June 13, 2013

Profile Books publisher: majority of self-published books are “unutterable rubbish”


Andrew Franklin, founder and managing director of Profile Books.

Yesterday, we reported that self-published books now make up 20% of the genre ebook market in the UK. That figure was first announced on Tuesday by Steve Bohme, the research director of Bowker Market Research, at the literary consultancy conference, Writing in the Digital Age.

But, as the Guardian’s Alison Flood noted on Tuesday, self-published books also “came in for a slating” at the conference from Andrew Franklin, the founder and managing director of Profile Books. An excerpt of Franklin’s remarks, per Flood’s report, is below:

“The overwhelming majority [of self-published books] are terrible – unutterable rubbish,” said Franklin. “They don’t enhance anything in the world.”

Franklin said there were “now unmeasurable numbers” of books being self-published. “These books come out and are met with a deathly silence, so the principle experience of self-publishing is one of disappointment,” said Franklin, who was speaking on a panel about literary values in the digital age. But just as there is a one in 14m chance of winning the lottery, he said, so writers think they will be the ones to hit the self-publishing jackpot.

“I was very shocked to learn you can buy Facebook friends and likes on social media. That is what passes for affirmation in what I think is the deeply corrupt world of self-publishing,” he said, stating his belief in the need for the publisher as “gatekeeper”. He added: “I think there is a process of the professional making of books which does make a real difference to the reader and the writer.”

Franklin’s comments have irked a number of people (read the comments on Flood’s article if you dare), which is understandable—they’re obviously provocative and those with a horse in the self-publishing race tend to be sensitive to anything that smacks of bullying or dismissiveness. TeleRead’s Paul St. John Mackintosh had this to say:

With the last hearings of the Department of Justice e-book price fixing investigation still under way, it seems no good time for a publisher, however independent, to be labeling the self-publishing sector as “deeply corrupt”…

Franklin may be right that a massive amount of dross gets self-published. (Though it consequently gets ignored, so why should that bother him?) He may also be right that many self-published works are produced to abysmal standards, and that their authors could benefit from some serious editorial guidance—although that’s as disrespectful as a Mayfair gallery owner abusing the competence of hobbyist Sunday painters. But why would any capable author go to a publisher who explicitly dumps on the very notion of creative independence?

The question that ends this excerpt gets at the fundamental distinction between those who agree with Franklin and those who defend self-publishing. What Mackintosh is arguing for is “creative independence” for its own sake. What matters is that people are being creative in the first place, and trying to find an audience for work that they believe in—it doesn’t matter if “a massive amount of dross gets self-published.” The quality of the work in question is beside the point, as are the economics of self-publishing in general, which perhaps explains why Mackintosh chooses to lob the corruption charge back at Franklin, rather than respond to it—the nature of the marketplace is secondary, or perhaps even irrelevant, to the fact that people are participating in it in the first place. (It’s worth noting something that Mackintosh doesn’t in his piece—that he appears to have self-published a book of poetry.)

For Franklin, however, what matters is whether or not a book “enhances the world.” Franklin argues that the overwhelming majority of self-published books don’t do this, a point I am inclined to agree with him on. And, while Mackintosh’s portrait of Sunday hobbyist creative independents is somewhat charming, the corruption charge is increasingly relevant, considering Tuesday’s report of self-publishing’s growing market share in Britain.

Franklin’s point isn’t that the very notion of creative independence is bullshit, it’s that you can’t trust the quality of self-published books because the market itself is widely believed to be corrupt—you have no idea, to take one of the more common criticisms aimed at the self-publishing market, that an author’s Facebook fans or a book’s five star reviews are genuine or if they were bought by the author. And, as more and more self-published books get published, the market only gets more corrupt. As GoodEreader reports:

One of [the] main points Franklin made during the session was that publishers acted as a gatekeeper to have some measure of quality and control. When it comes to publishing with Smashwords or Kindle Direct Publishing, anything is accepted. This creates an inundation of sub-par books that often get lost in the shuffle. This prompts authors to turn to social media channels and SEO and even buy social media followers.

Digging into the few excerpts and summaries of Franklin’s talk suggests a more nuanced and persuasive argument than the head-turning “unutterable rubbish” line suggests—arguments that many of Franklin’s detractors are looking past. I, for one, am grateful that he’s still shooting from the hip:


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.