Kindle Scout, Amazon’s latest project, went live yesterday. That link takes you to the main page, with a helpful explanatory video, but the basic idea is this: authors post an excerpt from their book, and if enough people like it, Amazon offers that author a publishing deal. It’s a very similar system to Steam Greenlight.
Currently, there isn’t much on it – there are fifty books in the “recently added” queue, which I assume is all of them. For each book, you can see the cover, a brief blurb, a one sentence tagline and short excerpt from the book itself. Books have thirty days to collect nominations, and the successful ones are then reviewed by a team at Amazon.
I wasn’t amazingly impressed by the quality of the books on offer – it bears a striking resemblance to the very bottom of the self-published pile, with sloppy, amateurish covers and the same themes predominating: forbidden vampire love and off-beat, Adams-esque sci-fi. Each book, as mentioned before, comes with a tagline, which should presumably be the author’s most effective pitch – almost all were trite, some weren’t even complete. I clicked into a couple of the books, and it was more of the same; the writing was competent, but littered with little errors, and front-loaded with exposition – “‘What a lovely day it is to be two biologists on a girls’ weekend, Jane!’ said Frieda, brushing her long blonde hair out of her eyes and gazing down at the mysterious forest, which was said to have werewolves in – though that was surely just a rumour?” That is obviously not a real quote, but it is extremely similar to several that I could have chosen.
That’s not enough though, to dismiss it out of hand – the existence of bad books doesn’t prove that the whole idea is flawed. Bad books exist in all other avenues to publication as well. My major issue with the service is that I think it is very unlikely to produce good books at all. Popularity is a terrible metric for quality – lots of awful, clumsy books are widely praised, while masterpieces languish in obscurity. I won’t go as far as Oscar Wilde, and say that “Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art. Whatever is popular is wrong”, but I do think that he two are unrelated; popularity has very little bearing on quality, and vice versa.
Obviously, the same criticism could be made of any publishing route – publishers make decisions based on what they think will sell, books rise and fall based on how well they are received. However, Kindle Scout strips away the middlemen, and just goes directly for it: if enough people like the excerpt, then the book is good, and should be published. Other methods don’t rely on solely on snap judgments, don’t rely solely on initial approval. There is no allowance made by Kindle Scout for unpopular brilliance, or for books that require a longer investment than a chapter to appreciate. Such a method very directly prioritizes books that pander, that sink their hooks in readers and do not let go, that cling to the most familiar and comfortable patterns, that elicit votes rather than a deeper interest.
To be fair to them, they’ve tried to cut down on meaningless voting – each user only gets to have three open nominations at a time, so you have to choose which books you support carefully, you can’t just tick everything you come across. Hopefully, that should make the recommendations a bit more thoughtful and meaningful, and do something to mitigate otherwise hasty decisions.
In the end, I don’t think this will be an actually bad thing – it provides another way for aspiring authors to reach an audience, another route into being published. It could work out very well – hitherto unexpected gems might be discovered, obscure authors might find an audience faster, and so on. However, I do think that this is unlikely – even if it takes off, most of the books that go through it will be ones that are, for one reason or another, unsuitable or unappealing to established publishers. You are starting with the bottom of the barrel. And then from that barrel, the most immediately popular will be scraped, picked solely because their first ten pages made more of an impression.
At best, we get some good books out of it. At worst, it becomes a ghastly haunt of self-promoters, desperately trying to leverage their friends and acquaintances to push them up the rankings. Either way, I’m glad that it is so limited – a literary landscape where this was the only method of book discovery would be appalling. As a small corner for otherwise neglected books, it could just about work.
It could be great, it could be fresh, it could be transformative. I am not holding out much hope.