I was delighted to read about The Guardian's fist self-published book prize awarded to Tom Moran for his debut novel 'Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers'. I've been watching this new offering from The Guardian since it was first announced a few months ago and, as something heavily involved in the publishing industry, I see it as a huge step forward for boosting the awareness that great books can come from the self-published world!
Self-publishing is a double-edged sword because, whilst it provides people with a direct route to market, some of the cheaper, automated publishers offer their services to absolutely anyone, regardless of the quality and presentation of the written work. This is where the problem lies, as it's not the content or the idea of self-published books that often lets it down, but the delivery.
I believe that like anything, writing is a skill that needs to be learned and refined. Very rarely in publishing is the first raw edit of a book ready for market. Having a book proof-read, checked for flow and ease of reading and even tested by a sample group of readers for reviews and feedback are all essential elements to ensuring that the final book is the best it can be. The problem lies in the fact that not everyone is committed to this view and so the market has become overcrowded with half-finished, unrefined ideas that have been muddled together into what is then grouped into the category of a 'self-published book'.
The result of this has been that editors have had to draw a firm line under accepting any self-published work. As Ron Wooston from The Washington Post so rightly said,
"The Washington Post doesn't review self-published books, although we sometimes write features about the (very rare) breakout successes. It's not that we don't think there are any good self-published books; we just don't have a way to handle the volume."
In Ron's article, he also cited the view of Claire Armitstead, the Guardian's literary editor, who agreed with him that reviewing self-published books presents a significant challenge.
"The metaphor of needles and haystacks comes to mind. But just because the haystack is huge, and largely composed of hay, doesn't mean there aren't needles in it. The question is how to find them."
So, what can those 'needles' do to improve their chances of being seen? The Guardian's monthly book prize for self-published titles is certainly a step in the right direction, but I suspect they will soon find themselves overwhelmed with demand from those seeking recognition.
More needs to be done to help identify those really great titles and one movement that is trying to make this happen is the field of 'co-operative publishing', whereby the author makes a contribution to the cost of publishing their book, but still receives the support and guidance of a publishing company for key aspects such as copy layout and flow and cover design. A good co-operative publisher also takes care of the book launch, publicity, ongoing marketing, sales to bookstores and professional distribution. Having the book available via hundreds of channels and not just one (online) retailer results in more book sales for the author, more exposure and more opportunities from the extended reach. This model offers authors a middle ground, providing the benefits of lower cost and author involvement associated with self-publishing, whilst also providing that all important 'sanity check', professionalism and reach that comes with more traditional publishing routes.
It might seem slightly controversial to suggest that we need to create 'classes' of self-published books, but in the current marketplace, there doesn't seem to be any other clear way of helping those really talented authors to break through the noise.
I will end with one of my sayings, which I've carried around for years, which is that 'every book deserves to be written and published'. I believe that helping people of all walks of life to see their writing through from concept to completion is a positive move forward in the world of publishing, but I do feel that without more ways of recognising those truly great diamonds in the rough, we could risk missing out on potential game-changing authors, who may be sitting on the next global best-seller!