Self-Publishing and the Qualitative Threshold
Traditionally published books come with an inherent advantage over self-published novels, however, it’s not what you’d initially think. Yes, they’re professionally edited, proofed, and polished (at least the big five published ones are), but that’s not the advantage. Their real advantage is that they automatically pass the qualitative threshold.
And self-published books do not.
Now I’m sure we’ve all read award-winning books that we just couldn’t stand. Books that make you wonder what everyone else was smoking when they made their recommendations. Chances are you’ll have scratched your head as to all the hype. But chances are equally as good that you won’t have thought the book unprofessional. Mainly because there weren’t any superficial reasons your immersion in the story to be broken, e.g. no typos, poor prose, continuity issues, etc.
Instead, your enjoyment of the book boils down to a matter of taste, in that the book in question aligned with what you personally enjoy in a story. But to get to this point to see if the book matches your tastes, it must first pass what I call the qualitative threshold, which hinges on basically not breaking the reader’s immersion in your story via non-story related means.
Every author wants the reader to judge the story by its own merits, but it’s impossible to do that when the reader is continually thrown out of the experience by the aforementioned typos, contradictory worldbuilding, plot holes, etc. These mistakes are considered particularly egregious because they are considered easy fixes. They therefore attract more grief than disliking the plot or the prose, which fall under the umbrella of personal taste.
So the real advantage of traditional published books is not so much the quality of the stories, but the fact that, by virtue of being traditionally published, readers inherently assume it will have passed the qualitative threshold.
But without that stamp of approval from a traditional publisher, self-published books find the qualitative threshold the first and highest hurdle to clear in reaching audiences. In fact, we carry the extra weight of the stigma of being self-published to make that jump all the harder.
However, there are several strategies self-publishers can employ to make that jump:
A Great Cover
When I say “great,” what I mean is one that looks on par with traditionally published books. That means meeting the unsaid code for covers that signifies what genre it is (although it can go too far). And yes, I know we’re never supposed to judge a book by its cover, but like typos disrupting the immersion of the audience in the prose, a bad cover signifies the amateur ability of the author (even though some professional authors are known for disliking their professional cover – Goodkind, I’m looking your direction).
You're going to have to click the first two links in the paragraph above to make sense of these pics.
In many ways this is the best seal of approval of having passed the qualitative threshold because you really have some sort of authority literally putting a seal of approval on said book. Hugo and Nebula winners can attest to this, and so it’s plastered right on the cover. But self-publishers are obviously excluded from this option. Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off has filled this void for self-publishers, and he’s stated before he’d like more contests of this type, but for now it’s the only game in town. And, as I’ve drunkenly said before, making it to the semifinalist round of this contest is a pretty good signifier that the book in question has passed the qualitative threshold and the reader’s enjoyment then comes down to a personal matter of taste.
Word of Mouth (impersonal endorsement)
These are the blogs/ Goodreads/ Amazon reviews you see and act as a sort of passive word of mouth in that you encounter them only if you’re already looking for them. But book bloggers work as an active method of impersonal endorsement because they bring these books to your attention for discovery. But only if the reader in question already follows said blogger, and, as discussed elsewhere, many book bloggers avoid self-published books unless they’re already fans of the author.
Word of Mouth (personal endorsement)
When a friend you trust with the same tastes in books tells you “you have to read this book,” you can expect to enjoy it. They’re familiar with your tastes and you with theirs, so you expect the book to align with your tastes. You also implicitly assume the qualitative threshold has been met because it’s already been vetted by someone you know. This is the best method for books to be distributed… so long as you have a broad enough possible audience that it’s not just getting passed around the same six people.
Word of Mouth (author endorsement)
Sometimes you see those author quotes on the cover of books written by a more famous author (Martin’s “fantasy as it ought to be written” for Robin Hobb always springs to mind), and if you’re familiar with that author and a fan, you’re expected to try out this new book based on their suggestion. This method need not be passive by only being discovered by people looking at the cover, as our Sigil member Alec Hutson can attest when Will Wight mentioned how much he enjoyed The Crimson Queen and his fans blew up Alec’s sales.
Word of Mouth (the author him/herself)
This one may seem a little odd, but it boils down to the audience already being familiar with the author, so when s/he says “hey, check out my new book,” the reader will. Because the reader is already familiar with the author and takes their endorsement of their own work to heart. This one is probably the most reliable in attracting audiences to the book because the readers in question are already fans or they wouldn’t hear about the author’s new book. However, this falls into the self-published catch-22 I’ve written about before in that readers will only try out a self-published author after they’ve already given said author a shot before. Which means they’re already on the author’s hook and this endorsement is really more of simple information dissemination.
It's with these strategies for signifying passing the qualitative threshold in mind that Sigil came together, with a goal to create a shared brand signifying quality. And while not everyone will enjoy all our books, we believe any dissenters will fall under the parameters of personal taste rather than being tripped up on the qualitative threshold.