12 August, 2012

The Coming Review Food Chain

With the rise of self-publishing, there are now literally hundreds of thousands of ebooks being published each year. In the old days, the quantity of published books was relatively small; if you regularly perused a few of the mainstream review outlets (mainly newspapers/magazines), you could get a line on just about everything that was both 1) probably good and 2) actually available for you to purchase. (We'll ignore for now the hidden gems that you couldn't get because no large-scale publisher would touch them, even though if you did get a chance to read it, you'd love it.)

The perpetual tsunami of self-published works is unlikely to abate. And the overwhelming majority of what's published will never see any substantial success. But naturally there will be some gems in the rough. How will those get identified?

First, individual authors have to promote themselves like mad in order to get any traction. The first tier of readers will be friends and family of the author, or people who the author directly contacted: people at cons, people at bookstores, or even a small handful of people who happened to click on one of the few AdWords spots that the author was able to pay for, as well as an equally small number of people who stumble across the book and buy it just because they like the cover art or the subject matter or the synopsis.

This tier of people all read the book, and if they think it's good, they'll recommend it to other friends and family. The second tier will repeat this process, and the book may continue spreading, as long as new readers keep thinking it's good.

Most works will never get very far. But a few will, and eventually, they may come to the attention of the bottom tier of reviewers.

What exactly is the "bottom tier of reviewers"? This is sort of the critical flipside of self-publishing: independent critical outlets. Little online magazines, or even just blogs, where people review works. (These sites will have their own issues becoming popular, but we're not concerned with that here.)

The very bottom of these sites will have a handful of readers. Some of these sites will prove to be more astute critics, or will be better at recognizing works that are likely to be popular with a larger audience. And occasionally, one of these bottom-tier review sites will end up hearing about a bottom-tier ebook that a friend (or a few friends) recommended.

So they'll review it, and the other independent review sites in nearby tiers (the ones that have a similar but perhaps somewhat larger readership/prestige) will pick up on the ebook. And if they hear enough about it, they'll end up writing their own review.

This process repeats up the chain, until (ideally) the ebook comes to the attention of the large-scale media outlets that have hundreds of thousands or millions of readers.

It's essentially the crowdsourcing of the slush pile. As a reader seeking good books, you can still pay attention to the big-name critical outlets with a long history; but you can also look around and find a few independent outlets that tend to recommend things you end up liking. Nobody really expects individual readers to troll the endless sea of self-published ebooks.


  1. Since my first novel was published, I've seen the landscape of reviewing change, much like described. I've seen dozens of small/start up review blogs and sites pop up to fill in where some of the major review sites have fallen away.

    It's been largely unsuccessful. Most seem to get inundated with a glut of requests, they try to sift through what's decent, and just fold or move small windows where they open for the glut of requests. Unlike professional reviewers, these folks hold down jobs and have a life beyond reading and reviewing, so their ouptput of reviews is limited, and the time they have to promote their review site is equally limited, thus they're often not very infuential.

    There are some out there that have proven successful, but it's not easy.

    Thanks for posting on this topic. I found it interesting.

    1. I wonder whether the tiers of reviewing are maybe shallower than I thought. There's the obvious top end, the well-known media sites and blogs and magazines; and I suppose that the reviewers for these entities could certainly decide to review some unknown author's work if they happen to have a few friends who all recommend it. But then I also wonder to what degree these sites are constrained by wanting to focus only on well-known products from name authors, or at least from well-known publishers.

      Imagine a situation where Joe Reviewer wants to review Jim Author's self-published novel, which he read and thought was rilly rilly good, but the editorial chief says no because all their slots are already full of all the mainstream works that have been promoted for months by the big-name publishers. I don't know whether or not this happens, but I could imagine.