Tuesday, 5 April 2011

It's OK to start your research with Wikipedia...

...provided you don't end it there.

This is a post about research methodology (with respect to my preparations for the Common Sense Test next week), and in particular the above important lesson which took me a long time to learn after being told several times as an undergraduate that it's not true.

Bah, that's a horrible sentence. The story goes like this: in Britain at least, most undergraduates are told at an early stage (possibly even before they finish school/college) that Wikipedia is 'not a credible source' and thus they shouldn't use it in their research. They then go on to try to do research without Wiki and other similar sources, and find it almost impossible to make any headway. The lucky ones eventually figure out that it's OK to use Wiki, just not to say you used it.

I was well into my PhD before I got to that point. Before then, I worked up huge quantities of stress trying to find introductory material on obscure philosophical topics like Meinong's ontology (don't ask) without using Wikipedia.

The problem is one of finding starting points. It's easy to look at something like the field of e-self-publishing, even limited to a genre such as speculative fiction, and think 'wow, how the hell do I find anything out at all?' The scale of activity in indie publishing these days is staggering, and set to continue growing. So, here, based on my experience as a research student in the similarly overwhelming field of abstract metaphysics, is a research strategy. You'll be able to judge the strategy, I hope, by the results it produces for me over the coming week or so.

Step 1: Refine your question.
You can't find answers to a question you don't know. What I have to figure out is what I need to know information about. In my case, I'm trying to prove that self-publishing is a viable option for a new author. I'm trying to prove that self-publishing can be used to supplement an income to an extent that justifies time and effort spent.

So, I'm looking for authors doing just that. Specifically, I'm looking for authors who are writing the same kind of stuff I'm writing, who are self-publishing online. I'm looking at a comparison of number of authors making money against total number of authors trying to make money, and at how much money is being made. I need to be able identify the authors whose work is selling well, and detailed information on their sales and (hopefully) their income from same. I also need some general statistics about the size of this slice of the industry.

Step 2: Go where the answers are.
It's impossible for a new author to be everywhere and to get their name everywhere. The chances of running into any kind of promotional material for a new speculative fiction writer just by clicking through the websites I normally visit (mainly webcomics and Web 2.0 stuff linked on Twitter) are pretty small. On the other hand, every new author knows that the Kindle boards are a great place to promote your work - because the shop selling it is two mouse-clicks away. There are (or at least I hope there are) still large online communities where people discuss science fiction and speculative fiction which are an obvious home for sci-fi novelists to try to accumulate sales.

This is where the point about Wikipedia comes in. It's easy to think that these sources will be unfiltered and unpoliced - which is the (snobbish and misguided) motivation behind the complaints teachers are always making about Wiki. To a certain extent, it's true that the actual text that will appear on your screen is unpoliced, but that's what God (or Darwin, your choice) gave you a brain for. In a quick skim down a single thread on the Kindle boards just now, I was quickly able to discard half the posts by the quality of the promotional writing - whether the actual book being promoted is any good or not, no-one's going to sell books with marketing copy that looks like a poorly-punctuated amateur plot synopsis.

Step 3: Follow the answers where they lead.
If I had been doing something other than a quick skim, my next step (the 'provided you don't end at Wiki' step) would have been to click the links the remaining posters were helpful enough to provide - to look at the reviews they wanted me to read, and probably to find links to the ones they didn't want me to read. I'd also look up the author on Wiki, to see if they were successful enough to rate a mention (if nothing else, Wiki is a great barometer of significance-to-someone-somewhere). Lastly, I'd look at the author's own blog and Twitter feed, and do a simple Google on their name - possibly with the book title if it's a fairly common name.

The overall point, then, is that you have to start from the unfiltered, aggregator-type sources with research, because these are the only places where the information you want all gets indexed in one place. The aggregator then gives you links to more information on the particular entry you've just looked up (an index or phone directory isn't a bad analogy for this way of using Wiki or the Kindle boards), which in turn gives you a path or set of paths to follow. Provided you take decent notes along the way - and yes, note-taking is ESSENTIAL - you end up with exactly the information you're after.

I hope I'll have time to start arriving at some results tomorrow, though it may have to wait until Thursday before I have anything more than a list of names and titles. This strategy has proven sound not just for my PhD, though, but also for my Distinction-earning MA thesis, so I'm fairly confident, and I highly recommend going about your market research this way if you're struggling.

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