Kite marks in self-publishing: the latest meme of the industry

Where do ideas come from? A meme, or ‘an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture’ (Merriam Webster), is a concept first described by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976) with him citing an appropriately broad inspiration base: geneticist L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, anthropologist F.T. Cloak and ethologist J. M. Cullen. This post focuses on a meme in action within publishing.

In 2009 I was interested in exploring self-publishing, and having done some initial research, organized an associated event at the 2010 London Book Fair. My slot at the very end of the final day was attended by 200 people.

Kite mark

Will all self-published books eventually need the kite mark of approval? Image: Flickr/MG Siegler

It always seemed to me that for effective self-publishing, quality control of the publishing processes was likely to be very important, and that the people perhaps best positioned to set editorial standards were the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). I suggested they should consider developing a kite mark which could convey ‘thoroughly edited’ to the potential reader. I mentioned this in my subsequent book (The Naked Author, Bloomsbury 2011) and in associated talks, but it received a much wider airing during a podcast in late 2012 – The Write Lines – chaired by long-standing BBC Journalist Sue Cook. Hazel Reid, editor of the SfEP’s journal Editing Matters, was listening, and emailed to ask if I would write a piece for them. I complied, and it was published in the March/April edition last week.

The next day a certain James Minter (@james_minter) contacted me by email:

Your name was brought to my attention in a Facebook discussion I started about the quality of self-published books, and my suggestion that authors use SfEP members to edit their books. And further that there should be some sort of seal/kite mark acknowledging this.

He had been cross-referred to my article by a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors, and asked to see the whole piece. There is regrettably not room here (contact SfEP for a copy) but here is the most relevant section:

In the long run, my suspicion is that, as both an organisation and a collection of individuals with a specific skill set, the SfEP will become more powerful within the publishing industry. Indeed we may see the interesting spectacle of an industry that has always relied on you, but perhaps in the past taken you a little too much for granted, competing with self-publishing authors for your services. A service for which there is both heavy demand and short supply usually rises in price. There is room for new business models to emerge: perhaps the establishment of editorial service companies that offer a range of services – from consultancy on manuscript structure and formats to editorial advice – if not publishing too.

Disintermediation is a buzz word right now, and boundaries are being blurred as stakeholders in publishing seek to monetise their investment: there are instances of agents, authors and online retailers becoming publishers while publishers are selling guidance on how to write. But disintermediation always threatens the position of those with least value to bring to a business supply chain, without whose involvement a process can still function – and may indeed operate more cost-effectively.

The role of the editor may be further appreciated as more and more content comes onto the market, and readers look for a second opinion before they decide how to allocate their time and money. Recognising that technically perfect English is not necessarily worth reading, should a title that has been professionally edited by an SfEP member carry an SfEP kite mark?

Looking wider, if there is a market for professional services, there is also a business opportunity. And last week, to complete the circle, I ran into one of our recent MA Publishing graduates and discovered that she and a fellow student have set up just such a business, offering editorial services to self-publishing authors; Jenna Byers and Siobhan Aldridge have established Byers Ink.

So, there is one idea linking Kingston University, the SfEP, James Minter and his friends in the Alliance of Independent Authors, The London Book Fair, the BBC and now Byers Ink. Looking ahead, however, I think perhaps the issue of a kite mark should be momentarily parked. Perfectly presented content is not necessarily a pleasure to read, and what about the editor asked to endorse material that is technically correct, but that they simply do not like? There are probably conflicts of interest – should paying for a service entitle you to an endorsement? More discussion is evidently needed, and the matter is on the SfEP’s agenda. The more powerful idea however is surely simpler – that editors, and editing, matter hugely. And never more so than now, when the reader is literally swamped for choice. Here is how the SfEP article ends:

When I began my publishing career, marketing was in the ascendant. Editors were increasingly being viewed as a cost rather than an essential overhead, and the freelance labour force supplying associated services was both taken for granted and – frankly – underpaid. Today, well-connected authors can do their own marketing: blogging and tweeting have become part of the writer’s day job and it’s possible to achieve effective distribution online. But the one thing that’s still really difficult for an author to do is self-edit.

The great meltdown that is currently the publishing industry has already witnessed the new empowerment of the content provider, on whose originality and creativity a new range of business opportunities is being based. But is it now the editor, along with their ability to turn a manuscript into something worth reading, who is joining the author on top of the podium? As both publishing houses and self-publishing authors are likely to be in competition for (their) services in future, (the) position of editor in the reworked value chain is certainly looking particularly secure.

In the light of all this, I am about to embark on further research into self-publishing, this time focusing on the editorial services market. I will also be speaking at the SfEP’s autumn conference.


4 responses to “Kite marks in self-publishing: the latest meme of the industry

  1. It’s a nice idea, but there’s only so much an editor can do, and in the vast majority of cases it’ll never be enough. No editor can turn fundamentally bad writing into good. An orthodontist is no use to a victim of a motorway pile-up.

  2. It’s a really interesting idea, and it’s certainly something that has been exercising the folks over at the KDP forums (the Amazon self publishing platform).

    Certainly there is a need for some kind of quality assurance scheme that confirms a book has properly edited (or at the very least proofed!) content.

    I do wonder though whether the flood of badly proofed/badly written self published books will eventually peter out. Surely people will come realise that whilst they might have ‘one book’ in them, they have no interest in the long hard slog of a proper writing career.

    Sue Cowley (ex Kingston Unversity BEd student and now author!)

  3. Interesting responses. But do bear in mind that not all self-publishing is for sale. My recent research among self-publishing authors led me to conclude that many found finishing and finalising their material hugely satisfying, whether or not it was something they would share more widely.

  4. I support the idea of a kitemark. There’s seems to be some confusion though as to what a kitemark is. It is only a statement of a guaranteed standard, but it’s not clear from this article whether it would be the SfEP holding the kitemark or SfEP members who have reached a certain standard (I have been awarded my LCGI in Editing Skills, which is a kitemark of sorts). Or does it go on the book itself? And if it does, then surely that decision should not be the author’s but that of the SfEP, which would mean the SfEP having to find the time to check that members’ work is up to scratch. And that would mean an author having to pay a fee for this check.

    What it’s not is an endorsement of material the editor doesn’t like, even if they have polished it to the point of technical perfection. We all edit stuff we don’t like, surely? I’m not sure I see where the conflicts of interest may lie, as was suggested above. In any case, it is a courtesy to ask the editor if the would like to be credited – I had to ask one self-publisher not to as I didn’t want to be associated with their book for a number of reasons and I would have been very upset I’d later found out that they had done so.

    Of course an editor can only do so much. You can polish bad writing to a degree but what do you do when your author doesn’t accept all your amendments? I’ve had authors reject my punctuation corrections, for example? The kitemark, if one is created, should never go on the book, only to the editor. However, among self-publishers (and I’m increasingly working with them) there does seem to be a growing consensus that even a proofreading is essential. You only have to look at the scathing comments in reader reviews on the Kindle store that are left on unproofed titles. Fifty Shades of Grey attracted more negativity for the poor writing, typos, grammar and punctuation than it did for its poor plotting. Readers do care and authors are cottoning on to the fact that if they invest in our services they can sell more copies and avoid negative comments about the lack of proofing.

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