22 December 2011

Author rankings

Writing is a solitary craft, and many writers seem to be less outgoing than the norm. For such people, self-promotion is a nightmare. They see it as little more than boasting, which I suppose it is. Sometimes, in desperation, the writer crosses the line from boasting to begging, and then it’s even more painful to behold.

In theory, especially in the past, the publisher relieved the writer of this unpleasant chore. The writer might have been expected to do the odd reading, or bookshop signing, or – if he or she were at least semi-famous already – make an appearance on radio or TV. But the bulk of the puffing was done by a publicity manager, typically an extrovert who saw nothing wrong with hyperbole. In practice, nowadays, publicity budgets tend to get spent on authors who are already successful: the money is used to retrieve an inflated advance. B-list authors are expected to promote themselves.

Writers should write; publishers should make things public. The imminent collapse of traditional publishing has changed all that. What hasn’t changed is the underlying need of readers to find new talent and for new talent to be given a chance.

In a TeleRead article in October 2008 I suggested one solution, in the form of a dedicated ebook-review site, but now I can’t see that ever getting off the ground. Each ebook distributor (e.g. Amazon, Sony, Apple) has its own set of reviews, on its own site, put up by readers who just happen to use a Kindle, or a Reader, or an iPad. Yet more reviews are scattered all over the Web, at Smashwords, on blogs and boards and social networking sites like Goodreads.

The number of new ebook titles is growing at an explosive rate. Buried in all the self-deluding dross are some really good books – but how is the reader to find them?

For the sake of what follows, we’ll take Amazon as an example.

Books are already ranked there, and that’s fine, but I propose a ranking system for authors as well. Part of this would be an option for a reader to ask to be notified of an author’s next book. The notification could take the form of an email automatically generated when the book-file goes live at KDP. It would contain a link to the new book’s page. Or Amazon could simply send a sample to the reader’s Kindle without further ado. The reader should at any time be able to withdraw permission to be notified about any or all authors, and will need assurances about privacy.

The more notification requests an author racks up, the greater will be his or her ability to satisfy and intrigue readers. Data about the number of reviews posted for that author and their star-ratings, “likes”, etc., could be added to the mix, together with an indication, like a tag-cloud, of the genre or genres the author’s books are in.

The rankings could then be organized in various ways. Overall movers and shakers, who’s hot and who’s not in each genre, who has the highest-rated reviews per book, who’s popular in which country – the details need to be worked out by someone more computer-savvy than me, but you get the idea. A wonderful new writer with only one book would at least get a chance to be noticed.

All this would cost money to implement, but Amazon would be amply rewarded by the increase in sales and loyalty. Notified readers could even be offered a discount, or an exclusive opportunity to read the book before the official publication day. There are all sorts of possibilities, and I must say that Amazon, in particular, would be brilliant at exploiting them.

However, any of the distributors could take up the baton. Indeed, it would give them an edge against Amazon’s dominance of the market. If they all used author-rankings, readers would have a much easier time in finding new books.

As for the writer, he or she would have more time to write. This alone would improve the quality and quantity of the work, but there would also be an incentive to become technically educated, which many beginners are not. For the new novelist this means learning about story structure, dialogue, viewpoint, and all the other skills that must be mastered to make a novel come alive. It also means learning to be professional with respect to editing and presentation: readers don’t like typos and bad covers any more than they like cardboard characters and wooden dialogue.

The net effect would benefit everyone – reader, author, distributor. We would be taking a decisive step away from the capricious and often mistaken judgments of the traditional and self-appointed gatekeepers, and allowing, at last, true merit to rise.


Anonymous said...

I am a reader who has just discovered your work! I am enjoying Penal Colony right now but I will be buying more of your ebooks soon.
As I read about your idea, I would welcome more information about your work. Amazon sort of does something similar with emails about things I have shown an interest in. As a reader, pleased to find you, I would welcome following you on Twitter for updates, or even an ipad app which brings me closer to your work/identiy/character. Your website is doing this now, but the way we consume information has evolved remarkably quickly, and a blog is just one way to reach the audience.
The digital publishing revolution is leaving us all in turmoil and one result is for the individual to now question the value of intellectual property; I can't be alone in feeling awkward that I have paid nothing for this book. How about a paypal 'contribute' link on your site?

Richard Herley said...

realstrings, thanks for your comments. At the moment I'm working on a new book and have very little time to spare (I tend to spend all the hours I can immersed in the story), but you're right, I need to think about what you say. Meanwhile you can always subscribe to this blog (see sidebar), although, again, when I'm drafting a book I tend to neglect posting updates. If you have a Google account you can also become a "Follower" and updates should appear on your Google page, or whatever it's called. I'll always announce a new book here.

As for the PayPal button, that's not necessary. The Penal Colony is offered as a loss leader, and it's doing a good job. In any case that book owes me nothing: I sold the film rights in 1989 and it was made into a movie, albeit a lousy one that has -- apparently -- made a loss :-) It certainly did no good for poor old Ray Liotta's career. Some authors have what they call a "tip jar" on their sites, but I think that's demeaning for everybody. I'd rather people knew up front what the price of their reading was.

As for Twitter, I've heard it's a time sink, but I'll check it out!

CAZZ said...

I've also just discovered you as a new author [to me] and am racing through Penal Colony. What a rattling good read. I may have seen the film, but don't remember, so don't have cinematic images to spoil the book. I think the only author who actually liked the film of their book is Lionel Shriver [We Need To Talk About Kevin]and I do make a point of reading a book before seeing the movie.
I retired several years ago and write for pleasure, belonging to several writing groups, some good, others not. It has made me take stock of what I read and authors and how things have changed on the literary and publishing front. I would not like to be earning my living from writing these days.
I'm glad to have discovered you and will be downloading more of your work.
Best wishes, Carolyn.

Richard Herley said...

Cazz, thanks for that, and I'm very glad that book is giving you pleasure! The rise of self-publishing makes this the best time to be an author since Gutenberg invented his press, so why not give it a crack? Email me (see the top of the sidebar) if you'd like a few pointers, but I expect you already know where to begin, Smashwords and Amazon being the most important portals for UK-based writers.

Snowdog2112 said...

Just finshed 'Penal Colony',which I very much enjoyed. I think your idea of using it as a loss-leader is bound to bear fruit given the way that Amazon works... When I downloaded the book, I had just read the synopsis and assumed that you were a first -time writer, such is the normal way with free-to-own books.
I'm sure I've seen 'No escape' but I'm damned if it bears any resemblance to what I've just read!
On to the Refuge, then...