It’s normal, perhaps even inevitable, that a maturing industry will experience uneven quality. When public safety is involved, the state may step in to enforce standards. (I can’t sell burritos, electricity, or manicures without meeting certain requirements that are set by the government.) In most cases, though, you have the evolution of voluntary guilds or associations that set standards for their members. Independent publishing may be reaching that same point.
Over the last couple years, we’ve seen the development of many communities and sites that allow independent and self-published authors to connect, share resources, talk shop, and obtain constructive criticism. We have hundreds of review blogs, the forums at Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords, great Yahoo groups, the recently launched Alliance of Independent Authors, and so on.
Is any one of these places poised to become a definitive location for independent authors? The AIA may be the best positioned, but the point of this post isn’t to advocate for one site over another. Rather, Christina and I want to enumerate some needs and suggest certain qualities that would be highly valuable in an independent authors guild or association.
Alliances, guilds, and associations tend to be built on a membership model. You have to join and joining involves at least a few expectations. In our opinion, the eligibility requirements themselves should be fairly open: Not only authors but the professional partners who contribute to publishing success (editors, designers, publicists, etc). It would be important as well to charge a very modest annual fee for membership. The fee supports essential operations and helps to ensure an accurate roster of members. The organization would also need to meet all the standards of a well-run nonprofit: a board of directors, a formal charter, sound bookkeeping, etc.
How important? Essential.
The books released by traditional publishers have not always been well written, but they’ve been fairly consistent in meeting professional standards of production. And notwithstanding the occasional scandal, books released by traditional publishers are seldom fraudulent or brazenly deceptive. The landscape of independent publishing, though, is littered with enough sloppy and misleading stuff that it can be a hazardous place for readers to tread.
What we’re talking about here are the plagiarized copy-and-paste jobs, the books that have never seen a proofreader, the covers that are crooked.
You can ask: “If I’m producing good quality books, why do I care if other people aren’t?” We see it as a corollary to the truism that a rising tide lifts all boats: A leaky fleet threatens all ships. Your boat may be perfect, but if people have had a bad experience with others, they may think twice before getting into yours.
Here’s what could help: A registration process that demonstrates a book has met certain minimum standards of quality. A bookseller who sees the registration would know that a book has been professionally produced. In time, so would book reviewers and customers. It wouldn’t be a mark of good writing, but it would be a reliable indicator of good production.
Here are some of the things that a registration process might cover:
- The author attests to the originality of the material
- Provide the name(s) of the main editor, copyeditor, and proofreader
- List the name(s) of all other contributors to the book production (cover designer, typesetter, etc.)
- List the production tools used create the final book format(s)
Could this be gamed? Of course. But those modest annual dues would provide for a lightweight but effective enforcement mechanism that cancels memberships and removes registrations whenever an author is found to be untrustworthy.
How important? A potentially great “value-added” feature, but not essential at the start.
Diverse & Informed Advisors
The kind of guild or association we’re envisioning would engage with stakeholders and thought leaders across publishing (traditional and independent), bookselling, professional services (editing, design, promotion), and digital content production.
This would include people with a strong technical background in the mechanics of ebooks and web design as well as the semantic web. (Not familiar with the semantic web? That’s why we need advisors who are. Learn more here and here.)
How important? Essential. Independent authors can’t afford to be behind the curve on trends in content creation, publishing, distribution, and marketing. Any organization representing independent authors should be a gathering place for timely information and in-depth expertise.
Leveraging Existing Services & Tools
There’s no reason to duplicate strong platforms that authors, professionals, and readers already use for connecting with each other and sharing information. The focus, rather, should be on leveraging the excellent resources that already exist. For example:
- Display reviews on book pages. Rather than create a native tool for organization members to review books, encourage them to use GoodReads, Amazon, LibraryThing, etc. and use web services to surface that content on the organization’s site.
- Allow editors to pull in professional information from their LinkedIn profile (or a popular freelance listing site). This prevents having to manage a professional profile in two places, which is more efficient and ensures better data quality.
Rather than the every-author-for-himself environment we currently work in, a guild or association could speak in a unified and muscular voice. If the Screenwriters Guild of America can negotiate agreements with Paramount and Disney, there’s no reason why an author’s association couldn’t (at some point) do the same with Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble.
How important? Nice to have . . . eventually.
Are these the right priorities? What would you like to see an organization for independent authors achieve?