November 19, 2013

The Math of Quality (Or Why the Gatekeeper System is Failing)

The Overview

Quality is a nebulous word.  When it can be defined by a concrete measurement it serves as a gatekeeper for the customer, keeping what would otherwise be a unfulfilling experience from their unknowing hands.  When its meaning flails about, providing muted grays and hazy shadows, its purpose becomes counter to its core mission.

Using an example from outside the publishing industry, a good gatekeeper could be a caliper that measures the thickness of a piece of steel that forms the structural body of a car.  Too thick and it interferes with the moving components.  Too thin and it could fail in the field.  The experience, either good or bad, is defined by a number that can be tested and verified by others.  The gatekeeper doesn’t care how many good pieces of steel pass its gate, only that it meets the criteria for quality.

A bad gatekeeper, and I’ll go straight to my point here, is the publishing acquisition system.  Not all publishers have a problem.  Many of the genre specific publishers with a less corporate structure have a better grasp on their customer, so meet their needs better.  But a bad gatekeeper cares about how many books pass their system, because they can only take so many.  Never mind that quality for a book is a difficult attribute to judge.  Let’s assume that the gatekeeper is perfect and only allows good books to pass its gate.  Does that mean that the books that don’t pass its gate are crap?  No.  Does it mean there’s a chance that the book might be crap.  Sure.  But gatekeepers aren’t perfect and there’s no perfect definition of book quality, only what a reader enjoys.  So given this flaky view of quality related to books, a gatekeeper cannot be an accurate judge of quality in the negative.  They can be, depending on the skill of the gatekeeper, an acknowledgement of quality in the positive.  This is the inherent flaw of the gatekeeper system when it comes to quality in a non-defined system.  Really, quality in this situation is defined more on the number of spots available at the publisher and the perceived economic value of the book rather than the true quality of the book (and yes, I acknowledge the for-the-love presses and literary journals, and in their case, the number of awards defines quality rather than economic considerations.) More on this in a moment.

Let me hit my thesis here, so you understand this isn’t just a diatribe against the publishing industry.  I think if we can acknowledge the real problems, and make clear the underlining systems that drive these changes, we can better make the publishing industry a healthier stronger place for all parties.  Because, you know: BOOKS!

The Math (or the Maths if you’re English)

So let me show you the math of what I’m talking about.  For a defined gatekeeper on an open system, the calipers and the piece of steel above, the calipers do not care how many good pieces pass.  Let’s say there are 100 pieces of steel in the system, and by the measurement, 90 are good and 10 are bad.

Total System = 100

Good = 90

Bad = 10

No problems here.

If you double the system, making 200, 180, and 20; the quality of the parts doesn’t change only the quantity.

Total System = 200

Good = 180

Bad = 20

Now, if you can only use 100 good parts, does that mean the other 80 good that you don’t use are bad?  No, it just means you only had room to take 100.

This works for books, too.  If you only have 100 buyers in a 200 book system defined by gatekeepers, 80 books are going to be left out.  Those books are not bad, maybe even the other books are slightly better (depending on your definition,) but they’re still never going to make it past the gatekeepers.

Now take those 100 slots and reduce them in half.

Total System = 200 books

Good = 180

Bad = 20

The quality of the system hasn’t changed, but now we can only take 50 good books and we’re leaving out 130, and now 130 authors are confused on why they can’t get past the gatekeepers.  The gatekeepers aren’t wrong (assuming they’re listening to their excellent editors for acquisition advice rather than the bean counters).  They picked good books.

This is what happened when publishers consolidated and closed.  They reduced the number of books that passed the gatekeepers.   It didn’t change the quality of books being considered.  The number of gatekeepers or the number that they allow past does NOT affect the quality of the books in the system.  The number of quality books in the system and the number of quality books passing the gatekeepers are not correlated.

Or what if the number of slots for books doesn’t change and stays at 100.  Then take the number of books entering the system and triple it.  Let’s say we have 600 books, and let’s even say that the percentage of good books has gone down to 70%.  Now we have:

Total System = 600 books

Good = 420 books

Bad = 180 books

If the gatekeepers are only accepting 100 books, then it means 320 books are going without a home.  So let me repeat again, the number of quality books in the system has nothing to do with the number of gatekeepers (unless you consider that frustration turns writers away when they get rejected.)

In fact, the number of quality books in the system is quite independent of the gatekeepers.  Really it has more to do with the number of people attempting to write, and the quality of their skills and experiences.  Given the ability for writers to collaborate over the internet, network, and generally learn at a faster pace, I would propose that the quality of writing overall has increased for the average writer that continues to produce books (the novice that spits out one book and disappears into the background never gets better, obviously.)

And this is what’s happened in the last five years as self-publishing has opened up the market.  More people are encouraged to write because of the perceived opportunity.  Therefore, the number of quality books has increased (but probably the overall percentage of quality has decreased, for now, eventually it should stabilize at an equilibrium as the number of writers become fixed, as well as the numbers entering and leaving the system – I’d math up this point but it’s a really dry exercise and doesn’t add much more to the argument.)

Another way to look at it is if the number of gatekeepers increases.  What if there are 90 good books out of a 100, and the number of books the gatekeepers can take increases from 50 to 80?  Are those 30 books suddenly quality now that there’s room?  I think not.  They were quality whether or not they were “picked” to use a Seth Godin term.  I would point out that this is what’s happened in the short fiction arena as new markets and anthologies have been popping up at a torrid pace.

So there, a basic point: quality is independent of the gatekeepers.

Does this mean that the gatekeepers don’t ensure quality?  No.  The industry is filled with talented editors who acquire excellent books.  Does this mean that you won’t find a bad book in either system?  No.  Bad books exist in both systems.  I’ll even give you that on average the percentage of quality books in the gatekeeper system is higher than the percentage in the overall system AND the non-gatekeeper system.

But averages are useless when you’re talking about a single book.

I’ll put it another way: place one foot in a bucket of ice water and the other in a bucket of boiling water and tell me that the average of the two temperatures gives an accurate picture of how you’re feeling about the water temperature.  The same goes for books (and for people for that matter.)

Got it.  Quality is independent of the system at large.  Quality is dependent on the experience and skill of the person writing the book and the expectations of the reader (and this is a pretty large definition given the diversity of humankind!)   Nothing else.

Quality (Mine or Yours?)

Now, I’ll take a go at this from a different angle.  On the word quality itself.  You know, the definition of quality for books is similar to the definition of pornography with the legal system.  You know it when you see it, but my definition might be different than yours.

Let me give you one definition of quality in relation to books.  Quality is whatever the hell a reader says it is.  They have certain expectations and if we meet or exceed it, then we’ve met the needs of quality.  No more, no less.  This idea is as old as marketing.  The customer is always right.

Does the reader (customer) care how many books are on the market?  Not really, as long as they’ve always got more quality books to read.  Does the gatekeeper system ensure that readers have good books to read.  Sure.  But the gatekeeper system tends to pick books that they think will likely meet those customer expectations.  The gatekeeper has an economic consideration to take when deciding quality.  This isn’t a bad thing.  We do live in a capitalist society, after all.  The gatekeeper tends to pick “same-as” books because they can define a potential profit model.  If an independent writer’s book fails, they only have to answer to themselves.  When too many gatekeeper books fail, it puts the corporation at risk and stockholders won’t be happy.  Corporations tend to abhor risk.  The worst thing you can do is put the company’s viability in question.  But this risk-adverse behavior also creates a situation that impacts the company negatively because a certain amount of risk-taking is what multi-national corporations needs to do to survive.

Amazon is a good example of a company that’s learned to take risks, but all of those risks are focused on meeting the customer’s needs, even if the customer doesn’t realize that’s what they want.  Apple is another good example of a company that makes design decisions based on predicting the customer’s desires, even before they have them.

This is where independent publishers come in: they can take risks that the traditional publishers cannot.  A writer will fill the page with their art.  Now that art might have some considerations of marketability, or it might just be a for-the-heart book.  But a writer without marketability constraints can take chances (see the New Adult category as exhibit A, it just plain didn’t exist a few years ago until indie writers created it.)  The book might succeed, or it might not, and that’s okay.  It probably pushed the boundaries of genre, and the writer learned something.  If it does succeed, it does so because it met some unknown need for the reader.  Something no sales projection, no market data, no polling data could have predicted.  In the system at large, millions of books will be written and the best, those that speak to the customer’s needs, will rise to the top.

What does this mean for traditional publishing?  It means that they cannot accurately predict what quality means.

How Profit Affects the System

When gatekeepers controlled the number of books entering the market, they could in a rough way, control the profit model of the system.  By keeping only a particular number of books on the market, and knowing how many total books would be sold each year, they could predict on average how much profit they would have (and how much of an advance they could pay an author.)

Opening up the flood of books (quality or not) has changed the profit model, pushing the profitability of individual books down so far that its impacted the overall strategy and forced publishers to reduce advances and now they’re considering eliminating print runs for most new authors.  I can only assume that this is being considered because the overhead for a single book from an author without a sales history has decreased so much that they can’t even pay an advance, so rather than eliminate the advance (which is one of the benefits of the gatekeeper system) they’ve eliminated expensive overhead, which is in this case, is a print run (and by extension – the awful returns system.)

This is not unexpected.  Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail accurately predicts the shape of the market.  With more books on the market, the average sold for the majority decreases, while a small group at the top – due to discoverability and too-many choices for readers (which can lead to picking a sure thing) – takes the lion’s share of the sales (i.e. – the big bestsellers.)  There are lots of complaints about this trend, but frankly, there’s nothing anyone can do about it—these are the all-powerful market forces at work.  Suck it up and learn to ride the changing tides.

Suggestions for the Publishing Industry

Having your long held and cherished notions swept out to sea from beneath your feet is never easy.  Industries change, and smart companies change with it.  In this given environment, what can publishing companies do?

1)      Abandon the long tail – The writer in me feels a little guilty for even saying this, but the cold-hearted businessman sees a losing battle.  Overall sales would go down, but profit would go up.  I should point out that this is the ethically correct direction.  The “author services” model is another way to shore up profitability, but I find it abhorrent, and akin to predatory loans.

Abandoning the long tail seems like a pretty drastic measure, but if the profitability of these long shots (i.e. – new authors) have reduced to below overhead costs, it’s really the only choice.  Plus, huge publishing companies should be doing what they do best: bestsellers.  The biggest advantage a publisher has from a profitability point of view is the economy of scale.

2)      Develop better talent scouting – What future best seller can you find at a discount before they’ve made it big and the price becomes unprofitable.  Big Data is alive and well in the publishing industry, they just have to learn to take advantage of it.  Amazon has its own data which includes click-throughs and other metrics, but there’s still plenty of information to be had on the cheap by aggregating available sales data (hello?  Amazon rankings anyone?)

Besides book sales information, publishing companies should collect data on the writers themselves.  As it’s been said before,  “it took twenty years to become an overnight sensation.”   That a writer breaks out big should be no surprise to anyone including the writer themselves.

3)      Change the metrics – Best seller lists, which measure sales velocity, warp outlook.  An axiom in business is: be careful what you measure, because it will improve, sometimes to the detriment of other statistics that are just as or more important.

This goes back to the point about quality.  Publishers can’t predict quality.  So they pile money into creating sales velocity so a book will hit the bestseller lists.  Doing so inflates the “sales” of a book and the true quality of a book is lost amid the market pumping.  This only enriches the marketers and ad companies, just like during gold rush times when miners made little or no money (or lost it on speculation) while the shovel sellers took home all the profits.

This happens in indie publishing as well.  Some indies look to successful authors and ask “what was the secret to your success?”  Indies are famously open and honest about their experiences, giving a list of what social media they used, mailing lists, pricing strategies, etc.  When other indies try to replicate the success of others, it invariably doesn’t work.  Why?  Because it wasn’t about the marketing strategy, it was the quality of the book.  That author’s marketing strategy worked because the book was good and people wanted to join their mailing lists and Facebook pages and would tweet about the book.  Hugh Howey (the author of Wool) states that (paraphrased): “social media is for your fans to spread the word about your book.”  He’s 100% correct.

If you want proof, think about your own experiences when you loved a book.  Once you finished did you want to run out and gobble up every book that author has written?  Hell yes.  Did you go to their blog and maybe signed up to go to a convention just because they were going to be there?  Possibly.  Would you go see an author you’ve never heard of or one that you read their book and thought it was so-so?  Hell no.

Back to traditional publishing, learn from the indie writers who’ve had success.  It was the book, baby, it was the book.  Nothing else.  Yes, once a book is a best seller, then give it some gas, because then your marketing will work, because surprise, the book is quality.  And once an author’s done it enough times, they’ve earned the readers respect and they’ll buy a book on name alone.

So find some new metrics that don’t encourage you to dump your money into market pumping.  Best seller lists are terrible  predictors because they can be manipulated (this works for the Amazon sales lists too and results are fleeting there as well).  If it were me, I’d start with the history of data you already own and analyze it for trends (careful that you don’t introduce survivor bias).  Benchmark other industries, artist bound and tangible goods for ideas on the correct metrics.  If I had to start somewhere, I’d go with yearly sales, total sales, and sell-throughs (for series.)  Which brings up a great point: publishers don’t even know where all their sales happen!  In this great article by Kris Rusch: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know, she explains how publishers misuse their data to come to the wrong conclusions (mostly that we don’t know yet.)  Yearly sales would look at the long-term trend and total sales would give a long-term feel like Gold and Platinum records do for the recording industry (and more on sell-throughs in the writer suggestions.)  I’d look at author sales too, but don’t get too hung up on one book, look at the overall history of a writer.  Everyone writes a stinker, even Stephen King.

Suggestions for Writers

1)      Keep improving, keep practicing – if quality is independent of the gatekeeper, and can only really be decided on by the reader, then the only way to get better is to write a better book and get it into the readers hands, any way you can.  How it gets to the reader is a business decision (traditional, indie, or hybrid.)  Whether or not it’s quality is up to the reader.  If you did your job well, keep going and do it again.  If you didn’t, then reassess and write another book, keeping in mind what you learned from the previous book.  See how this works?  Quality is between you and the reader, no one else.

2)      Don’t stress about marketing – back to the point I made above: if a book is quality then your social media strategy will work, if the book isn’t, then it’ll fall flat.  The quality of the book dictates the success of your marketing strategy.  Does this mean not to do ANY marketing?  Not at all.  But don’t throw all your efforts into building an email list or creating a twitter presence when the readers aren’t enthralled by your book.  And I mean enthralled when I say enthralled.  Most authors with a fair amount of words under their belt can write a quality book that a reader will enjoy, but to get someone to prioritize evangelizing your book over playing Candy Crush on their smartphone?  Your book better give them religion to do that.  The religion of you, that is.  I bet over the years, I was responsible for at least a hundred purchases of the first book of the Game of Thrones series because whenever the topic of books came up, I was pushing GoT on them like a dealer pushes drugs.  George’s first book will get you hooked!

3)      Play the odds – the long tail can be your friend.  Don’t worry about convention or trends, write the best damn book you can write that you love.  If you can’t please yourself, you’re certainly not going to please your readers.  And the truth is that as writers we have no idea what will take off and what won’t, so why not have a good time along the way?  The long tail is forever and sometimes the zeitgeist matches the tone of your book and magic happens.  This also means you should be in as many markets as possible (I’m looking at you KDP select.)

4)      Use Sell-Through on Series as a Quality Guidepost – if there is a promotion statistic that’s meaningful, it’s sell-through for a series.  Just like click-throughs are important for websites, sell-throughs are important for a series.  Used in conjunction with promotions (either free or reduced price), an author can gauge the “quality” of the first book in the series if it leads to sales of the second book (and beyond.)

As an example, let’s say an author does a $0.99 promotion on the first book of their four book series (from $4.99 regular) through a number of promotion sites, spending $250.  During the promotion, the author sells 1000 copies of their first book (to give an expected ROI of 1.)   In the 4-6 weeks after the promotion, with most of the sales coming in the first two weeks, the author sells 50 copies of the second book and 40 copies of the third and 35 copies of the fourth.  What does this mean?  This rate of 5% is probably, from my years of watching the Kindle Boards, an average result for sell-through from first book to second book.  I’ve seen successful authors sell up to 25% from book one to book two (which is why they’re regular bestsellers) while other authors barely get a squeak in sales on book two (which is why they’re still struggling.)  In the case of the struggling author, I would really look at the book and why it isn’t convincing readers to move on to the next book.  For better or for worse, the author now has real good idea of the quality of the book.  If the sell-through sucks, try to learn something from your writing and apply it to the next series, or if it’s good, feel free to spend more time and money promoting it, because the promotion will likely pay for itself.

5)      Use “Likes” and “Followers” as a Quality Guide – just like item #4, your quality can be determined, but not if you waste your time trying to game the system.  I’m here to say, stop following and liking fellow others to pump your numbers.  Sure, at the beginning when the needle’s on zero, I get it, you don’t want people to think you’re a complete noob, so you ask some friends and fellow writers to “Like” you.  I’ve been there and I’ll happily “Like” a good friend if they ask (plus I want to see what’s going on in their world.)  But massive “you like me, I’ll like you” campaigns are worthless, and they’re not helping you understand where you stand with your readers.

My suggestion is to set up your FB, twitter, mailing lists, or whatever, get those initial friends and family signed up and then do nothing except put a note in your books and bio that points people to your social media of choice.  Remember what Hugh Howey said about social media, it’s for your fans, not you.  Now, if you suddenly see a major uptick in your stats (along with sales,) then you know you’re doing something right with your books.  Readers won’t sign up to be spammed unless they really want to hear from you (but mostly they want to hear when the next book is out, so don’t abuse your privilege.)


Quality, as defined by what a reader wants, cannot be predicted, therefore all business decisions should be made with that in mind.  So if you’re going to take anything away from this article, take these two axioms:

Readers decide what is quality

Quality makes promotion successful (not the other way around!)

There, have you got it?  Keep those two little phrases in mind and you can pretty easily make the right business decisions from here on out and this counts for both publishers and writers.  If your strategy violates either of those rules, you are WRONG, do not move forward, do not pass GO! and do not collect two hundred dollars.



Thomas K. Carpenter

Thomas K. Carpenter is a full time contemporary fantasy author with over 50 independently published titles. His bestselling, multi-series universe, The Hundred Halls, has over 25 books and counting. His stories focus on fantastic families, magical academies, and epic adventures.

  • Excellent post, Thomas. I found you from The Passive Voice’s reblog.

    What hit home for me is this:

    3) Change the metrics – Best seller lists, which measure sales velocity, warp outlook. An axiom in business is: be careful what you measure, because it will improve, sometimes to the detriment of other statistics that are just as or more important.


    “Don’t worry about convention or trends, write the best damn book you can write that you love. If you can’t please yourself, you’re certainly not going to please your readers.”

    and finally, this:

    “Quality is whatever the hell a reader says it is. They have certain expectations and if we meet or exceed it, then we’ve met the needs of quality. No more, no less. This idea is as old as marketing. The customer is always right.”

    Great post.

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