Wednesday, 8 October 2014

IndieBRAG and quality control: the future of self-publishing

The trouble with self-publishing is that there is no quality control. At its heart, this is the reason nobody (or almost nobody) will take independent authors seriously. My book, for example, is self-published, and it is actually a good book, but you kind of have to take my word for it. With traditionally published books, the publishing house has thought the book readable and good enough to put its own money behind it in the belief that people will like it enough and buy enough copies to make their investment worthwhile. And they do know about books and publishing. It is kind of what they do. You can at least trust that, although you may not like the book itself, it will meet certain objective standards. Not so with self-published books.

Anyone can print any garbage, and nobody can stop them. And people always think their own writing is good. There is no filter. This is part of what makes self-publishing so great. Sometimes, you know you've got a good project, and either you don't want to give it away to some vampire publisher, or you just can't get the attention of traditional publishers for some reason.  So instead, you can just do whatever you want. It is like the Wild West. You don't have to convince some stuffy, conservative publisher to back your book just to see it in print. You can put all your own entrepreneurial gusto into pushing your art and doing it your own way. I love this.

However, because nobody knows you from Adam, and there are SO MANY truly terrible self-published books out there, and nobody has time to sort the wheat from the chaff, nobody will pay you any mind as a self-pub no matter how good your book is: not booksellers, not distributors, and in many cases not even our beloved book bloggers. 

There are a few exceptions to this, but as an author you seriously have to work for them. You have no assumptions in your favor. Even assisted self-publishing services that claim to have a good reputation for making your book good don't mean much to anyone and never really will because of greedconomics (a term I just made up right now). They don't risk their own money on you. You pay them.

So basically you are down to reviews and awards as the only ways to objectively demonstrate that your book is ACTUALLY good. Both of these are flawed, or perhaps I should say of limited assistance to the indie author. Reviews and ratings are completely subjective (see my earlier post). And even good ones can't always be trusted because you can actually BUY good ratings and reviews. Plus, you actually have to get people to go to the third-party ratings site and look you up, and read the reviews, and make up their minds as to which ones are legitimate and reasonable and make a decision about what to think. Most people in the book world don't have time to do that for every self-published title that gets shoved in front of them by an eager author claiming their own genius.

As for awards, they only get given to one title in an entire category. You either win or you don't. Most readers want to read more than one book in a year, and not every book that readers will enjoy will win an award. Also, there are not book awards for every kind of book. Take my book for example. It is Jane Austen fan fiction. There is not a specific book award for that. Sure, there are romance awards, and historical fiction awards, but my book is more niche than what they are looking for. It's not an exact fit.

And you have to find all the book awards, which is a huge job unto itself, and you might miss some because you are an indie author and you are doing this all yourself and you are kind of drowning. 

Also, and more importantly, most book awards do not accept submissions from self-published authors, so an indie author's options are limited in that respect. And then, if you are kind of an ignorant first-timer like me, you may not realize that pretty well all book awards only consider unpublished manuscripts, so when you go trying to submit your already published book to the few awards you might have qualified for, you realize you are done for.

Well then, it seems a hopeless business, or so you might think. Or, like me, you might attend a book fair and get to thinking...

...what the self-publishing world really needs is someone to take the guess work out for everyone else. It needs a centralized, independent screening process, a quality-control certification board, if you will. If one reliable organization could review self-published books and just give them a pass or fail, it would save everyone so much work. And if folks could trust the benchmark of that organization, if it was actually consistent and reliable, it would be glory days for everyone. Authors could just show their seal of approval, and get treated like a "proper" published author. 

Bookstores could safely stock local, independent books with confidence and without spending their whole lives researching individual titles. Same goes for distributors. Even publishers and agents would know which self-published books would be worth considering. It would be an instant filter for all those players. They would just have to ask the indie author whether or not they had that seal of approval and that would end the matter. No more having to convince people of your book's merit. No more having to sort through reviews and claims to verify whether a book is worth the investment. It would, in a word, be brilliant.

So, who is going to start this quality control certification process? I thought of trying my hand at it myself, and was embarking on putting such a thing together when, Ha-ha! I discovered someone already had!

An international network of readers calling themselves IndieBRAG (Independent Book Readers Appreciation Group) offers this precise service. They are independent and quickly building a reputation for identifying excellence in self-publishing with their Medallion. And, yes, they gave one to Follies Past (thank-you, thank-you). But I assure you, this does not prejudice me in my opinion. I was quite shocked when I discovered them because I was in the process of creating the exact same thing. I was actually kind of relieved because they were doing such a good job of it, so I could leave it to them and move on to other things.

They have a 2-step vetting process by which they apply their standards, and the books are read by multiple readers before a determination is made. Books are judged on plot, writing style, characters, copy editing, dialogue and design. There is no limit to the number of Medallions they award, but they average about a 10% approval rate. Now, that is not to say that 10% of all self-published books meet their standards, only those whose authors know about this service and have the wits to appreciate its value and importance and the wherewithal to actually submit their work.

So far as I am aware, they are the only organization taking on this task, and from what I know about them, they are doing all the things I would wish them to do, making it much easier to relinquish my plan of doing it myself. I believe that this kind of quality control is the missing link that is essential to the future of self-publishing. If you are part of the book world, as it were, and you would like to see good self-published books get the attention they deserve, I encourage you to ask those indie authors who approach you about their book whether or not they have a Medallion from IndieBRAG.

And if you are an indie author, I highly recommend submitting your book to IndieBRAG. It only costs $20, which is less than the submission fees for many book awards.

Please feel free to share any or all of this post. I waive all rights to its content in hope that it might help spread the word about this game-changer.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice.
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