Is this good or bad news for readers?
Prior to the explosion in indie publishing, readers were faced with a problem. How do I choose my next read if I want to find a new author? There are many answers to this, but mostly we find recommendations or read reviews. Broadly speaking this has not changed, but the nature of what is available to readers has changed considerably.
Many people argue that the traditional publishing industry acted as a quality gateway to ensure that whatever you pick up will at least be a good book, even if not to a particular reader's taste. To some extent that's true. We have all, however, had that experience when you pick up a book from an author you don't know, only to find that it's poorly written or poorly edited. If this were not true of works from major publishers, it would be easier to argue that the industry provides an adequate quality gateway, but sadly it happens all too often.
The situation with traditional publishers has become worse with the advent of e-books. Those who patiently format paper publications to be perfect frequently seem happy to throw out badly formatted e-books, and charge almost as much as for a paperback – sometimes more.
Putting aside the formatting and pricing issues, traditional publishers have always served to constrain the choices faced by readers. For every book that was published by a traditional publisher hundreds, or even thousands, were never published. The agents and publishers simply could not keep up with the rate at which authors produced books. Thus, well written, high quality books frequently went unpublished.
In today's difficult market the publishers are becoming more risk averse than ever. They will go with authors who come up with something which fits their expectations rather than taking a risk on something which is out of their mould.
Opening Up New Choices – At a price
The rapid growth in independent publishing gives readers an opportunity to read those books which publishers did not have the bandwidth to publish. The pain threshold for 'getting published' is now much reduced for an author, and many who would not have even tried to approach an agent or a publisher are willing to publish their own work.
This puts vast numbers of books into the marketplace, and presents readers with an ocean of choice. If all books were well written and well produced this ocean would be a wonderful thing. However, the reality is a little different, and the benefits to the reader come at a price. There are vast numbers of badly written, or badly edited books on the market.
So how should a reader find a good quality read in a genre they like when the choices are so huge? Nobody wants to pay for ten books to find one which is a good read, nor do we want to be limited to free e-books. The 'look inside' option helps here, if it is available. At least the reader can gauge the quality of the writing. Unfortunately, however, too many authors don't use this feature.
I have already said that picking a good read is frequently done by means of recommendation or through reading reviews. This is all well and good until we realise that most independent books don't have much opportunity to get reviews, and many good books languish at the bottom of the sales charts simply because people don't find them. Readers understandably go for better selling books with a body of positive reviews, yet many feel they might be missing out on good reads by using this approach. Indeed, the truth is they are.
Reviews – Quality Gateway or Bottleneck?
In this new world of independent publishing, then, reviewers have tremendous power. They can make or break an independent book. That is helpful if they are always right, but we must not forget that in many respects a review is simply an opinion. What one reviewer says might be different from another, or from what I would think if I read the book.
There is however a much bigger problem. Most reviewers are inundated with books to review, and only have the opportunity to review a fraction of those they receive. Recognise the problem? We're right back with the problem we had with agents and traditional publishers. They're not always right and they don't have time to look at more than a tiny fraction of what they receive.
That places reviewers in the position of being the new bottleneck in bringing quality reads to readers.
In the future I see readers becoming the ones with the real power. They are, after all, the ones with the spending power. They will recommend, and post good reviews of books they enjoy. If they don't enjoy a book they will either post a bad review or not review it. This is the best possible outcome, and it seems likely to be the way of the future. We already see this on Amazon's website, as well as others, where readers post their opinions. They are not always gentle, and often post inappropriate reviews of books for which they are not the target audience. In general, however, reader reviews are a powerful and successful tool.
Does this help you, the reader, to find a good book when it's a new author and a newly published book? Not usually, but as the market continues to grow, the good books will generally float to the top.