Back in my university days, I remember reading sources from ancient Babylon and Ur in which writers complained that children are becoming increasingly unruly, and that the downfall of society would certainly result therefrom. (Come to think of it, those cities did fall...)
My point is that people have been foretelling the downfall of society, industries, models, methods, and theories since the beginning of time. When I started in this business decades ago, I remember one of my mentors bewailing the state of the industry and how books were getting worse and and worse. (He would spin in his grave if he could see some of what's being vanity-published these days). Today, with the passing of Maurice Sendak (met him once - NOT a nice man, but that's a different story), he's being quoted for his stance on e-books: "shit," he decreed unapologetically.
I half-disagree with him, and thought I'd use today's installment of Mysterious Matters to talk about the issue in the larger context of the biggest challenges our industry faces. Some of these haven't changed in decades; others have cropped up only in the last few years.
1. THE LACK OF GOOD MANUSCRIPTS. There's a reason why it's so hard to get published by a reputable publisher. Despite the fact that a lot of garbage does get published, most editors/publishers make significant investments (emotional and financial) in the books they buy. I remember my first job, way back when, and the feeling of excitement that I was about to read one fabulous manuscript after another. Reality set in very quickly - the truly good, the truly worthy of publication, was as difficult to find as a needle in a haystack, a pearl in an oyster, a diamond on a beach.
The same is true today. It is really, really difficult to find worthy manuscripts. Each day brings the hope that one will rise to the top; on 99% of days, that doesn't happen. Remember, I'm talking here about manuscripts that I can take to the editorial board and say, "This will sell - it's worth us investing our money in editing, publishing, and marketing it." And the hurdles are higher than ever. Why is that? This brings me to the next two challenges.
2. TOO MANY BOOKS ARE PUBLISHED. By books, I mean "fiction," as that's the world I work in. This is true for the print world, and it's even more of a problem in the ebook world. Avid readers, occasional readers, and society in general just can't absorb the amount of fiction being put out there. And yet, we do work in a capitalist system, which means that good publishers will stay in business while bad publishers will go bankrupt eventually. In the meantime, books are printed and remaindered left and right. People are busier than ever before, with levels of sensory overload never-before-experienced in human history. How can we expect that typical business traveler to learn about, pick up, and read New Novelist A when the airport bookshop carries only Tried and True Novelists B, C, and D? What we need is a good, old-fashioned book shortage. I'd try to engineer one, but then the Department of Justice would sue me.
3. OUR EGALITARIAN SOCIETY HAS LED THE AVERAGE PERSON TO THINK THAT S/HE HAS THE RIGHT TO HAVE A BOOK PUBLISHED. Oh, what a problem this is. Many people who work in this industry think the business is mostly a meritocracy, though I'm not naive enough to buy into that idea more than about 60-70% of the time. But society has changed over the decades. In general, people used to understand that to have a book published, they'd need to be at the top of their game. Now, just as the grammar schools make every child believe s/he deserves some sort of athletic trophy just for participation, every would-be writer thinks s/he has the right to be published. And here's where Amazon - along with Apple, one of the most opportunistic enterprises in modern history - hit paydirt. Their idea: "Let's let people publish their own work. It costs us absolutely nothing and, even if the book sells 10 copies to close friends and relatives, we get our cut with practically zero investment." The company's done a good job of fomenting discord with "traditional publishing" (you wouldn't believe the scorn with which that phrase is used on listservs and other Web forums), implying that we're all rip-off artists, scammers, and millionaires rolling in cash.
As for waiting - well, our have-it-now, instant-gratification society is filled with people who mistakenly think their work is so good, so perfect, that it must be published NOW so that it can sell millions of copies. Again, enter Amazon to play into this fantasy and make a few bucks while doing it.
4. VANITY PUBLISHING CLOGS THE DISCOURSE AND INTERFERES WITH THE MESSAGE. It's hard enough to get the word out about good books. People seem to be afraid to say this in public, and if this blog weren't anonymous I think I might also think twice for fear of hurting conceited people's feelings, but 98% of self-published ebooks are garbage. And yet, many of their authors are working conventions, setting up Facebook pages, and in general acting as if their books have the legitimacy of the books published by the oft-maligned "Big Six." Sorry, but they don't. Yes, I'll admit that about 1% of ebooks-only are decent, good, or even excellent - but that's not much of a hit rate given the sheer volume. I would imagine that someone with good taste could have a great deal of fun setting up a Kirkus-like review site that provides reviews - REAL reviews - of self-published books. Of course, no one would waste their time on such a pointless endeavor; how many ways can you find to say "self-indulgent," "tripe," "awful," "badly written," and "execrable"?
The term "vanity publishing" has gone away and yet that's exactly what it is, which is why I use the term without apology. I really would love to see a greater acknowledgment of the fact that vanity publishing taps into the same self-centeredness and desire for popularity/idolatry that Facebook, American Idol, Twitter, and all these other so-called "social media" tap into. That's what cell phones and all these other things are about - popularity, stardom, and worship: NOT communication. We used to assume that people had to WORK hard to get published, and the hard truth was that people could try to get published all their lives and never succeed. But that's gone away, and it is leading to what I see as our industry's #1 challenge, which is...
5. BOOKS ARE NOW PERCEIVED AS INTERCHANGEABLE COMMODITIES, AS PLENTIFUL AS WATER AND NOT WORTH SPENDING A LOT OF MONEY ON. Of course, this sweeping generalization isn't true of the many devoted readers who spend a lot of their disposable income on books (and we thank you for that). But how can anything possibly be perceived as having value if it's given away for free, or sold for 99 cents, on Amazon? Sadly, the overall goals of publishers and many writers just are not in alignment here, and it's a problem. Publishers are corporations that seek a profit - We need a return on our investment, and we need to pay our vendors and staff. Many writers, it seems, care only about having an adoring reading public. If that means they have to pay their own money to get published, and then give their work away in the hopes that by some miracle they'll end up on the best-seller list, then so be it. Some of these folks are very, very vocal - and what works me up is their complete ignorance regarding the way predatory corporations like Amazon (and to a certain extent Apple) are using propaganda to make Joe Bad Novelist think he can self-publish his own crap and get rich. This is one of the great mass delusions of our age; I can't believe more people don't see it and talk about it, but hey - that's what Mysterious Matters is for.
Meanwhile, the Kindle/Nook/iPad walk the interesting line between wondrous marvels and thought-control devices. Wondrous marvels in that many people love to read books on them. Personally, I don't; the only one I find at all aesthetically appealing is the iPad, but I have such a problem with Apple's business practices that I won't buy one. But a lot of people love their e-readers. So, to come full circle, I wouldn't agree with Sendak's blanket dismissal of e-books as "shit" -- many of those books are quite, quite good, and the devices help get books to people in the format in which they want them. But the existence of ebooks (and now these new "ebook publishers," which are basically versions of Kindle Digital Publishing that allow the deluded to think they are with a "real publisher") has allowed so much junk into an already crowded stream...and I am so tired of hearing the vanity-published act as though we traditional publishers have been the enemy that has conspired to keep their crap from getting published.
Well played, Amazon - while demonizing an industry that is your bread and better (ever hear of biting the hand the feeds you?), you have succeeded in crafting the American mind to align with your pursuit of profit. And while I say this with proud rancor, I also say it with the bitter realization that we let it happen instead of fighting back from the beginning.