Once upon a time and long, long ago, I was a career marketer (picture a very serious young woman, intent on pursuing “success”–that amorphous grail that appears in so many different guises). I have circumnavigated Sol many times since those heady days and I am pleased to report that I’m much younger now. Truly, age and perspective go together like salt and pepper, eggs and bacon, beer and nachos — bad for the health but nice to have.
From atop this lofty peak of “knowing what I’m talking about and having the experience to back it up”, (ha!) I will make a simple statement: “Indie Publishing is shooting itself in the foot” (an overused phrase, perhaps because it is so apt). It is a sad but inescapable fact: arm people who’ve never handled a weapon and, typically, they’ll do just that.
But, indie-publishing…a weapon? In a manner of speaking, just as the pen is said to be mightier than the sword (but only if you’re not the one facing the pointy-end)!
Independent platforms for self-expression are to our society what Gutenberg’s printing blocks were to the mid-1400s. Johannes Gutenberg wanted to print bibles, make money and gain social status–his vision of success. Today, independent artists of all flavours are expressing themselves in such profusion that the grail of “success” is metamorphosing once again in a manner which echoes the words of the young self-made villain “Syndrome” in The Incredibles, “if everyone is a super-hero, then no-one is”. Personally, I don’t see this as a bad thing.
We have at our hands the most amazing opportunity, not only in the written form but for independent musicians and artists of all manner and creed, to open a well-spring of creativity that has for so long been locked down. I have a wonderful, admittedly idealistic, hope that this outpouring of creativity will redefine how human-beings communicate and share, but right now it looks a little like a primordial soup, with the good, the bad and the ugly mixed in together. In marketing-speak, what we need is a best-practice code.
I believe that there is a growing sense that our new-found “indie” and “inter”-dependence, will collapse under its own weight unless we all do something about our quality control. For now, I perceive that a major (but not the only) problem we have is the misuse of the review system.
A thread on Amazon discusses exactly this issue. “The De-valuing of Reviews by Indie Writers Using the ‘Friends and Family Plan” is a forum discussing the use of overblown 5* reviews, by “sock puppets” (the author in another guise), or “shills“. Sadly, there are also individuals who leave crappy reviews, or just remain “anonymous” with a 1* rating in order to trash competitive rankings. This practice is not only mean-spirited and counter-productive, it is prevalent in every field of network marketing.
Take this observation from the youthful blogger/network marketer, Darren Spruyt:
“.. there are so many people in this industry that are self-sabotaging it and killing it every single day. Have you ever been taught to put down another MLM company to “prove” that your company is the better one? That you company has a better payout and a better product that a competing company? Because I have, and I have never felt right doing that. Whatever you do is merely a reflection of who you are, if you are putting down another company then you are really bringing down the name of your company and yourself.”
If you are an indie-publisher, (unless your ambition is to simply have your books available to yourself, your close friends and family), you can have no illusions about the fact that you are –or must become–a network marketer.
Of course we all want our friends and family to read our stories, to enjoy them and to leave nice reviews. What I am pointing out is that we are professionals, and despite the independent nature of our work, we must act collectively to restore the trust our reader-base has in the feedback mechanisms that are currently in place. One day, those mechanisms might evolve, but right now, this review system is the only one we have and its credibility–and by default the credibility of the indie-publishing industry as a whole–has already been damaged.
The traditional publishing industry has been grappling with how to react to the indie-“revolution” for some time, but the smart publishers are realizing that all they have to do is streamline their own practices for efficiency and position themselves as the Guardians of Quality, the REAL superheroes as opposed to the wannabes. The bell curve of reader response to the flood of indie-produced material is on the downward slide because readers now understand that much of the machinery and cost behind publishing involves quality control. (On this topic, check out Dario Ciriello’s post “On Self-Publishing“.)
My personal “grail of success” has taken on the shape of “freedom”–to do what I love to earn a living, be with my family, raise my kid in safety, and go sailing. It’s a dream where I work hard, as my own boss, and I deliver on my promise. That promise is to write the best possible story I can for the entertainment and enjoyment of my readers. They reward me, or not, by coming back for the next story. We establish a relationship based on fair exchange. But how will readers in general (and I include myself in this) make a reasonable judgement-call before purchasing, if the review system has been trashed?
The more I read, review and observe, the more concerned I become about the prevalence of “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” reviews. They are as obvious, and as damaging, as the puppets.
Indie-authors have a duty, to ourselves and each other, to encourage honest feedback. All opinions are subjective but if we have the courage to put ourselves, our thoughts and our imaginings out there, then we must also have the courage to be humble and trust our readers without blowing our work out of proportion.
I know that the puppets and trolls will still be out there, but if the majority of us read and review using the system as it is meant to be used, we can balance the feedback and encourage new readers to “give it a go”.
Quoting from a comment in the above-mentioned Amazon discussion, mystery and romance author Morgan Mandel outlines a practice I highly recommend:
“I only review books that I’ve read and liked. I rarely give any book 5 stars, because it has to be, in my subjective opinion, close to perfect to get that. A book I really like gets 4 stars. One that I like, but has a few flaws I can live with, I give 3 stars. I don’t give 1 or 2 stars, because those would be the books I don’t finish reading. There are too many good books out there to keep reading ones I can’t stand.”
“Best practice” is, more often than not, common sense combined with the confidence to act in accordance with that principle. If we all follow this simple review guideline, we will benefit each other and the industry as a whole. Perhaps then, over time, the indie-publishing industry will begin to regain ground with our readers in the credibility stakes.
…and just as an aside, if you’re new to the review process, take a bit of time to watch author Michael Hicks‘ excellent little video on how to leave a review on Amazon. I’m sure it’s not so different for other platforms. Thanks!