Let the right one in

There has been a great deal of discussion of late about the number of self-published e-books currently flooding the market. Views differ widely, but whatever you think of the blighters they are almost certainly here to stay, so we might as well get used to them.

But where have they come from? The truth is that lots of good books never see the light of day through traditional routes because publishing is still very much a closed shop, with publishers and agents refusing to read unsolicited material. Authors know this—they have been trying for years to break in. Now they don’t have to. They are doing it for themselves and many of them are faring rather nicely, thank you very much.

Of course, this democratisation of publishing also means that lots of shit is hitting the virtual shelves, and the plethora of self-published e-books causes traditional publishers many problems—not least by clogging up the bestseller charts, often demoting blockbuster authors in the process. There is also a fear that the lower r.r.p.s on these e-books will drag the market down.

And they are an issue for retailers as well—both online and in the high street. Waterstones, W H Smith and independents find it hard enough as it is, without thousands of titles they can never physically stock bursting on the scene. And I cannot believe that Amazon, Apple and the like are entirely satisfied with their bestseller charts being sprinkled with covers that look like they were designed by my uncle Dave on his BBC Micro. In the dark. While drunk.

And what about readers? They must be sick of all this guff as well. I am not so sure. When a customer pays 49p for a crime novel with a dodgy cover, they really don’t expect it to be as good as Ian Rankin. So if the e-book concerned turns out to be somewhere between “not all that bad” and “actually pretty good”, they feel pretty good about the experience—and highly likely to leave a positive review, or recommend it to friends. A quick glance at some of the bestselling self-published e-books online will throw up phrases such as “a bargain at this price”, “better than I expected” and “a pleasant surprise”.

Perhaps we should view this phenomenon as a wonderful example of crowdsourcing? More often than not the cream will rise to the top and every week, it seems, we hear about another bestselling self-published author who has signed a major book deal on the back of their e-book success.

And here’s the thing: a “traditional” deal is still the goal of most of these authors. OK, so there are many who have eschewed the system and will continue to do so, but the majority would love the credibility, support and, er, lower royalty rate that a deal with one of the major publishing houses would bring. Most do feel that publishers add value and see the self-publishing option as a new route to being “discovered”. And if they remain undiscovered they are still able to make a few quid, which can soften the blow.

So I welcome this influx, these previously unpublished hordes. As should all the freelance copy editors, proofreaders and designers who, if they can offer an affordable rate, should be able to find lots more work. Publishers can sit back and watch the books on the digital slush pile fight it out among themselves, and then cherry-pick the very best. And bookshops have never had a better opportunity to differentiate themselves from the online merchants with strong curated displays, unfettered by such things as bestseller charts dictated by actual sales.

There are good things and bad things about the current situation, and I am sure more will make themselves known as our industry adapts to this new world order. One thing is for sure; now that the floodgates are open, there’s no turning back.