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.
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