When anyone with a computer can publish themselves, what determines the value of a writer?
What makes a good writer? You can dash off a story, whip up a cover, upload a file, press a button labelled Publish and have your book appear on a book-selling website instantly. Okay, so it isn’t quite that simple—you do have to be able to make your word document clean enough for ebook-making software to turn it into something readable on an ereader—but you don’t have to pay an editor. You don’t even have to edit it! And you can throw the cover together yourself in a word document! Sure, the result is likely to be crappy—very crappy—but the point is that you can do that little and still have a published book to your name.
Then readers can find it—if they’re unlucky or you’ve spent a bit of money in advertisements or have a lot of friends and make it cheap or free—and they can even read it and like it and give it 5 star reviews. Argh! Why? Because, as with all art forms, most people don’t know much about technique and matters of craftsmanship, but they do know what they like. They can read a badly written story and not notice it’s badly written because the story is actually quite entertaining. The fact that it can, and should be, better written isn’t a concern for some people. For the reader, they either like it or not, like it a little or like it a lot. Nothing wrong with that. Readers shouldn’t have to be experts, because books shouldn’t be published unless they meet certain standards. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case today. And even poor quality can sell well.
The old system of publishers as gatekeepers was not fair and kept a lot of good books from readers, but the new free for all publishing is not fair either because readers can’t see the good books for all the bad ones. I’m not going to suggest a new gatekeeping system, because too many people will protest and nothing will be perfect. My solution is a vetting system like the Awesome Indies. Let them publish, but make sure that the good ones are identified and promoted. For that to happen in any meaningful way, Amazon needs to have a commitment to promoting quality as defined by independent qualified reviewers, not from reader reviews.
So, you’ve published a book. That’s nice. How do I know you’re any good?
Oh, it says here your book is a best seller. Awesome; it must be good.
Yeah; it was in the top 100 in the cosy women’s mystery category on Amazon for one hour.
Wow. How many books have you sold? 100,000? A million?
Umm, around 500.
Oh, that doesn’t sound very good.
The book is well written. It’s great story, honestly. It’s had excellent reviews from top literary critics.
Like the New York Times?
Er, no, just respected book bloggers.
That’s nice. What’s your real job?
Positive critical appraisal, big book sales or both? What determines the value of a writer? We would all like both, obviously, but if asked to choose one indicator of value, I’d go for positive critical appraisal by people who know what they’re talking about, whether they work for the NY Times or just run their own book blog. That determines real value, but selling books has value too. That worldly kind of success puts food on the table; it allows you to give up your day job and become a full time writer, and it is the measure of success in most people’s eyes. Trouble is, you can still sell lots of bad books. That’s why I go for critical appraisal as the true measure. Sales determine your value as a sales person, not necessarily as an author.
How do you determine the value of an author?
These are the kinds of questions raised in my latest book Prunella Smith: Worlds Within Worlds a metaphysical thriller.
Amy Spahn, literary critic says:
“This book will make you think. Considering the deluge of new works streaming from authors these days, that may be the highest praise a novel can receive.”
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