” capitalism isn’t an agent, it’s a process. Capitalism “happens” because of individual actions that aggregate up. There are many forms of capitalism because all individuals don’t do the same things or modify the process in the same way.

    As a student/researcher of collective action, I’m well aware of how small my contribution is to the overall process we’re talking about. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth us talking about it.

  28. Bev
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 13:13:39

    @PJ Dean

    That sounds like me when it came to reality shows. All the networks were pushing them and using them to replacing good “quality” shows I loved. But other viewers LOVED them. Ratings were high and networks were bringing in the money.

    Viewers like me turned to cable and shows like Mad Men and Damages. Who the hell cares about the Kardashians? Not me.

    But that’s me and that’s why McDonald’s is still part of the American fabric. Nope, it’s not the best food for us but it’s delicious to many all the same. Same goes with “scripted” reality tv.

  29. Bev
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 13:15:18

    @Bev: replace not replacing

  30. Janine
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 13:18:51

    @Rosario & @Sunita: As someone who only took three economics courses in college, and that almost a quarter century ago, I wanted to ask: what is the econometrics arms race?

  31. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 13:26:05

    @Courtney Milan: You have way more knowledge and expertise about this than I do, and your points on why the comparisons might not be apt are well taken. I do want to point out, though, that at least one [of your books] has almost exactly the same positive value (with fewer reviews). So I’m not sure TGA is a total outlier.

    That said, let me try again to get closer to an apples-to-apples comparison (as a comparativist, it is not in me to accept yet that Wool is so sui generis it cannot be compared to any other book).

    Ready Player One was published in August 2011, the original installment of Wool also in August 2011, and the omnibus Wool was released in January 2012. RPO won an award in 2012, Wil Wheaton does the narration for the audiobook, Cline blurbed Wool, and Amazon suggests buying RPO and Wool together (in the print versions). I’d say that gives it a pretty high visibility quotient in about the same time period (I could be wrong about this, and again, you know much more about it than I do). I don’t keep track of SFF unless I’m looking for a particular book, but I heard repeatedly about RPO and I’ve seen people reading it on campus.

    Ready Player One has 2813 review ratings on Amazon right now, and the positive percentage is high (almost 90%). But that number is still dwarfed by Wool’s 7513. Obviously we can’t control all the relevant variables to know if it’s the nudge to readers to review (and maybe RPO has one too) or something else entirely, but that is still a big difference.

    The Grisham is mind-boggling to me. More than Harry Potter? I have no explanation.

  32. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 13:37:44

    @Janine: Using more arcane and presumably powerful mathematical and statistical models as a metric of how convincing/good an argument is, and in the process paying less attention to apparently “simpler” insights. See also, substituting method for theory.

    This tendency is amplified by the fact that there are fads in statistics just as there are fads in everything else.

  33. Rosario
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 13:48:45

    @Janine: It’s just that in the last few years (well, last decade or so, possibly a bit longer, even ) it feels like if you want to get an economics paper published, it has to include some really fancy and complicated econometrics. Even to read an article you often have to have pretty good econometrics skills. An article like Akerlof’s, which has barely any maths in it, would probably not get a look in.

    The reason I called it an arms race is that many of us more old-school economists feel that the level of econometrics in many papers is often completely unnecessary and overcomplicated. We suspect it’s become a sort of signalling mechanism, a way for talented economists to differentiate themselves from the pack by showing they can master some very complicated skills. But there a lot of talented economists, and once fancy econometrics became the accepted signalling mechanism, then they all had to develop the same very complicated skills just to be able to compete. So, arms race. Everyone would be better off if you only had to develop those skills when they really were needed, but we’ve ended up with lots of people expending lots of unnecessary effort.

  34. Rosario
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 13:50:30

    @Sunita: Oh, yes, and there’s that, as well. Lots of models that are mathematically beautiful, but that aren’t particularly helpful in the real world.

  35. Bill Smith
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 15:33:54

    At first blush, this appears to be a valid point. Upon reflection, I have come to the conclusion that it is much ado about nothing.

    The assumption of the argument is that readers will be forced to choose which books to purchase without adequate information, which is wrong. Bookstores offering extensive sampling. There are a huge number of review blogs and great book communities like Goodreads to steer readers to good books.

    We’ve seen this before, over and over again in media. The same argument was made about indie music, podcasts, blogs (how will we ever find good blogs among the flood of crap), the proliferation of radio stations (with the FCC dramatically increasing the number of broadcast licenses compared to 40 or 50 years ago), the arrival of cable TV (“how will we compete with that awful cheap swill cable offers?” the broadcast networks whined), etc.

    And still in all of the above media, quality content has endured. Its finds an audience.

    Books will be no different.

    Great books will be published, traditionally and self-published. Terrible books will be published, traditionally and self-published.

    The main difference is that a few years ago, a great book could simply disappear from store shelves without being “discovered” by readers and never be heard from again. But now, with the “eternal” backlist, a book that is overlooked when it is first published can find an audience a year, two years, five years, ten years later and there is instant availability for every reader who wants a copy.

    Sure, the publishing industries gatekeepers are being “relieved of their duties,” shall we say…but good books will continue to be successful.

  36. morineko
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 15:55:59

    I’ve had bad experiences with self-pubbed ebooks not by formerly traditionally pubbed authors. I’ve read the cheap or free books that authors put up to draw attention and haven’t gone on to buy their other books because the experience was so bad. The only exception to this, sadly, was with Hugh Howey and Wool–our local library ordered the print omnibus and I enjoyed it so much I bought the ebook of the sequel and was so disappointed in it that I won’t read that author or series again. I’m at the point where I just assume any self-pubbed genre fiction book is a lemon.

  37. Courtney Milan
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 16:14:48

    @Sunita:

    I’m not trying to make the argument that WOOL as a work of fiction is sui generis, but I think the path of superstardom it has taken is rare, and so it will have fewer reasonable comp titles–maybe one every year or two. Since the review-garnering algorithms changed a little more than a year ago, there just won’t be many yet.

    I don’t like comparing review numbers between different genres because different readerships tend to be more interactive: YA, NA, and sci-fi readers review more than, say, historical and contemporary romance readers do. And the review benefit of Amazon e-mails is almost entirely a function of sales on Amazon. The more sales you have, the more e-mails Amazon can send on your behalf to people who have bought your book.

    To find a WOOL-alike, for review-comparison purposes, we’d need another sci-fi book that sold extraordinarily well on Amazon for over a year.

    RPO just doesn’t fit the bill. WOOL spent weeks on the NYT ebook list (RPO eked onto the hardcover list, which is great for a debut, but it didn’t have WOOL-level sales). Howey has the rags-to-Ridley Scott option story that RPO never had, and he had more press because of it. “Book with buzz does well” is just not a narrative that competes with “former yacht captain working part time in bookstore makes millions on own.” Howey has put out multiple sequels to WOOL, as well as several other novels since, each release bouncing WOOL once again as new readers find his books. Cline has just the one sci-fi book. And I do read sci-fi, and so I have a vague sense that WOOL has never really left the first page of the bestseller’s list, but RPO hasn’t been on it much.

    I think these factors understate my (admittedly rough) sense of things–I feel fairly confident that WOOL has sold more than 500,000 digital copies in its life. For comparison purposes, John Scalzi’s REDSHIRTS–which won all kinds of awards, had ads in Times Square, and where the author has a huge platform and a massive megaphone–sold 35,667 copies in ebook in its first year of life. (Source here: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2013/01/16/the-state-of-a-genre-title-2013/)

    This is what stardom means: Stars are inevitable but few in number. Lots of great books do well but don’t break into stardom. I don’t think RPO was a star the way WOOL was, and I think that comparing WOOL to RPO would be like comparing Julie James’s LOVE IRRESISTIBLY to BARED TO YOU: Lots of people (including me!) loved LOVE IRRESISTIBLY, it won a lot of well-deserved acclaim, had a lot of buzz, and sold well. But sales-wise, for whatever reason, it’s just not in the same ballpark as BARED TO YOU.

    For comparison purposes, I’ve been hearing murmurs about A.G. Riddle’s THE ATLANTIS GENE for months. It’s at #63 in the Kindle store right now (9 months post release), and by my sense has been high up the rankings for months. It has 6,006 reviews.

    I don’t know what the original call to review was in the book (the backmatter has clearly been changed), but right now, it says this:

    “As I sit writing this, ten months after I first published The Atlantis Gene, the novel has garnered almost six thousand reviews on Amazon. Those reviews put me on the map. I’m a new, unknown author and an independent author at that. Without those reviews, you might have never discovered my work. I’m not asking you to write a review of The Atlantis Gene. It likely has enough. My request is this: the next time you read an unknown author’s book that doesn’t have many reviews, write one if you can. That review could change someone’s life.”

    That’s the best comparison I can find, and it suggests to me that Howey’s review numbers are in the ballpark of what you’d expect for a sci-fi book that sold extremely heavily on Amazon in the time period that WOOL has been selling.

  38. jane
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 16:40:42

    @Courtney Milan: Last year at BEA, Howey admitted to having sold a little over 700,000 copies. I believe many were at 99c.

  39. jane
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 16:41:42

    @Courtney Milan: But regardless of the reviews, many of which I think are largely unhelpful, what does it matter that Sunita’s comparison is wrong. How does that really affect her thesis? In other words, why are you arguing about the legitimacy or lack thereof of Howey’s reviews?

  40. pooks
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 17:18:54

    I had a couple of friends discover WOOL and immediately start hammering at me to read it. Their evangelistic zeal on the book was amazing, and was split 50/50 between, “This is a fantastic series,” and, “This guy is self-pubbed, he’s doing it all himself, you need to see this.”

    I wonder if the self-pubbed aspect is largely what fed the frenzy–people love feeling like they discovered something new and special, and that’s definitely the idea I was getting from people as more and more friends discovered the series.

  41. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 17:31:38

    @Courtney Milan: I still don’t see a good explanation for why there are so few negative or even neutral reviews, however. Even if I grant all your points, where are the reviewers who either didn’t like the book or were meh about it? It’s not just that there are more reviews, it’s that the distribution is different. That was my original point about reviews no longer being good signals for quality (however each reader defines that).

    I know that you and other authors have said that they welcome reviews whether they are positive or negative and I think that’s important. I think many of us agree that the positive reviews are made more credible by the presence of negative opinions. The less we see that distribution, the more skeptical I am of the signal I’m getting. I cut some slack for YA reviews, where there is a young and enthusiastic fanbase and readers might feel inhibited from being critical for a variety of reasons. But for adult books I trust ratings where I can see and read negative opinions, not just overwhelmingly positive ones.

  42. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 17:34:20

    @Bill Smith: Given you think the post is much ado about nothing, it is thoughtful of you to alert Dear Author’s readers to the presence of review blogs. And they might have missed the earlier comment conversation about Goodreads, so there’s that too.

  43. Ros
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 17:40:16

    @Sunita: I couldn’t read Bev’s point about sampling, either. I expect that’s because it was written by a woman.

  44. Andrea K
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 17:55:23

    “Trusted reviewer” reviews definitely hold more power to sway an individual than a high star rating, but a large number of reviews also has some influence.

    I’ve seen the impact of the trusted reviewer time and again with my own books. X blog reviews book. Y picks up book on X’s positive points. Y goes on to read other books and on-sells them to Z. Z likes the books, reviews on blog. Some of Z’s audience picks up books.

    It can be a very slow process. Self-publishers who are complete unknowns like me do not launch large out of the gate – we accrue reviews and recognition as we trundle along. I’ve lost count of the number of reviews of my books that start: “I don’t usually read self-published books…” I get read by those people because someone whose taste they trust said: “Read this book”.

    Book blogs and Goodreads (now that it’s settled down) are still my favourite place for discovery. I follow people whose reviews entertain me, and set my feed to filter out people whose tastes don’t seem to match mine. I’ve hardly ever bought a book by random browsing on Amazon – it’s not how e-discovery works for me.

    The difficulty for the unknown self-publisher is how to get anyone to review them at all in the first place, but the book giveaway or the free book release still (and perhaps will always) is the best way to start that trickle of reviews. I notice in a lot of discovery arguments that the point that “no-one wants to wade through the slush pile” comes up a lot – but many of the people who say this are people who are already deluged by review copies of trade published books. If you’re someone who has little to no book buying budget, and no good local library, then sifting samples of freebies looking for the occasional gem becomes a worthwhile exercise.

  45. DS
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 18:02:42

    @Sunita: Actually, I wasn’t thinking about inflation, I was thinking that when it came to genre paperbacks there was rarely any difference in price between excellent fiction like Neuromancer and essentially read and trade back in books. Then my thought wandered off to the increase in paper book prices over the last 50 years. And I had a moment of total shock when I realized how long a period I was thinking about.

  46. Bill Smith
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 18:03:56

    @Sunita: Your welcome. Glad I could point out that review columns and book communities like Goodreads were helpful.

    Also noted that my observations were, ahem, overlooked, on how most other media forms have already been through this democratization process and emerged larger and more vibrant as a result. This, despite the hue and cry and gnashing of teeth from the gatekeepers, who found themselves marginalized as people began exercising true choice and sampled a much wider offering of media and began choosing the material they preferred instead of meekly consuming the media the taste-makers and gatekeepers told them they ought to be limited to.

  47. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 18:18:37

    @DS: Oh, I hear you. I still do a double-take when I see books in my library with $0.75 and $0.95 prices. I refuse to believe I bought them when those were still the real prices. No way. I’m not that old.

    @Bill Smith: I overlooked those parts because there is no credible data that supports them. The long tail theory has not only failed to be validated empirically, few people bother to invoke it anymore. As for “other media forms have already been through this democratization process and emerged larger and more vibrant as a result,” that’s difficult to test because we’d need to agree on measures for “larger” and “more vibrant.”

  48. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 18:24:12

    @Andrea K: Thanks for commenting! Your experience is a great example of how self-pub-only authors can break through and gain a readership despite the odds. And Twitter reminded me that Moira Rogers/Kit Rocha are another important exception to the overall trend.

    Your point about attitudes toward the slush pile are well taken. Every “big” blog and reviewer started as a smaller blog or reviewer, and I think that authors would be wise to cultivate small blogs that have vibrant comment sections and readerships (assuming they accept books for review; don’t foist them on unwilling reader/bloggers). I *want* to find new and interesting books, so I’m willing to dig into the slush pile. It’s just that DA’s slush pile is already big enough. But it’s the same process, really.

  49. Bill Smith
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 18:36:54

    Empirical evidence of media growth?

    Despite the growth of indie film, indie music and indie books, all of these industries are larger, not smaller.

    I don’t think many people would seriously argue that the existence of millions of blogs and websites and social media sites is bad for readers (except for maybe the magazine and newspaper publishers who used to have a lock on audience access). Nobody seems to be arguing that the variety of films and shows available on NetFlix somehow prevents viewers from finding good movies…and yet somehow the variety of books published are somehow going to be bad for readers and authors.

    Not going to overly waste much time arguing that the sky is blue (nor indeed that it is NOT falling), but here ya go:

    http://cdn.techdirt.com/i/theskyisrising.png

    https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120129/17272817580/sky-is-rising-entertainment-industry-is-large-growing-not-shrinking.shtml

    http://www.shareable.net/blog/dont-believe-the-hype-the-entertainment-industry-is-growing-but

    Bottom line, indie books are a good thing for readers. They are good for lots of authors, and if the traditional publishers get their act together, they ought to be able to find ways of continuing to make a lot of money. Digging in their heels, however, and stubbornly refusing to change, insulting and denigrating indie authors, and denying the statistical evidence of the success of indies is not what I consider “getting their act together.”

  50. Courtney Milan
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 18:38:10

    @Sunita:

    I don’t think I’m arguing with you about your general point at all, just attempting to fill in details on the mechanism.

    You asked why WOOL had so many more reviews than RPO; I answered. All I am saying is that comparing books that sold their most in the 1990s or 2000s with books that sold the most in 2013, and wondering why the numbers are different invites an answer.

    You could equally well compare THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (which has an ungodly number of glowingly positive reviews) with THE GREAT GATSBY, and I’d make the same argument: Something changed in the reviewing landscape post-2012.

    The question “Why does WOOL have so many reviews compared to these other books?” is a relatively easy question to answer: because Howey asks for reviews, and because it sold a ton of copies in a world where Amazon e-mailed people to ask for reviews.

    Now that I think about it, Amazon also has a pop-up screen on the new Kindles that prompts people to write reviews, too–and so this could explain both the increased number of reviews post-2012 and the additional bias in distribution. People who finish a book are more likely to enjoy it. More of the “meh” people quit partway through, and so they never see that final “tell people what you think about this book” screen.

    I don’t disagree that this poses a problem. I do think that you can see how this arose: We’re seeing a sudden case of grade inflation due to what effectively amounts to a big bump in the grading curve right around the end of 2012.

    And so I’m saying the same thing that I’d say to anyone comparing two things graded on different scales: I wouldn’t compare an A earned in 1950 to an A earned in 2000. The scales are different.

  51. MaryK
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 18:41:36

    @Bill Smith: That’s some attractive propaganda you’ve got there.

  52. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 19:01:48

    @Bill Smith: Three links that report “data” from the same “study.”

    I’m happy to agree to disagree on this one.

  53. Daniel Friedman
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 19:11:04

    The obvious solution to the “lemon” problem among self-published books is to not read self-published books, especially from unfamiliar authors. Simply put: self-published books are very difficult to trust. The ones that sell well achieve often those sales through shady SEO tricks and search manipulation, phony reviews, and schemes to game the Amazon ranking and recommendation systems, so apparent popularity is not a proxy for quality.

    If you stick to traditionally-published books, there are lots of ways to guard against “lemon” books. The very fact that a book is traditionally-published denotes that it meets a minimum standard of quality. Every traditionally-published book could have been self-published, but the vast majority of self-published books could never have met the standards of traditional publishing.

    Traditional books get copy-editing, so so they should be pretty clean and well-formatted. There will also be professional reviews, at least in the trades, which can help you pick out good books. If you read fewer than two or three books a month, you can stick exclusively to books that get starred trade reviews, books reviewed favorably in major outlets like the NYT, and books that are nominated for major awards.

    Even bargain-focused reader can eschew self-pub books for traditional ones; there are $1.99 daily-deals every day on Amazon, and many other discounts.

    I understand that the romance genre may be a little bit different from other genres, because the mass-market format has been largely replaced by e-books, and romance writers produce books at a quick pace that can better capitalize on e-book format. But in crime and SF/F, there’s a huge range of quality among the books out there, and all the stuff you want to read, if you’re discerning at all, is coming out in hardcover and trade formats from mainstream publishers

  54. Sunita
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 19:32:21

    @Daniel Friedman: That would be a great system if mainstream publishing hadn’t cut back so much on the factors that made its output technically reliable. But positions from development editors to proofreaders have been reduced. Readers see the results all too often, especially in ebooks: formatting problems, typos, characters whose names change partway through, you name it, we’ve read it.

    We definitely see it in the romance genre, but I’ve come across the same types of issues in other genres. Lit fic isn’t immune, either: the ebook edition of Neil Stephenson’s Reamde had to be pulled right after release because it was almost unreadable. Yes, they fixed it, but what the hell happened?

    The combination of decreasing reliability of the product and the homogenization of output plays a big role in readers’ search for books by self-published authors. If they were screwing up the things they controlled, what other bad decisions were they making?

  55. William Ockham
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 22:42:47

    This is wrong on so many levels it is hard to know where to start. Unless you are claiming that the Wool reviews are fraudulent, the evidence you cite doesn’t support your thesis. By definition, good honest reviews are evidence of happy customers and cannot, under any circumstances, be used as evidence of an Ackerloff “lemon” situation. You really should re-read that paper.

    The fundamental, yet unstated, presumption of your argument is that traditional publishers put out no “lemons”. That is clearly false. The “lemon” problem predates ebooks and the rise of self-publishing. Readers have always faced the problem you describe. None of the issues you cite are new or unique to ebooks. Prices have never been a good indicator of quality (and given that ebooks have a zero marginal cost, prices should never indicate quality). Paid for reviews, unhelpful reviews, fake reviews, those all pre-existed ebooks.

    If you were well-served by the output of traditional publishing, that’s great. For those of us who were poorly served, this new world is wonderful. We don’t have problems finding books we love. Most of the ebooks I read are by authors who have never been and would never be published by traditional publishing. This has nothing to do with quality. It has everything to do with the breadth of appeal of these books. My tastes are apparently not shared by enough people to merit a print run, but I now get to read these books because the authors are able to bring them to market.

    The biggest proof that you are wrong is the amazing absence of consumer outrage. Where are the droves of readers complaining about this problem? When Ackerloff wrote his article about used cars, the problem was obvious to everyone. He explained the cause. You have a cause, but no evidence of a real problem.

  56. Evangeline
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 23:54:41

    I had to read this twice to understand the argument, heh. After reading the comments, I’m lost again because the conversations seem to be whiplashing between mistrust over lack of 1 & 2 star reviews, greater discussion of promo and marketing over craft, quality of reviews, visibility for self-published authors, who succeeds in self-publishing, and pricing.

    If the argument is that low pricing by self-published works has forced NY to follow, thereby decreasing the ability to discover good books–regardless of how they landed on the Kindle–I can’t say I agree. Courtney’s comments about Amazon emails, Howey’s backmatter, self-pub authors’ active marketing, and the differing reader culture in various genres is true. And as much as it seems that self-publishing is rocking the boat–and hard–of traditional publishing, it really isn’t.

    Everything that does well in self-publishing taps into an already existing market: YA readers seeking slightly older characters (New Adult), readers hungry for heroines who looked like them (MC & IRR), readers whose favorite setting was considered dead (Western romances), readers desirous of closed-door sex w/o being forced to read Inspy romance (“clean” romances), etc. I can’t think of anything truly left curve that has come out of SP to take the industry by storm–even Fifty Shades of Grey piggybacked off the Twilight fandom and then the erotic romance ecosystem (and before I hear cries of “FSoG wasn’t self-published,” I think it falls into a grey area, since The Writers’ Coffee Shop seemed more like a vanity pub a la AuthorHouse than an epub like Samhain).

    Amanda Hocking and H.P. Mallory–remember those names?–wrote paranormals. Even Konrath and Eisler write regular old genre fiction (thrillers).

    When I look around, I see that as the self-publishing market increases, the Big 5′s reluctance to support books without a recognizable audience also increases–I don’t see lemons anywhere, because it’s obvious that what sells is what a great majority of people want to read. It could just be that it’s increasingly difficult to find books you want to read because of the contracting market, not because of lemons deriving from self-published works, uncritical squees, and low prices.

  57. ML
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 23:57:36

    There is an aspect to this question I haven’t seen acknowledged yet, which is the different delivery mechanisms for books. The fact is, print books have costs involved such as paper, printing, distribution, etc., that aren’t reflected or don’t even exist for ebooks. Yet I, as a consumer, am being asked to pay the same price for both at $7.99. And that’s a break point for me, and perhaps for other readers as well, and it could help explain the $3.99 price point. As well, for that same $7.99, I can share the print book with my husband and daughter. I can’t do that with an ebook–so if you do end up needing multiple copies, now that price is a factor of magnitude. I think about these things when I decide to buy ebook or print, and I wouldn’t be surprised if others did, too.

    And the reality is, these factors were in play even in the print-only days. I still debate buying print books new or used (where you often look at a price point of about $3.99 or less). So I’m not surprised this carries over to ebooks.

  58. SonomaLass
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 00:15:34

    @William Ockham: I don’t know you, or where you hang out, but I hear a LOT of outrage from readers (on Amazon, on Goodreads, on Twitter) about poor quality indie and self-pubbed books. I have heard many readers say that they just don’t buy self-pubbed books by unknown authors unless they have a recommendation from a trusted source, precisely because of the factors Sunita discusses here — good reviews often don’t signal quality, nor does price.

    As a general observation, it amazes me when attempts to analyze what’s happening in the indie/self-publishing market get treated as attacks. Dear Author in general, and Sunita in particular, have been more supportive of *quality* self-publishing than many other blogs. I think wondering what the flood of lower quality books is going to do to that market, and trying to figure out some answers, is an important effort to be making. We all want to see authors succeed with quality books we want to read.

  59. Daniel Friedman
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 00:26:24

    @Sunita:

    I guess it matters, to some extent, what kind of books you’re reading and how deep into publishers’ lists you’re going. I think self-publishing is a far more legitimate choice for romance authors than it is for authors in other genres, because traditional romance publishing is so closely tied to the dying mass-market format and distribution model.

    I read about 40-50 books a year, split mostly between literary fiction and very good crime novels or thrillers, and a few of the best SF/F novels. I occasionally see e-book formatting errors, but I never see the serious grammar and technical prose issues that I commonly spot in the first pages of self-published bestsellers.

    Frontlist fiction that would have cost more than $20 in hardcover five years ago commonly sells for less than $11 in the e-book format. For me, time rather than money is the limiting factor on my reading, so I prefer to pay more to read the best books.

    I’m sure there’s a lot of very bland lit-fic coming out of mainstream presses, and I know there are some extremely generic potboiler mysteries and thrillers, but I can avoid that stuff with just a little bit of diligence. I look at the NYT book review, I check lists like Libraryreads.org, and I take note of the shortlists for various prizes.

    I keep pretty current on publishing news, and when I hear about a self-published author hitting bestseller lists in the crime genre, I check out their “look inside” chapters to see what they’re doing. So far, I’ve been unimpressed.

  60. Robin/Janet
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 01:54:35

    I don’t know how this fits into the conversation as a whole, but I do think there may be specific considerations when discussing Amazon reviews of self-published books.

    For example, are these books being purchased largely by readers who are already active online and who know that the book they are buying is self-published? Do they buy a lot of books on Amazon and read the comment threads on the boards and on the review exchanges?

    Because I do think there is a perception that a) a negative review of a self-published book is more likely to earn a pushback comment from the author and/or b) if the author or book is very popular, by the author’s many, vocal, extremely loyal fans. And, if the first string of reviews for a self-published book are positive, then there may be a perception that a negative review will stand out, and given the possibility of an author or fan response to said negative review, I suspect that many readers who didn’t like the book would not be motivated to leave a negative review under those circumstances. And as the positive buzz continues to grow, the incentive to leave a negative review may seem even lower. I don’t think leaving a positive review presents any risk factor for a reader, but leaving a negative review most definitely does, even if that risk is only perceived and not likely or real.

    I’ve often wondered, in fact, for those authors inclined to purchase positive reviews, if doing so at the very beginning of their book’s availability on Amazon can tacitly discourage readers from leaving authentic, negative reviews, especially if the author is not a known commodity (either as a writer or as a personality) or has a reputation for responding to negative reviews.

  61. Danielle
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 06:46:10

    @Sunita:
    This is one of the issues with how close self-pubs are to the whole process- traditionally published authors aren’t likely to contact you about a review, but each of the four times I’ve reviewed a self-pubbed book, I’ve had an author contact me to complain about my “low star” review – they were all three stars. The first time, the author actually asked me to delete the review because it was a new book, had only about 8 reviews at the time and so my “low” review was “ruining the average, because everyone else knows it’s a 5 star book.” I responded with a suggestion that she check out my shelves (these were all on Goodreads) and tell me if she really thinks her book is as good as the other books I’ve given 5 stars – her response was to send me a message of a single, five letter word starting with “b” Needless to say, it took me a few months to get up the courage to review another self-pub, but I’d enjoyed it and thought they can’t all be cooks who think 3 stars is anything other than a good, solid review. I was wrong.

    Here’s the thing – 3 stars IS good. In a five star system, there isn’t a lot of play. I give my five stars to all-time favourites, 4 to books I’ve found exceptionally entertaining and 3 to ones that I like, even 2 means I didn’t mind it, only 1 is truly negative.

    How do I solve this? I check the other reviews – if I see any reviews of 3 or below and see that there have been no inappropriate comments left by the author, or any particularly trollish fans, then I might – might – consider considering reviewing it. Mostly I just don’t take the risk.

  62. Sunita
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 06:54:28

    @morineko: Don’t give up, there are some really good self-published books out there! We review quite a few here at DA, and I’m pretty sure some of the other big review sites like AAR and SBTB review self-published books (AAR didn’t used to but they do now). And we have a monthly open thread where readers talk about books they’ve enjoyed and mention self-published books. Discoverability is definitely a problem, but it’s not insurmountable.

  63. Sunita
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 07:06:25

    @William Ockham: I’m not claiming the Wool reviews are fraudulent, I have no evidence either way for such a claim. I *am* claiming that they are unbalanced compared to other books and even compared to books in the same genre and/or that are self-published. The evidence for that is staring us all in the face. Courtney Milan has offered explanations for that imbalance that are well argued but that I don’t find entirely persuasive.

    I wasn’t thinking of traditional publishing at all when I wrote the post, at least not until the end, when I realized how much traditional publishing undergirds many (not all) successful self-publishing stories. It’s great that self-publishing has brought nothing but beneficial reading to you. If that were the case for all readers there would be far fewer complaints and I wouldn’t have written this post. Your experience is not the only one. I don’t have evidence to say whether it’s typical, but it’s definitely not universal.

    @Evangeline: As I said in my post, the presence of bad books (lemons) does not negate the presence of good books. If you don’t see bad books everywhere, or anywhere, that’s great. Lots of people DO see bad books, as the comments here and on many other posts (and review sites) indicate. There is no evidence of a shrinking (contracting) market, especially on the self-publishing side; Amazon regularly trumpets evidence to the contrary.

    Price and review ratings are potential signals of quality. If they become what economists call “noisy signals” then they lose their value and readers have to find other ways to discover good books. The more difficult you make that process, the more the reader has to incur costs to find books she enjoys. At a certain point the costs outweigh the benefits and she will find some other way to spend her time. You and I are lifelong readers. But most people are not. If we want to keep bringing people into the reader fold, we have to ensure that they have relatively straightforward ways of finding books they enjoy.

  64. Sunita
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 07:18:49

    @SonomaLass: I confess I am bemused by the idea I’m hostile to self-published books, and that DA is generally hostile to them. I guess if people who don’t read self-pub bash you for reviewing & recommending too many and the people who like self-pub think you’re carrying New York’s water, you’re doing something right?

    @Robin/Janet: I agree that reviewers can feel inhibited, especially if they spend much time at Amazon and/or Goodreads or anywhere online where the author-reviewer kerfuffles erupt and are discussed. And certainly a negative review can be harder to write when many positive reviews have preceded yours.

    But one thing that is pretty well recognized is that when you have opt-in systems for expressing an opinion you’re going to get more people at the poles than in the middle, because people with strong feelings are more likely to make the effort (opt-out systems, where they have to write something, are different). That explains all the 5-star reviews on books, but not the lack of 1-stars. Your explanation goes part of that way and I find it convincing, but it’s still puzzling to me that sincerely disappointed people will take the effort to 1-star Neuromancer and Cryptonomicon but not Wool. *That’s* the puzzle to me, if all the reviews are more or less sincere. Not everyone who reviews is up to date on author-reviewer kerfuffles, so where are the average, unprimed, negative reviewers?

  65. pooks
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 07:29:14

    @sunita, @sonomalass

    As soon as someone comes here and tosses around accusations of anti-selfpub, I know they aren’t at all familiar with Dear Author and its support for epub and selfpub authors. It makes it difficult to take the rest of their points seriously, but I fight through that since whether or not they know anything about DA, they may have a bigger point to make. But yeah, it’s a big tell.

  66. Chris Meadows
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 07:40:23

    It would be interesting to know how many of those reviews on Wool are from Amazon Verified Purchasers of the book, though I don’t imagine there’s any easy way to tell that. If you don’t find Courtney’s explanation convincing, what explanation would you put forward?

    The thing I can’t help noticing, though, is that according to the numbers Hugh Howey found in his Author Earnings surveys, self-published e-books do seem to be selling in big numbers. Sure, you can quibble about how accurate Howey’s interpretation of the data is, but the data does include an awful lot of indie books with high sales ranks, so a lot of people do seem to be buying them. This suggests that people are finding their way to those books somehow, whether they “should” be able to or not.

  67. Sunita
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 07:56:21

    @Danielle: I’m sorry you’ve had that experience; it’s happened to other people I know who went looking for self-published books to read. I think some (many?) self-published authors have a very different idea of the role of negative reviewers than the average reader does. The latter often sees them as legitimating the positive reviews, while the former think they tank books sales. There is a successful self-published author who maintains that a single one-star review cost him $23,000 in lost sales, and he is sure he has the data to prove it. That kind of assertion makes all authors and readers nervous, albeit in different ways.

    @Chris Meadows: I think that positive revewers are primed to leave 4- and 5- star reviews and neutral and negative reviewers are not. In addition, I think Robin’s point that an early influx of positive reviews inhibits negative reviewers who *are* willing to leave a review is probably right too. [ETA: To clarify, I'm using "primed" in the experimental-design sense.]

    There’s no question that some self-published books are selling in big numbers at Amazon. So yes, some readers are finding books they like among the self-published output. I’m one of those readers. My post title was in the present continuous tense for a reason: I don’t think we’ve created a full-blown market for lemons yet, and I hope we avoid doing so. But self-publishing is increasing, “ratings inflation” appears to be increasing (if Courtney Milan’s conclusions about the Amazon changes are correct), and our signals are getting noisier. That is not a good trend.

  68. pooks
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 08:07:59

    @courtney milan I can’t figure out why people don’t accept that Howie’s success is exactly like that of Rowling or King in these discussions. It is so astronomical, you simply have to set it aside as an outlier if you want to get a realistic view of selfpub. If I understand your point, I think we’re together on this.

  69. Jill Sorenson
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 08:50:27

    This is a great discussion and a very thought-provoking post. I found Courtney’s comments about the types of readers who leave reviews interesting. I’ve always assumed that print readers and older readers are less likely to review, but I hadn’t considered the issue by genre. I wonder if romantic suspense readers leave the fewest reviews of all? ;) I tend to look at review #s rather than Amz rankings to get an idea of how well I’m doing. But maybe I shouldn’t worry so much.

    Speaking of comparisons, I just glanced at Wool vs. Ready Player One. Both look like they have the same percentage (very low) of negative reviews. I’m assuming that both are just really good books. But I do believe that some readers hesitate to write negative reviews for self-pub work because of the possible backlash, and that’s terrible. I’m appalled by the stories of authors intimidating and harassing reviewers. Buying positive reviews, gaming the system, smothering criticism, and other underhanded tactics are certainly not going to help with quality issues.

  70. Chris Meadows
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 09:15:46

    You might find it interesting that a solution to the problem of finding “good” stuff to read was invented back in the late ’90s by Dave Howell. Called AlexLit, located at http://alexlit.org, its recommender worked by getting people to rate their likes and dislikes. Once it had enough ratings, it was able to group people into sets of “neighbors” with similar tastes, and recommend to each person things that his neighbors had liked but he hadn’t read yet. It is completely content- and review-agnostic; it just knows the book as a title and a rating; all the magic comes from knowing what other people thought of that particular title. I found some of my all-time favorite books that way, back in the day.

    Sadly, it’s not really working very well right now, but Dave Howell is thinking about some plans to restore it to full function sometime soon, fingers crossed…

  71. Hugh Howey
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 09:38:39

    Courtney points out the Amazon reminders as a reason self-pubbed books get more reviews. Something to keep in mind when comparing a book like Ready Player One and Wool is that many of RPO’s sales came via bookstores, where there’s no reminder to review the book. There’s no online tracking for that customer at all.

    Almost all of a self-published author’s sales will come from an online retailer, who will likely nudge that reader for a review.

    Also, I imagine the percentage of readers who review Wool aren’t much higher than for other books. The novel has sold over a million copies through Amazon alone. 7,000 reviews for 1,000,000 purchases lines up closely with the number of reviews I have for other books, which don’t have any back matter in them at all.

    I think there are other forces at play, many of them mentioned here. One of these is that many self-published authors have direct contact with readers. That leads to higher reviews and fewer negative reviews. But I read reviews every day on other books of mine that start “Boy, this book was a disappointment. I’m a huge fan of Wool and Howley, and this just wasn’t up to par.” (My name has hundreds of permutations in these reviews).

    Wool is an outlier even for me. And the reception among publishers has been just as bizarre. We’ve sold to 31 territories, and I hear the same crazy feedback from all of them: People in the publishing house stealing copies of ARCs and staying up all night to read. I personally don’t get it. I think Ready Player One is a vastly superior book. As is Cryptonomicon. I can tell you this: I know of more fake 1-star reviews than fake 5-stars. The day Wool was compared to 50 Shades of Grey in Entertainment Weekly, I got two 1-star reviews that bemoaned the gratuitous sex in the novel. And I’ve had many that admit to having never read the book but needing to balance out the insane positive reviews. Many more that accuse me of purchasing reviews.

    One fake 5-star review I got was from the daughter of a reader. I found out when I commented on the 2,000th review to offer a signed book, in celebration of round numbers. I left my e-mail address, and I got a touching and sad story from a reader. They had told their daughter to get online to buy them a copy of Wool, and this young teenager saw there were 1,999 reviews. Displaying a similar love of round numbers, she immediately left a review, to which I responded. When her mother found out and explained that this was wrong, the girl broke out in tears. The review was taken down, and the mother apologized to me. I sent both of them a signed book (a YA novel for the teen). Goes to show the reasons for leaving reviews can be pretty bizarre.

  72. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 09:45:40

    I just want to point out that I’m a HUGE SFF reader, who tracks science fiction fantasy magazines and movies and inhales about 100–200 novels in the genre each year. I’ve never even heard of Ready Player One and I couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into Wool, which was on the top 10 bestseller list for the genre. So yeah. Not even close in terms of visibility.

  73. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 09:49:44

    Additionally, Wool has a disproportionately high number of spoilery reviews, which makes them valuable. I don’t think anyone thinks Amazon reviews are valuable for the rating, as award-winning and bestselling books get a lot of traffic from readers who don’t like that kind of fiction, which skews the curve. What the reviews do best is point out what’s right or wrong with a book from one person’s perspective so you can decide whether you like those things or not. I know I read Amazon reviews like crazy, but only to find out what’s in the book, not what someone thinks of it who I neither know nor care about. Goodreads doesn’t work as well for that because they try not to spoil things.

  74. Hugh Howey
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 10:02:52

    “and bestselling books get a lot of traffic from readers who don’t like that kind of fiction, which skews the curve.”

    @Liana:

    You bring up another good point here. I managed a bookstore while trying to make it as a writer, and I saw a lot of disappointment from readers who picked up whatever was on the endcaps or front tables. Readers were more happy when I talked to them and hand-sold a book I thought they would like. Self-published books probably get more of the latter via word-of-mouth and get none of the merchandised bookstore sales, so readers are getting what they want or what friends and family members think they would like.

    More guessing, of course. My partner at Author Earnings dismisses all of these reasons and says it’s probably something simpler: Readers of self-published works seem to just prefer those books.

  75. Sirius
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 10:17:01

    @Robin/Janet: I can only give you my opinion but I think you are right. I did buy ‘Wool” when I heard the buzz. It is still swimming in my mountain TBR, but if I disliked the book after reading it now, I would think it over very seriously as to whether to leave a review or not and most likely (unless I would not just dislike the book, but be offended by it and want to warn other readers) my answer would be NO. If I know that I am *likely* to be attacked by gazillion of fans, really why bother. There are situations when I feel I have to take a risk and share my opinion anyway, this is not one of them. That’s JMO of course.

  76. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 10:18:24

    @Hugh Howey: I can see why he’d think that, but I admit to thinking the reasons ARE more nuanced. Especially when you look at the fact that a book that wins an award quickly acquires a ton more negative reviews. People don’t think about it a lot, but once a book does hit outlier visibility, people want to read it just because they feel they ought to. 50 Shades of Grey hit it out of the park with its audience, made a bunch of people decide they wanted to see what the fuss was about, then got dumped on by the influx of readers who were outside of its audience.

    I think Wool held onto a “disproportionately” high percentage of readers inside its audience because

    1. It’s newer than all those classics from decades ago
    2. If it’s gone mainstream, it’s only done so recently around the time it picked up the trad-hybrid deal
    3. It’s SFF, which still doesn’t get mainstream traction as quickly or people outside the audience
    4. It was indie for a long time, which tends not to attract as many people outside the audience as quickly

    In other words, most of the people who read and reviewed Wool probably wanted to read it because they enjoy that kind of fiction. So yeah, I do think that plays a part. And when I went looking for Wool just because I’m interested in SFF and thought I “should” be reading it, I found a shocking number of reviews that loathed the last book because it didn’t do what those readers wanted it to. I also noted that the proportion of negative reviews on Dust a week after it coming out was very much in line with the proportion I usually saw on the last book of a bestselling trilogy about a week out from release and it coincided closely enough with the release of Allegiant, which is a series I fangirl hard and was totally published trad, that I think the disproportion here is being attributed too strongly to the wrong factors by @sunita. Wool has so far followed the usual factors for a book positioned as it is, and if it wins an award, I suspect the negative reviews will skyrocket in absolute number and lower the percentage of positive reviews to the level you’re more likely to see on classic SFF books.

  77. Robin/Janet
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 10:19:54

    @Hugh Howey: I know of more fake 1-star reviews than fake 5-stars. The day Wool was compared to 50 Shades of Grey in Entertainment Weekly, I got two 1-star reviews that bemoaned the gratuitous sex in the novel. And I’ve had many that admit to having never read the book but needing to balance out the insane positive reviews.

    A review acknowledging that the person hasn’t read the book isn’t “fake” — it’s a reflection of the limits of the reader feedback system on Amazon. A fake review is one that sets out to delude a reader into thinking that someone has, indeed, read the book and is recording a response to the book. This is why paid reviews are such a profound danger to the reviewing system – their value for the author lies in the *false* perception they provide that they are authentic reader responses. Which is the same thing that makes them valueLESS for readers trying to use reviews to choose books.

    Readers can easily disregard an opinion when someone has admitted to not reading the book, and many readers distrust unanimously high ratings. Those comments may strike the author as unfair, but to call them “fake” minimizes and does a disservice to reviews that are truly deceptive because they are not authentically spontaneous reader reviews.

    I hesitate to use the word “fake” to describe undisclosed friend, relative, quid pro quo, or other types of reviews that come not from an authentically positive or negative response to a book, but from a relationship between the author and the reviewer that is withheld from the reader. Although I would most certainly classify those reviews as ethically suspect, again, because they purport to be unbiased reader responses to a book and do not give the reader the information they need to weigh the opinions against the circumstances under which they were written.

  78. Jane
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 10:36:11

    @William Ockham: You only need to go on the Amazon message boards to find readers regularly complaining about quality. Don’t authors have friends to read things over. Why are there so many spelling mistakes, etc.

    HM Ward’s serial begins with the heroine’s name misspelled on the first page. (At least twice). RAW by Belle Aurora had tense errors in the prologue (this was a book that was in the Kindle top 100 for at least a month). I could go on and on. I read up and down the Kindle top 100. I’d venture to guess that I read more indie books than I do trad books these days because I’m always interested in what is moving readers.

    There’s quite a bit of plagiarism going on. Frex, Sweet Under His Skin was a book that was climbing the charts (it had terrible formatting and the editing got worse and worse as the book went on) but there was definitely something sweet about the story. I tweeted about it and other people bought it on my recommendation and lo and behold it’s scraped from a fan fiction author. This happens at least once a week in the indie world.

    Many readers are willing to overlook the errors and poor editing because at 99c or 2.99 do we really feel like we deserve to complain when the book is so cheap?

    And yes, there is an overwhelming driving force to NOT leave negative reviews. There was an m/m self published author last week that was going around goodreads and Amazon haranguing reviewers for leaving low grades. Elle Lotharian (sp?) has been very vocal about asking readers to change their grades. Her posts were promoted on Galley Cat and other places.

    Blog tours request that you don’t leave a star rating below 3 stars or simply refrain from leaving a rating. There’s huge pushback amongst indie readers to post negative reviews because it harms the authors. Support the authors is the mentality. It’s all over facebook (which is where the indie readers and authors largely hang out).

    There are author groups that get together to downvote one star reviews and upvote positive ones.

    I don’t doubt that there are legitimate reviews for every indie author. And I hope that review shenanigans occur at a lower rate than I perceive them to be (although by the number of services that spring up to offer positive reviews, you know that it is popular). And you can’t even trust the “Verified Purchase” reviews anymore because authors are sending “gifts” to reviewers instead of ARCs so that when they leave a review it shows up as a “verified purchase.”

    We regularly review and recommend indie published books by authors so the idea that we are somehow against self publishing here at Dear Author is not only laughable but ignorant. What we want, though, is an increase in quality. We want to be able to read a book and be fairly sure it isn’t plagiarized. These days I’m a little gunshy about newbie authors appearing out of nowhere which is not how I want to feel. I want to be able to open a book and know that, for the most part, it will be error free.

    It’s rare that I find that in indie published books. In part because a lot of editorial services out there are terrible and indie authors don’t know that. Many indie authors who have never been trad published don’t even realize that there are different types of editorial services out there.

    And some of the biggest names in self publishing like Dean Smith basically say that output is more important than quality. Even Howey himself doesn’t hire an editor but relies on the freebie services of his readers. He might have a completely different class of readers than a newbie self published author. An author currently selling well (in the top 100) is Aurora Rose Reynolds. Her books are rife with errors, so many that I’ve given up on her. Yes, readers enjoy her stories but is it “quality”? When the biggest names in self publishing are all about the output and not about the quality then it is problematic and feeds into the system of lemons.

    I understand that self publishing has been liberating for many many authors and that it has brought new things for readers and that’s wonderful. But talking about the quality issues that face self publishing isn’t designed to destroy it or put it down but to say that in order for us to maintain a vibrant reading pool there are things we need to be cautious about. To want these books to go through even a copyeditor isn’t a way of saying we hate indies. It’s saying we want indies to do better.

    And if you think we haven’t said the same thing about trad publishers you are completely mistaken.

  79. AlexaB
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 12:48:15

    @Liana Mir:
    ” just want to point out that I’m a HUGE SFF reader, who tracks science fiction fantasy magazines and movies and inhales about 100–200 novels in the genre each year. I’ve never even heard of Ready Player One”

    Really?

    Considering that READY PLAYER ONE:
    Hit the New York Times list
    Won the Prometheus Award
    Won the Alex Award
    Was nominated for a Locus Award
    Missed the Hugo ballet by six votes
    Won raves from authors such as Scalzi, who blurbed the book and also blogged about it

    and was named to these “best of” lists:

    Amazon, Best book for August 2011 and Best of the Year 2011
    Apple, Best book for August 2011
    Apple, Best Books of 2011, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
    Audible.com, Best Audio Books of the Year: Customer Favorite Audiobook (#4), Best Fiction
    Audiobook (#5)
    BEA Shout ‘n’ Share pick
    B&N Review Long List Featured Title
    BN.com Bookclubs—”The best geek novel of all time”
    Book People’s Top Shelf Books to Look Out for
    Boswell and Books, Seasonal top 25 (#20)
    Brews and Books: December Recommendations
    Chicago Sun-Times, Favorite Books of 2011
    CNET Holiday ebook reading (#2)
    Cnn.com- including in holiday gift guide
    G4TV.com- Holiday gift guide
    Goodreads Choice Awards: Nominated, Best Goodreads Author and Best Science Fiction
    Entertainment Weekly, Best Books of 2011
    Hudson, Best of the Year 2011 Fiction
    Kansas City Star, Best of 2011
    Kobo, Best of 2011
    Indie Next pick, August 2011
    Library Journal, Best of the Year 2011
    Los Angeles Times (Hero Complex blog), Holiday Gift Guide
    Medieval Bookworm: 7/31 in July wrap-up, calls RPO “Best of the Month”
    Overdrive Digital Library Blog: Sci-Fi Pick of the Month
    Patch.com: Gifts of Imagination December Booklist
    PhillyBurbs.com, Best Books of 2011
    Publishers Weekly Pick of the Week
    Quirk Books Top 10 New Geeky Books for Dad Pick
    School Library Journal, Adult Books 4 Teens, Best of 2011, Fiction
    USA Today, Pop Candy blog, Top 100 People of the Year (Ernie Cline):

    Track harder next time.

    Thanks for playing, but if this is the depth of your research and knowledge about your own genre, I’m afraid I can’t take seriously anything else you have to say about publishing.

  80. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 13:05:04

    @AlexaB: Definitely wasn’t bumped into everywhere in the reading community. But now that you mention Scalzi, I think I do know the book you’re talking about. I had to go look it up and I do remember that the cover didn’t stick in my memory and the premise was not my cuppa and that I only bumped into the book on the Hugo list and Scalzi’s blog as a Big Idea post. Wool, on the other hand, was EVERYWHERE, SFF or not. Like it or not, there really was a huge difference in visibility, including to a typical SFF reader.

  81. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 13:09:39

    @AlexaB: Just caught your exact words, which clearly ignored mine: “Track harder next time.”

    I never said I tracked SFF books. I made quite clear that I tracked SFF movies and magazines and READ up to 200 books per year in the genre. I’m actually rather eclectic. I also READ literary fiction, poetry, contemporary fiction, Biblical fiction, Christian fiction, etc.

    I don’t HAVE a single genre. I’m a voracious reader of anything but romance and horror, pretty much. And reading is separate from writing and publishing, so you’re drawing a rather odd connection between the two. And fandom is even further separated from that, which is what I self-identify as.

  82. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 13:13:43

    Now that I know Real Player One was an award-winner, that actually further validates that Wool and Real Player One SHOULD have disparate percentages of positive/negative reviews.

    http://www.cbc.ca/books/2014/02/books-reviewed-more-harshly-after-winning-awards-researchers.html

  83. William Ockham
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 13:23:56

    @Jane I don’t doubt that there readers who complain about quality. They are such a tiny minority that they are insignificant. The vast majority of readers don’t hang out on the internet where you or I do. All of this is essentially invisible to them.

    The examples you supply (HM Ward, Belle Aurora) indicate quite simply that there are many readers who don’t perceive quality in the same way you do. One thing I like about Baldur’s analysis is that he left the quality judgment up to the reader. Plagiarism of the type you cite is awful and traditional publishing proved to be no match for it either. The rest of the bad behavior you cite has some effect and yet there is no evidence that it interferes with people finding good books to read.

    I disagree with you about the price issue and the reasons are a bit complicated and tangential to this post.

    I never said that this site was “against self publishing” and I’m not sure how you read that in my comments about this article. My reading of this article was that @Sunita believes that traditional publishing is the solution to the lemon problem. She closes with this:

    If you vanquish New York, though, you undermine self-publishing. What will be left, in overwhelming numbers, will be the inexperienced, still-working-on-the-writing-thing authors, and that will make good authors wary of entering, for fear of being lost in the slushpile. And that’s when readers will realize they’re shopping in a market full of lemons.

    Those statements and your comments directed at me suggest that you and the other posters here believe that you are arbiters of quality. I don’t have a problem with that and I wish you well in your endeavors to achieve those things. I don’t think hectoring your commenters is a great strategy for achieving it.

    I am not a professional writer. I am an avid reader and I think there are many ways to improve the ability of readers to find the books they want and avoid the ones they don’t want. I’m not sure what you hope to gain by preventing people from reading the books they want. And before you say that’s not your goal, remember that not everyone shares your perception of quality. If writers like HM Ward are wildly successful without following your advice, why would they ever change?

  84. William Ockham
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 13:37:11

    One last point. There is a much more powerful signal that people find of great value. It’s called the bestseller list. Most readers (but not the readers of most books) find this to be the best way to “discover” books. I think it is the power of those lists that frustrates Jane and the others here. If books that they deem “low quality” make it on those lists, those “low quality” books become even more successful. And most of those “low quality” books’ authors have a lot of repeat business.

    It might surprise you that I wholeheartedly agree that, for the most part, I don’t like those books either. My secret strategy for handling that is to NOT READ THEM. I would humbly suggest that the folks here do the same. If you get a book that has typos on the first page, return it. Take advantage of what market power you have. Any book that you buy that you believe is not publication-quality should be returned. That’s much more effective than bemoaning the sad state of self publishing.

  85. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 13:50:06

    @AlexaB: Perhaps I simply should have said, the difference in visibility (between two SFF books that are being compared as if they had the same visibility) is that one I would’ve had to track in order to realize I ought to read it; the other tracked me down from literary and non-literary communities alike and suggested I give it a read.

  86. Marc Cabot
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 14:03:00

    @Courtney Milan:

    I personally am fine with offering readers incentives to leave reviews… if the incentive is just for leaving a review, good bad or indifferent. I have done this occasionally. I don’t do it any more because it doesn’t seem to work very well, not because I think it’s bad. But I have provided incentives to people who left bad reviews. A deal is a deal.

  87. Marc Cabot
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 14:17:00

    @Danielle:

    Two thoughts:

    1) Actually, from the author’s point of view, three stars is not good. Empirical examination of the Amazon recommendation engine indicates that for practical purposes, there are not five rankings, there are three:

    A) Five Stars, yay!
    B) Four Stars, we’ll show it if we can’t find anything better.
    C) Radioactive Horse Poo.

    Three-star and below rankings have a net negative effect on recommendation placement. That being said, I’m fine with it, although I wish Amazon would make clear that “It’s Okay” means “I don’t want Amazon to recommend it to people.” Maybe they could change the three-star text to “Meh.”

    2) I have never responded to a negative review. Well okay once but it was a response to a humorous question about the cover photo. And never, EVER defensively or through email. I agree, that’s creepy. However, I’ve responded to some author responses, and trust me, the authors did not come out looking better at the end. I think that that is going to be a largely self-correcting problem. You’ll always get authors who go off the rails at negative reviews – and I’ve seen bad ones who were traditionally published do it too – but by and large authors are getting the idea that that is not going to help.

  88. Sunita
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 14:21:07

    @Chris Meadows: It sounds a bit like Pandora for books. I think Oyster has a negative/positive component built into it as well, but I only used it for a month so I’m not sure about that. As long as the negatives can be kept somewhat anonymous or within circles of friends, that could be very useful. Thanks for the link!

    @pooks: I’m willing to accept that Wool is sui generis, but then that affects the extent to which people can learn from its success. If it’s truly a different animal (which certainly sounds possible), no one, even the author, can really explain it. You can’t separate out the variables that we can predict from the ones we can’t. So either it’s part of a larger class and we can learn from it, or it’s in a class of its own, in which case we can admire and respect but not take lessons from.

  89. Jules
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 14:23:54

    @Marc Cabot:

    Actually, on Goodreads, where I believe Danielle’s comment was focused, the star ratings are classified differently than Amazon.

    5 stars is “it was amazing”
    4 stars is “really liked it”
    3 stars is “liked it”
    2 stars is “it was okay”
    1 star is “did not like it”

    That’s the problem/joy with star ratings, especially on Goodreads. Readers can use them however they want to classify books there. I understand it may work differently at Amazon though. But I just wanted to clarify the difference in the sites.

  90. Marc Cabot
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 14:25:28

    @Sunita:

    “Sui generis” and “seminal” are not the same thing. Many sui generis works are seminal, but not all seminal works are sui generis. And in fact seminal sui generis works often don’t *stay* sui generis. Just sayin’.

  91. Sunita
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 14:32:59

    @Hugh Howey: Thanks very much for commenting.

    What you’re talking about, in terms of review suggestions, are absolutely priming mechanisms. And I can see why they would prime positive reviews and indirectly dissuade negative reviews.

    I think the unhelpful reviews are a feature of Amazon (they may also be a bug to readers, but they’re definitely a feature), and the nudges from Amazon are probably going to increase the noisiness of the signal. As long as those unhelpful reviews are relatively evenly distributed across different publisher categories they’re not going to adversely affect any single one, I don’t think. The problem arises when the differences seem systematic, whether they’re product reviews or squee reviews about the book or unfair hatchet reviews.

    I completely agree with you that the world of review ratings, especially at Amazon and Goodreads, is a strange one.

  92. Jules
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 14:34:26

    @William Ockham: I don’t believe that quality is subjective. Personally, I think quality is the one thing about a book that you can look at objectively. Editing, grammar, consistent character naming, eBook formatting, those are all things that I think are something anyone can objectively criticize.

    Do I think that quality can affect how some people feel about the book? Of course. For some people it takes them out of the story so much that the book becomes unreadable. For others, the objective quality doesn’t affect how much they enjoy the story.

    But I don’t think it’s fair to say that the people here are claiming some sort of monopoly on quality, when from my point of view it is the one thing that anyone can look at and judge.

    Now if you were using the word quality, as in “That book there is a quality read,” I can see that as being subjective, but I don’t believe that is how DearAuthor is using the word.

  93. Janine
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 14:46:53

    @Sunita & @Rosario: Thanks!!!

  94. Ros
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 14:50:50

    @Marc Cabot: Who said WOOL was seminal? Actually, that’s a rhetorical question. I searched the page. No one did. I don’t think anyone thinks it is.

  95. Sunita
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 14:53:08

    @William Ockham:

    given that ebooks have a zero marginal cost, prices should never indicate quality

    An ebook has a zero marginal cost? Even if you don’t pay yourself as an author, you’ve incurred the opportunity costs of taking the time for writing it. The costs of production are not zero. An author who does not choose to recoup the costs of production through pricing is of course entitled to make that choice, but it’s not a business decision (unless it’s a loss leader, or there is some other reason for making it free).

    Or did you mean that the 2nd book has a marginal cost of zero? Because the first book is definitely not free to produce.

    I’ll happily read Akerlof (that’s Akerlof with one f, by the way) again. The first time I read it was in the early 1980s, when I saw a discussion of it in Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior. I modeled (wrote down, solved, published after peer review) an asymmetric-information bargaining game over 15 years ago. I have a long-standing interest in the social problems created by asymmetric information; a lot of political scientists do. The Akerlof paper is about noisy signals and the problems they create, not about “quality” and there is no reason to impose objective quality standards in this theory (or related theories), except as indicators of buyer discontent or market failures.

    I see plenty of indicators of buyer discontent and I have concerns about future market failure. You don’t. And neither of us has the data to prevail at the moment.

  96. pooks
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 14:53:52

    @Hugh Howey:

    I think your partner may have something there.

    There are definitely people who prefer selfpubbed books for various reasons, from the fact that they are often priced more reasonably to the fact that it appeals to the renegades amongst us to thumb our noses at The Man. And those people are probably more evangelical in their promotions and sharing of reading material, and also more attuned to what is new and being talked about in indie-pubbed circles.

    Just as there are those amongst us who prefer traditionally published books for various reasons and are more likely to be aware of which awards books have won and/or which lists they’re hitting, and which major review sites have noticed them.

  97. Robin/Janet
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 14:56:10

    @William Ockham: I am not a professional writer. I am an avid reader and I think there are many ways to improve the ability of readers to find the books they want and avoid the ones they don’t want.

    All one needs to do is Google your handle combined with “self-publishing” and it’s very clear that you are far more than a mere reader. There’s nothing wrong with having a vested commercial interest in self-publishing, but people deserve to know how that’s contextualizing your comments.

  98. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:04:38

    @Robin/Janet: As someone who does read a lot of his comments at various indie author gathering places, I just want to point out that he has NEVER linked to a website, has never given the slightest sign of writing or being commercially invested, and has only twice to my knowledge mentioned maybe eventually possibly putting together a stats analysis tool for industry stuff. He does numbers work and didn’t want his political comments online to come back to his job.

    In short, while I have seen him demonstrate interest in the development of the industry, it would be a stretch to assume he has a vested commercial interest when he has never given even the slightest indication of being a writer.

  99. Jane
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:05:33

    @William Ockham: Actually that’s not true. There are fewer and fewer repeat successes by indie authors on the bestseller list. If you’ve watched the list for any amount of time, you’ll note that the number of indie books on the kindle bestseller list is declining. Amazon’s own publishing arm is taking up a quarter of that list at any given time. If the Howey data can be used to support anything it is that Amazon is using its retailing site to push its own books in a big way.

    There are dozens of self published authors who have hit high on the lists only not to appear a second time. They’re still successful (if you presume that anyone in the top 50,000 is successful) but they aren’t achieving the heights that they were previously.

    So my frustration isn’t that there are bad books that abound on the bestseller list but that it’s harder and harder to find good books because of the noise Sunita says. I’m actively reading authors I’ve never heard of before in order to discover new reads but because of that, I end up reading dozens of really terrible books. That’s my frustration. I’d like my success rate to be 50/50 rather than, oh, 70/30 or 80/20 bad book to good book ratio.

  100. Sunita
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:06:58

    @Marc Cabot: I used precisely the term I intended. Growing up bilingual, years of additional language study and a Ph.D. fellowship that required me to use two languages to study the grammar and literature of three more has given me some sensitivity to linguistic nuance.

    Your crystal ball may tell you that in the future Wool will be hailed as a seminal work, either in literary or industry terms. I’m talking about the world we live in now, when its influence is still being formed.

  101. hapax
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:11:51

    @Robin/Janet:

    This is why paid reviewsare such a profound danger to the reviewing system – their value for the author lies in the *false* perception they provide that they are authentic reader responses.

    [emphasis mine]

    I realize that quality and discoverability are very important topics and that the comments are getting a bit heated, but I do wish that people would be a bit more precise in their wording.

    I am a professional reviewer for review journals. Hence, I write “paid reviews”. I occasionally write freebie reviews as well on social media sites, as a courtesy for ARCs I receive (or solicit) outside the paying gig, as a favor to author friends, or for books I particularly liked or loathed (yes, I disclose any of these circumstances).

    I don’t think my paid reviews are “dangerous.” I think they are MORE valuable to readers than my free “authentic reader responses.” In the latter, I am free to be — in a word — unfair. I can give good reviews to tropes that turn my crank, despite a lack of skill or craft in their employment. I can give scathing reviews to stories that pissed me off, even if the “problem” with the book was just an ugly cover or that I read it while waiting for a dental appointment. These are all “authentic reader responses”, and honest and marginally helpful, I suppose, to someone looking for a good book to take to the dentist.

    But if I’m going to be a paid for a review, I’m going to do a professional job of it. I’m going to consider elements that might not matter to me, but training and experience have taught me matter to other readers. I’m going to look at technical skill and I’m going to look at artistic quality. I’m going to consider the story in itself AND against the context of expectations raised by marketing (e.g. cover and blurb) and in the author’s work as a whole. And I’m going to do all that in three short paragraphs and (if possible) in a style that evokes the work I’m reviewing.

    I do understand that there are many reviewers — at this site, for example! — who put the same care and professionalism into their reviews, even though they are not (directly) paid for them. I also understand that there are paid “reviewers” who do not write reviews at all, but instead provide ad copy under another name.

    But I think making the distinction “free” = “authentic” and “paid” = “dangerous” is very, well, *dangerous* shorthand.

  102. Jane
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:12:01

    @Liana Mir: The fact that he doesn’t disclose is the problem. he has a vested interest in selfpublishing as a business. That’s how he makes money. He’s not a writer. He’s a writer service provider. Bias matters.

  103. Robin/Janet
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:14:24

    @Liana Mir: Well, the Very First Link I found when I Googled his name + self publishing gave me a link via his name to a commercial self-publishing website. The Very First Link.

  104. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:19:16

    @Jane and @Robin/Janet: I would believe you if I could find any evidence. He has never offered any services on the indie sites he’s been around and the first link I get on Google is his comment on a Barry Eisler article on The Passive Voice blog. The entire first PAGE I’m getting is comments or the original William Ockham of Occam’s Razor and some ads for vanity pubs like Outskirts, where I know our modern-day William doesn’t work. So I’m not just trying to blindly defend some disingenuous person; I simply cannot find any evidence of what you think he’s doing.

  105. Castiron
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:20:17

    @Chris Meadows: I hope you’re right. Hypatia was responsible for my finding many wonderful books that I’d never have read otherwise, and it seems like it’d be a fabulous way to sift through self-pubs and find the ones I’m likely to enjoy. (That said, the number of times I’ve heard “Dave’s going to bring it back” and been disappointed is large enough that I’m not going to believe it until I’m on the site and getting a fresh recs page.)

  106. AlexaB
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:23:28

    Liana Mir:

    As humans, we tend to overinflate our own experience and extrapolate it to be universal. This is especially true if we surround ourselves only with the like-minded who reinforce our perceptions.

    But our experience isn’t universal, it is subjective and anecdotal evidence at best. Assuming one’s bubble encompasses the whole world can be a fallacious, and not very attractive, trap. There are some terrific essays and op-ed pieces about reader perception here in the Dear Author archives that you might find interesting. Unfortunately, this website is heavily skewed toward romance, so I’m not sure someone who reads as widely as you but eschews that particular genre might get the most out of the references.

    Readers and reviews are part of the publishing ecosystem. Publishers and authors would have a hard time keeping the lights on without readers. Reviews are part of a process by which we as individual readers and as a collective culture determine which books to pay attention to and which to ignore. Thus my reference to publishing.

    That is an interesting point about awards. I’m sure it must come as a relief to Mr. Howey to know he has been saved from the slings and arrows of disgruntled reviewers who read award-winning books. But it only goes to support Sunita’s point: reviews – especially on Amazon – are a very noisy signal and are becoming increasingly unreliable as a predictor of a quality reading experience, making it harder and harder for readers to pick out the diamonds from the lemons from the outright crap.

    (In this case, by quality I mean a book that uses paragraph breaks properly, uses a consistent verb tense from sentence to sentence, seeks to use character POV in a manner that enhances rather than confuses the reader, has at least a fifth grade level of understanding of English grammar and punctuation, and understands that homophones are not synonyms. Sadly, I can point to a product – I hate to call it a book or novella – that was in the Kindle Top Ten a few weeks ago, with a current four star rating on over 200 reviews, that broke nearly every one of those.)

  107. Robin/Janet
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:23:42

    @hapax: Yes, you’re right; I should have used the phrase “paid-for positive review,” as I have no problem with compensating reviewers for honest opinions. Although I do think it’s clear the latter is not what I was referring to in my comment.

  108. Hugh Howey
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:30:49

    @Sunita:

    “I’m willing to accept that Wool is sui generis, but then that affects the extent to which people can learn from its success. If it’s truly a different animal (which certainly sounds possible), no one, even the author, can really explain it. You can’t separate out the variables that we can predict from the ones we can’t. So either it’s part of a larger class and we can learn from it, or it’s in a class of its own, in which case we can admire and respect but not take lessons from.”

    100% this. Even *I* can’t say with any certainty what the cause or effect of Wool’s success has been. If I could glean something from it, all my subsequent novels would have gone gangbusters as well. They haven’t. I assume I’ll never write another book that sells half as well, and I’m completely comfortable with that. I feel fortunate to have had anything like this happen to me once. The novel started as a short story I wrote and published on Amazon for 99 cents while working as a bookseller. I didn’t even link to the story on my website, didn’t Tweet or FB it, didn’t even own a smart phone at the time. To say that this has been surprising would be a colossal understatement.

    I might also point out that while I’m appreciative of every single review I’ve ever received, whether good or bad, I’m embarrassed by the quantity of them. I get dozens of fan e-mails every day. I constantly hear from readers who almost didn’t give the work a chance because they didn’t trust the number of reviews. There’s no way to know if the heaps of reviews have had a net positive or negative effect on sales, but these e-mails admitting to skepticism far outweigh the “I bought your book because of the massive number of reviews” e-mails.

    I remember thinking, when my reviews hit 3,000+ and the book still had a 5-star average, that this was getting ridiculous, and could it please stop. It was a great relief to see the average fall to 4.5 stars, which was less obnoxious. And interestingly, this happened after the Simon & Schuster edition hit bookstores and the Wall Street Journal did a front-page story. People who weren’t going to like the book started picking it up out of curiosity and placement. The review average (thankfully) went down. This supports what we saw when we compiled our AuthorEarnings data.

    Again, this is idle speculation. A lot of noise; not sure if there’s much signal in there. My feeling is that there’s not a lot to learn from a 50 Shades of Grey or Harry Potter or Wool phenomenon, but certainly a lot that could lead you astray by post hoc reasoning.

    Fascinating discussion, btw. I’d be just as interested (possibly more so) if it regarded a book that wasn’t mine.

  109. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:31:17

    So here is what I found:

    http://www.thepassivevoice.com/08/2012/killing-your-sales-the-second-foot/#comment-45981 where he states he is a non-professional writer. I scrolled back up and William Ockham did say he wasn’t a professional writer, not that he wasn’t a writer, so consistency there at least.

    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/02/a-case-of-shatz-fisking-mike-shatzkin.html?showComment=1392429643654#c455243944085642175 Here is his real name and his work, which is apparently SQL-related, not writing.

    Okay, here I finally found something! http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/there-is-no-publishing-industry/ wherein he is credited as provided tools for digital publishing, which is probably the something maybe he’d get around to that I mentioned he’s mentioned previously. Nevertheless, the link is broken.

    http://friarslane.com/ So his company has an ebook converter/formatter piece of software. Of course, that totally changes the context of his comments. Considering the thinness of the page and its non-marketing, I’m not sure I can call it more than a hobby or that he has a vested interest here. Of course, I could be wrong or maybe it’s just not launched yet, but this isn’t how you should launch a business when you’re KNOWN among the indie writer blogs, especially not to affect your livelihood. So now that some specifics are on the page, anyone reading his comments can make up their own mind whether an ebook conversion software affects his comments and how they should be read.

    I believe with the crazy research that required that I have proven at least that I’m interested in truth and disclosure, though I sure am amazed you were able to find something by just looking up William Ockham because I sure wasn’t.

  110. Robin/Janet
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:33:39

    @Liana Mir: Try the post published on that site on 10/24/13. Click on his name. I’m not providing the link bait for either the blog or the name-link here (and don’t even get me started on the way that blog makes use of other people’s blog content), but I found it in under 30 seconds. Others have seen it, too.

  111. Jane
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:37:47

    Given that this is William Ockham’s sentiment per his own words at The Digital Reader, I can’t a) take him seriously or b) respond to his comments.

    http://www.the-digital-reader.com/2014/02/06/debunking-self-pub-shit-volcano-shit-problem-going-away/#comment-287397

    I think it is time to call this what it is: bigotry. Read through the negative comments about books by self-published authors and mentally substitute ‘black’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Jewish’ for ‘self-published’. I am not trying to tell people that the books they read weren’t terrible. I just want them to think about whether it is just to vilify a entire class of people.

    This is fricking hilarious and sad and offensive.

  112. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:38:25

    @AlexaB: While none of your points about human nature are false, I did not extrapolate my experience as the only one around. I simply stated that there is a visibility difference. There is. Some people demand that it be backed up though, so I provide whichever experience I’m willing to bother with for their benefit, whether that’s anecdotal (in most cases; like most humans, I’m lazy when I can get away with it) or cited (when I remember where I read it because I’m a walking trivia machine and forget my sources).

    As for reviews being a noisy signal, I shall quote myself from earlier in these very comments:

    “Additionally, Wool has a disproportionately high number of spoilery reviews, which makes them valuable. I don’t think anyone thinks Amazon reviews are valuable for the rating… What the reviews do best is point out what’s right or wrong with a book from one person’s perspective so you can decide whether you like those things or not. I know I read Amazon reviews like crazy, but only to find out what’s in the book, not what someone thinks of it who I neither know nor care about. Goodreads doesn’t work as well for that because they try not to spoil things.”

    In short, as a reader, reviews have been noisy since I was a child. Not everyone shares the same taste or knowledge of the objective standards of quality. Either you know the reviewer and trust them or they give you their reasons for their opinion so you can judge those reasons to form your own. Ratings are not and have never been a particularly valuable variable on their own.

    That is my opinion. Others will not share it. I never disputed that reviews are noisy; I just said that the value depends on how you use them and knowing who tends to give them and why.

  113. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:39:50

    @Robin/Janet: Already did the research and posted it for everyone, but it’s in moderation due to having shown my work and provided the link trail I used. Thank you though for clarifying.

  114. William Ockham
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:40:23

    @Sunita

    Marginal cost is the cost of producing an extra unit. Ebooks definitely have zero marginal cost by any reasonable definition. It doesn’t cost Amazon anything to produce one more copy of an ebook. So you’ve read Akerlof (yes, one f, thanks) and you don’t know what marginal cost is. I am not sure we have a common basis of communication.

    I didn’t say that Akerlof had anything to do with quality, per se. I responded to Jane’s screed about quality because it was directed to me.

    Here are some issues with applying Akerlof’s analysis to the current state of the ebook market. In Akerlof’s scenario, sellers have an asymmetric information advantage. They know the value of the item they are selling and the buyer has no way to assess that information. I don’t see evidence that this is true in ebooks. The best case for that is the plagiarism issue that Jane raised. Otherwise you have people selling what they believe are ebooks worth buying. Another issue is that reviews mitigate against the Akerlof effect. This works. Ebooks with really bad reviews generally don’t sell well at all. We also have the complexity of limited substitutability of different ebooks. Preferences for types of ebooks are very diverse and the type and amount of information asymmetry in romance is likely to quite different from what you would see in a narrower, less crowded genre like, say, Lovecraftian steampunk.

    Let’s go back to one of the issues you raised in the original piece, the fact that literary fiction ebooks have lower ratings than genre fiction. I think there is a very simple and straightforward reason for this. Any particular literary fiction novel will have less in common with any other literary fiction novel than one romance novel will have with another romance novel. That makes it harder for people to know what to expect and raises the likelihood that readers will be disappointed in the book. Not because they thought the book was low quality, but because they just didn’t like it. And that’s what reader reviews are intended to show, after all, whether or not the reader enjoyed the book.

    You say that neither of us has the data to prevail at the moment. I beg to differ. There has been no decrease in the number of readers or of books read in the U.S. since the advent of ebooks, according to polling by Pew Research. The total amount of spending on books is up, according to a variety of industry sources. Spending on ebooks continues to rise. That’s real data and it contradicts your thesis.

  115. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:42:42

    @Hugh Howey: I admit to also agreeing that Wool is not particularly instructive. It was a phenomenon. I just didn’t find its percentage of positive/negative reviews to be outside the norm for all factors considered.

  116. Marc Cabot
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:43:20

    @Ros:

    You’re right. Nobody did. But “sui generis” has a meaning, and it is not synonymous with “seminal.” IMO, it was being used in a way which tended to imply that that was what the poster meant. I could be wrong. It happens.

    “Wool” may have been the first book to succeed in the way it did – that would make it seminal in that aspect. And until another book succeeds the same way, it will be sui generis. But implying that because it was seminal it will remain sui generis is a step too far. “Nothing else can succeed like Wool” is a big, big leap from “Nothing else has succeeded like Wool *yet.*”

  117. Marc Cabot
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:49:49

    @Sunita:

    If you want to compare brainpans and vacuum-cleaner warranties, we can do that, but I find that when that element enters the discussion it’s over for all practical purposes. I don’t doubt you selected the word on purpose. I was merely saying that its usage, in my opinion, could impart implications which I felt were not warranted. And as I also just said, if I’m wrong, or my opinion is not that of the majority, then I am, or it isn’t. It happens.

  118. JamesT
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:54:20

    Apparently the fake controversy of 2014 will continue to be “how will readers ever find a good book again amongst the great unwashed slush of self-publishing”. Gag.

    I believe it was Voltaire who said “the perfect is the enemy of the good” or something to that effect. This applies well to several points in this discussion. The first being self-pubbed books themselves. As has been pointed out already, a vast many readers just don’t seem to care about errors in books. I realize that horrifies the .01% of folks who consider themselves the ultra-literati. Each individual reader’s level of error acceptance is different, but based on how many “poorly edited” books sell well, reader acceptance of errors is fairly high. Markets are amazing things and in this case, the market will define “quality” naturally – they do not require intervention by a middleman – particularly a middleman who siphons off the lion’s share of the retail price of the product and drive’s the price up to such a great degree in order to support NY office space and CEO million dollar salaries. Those books that contain an overwhelming number of errors die a quick death. Exactly what that necessary quality level is, the market can reasonably decide, and since I am part of the market, that means me the reader, not NY.

    The second point is with respect to Amazon’s review system. Is it perfect? Of course not. Is it useful….or dare I say “good”? I think yes and I think the millions of people who shop on Amazon regularly would agree. Here again the market speaks…..the market says Amazon’s reviews work – these reviews drive Amazon’s business.

    When I select a book, I always read a few of the negative reviews and a few of the more detailed positive reviews to get a sense for what people liked and what they didn’t like. If you read Ready Player One’s negative reviews, many people just didn’t like all of the geeky 80s references. That is helpful – I grew up in the 80s and that is one of the wonderful aspects of that book to ME…others, not so much but the important fact is that the content of the negative review helped me to hit buy. I ignore all of the short, useless reviews that exist for most books – I focus on the good content. It’s not that hard. Quibble with percentage point differences in star ratings and sock puppets all you want…these are all worn out arguments against the Amazon system that have been bandied about for what feels like ages….. , you are arguing over something that is relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Most readers can derive “good” value from the Amazon review system most of the time, in spite of its flaws. The “noise” that is referenced is non-existent for me – I really can’t relate.

    Lastly, I find it a very poor comparison to compare a used car that had no documented history of maintenance or performance, cost thousands of dollars, was a complex mechanical system that could have a material impact on your quality of life and for which there was no recourse in the event of it being a total disaster, to a $2.99 ebook that includes reader reviews, a free preview and a 7 day return policy. Seriously? That is less risk than buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks. If a person has to dither about and hem and haw to buy a book under these conditions, they probably need to take up a different hobby.

    As for writers being intimidated by the “slush” of Amazon to such a degree as to cause them to roll into a ball and give up, thus drying up the pipeline for “quality” writers….exactly how is this different from the great slush pile of the agents and publishers in NY? That miserable path has crushed thousands of authors. Who knows how many great authors/books fell by the wayside because the “market as defined by NY” wasn’t quite right for what they had at a particular point in time? Too many to count, quite likely and that is sad.

  119. If So, Readers Sure Love Their Lemons | Edward W. Roberston
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 15:57:24

    […] Dear Author blogger Sunita raised the idea that self-published genre fiction is creating a market for lemons–an environment where readers have no easy way to identify good books from bad books. If true, […]

  120. Sunita
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 16:04:19

    @Hugh Howey: I think that at a certain point, when a book becomes a phenomenon, it behaves more like other phenomena and less like other books, if that makes sense.

    I work with models of (and data on) collective action events, and Wool’s increasing number of reviews is similar to the way collective events can happen. They can start relatively slowly, seeded by participants with particularly intense interests (this is when you might get lots of 4/5-star or lots of 1-star reviews but not much in between), and then when you have a critical mass of those, more people will review because they want to, they feel comfortable, the costs are decreasing and the benefits of joining outweigh the costs. After a while you can get a huge surge because people don’t want to be left out participate. Some books (events) never get to critical mass, some have a natural size that might be a few hundred reviews (or a couple of thousand) and then the rare, rare event resembles Wool.

    Obviously in a collective event where people gather physically the increase will happen quickly, but with a book review you can have the join-the-celebration ones enter over longer periods of time, because they can get that feeling from the pleasure they have in the book combined with the sense of being part of something (which is reinforced by reading the reviews and realizing how many people feel the same way).

    It is a fascinating process to see develop, and until this comment thread I hadn’t realized the similarities to classic threshold models. So again, thanks very much for participating.

  121. Sunita
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 16:09:26

    @William Ockham: Yes, I do know what marginal cost is (thank you, Sam Peltzman). I just wasn’t sure you were using it in its precise meaning, given the way the sentence I quoted is constructed. It’s the internet.

  122. MaryK
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 16:15:19

    @Jane:

    I’m actively reading authors I’ve never heard of before in order to discover new reads but because of that, I end up reading dozens of really terrible books. That’s my frustration. I’d like my success rate to be 50/50 rather than, oh, 70/30 or 80/20 bad book to good book ratio.

    This is why I rely on recommendations. I wish I were more adventurous but the reality is that I’m not; and I like a high success rate too much to take chances.

  123. Ridley
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 16:17:39

    Are people seriously arguing that self-published books aren’t considered a risky prospect for readers and that Amazon reviews aren’t increasingly worthless?

    Should you guys be drinking that heavily on a Monday?

  124. Jackie Barbosa
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 16:20:10

    Just a small data point–generally speaking, I find somewhere between 0.8% and 1.2% of readers actually bother to review a book on the site from which they purchased it. For pretty much any of my books published since 2011, the number of reviews on Amazon multiplied by 100 would tell you roughly how copies of the book have sold/been downloaded for free from Amazon since publication.

    Obviously, some authors/books do far better than that, but the 7,000ish reviews Wool has would appear to be precisely in line with that percentage if it has sold 1,000,000 copies on Amazon. The percentage that are favorable is certainly higher than mine, but the number of them is pretty consistent with my experience.

  125. Jackie Barbosa
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 16:20:25

    Just a small data point–generally speaking, I find somewhere between 0.8% and 1.2% of readers actually bother to review a book on the site from which they purchased it. For pretty much any of my books published since 2011, the number of reviews on Amazon multiplied by 100 would tell you roughly how copies of the book have sold/been downloaded for free from Amazon since publication.

    Obviously, some authors/books do far better than that, but the 7,000ish reviews Wool has would appear to be in line with that percentage if it has sold 1,000,000 copies on Amazon. The percentage that are favorable is certainly higher than mine, but the number of them is pretty consistent with my experience.

  126. Jackie Barbosa
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 16:21:22

    @Jackie Barbosa: Sorry for the double post.

  127. AlexaB
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 17:01:14

    @Liana Mir:

    Let’s go back to the very beginning. In her essay, Sunita talks about review ratings. She points out that book such as READY PLAYER ONE (RP1 from now on – I’m getting tired of typing) have lower approval ratings than WOOL, and states that RP1 was a word-of-mouth hit. She then goes on to say, “I have more trouble with the idea that the Ward and Howey books are better books. And herein lies the problem with Amazon reviews. They’re only partially about quality.”

    Now your original comment, for ease of reference as the thread is long:

    “I just want to point out that I’m a HUGE SFF reader, who tracks science fiction fantasy magazines and movies and inhales about 100–200 novels in the genre each year. I’ve never even heard of Ready Player One and I couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into Wool, which was on the top 10 bestseller list for the genre. So yeah. Not even close in terms of visibility.”

    So you did, in fact, extrapolate your experience. You didn’t see RP1 while apparently WOOL was everywhere you turned.

    Fair enough. I accept your version of your experience.

    But implying that Sunita’s use of RP1 as a comparison to WOOL is wrong simply because YOU did not see RP1 it is fallacious and, well, yeah, rather self-aggrandizing. Your experience is merely yours. Obviously the book had plenty of exposure (and it wasn’t a very hard Google search; I’m pretty lazy too), which does make it an applicable example. It even sold at auction to Warner Bros., much as WOOL sold to Twentieth Century Fox. I’m not an avid SFF reader – my affinity is with romance, which is why I come to Dear Author – and yet I read RP1 because it was a Kindle Daily Deal. So it was pushed to everyone on that particular Amazon mailing list.

    You can state you are SFF Reader Grand High Poo Bah Priestess Queen Solicitor General President Prime Minister of Silly Walks if you want. Be my guest. But your impression of RP1′s visibility is just that: yours. (As is your impression of Goodreads reviews. Goodreads provides two levels of spoiler warnings – one can either mark an entire review as a spoiler or employ selective spoiler tags inside the body of the review. Meanwhile, Amazon users employ the comment and downvote functions to jump on reviewers who spoil books in their reviews. So I don’t think your impression of Amazon as a useful place for spoiler reviews while Goodreads is not objectively holds up, either.)

    TL;DR: Sunita’s example stands. Something you even tacitly acknowledge by bringing up award-winning books vs. books without third-party recognition to try to explain the discrepancy in review ratings between the two.

    I agree with Sunita that there is an….intriguing…discrepancy in ratings between an award-winning, critically acclaimed and word of mouth hit such as RP1 and self-published books such as – no, I’m not going to say WOOL because apparently invoking that book and/or author on the ‘net is akin to forgetting to invite certain fairies to a princess’s christening – let’s use Sunita’s other example, the H.M. Ward books. And I highly doubt it is simply because readers “enjoy them more” or that readers are harder on award-winning and/or traditionally published books.

  128. Anon
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 17:29:01

    “As has been pointed out already, a vast many readers just don’t seem to care about errors in books. I realize that horrifies the .01% of folks who consider themselves the ultra-literati.”

    I can’t believe people are saying things like this with a straight face. Apparently you’re the 0.1% literati now because you think books should have fewer errors. This kind of strawman is just ridiculous. No one is asking every book to be a literary masterpiece. The world would be a godawful place if that were the case.

  129. Shiloh Walker
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 17:52:11

    @Anon:

    “As has been pointed out already, a vast many readers just don’t seem to care about errors in books. I realize that horrifies the .01% of folks who consider themselves the ultra-literati.”

    Well, Sir James might consider himself part of the literati… me? I just want to enjoy a good book.

    it. is, kindaiu89u hgard to do— t98uhat if 0988too many erros.

    Translation… It’s kind of hard to do that if there are too many errors.

    People do care about errors, I think. Hopefully a lot more than the .01%.

    Some might not care about the occasional misspelled word and I think there are a lot of people glutting on the huge variety available right now, but I’m seeing just as many who are getting pickier.

    Publishing is going through a shift. When things are done shifting, I imagine it’s going to the solid storytellers, and the big names, who are still standing.

  130. Anon 2
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 17:59:54

    Sigh. I have read all the comments. And it comes down to differing agendas. I don’t know what @Sunita’s agenda is. First the post on the Author Earnings report, and now this.

    What I do see is venom when I snooped her Twitter feed. Calling one commenter a liar or stupid for not having knowledge of a book. Called another commenter a mansplainer.

    As I woman, I find it objectionable to use sexism as a way to rationalize away someone’s explanations. It belittles as a person to do so. And really makes me question a person’s character. Which makes their argument weaker as you see the person beneath the words.

    I find comments that are petty weaken the objective arguments made. On both sides.

    I also find that criticism of one person for not revealing their identity (which I’m guilty of right here. I *do* see the hypocrisy – I just don’t want to be subjected to the backlash and venom I’ve seen from some of the commenters on this forum), when the curators of this blog do the very same thing.

    I am a proponent of any publishing mechanism that you choose. I’ve seen high quality and low quality in all types of publishing. I have self-pubbed. I have friends that are indie, that are hybrid, are trad pubbed. I have friends that are unpublished and refuse to even consider going indie. And I respect all their choices, as they respect mine.

    I am a fan of many of the reviewers on this site. But even if I like your taste in books, it doesn’t mean that I agree with you on your ideology. I don’t.

    And why get defensive when people make arguments against your views? Shouldn’t ideas/theories create thought provoking discussion? Or since we visit DearAuthor, should we all just agree with what you say?

    Sadly, this blog is losing me as a visitor. You get enough traffic, so one less person won’t make a difference. But remember, there are many people who visit your blog who may disagree with this argument. And getting catty and laughing/smarming at the commenters on your Twitter feed with your ‘tweeps’ may lose some more.

    But that’s me. Doing it anonymously. Chicken, yes. But I’m a lurker, not a fighter.

    But will not be lurking here any longer.

  131. Carolyn Jewel
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 18:27:18

  132. hapax
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 18:55:38

    @Anon 2: I am not a mind-reader. There was an interesting post linked to in the “News” post for today about how we frequently think we “know” more (and more accurately) about people’s inner emotions and intentions based upon their writings than could possibly be the case.

    Nor am I one to toss about insinuations about secret “agendas”, or piously invoke the “tone argument.”

    I’ve disagreed with both posts and comments here plenty of times. I think that sometimes priorities are misplaced; that expectations are not met; that methodologies were questionable; and that at least one reviewer has execrable taste. Sometimes I say so; more often I just ascribe it to the well known phenomenon that Someone Is WRONG On The Internet!

    But I’m stumped to try and think of ANY posting by ANY blogger at DA that wasn’t aimed at one overarching goal: to help make more stories, and better (by whatever standard of judgment) stories, more accessible to more readers.

  133. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 19:24:25

    Stating that I had an anecdotal experience of being in the typical audience for something and this was my experience and you didn’t even have to be in the typical audience for anecdotally everyone to be talking about Wool, which everyone here has been talking about the buzz, does not mean I think everyone’s experience was mine. It means that Wool had greater penetration and I mentioned my experience in conjunction. I naturally assume that people will accept anecdotes as that. I never said everyone experienced what I did. You inferred it.

    I did back up with the citation for award-winning books and how they’re reviewed. The second time. I have already admitted to being lazy enough to not go cite everything I say unless someone decides they require it. I assume that they can figure out the obvious and ask for more details if they want it.

    I was not saying anything about whether Goodreads or Amazon was better at handling spoilery reviews; I was stating that Amazon tends to HAVE more spoilery reviews, which reviews often contain the REASONS something was rated one way or the other so you can make your own informed decision about purchasing.

    I have made no effort to say reviews aren’t noisy or that all SFF readers heard more about Wool than RP1. I did notice a ton more people heard about Wool than RP1. Unless they were in the same ballpark with visibility, then it may or may not be accurate to compare their review percentage rates as “should be equal.” That’s not a big stretch to say, and it’s my opinion, as I said earlier.

    I am making no claims to all truth, nor have I said a word against ratings and reviews being noisy, just that they are helpful depending on how you use them, regardless of whether they are noisy.

  134. hapax
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 20:04:22

    FWIW, I hang out in fairly geeky circles, which aren’t quite thye same but have significant overlap in SFF circles. While I and my friends were rabid for RP1, nobody had even *heard* of WOOL until I mentioned it — having heard about it from following publishing news, not SFF news.

    (Also FWIW, most of my geek friends were pretty “meh, BTDT” with the book; it was my friends who did NOT usually read SFF who really loved WOOL — after I pushed it into their hands)

    Which doesn’t make my anecdata one whit one more valid than anybody else’s. But it certainly isn’t any less valid, either.

  135. Hugh Howey
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 20:10:28

    @hapax:

    “(Also FWIW, most of my geek friends were pretty “meh, BTDT” with the book; it was my friends who did NOT usually read SFF who really loved WOOL — after I pushed it into their hands)”

    This has been my experience as well. Wool has done much better outside the SFF community than inside it. When I go to readings or events, it’s most non-SF readers. The countries where they’ve shelved this as literature, as in Taiwan, the book has been a #1 bestseller. The places where it’s pushed as SFF, as in France, it merely does okay. This has been a consistent trend. I can easily see a SFF person never hearing of my book.

  136. AlexaB
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 20:10:49

    I believe my previous comment was eaten, as it didn’t show up as being held for moderation because of links. If it does show up, apologies for double posting. Plus more TL; DR. Again, sincere apologies.

    WOOL is a zeitgeist lightning strike, like FIFTY SHADES, like the first STAR WARS film, like the pilot for ER (CHICAGO HOPE, another hospital show, was scheduled in the same time slot and was predicted to draw a bigger audience by People Who Know These Things. Yeah, but no).

    And while a lot of people put a lot of time and money into studying lightning strikes and trying to model how and where the lighting will show up next, the actual strike point is still unpredictable. (Google “Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage?” in the New York Times.)

    So let’s set WOOL aside as an outlier, not that the outlier status isn’t stopping others from seeing the book’s success as the norm to which to aspire instead of the exception that will most likely occur, an impression that is only reinforced by authorearnings.com and its focus on the proportional few at the top instead of the masses upon masses at the bottom.

    And let’s go back to Sunita’s original point, as I understand it:
    With so much noise overtaking the signals readers rely on to choose their next book, readers no longer have the tools to tell lemons from lemon meringue pies. They might even eventually abandon the increasingly crowded and shrill book marketplace for other forms of entertainment with better signals, such as films, TV, games, or even maybe hanging out with friends in meat space. The last idea is shocking, I know.

    “No, no!” others cry. “Look at television! Look how it thrives in a crowded marketplace! Look at the networks running from the upstart cable with fear in their eyes!”

    Only, that’s not what happened. Broadcast networks didn’t run from cable starting to seriously penetrate into homes in the 70s and 80s. Broadcast laughed at cable. Cable was where dusty films and TV shows went to die…

    …until cable started to mimic and then surpass broadcast programming in quality.

    For example, AMC is now the home of BREAKING BAD and MAD MEN. Amazing series, right? Ground breaking. High quality. Award winning.

    But ten years ago? AMC was the American Movie Channel and it showed…old movies. Now, I love old movies. Love, love, love. But in an age when DVDs of old movies could be bought for five bucks, it wasn’t exactly a strategy that was going to make AMC money. Much less challenge ABC. Forget challenging HBO (and pay networks play by different rules than free to air and basic cable networks in the first place).

    To gain the audiences they needed, cable networks had to develop their own original programming and make it better than the broadcast offerings – which then pushed the broadcast networks to up their game. We’re now living in what many consider to be a second Golden Age of Television. (And broadcast networks still command hefty ad rates. If you’re hoping the Big 5 will fail ala the TV Big 4 1/2 (poor CW), you might want to rethink that.)

    If cable is the analogue to self-publishing, then the lesson from AMC and others is not to pump out sub-par, poorly edited, poorly constructed, cliched and trite pages upon pages, flooding the marketplace with shoddy product and turning the reader into an avid, well, TV viewer.

    The lesson is to be better than the broadcast networks, i.e. the Big Five. Be more original and daring. Have better production values. Blow the old guard away with the quality of the writing, the book design, the cover.

    Of course, others have put forward the same concept, such as Chuck Wendig (Google his blog post “Slushy Gut Slog: Why the Self-Publishing Shit Volcano is a Problem) and gotten roundly attacked by the same uninvited to the princess christening fairies for daring to poke pinholes in their utopian fairytale. Which makes me wonder just why this corner of the self-publishing crowd gets so testy and defensive when the issue of quality is brought up.

    Perhaps it’s because the uninvited don’t really believe their own myth, deep down inside. It’s all very well and good to proclaim, “Good will out! Cream rises to the top! Readers will dig the diamonds out of the uninterrupted river of sewage because, reasons!”

    But if they believe that so hard, then why is there so much handwringing over marketing and discovery and getting enough reviews and ratings to be on BookBub and sending out ARCs to devoted fans and asking for Facebook likes and Tweets and organizing street teams and book cover reveals…

    …if they didn’t secretly (or not so secretly) fear that readers won’t prospect for diamonds if the readers aren’t aware the diamonds might exist in the first place.

    So it’s not enough just to be “good.” You have to be discovered to be “discovered.” “Good will win out” makes for a comforting bedtime story, that’s all.

    But then what happens when readers keep being told via BookBub and Twitter and five star squee, “Yes, here there be diamonds!” but all they pick up are unripe lemons?

    Back to Sunita’s essay: I have a hard time believing Amazon reviews when I see things like this: http://loverofbooks.booklikes.com/post/790765/post

    Then there are studies that show that reviewers are influenced subconsciously to be positive if the previous reviews are positive. Google “The Pitfalls of Crowdsourcing Online Ratings” in the Boston Globe, August 2013. If the study holds up, it makes seeding review sites with “beta reader” five star reviews that much more insidious. The study might also provide a better theory re: why a certain book that sounds like it’s about sheep husbandry has more positive reviews than a novel that was sent as an ARC to mainstream media reviewers: the positive peeps squatted on Amazon before the rest of the world heard of it.

    And there’s the neural mechanism of the social influence of popularity, which I’m sure others know far more about than I do.

    But [insert heavenly deity of one's choice] forbid that anyone attempt to have a reasoned discussion about quality of self-published books. Again, just ask Chuck Wendig (Google his blog post “Self-Publishing Truism Bingo.”)

  137. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 20:11:41

    @hapax: @hapax: I agree with all of this. As it turns out, btw, neither book was my cuppa and I forewent reading Wool and company or reviewing them. I’m in rather fandom circles plus my own reading interests, which includes reading almost all the online fiction SFF magazines, being aware of the others, and hearing about all the SFF movies because I’m in the right fandoms to track that sort of thing.

    I meant it when I said I didn’t track SFF books, just read them like crazy. I’m just sharing that to further clarify the circles I run in because I was not setting myself up as super-SFF reader, just providing context for my comments and notice of the event of Wool.

  138. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 20:27:52

    @AlexaB: I didn’t know her original point was that there wasn’t sufficient quality. I thought we were discussing her essay’s topic of the value or lack thereof of reviews as a tool for discovering quality and what to do when price or reviews aren’t working in [insert examples] this way.

    I don’t think a rating is valuable. I think a reasoned review is valuable. I never thought a price was very valuable, but then I grew up with an annual book budget of $10 before I earned my own paycheck, so I got used to finding my books via other methods.

    I guess I just don’t find the problematic nature of reviews to be WORSE than it was before. There’s always going to be a plethora of awful books mixed in with the good, so I can’t depend on all content creators to meet my standards. Even if as a group, 90% of authors made a pact to deliver only high quality, it wouldn’t change that some of them wouldn’t hit their mark and they’d never know it and the other 10% would still release junk and not care. (Arbitrary numbers.)

    That leaves discovery methods and tools to the readers. I don’t mind suggesting that reading sufficient reviews to gather what is inside the cover has always been more precise than trusting a rating made by who knows who, but I recognize some people don’t like spoilers. I don’t mind them because for my personal taste, if a book is not worth rereading, it’s also not worth reading.

    Suggestions for other discovery techniques would be valuable; suggesting indies focus more on quality is good, but not productively helpful to cleaning up all of literature.

    I find no difficulty discovering new fiction, but I also have always been an eclectic, picky reader who is sick and tired of every book having a romance, which also means that I had to be good at discovery when curated content was still viable because I disliked the curated content.

    My methods have largely not changed:

    1. Read reviews for warnings about my dealbreakers and don’t mind spoilers.
    2. Find a free book or short story I love that proves the author can write an ENTIRE story well, then read their other fiction.
    3. Use the library. A lot. See #2
    4. Know a handful of people’s tastes very, very well and how they do or don’t overlap with mine and check out what they’re reading to know whether and how well it will suit me.

    I also have my own pet peeve: absolutely no amateurish covers. I love a good cover and will pick up books to flip through based on cover alone. I will occasionally peruse Amazon covers and download samples. If I dislike the first page, I delete the sample.

    So far, I’ve never bought a dud when I used these techniques. I have encountered them, but I haven’t bought them. The duds and winners have come from both trad and indie, but that wasn’t really the point of this essay and I wasn’t really engaging that argument here. It was about reviews, pricing, and discoverability.

  139. AlexaB
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 20:51:17

    @Liana Mir:

    “I thought we were discussing her essay’s topic of the value or lack thereof of reviews as a tool for discovering quality and what to do when price or reviews aren’t working in [insert examples] this way.”

    You might still be discussing that. I’ve moved on.

    Thanks for sharing your personal subjective experience with choosing books, though. I’m glad you’ve hit on a method that seems to work for you as an individual.

    But I’m sorry to hear that you are “sick and tired of every book having a romance.” It does beg the question, however, why you are spending much time on a website that focuses on and celebrates the romance genre.

  140. Moriah Jovan
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 20:54:11

    @Liana Mir:

    we were discussing her essay’s topic

    The topic is the signal-to-noise ratio.

    Signal = quality books

    Noise = reviews

  141. hapax
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 21:16:03

    @Liana Mir: I’m glad you brought up point #3, because this invokes one of my big concerns about signal vs. noise in book discovery.

    Libraries play a HUGE role in both curating and discovery. On the one hand, librarians are taught “collection development” as a discipline and are constantly researching “best practices” to ensure as much of the collection as possible will at least meet minimum standards of “quality”, and to up the ratio of good reads to duds. On the other hand, they also are dedicated to preserving the best of the past, to seek out the new and unusual, and to promote deserving “mid list” authors to readers that didn’t know they were dying for those stories.

    That’s the theory, anyhow. And it has been for literally hundreds of years.

    But changes in the publishing industry have made this mission much more difficult. Reputable professional review sources are disappearing — how many DA commenters subscribe to a newspaper that employs a book reviewer anymore (or, heckopete, subscribes to a newspaper, period?) They also have an increasing … how to put this? ideological / cultural tribalism that reduces their value of even ostensibly objective reviews — there isn’t a big overlap between the books which appear on NPR and those that appear on The O’Reilly Factor, for example.

    Worse, the business model for these reviewing sources is heavily skewed towards traditional publishing, which frequently ignores self-published and small indie titles. Collection Development policies are frequently way out of date, and require reviews in several named print sources — many of which are out of business! — to justify purchase. While an abundance of caution is advised in spending public money, I wince when recalling what I had to go through to update my library’s Graphic Novel collection policy to include online review sources — some of which no longer existed by the time it was adopted!

    Yet crowdsourced reviewing, GoodReads and Amazon, are now worse than useless except for indicating which books have “buzz” (which the librarian will already know by the dozens of request slips, thank you) Even as little as five or so years ago I could gauge the value of adding a self-published phenom such as THE SHACK to my collection, both in immediate interest and likely staying power, by the variety and careful thought put into many Amazon reviews. Now, with the polarization, gaming, and out-and-out fraud prevalent at such sites, we are strongly cautioned against using them in our collection choices.

    I used to turn to massmarket paperbacks not only to experiment with new and different genres but also to beef up our backlist (e.g., when an older title becomes the basis of a hit movie) at very little cost risk to the public (especially since we received so many as donations). Now much of those niches are filled with ebooks, which cannot be donated, are much more expensive than print books for libraries, and frequently can’t be purchased at all, and I am much more hesitant to outlay tax money on the hint of something potentially “seminal” — who wants to be the library stuck with dozens of tatty copies of the FSoG trilogy?

    And self-pubbed and indie books might have a cheaper price point for individual readers, but NOT for libraries. Most of our collection is bought through jobbers, who negotiate substantial discounts with the Big 5; self-pubbed books are much more expensive to take a chance on (if they are offered at all). And as far as e-books go, forget it; if an author / publisher doesn’t have the clout or the interest to deal with OverDrive or one of the other library intermediaries, there isn’t a technical way to get the book into the collection at ALL.

    So, with dwindling budgets, we rely more and more on an increasingly small set of traditional publishers, who are in turn squeezed by their reliance upon an outdated business model to emphasize guaranteed bestsellers, dump mid-list authors, and squirt out more and more of the same old Extruded Book Product.

    tl; dr: Don’t count on your public library to take up the gatekeeping slack for you. We want to, heaven knows, we TRY; but without a radical shift in the way things are being done, I don’t see it happening.

  142. Liana Mir
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 22:13:13

    @AlexaB: I’m eclectic remember. I do like romance and love stories, just not in every single book and there was a period there where that was very hard to find.

    @Moriah Jovan: Yes, but the question was how to find the signal in the noise, not how to boost the signal by attempting to bring up the quality of all books, a point Alexa seemed to imply was bothering me in her comment to me. I didn’t get upset at the idea that indies should produce quality books and I don’t honestly believe that appealing to indies to do so is going to have a measurable effect on the signal-to-noise ratio due to the reasons I outlined above: bad writing we shall always have with us.

  143. AlexaB
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 23:11:55

    @Liana Mir:

    “Yes, but the question was how to find the signal in the noise, not how to boost the signal by attempting to bring up the quality of all books, a point Alexa seemed to imply was bothering me in her comment to me.”

    My previous comment was not directed at you. It was a general comment on Sunita’s essay. One I had wanted to make for some time because it was inspired, in part, by those using cable TV as a fallacious comparison much earlier in the thread. Regrettably, I allowed myself to be sidetracked.

    MAR 03, 2014 @ 13:09:39 “I’m a voracious reader of anything but romance and horror, pretty much”
    MAR 03, 2014 @ 22:13:13 “I do like romance and love stories”

    What a difference nine hours makes!

  144. Expy
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 23:55:50

    @AlexaB:

    MAR 03, 2014 @ 13:09:39 “I’m a voracious reader of anything but romance and horror, pretty much”
    MAR 03, 2014 @ 22:13:13 “I do like romance and love stories”

    What a difference nine hours makes!

    Those are not mutually exclusive things. One can like romance and not be a voracious reader of romance.

  145. AlexaB
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 01:19:11

    @Expy:

    Oh, my poor keyboard. Luckily, I was drinking water and the spit take didn’t hurt it too much. I appreciated the laugh, though. Thanks!

    It still begs the question: if one doesn’t read romance, then why would one spend a decent amount of time on a website dedicated to, y’know, READING ROMANCE?

    Please, and this is directed at everyone, feel free not to answer. It was a rhetorical question. I knew the answer long before I posited it. (I do feel for those who might eagerly ready the torches and pitchforks when an alert containing the keywords “wool” and “self-publishing” goes out – only to discover that, sadly, it’s just more knitting designers talking about uploading their patterns to Ravelry.)

  146. SAO
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 02:19:18

    Traditional Publishing was a bundle of services: quality control through gatekeeping and editing, printing and distribution. With e-books, that bundle can and has been unbundled. What I’ve been expecting is new ways of quality screening to occur. I’d supposed that former editors could do it. Groups of authors could create small imprints.

    There are many options, most of them should cost less than NY publishing. Why haven’t they developed?

  147. K Marthaler
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 03:54:02

    Just paraphrasing what I replied to @janefriedman re @dearauthor’s tweet. As a motion picture agent for a huge talent agency, I passed on scripts that became movies starring Kevin Spacey. Agents/publishers aren’t perfect. Why should the ‘industry experts’ be the arbiters of quality writing and what gets published? Self-publishing empowers writers.

  148. Ros
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 05:00:09

    @SAO: I was also thinking about how new ways of quality screening could be developed. One idea I threw out to twitter last night was boutique curated online bookstores. I think there might be a market of readers willing to pay a premium (maybe a membership fee or a subscription?) for a trusted source of great books, guaranteed to have good production values, with reliable recommendations and curated reviews from trusted sources/staff. Or if not a bookstore, a recommendation list that again is paid for by member subscription, not author dollars. No algorithms, no minimum rating/review requirement. Books that are handpicked by people who have actually read them and know that the value of their own business relies on not recommending lemons. Someone else suggested that perhaps bookstores could partner with bloggers, letting them set up their own curated windows. The blogger gets an affiliate payment, the reader gets trusted recommendations, the bookstore gets more traffic.

    I think there are a lot of ways that better screening of content could be achieved at every stage of the process – editors and imprints is one way, but sellers and recommendations could be another.

  149. Lamb
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 07:22:33

    Bookstores are pleasant places filled with pleasant objects where normal people feel comfortable.

    The Kindle store is bad neighborhood of disfigured inbred frauds where only addicts and masochists dare browse. Get what you need and hit the gas, honey, because it’s a scary truckin place.

  150. Liana Mir
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 07:40:00

    @AlexaB: I apologize. You led off your comment with a reply to me and I broke rules #1 and 10 and ASSUMED the entire comment was for me.

    But yes, I like without voracious appetite and I occasionally wander through here for reviews, but I often stop and read the articles because they’re about literature and I’m a bibliophile, so I talk about and read about literature. This really isn’t an article about romance only, though I rather do like reading about the romance genre and literature.

  151. Liana Mir
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 07:44:44

    @AlexaB: And in case it wasn’t clear, I read romance, just so much of it on accident that I occasionally find a desperate need to locate a book without it, which was solely relevant to the issue of why I never could use curation as a signal.

    I am here to provide discovery suggestions and enjoy conversing about discovery, not wave pitchforks for or against a publishing method.

  152. Sunita
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 07:49:43

    @K Marthaler: To clarify: the original post was not a normative argument that NY publishing is a great arbiter of quality. It was a description of how NY publishing experience is providing a *signal* of previous output that readers apparently find relevant (given the success of previously NY published authors as self-publishers). Signals are only as good as the processes underlying them.

  153. Expy
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 07:59:24

    @AlexaB:

    if one doesn’t read romance, then why would one spend a decent amount of time on a website dedicated to, y’know, READING ROMANCE?

    Strawman: she never said she did not read romance, only that she was not a voracious reader of it. No True Scotsman: you do not have to be a romance reader to take an interest in a website dedicated to reading romance.

    Spare us the condescension and logical fallacies.

  154. Virginia Llorca
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 08:27:48

    “The first book is not free to produce.” Oh? “A bad book that is enjoyable.” “A good book that is not enjoyable.” Huh?

    And before Goodreads and Amazon, no one bought a book based on the amount of good or bad reviews because that large amount of reviews did not exist.

    And I have not yet seen an instance where the catchy phrase “price point”, popularized and probably created by realtors, could not be replaced by the word “price”. Just one of my writerly pet peeves.

    The first time I read a part of Wool, it was free. I, for one, was not induced to follow up. Not commenting on quality. That was fine.

  155. Sunita
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 09:15:45

    @Liana Mir: An earlier comment of yours:

    I’m actually rather eclectic. I also READ literary fiction, poetry, contemporary fiction, Biblical fiction, Christian fiction, etc.

    I don’t HAVE a single genre. I’m a voracious reader of anything but romance and horror, pretty much. [Emphasis added.]

    It’s not a big leap to infer that you were saying you don’t read in the romance genre, since romance readers frequently use “romance” as shorthand.

  156. Sunita
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 09:32:13

    If people want to debate self-published books quality, that’s totally up to them. I want to clarify that the original post was not about an objective level of quality. The Akerlof example obviously *is* about some objective measures, but the model doesn’t require that “quality” be anything other than what the buyer considers it to be. The important “quality” aspect is the quality of the signal, not the quality of the product.

    If you read the full Akerlof article you’ll see that there are other examples, besides the used car market, which illustrate the asymmetric information issue. Signals are proxies for information, and to the extent people expect them to work as proxies and find they don’t, that creates first a matching, and then a market problem.

    NY Publishing background appears to provide a signal to readers. That signal might be quality, or reliability, or content. It really doesn’t matter. I used the word slushpile because technical and writing quality *is* important to me. But the signaling process can be about all kinds of things. If the signals people are used to don’t provide information, then consumers have a harder time finding what they want.

    In the NY era most single-title romance mass market paperbacks were priced within a dollar or so of each other. So price was not a signal. Publishers and publishing lines, however, did provide signals. I like to read Medicals but not Blazes. I preferred Signet to Kensington trads. Other readers loved Avon, I stayed away from them; we all saw the signals and used them for our own taste decisions.

    In the past few years, prices have become much more variable so they have potential signaling value. But where prices are the same, readers are looking for other signals, and NY publishing is one of them.

    On prices: We can argue about whether price should reflect quality, but that is a different issue from whether price is used by consumers as a proxy for quality. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Previous discussions at Dear Author, including two I’ve linked to but there are plenty more, show that readers do make purchasing and even reviewing decisions based on price point. And we have lots of other examples in which price signals something besides, or in addition to, quality. Positional goods pricing is all about price-as-signal.

    If readers are coming to the ebook market with an expectation (consciously or not) that variable pricing is signaling something substantive, they are going to associate prices with that factor. And if everyone converges on one price, or a set of prices, they’ll look for another signal.

    Self-published authors would be wise to find other signaling mechanisms to the extent that prices and reviews aren’t adequate. Word-of-mouth and blogs/review sites are great, but the people involved in those are basically going through the same process and experiencing the same confusion, so they will be affected by inadequate signals.

  157. Liana Mir
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 09:34:11

    @Sunita: I didn’t mean to imply it was a big leap. I promptly stated I was eclectic and explained that I do indeed read it. As the comment policy here reminds us, sometimes it takes multiple comments to bring clarity and understanding to a point, and that’s okay.

  158. Liana Mir
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 09:50:48

    @Sunita:

    Self-published authors would be wise to find other signaling mechanisms to the extent that prices and reviews aren’t adequate. Word-of-mouth and blogs/review sites are great, but the people involved in those are basically going through the same process and experiencing the same confusion, so they will be affected by inadequate signals.

    This is a very good point and a place where I’ll diverge a bit into my fandom reader roots, as this has lately been very much on my mind.

    Veronica Roth’s Divergent was a surprise hit—for the author that is. I saw in the lead-up to release that she had been positioned by traditional publishing as the next big hit, which was obvious due to the sheer visibility they tried to give her books, but that merely signaled to me that it was a potential next big thing. I’ll be honest: that wasn’t an actual selling point for me. I’m just a wee wore out right now on the whole Hollywood structure/theme/storytelling approach. Just a wee, not entirely, but enough that visibility made me aware of Divergent but not interested.

    These were the signals that made me sit up and take notice:

    1. The cover. I’m one of THOSE readers: I’m a sucker for a pretty cover. I think a lot of indies underestimate the importance of that and a lot of literary fiction with crossover appeal in traditional publishing has covers without crossover appeal. But the cover only gets me to pick up the book.

    2. Giving away a HUGE chunk of the book. Frankly, I’m dump-happy with Kindle samples because the samples aren’t long enough. There was a free 100 pages of Divergent on Scribd, which was mentioned by Glenda Larke on her site right after I finished the first book in her rainlords trilogy. I recognized the title vaguely so wandered on over. The first page got me interested, but I had no intention of reading more than the free part. Then I hit the last 20 pages of the sample. I promptly spent $11 dollars on an ebook from a debut author with unknown track record.

    Indies are using free books to do that, and when you have a long, established series, that’s viable. Traditional publishing has done that for a while too.

    But. I think it was more important that I was so invested in THAT story with its awesome cover and sufficient exposure that I was vaguely aware of its existence and I didn’t want to stop reading it.

    So yeah, longer samples please. Make the sample its own ebook and put in Scribd like the big traditional publishers do. Use the same language.

    3. Engagement – Veronica Roth was on Tumblr and did one thing right that always shocks me when authors do it wrong: she answered questions. I stop commenting on blogs that never reply to their commenters. I stop engaging. Eventually I stop caring. She didn’t focus on writing on her blog: she talked about writing the very specific story that she had fans for and answered their specific questions and told fandom to have a field day, but she wouldn’t read their fanworks for obvious reasons, and she responded to demand by writing a Four-POV version of a scene in the book.

    In short, the author made herself accessible, even when she made herself unavailable and followed the lead of her publisher: she treated the book as if it had a fanbase even before that fanbase was significant. That way of handling a book is a signal to readers that it deserves to be handled that way.

    Now, all that said, I don’t think these are 100% signals of quality, but they are signals that some people use, enough that trad pub plays to them when they’re trying to create a bestseller.

    I am interested in more signals. Frankly, I’d love a site that really tagged books with tropes and kinks and warnings and if you liked this book, you’ll like this one. (A lot of work; we’ve established I’m lazy.) I find reviews and price to be a signal, but not a valuable one to me, so I’m always interested in more signals, better signals.

    And I’m not sharing the ones I’ve noticed in order to say these are THE signals, this works. I’m sharing my experience in the hopes of helping other readers and in the hopes that other readers will share theirs.

  159. Liana Mir
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 09:54:06

    @Liana Mir: I meant ratings weren’t valuable, sorry. Reviews are. Especially reviews like the ones here that give reasons for liking or disliking or spoilery reviews at retailers.

  160. AlexaB
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 10:55:10

    @Expy:

    Oh, I’d love to, believe me. Unfortunately, a pesky thing called reading comprehension gets in the way. There is no logical fallacy; this is a community about reading genre fiction, with writing and publishing also part of the conversational mix. I made the only, well, logical inference. When someone states the genres they do read, specifically calls out romance as something they don’t read, goes on to state they avoid books with love stories: spare me the “Responses meant to shut down commenters on the Internet when you don’t like their tone/message but can’t find a way to attack the substance of their point #356: Straw Man.”

    (Also, one would think people who are so vehement about self-publishing and books would understand that words have meaning and significance, and take on context when placed in a certain order. Oh well.)

  161. Liana Mir
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 11:12:11

    @AlexaB: I have already addressed and clarified every point you covered here while openly admitting that I do not spend much more time than anyone else on super-defining everything perfectly in the first comment and only do so if confusion arises. It rose. I addressed it and clarified because I made an assumption and because there were multiple ways things could be inferred and that’s what happens on the internet.

    Apologies that despite repeated clarifications, you still feel I dislike your favorite genre when in fact, I do not.

    I do not avoid all books with love stories; I would just like to read one without one from time to time. That’s hard to do unless you like horror or thrillers, and I don’t particularly. Which is why I said I was sick and tired of “ALL” books having a romance in them, which was a slight exaggeration perhaps, but a real problem for me by times.

    “…specifically calls out romance as something they don’t read”

    Voraciously. I read it, but not voraciously. I have already noted that I could have been clearer and promptly clarified.

    If you have any lingering concerns, I will be glad to address them and I’m sorry for offending you while attempting to engage the conversation where it was currently at.

    I try not to lie, so I end up tacking on details that can be misconstrued if not explained when I first mention them, but it would have been a lie to say I voraciously read all genres. I don’t. I voraciously read and I voraciously read a lot of genres that include a romance story but are not classified as romances themselves. Because romance is so “everywhere,” I rarely seek out a specifically romance book and I go through the occasional month of ranting that all fiction has been romanticized. This is being somewhat dramatic, especially considering I’m seriously into romantic angst in my fandoms and what I write, but it’s just not a focus for me. So that is why I said it initially, because I have a perhaps excessive fear of accidentally lying, so I throw in caveats that can imply things I did not mean them to. And that is why I come back and explain and explain when people infer things I never actually said precisely.

  162. dhympna
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 11:31:50

    RE: To the authors bemoaning Amazon “penalizing” 3 and below stars.

    Who cares. Look, most books are not 4 and 5 star worthy. They are average or below–I am sorry, but it’s true. Someone needs to be the bottom and middle to validate the top. Readers and Amazon reviewers are not responsible for your, the author, sales or lack thereof because of the ratings or reviews they give. It’s not my concern, as a reader, how Amazon, a retailer, chooses to display books anymore than it is my concern how the local bookstore does it. If folks don’t like the system, perhaps they should get into a new business.

  163. Expy
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 11:54:40

    @AlexaB:

    If you’re calling conjectures under the name of logical inferences, then on this we will have no disagreement.

    spare me the “Responses meant to shut down commenters on the Internet when you don’t like their tone/message but can’t find a way to attack the substance of their point #356: Straw Man.”

    The irony and sanctimony is strong in this partial sentence.

    And oh please, since when does being vehement about books meant one automatically understand those things? It presume too much. Oh well, indeed.

    #

    @Liana Mir:

    I disagree. Ratings can be valuable if there is a certain volume of it, subjective as they are and arbitrary as they can be. It just cannot be the sole signal of quality or one of few signals of quality.

    Obviously, reviews will always be better than ratings. One caveat though, we shouldn’t assume spoilery reviews are valuable. To spoiler-sensitive readers, those reviews are radioactive trash. I came across a blog post a few months ago that discussed whether just vaguely mentioning the existence of a plot twist would make a review spoilery. Okay…. to each their own opinion, but I have to admit. My eyes were sore from rolling too much.

  164. Alison Kent's Blah Blog » Blog Archive » Twenty-five years and counting…
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 12:04:21

    […] for the reading experience. So when I see remarks like this one below from the comment section of this post it makes the creative part of me very […]

  165. Liana Mir
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 12:37:03

    @Expy: Reasonable points. I hope I did make clear I understand others don’t appreciate spoilers the way I do.

  166. Expy
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 13:03:44

    @Liana Mir: You were clear. I simply wanted to say the implied caveat out loud for my sake.

    A thought: I wonder how things are in the non-English book markets. Anyone got an idea?

  167. AlexaB
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 13:56:13

    @Sunita:

    “Self-published authors would be wise to find other signaling mechanisms to the extent that prices and reviews aren’t adequate. Word-of-mouth and blogs/review sites are great, but the people involved in those are basically going through the same process and experiencing the same confusion, so they will be affected by inadequate signals.”

    Not to create another “uninvited fairies at the princess’s christening” scenario by invoking his name, but Joe Konrath, in his 2014 publishing predictions, suggests that self-publishing needs a third party journal that will review books free of charge to authors. I agree with him that self-publishing is in dire need of, if not a journal, at least some sort of third-party independent validation system that doesn’t take nor make money from authors and publishers (unlike, say, Goodreads or Amazon, or Kirkus’s pay for review option).

    Of course, no review solution is perfect; not everyone reads the same and people have different hard lines, as has been discussed on this site. You’d have to read some of the books reviewed to get a feel for whether you agree, disagree, or split 50/50 with the reviewers’ taste. But with so many mainstream options closed to reviewing self-published books (or even traditionally published books, thanks to newspapers and magazines shutting down book review sections) it would be helpful to have an equivalent or five of, say, Publishers Weekly reviews for self-publishing. Reading Hapax’s comment, it sounds like a BookList or Library Journal for self-published books – along with a jobber solution that can sell ebooks at a workable discount to libraries – might be very useful for librarians.

    But for a third party site/journal to work, it would need to read widely, review deeply, and generate enough interest and respect for its word to carry weight. The publishing corner of the internet might now be too noisy and too splintered for any one signal to gain enough traction to be the, oh, say, New York Times Review of Books for lack of a better comparison, for self-publishing.

    You mentioned reader communities and word-of-mouth; I agree with you that they are going through the same confusion, with the same signal interference. Goodreads outright tells authors to interact with readers, which only blurs the line and adds more noise. I also believe that some communities run the risk of turning into echo chambers, only reading and recommending the same tropes over and over.

    When it comes to “New York” (dislike that phrase, there are a myriad of publishers outside the Big Five but it’ll do for shorthand) the one signal that I personally found reliable but its effectiveness is weakening is bookstores. I know it is fashionable in certain self-publishing circles to poo-poo print and being available in brick-and-mortar outlets, but I found many books that I otherwise would not have known about by browsing bookstore aisles. I’d scan back covers and flip through random sample pages. My shelves are full of books on subjects I had no idea were fascinating until I chanced upon them. Sure, some of my discovery was due to publishers and co-op money so the playing field wasn’t even, but the signal resulted in good reading material so I could still trust it.

    One can’t do that on Amazon. A recent study showed only 17% of books are discovered online, with the inference that bookstores drive the bulk of discovery. So it appears I’m not the only one who uses bookstores as signal. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-07-23/why-amazon-should-play-nice-with-local-bookstores

    Even if one hits randomly on a topic while shopping Amazon, the books aren’t curated in any fashion. The user is presented with page after page of cover thumbnails, all equally weighted in presentation, with price being almost the only variable – but price is an unreliable indicator as we’re discussing. Like it or not, the signals in a bookstore (the book is obviously still in print and on the shelves indicating freshness, not a digital title languishing forever in a dusty long tail; some books are arranged cover out to invite the first glance; we can flip though the entire book, not just a sample; etc) do help guide selection. Of course, then people open up their shopping apps and purchase the book for less off the internet.

    Amazon can also repeat the echo chamber experience. It recommends books based on previous purchases and “also bought.” But what if the reader hated the previous purchase? What if the purchases were for friends and family and don’t reflect the reader’s tastes? One can browse the best sellers, of course. But personally speaking: after reading many of New Adult self-published titles burning up the charts, I am harboring an unhealthy desire to watch the genre die a horrible, gruesome death. Yet they keep selling – in part, I believe, because of said echoing effect. And I’ve seen discussions among authors about how to possibly push sales to a particular day/time so their books will trip the algorithm and appear on the “also bought” list. So the “Amazon recommends for you” “People Also Bought” and “Best Sellers” signals are definitely too noisy to provide good signal, IMO.

    I doubt it will happen, but I would love to see Amazon or Google or Apple or someone else open brick-and-mortar showrooms for digital products. Go in, flip freely through books, both digital and print. Listen to as much music as you want in store, not just 30 seconds. Watch more than a 30 second clip of that new Hulu series. Wander around. Look at how the store personnel curated the products. Discover new things. Then wave your phone and buy them. And of course, the stores would also sell all sorts of devices to access your new content.

  168. Liana mir
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 14:36:43

    @AlexaB:

    “Amazon can also repeat the echo chamber experience. It recommends books based on previous purchases and “also bought.” But what if the reader hated the previous purchase? What if the purchases were for friends and family and don’t reflect the reader’s tastes?”

    I’m not sure if this is a good or bad development, but I’ve found Amazon is starting to clean my alsobot/browsing history every week or two. It was never very effective for me because of all the reasons you listed here and that I would research books on Amazon, but thought I’d mention the change.

    “One can browse the best sellers, of course. But personally speaking: after reading many of New Adult self-published titles burning up the charts, I am harboring an unhealthy desire to watch the genre die a horrible, gruesome death.”

    Can I just say ‘Amen’? I kept wishing I could like the genre because the initial idea of it sounded promising, but after trying about two dozen samples, I’m now actively avoiding it.

  169. Liana mir
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 14:49:51

    @AlexaB: Your point about the need for a third-party site is one that came up on IndieReader, where they were talking about how the indie music community is already in place to handle indie music and that we need something like that for indie books. I agree with that so much. Now I mentioned that I went broad-spectrum book-tagging, but that’s just one thought among many. I keep looking for a community that really works for books like that but I haven’t figured out where to go for one. Wattpad isn’t comprehensive enough; it’s just a flat failure for my personal reader habits.

    What you’re describing is kind of what I keep thinking about: communities grew up around so many different movements, poetry movements, indie music, science fiction… But there was always this real environment of engagement and community and being aware of each other. I’m seeing a lot of writers talking and I’m seeing a lot of readers talking, but I’m not seeing many bridges being crossed in a way that’s comfortable for both sides. And I say this as a writer/reader/fangirl. In fact, the reader/fangirl side of me is often dismissed by the very people I’m talking writer shop with.

    I wish I could properly articulate some good ideas on community yet, but I guess I’m still grappling with the idea of it and how to implement it without trying to single-handedly create a website for doing so, since that’s just not my strength. But just yes. We need a real reader/audience community environment.

    I know that’s what Goodreads is supposed to be, but it’s hard to say why that community doesn’t really seem to do that from what I can tell. I just can’t seem to figure out how to find books I like through it, and I’ll admit up-front the failing is quite probably with me. Goodreads is just frustrating for me. It’s too noisy, too unfiltered, and too untrainable for me.

    Now that I’ve rambled my agreement with the idea of a website to death :rolls eyes at self:, let me shut up about it again until I actually figure out how to articulate something more helpful.

  170. Oakbark
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 14:55:39

    There are 3 things to consider that influence ratings the way they do:
    1) Traditional (yes trad not trade.. self-pubs also publish trade format) publishers generally put out material with a much higher (several times) price… but that doesn’t mean you always get a better product. Higher price = higher expectations = lower rating.
    2) You can’t compare ratings between stand-alone and series. The first book in a good series will always be able to get better reviews because the reader is still involved and looking forward to the next installment. reviews of standalones will be much more analytic and lean towards the aftertaste.
    3) Self published authors often have a higher release rate which probably helps in keeping readers happy, specially in a series.

    On top of all this – a lot of readers are aware that a selfpubbed author has done it all by himself without the help of the massive market machinery of a publishing house. Praise for the underdog.. an extra half-star, why not.. sort of thing.

  171. Patrice Fitzgerald
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 15:08:41

    Phew! How interesting. Some thoughts, rather random, as this comment thread has been all over the place:

    When you talk about lemons and signal-worthiness, I ask you to consider the value of back jacket blurbs written by author friends for traditionally published writers. Or the placement of books on a front table in a brick-and-mortar store in return for payment by the publisher. Or a good review in the NYTimes written by a kindly-disposed colleague. Or the bestseller lists concocted by secret reports of sales at undisclosed prestige bookstores. Not to mention paid ads. The ways in which books were promoted and sold in the last few decades were also paid for, swapped, and gamed. Lemons were promoted. How did you find your way through those unreliable signals to good books?

    I am a self-published writer. Recently, I’ve read three fantastic traditionally published books that I adored. The Invention of Wings, My Notorious Life, and The Rosie Project. I’ve also read many great self-published books, specifically Hugh Howey’s new Sand, which I might like even better than WOOL, though I don’t think it will ever attract the same kind of crazy fandom. I enjoyed At Any Price, also self-published, and a book for which the author turned down a six-figure offer (for three books) from a traditional publisher. In contrast, I started John Grisham’s Sycamore Row and didn’t get far–though I used to love him. Couldn’t yet finish The Book Thief. Finally read Ender’s Game. Meh. Okay. Enough with the litany of books I’ve read. Just to say that I’m not limited to either one “side” or the other.

    I think it would be useful to define what you mean by quality. Someone up above in the comments talked about quality as though it referred to good formatting, proper grammar, a lack of typos or other egregious errors such as mixing up character names. I would describe those as characteristics of a book that is of high quality in terms of production. To me, quality refers to the excellence of the book itself. And that is indeed subjective. How well are the characters drawn, is the story arc complete, is there sensory detail and a beauty of language? Is there drama, conflict, suspense, good pacing, and the occasional clever reveal? That’s quality to me.

    Everyone I know who writes strives for that. Few achieve it.

    My experience: I know of NO self-published authors who pay for reviews. There must be some, because I keep hearing about it. Of course, there was John Locke, but he was unmasked and he still seems to be selling books. I’ve never read one of his; he seems to have gotten into it to make money. Imagine!

    As to WOOL as a sui generis, seminal, seriously something book… and an outlier: I suddenly saw WOOL everywhere once I read the first one. Lots of stories about it nationally and then internationally. It became the story that everyone wanted to talk about. So, as with Fifty Shades and then Hunger Games, writing/reading about WOOL and Hugh Howey went all out meta.

    I looked at RP1 based on Hugh’s recommendation, and never read it. It looked too 80s for me (I was having children then) and very guy-oriented. Those who heard about it via SFF channels may have been more exposed to that book, while the more general audience read about WOOL in the NYTimes, etc. As Hugh says, above, the larger audience drawn to WOOL made it sell better but may have affected the ratings.

    And it must be stressed that self-published authors are out there ALL the time, connecting with readers. I’m not sure how anyone could object to asking for reviews (as opposed to paying for them). Don’t traditionally published authors ask for reviews–from paid reviewers? Or their publishers do it for them, which is so much nicer, really, don’t you agree?

    By the way, Hugh Howey has his books edited by a professional editor.

    Full disclosure: I have written a WOOL tie-in book, or “fan fic.” I’ve also written other books having nothing to do with that world. Hugh Howey is a friend of mine.

    Thank you for taking the time to write up your theory…and for the attention paid here to books of all kinds. But when you wring your hands about how the poor dears will find good books, it does make me wonder how the current system is that different than what has been in effect until recently. Will you do an analogous post about the unreliability of the established bestseller lists?

    Also, when someone uses the existence of her degrees and education to snark at others, she should be wary of who she is dealing with. Several folks who have commented herein have advanced degrees themselves, but aren’t finding it necessary to mention them.

  172. Ellen
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 15:52:25

    I think the problem might be visibility. I’m a reader, not a writer. Sometimes I write reviews on Amazon, but here’s the thing. I looked at your list of books:

    Wool (Omnibus): 93.6%
    Harry Potter #1: 94.4%
    Neuromancer: 71.7%
    Cryptonomicon: 77.6%
    Ender’s Game: 90.1%
    Ready Player One: 89.4%

    Out of all those books, I’ve heard of:
    Harry Potter (obviously)
    Ender’s Game (because of the anti-gay protest for the movie)
    Wool (because of a news story mentioning Hugh Howey that caught my eye on Facebook last month)

    I tend to find out about new stories I might want to read when they’re mentioned in an article or somewhere online. I’ve never heard of any of the other books. I can’t read or review a book that I haven’t read (for info, I’ve only actually read Harry Potter out of that list, and never reviewed any of those stories).

    As a reader, a review happens in this order:
    - I hear about the book online (in my experience the 90% books are the only ones I’ve heard of online, so the other books need to get a bit more visible).
    - I read the book (this depends on my personal taste and how much I like the preview and blurb).
    - I review the book (this depends on how much I love or hate the book. The stronger the emotion, the more likely I am to review it).

    From my point of view, the books with the greater amount of reviews must have ticked all those boxes.

    That’s not to say that all Amazon reviews are worth reading. Some of them are eyesores. But if you read a review that is a grammatical disaster, which complains about the editing of a book, it’s pretty obvious that the reviewer isn’t going to be a reliable source.

    Example: “Hate this buck the righter can’t spel!” (Yes, those reviews do exist on Amazon, but who’d listen to them?)

    The same applies to great reviews: “Thiz buck is the shiz I hily recoment it!”

    I think there was famously a reviewer who said of Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “This book is boring. It’s not half as good as Twilight!”

    Well, everyone to their own kind of story, I guess. The point is that not all reviewers are perfect, and not all books suit all people. A literary masterpiece may wow the NY Times, but stick it in front of a Twilight fan and see what happens.

    I think one of Amazon’s strengths is the ability to provide books for all kinds of readers. Yes, the reviews can be a tad confusing, but most people can tell if the reviewer doesn’t enjoy the same kind of literature that they do.

    I’m sure some reviews are fake, but even the typo ridden ones could be from someone who genuinely believes that ‘book’ should be spelt ‘buck’. In their world, the book they read did have misspellings in it. It might not be the English language, but in their language it’s misspelled.

    I don’t think that jumping straight to ‘paid reviews’ is the answer. There are so many places that people hear about books from. It’d be nice if there was one resource that provided us all with a list of the best books, but since opinion and taste is so varied, there isn’t. Readers like me find our books online in a multitude of places. the questions you should be asking is how visible are these books online? Not in the NY Times (I don’t read that), but on actual websites that readers visit. I’m a reader who has only heard of three of those books on your list, so obviously those three will be more popular because they are more visible.

  173. Andrea K
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 18:09:30

    To get back to the question of attempting to sift self-published books by some kind of standard, given that “good” is an incredibly subjective standard, I have wondered whether Amazon will eventually institute a “mechanics” rating.

    Their current rating is more “enjoyability” (including “beauty of prose”). But all this discussion of self-pub quality might prompt a second optional set of star ratings on (the still relatively subjective standard of) mechanics. Ie. 5 stars = uses correct grammar and has fewer than ten typos. 4 stars = mostly correct grammar and only occasional typos. 3 stars = a number of issues on a grammatical and/or spelling level, but still readable. 2 stars = multiple serious issues on a grammatical and/or spelling level, interfering with the reading experience. 1 star = Grammatical and/or spelling issues make this book almost unreadable. Unrated = I do not care/consider myself informed enough to judge spelling/grammar issues.

    [And even a third set of stars for ebook quality, which is often a separate issue.]

    This kind of system is sure to be gamed and abused, just as ‘enjoyment’ reviews are gamed, but the ‘mechanics’ stars might be seen as a useful filter. If Amazon did put in place this kind of system, one would hope they’d also include a mechanism for publishers/authors to dispute or even wipe those particular ratings (ie. by having someone verify the mechanics quality of the books, or an uploaded revised version).

    I do think that if negative feedback about mechanics quality becomes a real issue (because at the moment it’s clearly not stopping books from selling, including those terrible scanned and OCR’d backlist books) the big vendors will be where we see the eventual drive of ‘quality assurance’ (Amazon already does this to a certain degree), not some third party site. I also think that if it happens it will cause some good books to be less easy to find, and that will be sad. [I also think some of my books, with their Australian spelling, and narrator using deliberately ungrammatical language, will go through the wringer if such a thing happens.]

    But it seems to me that books with mechanics issues are obviously still finding an audience, and readers who place primary importance on the mechanics will stick with authors/publishers they know don’t have these issues. [Ie. it's sorting itself out already, and Amazon doesn't have enough financial reason to crack down on quality to this level.]

  174. Jackie Barbosa
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 19:39:21

    First, I am shamefacedly amending a prior comment. I said .8-1% of readers seem to review on Amazon et al. I should have said .08-.1%. So multiply by one thousand, not one hundred. (This is why I didn’t major in math. I could never get the number of zeroes right!)

    Second, when it comes to the issue of signal:noise, I am going to reveal the depths of my cynicism. Because while I completely agree with Sunita’s analysis for me as a reader, I honestly believe that for most readers, those reviews and review averages on Amazon register not as noise, but as signal. As long as the most powerful predictor of success is a large number of glowing reviews, self-published authors really have no reason to try to send other signals. In a crowded market, the signals that work are the signals that matter.

    If, at some point, those reviews stop working, then self-published authors will be forced to try something else to garner attention. For now, however, all the evidence we have says that purchasing behavior in the ebook market is driven more by reviews and Top 100 lists than any other factor, so that is what self-published authors (who can’t buy the equivalent of “coop space” on Amazon/other retail sites) will rely on.

  175. Evangeline
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 20:53:26

    @Sunita: I had to sit on my response for a bit, but your noting that we are lifelong readers kept popping out at me. Perhaps we’re looking at this issue from the wrong perspective–from the perspective of lifelong romance readers. This sounds snobbish, but, but there is a “reading curve,” as in, a book you couldn’t get through at 16 suddenly clicks at 25, or vice versa. The reading curve can also occur when you fall in love with something new, and flaws you overlooked in the first ten books start nagging at you after the fifteenth, but since you still love it, you don’t actively wish it to be of higher quality until book twenty six. Think about the last trope/trend/author you glommed on and the pace at which your enthusiasm burnt out. Sometimes, you won’t burn out–even as you wish for better quality, you still hold hope that “the next book will be great!” For brand spanking readers, self-publishing allows them to glom on a particular type of book cheaply and easily.

    Also, book culture is completely different these days. Readers can gobble up their favorite authors and head directly to the author via social media, which serves to create echo chamber of pure, unadulterated fandom. There’s either no interest or no awareness of setting up a book blog to discuss and dissect one’s reading, or heading to veteran review websites like Dear Author or All About Romance to bounce one’s perspective off other readers. It’s about reading the book and finding out when the next one is to be released, with pit stops to squee and cheer for the author.

    So a post like this isn’t going to speak to readers–you see it only brought out the self-pub vs trad pub debate, lol. In the end, I believe the noise is here to stay, and the only thing one can do is focus on making one’s own noise to reach those attuned to your particular frequency.

  176. Jody Wallace
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 21:22:52

    @Jackie Barbosa:

    Even knowing what I know about book reviews (way way too much!!) I do indeed pay attention to reviews of other products on Amazon. Had to shop for ride-on toys for the kids for Xmas, and yeah, I read ALL the reviews, on Amazon and elsewhere. I glance through them and see if it looks like they’re being gamed, but the number of reviews and star rating is still something of a signal for me too. Interesting when you think about it in terms of non-book items that have Amazon spew. But Sunita wasn’t talking about non-books, so this may not be that useful a comment, heh.

  177. Jackie Barbosa
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 22:38:23

    @Jody Wallace: I think the analogy to non-book items is a good one, because I use them, too, and I’m probably more likely to believe they are legitimate, which is sort of silly given what I know about the Vine program.

    Another analogy I have experience with is Yelp. My husband and I RELY on Yelp to find places to eat when we are in unfamiliar territory, and we definitely look at the total number of reviews relative to the average ratings. We also read the mediocre/low reviews to see what those who didn’t like a place didn’t like about it. We have never been steered wrong on a restaurant. Every place we’ve ever chosen to eat via this method has been excellent. Yet I am well aware that Yelp can be gamed, too.

    I’m not sure what any of this actually means in light of Sunita’s post, though. It’s just interesting to muse about what makes a review/rating a “signal” to us and what makes it “noise.”

  178. Critical Linking: March 6th, 2014 | BOOK RIOTCritical Linking: March 6th, 2014 - BOOK RIOT
    Mar 05, 2014 @ 06:14:21

    […] Very smart and provocative piece on the side-effects of Amazon’s review system. […]

  179. Sunita
    Mar 05, 2014 @ 06:50:33

    @Liana Mir: I was going to disagree with you about samples and author engagement, but then I realized that what we probably want are more signals, not less. I wouldn’t read long samples, but a lot of readers would, so having more of them wouldn’t hurt me and would help you and others. Similarly, I am wary of author engagement these days because of author-reader conflicts, but there are plenty of examples of author engagement that work well. I think you’re right that we need more signals, and the task is to make them more easily accessible to readers who are looking for them.

    @AlexaB: A journal would be a great idea if it could serve as a real source of reviews rather than a publicity mechanism. One of the problems for self-publishing discoverability is that the new ventures (like Bookbub) wind up being captured by authors rather than readers. I’m sure there are readers who use Bookbub (just as there are readers who visit those free ebook deal sites) but if placement is for sale rather than based on taste/quality factors that readers are interested in, it’s probably not going to be a good signal for them. Upthread Ros was talking about a curated online bookstore, one where the people running it really knew the books. I’d love to see a venture like that.

  180. Sunita
    Mar 05, 2014 @ 07:03:18

    @Oakbark: Those are all really good points. Commenters on Jane’s post varied in their responses to whether price affected review rating, in part because they didn’t necessarily remember the price when they got around to reading it. But others did say they cut less expensive books more slack and held more expensive ones to higher expectations. I hadn’t thought about the series factor, but that makes sense; you’re reviewing not just the book in front of you, but your expectations for the series. And if people are not expecting as good a book from a self-published effort, they might overcompensate in their review because their expectations were exceeded, quite apart from the price.

    @Ellen: If you haven’t heard of three of the books, then obviously the example wouldn’t work for you. Neuromancer and Cryptonomicon are not only older books, their authors have gone on to write many more critically and popularly acclaimed books. In fact, their continued presence on the bestseller list at Amazon was surprising to me. I chose them because I knew the books and could therefore say something about them without having to do more work to get information, and because I thought that they would represent relatively unprimed, organic examples of review ratings.

  181. Sunita
    Mar 05, 2014 @ 07:10:53

    @Jackie Barbosa: I agree that the review ratings system is selling books. What I wonder is if the system is sustainable in the long run. Akerlof was talking about the used-car market problem after a couple of decades of the market sorting itself out. The internet world moves a lot faster, but we’re still in early stages. There are lots of new ebook readers over the last couple of years and they’re still learning whether the signals work for them. If they do, great. If they don’t we’ll start seeing problems.

    I read your previous comment the way you intended; I didn’t even see the typo!

    About Yelp: there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Yelp reviews are gamed and also used in punitive or score-settling ways. They work for you anyway, because, as you say, you’ve learned to “read” them. That may happen with Amazon reviews as well (it probably does happen for many readers). It all depends on how much effort it takes and what that effort is worth to you.

    @Jody Wallace: That’s definitely a useful remind that people rate books at Amazon as products a lot of the time, and it may be that people don’t expect the reviews to be much more than product reviews.

  182. Sunita
    Mar 05, 2014 @ 07:23:48

    @Andrea K: I would love to see a two-part rating at Amazon. Maybe we should start by doing them at DA! We all take note of technical/mechanical issues, I think, but we factor that into the overall grade. To have a separate grade, though, would really highlight that (a) we think it’s something to be explicit about; and (b) how often books that are good on content and storytelling come up short on the other side.

    @Evangeline: I don’t think there’s anything snobbish about pointing out a learning curve, but then I’ve already been deemed snobbish in this conversation so I doubt my opinion will sway many! I agree that part of the issue is where you are in your reading life cycle, and while the point has basically been lost, much of what motivated me was the belief that books are competing as much with other books as with other forms of entertainment, especially for newer readers. And yes, I’ve seen the Pew reports on ebook reading and ebook adoption, but that is a separate issue from how much reading (absolute and proportional) the younger age groups are doing compared to older readers.

    Liana Mir mentioned the Indiereader post from a few days ago that compared the status of indie music and film/TV to indie books. It’s a thought-provoking article and I encourage people to read it. I think it was a commenter who pointed out that indie musicians and filmmakers are young, whereas the average self-pub author is probably older (some are quite old, even my age!). So the sense of connection and the sense of being communicated with by a peer isn’t there. I don’t know how much difference that makes, but it’s something to consider. Maybe that’s one reason you see the stronger connections between younger YA/NA writers and their readership.

  183. Liz McC
    Mar 05, 2014 @ 09:46:19

    Like this thread needs another comment, but.

    Audible already has a multiple rating system (overall, performance, and “story”–which I guess means content, since it’s a category on non-fiction books that lack a narrative as well). I’d love to see this, as long as readers weren’t required to leave a “mechanics” rating, since some might not care/feel qualified. And yes, there are some traditionally-published books I’d downgrade on that front.

    A lot of people have talked about ways to make Amazon or Goodreads reviews a more helpful signal. The thing is, all those ways take a fair bit of time and effort, especially when there are many reviews. That suggests to me that there is quite a bit of information asymmetry and lack of transparency. I basically don’t trust Amazon reviews because there are so many ways people are gaming the system. I never pay attention to rankings there. I don’t browse Amazon looking for something good any more; I go to buy specific books I’ve heard about from trusted friends. For me, the noise level has gotten high enough that I AM discovering less.

    I remember when Christopher Paolini’s ERAGON (which was a self-published hit before e-books) appeared, and someone on my children’s lit listserv pointed out that people who rated it highly had often read very little fantasy, while long-time fantasy readers tended to rate it low and see it as derivative. While I am snobbish, elitist, and over-credentialed, my point is not that those new readers have terrible taste, but that I suspect the sense of discovery often leads us to rate things higher and enjoy them more. When I first started reading romance, I didn’t have a strong taste yet (I thought of the books as a guilty pleasure and didn’t expect them to be good). Now I discriminate more. I think with self-published books, we do get a lot of raters who are enjoying feeling on the frontier. That doesn’t make their ratings “fake,” but it does mean they skew high, perhaps, and are less helpful as a signal to some of us. Unfortunately, a 4.5 rating with tons of reviews now says “stay away” to me, not “check this out.”

  184. Jackie Barbosa
    Mar 05, 2014 @ 12:22:04

    @Sunita: About Yelp: there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Yelp reviews are gamed and also used in punitive or score-settling ways. They work for you anyway, because, as you say, you’ve learned to “read” them.

    What I notice, however, about how I use Yelp reviews is that I discard immediately from consideration any restaurant that has an average less than about 4 stars (although I’ll consider 3.5 star places if the selection is slim). Once I’ve eliminated the low averages (and yes, a “3-star” average is, in my mind, low when it comes to restaurants), only at that point do I look at the reviews themselves. Further, I weight the average by the number of reviews. IOW, a restaurant with a 4.5 average and 20 glowing reviews gets a lower “weight” than a 4.0 average with 200 reviews, some of which are negative.

    The reason I mention this is that I suspect many readers do a similar kind of mental algorithm when it comes to books on Amazon. (It’s also similar to the algorithm Amazon itself uses to decide which books get more visibility. It’s just that Amazon’s algorithms can’t take the final step of reading the reviews for more information.) I actually do believe that those averages and number of reviews provide a useful signal for many readers in the same way that the Yelp averages/number of reviews provide me with a useful signal. In both cases, some purchasers will be led astray if they rely solely on those values to provide signal, but it doesn’t take much additional effort to get the additional information that can prevent a bad purchase. Those who don’t or won’t make that additional effort are probably either a) not overly concerned about making bad purchases or b) the target audience for the product.

    Of course, those review averages are actually most helpful to the readers who are in the target audience. I liken this to the difference between fast food restaurants and fine dining establishments. If a McDonalds and a fancy French restaurant both have a four-star review average with a similar number of reviews, I’m not going to be torn about which one to choose. My choice is going to depend on what I’m in the mood for, how much time I have, and how much money I’m willing to spend. But if I’m choosing between two McDonalds restaurants in close proximity to one another, I’ll choose the 4-star one over the 3-star one because there can be a difference in quality between two similar establishments.

    I can tell whether a book’s rating average is a reliable signal for me simply by reading a few of the reviews. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if a sizable percentage of the reviewers can’t construct a grammatically correct paragraph, I can be pretty sure that the book won’t be for me. And that’s assuming I’ve even gotten to the point of thinking that the book might be for me after reading the blurb, which is fairly rare. (A lot of books are McDonalds, and I am rarely in the market for McDonalds.) So, I feel I have plenty of signals to help me distinguish books I’d enjoy reading from those I wouldn’t.

    And in all honesty, I’m not sure my “hit to miss” ratio was better in the “olden days” of print books and effectively no reviews at all. In fact, it might have been substantially worse. As a teenager, I read a LOT of romances. I bought them at the newsstand around the corner from my orthodontist. My general rule of thumb was to buy the thickest historical romance I could find, because I had a limited budget and I needed to get as many pages as possible for my dollars. The only signals I had in those days were the cover, blurb, author (if a known quantity) and thickness of the spine. I didn’t even have recommendations from friends back then, because I had virtually no friends who read romance. It wasn’t much to go on, and since I’ve become a considerably more persnickety reader over the years, I vastly prefer the current system despite its shortcomings.

    I almost feel like the book market before now was the “lemon” market Akerlof describes because there was far less information available to the buyer then. Yes, the fact that a publisher was involved was a signal of a certain minimum quality (I didn’t have to worry about books being riddled with grammatical errors), but that was no guarantee I wouldn’t find the book boring, its characters hateful, or its plot ridiculous.

    The wealth of information we have now–from retailers’ reviewing/rating systems to community recommendations to review blogs–seems to me much more like the used car market post-CarFax. There is a LOT of information available to book buyers now. That information may not be quite as objective as CarFax, but if you’re willing to take the time to sift through what’s there. it feels easier than ever to make good purchasing decisions. Granted, it also means we’re missing out on some great books simply because they never catch on. But I think those books didn’t even get published back in those olden days.

  185. Evangeline
    Mar 05, 2014 @ 12:34:55

    @Sunita: Yes! That’s what I mean (age vis a vis connection). Most of us came of age as romance readers, so to speak, before social media and the hyperawareness of authors this has fostered. What we think of as noise may be a signal to the Next Big Thing to read for those who came to the genre post-social media (or perhaps post-Fifty Shades). After all, it’s been said that teen readers prefer print because they want everyone to see what they’re reading–reading is both communal and for cool points. Same with people who only buy blockbusters everyone is talking about, or books they hear on NPR. Different reading cultures, which often don’t overlap.

    As for Ros’s idea of a curated site, I can’t see that happening unless an avid reader who happened to be a millionaire started one, lol. Or someone managed to scrounge up a VC who believed in such a site!

  186. Liana Mir
    Mar 05, 2014 @ 12:51:01

    @Jackie Barbosa: So much of this resonates with me, in particular the greater difficulty finding books I liked before I met the internet and also the way to read reviews.

    I find my typical approach is still

    1. Gorgeous cover! :makes grabby hands:
    2. Read blurb and discard 75% or more of possible books right there.
    3. My rating count is more generous. I’ll only discard at 3 stars if the combo really doesn’t look interesting enough that it might be a new book. At 2 stars or lower, discard.
    4. I scan reviews for long reviews, ignoring star rating, then read for signals that this is my cuppa or not. I’m eclectic, picky, and often moody about my reading. There is no replacement for this step.
    5. I download sample. I hate the beginning and backmatter approach of Amazon as with print books, I read those front-page snippets and several random pages in the middle, but if the sample’s long enough or I know the author/series, I’ll go with it.
    6. If all still looks good, THEN I check the price. If the price is $7 or less, I buy the book. If the price is $7–12, I check my bank account and think hard.

  187. Liana Mir
    Mar 05, 2014 @ 13:00:55

    @Evangeline:

    What we think of as noise may be a signal to the Next Big Thing to read for those who came to the genre post-social media…

    As @sunita pointed out, some of my signals are noise to her and some of hers are noise to me, so I totally agree with the subcultures differing on needs, such as this cultural difference:

    @Evangeline:

    Also, book culture is completely different these days. Readers can gobble up their favorite authors and head directly to the author via social media, which serves to create echo chamber of pure, unadulterated fandom. There’s either no interest or no awareness of setting up a book blog to discuss and dissect one’s reading, or heading to veteran review websites like Dear Author or All About Romance to bounce one’s perspective off other readers. It’s about reading the book and finding out when the next one is to be released, with pit stops to squee and cheer for the author.

    To me, squeeing at the author is a reader response, not a fandom response. There’s no productivity, real engagement and interaction. But I do know that it is a fan response, intellectually. To me, “pure and unadulterated fandom” is “discuss[ing] and dissect[ing] one’s reading” with other fans and bouncing our reactions off of each other and maybe even writing essays and fanfic about it. Readers tend to write reviews. Fans tend to go write meta for other fans to read and nearly pass out when authors notice that they’ve done something because we don’t really put stuff on an author’s radar. In fact, I’m terrible at writing reviews. I’m much more likely to go on LiveJournal and dissect all my reactions and reactions to other readers’ reactions and then discuss ad nauseum in the comments. While waiting for the next book, I’ll tend to write more about it and keep discussing and rereading and, if I’m really a fan, create fanwork.

    This is such a cultural definition though. I’m a Millenial generation fangirl. That’s what fandom means to me whereas reader culture means, to me, writing reviews and watching for the next book and writing letters/notes to the author and discussing book culture in general on established blogs instead of books/movies/fandoms in specific and literature themes and movements and trends and ideas with my community.

    You brought up a point that I’ve previously only looked at peripherally but which suddenly looks rather glaring: not only are our signals different, our entire vocabulary is. I’d never heard fandom and literary cultures literally switched from my mental definitions and it’s a little disorienting.

  188. hapax
    Mar 06, 2014 @ 12:50:30

    @Sunita:

    Upthread Ros was talking about a curated online bookstore, one where the people running it really knew the books. I’d love to see a venture like that.

    Yep, me too. And I’d read the reviews, discover terrific new authors — and go order them at Amazon, who would give me a much better discount.

    (Look at Powells, which used to be much more trustworthy in their reviews and recommendations. In order to compete with the Amazon juggernaut, they seem to have become much more same-old, same-old.)

    Right now I have hopes for LibraryReads.org as a discovery vehicle, even though it only covers a small number of books each month, and the vast majority are trad published.

  189. Cassie
    Mar 06, 2014 @ 16:04:37

    This all kinda makes me sad. Yes, genre fiction in its current state is creating lemons in traditional/legacy/commercial, whatever the heck you call “New York” publishing but, and this will not make me popular, it started in self-publishing but more importantly, it started with READERS. @P.J. Dean has constantly nailed the problem and it gets glossed over in talk about the trustworthiness of reviews and data and so on.

    READERS are calling the shots and they don’t seem to have a care for the quality of a book and quality is defined as an enjoyable story AND its construction. A book is a product and you don’t judge a blouse, a product, just because it’s pretty but it falls apart the minute you wear it. It’s not enough that the blouse is pretty or the vacuum cleaner is lightweight. If it’s not constructed well, that matters. We care about these things but not if our books, our entertainment, is crafted well.

    It just doesn’t matter with the majority of readers. But it used to. P. J. Dean saids: “I have never seen such a flood of below-par constructed books as I have seen in the last 10 years. Spin a wild theme, no matter how poorly crafted and they will come.”

    She’s right. I’ve been in this business in on shape or another for nearly 20 years and have seen a lot. And I see the poor quality now in NY published books as well as self. Why should ANYONE–self-published or otherwise–put effort into turning out a quality, well-constructed product (book) when the majority of readers don’t care? I hate this way of thinking but I can’t blame publishers/editors or self-published authors when readers are doing this to themselves.

    @Andrea K mentions the question of attempting to sift self-published books by some kind of standard. There used to be a standard–traditional publishing. Yes, that’s right. Being published traditionally was and for me, still THE STANDARD for a good product. That doesn’t mean authors like Courtney Milan who eschewed New York is any less fabulous but she was there. She knows quality–her books and her stories are quality. And she cares. But for part of her career, part of a couple of my friends’ careers who left NY, they were there. And what they learned there, carries over and they care.

    I don’t care what kind of system anyone comes up with for the majority of self-published. It doesn’t matter.

    Readers have set the bar low and MANY publishers/authors (traditional or otherwise) are all too eager to only meet it in the hunt for the money. NO ONE will convince me otherwise that for the majority, it’s only the money. And readers continue to enable that. As long as readers continue to pay for poor construction, authors and publishers will continue to churn it out. Why should they stop? What’s their incentive? And can we blame them?

    @Jane says: “You only need to go on the Amazon message boards to find readers reqularly complaining about quality.”

    I’m sure some do but the majority are fine with reading books with so much head-hopping you don’t know who is thinking/doing what or a story filled with a character felt this, then he felt then or realized this or knew that. And these weren’t just self-published books! I’m seeing the same in traditionally published. Not at the level, by far, of self-published but still seeing more than I used to.

    A year ago, I wouldn’t have paid more than $2.99 for a book on my Kindle but I do now. From publishers and authors I trust who care. I know I will get value and not just a pretty show. Sure, I still pick up a free or .99 or $1.99 self-published work, there are definitely gems in there and of course from NY authors going self, but I’m done throwing my hard-earned money after bad. Great story but badly constructed book–I won’t buy you again. Badly constructed, in my mind, means YOU DON’T CARE enough to give me the best reading experience you can. If you don’t care, why should I?

    After I got done laughing at @Shiloh Walker’s example <thanks for that Shiloh! I was getting pretty sad–I needed the post), I read the rest of her post. She says, "Publishing is going through a shift." I say, please God, I hope so and soon. I do believe (hope) that readers will start to care and hold authors and publishers to higher expectations. Don't readers owe it to themselves? Why should books by any different than buying a car and expecting a car that is fun to drive and is well-constructed?

    Until the shift happens, until readers start caring, I will continue to give my best effort to the stories I write, to the stories I edit and put MY money were my mouth is and support the authors and publishers who care. That's the only thing I can do.

  190. P. Kirby
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 15:27:20

    @Courtney Milan: “But no matter how you slice it, I think self-publishers are engaging in more aggressive marketing practices on the review front.”

    Yeah, basically…that. My feeling is that readers gravitate toward what is new and buzzy because that’s what everyone is talking about. So that’s what gets reviewed more as well.

    Books like Neuromancer, because of their age, are usually the stuff that a genre reader takes on because it’s on many lists of supposedly great SF/F books. Or at least, that’s why I tried and failed to read it.

    I’ve never been able to get past page two of Neuromancer*, and my husband, who did read it, thought it “had some interesting ideas and was okay.” Wool, however, he really liked. Me, I preferred Wool to Ender’s Game, which sits on my over-rated shelf at Goodreads. Hubby and I are both are Harry Potter fans.

    While I don’t disagree with this blog post on any particular point, I would be interested in seeing more comparisons [of review data] between new fiction from the Big 5 versus new self-published titles.

    *Probably because I’m a very horrible person, but as a reviewer, I get a twisted pleasure from flaying much-loved classics like Neuromancer or Ender’s Game. Maybe because I’ve been told for sooo long that they are sooo awesome, when I finally got around to reading (attempting) and find them to be “Meh” at best, there is an perverse joy in being contrary. Maybe that kind of thinking drives down the ratings on books like Neuromancer?

  191. P. J. Dean
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 19:15:13

    @Cassie: Wow! Thank you, Cassie.

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  194. AJ
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 20:03:21

    @hapax: I find your post very sad and at the same time it makes me very grateful for my good fortune vis-a-vis my county’s public library. My library has an extensive collection of print, electronic, and audio books and is very enthusiastic about purchasing books requested by patrons. I submit multiple purchase requests each week and only rarely has one been denied. My friend is a librarian in a different system and even though her county’s budget is not as large as mine, she makes every effort to fulfill patron book requests. One patron request is enough of a basis to justify a purchase in almost all cases. I like that librarians are concerned with providing books that patrons want to read, in addition to books they have researched and selected based on more traditional quality factors. Reading enjoyment is subjective and people should have access to books they are interested in, not just books that are “good for them” or deemed to be of “appropriate quality.” This is why I love librarians so much, they are genuinely interested in reader experiences and seek to promote reading in terms of both depth and breadth. A more non-judgmental yet helpful group of professionals I have never met.

  195. Virginia Llorca
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 21:37:32

    @Janine: I’ve been reading this off and on for a couple of weeks. I believe no one can read all of it. I sure can’t. I believe you are insisting on defining and quantifying something nebulous. I just finished an ebook I got for free for bring in Amazon Prime. It is in single digits Amazon rating. It was boring, kinda bloviating and confusing. The confusion on my part was due to some POV experiment that some reviewers found “fun” and some found confusing. Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch has so many one stars that are well written, I would never be tempted to read it. Scurrilous review getting behaviors are attributed at one time or another to every Indie that has success. The whole operation of some preacher buying his way onto the NYT best seller list has been made public. Trolls just like f***ing with people. I had someone come on my facebook with a story of how she told ALL her book clubs not to read my books cuz of some insult I paid her. Of course I researched it and it was a troll. When “Someone should have been shot” is next to “I didn’t want anyone to get hurt” how can you define what that says about a book? You can always return a book to Amazon, but the author still gets credit for the sale. I am incredibly vested as a reader but only mildly vested as an author. I know my own numbers depend only on how MUCH I produce and how MUCH I promote. I have been in double digit ratings for cash sales and seven digit numbers for cash sales. I never read Twilight, Shades of Gray, Hunger Games, read one Harry Potter, am as average as can be. Maybe older than average and I have made slightly more cash than the “average” epubber. I feel I know exactly as much about this whole process as any of you. Word of mouth is the one thing necessary for success and it is the most difficult to obtain or quantify.

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  198. Jacqui
    Apr 05, 2014 @ 00:57:38

    Thank you, thank you for writing this as I have thought this for awhile. It is a time where there seems to be so much more available to read but its so much harder to find a good book to read. And despite all the reviews of books you can find, sifting through them to find a cedible reviewer is hard. I’ve accidentally stumbled on this site before but feel I should make it a regular thing now.

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