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  1. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Mar 9, 2010
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    Self publishing and the winnowing problem

    Discussion in 'Publishing' started by ChickenFreak, Nov 12, 2011.

    OK, I keep talking about the "winnowing problem" with regard to self-publishing, every time someone says that self-publishing is the way of the future. By "winnowing problem" I'm talking about the fact that there is no quality standard for self-published books, so that any book, no matter how bad, can be self-pubished. This means that readers are likely to shy away from self-published books, because it's just too much work to find the good books among the bad ones.

    I've adopted a practice of checking the publisher when I buy a nonfiction book from an online bookseller, to make sure that it's a traditional publisher. If I find that it's a small press, I do some Googling to see if it appears to be a high-quality small press before I'll buy anything.

    This is because I've wasted money on several self-published or vanity published nonfiction books that weren't worth the price. I don't like my own practice here - in principle I support the idea of independent publishing - but I'm just not willing to throw the dice, any more, on books that haven't gone through any vetting process.

    Self-publishing needs a solution. I've more than once thought that a large-scale review site could be that solution, if one could be created that could gain critical mass.

    What would that site need?

    - The ability for anyone to review.

    - No money exchanging hands in any direction. Paying reviewers undermines independence.

    - Reviews of _the reviewers_ as well as the books. I don't just want to be able to search for

    "mystery novels with at least one hundred reviews and an average rating of at least 3.5 out of 5"


    "mystery novels with at least one hundred reviews by reviewers with a credibility rating of at least 4 out of 5, where those reviews give this book an average rating of at least 3.5 out of 5"

    - Reviews separated by different areas of quality. So, ideally, we'd even be able to search for:

    "mystery novels with at least one hundred reviews by reviewers with a credibility rating of at least 4 out of 5, where those reviews give this book an average rating of at least 3.5 out of 5 for writing and plot and at least 2 out of 5 for graphics and layout"

    - Even careful, thoughtful people have very different opinions on things. So as an alternative to using the system-wide credibility rating for a reviewer, you could assign your own credibility rating and have a group of rated reviewers.

    - If everyone does that, you could have a "chain of credibility". So if John Smith seems like like everything you like, you can add him to your "credible reviewers" list, and also add everyone in _his_ "credible reviewers" list, and on and on as many layers as you like - rather like traveling down Twitter follow lists or blog blogrolls.

    - A function that allows authors to give free e-copies of their books to reviewers of their choice could help increase the total volume of reviews. There's a bit of a conflict-of-interest issue here, but, really, giving someone a lousy book isn't really a perk that's going to inspire them to give you a good review, so I don't see much of an issue. The only problem that I see is that a reviewer that likes most of an author's books, but dislikes one, might hesitate to give that one a bad review for fear of losing the flow of free books. This doesn't worry me all that much; a self-published author that fairly reliably produces good books is already enough of a novelty that I'm not too worried about whether they're going to game the system to look a fraction better than they really are.


    As you can see, making this work requires _volume_. You need hundreds, and preferably tens of thousands, of reviewers.

    And you can see that I'm seeing this as primarily a search and scoring process - only after the searching has narrowed the candidates down to a dozen or less would I expect prospective readers to actually read the text of the reviews. In fact, I'd say that actually _writing_ a review would be optional - it should be as easy as possible for a reviewer to just click-click-click some numeric scores and get their feedback into the system.

    That also makes it easy for review spammers to game the system, giving artificially high scores to their friends' or their own books. This is, IMO, one of the two big problems that needs solving - some way to make the _reviewer_ credibility ungame-able. If that problem is solved, then floods of spam reviews by non-credible reviewers can just be ignored; they just take up database space, and disks are cheap. Maybe the solution is already above in my own post - you use the chain of credibility almost entirely, rather than using the system-wide reviewer credibility scores.

    The second big problem is motivating people to want to become credible reviewers, or to use the site at all.

    I don't have the solution. I wish somebody did. If somebody knows of a site out there that's like this, please let me know. But the fact that I've never heard any mention of it, despite reading a lot of discussions of self-publishing, means to me that it hasn't yet achieved critical mass.

  2. Bob Magness

    Bob Magness Senior Member

    Oct 5, 2008
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    Jakarta, Indonesia
    I assume you meant "self publishing" here as independent publishing is traditional publishing, they just aren't part of the Big Six.

    I completely agree with you on the winnowing problem. But there are websites out there that address much of what you are saying. First, most people don't check the publisher of a book before buying it. I don't think I have ever done that. So how do I ensure that I don't read a self-published book? Well, I don't. I use social media book sites like Goodreads to vet my potential buys. If a book has a plot that sounds interesting to me and has numerous reviews that are overall positive, then it will probably go on my TBR list. At sites like Goodreads there are reviewers who have built up credibility as being good reviewers. And I have developed a knack for spotting shill reviews, particularly at sites like Goodreads where you can view the reviewer's profile and past reviews.

    So it is entirely possible that I have read some self-published books and didn't even know it. Of course, it is still difficult for a self-publisher to amass all those reviews in the first place. But it happens.
  3. Ixloriana

    Ixloriana Member

    Nov 3, 2011
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    the internet
    Hm. [thread=46906]The "Does self-publishing damage your reputation?" thread[/thread] had me pondering this for the last few days, as well.

    I think if I were to envision a solution to the winnowing problem, I would go for less of a "review website" and more of an internet marketing venture. Here's how I would envision it working -- I'll call this hypothetical marketing venture "ChickenFreak Winnowing Services." ;P
    • An author, planning to or having already self-published his work, sends it to ChickenFreak Winnowing Services to be reviewed. (This might have to cost a fee, but hopefully other optional services will cover any expenses, and that won't be necessary.)
    • ChickenFreak Winnowing Services has their people Trusted Reviewers give it a read, confirms that it meets a minimum standard of quality, and sticks it up on their website with a "ChickenFreak Approved!" stamp, possibly with an official rating/review or something. (Works that are rejected during this phase don't get an approval stamp, and either aren't included on the website at all or just don't show up on the front page or in user searches unless specified, depending on how ruthless ChickenFreak Winnowing Services wants to be.)
    • Users of the website could then post their own reviews and give the work a rating à la Amazon. This "reader rating" would be separate from the "Official ChickenFreak Rating" and might work similarly to what you've described, with better reviewers' ratings carrying more weight than one-off reviewers.
    • ChickenFreak Winnowing Services could also offer some optional services: advertising services to approved works, editing/proofreading services to works that haven't been published yet, etc.
    • ChickenFreak Winnowing Services could offer a "ChickenFreak Approved!" graphic or something that the author can stick in/on their book, in the hope that it will eventually become an industry standard. (Granted, this relies somewhat on the integrity of the author, but readers can always look up a work on the website to make sure that it really is "ChickenFreak Approved!")
    • Readers could use the website to search for books by specifying genres, keywords, official and reader ratings, etc.
    • "Top Picks" in different categories could be displayed on the main page.

    Obviously, this is all very ambitious. It requires not only volume but a reputation.

    ...There might be a place that does something like this or better already, I don't know. :/
  4. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Mar 9, 2010
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    Yes, you're right. Well, that is, I _do_ support the idea of independent publishing, whether traditional or self published, but in my post I was mainly talking about self publishing. I trust a small independent traditional house far more than a self-publishing house.

    I should have a look at GoodReads, but I'm tentatively assuming that most of the books there will be traditionally published, and that therefore it wouldn't solve this particular problem.

  5. VM80

    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

    Nov 16, 2010
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    I think something involving reviews, and then promoting the books that are 'good' is the way to go. (as mentioned above).

    But personally, I don't think it's such a pressing problem. In shops, I usually read a few pages of a book to get an idea of it. Online, the equivalent might be reading a synopis or excerpt on Amazon etc. You can quickly get an idea whether or not a book is up your street, or indeed well-written. I would think it's rare to see a well-crafted excerpt, and then find the rest of the book ridiculously terrible.

    In case I mis-choose, well, them's the breaks really. It's happened to me with traditionally published books too. You can always use them as gifts for your less-favourite relatives...
  6. psychotick

    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

    Feb 10, 2011
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    Rotorua, New Zealand

    On Amazon's kindle you can take a look inside the book - read a chapter or so before you choose to buy.

  7. mammamaia

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

    Nov 21, 2006
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    Coquille, Oregon
    i don't see how anything like such a 'reviewing' site or process can possibly work, since next to none of those who self-publish are going to submit their work to it...

    in addition, there are so many books self-published annually, with the numbers growing in quantum leaps as we speak, that it would be an impossible task to begin with...
  8. shadowwalker

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Jul 27, 2011
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    I personally wouldn't trust any review site that had anyone but neutral parties reviewing - ie, no opportunity for the cheerleaders to boost the ratings, as they do on Amazon. Where you would get someone to do that for free would be another big problem - and paying them would have to somehow 'disconnected' from the authors (ie, they shouldn't feel any obligation to play nice just because the authors paid to be reviewed).

    It's difficult. I've looked at some book samples on Amazon, but I don't like that they are 'selected' samples. As someone else mentioned, I prefer leafing through a book to see if it sounds interesting. But I did get an excellent SP book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers.

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