There was a discussion recently in one of my Facebook groups about a possible BookBub for indies. If you don’t know of the service, BookBub has a massive mailing list of readers, and their daily blasts move a TON of titles. Subscribers sign up for their preferred genres and are then notified when books they might enjoy are on sale for cheap. Many an author has hit a bestseller list thanks almost solely to BookBub. The program is so powerful that many consider BookBub to be the best marketing tool available to authors today, if you can snag a spot.
And therein lies the rub. The reason BookBub works is because its users trust them. The works are vetted, and however imperfect this system, it results in a high level of trust and satisfaction. From what I understand, BookBub looks for a minimum number of Amazon reviews, a minimum average ranking, and solid cover art/blurb/etc. For readers, a BookBub promotion serves as a stamp of approval.
The indie equivalent might be a website like IndieReader.com that reviews self-published titles. Except IR.com doesn’t have a BookBub system where authors pay to schedule a blast, and millions of readers get a recommendation in their email inbox. BookBub users, you see, are avid readers. They WANT recommendations. They’ve already read everything on the bestseller lists of their favorite genres, and they need something new. They need two or three books a week.
Now, the best thing about indie publishing in my opinion is the complete lack of gatekeepers. This allows any voice equal access to the infinite number of available podiums. Minority voices, gay voices, male romance writers and female sci-fi writers, and all the quirky between-genre works are given a spot. These works would never see the light of day in the no-risk blockbuster model employed by the Big 5 (and that includes most of my works). Gatekeepers are bad for literature. They stifle. They censure. They play it safe.
But readers aren’t all the same. Readers, in fact, are very different from one another. Some only want to read what everyone else is reading, so they can join a movement and a discussion. Some stick to what’s been adapted to the big and small screen, or what’s hit the NYT and USA Today lists. Some enjoy scouring for hidden gems deep within their favorite genres. Some rely on their social media feeds, or their favorite Goodreads reviewers, or Amazon’s recommendation algorithms.
Saying there shouldn’t be any gatekeepers in publishing is to ignore all the readers who prefer to have some sorting done. And these readers vary considerably in how much sorting they like. The fact that self-published ebook authors now out-earn their traditional counterparts shows that even without gatekeepers and sorting, readers are going to stumble upon a LOT of indie titles. And the fact that these titles have higher average customer reviews shows that gatekeepers aren’t needed in order to ensure a quality reading experience. So this isn’t about gatekeepers being necessary. This is about gatekeepers augmenting an already successful and maturing indie literature landscape.
For indies to have a BookBub equivalent, they need to establish trust with readers. Let’s say we start a program called IndieDeals. We celebrate the independent nature of the works, touting the fact that these are reading experiences you won’t find from the mega-corps who play it safe and xerox last year’s bestsellers. You are getting indie books like you get your indie rock and indie films. You are also hearing about the BEST works at the BEST prices. These are titles that readers have already enjoyed, but now at limited-time, rock-bottom prices.
Would readers be interested in this? A great many would, I think. Including myself. But how do you make it easy for IndieDeals to vet the absolute flood of submissions they’d receive from authors hoping for a promotional slot? You can look at review count and average like BookBub does. You can also check out the cover, the blurb, and read 2-3 pages of the sample. You can look at the body of work from the author. Do they have several titles available? All look professional? All have a moderate sales history?
Remember, the goal here isn’t to serve the authors’. That can’t be the focus. The goal of a promo list like BookBub is to serve the readers. As soon as you fail to do that, you lose their trust, and now the program is worthless. Some authors seem to be looking for a BookBub that does less vetting, that will take anyone and anything, and somehow still provide a massive sales boost. This is impossible. There are readers who want gatekeepers, and figuring out how to reach those readers requires new ways of thinking.
It starts with learning not to hate the idea of gatekeepers. This is difficult. The existing and historical gatekeepers have been so completely awful at their jobs, that it has hurt the entire concept of gatekeeping. The existing gatekeepers are bad at their jobs for a few reasons, worth listing here so that we can begin thinking of gatekeepers who won’t suck at what they do:
1) The existing gatekeepers confuse their taste for readers’ tastes. What we get are too many works beloved by MFA grads and unpaid interns, and not enough awesome urban fantasy, romance, sci-fi, and fantasy. You know — the books avid readers are consuming at a prodigious pace, and the books that they need at great prices and from deep down the bestseller rankings. The very books we need more of, along with a discovery engine that churns rapidly and accurately to increase the number of titles gaining exposure.
2) The next big problem is that the first two tiers of gatekeepers have no control over what actually gets published. This is a big problem with the current system. The bean-counters are the only real gatekeepers who matter. You’ve got two outer walls in this keep (the shark-infested moat of agents and the great wall of editorial), but the door to the palace is the only one that matters. For a work to get financed, it better look like the last works that made a lot of money. That means the same names every year, and the same plots/characters, until those plots/characters stop making money.
No risks are taken at this final gate, and the outer gatekeepers know this. So a lovely manuscript shows up beyond the moat, a blue shawl wrapped around her head, lovely prose bundled and mewing against her chest, and a mix of genres across her fine face that is both exotic and beguiling. The outer gatekeepers swoon, knowing this is the one they’ve been looking for. Alas, they turn her away, having had this discussion with the king and his viziers too many times. Their sci-fi needs to be pure sci-fi, and from a white male, please. Get this hag some gender-obscuring initials or send her on her way. (Or the same for a male romance writer, or an author who writes with gay characters who engage in plots not about their gayness, and so on.)
3) The existing gatekeeping system has no patience for artistic development. Editorial is a thing of the past, and so is the system of giving budding talent the time to mature and develop a following. Related to this is the need for gatekeepers today to find works that will sell in the hundreds of thousands. Being good is not enough. They need to find what is profitable with the least amount of sunk cost and time. That means looking for celebrity (Snooki), name recognition (the already top-selling or popular in another medium), and clones (this manuscript is a lot like Twilight!).
Look, it’s easy to rag on gatekeepers with all the limitations they have to work with and what they are after (quick scores with minimal risk). The shame is that they’ve muddied the concept of gatekeeping in general. The problem with gatekeeping, in essence, is that it has to be exclusionary. This goes against the idea of self-publishing, where everyone is allowed access. But initial access to the market is not the same as equal access to all parts of the market, and this is where we need to start thinking about the positive aspects of gatekeeping.
Let’s look at romance novels as an example. When I wrote The Shell Collector, I wanted to write a true romance novel, which meant giving the work a Happily Ever After (HEA). If you don’t have this, you haven’t written a romance novel. Hey, that’s pretty exclusionary, right? Right. Because it’s all about the readers. And they have certain expectations. Here, the gatekeeping is by convention, and it is policed by both authors and readers. If you sell a work as a romance, and one of the protagonists dies of cancer at the end, enjoy your 1-star reviews explaining that this isn’t a romance novel, and that any reader going in expecting to get the product they were promised is going to be disappointed.
Reader expectations makes for a lot of necessary gatekeeping. Will the digital file be formatted properly to work on all devices? Technical requirements like this are a form of gatekeeping. As are cover art dimensions and resolution requirements from self-pub retailers like Amazon and the iBookstore. Or having the work in the language specified. And free enough of typos to be enjoyed. Here, the readers serve as gatekeepers. Riddle your work with errors, and you’ll get enough bad reviews to stop future readers from taking a chance. That’s gatekeeping, and the kind we should applaud. The kind that should cause us to take our craft seriously and improve our work.
It’s obvious to me, then, that gatekeepers come in all shapes and sizes, and many are quite good at what they do. It’s also obvious to me that different readers want a different level of sorting and sifting. Some want none at all. But indies are missing out on the subset of readers who want their works vetted. The kind of readers who trust the BookBubs of the world.
What I’d love to see is a network of indie editors take over this role. But it might require an entity such as IndieReader.com, or Goodreads, or a few highly motivated individuals to tackle properly, but here is how I think it would look:
A network of IndieCertified editors, formatters, and cover artists would be listed on a single site for authors to employ. The cover artists and formatters would gain admission through their portfolios. The editors through their previous works or on a trial period (perhaps with recs from other editors or writers). Any and all are welcome to apply for certification. The idea here is that you can’t have enough qualified professionals available. It’s not about excluding, so much as giving a place for committed professionals to gather. If a hopeful applicant is committed, they should have the chops or be willing to develop the chops to get in.
Keep in mind, this is all about the readers. This isn’t about giving every hopeful cover artist or editor free entry. Some people will be denied, and yeah, that sucks. It should pain any of us artists to think about rejection in the indie world. And it should give us pause to consider the creation of tiers, or haves and have-nots. The last thing we should want is to become like the big publishing houses, where our works are stale, formulaic, and all the same. But there’s a broad space between censorship and complete lack of quality control. A very broad space. We should be able to stake out some territory here without crossing offending lines.
Not only would this sort of collective assist writers in finding top-notch talent whose production schedules aren’t completely packed (looking at you, David Gatewood), it would also earn titles a stamp of quality assurance, so readers interested in such vetting would know that the work has been edited by a professional with a proven track record (or proven ability). This would allow an email blast system like IndieDeals to know the work has already been checked for the basics of quality assurance. All they would then have to look at is number of reviews and average, to allow readers to vet the plot and actual reading enjoyment.
It’s important to remember that the pie of readership is not limited or fixed. If readers begin to enjoy their pastime more, while finding consistently great deals, they’ll have both the motivation to read more and the means to purchase more titles. When you look at how much time and money goes to the video game industries, TV, film, social media, and the like … you can clearly see that literature has room to grow tenfold or a hundredfold by taking time and money away from other pursuits. The limit here is completely up to the value experienced by the users. The higher that value (which is a mix of enjoyment and price), the more they’ll engage.
Going after readers who prefer vetted materials is a way of expanding that total pie, especially for indie authors. And doing what it takes to win those readers over will likely increase engagement from other types of readers. The next goal should be to figure out how to win non-readers over and get them hooked. Indies should be thinking about these issues a lot, because they aren’t the concern of the blockbuster BPH model of publishing, which seems to look at the world as a limited pie, unable to grow, everyone fighting over the same crumbs.
I have some ideas as well on how to win over new readers to the fold and grow that total pie. More on that in a future blog post…
53 replies to “Gatekeepers for Indie Publishing”
Great overview. It amazes me how little I’m tuned into what’s going on in the e-publishing world around me. I’d never heard of BookBub – I really need to get my head out of alien worlds more often and contemplate some of these options available to indie authors. Thanks, Hugh for talking about this program … I did notice “Wool” was listed on their home page collage of book covers – did you or are you using BookPub? Good / bad? effective? I’m typically leery of things like this – and it’s not cheap, this is a service that an indie author pays for. For some that have not hit their stride yet, the $400 to $700 would be a hefty investment. I may give it a try for one of my lesser known book series … maybe. — mark
I know you addressed this to Hugh but thought the views of a less well known (much, much, much less well known) author might be relevant. I’ve been fortunate enough to score several BookBub promos over the last couple of years, and I’ve yet to have one that didn’t return at least triple the cost of the promo on the day of the promo, to say nothing of the follow on ‘halo effect’ on sales. I can’t speak to others’ experience and as they say, YMMV, but my view is that anyone who can snag a BB promo should, regardless of where they are on their career path. I’m a fan.
And to Hugh, thank you for yet another great, common sense post. I’d certainly be all for additional promotional tools that allow us to serve our readerships with quality content.
Your experiences with BookBub match everything else I’ve heard. They pretty much always pay off, and then some.
Mr Howey do you think ebooks will replace the ordinary books? Cause I found more and more people around me are using Kindle or something else instead of ‘real’ books.
I love Kindle, but I love ‘real’ book even more.
Thanks, Mark – yeah … I’m ridiculously out of touch so your real-world experience/advice gives me some good perspective. I’ll certainly give it a try! With that said, I’d be interested in Hugh’s indireader.com suggestion and will watch for any plans to make this a reality. If there’s anything I could do to help – let me know. — mark
As an avid reader myself (over 150 books per year), I’ve been very dissatisfied with BookBub’s offerings for a while now. I know that it’s the “holy grail” for independent advertising out there, and they are notoriously picky in their selection… BUT, (as a reader) I’ve not seen where the “quality” and “vetting” is coming into play on the list. I might pick up one or two books a year from BookBub. I regularly get book recommendations from other services now (like book gorilla, romance reads, and scifi365).
Outside of that, I think a IndieCertified label for editors, formatters, and cover artists is sorely needed. I’ve seen way to many talented and smart indie authors fall for unqualified and over priced “professionals” offering services. Word of mouth is the best we have, but that isn’t enough. And these pseudo-professionals are give indie publishing a bad name.
What Bookbub is doing isn’t really gatekeeping. They are not judging books against a standard of quality. They’re just selecting products that will generate a high response rate against the list they have built. Same as LL Bean or Fingerhut. Bookbub does not own “the” list of ebook buyers. It owns a list. Each list is different. A product that performs poorly against one list might hit it out of the park with another.
The problem is, Bookbub just doesn’t have any serious competitors. It’s a real company, with nice offices in very expensive Cambridge, and money behind it. A lot of the other promo sites look like some guy is running them out of his basement. They’re not in the same league as far as initial investment.
I just got turned down by the Bub for the 4th or 5th time. *blows on nails* Lol. I really would love to see an alternative for indies come about! We definitely need more independents vouching for good self-published titles.
This might be an obvious question…
But is there A similar vetting for indie film and music? How is the best indie stuff there curated? Festivals? How would have work for books?
Maybe there is something we can borrow from the other indie art scenes…
Great question. For film, I’ve relied on art houses who only try to get in stuff they’ve screened and liked. And Rottentomatoes has tons of DVD reviews for stuff I’ve never heard of. Anything in the 80s and above is generally worth my time.
Music is so much easier and quicker to sample that it doesn’t have the same problem books do. You need to invest 6-20 hours in a novel to tell if it’s worth it. Vs. 1-5 minutes in a song.
True, the time factor is different.
Tv series might be the closest. Sopranos, the wire, lost, house of cards, game of thrones, true detective… They will all eat many more than 20hours of your time…
But they are so expensive that there isn’t really indie shows like that.
The independent film world revolves around festivals– Sundance, Cannes, etc. These serve as the places where indie films are first shown and if they do well with gatekeeper audiences and win awards from the juries, that’s how they acquire distribution. Even budding screenwriters can launch a career through a festival.
For books, I would see the equivalent as being the prizes like Pulitzer, National Book Award, etc. Just as the films have already been produced before they are shown, these prizes go to books that are already published.
Filmmakers rack up substantial costs in bringing their films to festivals, traditional publishers not so much in applying for these types of high visibility prizes, unless you count the cost of developing relationships and all of the buzz-building that goes into an “important” book.
Due to the cost to administer contests, many of the ones that would accept books from indies smack of scamminess–not actual prestige. A Caldecott Medal sells books, a Mom’s Choice Award– not so much. There’s no fee to submit to the Caldecott committee because it is part of the American Library Association. Mom’s Choice will cost you $150…
This was something that I was saying more than a decade ago during the early nerd wars about the potential for electronic publishing (as it was known then).
To a certain degree, readers, or even consumers in general, are looking for some way to sort through the abundance of things being offered to them. In the past that was done by the publishers in one form or another.
The great hope with the move to electronic publishing was that, like with Google’s much vaunted search algorithm that revealed relevant web pages, that there would arise an automated method for helping readers find what they were wanting to read next or what’s the best alien invasion story, etc. To a degree, this is the “Also Bought” algorithm working for users.
But, in the case of algorithmically generated results like Also Boughts, the system can be abused and manipulated to show long running popular results that respond to advertising and other promotions. This also happened in the Apple App Store’s games section and has resulted in a recent change to curated lists (http://techcrunch.com/2015/06/07/why-i-cautiously-support-the-app-store-change/).
I agree that there is still a place of curation of lists of books. Even with the abundance of choice available, there are some traditional editors that I would pay attention to for anthologies or the like.
Let’s reach back to 50s SF so that we don’t offend anyone currently living. At that time, Anthony Boucher (of F&SF) and John W. Campbell (at Astounding, later Analog) were the leading magazine editors and they both represented a particular “brand” of SF that they published. Transported to the abundance of material today, I could see a newsletter with Anthony Boucher selections being of interest to readers that embraced the sort of stories like those written by Phillip K. Dick. John W. Campbell selections might show an evolution or range from the astounding tales of super science to some of the later stories of lurking paranoia like Who Goes There (inspiration for the movie The Thing). Both knew how to select stories that were both good in a literary sense (for their time) and which were likely to be popular as well.
I see no problems with gatekeepers like this and having some ways to reveal and highlight new writers and new work by existing writers (just as Apple is doing with IOS games) is both necessary and valuable.
I’ve made as much as $6,000 in a month after using BookBub. Then after a BookBub drought I’ve had as low as a $1,000 month. I hate the feeling of reliance on them. They are a great company, but what stinks is that I feel like my writing career hinges on getting a promotion. Without them I’m a forgotten writer in a sea of endless indie authors.
I didn’t make near that with the couple of promos I had with them last year, but it was far and away my best months as an indie author since I started in 2010. I’ve submitted several times since and no luck. Now that they are bringing in trad pubbed offerings, it’s even more difficult to snag a slot with them.
There are LOTS of sites out there looking to become the “Next Bookbub”, but they are all orders of magnitude less effective. In addition, those that do have a pretty good track record seem to have largely the same offerings each day, meaning that when a successful author is having a sale, they advertise it everywhere, eating up the slots not only on BookBub, but those other sites as well. It creates another system of haves and have-nots which seems prevelant in society as a whole these days.
Yes, this comment is coming off whiney. I realize that. But discoverability is the most frustrating issue for indie authors. (insert artists, musicians, filmmakers) How can we develop a mechanism that gains the trust of consumers, yet still offers a chance to those who haven’t quite broken through?
Like most authors, I’d love to be able to have a Bookbub promo.
The price in the category I’d do best in, however, is more than the average mortgage payment, and I flat can’t afford it.
ENT, or Ereader News Today, is my advertising buddy. Not as expensive as Bookbub, and not as many downloads, either…but it’s worth the money, and fits my budget.
If you could find the money for it, it would pay for itself, that’s for sure.
Oh, I agree completely, Jason.
Another point about BookBub is they make money not only from the fees they get but from the sales they generate. When a reader clicks the Amazon link in a BookBub email, a code embedded in the link gives BookBub affiliate credit for the sale. The exception, of course, is for free books, which have no code because those downloads would do BookBub more harm than good. For those books, the only money BookBub gets is the fee the author or publisher pays. It seems to me they try to keep at least one free book per email.
I can’t IMAGINE what they’re making in affiliate money.
I also can’t figure out why Amazon, iBookstore, or Kobo haven’t come up with a BookBub alternative. Amazon does Daily Deals and the like, but it’s curated internally.
And BookBub has grown so much that they’ve had to change their policy several times. Back in the day I could get a promotion with the same book every 3 months. Now it’s every six months. I fear the day when it’s the one book every year or even only allowing the same author once every 3 months.
I used Bookbub extensively in 2013, which was my best year ever in sales, thanks to Bookbub. I didn’t have trouble getting accepted multiple times and with multiple books. Then, abruptly, it was like I had hit an invisible wall. They rejected every submission I made, including books that had previously been accepted.
Then KU happened and I had to rework my entire sales strategy.
My sales are now climbing up to toward 2013 levels, very slowly — and I’m not using Bookbub because there’s no point in trying. I’ve developed alternative methods instead.
The idea of gatekeepers gives me the willies. Every single one of them, including Bookbub, refuse to disclose their selection method and criteria. It’s that “behind closed doors” rationale that is so hard to deal with. I want to know what I can do to improve my chances of being accepted by whatever gatekeeper I must tackle. If there must be gatekeepers, they should be held accountable for their selection methods or we’re right back to legacy publishing attitudes (that also make me break out in hives).
I had the same experience. I was flying high with BookBub in 2013 and 2014 (and as others have said, it more than pays for itself), but suddenly found my work rejected, often the same work that was accepted previously. It’s like hitting a wall and there’s no one to really ask to sort out why or how it happened.
But that said, I agree with Hugh that something else needs to arise — and whether that’s IndieReader (a great site) or something else — it needs to be able to reject books on the basis of subjective criteria. If we create an alternative that accepts anything and everything, readers will not trust it and it will be valueless to all concerned.
Hugh’s ideas are intriguing about a list of editors and cover artists to work with. I would certainly recommend both of mine. But finding the right mix of who can be on that list or who would be rejected from it could prove very difficult.
I had exactly the same experience Tracy. I did well with them until they suddenly decided their readers weren’t interested in my books, even the one with over 200 reviews, a 4.4 star average and an award winning cover–everything they claim to want. Imo, BookBub is THE Indie gatekeeper: their acceptance or rejection can make or break a book and the author’s income. I, like you, wish that gatekeepers should make their process known–really known, not just PR hooha. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
I’m not familiar with IndieReader (though I will check it out now) but Awesome Indies and IndieBrag vet books for quality. I’m sure there are other groups doing the same.
Not sure I like the idea of putting together a list of trusted editors and cover artists at the exclusion of others. Nor am I sure it would do much for readers. As a reader, I don’t care who edited the book I’m reading so long as it’s readable and I’m having a good experience. I also don’t care who the cover artist is so long as it’s an appealing cover. As a writer, I check these things so I can use such folks on my own books, but as a reader I only notice the editing when it’s poor. And a cover either catches my attention or it doesn’t, regardless of who designed it.
I love the idea of more mailers for all kinds of books and I’m all for more reviews. But when cultivating gatekeepers for the Indie Revolution, we must not make the mistake of ANIMAL FARM. Just as the animals didn’t want to look around and see there’s no difference between the pigs and the farmers, we don’t want to see there’s one day no difference between traditional gatekeepers and indie friendly gatekeepers.
As for editors seeking white males–this appears to be true only so long as the white males aren’t writing about non-white males. I recently had the experience of professional editors at major houses telling me they couldn’t publish books about minority characters written by white males, even though they mostly publish white males (so who is going to write the diverse books the hashtag says we need?). The whole thing made me so mad I wrote a blog post about it: http://www.middlegradeninja.com/2015/03/ninja-stuff-on-heartbreak-and-diversity_27.html
I think Hugh means his Good Housekeeping seal to be visible to authors, not readers. So an author who wanted a good cover could actually find a designer capable of producing one.
That said, to me it still sounds like the clang of the drawbridge being pulled up once the first movers are safely inside.
I’m not a candidate for Vetting Editor or Visual Artist, because I put my attention on writing. But I’m a pretty good organizer. I can Get Things Done. Let me help with this.
I actually run something for indies much like Bookbub. Our latest enterprise is creating something that NO OTHER advertising venue is doing, because new is what’s needed. I’m being a bit guarded about it because we’re still in the process of setting it up, but if you’d like to know about it Hugh, please do drop me a line. I think you’d quite like it. It’s a lot of fun, if I’m being honest, but it’s still in the testing phase.
I absolutely agree with your assessment though Hugh. Thanks for remaining the sane voice in an otherwise very loud marketplace of advice, and I’d love to see what you’re going to do.
Brilliant thoughts, articulately described. You are onto something here, Hugh. I hope someone more tech savvy than I (low bar there) is truly able to make this happen. I use BookBub as a reader, I’ve noticed a recent drop in quality; some of what I’ve purchased is really not very good but I still check it daily and purchase when I see something I like. As an author I’ve not yet tried it. The genre of my book — Memoir — is pretty pricy and the predictions on their site for sales of memoir (even a gripping one like mine, I say, somewhat tongue in cheek) aren’t so high. I have the required number of good Amazon reviews so I could consider submitting but I haven’t yet taken the plunge. With a site dedicated to the indies, I think I’d be more inclined to give it a try. Really thought provoking post, though. Thanks for taking the considerable time to write and share this.
I would love help wading through the millions of titles out there to find my next book, but I don’t want another website or email list. I just want to know if a book is good enough to finish. Amazon could easily allow the reader to serve as the gatekeeper by publishing the “finish rate” for every book.
Amazon knows how far you have read on your Kindle. Imagine this information displayed next to the reviews:
“76% of readers finished within 4 days.” This sounds like a quick read. I like the subject matter and the reviews look promising. I’m in.
“93% of readers finished within 28 days.” Ok, this one’s going to take a while, but it will be worth it. Perfect for my next vacation.
“32% of readers finished within 11 days. Hmmm. I don’t care if it’s a bestseller with fantastic reviews. If most people give up on it, I probably will too. Pass.
I think indie books would make a strong showing against traditionally published books, because, like you said Hugh, indies are writing books that readers want to read – “the books avid readers are consuming at a prodigious pace.” But the important thing is that books good enough to finish would rise to the top, regardless of who wrote them.
I’ve asked for this as well, as a consumer and an author.
Did you get any response?
I have a slightly different take on this.
Sure, it would be nice to have another Bookbub that was more indy friendly, cheaper, easy to get access too, or just another Bookbub.
But it seems that Bookbub works because there are readers who like the idea of signing up and getting daily deals for Kindle books. Another Bookbub would probably not grow the audience of readers, it would simply give readers who like daily deals more alternatives. I think most of the readers of a new Bookbub would come from cannibalizing the other one. (Even if only cannibalizing future Bookbub subscribers.) Not that wouldn’t be a good thing. Competition usually is.
Likewise, Amazon is already offering lots of deals and sales and lists and other ways for existing readers to find material. I’m not really sure that the hard core Kindle reader (or ebook reader) is having any trouble finding books to read, or feeling unserviced.
I think the real issue is how to bring in new readers and occasional readers. How do we compete, as you’ve often speculated Hugh, with the other forms of media that compete for readers interests?
The answer to that I think is branding. Bookbub is a brand, and it appeals to people who love reading and love ebooks. But it is a general brand and I don’t think it’s appealing to people who aren’t big readers or who aren’t already looking for books.
I think what we need more are curators/gatekeepers who target specific audiences like military fiction, sci-fi, history, etc. (Romance may already be covered, but I don’t know enough about that.) It seems to me that Bookbub does what a lot of the big publishers do, which is try to be a jack of all trades and cover everything. The burden is put upon the reader to decide what genres they like, and their interests are mixed with variety of offerings.
However, if there was something like a bookbub that specifically targeted history fans, offered a variety of book deals, but maybe also had articles of interest, articles grouping books by topic, etc. Something that really became a brand that attracted new readers and occasional readers. Likewise in Sci-Fi, Horror, and other genres.
Maybe a series of brands could be serviced by a single company, but I almost think they would be better if they were managed separately by people who really understood their core audience.
An old guy who loves collecting military artifacts, might be drawn to a military brand and end up finding he really enjoys reading ebooks. A fan of anime might discover that there are books that are as fun as videos. A horror movie fan might be drawn to reading horror books if they were curated in a way that was attractive. This is kind of what strikes me as the next step to really building the broader audience for ebooks.
Very cogent points. One of the problems I see with things like BookBub (which I have found many good books through BTW) is that their criteria for vetting leaves out so many excellent writers who may not have had a lot of sales yet due to lack of visibility or are the victim of review ennui. By that I mean those readers who may have enjoyed a book but can’t be bothered to remember to return to Amazon or wherever and review.
There needs to be a category in these indie blasts that takes into account new authors and works that might not have the following but fit the criteria of quality. There has to be a way to make this happen not only for those authors but for the rabid reader (such as myself) who is constantly in search of something fresh but well written. Too many of the current vetted email blasts begin to sound redundant – how many post zombie apocalypse stories of a man struggling to reach his family can I read?
I think that part of the problem right now is that the existing gatekeeping mechanisms aren’t very good. For example, Amazon still hasn’t figured out that I only buy full-length novels with 4.0 ratings or higher which are priced at less than $6 despite having three years worth of data on my searching & buying habits.
So when I’m researching on Amazon to find something new to read, my search results are still filled with 99 cent short stories, low-rated items, and books priced over $6, none of which I will ever purchase.
What’s needed isn’t more gatekeepers, its better ones…
I’m gutted by Bookbub’s many rejections, to the point I won’t submit my books to them any longer.
I have the feeling that your book must have gathered hundreds of reviews before being accepted by Bookbub, which in my book means the book is a success BEFORE being accepted.
I absolutely agree with Tracy when she says: “The idea of gatekeepers gives me the willies. Every single one of them, including Bookbub, refuse to disclose their selection method and criteria. It’s that “behind closed doors” rationale that is so hard to deal with. I want to know what I can do to improve my chances of being accepted by whatever gatekeeper I must tackle. If there must be gatekeepers, they should be held accountable for their selection methods or we’re right back to legacy publishing attitudes (that also make me break out in hives).”
I was just saying recently in Facebook that the readers are much more tolerant than the authors, and that, as a whole, there are more apt at judging the quality of the self-published books than any single author, because they read much more, as a whole, than any single author.
Maybe Bookbub is run by authors?
We authors have sharp critical minds. If there were only authors to read books, I bet there would be much, much less books written, because if there’s a thing that a critical mind can do, it’s destroying creativity.
[…] then there’s Hugh Howey suggesting a Bookbub for indies. Readers as gatekeepers. Why not. I’m trying to be more of a reader this year, and trying to […]
I’m a little late to this party but… this is one of the things the self-pub committee is working on for SFWA: we want to make the organization a brand where people can go to find trad, hybrid, and indie writers with proven track records, writing in the genres they already know they love. We just launched our “new fiction from our members!” newsletter, which we’re hoping to grow, along with some other plans on similar lines.
But I am here taking notes from you and the people in your comments about what we can do to make ourselves more attractive to readers, definitely. :)
I like the idea of an Indie BookBub, but hate your ideas for vetting, which don’t really add anything to what BookBub is already doing.
I think one problem with BookBub is that near exclusion of brand new titles by brand new authors, because they don’t have reviews or a history to go by. A true “Indie” version should have ways around that–not just resort to essentially the same old methods. How?
Anyone submitting to IndieBub agrees to have their work randomly distributed to some subset of IndieBub’s large mass of (vetted and certified) volunteer “quality checkers” free of charge to be read and ranked. IndieBub tallies (anonymously–it doesn’t even know which of its readers get which books) rankings from these free readers and offers paid spots based on those books that ranked highest. Each book will go out to numerous volunteers, in a random and anonymous distribution process, the rankings are anonymous, and only IndieBub sees them.
Qualifying volunteers get free books to read (and to stay in, must meet some basic participation rules), and IndieBub gets to choose among books not because of their masses of fake Amazon reviews or the previous work of the author, but by a strong metric of reader enjoyment for the particular work.
That would be a great thing. I propose an even better thing: prior to sending them to the volunteers, IndieBub attributes a number to each ebook and makes the ebook anonymous, removing the cover and any mention of the author’s name. Or, to lighten the IndieBub’s work, the authors send ebook versions of their work already made anonymous (one anonymous version, one complete version with the cover and the author’s name).
IndieBub attributes a number to the ebook in order to recognize them. Once the anonymous ebooks come back, the Inbdibub team can judge by the ranking and appreciation if the author should have his/her cover remade, or if the book would need to be edited.
IndieBub could even send this kind of message to the involved authors by creating a special category: “great books, don’t judge them by their cover” in its newsletter sent to the readers.
Let’s face it: the publishing landscape, even the indie publishing landscape, is ruthless and favors the “have” (a great name) rather than the “have not”.
It’s up to us, the indie authors to make things smoother and more human. It will benefit both readers and authors.
The rules would be clear, transparent, and there would be a website displaying each author’s ranking (only the involved authors could log in).
Bookbub has changed. If you were to pitch Wool to BookBub today as an unknown they would not have you. I used to be carried by Bookbub regularly. In fact I followed your model in many ways writing shorter stories, setting the first one cheap. I couldn’t do perma free because Amazon no longer allows it. I had merged them together to advertise on Bookbub, but Bookbub no longer allows this either. This morning I received a rejection from Bookbub, not for editorial reasons but because they said every book in the collection must have more than 150 pages. Even though my series is continuing saga, much like Wool and the collection more than meets the overall page requirement. I followed your model as inspiration and had two successful years under that model, but it is no longer valid because Bookbub has changed. Today I am spending my morning talking to Amazon to see if I can merge all of my shorts into one book, not call it a collection and hopefully not lose my 1,300 reviews. This year they have not carried any of the three books that last year were amongst their best performers. I know my book quality isn’t the problem. The book I was rejected for this morning was won of the winners of the Writer’s Digest prize for best genre fiction of 2014. BookBub has just changed.
Bookbub has changed for all the reasons mentioned above. My first Bookbub was a gift; they pimped one of my books without my knowledge, that’s how early I was in with them. Over the next year plus every single submission I made was accepted – I spent over $5000 with them in 2013. Then, poof – it all changed.
I still get accepted nearly monthly, but also get rejected several times in between. My last mystery promo severely under-performed compared to the norm. I typically would garner 5000 sales in the first 72 hours post-Bub, but this time had less than half of that.
Sign of things to come? My next promo runs in 6 days, will be interesting to see.
P.S. ‘not being able to afford Bookbub’ is a lousy excuse. I’ve paid for Bub instead of eating lunch for a week. I’ve mowed lawns in 95 degree weather for a month, I’ve maxed out my credit cards, etc. all for the glorious Bookbub. In the real business world, the immediate ROI offered by Bub just doesn’t happen. Any sacrifice to garner a promo is worth it. Just do it.
One does not simply walk in to Mordor OR get a Bookbub ad.
I had a BB ad for my Red Baron book, and it was amazing. There are other outlets likes Ereader news today and book gorilla that do the same thing as BB to a smaller e-mail list and for a cheaper price. IndieReader news today would struggle to get recognition like that Path website does against Facebook.
I think it’s a great idea, throw an IndieReader news today approved stamp on an indie book would be a great way to poop-screen books for a discerning public.
As for BB’s quality guarantee, I once downloaded a spy thriller on their list that was so bad I had to delete it before it someone infected the rest of my kindle with it’s awfulness.
[…] to face outward and give us their viewpoints in the wider industry, Howey in his column this week, Gatekeepers for Indie Publishing, is very much facing authors, even facing down some inevitable […]
As Hugh has noted previously, “the glut is good”. Reader choice is at an all time high. But there’s an enormous downside. There’s an ocean of books out there now. Not all of it is good. Most certainly, most of it isn’t for “me”. And the gatekeepers seem to only share my taste some of the time – and there’s a lot of them. Who has time to keep up with all of that? How do you find the truly great books?
There’s no such thing as a great book in the abstract. What’s great for me isn’t great for you.
What’s needed is a system that truly understands me, what authors and books I love, and can bring me relevant, interesting, high quality things, perhaps culled from what the gatekeepers are writing about. A “personalized Gatekeeper”, if you will. (Disclaimer: I’m building such an animal).
Very well put on the pros of gatekeeping — (mind you, I think we need a more positive word to describe it, which embodies the sentiment of quality assurance to meet readers’ needs). I’ve not used them but I know that this is something that Reedsy is trying to achieve https://reedsy.com/ — ie provide a market place for quality editors and designers that indies can use. There is also a vetted database within the global not-for-profit Alliance of Independent Authors for members to use [ main site down for maintenance as I type but here’s their blog page at least…http://www.selfpublishingadvice.org/about/ ]
Another Bookbub — yes please. (One dedicated to children’s books would be great too.) I’ve over 50 reviews between the UK and USA (mostly 5- and 4-Star) for my children’s book The Secret Lake — with consistent healthy sales in both print and on Kindle — [well kindle until recently…] and was astonished that it was rejected. I had naively assumed that in the children’s genre they’d be crying out for this type of book!
I came here to mention Reedsy. Neither have I used them, but I did just stumble upon this article by someone who has. It will be interesting to watch their progress:
Bookbub has invested a crap ton of money to buy email lists and they did advertise on Swagbucks and MyPoints to get readers to sign up. The smaller ad sites do work to a lesser extent and IndieReader (I know Amy) spent a lot of money just to get that site up and running. From AMC, Kurkal said BB spent millions in start up money to get going. They used Indies to prove it would work and also because traditional publishers wouldn’t do it. Now that they can prove to trad pubbers that it’s possible they’re using BB (just got the 1st Percy Jackson title for $.99) and, trad pubbers have bigger pockets, have more money to spend.
Can Indies get their own set up? Yes. What’s it going to take? A crap ton of money and a well-vetted program. And time.
One more thing to add. A bestselling author uses BB and has no problem getting on BB anytime she wants and in whatever category she wants. BB has been very, very good to her. BUT, one title of hers on the last BB ad did not do well and BB will no longer take that book for a sale. So, a lot of BBs stuff is – do you sell? Even if you sold well in the past (I’ve heard of this happening) you may not be selling now OR more importantly your sale didn’t do as well as someone else’s sale so they’re going to take the other author over you.
Don’t for one second think that BB is not looking at data and who is selling well, who is selling better than who, and making judgements based on that. :-)
BTW Mr. Howey, you’re WOOL Ominibus is on my reading challenge for next year. :-) My book group is doing an IndieReader reading challenge and picking from their top rated books and yours was on the list.
[…] to face outward and give us their viewpoints in the wider industry, Howey in his column this week, Gatekeepers for Indie Publishing, is very much facing authors, even facing down some inevitable […]
“A network of IndieCertified editors, formatters, and cover artists would be listed on a single site for authors to employ…Not only would this sort of collective assist writers in finding top-notch talent whose production schedules aren’t completely packed…it would also earn titles a stamp of quality assurance, so readers interested in such vetting would know that the work has been edited by a professional with a proven track record (or proven ability).”
It’s funny because I was thinking exactly this a few years ago with a friend — from our reader perspective — and it’s what led us to building Reedsy (which is pretty much perfectly described above). We’re also going to go further down the route of “gatekeeping” and start publishing the best books that go through our marketplace later this year, with a hybrid model, and a bit of crowdsourcing — stay tuned for that.
Your description of the IndieCertified network of experts supporting authors and delivering high quality content to readers reminds me of Reedsy, the publishing startup in London. They’re essentially building exactly what you describe! Have you talked to them yet?