The New Curators

I’ve been talking about the explosion of new content in the book market and how it affects reading, as well as how this market differs from the book market of the past. To catch up on the discussion, you might want to check out the first post, Reconsidering Gatekeepers, and the second post, Curating Books. As you’ll see today, I have no absolute answers – maybe no firm answers at all! – but lots of interesting questions.

Who will curate the future book market?

Maybe you think the book market shouldn’t be curated at all, but that the widest array of titles possible is the best choice for readers and writers alike.

Maybe you believe that the market will decide which books succeed and which books don’t in a crowded marketplace. In a way, that’s always been the case and remains so – the difference in this market is the magnitude of the problem of discoverability. How does a book become visible to enough readers to get its shot at success? That could prompt an entirely new series of discussions. In a market with as many available titles as ours, the vast majority of books are languishing in obscurity – if they aren’t read, then they aren’t being curated, rated, reviewed, or given their chance to find an audience.

(I’m not going to talk about advertising, because the only qualifier for an ad for any book to exist is someone to pay the price of the ad. There’s no curatorial process happening there. It’s a cash transaction. And I believe that when we as readers see ads for books (whether they’re on billboards, buses, online portals or in email newsletters) we self-curate, and decide immediately whether we are interested in the book or not. The mechanism at work is not curation, although certainly advertising may make a book more visible and draw it out of obscurity.)

I think there will be curators, whether we individually want them or not. A large unsorted mass of titles invites someone (anyone) to wade in and make sense of it all for the rest of us. What’s different about this market is how curators can be chosen – there are no default curators, who get the job automatically because of their role in the publishing process.

Let’s talk about that a bit more.

Agents and editors have traditionally been the curators of the book market. They will continue to curate as they have done before – except that they will curate a much smaller segment of the total book market than has ever been the case. That means that the range of their influence is shrinking. How much? It’s hard to know for sure, and such stats are always reliant upon how the terms are defined. I’d guess (and this is a ballpark impression) that agents and editors involved in traditional publishing are curating a single digit percentage of all books currently available to readers. Maybe 1% or less – but remember that the vast majority of self-published titles don’t sell at all. There is just so much content out there. It’s hard to even get a raw sense of how much content is out there.

If we look in terms of revenue – or the books that are actually selling – I’ll guess that agents and editors are directly curating 30 – 50% of the book market, in terms of revenue. That’s going to fluctuate within different niches and different territories. Interestingly, they might be indirectly influencing another increment of the market – maybe 20% – by having taught authors who used to be traditionally published how curation is done. Let’s talk about that next.

Authors are the next obvious choice of curators for books, at least for their own books. Do authors curate their own work? Can they dispassionately assess the merit of competing ideas, when those ideas are their own? I think some authors are better at this than others, but I suspect that many authors are good at choosing the most currently marketable idea from an array of options, even when those are their own ideas. They might not be choosing the idea that contributes to the cultural landscape or advances their creative career – they might choose instead to mark time and repeat successes. They might take big risks or no risks, but on some level, I believe that most authors are doing some curation of their own work. The authors who are best at this might very well be the ones who have industry experience – authors like me have watched our own books be curated so many times that we can understand the process. Maybe we even see the point of it. Maybe we curate our ideas on purpose, or maybe it’s a learned response – to increase the chances of making a deal, for example – but this is where the influence of editors and agents casts its shadow. A great many authors doing well in digital self-publishing have traditional publishing experience. How much that experience is influencing their choices will depend upon the individual author.

(The intriguing question for me is whether editors and agents were right in their curatorial decisions. I mentioned this last week – in recent years, there’s been a trend to be very cautious (or even lazy) curatorially, to insist upon an author repeating successes and remaining in place, as well as a determination to not diversify author brands because that’s perceived to be risky. I’m noticing areas where the market (i.e. readers) reinforce those decisions and where the market challenges them. There’s another sequence of discussions that can hang upon those questions so let’s leave it there for today.)

Portals are a curator that most people don’t expect to be active, but that’s not been the case. In the past two years, we have seen multiple instances in which the digital sales portal (or publishing platform) has curated the list of books for sale on its web site. This decision tends to revolve around the inclusion of explicit sexual content. Many of these portals have few restrictions about content in their Terms of Service agreement, so there is a line between intellectual freedom and trafficking in pornography. Without curators, some really racy stuff becomes available. Many of these portals are interested in marketing content to minors, so managing the visibility of such content (or even its inclusion) can become an issue. The first instance I noticed was the situation between Paypal and Smashwords about explicit content, then Amazon changed the presentation and visibility of erotic and explicit content last March. Around the same time, Apple added a longer review process for erotic content, and most recently Kobo delisted everything in order to sort out explicit content for one of their portals, WHSmith. The challenge, of course, is that we’re in a market in which sexually explicit content sells very well – no one wants to kill the golden goose, but at the same time, there’s a balance to be struck. That balance will be defined by each portal, probably on an ongoing basis.

Reviewers were once much more powerful than they are now. There were fewer reviewers and fewer reputable review publications, so reviews in the big review organs like NYT, Booklist, PW etc., or even a genre-specific magazine like RT were far from guaranteed for each title. Books had to compete for the opportunity to be reviewed, so even the chance of a review was curated. There was a persistent idea that those books which made the cut had already been designated for great things – certainly there was a whiff that reviews were not always impartial or objective. The reviews that were published helped readers and booksellers to curate new titles. Book bloggers changed the landscape radically in this niche, because – unlike traditional reviewing – there is no barrier to entry to blogging. Anybody can set up a blog and review books. Bloggers were outside of the publishing industry so they were often brutally honest, which gave them credibility with readers – we really saw the influence of these reviewers in the emerging YA market. That came full circle when publicity departments at big publishers actively cultivated such bloggers and sent them free books in the hopes of good reviews. This devolved again in recent years to individual readers reviewing books, with or without maintaining a book blog.

Readers are the ultimate curators, of course. The question is how readers will make sense of such an enormous array of options – or whether they will. What’s interesting is the evolution of tools for individual readers to make recommendations of books. We love to have trusted book curators (i.e. readers whose tastes echo our own) recommend reads to us. Once upon a time, this happened at the bookstore, if you were so lucky to have a bookstore with an employee or owner who read avidly in your genre of choice.

The thing is that once you had validated a curator’s taste against your own – yours might exactly coincide, vary in certain niches, or always oppose the curator’s suggestions – you could use that person’s comments as a curatorial guide, whether he or she loved or hated an individual book. This is something writers often forget when they see bad reviews on their books. A bad review is as valuable as a good one, as it still provides curatorial data for other readers. We used to get a newspaper and I read the arts reviews: if their Theatre reviewer loved a play, I knew I would, too, and we’d go to see it. The Movie reviewer, OTOH, hated everything I loved and loved everything I hated. I went to see the movies he despised and avoided the ones he raved about.

How do we use the same mechanism of validated referrals in our current market?

• Portals promote this kind of discussion by encouraging reader-customers to rank and review the books they’ve read. Amazon even offers discussion boards for readers. The change here that’s important for our discussion of curation was the necessity of readers creating an identity or account, which would be used for all of their reviews. This means that a reader can discover that she agrees with Minneapolis57‘s review of a specific title, then can read all of Minneapolis57‘s other reviews to find new reads. The reviewer Minneapolis57, who is a reader and a customer, effectively becomes a curator, for at least one other reader. There’s even less barrier to entry than for a book blogger.

• Further along that line, social media sites for readers like Goodreads encourage readers to curate their own bookshelves, then allow other readers to browse those shelves. You can find a reader whose taste echoes your own (and he or she can be anywhere in the world), become friends and recommend books to each other.

• Book clubs, both real and virtual, are another way for readers to connect, curate and recommend books to each other. Goodreads hosts a number of online bookclubs with monthly reading selections, for example, or you might have a book club that meets physically in your neighborhood.

• Portals also curate for reader/customers by analyzing each customer’s previous sales data. Amazon’s algorithm is the most sophisticated in this arena, although all online portals try to replicate the bookseller’s advice “if you liked A, you’ll like B.” Not only will customers of a portal receive periodic emails advertising Books You Might Like, but the display presented to the customer when surfing on the portal itself will put that customer’s sales history to work. You might see a side banner or pop up window Recommended For You, or you might be reminded of what books you looked at most recently (but didn’t buy). You might see Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought These Titles, or you might be offered a Better Together offer of adding a second linked book at a discounted price. There are dozens of ways for this information to be presented to you by the portal in an effort to curate books to your taste — and convince you to buy more books.

You can see that I think curating is going to happen, whether we specifically plan for it or not. You can also see a steady devolution happening here, the same one that Mr. Math loves to call “the democratization of popular culture”. Instead of being told what we should read – or being presented with a selection of choices deemed to be appropriate reading material – we have an enormous range of options. Further, we’re reliant upon each other to make sense of this vast array of books. In a curious way, the explosion of content and he connection of billions of people makes those individual connections even more important.

Do you review the books you’ve read? Do you use any of these tools or resources to decide what you should read next? What’s the most important way that you find new books or new authors? How is this different from the way you discovered new books and authors ten years ago? Or is it?