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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hot Potato: E-Quality

by Susan Chapek

E-publishing, particularly e-self-publishing, is a burning hot topic this summer. Blogs and discussion boards are fired up for and against (Verla Kay's Blue Board thread "all the buzz about e-books" stretches 14 pages and claims 6050 hits as of this writing.)

I'm not here to persuade writers to e-s-p, nor to argue that they shouldn't. I want to focus on one powerful argument against it. How will readers be able to find the best—or even the good—e-s-p books among hundreds of thousands on offer? Popularity filters already exist. But where's the Quality Filter?

Replies to this argument tend to express merely a general optimism about how these things tend to evolve and sort themselves out naturally on the Web.

Cold comfort.

Because the objection is valid. Customers (especially for Kidlit) want Quality, and they want to find it quickly and easily. Quality Filters for e-pubbing in general, and e-self-pubbing in particular, won't work until they're at least as efficient and reliable as the filters we have in traditional publishing.

So—what Quality Filters exit in traditional Kidlit Publishing?

  • Agents. (Because most slush stops here nowadays.)
  • Publishers
  • Awards
  • Reviews
  • Teachers and librarians
  • Bookstores, real or virtual
  • Word of Internet and Word of Mouth

(As I listed these, I realized that most of these filters are weakening these days. Bookstores are closing; review publications faltering; educators and libraries struggle with tighter budgets; marketing departments wield a powerful veto over editorial choices. Even the prize committees are under attack in recent years, from those who object to their criteria or its application.)

Do any of the same Quality Filters operate for e-s-p books?

  • On-line publishers? The ones I've seen seem geared to adult genres.
  • On-line bookstores? Neither reliable (provide only favorable professional reviews) nor efficient.
  • Teachers and librarians? Huge potential, once they figure out a system to share ratings.
  • Internet word-of-mouth (blogs, clubs, ads, social networks, etc.)? Need their own Quality Filter!

So I'd like to propose several possible E-Quality Filter models that can be created quickly, by the existing Kidlit community itself.

1) Pay a visit to the writers' cooperative e-bookstore at http://www.bookviewcafe.com/ Here the Quality Filter is the presence of some well-known, distinguished authors. Their names suggest a level of quality for all the authors in the co-op. The big names also serve as a magnet for search engines, exposing the less-known authors to potential readers.

Kidlit writer cooperatives could provide one kind of Quality Filter.

2) The Andrea Brown Agency turned publisher this spring. See http://www.austinscbwi.com/2011/04/28/hoover-announces-debut-ya-release/ Agents are established Quality Filters, many even assuming some editorial functions. In fact, as publishing houses cut staff, it's become common for ex-editors to become Agents.

Both of those models are already up and working. Meanwhile, how about all those ex-Editors? Many are willing, apparently, to work for royalties instead of a salary. A few have truly distinguished track records, discovering and nurturing Kidlit authors. Wouldn't these patron saints of Kidlit make ideal E-Quality Filters?

3) So where's the star Editor bold enough to establish her own e-publishing imprint? I'll bet teachers, librarians, and parents would flock to that Editor's web site, assured that every book on it meets a standard of quality in writing and editing.

An Editor's online imprint could operate several different ways. In one model, the Editor only reads submissions and selects works that are ready to go. (Here's where writers find a home for those books that have been shopped to tatters but never quite sold—"orphaned" books, "niche" books, "quiet" books, experiments in new genres that don't fit a writer's previous image, novellas, short stories, or any books that—horror of horrors!—are good, but neither potential blockbusters nor prize-winners.) All that might be needed is for the Editor to connect the writer with a free-lance line-editor, formatter, and cover designer. In weeks, the book is published and listed.

In this model, the Editor would earn no advance. The (barely) delayed gratification of pay by royalties would allay suspicions that the Editor accepts every book that comes her way. The Editor's fortunes would rise or sink with her line.

In another model, the Editor might read only already e-self-published books, offer to list the ones she wants to recommend, and negotiate a commission on future royalties.

Or an e-book Editor could choose to list only books she actually edits herself.

In any model, the Editor would strive for volume, but she'd have to be choosy, or her whole line would suffer.

I'd be willing to contribute to a Kickstarter account (www.kickstarter.com/) for the Editor with a good track record who is willing to start up a business along those, or similar, lines. Oh, Distinguished Editor! O Pioneer! You who wielded such benevolent power in the market before! There are many worthy mss—some of them written by the same authors you used to publish in the traditional way—waiting for you to connect them with e-readers.


  1. You make a great point. With all the ebooks out there, it's difficult to find the quality ones to read. The market is flooded as a result of e-s-p (by the way, I love that you call it that. It made me chuckle.) I wish there was a quality filter.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Excellent post, Susan. I agree that there needs to be some type of quality filter that is reliable. I always check the publisher before I download a book on my Nook, but my friends who are not writers don't check the publisher. I wonder if there are grants available to fund a start up agency?

  4. Susan, interesting thoughts. Yes, we need a filter; hard to say whether authors or readers need it more. In your proposal for star editor, I'm not so sure about the second option, where the editor is essentially paid for recommending books. I think that's just too close to a conflict of interest, and it might be hard for readers to trust that. Third option seems best to me.

  5. To explain my deleted comment at 8:59: I was reporting on the problem some people are having posting comments. But I realized that my report should be visible on the home page. So I re-published my comment as a post.

  6. I agree with Cynthia's analysis of the second for a star editor. As well as being suspect for readers, if all the editor is doing is recommending books, I think few authors would care for the system. We don't pay reviewers now. And who would want to give up a share of their profits in perpetuity to someone who really did none of the work?