Fiction in 2013: The Ugly Truth (and a call for patience)

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So I was going to write a post about the sorry state of fiction publishing during this transition period, as we watch the established presses, gatekeeper agents, chain booksellers and respectable book review outlets grind through the death throes of their former heyday — those days soon gone forever when they got to decide what books we should read.

I was going to detail a few of the horrors that one former “mid-list writer” (me) witnessed as she set off on her lonely road to self-publication, and witnesses still as she trudges down the even more harrowing and thorny trail of self-published-book promotion. Several of the appalling sights I’ve seen have contributed to a precipitous decline in my faith in my fellow human beings, such as:

  • New lows for the publishing industry. Traditional publishers have “evolved” from basing their guesses about what books they should publish next year on last year’s bestseller lists, to basing them on the lists of top-selling self-published novels — whose authors they then race to sign. How ironic is that?
  • Sticking fingers in the dam as the ship goes down. Almost all traditional book review outlets, booksellers, awards competitions and funding agencies continue to refuse to review, sell or reward self-published books on principle, no matter what the track record of the author or the quality of the self-published book (why? Because they might have to THINK if they were to become more open? How much easier it must be to simply proceed as they always have done, by accepting only those books published by traditional presses?). This makes book promotion for former mid-list writers very difficult, but it also means that readers who are wise enough not to participate in on-line review forums never hear about self-published books with any literary merit;
  • The Crap. Oh, the Crap. I draw your attention here to the hundreds of thousands of works of so-called fiction that have been released into the marketplace in the past few years by self-published writers who are incompetent, inexperienced, badly edited, and/or merely ignorant or boring, many of whom grow apoplectic and even threatening if anyone suggests that they don’t know how to punctuate, much less how to write (This enormous garbage heap is offered as justification by publishers, booksellers, review outlets, awards organizers and granting agencies for continuing to proceed as they do, and I do not argue that it is a major issue. However, a bit of diligence on the part of these institutions could sort the wheat from the chaff – sorting is not THAT difficult – but who has time to be diligent when your house is crumbling around you?) ;
  • False Positive Reviews. Then we have the proliferation of ridiculously positive, 5-star reviews of the aforementioned Crap now posted to Amazon.com, Goodreads, book-review blogs, and other book-related sites. Most of these patently fluffy reviews have been written by the authors’ well-meaning but inexperienced, uninformed and not widely read friends and relatives. One book-review blogger favourably compared an utterly talentless writer to one with the world-class stature of, let us say, a Jane Austen – a comparison that was then, of course, gleefully quoted by the writer in subsequent promotion. Now, if you were an unaware book buyer and a fan of Jane Austen, would you know to proceed with caution? I don’t think so. (Yep. It’s a zoo out there. Be careful where you step);
  • Books that sell on reputation and gossip rather than content. These are the Honey Boo-Boos of the current literary world. Take, for example, the Fifty Shades series, which has sold an astounding, gut-wrenching, nauseating 68 million copies so far. (Lest anyone accuse me of sour grapes, I have no qualms admitting that I am fifty shades of green over E.L. James’s book sales, but I would never, ever want to be associated with such bad writing, even in exchange for a lot of money. Thank you anyway, Mephistopheles.) As far as I can tell, this phenomenon MUST be due to the lack of literary reviews of the book, for why would anyone spend good money on a totally unerotic, misogynistic, implausible piece of shit? The only possible explanation is that  is that 67.32 million of those 68 million purchasers bought the book by mistake. I’m telling anyone who hasn’t yet made the error: I bought the first book in the series. I read as much as I could stand. I threw it in the garbage. Don’t waste your money. Read Anaïs Nin or someone else who can actually write erotic fiction instead);
  • Review Police: Then we have the packs of on-line sleuths, most of whom hide behind pseudonyms, who apparently have an intense dislike of writers in general and suspect us all of being guilty of the most nefarious crimes, particularly ones pertaining to reviews. (I have personally been the victim of their sordid and senseless attacks when I stupidly ventured onto their forums to point out the errors in their thinking. Like two-year olds, their arguments are not constrained in any way by the need to use logic, and they will therefore win all arguments). Among other things, such individuals believe to the very cores of their Neanderthalean little hearts that if you have received a free copy of a book rather than purchased it, you are incapable of writing an objective review of it. This opinion of course invalidates every review that has ever been published in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail , the London Review of Books, or any other respected review publication: since the beginning of (literate) time, reviewers have not paid for books they have reviewed; they have received the free review copies that have been sent to the publications by the publishers. The “review police” seem to have very little to do with their lives aside from hunting down authors they can report to the Amazon gods for having engineered positive reviews for their own books – or, better yet, of having written such reviews themselves, using false names. Such witch hunts commonly occur on the Amazon Top Reviewers Forum (which is not exclusively about books, but also talks about reviews of toilet plungers and whatnot; here is, however, a charming recent thread that reveals the biases of many of the habitues of the forum) and The Kindle Forum;
  • Overkill Response by Amazon: Last fall, Amazon responded to accusations by these sleuths by deleting thousands of reviews by writers, inflammatory or not. Here are the details, as set out in the New York Times and The Telegraph;
  • Last but not least, it doesn’t help that at least one traditionally published author has admitted to actually doing what we are all being accused of doing: not only has R.J. Ellory written reviews of his own books and posted them under pseudonyms, he has also used fake personae to slag his fellow authors.

So, yeah. It’s a pretty disgusting time to be a fiction fan – as I am, both as a writer and a reader. I remember a bookseller once telling me (about 30 years ago) that she didn’t bother to take ID from book purchasers when they wrote cheques because they were all so honest. The nature of the beast seems to have changed, and I am very sorry to be seeing it.

What I was going to do was to just advise everyone to stay away from fiction–even mine!–until this all shakes down. If you can’t trust what is being published to be good, and you can’t trust the reviews to be honest, much less representative, then what’s the point?

But then I reminded myself that this IS just a transition stage. I reminded myself how far we’ve come in the past four years. I remembered how I’ve noticed that several of the newly published writers I didn’t feel were very good seem to have given up on their dreams to become millionaires from writing the next knock-off Twilight, and stopped plugging their books everywhere. It seems likely that many others who are not “real writers” will follow because this is (as it always has been) a hell of a lot of thankless work.

I thought about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and reminded myself that I’ve been at this fiction-writing stuff – working at improving my writing – for more than thirty years now. I reminded myself that I finished my (first) half marathon back in the 1990s , and lost 30 lbs last autumn, by keeping on and keeping on–no matter what. Giving up on writing, even for a few months or years, is not an option anyway: I love to write. A writer is who I am.

I told myself that within another few years, there will be a new and much better system, in which the readers will find the good books for themselves from among all the self- and traditionally published books that are released, and then will tell the rest of us about them on book blogs that we will come to trust to point us in the best direction for our own personal reading interests. Within a few years, really good editors will offer to put their imprints on self-published books they’ve edited and liked. There will be awards programs that are open to both kinds of fiction publications. Writers who have established presses and agents will stop dumping and ignoring on principle those of us who are not dragging around similar litters of dependents. (See, for example, this.) We will have book review outlets we can trust to cover ALL good fiction writing, no matter where it comes from, and booksellers who will recognize their new roles as community gathering places for book lovers rather than as gatekeepers.

It will take a few more years for the evolution to shake down properly, but it will happen. And I am optimistic, despite my dismay and discouragement right now, that the world is going to be a better, more open and less expensive place for writers and for readers. And that we will once again be seen as a group as honourable people who are kind and supportive of one another.

So I decided not to write that depressing, bleak, discouraging blog post I had been thinking about after all.

35 responses to “Fiction in 2013: The Ugly Truth (and a call for patience)

  1. So pithy and so true, Mary. I do believe readers will begin to take note of the first few pages of the ‘check inside option’ and wiill begin to know if they really want that book cluttering up their kindle before they buy it. And many of the indie authors , like me, will decide that they must hire good reputable editors and TAKE THEIR ADVICE. It has been a long hard journey for me, but I have benefited from your wisdom and the wisdom of others in this business. All of my lumps as an indie are my own fault, so I freely accept that as part of learning process. Fortunately, I have found a good, reputable editor who charges a fair price (its expensive but WELL worth it) and is now going over my first book, with a red pen and grim determination. THIS is what I should have done in the first place, and is what you advised me to do, but I was never one to listen to good advice when harsh experience would do just as well! God bless, and keep telling us the truth, because we need to hear it.

  2. Very true in many levels, Mary. I read this on the train home and thought of my findings in the last few months:

    Death of traditional publishers?
    As I see it, traditional publishers aren’t going to die yet, because, facing the new challenges, many switch to the digital technology to help boost their sales.

    Why are they so picky?
    Trad can’t risk gambling their investors’ money on untried newbies because:
    (A) That crap you’ve elaborated about. (This taints the image of self-publishers; and using one brush for all, “lofty” reviewers shun them.)
    (B) I learn that most distributors/bookshops actually demand 68.5% of the RRP to give them room for specials and paying their staff (a few even demand up to 72%). With this business model, for every single book a publisher only has 31.5% of the RRP to pay: (1) the editor (2) the printer (3) the publicists (4) the advertisers (5) the autho. All of these people along the chain have to be paid up front. In other words, publishers only start to make money after they’ve sold thousands of copies.
    (C) However, only a small percentage of published work will ever sell above 1000 copies, figures show only 20% will make it, with the majority of books never reach 100 copies. Because traditional publishers don’t do print-on-demand, every two years they have to clear their warehouse by pulping thousands upon thousands of unsold copies (which is so sad; they wouldn’t spend a cent shipping them to libraries/hospitals/age-cares/shelters etc). These trads make up their loss in their failed business decision by approaching any controversial celebs and successful self-pubbers. A Penguin publisher told self-publishers in last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, “Don’t dream to be picked up if you’re only selling around 5000 copies per year. We may consider you if your figure is 100,000 or more.” Why? Read (B)

    Do they have to crush self-publishers every chance they get like they’ve doing, though?
    Absolutely not, methinks, because:
    – Consumers should have the freedom to choose according to their taste and pocket; whatever floats their boat and what they can afford—even when some of the choices
    – As in other businesses, when you have rivals you just have to create better product to stay on top of the competition. There’s no need to elbow or backstab others.

    However, traditional publishers refuse to co-exist and to let readers decide. They do their best to sling mud at self-publishers. Self-publishers are selling their work so cheap because most of them don’t pay the costs in (B) above that traditional publishers must pay. By the noise they make, the rivals’ low pricing makes traditional publishers feel financially insecure, and the low quality of products make them feel tainted… until they see a bestseller that they can lure in! Because they do this regardless of the fact that the quality of some bestsellers make the literary lovers gag, I guess at the end of the day, greed and hypocrisy rule any time. Yes, yikes :(

  3. Mmm… some parts of my above comment need editing, Mary :)

    • Mary W. Walters

      LOL, Ia. Editors are needed everywhere. :) But the figures you cite in B are about right, based on my experience as editor in chief of a publishing company. The problems include the bookstore sales model and the costs invested in off-set printing. This is where self-publishers with editors, book designers and publicists of their own are miles ahead re: overhead, but they can’t get into bookstores except on consignment.

  4. I signed a distribution contract (so I’m not in ABNA this year) at those figures, and then start pulling my hair searching for the cheapest (good-looking) printing+shipping. CreateSpace is cheap, but the shipping is dear and slow. So I’m printing in Melbourne now, paying thousands of copies upfront, and yes, I cried when I had to sign the clause for pulping arrangement. Pray that it won’t happen to my baby, Mary…

  5. Thanks Mary, and good luck with ABNA and everywhere else.

  6. Ah, Mary. What to say when you’ve said it all (and so much better than I could have done). I share your optimism that the future will see us pulling ourselves up from the slime, recovering lost brain cells (why-oh-why did you liberate me from my blissful ignorance of who/what is a Honey Boo Boo) and shlooping through the muck of this (sigh) literary landscape.

    I used to say we live in the most exciting times for writers. After 5 years of this SP and self-promotion crap, I’m just tired. I want to go home…and just write. Screw Amazon and their shameless thievery. Hell with the big houses dropping their pants for the next big SP discovery. Just let me sit here at my keyboard and do what I came to do.

    I hope we both live long enough to see the vision we hold on that far horizon come to fruition. Until then, I am a writer. Period.

    Hang in Mary! We need strong voices now more than ever. Now I’m off to refill my glass.

    • Mary W. Walters

      Yes, Christine! The longing to write overwhelms the need to promote more and more often. It is a big problem. Stamina — that is what we need most. And words like yours give me stamina. Thank you. :)

  7. These are interesting times and I hope I live long enough to see new and workable models of publishing established! The present state of flux, I fear, will take several years, maybe decades, to settle down.

    I think, Mary, that you answer the question posed by your second point in the third. The reason most journals won’t review self-pubbed books is because so many of them are crappy.

    I am reviews editor for The Specusphere – http://www.specusphere.com – a webzine for the speculative fiction community. Some years ago, when e-publishing was just getting underway in the genre, we accepted a couple of self-published e-books for review. The authors said they were desperate for reviews and would welcome an honest opinion.

    It was immediately obvious that the MSS had not been edited, and that their writers had not paid attention in English lessons at school. Nor, apparently, had they attended any workshops on how to write novels. The books got the reviews they deserved, and the authors were immediately up in arms, writing letters of complaint that were quite abusive. Such behaviour is, to say the least, unprofessional.

    We immediately brought in a policy that in future we would only review self-published books by authors who had already been published by traditonal houses. That way, at least the wheat and the chaff have already been sorted. As it is, journals are sent far more books from the trad publishers than they would ever have time to review, without opening up to further material that is of variable and unpredictable quality.

    Please keep up the good work of explaining that intending self-publishers must be prepared to spend a fair amount of money on editing, design and layout. It’s the only way self-publishing in general and e-publishing in particular will gain the same credibility as the best traditional houses.

    • Mary W. Walters

      Well, as a writer with four books from established presses before I turned to self publishing for my most recent two, I can live with your guidelines (don’t worry, though: I don’t write SF, so this isn’t a pitch for a review!). And I can certainly understand the need for some sort of standards to help you dig through the slushpiles and find the gems. But as more and more writers choose the self-publication route for their first books, I think we’ll see bloggers and awards programs that begin to do the sorting for the readers and the reviewers (e.g. The Brag Medallion, which is already making a name for itself in sorting wheat from chaff). Thanks for your note!

  8. The Brag Medallion looks like a great idea. I shall spread the word!

  9. Mary, do keep on keeping on. Really, what else can we do? And thanks for that positive ending!

    Gloria

  10. Excellent blog post, Mary! Alice Major recommended I read it, which I have now done, as well as shared, tweeted, recommended on LinkedIn and subscribed to your blog. I suggest everyone else do the same to get the word out. Even for (possibly especially for) someone who has been in the book business her whole career, and who you think would have a network and all the connections, self-publishing my first novel has not been a piece of cake. Instead, it’s been a year of bucking all those traditions and discovering, developing and experimenting with new ways to get the word out and find new readers. Not easy, but I’m fortunate, as are you, in having had that publishing background to draw from. The biggest “mistake” I see new self-published authors making is in not first learning anything at all about the publishing business. You need to know how it’s been done all along so that you can go out there and change the system to make it better. It’s the first thing I tell new authors to do, even those who are being traditionally published for the first, or tenth, time – learn about the business of publishing a book.

    Thanks for getting this discussion going, Mary!

  11. I’m really at a crossroads right now. Should I self-publish, or go the traditional route and try to do all the editing and marketing myself? I don’t consider myself a salesperson, but I feel passionate enough about my writing to go full out when marketing it. Indeed, the publishing industry is in a state of flux. I’ve always said everyone has a story. Unfortunately, not everyone can relay that story in a logical, digestible form.

  12. What do you think about blogging a novel as a way to “self-publish?” Forgive me if you’ve addressed this in an older post. This is my first visit to your site.

    • Mary W. Walters

      I don’t think it can hurt, Christopher. You could build an audience that would buy the book when it becomes available. Even if no one read it, you would still be putting it out there: it would be a motivator to write the next piece. If you want to find an agent when you’re done, it might not be a good idea — I have heard that some agents and publishers won’t look at fiction that has been published online (although they are being ridiculous, as far as I’m concerned, especially since they seem quite willing to pick up self-published books that have had some success). The worst-case scenario would be that you would publish it on your blog, and readers would come by and give you unhelpful advice or even criticism, and unless you were strong-minded, that could throw off the whole novel.

      I would personally never go the route you are suggesting, however, unless the book was already finished (in which case why not just self-publish the whole thing and then run excerpts on your blog?). But that’s just me. I can’t let anyone see my stuff until it’s finished, and the first chapter often has to be revised many times before I get to the end of the last chapter. My writing is sort of like a pile of clay or something: until it is done, it is not ready for public scrutiny (I don’t even show it to friends or fellow writers. I’m not a workshopper.)

      One final point if you are interested in critiques – there are some online workshops that I’ve heard are great for those who like to write online. A colleague of mine, Jen Chatfield, recommends Scribophile. She says, “Scribophile is a great site solely for critiques. There isn’t a contest to get on an editor’s desk, nor is there any sort of ranking system, which keeps it from turning into a popularity contest. Anything can be uploaded – querys, poems, short stories, or chapters from novels. I especially like the fact that participants have to earn credits before they’re allowed to post any work – credits are earned by posting critiques. It’s a great way to learn how to critique well, and I’ve gotten some extremely helpful critiques. I’ve been a part of multiple sites – Authonomy, YouWriteOn, Writer’s Digest, etc, and Scribophile is the most legit in my opinion. If one is interested in improving their writing through good critiques and also by learning how to critique well as opposed to winning a popularity contest, this is a great site.”

  13. I have friends who are publishing their novels one chapter at a time on Wattpad, and I’ve met others who are publishing via the blog route. I doubt I will do either, although of course I want people to read my work. Wattpad appears to be safe enough andseems to have protections in place for copyrighted work. There is no way to protect your work via blogging, even if you claim the copyright. The internet is a mysterious and dangerous place, and blogs are vulnerable.

    • Good point. Although most writers can show evidence of having created the material (early drafts at the original ip address etc) so if push comes to shove, in a law court they are usually fine.

  14. Hi Mary – Just stumbled into your blog while researching authonomy and wanted to say “yoo hoo!” This is a very nice piece of work and I liked the other things by you that I read this evening. (I have been into authonomy for a few weeks now and I think your review of it was spot-on). I am sitting here with the proof of my five-years-in-the-making soon-to-be self-published book at my elbow. My expectations were high five years ago when I sat down at my computer knowing only what a lifetime reader knows about publishing (publishers buy books, right?) and are now (appropriately) low. Still, I am not totally downcast. The experience of working hard over a long period of years to solve problems associated with telling a story has done good things for me in many areas of my life. And as someone once said, it is a fine thing to have written a book. My bound book also looks, if I may say so, absolutely smashing. (A BOOK!) Best of all I am proud of it. No matter what comes next, I can hold my head up about the job of work that I have done. These successes are not worldly, some would say they are vanishingly modest, but is there anything that could be better in the end? I was all “amen sister” when I read what you had to say about _Fifty Shades_. What does it profit a writer if she gains her millions but loses the respect of all who really care about books and the English language? We’ve all heard Neil Gaiman’s recent commencement address now, right? “When times are bad, make good art.” Best advice ever (well, maybe just one notch below, “drive slow in parking lots” and “take Latin.”) Thanks for your work here and for the chance to wave hello to you and your other readers. Carry on! Make good art and damn the rest.

    • Mary W. Walters

      Thank you for this wondrously crafted comment. It proves the suggestion (which I and others have made from time to time) that authors should go around to other blogs and comment on them because other people will read the comments and (if they are interesting enough) will want to read more of what the author/commenter has written. I want to read more of what you’ve written, so please add a link to where your book is for sale if you pop by again. And thanks for the positive feedback! (I am in agreement about the Latin, btw. And the parking lots, now that I consider it.) — Mary

      • @woolfoot What Mary said. I went to your blog and couldn’t see where to throw in a comment so I put it on facebook instead. WHERE CAN WE BUY YOUR BOOK!! If your comment is any indication, I so want to read more.

  15. Well, ladies, you made my day. The book is called _Up, Back, and Away_ and it’s not for sale anywhere yet, but will be on Amazon by this time in February. If you were burning with curiosity you could see some sample chapters on authonomy now. (Maybe that will also save you having to buy it!) Self-published, from what I have seen, is generally synonymous with “unpublishable,” but a sample chapter or two tells the whole tale, doesn’t it? I am very glad to have drawn the attention of a few kindred souls here and I think finding like-minded people around the internet is a reasonable way also to find potential readers. I do appreciate the plug. I should add, however, given the stance that I have taken against run-away platform building (not that anyone has noticed or cares) that my purpose in commenting was really to share with you all and not to plug my book. I’m off to read more blog posts here. I did subscribe via email as well. Thank you again.

  16. Two things. One, you say that if traditional publishing cared to, separating the self-published wheat from the chaff wouldn’t be difficult. How so? As a reader, I find it both difficult and very time-consuming. Secondly, a phenomenon like 50 Shades underscores a simple truth that must be accepted. There are millions of readers of such books for the same reason there are millions of pairs of eyes for crappy TV shows and movies. That’s because millions of people want what fits their comfort level in terms of learning, taste, sophistication, etc.
    P.S. Thanks for the photo at the beginning of your post, If I’m not mistaken it shows gentrified housing in my city, Detroit.

    • I am thinking that they could pay readers (as publishers do now, to go through the slush pile) to do a preliminary sort. A lot of really garbage-y self-published books reveal themselves with a cursory glance.

      I fear you are correct about the reading and viewing tastes of too many readers. I know I sound like the literary snob that I am, but I suppose we should be grateful that at least such noncritical readers are buying books at all: maybe they will buy other, better books in future. I have read many reviews, however, by people who have regretted the money they paid for 50 Shades of Grey.

      I bought the use of the photo from iStock photos — I wanted something that was solid and substantial in its day, but falling to pieces now — like the books business — and that photo captured it perfectly! An acquaintance of mine is doing some interesting work with abandoned houses in your city (http://www.thedetroithouse.com/) and of course the fascinating documentary Searching for Sugar Man (which may win the Oscar on Sunday) is also partly set in a run down neighbourhood of Detroit. Suddenly Detroit keeps cropping up in the diverse corners of my life.

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