Bad Writing

4 04 2011

From the Self-Publishing Review:

At the risk of sounding like a snob: non-sophisticated readers will not care if writing is non-sophisticated, and there are a lot more non-sophisticated readers than sophisticated ones. That’s millions of potential readers.  Publishers might like to believe that they have the finger on the pulse of what sells – or what should sell – but when mediocre writing is becoming a bestseller, this pretty much renders the slush pile meaningless.

I couldn’t agree more, though many of the comments there correctly point out that bad writing makes its way through the publishing houses all the time. The difference, I suspect, is that in most of those cases, such as with Snooki or the various Tumbler to Book Deal conversions, these represent just a money grab for the publishers. You can’t really fault them for that. They need the money or they’ll go under like any other business. The more serious literary imprints and presses aren’t doing that and, consequently, they don’t bring in the big money, either.

I also saw the point made that great storytelling trumps great writing. I am not so sure. I’d even venture to say it’s impossible to have anything more than the barest kernel of what could potentially be a great idea for a story without having it written down and stories, my friends, are made in the telling of them. It might be a really grabbing concept, but it’s not done until it’s written and half-thought out ideas are compelling and worthless at the same time. I might have a really great idea for a painting that would knock your socks off. Unless, however, I somehow find the talent, dedication and time to put that image onto canvas, the idea isn’t worth anything. Technique and craft matter, at least as much and sometimes even more than raw gifts. What makes a great story is, frankly, a great story in all of its magnificence and splendor, a great idea perfectly massaged onto the page, be it pixels or paper. That’s inseparable from the writing.

One part of the math

30 03 2011
Cover of "To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Ann...

Cover via Amazon

I dig Laura Miller so much. She’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite people in the book world.

Today she writes about the “particularly symmetrical bit of revolving door ballet” between the amazing self-publisher Amanda Hocking, who has signed on with St. Martin’s and Barry Eisler, who is leaving St. Martin’s to self-publish his own. Hocking sees the big houses as an opportunity to get a little help with the proofreading, editing, marketing and distribution of her works, thus giving her more time to write. Eisler sees the self-publishing route as a way to deal less with the hassles of big publishing and bring his novels more quickly to market, thus giving him more time to write. There’s plenty of Kool-Aid to drink on either side, by the way, but this little conundrum pops up and hits you in the jaw.

Meanwhile, Laura Miller raises the point that always resonates most with me:

With all due respect to Hocking and Eisler (and I’ve got plenty for both), I’d rather have “To Kill a Mockingbird” than any of their novels. Even though they are much better at interacting with their fans and orchestrating their careers than Harper Lee is, Lee (in my opinion, at least) is the better writer. Today’s conventional wisdom, in both traditional and indie publishing, decrees that someone like Lee might as well not bother; however good her book is, it won’t find an audience unless she’s willing and able to make hawking it at least a part-time job.

What this means for readers is troubling. Even if the next generation’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” gets published, the author’s inability to promote it effectively may prevent it from reaching the millions of readers who would otherwise embrace it. And while Harper Lee never published a second book, I want the writers whose work I admire to have as much time as possible to write as many books as they wish. As Hocking so astutely points out, the hours spent in self-promotion are hours spent not writing.

Miller is no doubt correct that this is a problem. One need look only at Jonathan Franzen’s non-trailer book trailer that was kind of about Freedom but mostly about how he hates book trailers to see shades of the disinclination and “profound discomfort” that some novelists have had towards the promotion and marketing business. I think that the artistically inspired and talent novelist’s reluctance to self-promote, which they’re obligated to do whether they self-publish or publish through a Big 6 house, is only part of that problem, however. The larger culprit : nobody will buy the good stuff. Good stuff isn’t commerically viable and the book market is a business. The market, on the whole, is not very good at picking quality. It’s very good at picking what provides the most entertainment value. These are not one in the same. Even when we have a Franzen moment (and no, I still haven’t read Freedom, but I swear I’ll get to it), I imagine that a part of the enthusiasm has less to do with Franzen himself and more to do with a nostalgia towards good writing.

This is where the division between a book market driven just by self-publishing (and its eventual king, Amazon) and one in which large houses still exist present very few good answers. Ideally, both remain viable on the long-term, but publishing houses at least put some of these works on the rolls and get them out in paper to sit on a library self until they’re discovered. I’m pretty concerned that the self-publishing, fast-to-market crowd will drown them entirely, but won’t even know it, presenting this curious, circular logic:

  1. The good stuff will rise to the top!
  2. So-and-so is a selling the most, so her stuff must be really good.
  3. How do you know it’s good? Because it’s selling the most.

The problem? So-and-so is going to be writing stories about vampires falling in love with werewolves for YA audiences and nothing more than endless variations on that theme. Just sayin’, if you want to sell books, that’s what does it. The idea that just writing better will result in these artistic works coming to the top, however, is a pipe-dream. The market just don’t play that way.

E-Book Publishing Ideological Battles?

4 01 2011

Everyone and their cousin spent most of 2010 wondering, and in many cases worrying, about the changing face of publishing and how it’s going to affect those seeking traditional publication via an agent and publishing house versus those many adopters of self-publishing through ebooks, Amazon, CreateSpace and Smashwords. The feeling I immediately get now, as those prominent names who weigh into the discussion have as much meaning associated with them as the positions they espouse, is that the debate is taking on an unfortunate ideological character that undermines the chance to really get to the heart of the issue itself.

The problem, of course, is that there’s never any way to totally escape ideology, especially once you get the market involved. Market capitalism has a way of gumming up most things just as we appear to be close to understanding them. Because the debate concerns only the financial viability of publishing in the long-term, we fail to consider whether that’s a good thing or not. The latter question, I’d argue, is the more important one, but we all know how that debate plays out: market concerns trump everything. The market has the air of infallibility. The market rules and values itself only.

The grounds for the debate have never been more clear, however. With ebook sales outpacing printed sales to a staggering degree and the mind-blowing press release from Amazon that the Kindle has become their best-selling product of all time, selling more units than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it’s no wonder that we will have to look back on 2010 as the year that e-readers have come into their own. And, we haven’t seen what 2011 has in store.

Which is why the topic of whither the publisher is going to become increasingly relevant this year. This morning I came across an  E-Read’s post by Richard Curtis, which asked the question of whether authors make good publishers. He cited Cory Doctorow, Seth Godin and, apparently, used an out-of-date quote by J.A. Konrath. I found the information by Doctorow very interesting, as his is a name that could sell just about anything, but his feeling is that it’s not worth the time he loses to creation when he must set aside a large portion of his day to marketing, distribution and the other million tasks that traditional publishing houses take over for authors. Konrath’s point is even more interesting, however, as he responds separately to Curtis’s post and underscores how deep in trouble traditional publishers are. With authors like Amanda Hocking selling over 100,000 ebooks in a month…. well, it’s hard to argue with the market. I think a lot of authors could feel happy about that.

The question that’s skipped over, however, is how Amanda Hocking fared versus those published by traditional houses. The answer? Pretty damn good. The first book of her trilogy, Switched, is currently #12 on the Kindle sales ranks, right behind Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games and Cross Fire by James Patterson. Of course, that doesn’t include how many print copies both authors sold via Amazon and I think it a rather safe assumption that the gap is probably a bit wider, but nonetheless, as the volume of book sales switches to an electronic format, that number and that rank are going to be increasingly relevant.

Still, it’s not surprising which side Konrath is on the calculus of publishing’s future. He’s become a voice for self-publishing in the new environment and is Amazon’s poster-child for the success of their product and their future hopes to muscle their way into the publishing market. Konrath coming in on the side of self-publishing is no more surprising than Rush Limbaugh shaking his fist and proclaiming that labor unions are some huge conspiracy. The name’s as good as the argument. Similarly, the commentary on Curtis’s post is pretty interesting, though-provoking and probably correct, but again, not very surprising. Curtis took a half-hearted stab at self-publishing and he reaped the whirlwind when the “Self-Publishing Emergency Response Team” jumped in like the SWAT to take him down. Necessary? Maybe. Classy? Not so much. It’s clear where the passion is, though.

Which all resulted in Curtis’s updated post this morning and underscored that he’s not really feeling much like the traditionalist (picture the pitchfork-bearing crowd screaming this in the same tone as heretic) that some of the commenters were making him out to be.

Again, that’s not to say that all of the comments there were bad. Some, even most, were pretty good. A few were borderline rude and a few (most comments that said he’s just a publishing house shill) were pretty useless. I think we should strive as an internet to be more respectful, considerate, imaginative and thoughtful in our discourse. Good luck with that, I know.

However, back to the topic at hand, we’re still only settling for the low-hanging fruit of the best method for selling genre fiction. That might be good enough to sink the traditional publishing houses in its own right, but there are larger things to consider. What about those services that traditional publishing houses do provide? Personally, I see the market eventually demanding more and more quality work done by professionals, designing covers, doing marketing and publicity, not to mention editing, as opposed to self-taught authors taking all of that on themselves. I’m sure some authors are much happier editing themselves. As a reader and bit of an amateur critic, I’m more than a little less sold on that particular idea.

Furthermore, if anyone can just upload their novel, what’s to prevent the same flood of bad fiction that chokes up publishing houses’ slush piles from gumming up the Kindle store? The market may be the one that chooses the winner, but the market isn’t very discriminating. Left to its own devices, the market does little to promote creativity and instead produces more and more clones of more and more accessible quality. It offers few surprises. It offers more young adult urban vampire fantasy. It punishes cruelly those who take too many risks. What is needed is the role of the professional critic far more than the opinion of random person #12,196 writing his or her Amazon review. That’s me being snobby. Forgive me, I just want more people who know what they’re talking about in the driver’s seat and I suspect that the market rather always chooses the path of least resistance. I do understand, however, that we’re fast approaching a pure democracy of words out there and, honestly, I’m not totally in love with the idea.

Of course, when I looked up and saw that Snooki’s book is due to come out today, I wonder really if both publishing routes aren’t completely lost to the market already anyway. That’s Simon and Schuster, folks. If publishing houses are willing to so easily give up their role as the “gatekeepers of quality literary production,” who are we all to argue with them?

Martha Woodruff on Self-Publishing Her Novel

11 08 2010

NPR has put up an interesting profile written by Martha Woodruff, who last June published her book Small Blessings on the Kindle.

This is one of the things I think the Kindle does really well. It really has made self-publishing a cinch and that itself has this whole democratic air to it that I find really interesting. I somewhat doubt the ability of even good writing to rise to the top on its own merits, but at least she’s got her work out there instead of sitting in some file on her computer, never to see the light of day in any format. I think I might buy a copy out of solidarity, even though I probably won’t ever read it as it’s not my style. I also hope the NPR story which is making its way through the book blogs gives her a little publicity. I also think she’d have been better served by linking directly to the book on Amazon somewhere in the article, but maybe she felt that was a bit too self-promotional (in this case, I say, one should be bold).

I just wish, again, that Amazon wasn’t the only game in town. I have many bones to pick with ebooks and most of it has to do with everything existing under Amazon’s control and Amazon’s alone. There’s a lot that just doesn’t sit well with me on that. We need a lot fewer proprietary formats and more markets in which to buy books, but really, that’s a whole different topic anyway.

As a final note, I’m very, very glad that she didn’t put her work up there for $0.00. $2.99 seems a great price point for a self-published work. It’s cheap enough that people might just buy it on a whim and take a risk, which is understandable given that self-published works can be something of a crap shoot when it comes to quality. It’s also not free, which means the work has some value, both to her and to her reader. I understand the argument that there’s merit in writing for exposure, but I think most of that is baloney. If you value yourself and your time and expect others to value it as well, nothing you do should be done for free (volunteering for causes aside, which isn’t what this is). So, good on her.