Sunday, 27 April 2014

Thread and Self-Publishing

It ended well. Not spectacularly, but appropriately, well paced and without ruining the whole set-up with an anti-climax I’d been fearing since the mid-way point. I shouldn’t have set lower expectations because I knew it was a self-published book, but to my shame I did.

Thread is well written and enjoyable. You quickly get pulled into Bartleby Flynn’s quest to hunt down the author of an unknown book he finds in the library where he works. To do this he has to navigate the wider world for the first time, one he’s mostly managed to hide away from. While there are occasional typos and in a few places the font changes inexplicably between pages and paragraphs, I’d be hard pressed to claim that they were more noticeable in a professionally edited book. The descriptions of Flynn’s life are entertaining, as are the caricatured  descriptions of his colleagues. The story also brings up interesting questions about identity in a semi-anonymous internet and what it means to know someone.

I met A M Gatward at a friend’s going-away party where he mentioned that’d just self published his first novel. Around the same time James Altulcher had been talking about self-publishing, but in a more professional way; all American and self help change-your-life glamour.

Someone talking about self-publishing on a high traffic blog still seems too far away and sunny to be considered a real option. When it's someone sat next to you on the same too-soft sinking sofa explaining the reality of doing it and the associated small everyday hiccups, while you’re failing to get the last lump of hummus off your plate with a limp carrot stick, then it's real.

The other beautiful feature is that I bought the old fashioned physical version of the book, which was printed on demand only for me. Perhaps another thousand were also printed this way, but from the beginning this one was destined only for me. This does make it a little more expensive than a mass market paperback; but I’ve never had a copy of a book printed specifically because I wanted it before, a novelty well worth the extra. In this case especially so as some of the text is laid out and formatted differently depending if it's showing normal prose, internet comments or extracts of a book, something that doesn’t work in the choose-your-own font and text size world of e-readers.

Nothing in the style or plot made me think ‘amateur’, and that’s a comparison I should stop making. As publishing, printing and distribution means become cheaper, in music, photography and countless other enterprises, the lines between professional and amateur are blurring as to become almost meaningless in terms of quality. But it’s hard to stop seeing this divide.

The number of readers an author has is only weakly linked to the quality of the writing or storytelling, in the same way bands with small followings can still produce music as good as stadium fillers. What really builds readership is marketing and publicity, to support that you need a reasonable quality of book behind, but going by what’s on best seller lists this is not the biggest factor.

A book's (or song’s) ‘quality’ is also a ridiculously subjective measure, the idea that even because lots of other people like it, it might be appealing to you only works if your tastes intersect heavily with the voting population. If you don’t care for dragons, complex political and family intrigue, then no matter how popular Game of Thrones is, it is not going to appeal to you.

While I’m not painting the traditional publishing industry in a good light, it does mostly ensure some level of quality in the writing printed and selection of books available. It can also choose to back the talented writer who has no skill in promoting themselves, and by enabling them to make a living from writing full-time give them the time to improve and write more, hopefully good, books. If you're self-publishing you have to do that as well as write; as in the case of James Altucher above a lot of work went into the marketing of his book, and a lot of the sales success is based on that, not necessarily the quality of the writing.

Now the hard part becomes finding novels and authors that you like in the rapidly expanding and no longer physically limited world of publishing, especially since reading is a relatively slow process; compared, say, to using Spotify for music. In most cases you can listen to three or four songs in ten minutes and get a very good idea if you like them or not. Sometimes it only takes seconds. With a book it takes longer, often you don’t know until the ending, when a twist or finale becomes clear that you realise the extent of the author’s skill.

So the hard task becomes working on a good recommendation system, based on a much greater number of authors and novels. As before an unfiltered list based on the most popular sales isn’t useful for most people. I’ve always felt that Amazon’s recommendation system is pretty good, but it has a few major shortcomings. First, it can only base recommendations on its catalogue; if the next great book for your isn’t published there, they’re not going to be able to tell you that. Second there’s always the suspicion that they will promote books that suit them, not you, in some way; either being paid to promote a particular item or having some other reason for pushing an item.

This isn’t the biggest failing of a pattern based recommendation system, one that tells you that you want another spy thriller because you liked Fredrick Forsyth and John le Carré. I want a system that can recommend new and interesting books that don’t fit the pattern, something different. I’m not going to get a spy thriller recommendation from having mostly bought gardening books, even if I'd really enjoy a good thriller. Perhaps most people are repeat customers and want more of the same, rarely trying something new. But I don’t, and I suspect many other people feel the same.

If you want to read Thread you can find it on Amazon (not an affiliate link).