A few weeks ago, I posted an Open Letter to Amazon.com in which I advocated for a method to separate high quality self- and indie-pubbed books from lower quality ones. I have taken some of the suggestions from readers and incorporated them into this revised letter to Amazon.com.
There are lots of great self- and indie-published books out there . . . we just need help finding them.
I am a self-published author of several books for sale at Amazon.com. During the publishing and early marketing of my books, it has become apparent to me that there is a major barrier between my writings and my audience.
Book buyers have no realistic way to rate the quality of the large volume of self- and indie-published books on your virtual shelves. This is a problem for me, and for Amazon, since few reader's will purchase self- or indie-published works with no reliable reviews or rankings to validate their quality.
I write this missive to suggest an easy, inexpensive and effective solution to this dilemma.
The advent of Publish on Demand printing has made authoring and printing one's own book a task that nearly anyone can achieve at an affordable price. This is a fantastic thing for society and culture in general. Interesting and evocative stories will be told; histories and memoirs will be written; opinions and arguments will be made widely available; all in greater depth and detail than was before possible for the average person.
So why is there a problem?
Many of the books that are self- or indie-published will not possess professional-quality appearance or content, or will address topics so individual (like family histories) or obscure (such as Oklahoma farming methods during the Dust Bowl years) as to be of little interest to the vast majority of book buyers.
The book publishing and distribution business is going through the same sort of growing pains that the internet has gone through (and to an extent, continues to experience) as it has expanded from the "information hiking path" to the "information super-highway." Much of the information available on the internet is tremendously useful and enlightening. A much greater proportion is of little value to most people. The sheer quantity of information available is simply too great for anyone to process without the help of an organized system.
In the case of the internet, for good or bad, search engines do the organizing for us. We can "Google," "Bing" or "Yahoo Search" any subject we wish, and the search engine will deliver to us at least some information related to our request. Search engine developers continue to refine and improve on search logic for the purpose of returning to the searcher more relevant and more refined search results. But at least the system is in place. For the most part, with a little creativity, we web-surfers can sift through the internet's vast mounds of information relatively quickly, easily and effectively, and find the answers we seek.
PRESENT SOLUTIONS INEFFECTIVE FOR BOOKS
Unfortunately, at present, there is no analogous way for potential readers to sift through the huge mounds of newly printed self- and indie-published books. The reader (read as "potential book buyer") has only book covers, jacket blurbs, sample passages and reader reviews to aid her in distinguishing the published gems from the rubble. (Kirkus and The New York Times don't review self- or indie-publications.) Such tools might seem sufficient, until one considers that there are a million or so new book covers and blurbs to view, samples to read and reader reviews to consider every year.
No single reader can process this huge amount of information. The result is self-pub gridlock.
Amazon and many other web-based businesses have implemented an aggregate reader rating system to address this volume problem and to aid those seeking new books (or music, or auto parts, etc.) in ranking the quality of the product. For instance, Amazon has its "Star Rating" for each product it sells.
For many products, customer ratings are useful tools. If lawn mower 'A' gets Five Stars from its prior purchasers and lawn mower 'B' gets only Two Stars, the rational buyer will strongly prefer mower 'A' in making her purchase. Unfortunately, this sort of customer ranking/rating system, while inexpensive and accessible, is not effective in the case of self- and indie-published books for two main reasons:
1) Most of these publications seldom get enough customer ratings for the ratings to be useful. The mountain of newly pubbed books is too high for the lone product to gain traction. So there aren't enough reviews of many books to be meaningful to the potential buyer.
2) As soon as their books are published, most self- and indie-published authors, if they are smart, will begin "padding" their customer review ratings. Friends, relatives and acquaintances of the author will all weigh in with their Five Star ratings and their glowing reviews. (This "padding" routine seldom happens with lawn mowers.)
Now I'm not saying that this "padding" practice is in any way dishonest -- or even inappropriate. Everyone is entitled to utilize all legal marketing tools to promote their book. And all readers are allowed to express their opinions as to the book's nature. But this rating method is just not unbiased enough to be helpful to book buyers.
THE NEW SOLUTION
If only there could be an unbiased review ranking system to allow book buyers to sift the wheat from the chaff -- wouldn't that be great!
But how could such an unbiased rating system be developed without great expenditure of time and resources? There are so many new books!
If only the customer could be assured that reviewer rankings were not unduly biased by the ratings of the authors' friends and relatives -- if only, buyers could know that the reviewers were truly independent! If only there were a RATING SYSTEM in which the reader's could have confidence!
Herein lies the solution . . . a legitimate, unbiased, informed system to sort through the newly published books for all of us -- readers and authors alike.
Dearest Amazon, the information and resources to construct such a system are ALREADY IN YOUR DATABASES. Here's how you could establish and implement the "AMAZON SELECT INDIE BOOK INDEX."
THE AMAZON SELECT INDIE BOOK INDEX
Every day, hundreds of thousands of Amazon customers read tens of thousands of newly-published books. A large number of those books are self- or indie-published. Many of those same Amazon customers, voluntarily and without remuneration, post their unbiased "customer reviews" on the Amazon website. All Amazon needs to do to create the SELECT INDIE INDEX is to separate the qualified independent reviewers from the biased ones.
I'm sure, Dear Amazon, that your market analysts and computer programmers can come up with something even better than I propose. But my suggestion is that you create your new -- additional -- rating system based upon the ratings of only those Amazon customers who read many books and submit many reviews. This process would negate the "friends and family effect" that plagues self- and indie-pub customer rankings, and would establish a whole new, bona fide, independent system for book rating.
In essence, there would be a new group of "above-the line" reviews, while still retaining the always useful customer reviews you already post.
You already know, Dear Amazon, how you could identify these "qualified" or "certified" or "above the line" book raters. But I will explain so all may understand.
Whenever a reader leaves their book review Star Rating on Amazon, any Amazon customer can look at that reviewer's other book reviews to evaluate that particular reviewer's experience and independence. If the book reviewer has only reviewed a single book, well, that reviewer is probably of the "friend and family" sort.
But if the reviewer has previously reviewed scores, or even hundreds, of previous books, that reviewer is a good source for unbiased, independent opinion. Although readers cannot realistically be expected to search through all the reviewers and their read/review histories, Amazon's computers can do it in a heartbeat.
If you have an aversion to separating Indie books from other books in creating this new ratings system, go ahead and include ALL BOOKS in this new "above the line" reviewer rating. Good Indies will compare favorably with traditionally-published books in such a system.
So Dear Amazon, as an author and book buyer, I believe you and I and millions of book buyers could gain access to a wealth of high-quality self- and indie-published books if you would only implement this new rating system to aid us.
We hope you are able to do so soon . . . before Google or B&N beats you to the punch!
Thanks for listening and I hope we can continue to do profitable business together well into the future.
John L. Betcher