Whatever meteorological metaphor you use to describe the proliferation of self-published titles, if you are a serious-minded self-publisher you will probably be relieved at the growth of websites that promise to sort out the very best from the tsunami/flood/avalanche/deluge of also-rans. Sites like Awesome Indies and Compulsion Reads do what all the best inventions are supposed to do. They have identified a problem (lack of quality control amongst self-published books), and they have solved it. Win for readers. Win for authors.
I have to say, I am full of admiration for anyone who is prepared to tackle such a controversial problem head on, and the people behind these sites work tirelessly for the benefit of authors and readers.
How Can Quality Be Judged?
I want to say something about the metrics used for judging quality, though. If you’re like me then your first thought is probably “how on earth would you do that?” Awesome Indies and Compulsion Reads take very similar approaches. In addition to proofreading requirements, they emphasise the mechanics of the writing – plot, pace, and characterisation.
The problem is, as the old adage sort of goes “measures are great at measuring what measures measure.” In which case, quality control sites have to answer one key question – what is it that readers really want, that self-publishing in its state of nature doesn’t give them? What do they look for in a book?
Now, I wouldn’t begin to answer that question. There are as many criteria as there are readers. Or quite a few, anyway. And, unless I’m unique as a reader then not all of them are quantifiable. I should add at this point that Awesome Indies at least have taken the brave step to expand their criteria for certain genres so as to recognise that “good” means different things in different contexts.
Why I'm an Indie
What I want to do is offer two observations. First, I am “indie” for a reason. A reason that has to do in equal parts with awkwardness, nicheness, overwheening artistic vanity, an outsider complex, a passionate belief that no one knows my readers better than me, and an equally passionate belief that art cannot be distilled to quantifiables or commodity status. I believe as though my life depended upon it in the priority of the subjective over the objective, and that the most important thing about a book is that it speaks to me at the deepest level. That is why I look for new books to people I know share my taste. We mustn’t replicate what we became indie to escape – we have a tabula rasa and should use it to celebrate the rich panoply of values and experiences in our new land. If we keep too many gates, we are in danger of forcing some of the most original voices to move out of Indieland in search of yet another frontier.
The Disparate Nature of Indies
Second, the power of the indie community is its fragmentedness. It is wonderful to have places where we can all hang out and share, but what makes hanging out and sharing so exciting is that we are all so different and bring such diverse creative values and styles to the meeting. To do justice to the indie community, we can’t treat it as such – a single community with a single way of doing things. We don’t want to build a mall, we want to build a bustling market full of the myriad sensual treats of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. And that means not claiming to single out “the best” as though the best saffron were the same as the best silk hijab. It means celebrating the differences and championing “the best” within each very small section, acknowledging that it will mean different things for each.
The great thing about indies is that one size doesn’t fit all, that there is no one stop shop, and if we’re going to do justice to the landscape of Indieland and the readers who’d like it here then our showcases must reflect that, must be unafraid to be subjective, to be our trusted friend rather than our quantifying teacher, and must be proud of their limitations of scope. Those things aren’t weaknesses. They’re the key to our success.