Bokaflod

October 22nd, 2013 by Editor Leave a reply »

The first thing to say about self-published books is that there are an awful lot of them.

And they’re breeding. A report by Bowker has found that self-publishing has increased by 422 per cent since 2007. The year on year growth shows that self-publishing is a platform that is here to stay, but one question that hasn’t been settled is whether this is a positive development.

Publishers certainly don’t think so. They have, after-all, traditionally been the gatekeepers, separating the wheat from the chaff, and preventing those fools that dare to mix metaphors from ever seeing their names in print. They may have been feeling vindicated last week with the news that Amazon and other online retailers have been selling self-published books containing indecent material, including scenes of rape and the sexual abuse of children.

These retailers rushed to remove the offending titles from their stores, with the Kobo sites even closing down last week to ensure that all of this content had been taken down. However, these revelations have opened up the debate as to how self-published works can be effectively regulated without curbing freedom of speech.

The situation is entirely different in an independent bookshop. Just as with titles released by publishers, each self-published book will be individually considered by a buyer before being stocked. There is no danger that the offensive titles uncovered last week would ever find their way onto the shelves for this reason. The problem, therefore, is restricted to the digital medium, as booksellers are often able to take the quality controlling role that has been historically been fulfilled by publishers.

This is, of course, reductive. Publishers do a lot more than merely acting as moral guardians, and their declining influence has disadvantages for writers as well as readers. Many great books owe their greatness to their editors; you need only look at Ezra Pound’s annotated first edit of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to see the enormous impact that a bit of judicious excision can have.

Publishers also know how to create a product, one that communicates quickly to a prospective reader what kind of experience they will have if they take the book home. This is one area where self-publishing still lags behind. So many self-published books that arrive at the shop have covers that give no real clue as to what the book is about and are typeset poorly. Customers are often short of time and want to make decisions quickly. Elegant and coherent book design helps make this possible, and so without the resources to pay for design and marketing specialists, many self-published books leave these customers cold.

But whatever else it means, self-publishing means more books, and I would say that this can only be a good thing. The BBC recently reported on the ‘bokaflod’ in Iceland, where 1 in 10 people will publish a book in their lifetime. Kristin Vidarsdottir, manager of the Unesco City of Literature project, told the BBC that “Even now, when I go the hairdressers, they do not want celebrity gossip from me but recommendations for Christmas books.” The financial crisis fuelled a renewed interest in reading and writing. And whether they are good or bad, if more books mean more people reading, surely it cannot be such a terrible thing?

SF

(Please feel free to comment, we would welcome your opinion!)

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