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Monday, May 09, 2005

Do You Want Everything Written Published?

Over at Pod-dy Mouth, Karen Mitchell wrote this in her comment:

" But many traditionally published books are also of poor quality, so it seems to me that the "bar" is pretty low as it is."

I think that's a fallacy. Many books published by reputable trade publishers may not be of interest to you or not to your liking, but that does not mean they are bad. Bad means something written by someone with only a fleeting grasp of the rules of English grammar, spelling, and basic construction. Bad means so bereft of any style or plausible plot that it makes the reader cringe. Bad means something written by someone whose writing suggests they may not be in full possession of their rational faculties.

You do acknowledge the fact that there are good books and bad books, however you want to define good and bad. Someone must exercise some qualitative scrutiny over what to publish and what to leave unpublished. Agents and editors currently fulfill that function. The problem with POD isn't that the bar is low, it's that it doesn't exist. If the POD vanity model replaced the current agent-editor-trade publisher gateway model, we'll be inundated with tens of thousands of titles with no way to tell good from bad. Everything anyone writes will be published. Well, actually, it won't be published. It will sit on the servers of POD companies waiting, forever, in most cases, to be turned into a book.

The problem then becomes how to develope a mechanism to find and publish the meritorious books, and pretty soon we're right back to where we are today. Certain human activities always tend to get organized into certain systems.

3 Comments:

Blogger Karen Anne Mitchell said...

Since you were kind enough to quote me, I thought I'd leave some thoughts here.

Each of us, every day, is called upon to make value judgments about good and bad. This is as true in literature as it is anywhere else, and my definition of good and bad books is, like yours, inherently subjective and inherently personal. So yes, I do want to define good and bad, because I must. So do you, because you must.

For this reason, the idea that someone else can or should decide what is made available ("published") should be seen as unsettling, since as you noted quality in art is too subjective to be universally applied. Because they are in business, however, editors and publishers must make decisions about the quality and the commercial potential of the manuscripts submitted to them, and that's perfectly fine, because they are investing thousands of dollars (or more) into the project and author. And most of them will tell you that they cannot, for reasons of business, publish every deserving manuscript they see. They enjoy publishing quality work, because most editors are book lovers (why else would they work those long hours?), but they aren't censors and they aren't there to protect us from bad writing; I suspect that in the end that's a responsibility they'd rather not have.

Commercial book publishing is just that: commercial. Profit or perish. There have been traditionally published books that, save for someone fixing the typos, were bad for every reason you describe, and yet that were also bestsellers (in science fiction, for example, one need only think of the infamous and popular "Gor" series). Certain genres, such as Romance, often have no pretensions to literary quality; they are quick, easy entertainment and happy to be so. People enjoy such books despite their low writing quality, the publisher makes money and survives to publish another day, and everyone is happy.

You note, correctly, that self-published POD serves to eliminate the editorial bar, and this produces a new paradigm for publication in which anyone with a manuscript, a word processor, an internet connection, and a few hundred dollars can have a book printed and listed for sale worldwide. The result, as we've all seen, is a flood of tens of thousands of very, very poorly edited and proofread books. We've also seen a large number of disappointed authors who didn't realize that writing, editing, proofreading and promoting a book is harder than they thought it would be.

You are also correct that this paradigm exists apart from the traditional editorial model. But I think it unlikely that self-published POD books are going to replace traditional publishing. It isn't actually an either/or choice, since both models can (and do) exist simultaneously. And although the flood of typo-ridden literary disasters is already upon us, we seem to have survived all right. For the most part all POD books do is take up some room on computers. As an added bonus there are many out of print books that now are available again because POD technology makes it profitable to have them back in print, and POD also makes small presses like Prime Books commercially viable. Finally, out of the rubble of self-publishing a small percentage of gems have appeared that otherwise would probably have languished in someone's desk drawer.

Which brings us back to the question of making decisions about books. Agents and editors do filter out a huge amount of poor work, and for this we should be thankful. But ultimately it is we, each of us, who must make the decision about whether or not to buy and/or read a book. I have my own criteria (I'm quite picky about typos and grammar, for example), as do you, to judge from your list of "bad" things that can appear in books. And since to my knowledge there is no editor or agent out there whose literary tastes exactly parallel my own, I'd just as soon not have them making all the decisions about which books I'm going to see or not see.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Peter L. Winkler said...

" For this reason, the idea that someone else can or should decide what is made available ("published") should be seen as unsettling, since as you noted quality in art is too subjective to be universally applied.

And since to my knowledge there is no editor or agent out there whose literary tastes exactly parallel my own, I'd just as soon not have them making all the decisions about which books I'm going to see or not see."

Those paragraphs led me to suspect that you were a self-published author. I went to your blog, from there to Amazon and my hunch was confirmed.

" The result, as we've all seen, is a flood of tens of thousands of very, very poorly edited and proofread books."

Editing and proofing deficiencies are easy to fix for a small amount of money. The problem with self-published books runs far deeper than editing and proofing. I tried to point that out in my comment, but you refuse to recognize it. I've never read any of the infamous GOR series, but I suspect they have a coherent narrative. So too, do the romance novels to which you refer. The fact that they have no literary elan is besides the point. Most commercial fiction is plot driven, not Proustiam exercises in style.

I've written four nonfiction book proposals. The only one that resulted in a contract was a computer book that originated with an editor at Digital Press. Alas, the book was dependent on a collaborator who ultimately decided not to write the book. The three proposals I've done on my own never sold. Have I considered self-publishing? Sure. But it is not a realistic alternative for writers who want to reach an audience and also make a little money from their efforts.

You disagree. No matter what I say, you always will. I wish you well in your efforts.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Karen Anne Mitchell said...

Correct; I am self-published. I've also had work published in traditional venues, and have worked as a freelance editor.

We actually agree on a great deal. Self-publishing is not likely to be commercially successful, and writers who want fame and fortune will find it a more difficult route to that goal than traditional publishing (which is extremely difficult already). In part this is because of negative attitudes towards self-published work, but a much bigger problem is that self-publishing takes more than simply writing skills to do well, because the author becomes responsible for editing, proofreading, and critiquing. Critiquing oneself is painfully hard. This must be followed by successful promotion, which again, not everybody does well. For myself, I set realistic goals for my work and what I wanted out if it; my self-published book has actually sold much better than I thought it would.

And you are quite correct when you say that self-publishing "is not a realistic alternative for writers who want to reach an audience and also make a little money from their efforts." Anyone who is considering self-publishing needs to ask themselves honestly what their goals are and whether or not going it alone is best for them. You made your choice, and you had good reasons for it, just as I made mine. I wish you the best in your efforts as well.

8:42 PM  

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