An American Editor

November 23, 2011

On Books: The Shine of the Internet in the World of eBooks

As all of An American Editor book reviews (which are listed at the end of this article) imply, the Internet has opened reading vistas for me that otherwise would never have happened. I find that as a result of the Internet and places like Smashwords, I am being exposed to authors and stories that would not otherwise have been available to me. This has been the blessing of the Internet for readers, especially with the advent of ebooks.

The dark side remains the lack of gatekeeping and how finding worthwhile books to read is increasingly difficult. The easier it is for “authors” to find an outlet for their work, the harder it is for readers to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, although this problem has been discussed several times over the course of the past two years, no real solution has been forthcoming. I doubt there really is a single, good solution to the gatekeeping problem, except, perhaps, to not pay more than 99¢ for any ebook from an unknown author.

Even at that price point, I find myself waffling about whether to buy or not. That’s because my to-be-read pile is already several hundred books, nearly all of which I obtained free, and it keeps growing with free ebooks. I am unlikely to live long enough to celebrate the demise of my TBR pile even should I stop adding to it now.

Regardless, the rise of the Internet and the (relatively) recent rise of ebooks has worked wonders for multiculturalism. Exposure to literature from other continents and countries has broadened my perspective significantly. Previously, my exposure was to North American and West European literature. The geographical limitations imposed by contract between publisher and author limited opportunities to expand.

That geographical limitation combined with publisher gatekeeping, which had at least one eye, and perhaps more than one eye, focused on the bottom line, meant that exposure to other cultures was limited. (Of course, it doesn’t help that I am monolingual, which imposes its own fence.) As each day passes, the geographical and gatekeeping limitations fade a little more and increasingly seem to be only relevant to ebooks published by the big six publishers.

For all of this, the Internet should take a bow. The Internet shines at making what was previously unavailable available, and I, for one, am trying to take advantage of that ready availability. Alas, as noted earlier, that Internet shine does have a darkening tendency as well.

The ease of access has caused the lack of effective gatekeeping to cast its net much wider than just the Internet. Increasingly, traditional publishers seem to be publishing whatever they can get their hands on and in whatever condition they grabbed the book. The dark side of the Internet is the lowering of quality acceptance/expectations and the increasing demand for lower prices. This is not to say that as price increases, quality increases; there is definitely no upward correlation between the two as the Agency 6 prove on a regular basis. However, there is a correlation between lower price and lower quality — absent sufficient revenue, essential production services, such as editing, are bypassed. (Yes, I, too, can point to examples of outstanding quality ebooks that are free; yet being able to do so doesn’t negate the validity of the statement when discussing the broader ebook market.)

The lesson is that we need to work harder on figuring out a way to correlate price and quality and find that sweet spot that satisfies both. I expect that within the next few years we will come close to resolving the matter even though I currently have no idea as to what is a practical solution.

A large number of ebookers believe that publisher gatekeeping can readily be replaced by crowd gatekeeping. I wish this were true but the evidence so far, at least to my eye, indicates that too many of the crowd gatekeepers base their gatekeeping on factors other than quality of writing and quality of story. We still see all-too-many reviews in which price or geographical restrictions or some other unrelated-to-writing-quality criterion plays a role in deciding whether an ebook is a 2-star or a 5-star ebook.

In addition, I have found it difficult to find reviewers whose reviews I can consistently trust. (Part of the problem is that too many reviews are written by unidentifiable reviewers. Who is TommyGumChewer and why should I value his/her opinion? See Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust for an earlier discussion.) Many ebookers have developed their own criteria for evaluating reviews (e.g., dismissal of all 1-star reviews), which may work well for them, but leaves me unsatisfied. I have grown too accustomed to reviews like those in The New York Review of Books to find many of the reviews on the Internet helpful.

In the end, what I do is take advantage of what the Internet does best — make information available to me — and I “buy” ebooks whose descriptions interest me. I read (or try to read) those ebooks and act as my own gatekeeper, as inefficient a process as it is in this era of self-publishing. And, thus, what I “buy” is largely free, because with all the ebooks available, it would be very easy to spend a small fortune to find only a few excellent ebooks and authors.

How do you gatekeep?

(For those who are interested, the following are reviews I have written for An American Editor in order of newest to oldest:

I believe that covers all of the reviews on An American Editor. Happy book hunting!)



  1. I gatekeep the way I always have: choosing by title or cover then reading the blurb. If I like the combination, I’ll try the book. Unlike Rich, though, I still get the majority of my books from the library or bookstore.

    Actually, that’s not true any more. These days most of my new reading comes from being a reviewer, so the books come to me. Content-wise, reviewing has broadened my scope dramatically, while also putting me in a position of influence in the gatekeeping conundrum.

    I review a mix of e-books from indies and print books from established houses and authors. In the latter case, I see advance reader copies more than finished books.

    So far, I’ve observed that the print books from traditional publishers are still better than e-books in general. It’s only a matter of proportion, though. I’d say roughly 7 out of 10 print books are well executed vs. 2 or 3 out of 10 e-books. The majority of the e-books feel unfinished, like the author failed to do a second or third draft, or to get good feedback from beta readers or editors or an agent, before rushing to press. Great ideas, some engaging stories, but weak execution. Some of that in print, too (one of the titles I read recently was a mess!), but, again, the problem is still larger on the e-side.

    Thus, I don’t buy e-books unless there’s something I really want or need in a particular title’s content. Even then, I balk at any price more than $2.99.

    Meanwhile, being a reviewer pushes interesting integrity challenges on one, e.g., how to be honest and fair? Taste is soooooo subjective, and a poorly produced book isn’t totally the author’s fault. As well, panning something is one thing; being snarky about it is another. In all cases, the reviewing organizations for which I write have strict guidelines we must follow, and they all agree that if you don’t like a book, you must say so and why, but not be mean about it.

    Of the three organizations, two have us write anonymously for protection (not clear whether it’s for the reviewers’ protection or the organization’s, or both). The third, New York Journal of Books, is striving to be the next New York Review of Books or equivalent, and we write under our own names, with photo, and links to our personal enterprises. NYJB is proud of its quality content and skilled reviewers and wants to be the place readers can to turn to for content they can trust.

    Therefore, I recommend this source to folks searching for gatekeepers/reviewers to rely on. Some of us are trying hard to contribute to the scenario in a meaningful way!


    Comment by Carolyn — November 23, 2011 @ 6:18 am | Reply

  2. Like Carolyn, I usually choose by title and/or cover, then the blurb. But if it’s an author I don’t know, I’ll check out the sample, too. Seems to work – I haven’t been disappointed yet.


    Comment by Vicki — November 23, 2011 @ 6:42 pm | Reply

  3. How about ignoring the lure of new fiction in favour of discovering existing fiction via the likes of Goodreads? Or what about going back to the publication stage? How about a combination of crowdsourcing opinion to start and then a more selective panel of literary professionals to decide whether to publish? We’re contemplating something along these lines to cope with author and agent submissions at scale.


    Comment by John Were (@John_Were) — November 25, 2011 @ 9:16 am | Reply

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