Article on the future of books

Peter Darbyshire has just published an article in the Vancouver Province, discussing the future of books and publishing—you’ll find it here.  He was good enough to ask me about my experiences as a long-standing independent author and publisher (21 years and counting) and I was only too happy to oblige.

Smart man, Peter, a guy who knows what he’s talking about.  He’s had his own adventures in the publishing biz and is familiar with the new technologies that are allowing authors the chance to by-pass traditional gate-keepers and take their work directly to readers, via e-books and print on demand efforts.

As I wrote to Peter in a followup note, one of my fears is that while these technologies may empower good authors turned off by a corporate system that slots and niches books, producing dozens of copy-cat knockoffs of popular titles, it also accords terrible scribblers the opportunity to foist their mindless, adolescent crap on the world.  Thus, the marketplace is currently overwhelmed by dreadful vampire porn, brain-eating zombies and godawful tripe that wouldn’t pass muster in a high school yearbook.  Anyone can call themselves a writer these days and with a minimum investment can produce a decent-looking book with their name on the cover.   “Look at me!  Aren’t I great?  And you all thought I was a loser!”

I recently posted similar views on a couple of sites frequented by amateur writers and wannabes and was soundly taken to task for my arrogant insistence that there is a difference between good writing and bad writing.  One remark I’ve heard a number of times is that “we live in a post-literate society and the old standards no longer apply”.  You know, standards like good spelling, syntax that isn’t tortured beyond recognition, an ear for dialogue, an aversion to over-writing, etc. etc.

In the old days, these dingbats would be working in the rightly discredited sub-sub-genre of “fan fiction”, read by a few geeks with too much time on their hands and a roomful of Star Wars action figures.  Now they can inflict their offal on a far wider audience, pricing their e-books at 99 cents to draw the most possible readers and congratulating themselves for their genius.

It’s truly sickening.

I do not want to be lumped in with folks who have no respect for the printed word, who wish to emulate literary idols like Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson…the very worst of the worst.  I revere great writing and devote enormous time and effort to producing the finest, most literate work I can; to hear these people crowing about how many e-books they’ve sold, how much money they’ve made, goes against everything I believe in, as an author and an artist.  Their attitudes revolt me, their “writing” makes me shudder, their success impresses me not one whit.  They are bottom-feeders and pornographers and if that’s what sells these days, the literary world is in more trouble than I ever imagined.

49 comments

  1. Cliff Burns

    Thanks for thinking of me, Peter—and for pointing out to readers that there’s an alternative to what the traditional publishers are churning out like widgets. There is good work in the indie writing community but it’s like panning for gold: you really have to look for the shiny nuggets amid the filth. Thus, the importance of developing a critical community that can better identify those authors worthy of being read…and weed out the wannabes and hobbyists.

  2. Runte

    As an editor, I could not agree with you more. Indeed, we have both written at length how the new technologies threaten to overwhelm the consumer with millions of badly written novels and so turn readers off from trying legitimate independent writers such as yourself or Lorina Stephens.

    As an educator, however, I do like the fact that the new technologies allow a more democratic approach to writing and publishing, and that more people are able to enter the conversation then was the case 10 years ago. The hope is that as more people write, more people get better at it and do eventually put out quality work.

    The problem as I see it is two-fold:

    First, that people that used to get published with their fifth novel — having learned their art on novels 1-4 — can now publish their ‘practice’ novels, there being no editor to say “not good enough yet”. Indeed, there is little incentive to improve without some sort of editor prodding one to go deeper and be better.

    Second, on the other hand there are the simply hopeless cases — people who cannot get better because they have no talent, non-readers who have no conception of what constitutes competent (let alone good) writing, and who have personality disorders that make them unable to recognize their own failings. I attended a talent show last week where a bunch of 12 and 13 year olds sang their songs, and a 25 year got up and made random noises, convinced that she was the greatest star ever. You could see it in her body language that she thought she was god’s gift to song. The audience didn’t know where to look, because they don’t have much experience with mental illness and so just settled on polite scattered applause. Same with a lot of the new novels being released because lack of standards and lacking the facilities to be self-critical allow these cases to be very prolific.

    Clearly we need some mechanism to distinguish between these vanity press types and those who are indeed trying to push themselves to become better writers. Used to be we could rely on editors and publishers to screen out the idiots — but at the cost of also screening out a lot of excellent cutting edge writers whose work was not sufficiently mass market to attract a commercial publisher.

    It will be interesting to see how the marketplace sorts all this out.

  3. Cliff Burns

    Smart response, Robert. I can hear the wannabes grinding their teeth at the notion of imposing literary standards on their crayon scrawls. I work very hard, day by day, to separate my work from the muck inundating the marketplace from self-publishers who use their dictionaries as doorstops and think Don DeLillo is a character from the “Godfather” movies. People like you help spread the word and keep me going when I start thinking I’m wasting my time and should cede the field to the Stephenie Meyers of the world. Always a pleasure to hear from you, lad.

  4. peter darbyshire

    I’ve got no real problem with traditional publishing. It’s like everything else — there are people who are good at their job and people who are bad at their job, but most people are at their desks thinking about something else.

    Traditional publishing has been OK to me. I haven’t got rich, but I won’t get rich self-publishing either. And I’ve had some insanely good editors. But I know people who have had simply insane editors. So the mileage varies.

    But traditional publishing houses have really only ever been good at two things: editing (sometimes) and distribution. Ebooks are taking that second category away from them, so they’re going to have to reinvent themselves to survive. I think there can be a role for good, smart people, but it’s going to be a different one. Maybe publishing houses turn to a more service-based model, where writers pay for quality editing, as opposed to gatekeeper editing. Maybe they become boutique marketers that help writers stand out from the crowd (which is really what they’re doing now). Maybe something else. Or maybe they all fail to adapt and die. Time will tell, but I hope the smart, passionate people find a place for themselves.

    As for all the terrible books floating around out there, print or digital, I’ve given up worrying about that. People buy what they want to buy. I buy off previews, so I buy books I know I’m going to like. And I shout out their praises where I can. After that, it’s up to the other readers.

    As long as the good writers keep on writing, I’ll be happy.

  5. Cliff Burns

    Amen, Peter, amen.

    You’re very lucky to have been treating so well by the trads. For two decades I submitted my work to book publishers and magazine editors and I can count the good experiences I had, literally, on the fingers of one hand. I’ve had editors lie bald-faced to me…and I’m NOT the passive type. There are a few who had better pray to whatever deity they hold dear that we never cross paths because I’d pound them into bloody pulps. Some held on to manuscripts for years before replying with form rejection slips. This after soliciting my work, praising what they’d read to the skies, then…silence. I’ve had agents tell me they love my work and offer me the chance to write STAR TREK or STAR WARS novels (can’t remember which), then banged down the phone after I inquired “what makes you think I’d whore myself like that?”.

    I’ll never take the attitude that editors or agents are doing ME a favor by taking on my work—it’s the other way around. They should feel fucking honored that I’d allow them to publish or represent me. Too many authors out there would kiss ass, endure any humiliation, accept the smallest stipend, just to say they have a published book or short story. How despicable. By publishing myself I guarantee that my books will be typeset the way I want them, won’t be mangled by an incompetent editor who thinks Sophie Kinsella is a superb prose stylist, or have a cover foisted on them that you wouldn’t wrap a fucking fish in.

    The indie musicians showed us it can be done. Now it’s up to us, as writers, as artists, to have the courage and integrity to make our own way, blaze trails and truly go where no one has gone before.

    When we cross paths, Peter, the first drink is on me. All the best to you and keep up the great work.

  6. Melissa

    Hello, Cliff. I followed you here after reading an insightful comment you posted on another blog. Please forgive the flagrant stalking. :)

    What’s profoundly disturbing about this topic is the sheer number of people who champion high-selling eBook indie writers without ever having read their work. I have. Not because I wanted to, but because I wanted to find out what marketing tricks they used to get people to buy their product. It was an enlightening experience, needless to say.

    I do not consider myself an elitist by any stretch of the imagination. I read Mishima, Kundera and Calvino. But I also read fun, frilly books by “chick lit” authors to take the edge off a particularly bad day. Sophie Kinsella and Melissa Senate might not be haute literature, but their books are lacking noticeable errors in spelling and sentence construction. Oh, and they’re also rom-com funny. But I digress.

    The one thing all of these writers have in common is a grasp of how to craft sentences and turn them into plots that hold my attention. If the optimism and staggering amounts of ego that goes into the work of most (not all, but most) ePub writers were lavished on honing the craft, maybe we would not be having this discussion.

  7. Cliff Burns

    Brilliant!

    Melissa, I have discovered that e-pub authors have two things in common with salamanders: thin skins and nonexistent I.Q.’s. As I wrote elsewhere, I find it very telling that the discussions of e-books center around how much money you can make; the moment aesthetic standards are mentioned, these twerps screech like howler monkeys and start throwing shit through the bars at you. Yes, a very few can become wealthy releasing their books without vetting or editing, relying on stand-bys like vampires (derivative Twilight clones), zombies and the like. Paranormal romance (shudder). The worst, most debased kind of writing, sub-genres that authors with an ounce of self-respect wouldn’t go anywhere near.

    Like you, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about but after trying to read the work of “talents” like Konrath and Ms. Hocking, I abandoned the effort. If that’s what it takes to be a successful writer these days, I’d rather go broke and live behind a garbage dumpster.

    I’m hoping and praying that the Konraths and their ilk will have their moment in the sun and then crawl back under the wet rocks from whence they came, richer in gold perhaps, but none the wiser. I still cling to the belief that good, quality writing wins out in the end. Kundera, Calvino. The names we still regard with awe and whose work continues to resonate with us across decades of time, their immortality paid for with talent, blood, sweat and tears.

    Write on, Melissa. And to hell with the hacks.

  8. Melissa

    Well, Cliff, it is discouraging, to say the very least. I have experience working at a literary journal. Statistically, the number of manuscripts that were readable (without noticeable errors) numbered 1:200. The number of manuscripts that were publishable numbered 1:500. America’s literacy skills aren’t exactly on the uptick. I can’t begin to fathom what queries and manuscripts look like in 2011. Those who aren’t clicking to it haven’t been behind the other side of a desk heaped with all flavors, colors and tunes of “bad.”

    I take a balanced approach to these kinds of things. I could not and would not write a vampire/paranormal book simply because I have -0- interest in this genre. But, I also believe in giving readers what they want to read at the same time — if only to keep them reading. If a Y.A. author can write a riveting trend-of-the-year book well, then hey …. props. But there’s that word again: “well.” Pulp fiction can be done well. Romance can be done well. So then? Do it well, if you must do it at all. Spell, punctuate and construct sentences correctly is a dashing good start! :D

    Of course, Cliff, what this all boils down to is how well someone can package and market. Everyone’s scratching their heads over the Hocking phenomenon. I’m not. She ripped off “Twilight,” right down to the story arc. And even some of the character names. No, really. Her covers eerily mimic “Twilight’s” trade dress. Put them side by side on Amazon, and the average reader would probably think that Hocking is another Stephenie Meyer. What is there not to understand — ?

  9. Cliff Burns

    Christ, you’re depressing me, Melissa.

    The notion of someone wanting to be compared to the likes of Stephenie Meyer is absolutely baffling to me. A total paradigm shift from everything I hold dear as an artist.

    If Ms. Hocking’s work is that derivative, perhaps she’ll get sued? Fan fiction is one thing but when you’re making oodles of loot ripping off another scribbler…well. We can hope, can’t we?

    Excuse me, I have to go find some antacid. This conversation is giving me a terrific belly ache.

  10. peter darbyshire

    It’s true there’s a lot of crap in self-published books. There’s also a lot of crap in traditionally published books. I previewed a mystery novel some of my friends were raving about the other day and found a mixed metaphor in the first line, and then it went downhill from there. Didn’t get past the first page. This from one of the stars in the field.

    Sure, the problem is worse when it comes to self-publishing. But it’s still there with traditional publishing. And readers don’t seem to care anyway.

    I’ve given up worrying about it. I buy off previews, and I support the people who are good writers. But I know I’m in the minority that way and always will be. So it goes.

    Thanks for mentioning Calvino. Invisible Cities is one of the books I’ve asked to be buried with.

  11. Cliff Burns

    I hear you.

    Me, I love a recommendation from a smart bugger (like Peter Darbyshire, for instance).

    It was William Gibson (name-dropping!) who initially told me to look up Cormac McCarthy. “Have you read Blood Meridian?” Went out that day, found it, read it and have yet one more reason to admire Monsieur Gibson. The rest of our conversation was fascinating too but because it involved illicit substances and what not, I shall say no more.

  12. Melissa

    LOL! I’m sorry, Cliff! I didn’t mean to depress you!

    But, as I pointed out on another blog, the marketers of those acai berry weight loss supplements raked in more than $30 MILLION before the FTC gave them the banhammer. Hocking’s success is really no different than the success of the acai berry weight loss scammers (which, BTW, I can tell you what caused that to trend, as well). The big difference between them is that consumers eventually found out that the acai supplements *were* fraudulent. The Hocking situation is a different, because she did deliver product. And hey, maybe you and I consider getting compared to Meyer a fate worse than death, but for a lot of fan-fic writers and 4chan and deivantART dwellers, this woman is GAWD.

    I’m not saying that this is in anyway righteous or even sane. But it is what it is, and it sells what it sells. People buy crap all of the time — acai berry supplements, Japanese foot pads, “detox” baths, “Snuggies” and all sorts of silly stuff. What rubs writers the wrong way is that we’re talking about something that should be considered an art form — not product to be mass marketed to the lowest bidder.

  13. Cliff Burns

    And, see, a conversation like this is exactly why people like you and me get banned from amateur-humping sites like “Novelr”. You naughty person.

  14. Melissa

    Oooo! You’re far naughtier than I am, Cliff! I actually had my *posts* removed! Seriously, that was my first-ever ban. EVER on the Internet! What, all for noticing that Hocking’s books have prolific errors? Why can’t we talk about the quality of the product? Is this not up for debate? Ever? I feel like the small child in the “Emperor’s New Clothes” when pointing out the obvious.
    :)

  15. Melissa

    No prob, Cliff. Keep up the good work on the blog. I shall “Bookmark.” I have a meeting to pop off to. Thank you for writing coherently. >:)

  16. Jim Zoetewey

    It’s interesting what happens when a site gets hit with much more traffic than it normally gets.

    I’m a regular reader of Novelr, and normally it’s the same people talking about issues relevant to people publishing fiction on their blogs. Essentially it’s for people trying to do the same thing with fiction that webcomics did with comics.

    Ebooks and the Kindle are interesting, but not the main point of the site.

    With the Amanda Hocking post, and the attention that the blog got as a result, people with no connection to the normal audience came in and started commenting.

    That’s not necessarily a problem except that the person who runs the blog is a college student who’s also a programmer for a web startup. In short, someone who doesn’t really have time to moderate a huge discussion.

    He especially doesn’t have time to moderate a discussion that was threatening to move from what was interesting to the regular community to a much larger discussion that might be worth having, but didn’t have to be held there.

    In my view, the fact that someone can make a living off Kindle and ebook sales is worth knowing. Even if the person doing so isn’t writing stuff I want to read, it’s still worth knowing.

    Perhaps optimistically, I think that in the long run bad writing won’t be remembered. More to the point, I think filtering systems will appear.

    We’re currently in the “wild west” period of writing on the internet, but organization will come.

    And then we’ll get to complain about how crappy the system is, and how much better it was in the old days.

  17. Cliff Burns

    Jim: the chap running Novelr made the decision to publish about Amanda Hocking—after that, it was fair game for anyone to reply. While most of the people on Novelr seem to be folks interested in working in non-literary genres like romance, some of us out there in the “wild west” are insisting that literary standards apply, regardless of the venue or genre. We make enormous efforts to escape the stigma that has, quite rightly, developed around self-published efforts (on the web or elsewhere) because of the almost universally poor quality that accompanies these efforts. We do discriminate between good and bad writing and draw our inspiration from the best of the best.

    I have said elsewhere that I have no trouble with humble, aspiring writers, who are seeking to improve in their craft. However, when they start foisting their drivel on the rest of the world and demanding that we take it (and them) seriously, I draw the line. Web fiction offers an excellent opportunity to develop talent but most of what’s being printed should NEVER be made public. Amateurs should share the work amongst themselves, critique it…but the moment they start releasing their neophyte efforts as “novels” and insisting that their embarrassing scribbles should be taken as legitimate, “as good as anything published by traditional publishers”, I draw the line.

    Robert Runte (a respected academic and critic) has written in his comment about people who delude themselves, who have no talent whatsoever or personality disorders that prevent them from seeing just how bad they are. I find that A LOT in the amateur community. Rather than approaching their writing as students and beginners, they act like the worst kind of ass and their hysterical, disproportionate responses to the notion of aesthetic standards reveals the level of their insecurity, the depth of their illness. They chase away anyone who dares question the value of their efforts, the level of scrutiny they bring to bear on their work. Very little, if any, of it passes muster, and by continuing to ignore their shortcomings as stylists (even basic rules of spelling and punctuation!) they cast a long, dark shadow over the independent publishers and writers out there who are using new technologies to release work that is ground-breaking, innovative and intelligent.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. It was head and shoulders above the silliness I was reading on Novelr.

  18. Melissa

    Jim wrote:

    “In my view, the fact that someone can make a living off Kindle and ebook sales is worth knowing. Even if the person doing so isn’t writing stuff I want to read, it’s still worth knowing.”

    You’re exactly right, Jim. D’you want to know how to make a living off of Kindle and eBook sales? Write a Y.A. novel about mermaids. Wait till Stephenie Meyer’s mermaid book comes out. If it’s called “Breathe,” call yours “Blue.” Look at the cover art; if it’s minimalistic, mimic trade dress without outright infringement — just enough to blur the lines a little. It doesn’t take a marketing genius to know how to trend.

    If you’re really sleazy, go to a black hat forum and barter your services as a website designer to a black hatter who will make sure that you reach that tipping point. EBooks are super hot right now. Some of those black hatters are making $10-15K a month off of crappy, zero-information eBooks like “How to Make Money Writing Internet Fiction.” Do you really want to know some of the scurrilous methods they employ? Well, for one, remunerating people who buy them to give the illusion that the eBook is a seller. Doesn’t that make you feel nice and squishy all over?

    (One of my friends, a successful *legitimate* Internet marketer, has dared me to write such a Y.A. mermaid novel under a nom de plume so he can try to take it viral just to make a point. I’m not kidding. And I’m not doing it.)

    Marketing is essential to any book. You have to let people know that what you have it out there. But with all this focus on marketing, marketing, marketing, people get hung up on how Hocking DID IT. Not how she wrote it. Or rather, how she didn’t.

    There’s something seriously wrong with that.

  19. Jim Zoetewey

    Cliff: I’d agree that once Eli put the post up it was open to anyone. My point though is that at least some of the things you’re saying about Novelr aren’t really accurate in that they represent your view of what’s there when Novelr’s discussion is largely being done by people who don’t read Novelr.

    For example, you believe it’s mostly populated by people who write romance. It’s not. It mostly swings toward fantasy and science fiction with a small number of people whose main focus is on the literary end of the popular vs. literary fiction scale.

    Similarly, the question of how to make the good writing visible and not let it get overwhelmed by writing that isn’t very good is one we’ve considered too.

    Better yet, we actually did something about it. Some of the people involved with Novelr created webfictionguide.com.

    You don’t have to be impressed by it, but it does do its job. It helps separate the better fiction out.

    Mind you, it’s only focussed on fiction that’s published for free on websites. Thus, no ebooks need apply. Amanda Hocking’s not listed.

    It’s not all as good as what’s being published by traditional publishers or small presses. Most of it isn’t, but there are professionals with works listed there. They get good marks. Crappy writers don’t.

    It’s not perfect by any means, but that’s the community Novelr serves for the most part.

    Had the site not been deluged, we probably would have had an interesting discussion about whether or not the theoretical “easy money” in ebooks would damage the slowly growing web fiction community. Alternately, it might have been a discussion about how to use it to grow the community.

    If you look at the end if the original post, that’s the direction Eli was going.

    It’s still a discussion worth having, but one we probably can’t have if Amanda Hocking’s in the post.

  20. Cliff Burns

    Jim: if I’ve confused the genres featured on Novelr it’s because I’ve probably got it mixed up with Nathan Bransford’s site, where a similar discussion was taking place. Nathan’s joint featured a number of romance and paranormal romance (just as bad) scribblers. The ones with e-book covers that feature a well-built stud looming over a ripped-bodice damsel. My mistake.

    I stand by my contention that beginner authors should not be showing their work publicly—sharing it with a closed writing group is one thing, but putting it out there for everyone to read is a fate worse than death for any reader with three working neurons.

    “It’s not all as good as what’s being published by traditional publishers or small presses.”

    That’s rather a disingenuous remark, don’t you think? Shouldn’t that read: “Very little is anywhere near being publishable…” etc. I think that would be rather closer to the mark—especially keeping in mind that some of the best writing coming out these days originates with small presses, a number of whom have taken on terrific authors dumped by the biggies because said authors weren’t delivering them Dan Brown-like sales numbers.

    Places like Novelr and webfictionguide are developmental leagues for beginners, nothing more than that. To give them any more credit is, I fear, over-stating their importance and misrepresenting the actual quality of the work produced. I’ve been sifting through the web for good fiction for years now and the absolute paucity of literate, intelligent, well-wrought prose is depressing. I emphasize, I LOVE it when I discover an exciting new author I hadn’t previously known. I think of Zachary Mason’s THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY, which I just finished. The guy’s really just a kid and he blows me out of the water. I envy and hate him—he’s that good.

    I haven’t found any Zachary Masons anywhere on-line as yet. But I keep hoping…

    Again, thanks for your response.

  21. Jim Zoetewey

    I’m not trying to argue that all of what’s in Web Fiction Guide is publishable. The authors range from first time authors to people who can write decent stories (and aren’t published for whatever reason) to people who were published and got dumped by their publisher.

    There are also a small number of people who are published, but who want to put their writing online for free too.

    I’d agree that most of it is beginner work. It may well be a mistake for some of them to put it online, but they’re doing it, and it is a system for make the good stories more obvious. That’s all it is.

    Anyway, thanks for putting up with my replies. I’ll just make one separate one to Melissa, and leave you in peace.

  22. Cliff Burns

    Hey, big guy, you’ve been civil and articulate. Hope you’ll pop in for the occasional visit and swap more thoughts in future.

    Peace be with you.

  23. Jim Zoetewey

    Melissa: I haven’t read a thing Amanda Hocking has written, and I’ve no interest in it. I don’t read paranormal romances, so my opinion about her work wouldn’t be worth much due to bias.

    If it’s true that she’s awful, it’s sad that she’s popular. Also, if she’s deliberately piggybacking on confusion with Twilight, it’s unethical at best.

    For my own purposes, however, it’s worth knowing that her sales didn’t really take off till she started contacting book blogs. When I do get something I’m working on to the point I feel comfortable self-publishing it, that’s something I’ll use.

    It’s even ethical, assuming no one pays the bloggers for a good review.

  24. Melissa

    Jim, to inject something here, because it seems relevant:

    I just noticed that I am conversing (virtually) with Canadians. I wondered, “Why is there a blog about indie publishing in which there are so many critical thinkers present?” This explains it. The American way of thinking has a paradigm all its own built upon a vast structure of McDonald’s, McMansions, McFashion, McMusic and now McFiction. Even our perfume industry *sucks.* I’m only second-generation European, so the American way of thinking has not completely tainted me to accept “good enough” (my parents saw to that).

    I could natter online marketing all day long. I work as a freelance writer. And yes, I’ve stooped to copy writing to pay the bills in December. To do so successfully, I have to have my finger on the pulse point of what people are buying so I can at least pretend to be enthused about it, and I have to know why people are buying what I’m trying to sell them. I also have to know my demographics, which means knowing who’s most likely to pull out the credit card. Some audiences are a really hard sell, but as a general rule, the more intelligent your audience, the less likely they are to purchase randomly and capriciously. At least this is true in the states.

    Canada has its own paradigm too, but it’s entirely different; quality plays a key role in everything the country produces. If you don’t spend a lot of time on both continents, the differences between our cultures probably seem negligible. But they aren’t. (Two of my favorite contemporary authors are Canadian, which is probably no coincidence.)

    I hope Cliff will continue this topic in the future — perhaps talk about how Big Publishing has failed its readers, because yes, indeed it has. Hint, Cliff. Hint. :D

  25. Cliff Burns

    Melissa:

    I don’t know about “quality playing a key role in everything the country produces”. Canadian culture has its own hang-ups and quirks.

    Because we live next to the giant American behemoth, we’re overly self-conscious about our “national identity” (whatever the fuck that is). And so we have a regulatory body (CRTC) that tries to exclude choice from television programming, government agencies that give millions of dollars to English Canadian films no one has the slightest interest in seeing, small press publishers subsidized with lottery and tax dollars to produce books with a “regional” flavor (shit nearly as bad as the stuff on-line scribblers retch out). Major Canadian publishers aren’t doing so well either—in the old days they could fudge their sales numbers but since the advent of BookScan and the like we see the real sales figures and Canadian books have, strangely enough, disappeared from the bestseller lists. The situation is so dire, the Globe and Mail has to publish separate bestseller lists: one for general fiction and non-fiction and the other for Canadian authors. Isn’t that ridiculous and cowardly?

    So while the corporate mentality may not hold sway (as it does in the States), cultural considerations mean there’s a closed shop in terms of what’s being published; the poobahs in charge turning their noses up at anything with a taint of genre, trying to compose a national literature around place, race, and a lonely, misunderstood female face. Neither situation is ideal, neither system encourages innovative work and both fail readers (though for substantially different reasons).

    Hope that’s helpful. I’ve just given you a crash course in “Canadiana 101”.

  26. Kelly

    Led here by Melissa. :)

    I have every intention of trying my hand at selling my story on e-reader, but I’m more than willing to have a good strong editor clean up my prose. I am also a stickler for plotting out my story like I sometimes plot out a map route for a long trip. I want to impress my audience and send them to a different world–one that’s impressive and makes them want to get comfortable in it.

    The idea of readers being unable to enjoy my story because of grammatical errors or plot holes terrifies me. I want readers to read about my characters, step into their shoes and experience their lives–just as I experienced the lives of the fictional characters I love. I’m terrified that before I get the chance to complete and polish my work, this venue will already be filled with so much slush that my story will drown in it.

    Anyway, thanks for the kick in the pants. I think we all can use it. :)

  27. Cliff Burns

    Kelly: Love your attitude toward your work. Unless you expend every ounce of your energy making your tale or novel the best it can possibly be, you are doing a disservice to the legacy of fine writers who risked their bodies, minds and spirits creating the kind of literature we love and revere.

    I’m glad Melissa steered you in my direction and I hope you’ll keep coming by, sharing your thoughts and experiences and receiving, in turn, the kind of encouragement and inspiration that we all need (at one time or another) to keep on keeping on.

  28. Melissa

    Well, Cliff, it could be argued that Americans and Canadians do have the same national identity and don’t want to admit it. Americans are just Canadians whose taste and level of education is in their ass. I personally wait for the day Canada engulfs us during a profoundly weak moment. I like your food and beer.

    (But I digress.)

    I was somewhat acquainted with the custom of placing emphasis on Canadian artists, but I didn’t know the extent of it until you explained it in full. Ye gads. Yes, that’s bad. Hey, I live in Austin, TX, “Live Music Capital of the World” (gah!), where if it’s “not out of Austin,” it automatically sucks. That type of myopic vision works no better than the corporate industries who foist that Fergie shit on us.

    (I hope you don’t mind if I pimp your blog.)

  29. Cliff Burns

    Pimp away, gal.

    Every country has its dirty little secrets. Our “true north strong and free” is no exception.

    Keep puttin’ one word ahead t’other…

  30. JP

    Hey, you went and continued this conversation over here without me! :)

    I said before, I’m not an elitist or a book snob. I think there is a place for the McBook in our culture (especially the American one) but even a McBook has to have some standards – doesn’t it? There’s another top-ten Amazon writer named John Locke who is making probably more than Hocking right now. He can at least spell and has had his work edited, but the prose is adolescent (and he’s not writing for adolescents – at least, not chronologically…) and his characters are caricatures. But this, as Melissa pointed out here and elsewhere… this is ACTUALLY what people want to read.

    There are no standards anymore apparently?

    -JP

  31. Cliff Burns

    J.P.: The Hockings and Konraths of the world and their mentally challenged supporters see nothing wrong with catering to the lowest common denominator, writing shit because the marketplace supports it. It really comes down to what you want to accomplish: make a lot of money, become rich and famous or…write terrific books that stand the test of time.

    Many budding scribblers look at Ms. Hocking’s success (or Stephenie Meyer’s) and think “shoot, I can do that” and off they go. These people have lives that are pathetic, day jobs they hate, and the notion of making a million bucks in a couple of months is intoxicating. A glorious dream, like winning the lottery or inheriting a fortune from a rich uncle you didn’t even know existed. Especially when you don’t have to be a good writer or work very hard to manage it—certainly this is the case in genres like romance or vampire/zombie fiction, where there are so many hacks to emulate and the bar is set so low. And when their foolish, little dreams are dashed, the airheads in question fly into rages and behave like utter arses. Lash out at anybody they can reach, their venom reaching astonishing proportions. Like babies, having a temper tantrum.

    Only babies, of course, can be excused their bad behavior. Whereas those other folks are a disgrace to their species.

    Thanks for coming by. Complimentary beers in the fridge. Canadian brewskis, natch. That Yankee stuff is just plain swill.

  32. JP

    There have always been hacks and “scribblers” who pandered to the lowest common denominator. Some would argue that Charles Dickens was one of those, and he’s considered classic literature nowadays.

    And I would venture to say that Meyers (and Hocking) were truly invested in the stories they were telling. I have no doubt of that. I don’t think either of them set out to make a million dollars by cashing in on some current craze. They thought they were really creating art. Like giving children crayons and paper. They’re very proud of what they have accomplished.

    But what interests me isn’t whether or not writers will write to the lowest common denominator – of course they will. What interests me is how low that line is going to sink while big publishing either regroups and comes back or just dies off altogether.

    And will that lowest point become the new standard? I think it was Melissa on the other thread who mentioned that in her freelance work, she’s gone from writing at a twelfth grade level to about a sixth grade level – based on the reading ability of the general public.

    That’s sobering.

    And thanks for the beer. I’m not a Canadian, but I live near the border. :)

  33. Cliff Burns

    I’ve heard the Dickens analogy before AND I’ve heard that today’s web scribblers are the equivalent of the pulp writers back in the 20’s and 30’s.

    Poor Mr. Dickens, poor Mr. Hammett: finding themselves relegated to the same company as shit peddlers like Hocking. They deserve far better than that. I doubt Meyers or Hocking invested little (if any) thought at all into their efforts—how many brain cells do you need to rip off old genre stand-bys, write barely fictionalized versions of existing franchises? Roughly the same amount as you would expend on sneezing.

    Defending these people by saying that they’re writing what the marketplace wants is a pretty tepid rationalization, in my view. It should hold no water with any serious writer or reader. I won’t lie down with pigs and neither should you. You’ll get your nice suit soiled (and maybe your spirit as well).

  34. JP

    Well there is also that saying about casting pearls before swine… is that what traditional publishing has been doing all along? Cormac McCarthy is amazing. But he’s not number one on Amazon. Why? Because most of the reading folks like swill?

    It may be proving to be so, I’m afraid.

  35. rpfieldswriter

    Very interesting discussion, and I agree with most of it. There’s a difference between someone peddling schlock and someone working on their craft, trying to do something worthwhile that will stand the test of time. Thank goodness that Amazon at least lets you download a sample of most of their e-books for free, which has saved me from at least a few mind numbing experiences.

    I agree with Cliff Burns that “beginner authors should not be showing their work publicly—sharing it with a closed writing group is one thing, but putting it out there for everyone to read is a fate worse than death for any reader with three working neurons.” But, thankfully, we can always put the thing down and walk away, which is what most people will do once this flash in the pan is over.

  36. Cliff Burns

    Well said.

    And you’ll note there’s a far more civilized atmosphere to the discussion here, unlike the amateur sites. That’s because you’re dealing with folks who really do operate in the real world, professionals who have, y’know, actual experience with editors and publishers, rather than living in la-la land, with rainbow colored unicorns and romantic vampires who don’t threaten you with penetrative sex.

    On that note…

  37. Jess C Scott

    ROFL @ “romantic vampires who don’t threaten you with penetrative sex”!

    As a writer (of authentic/not really “commercially categorizable” fiction), I have always wanted to produce original work that is able to stand the test of time. For better or worse, I am part of the “old school” bunch of writers/artistes who take their craft seriously.

    I find some perspectives/sentiments/comments very interesting (when reading the blogs of very successful indie authors). I’ve read at least four times, on different blogs, something along the following lines:

    “…reasons for my success: I write commercial fiction. I may not be writing the next Great American Novel, but I have financial security, and whether you like it or not, it’s what CUSTOMERS WANT TO READ, which takes hard work rather than simply writing to satisfy an inner muse.”

    Well, present-day commercial fiction is not what *I* mostly want to read, and I think there are different markets/target audiences for different genres/types of work. As long as a writer can keep this in mind, I think self-publishing will continue to offer a tremendous amount of opportunities to writers everywhere (regardless of whether they write commercial genre fiction, literary fiction, etc etc).

    P.S. The subject of commercial fiction brings to mind the following quote:

    “As for the mob, I have no desire to be a popular novelist. It is far too easy.” ~ Oscar Wilde

  38. Cliff Burns

    Jess: Anybody who quotes the divine Oscar is welcome here. Someone once asked what figure from history I would most like to have a conversation with and it only took a heartbeat to respond: “Oscar Wilde”.

    The problem with the self-publishing world is that too many (i.e. the vast majority) of scribblers out there are writing solely for commercial success and financial gain. The actual quality of the work is given short shrift. “Aw, who cares about good writing? That’s not why people read nowadays” and similar sentiments. Rather than raising the bar, these punks are lifting rocks and trying to emulate the slime they find underneath.

    I write for intelligent, discerning readers with sophisticated literary tastes. That’s my target audience and I won’t release anything that insults their aesthetic and exposes me as just another hack. The fact that I’m an indie writer does not excuse me from critical examination. That’s a very important statement so I’m going to repeat it:

    The fact that I’m an indie writer does not excuse me from critical examination.

    I will not associate with those who don’t make every effort, push themselves to the limits of endurance, in order to produce the best, most innovative work possible. I will not associate with hacks or amateurs. The wannabe is like a stinky fart in Rouen cathedral. A gob of spit on a first edition Shakespeare folio. They haven’t earned their service stripes, they’ve used technology to bypass what should be the hardest work they’ll ever do. It’s easy to be a popular novelist; it’s easier still to be no writer at all.

    Thanks, kid. Hope to hear from you again.

  39. Dee Ann Palmer

    I was with you until the slam against ALL e-authors. Since paranormal romance is one of the subgenres I write, and I grew up listening to my mother practice her talks for the Texas Storytellers Association, I gagged at the arrogance of what I view as the elitists comments here.

    From my mother came the idea that telling a good story is what writing is all about. Traditional publishing has drummed into authors the need for high numbers–consequences being you don’t get a new contract if your numbers aren’t up there. So start thinking anew about why e-book authors talk about numbers.

    Writing is a business. It may be an obsession to those who of us who must write–no matter what–but it’s also about earning an income you can live on.

  40. Cliff Burns

    See, my problem is that writing has never been a business to me, it is a CALLING.

    I honestly couldn’t care less what my income is, how many people are reading my work—what I love about being an independent author is that I can release my prose in exactly the form I envisioned, right down to the layout and cover art. I agree, story-telling is important but it is the WAY you tell your story, the level of craft and discrimination and aesthetic sophistication that you bring to your writing, that determines whether you are a hack or a truly gifted, inspired artisan.

    The person who creates “art” with macaroni and gold spray paint is NOT on the same level as a Michelangelo or Henry Moore. Sorry, but that’s the hard truth. While the internet provides the tools and capabilities so that literally anyone can produce books, this does not mean that these same individuals deserve to be regarded with the kind of reverence we reserve for the likes of Don DeLillo, T.S.Eliot, Samuel Beckett or whoever. Instead, what we’re seeing is a plethora of bad books by amateur writers, trying to emulate dreadful slime merchants like Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown, etc.

    What you perceive as arrogance, I see as casting an unsparing critical eye on the amateurs who are taking an art form and dragging it into the toilet. Something I, as an author and discerning reader, simply will not countenance.

    Thanks for your words, your opinions…and your candor.

  41. Nom de Plume

    How about doing both?

    I’m from the “John-Gardner-school-of-fiction” — upper-middle brow, I imagine — and under my real name (and it ain’t “guest”) I would only release stuff that’s been properly incubated, germinated, ruminated, and fermented…uh, but under an alias I plan on making literate semi-literary genre fiction: niche romance, in fact (no, not paranormal; it’s more mainstream than niche at this point).

    I don’t begrudge Hocking’s success — you should read her blog; she sounds quite humble, and therefore really human, despite her tastes — after all, someone’s got to show us the way (I’m referring to successful online marketing here).

    I do cringe at the fire-and-brimstone brand of elitism here, however. One can be a purist without being offensive and, more to the point, embittered and jealous! (Oh come on; if one of your characters talked the way some folks here do, as a reader you’d have pegged the character down as being jealous or embittered, et cetera.)

    Anyway, just my stream-of-consciousness reactions, that. I support your goals, generally, but do question the necessity of having an intolerant “life-negating” attitude.

  42. Cliff Burns

    I don’t think I have a “life negating” attitude but I do think I have a low tolerance for hacks and wannabes.

    One glance at a few lines of Ms. Hocking’s “writing” reveals someone stuck in permanent juvenile mode; her work is derivative, wholly unoriginal, almost comically awful. Grade 9 level writing. High school scribbles. Frankly, I couldn’t care less if she’s the sweetest-natured, most humble human being alive. Her prose is a stain on literature, a disgrace to the printed word. A pox on her and any who would emulate her approach to her “craft”. Her readers are morons and her supporters as dim as stunned marsupials.

    There are some decent writers who see nothing wrong with writing crap—er, sorry, I mean “entertainments”—under an assumed name. I think that a morally deplorable point of view but, then, I’m a pretty intractable, opinionated bastard so what do I know? At the end of the day, I want to look back at a lifetime of writing and not have to avert my gaze from certain periods of time when my aesthetics and morality came in second best to filthy lucre.

    I may end up poor but at least I won’t have sold my ass down the river and/or compromised my integrity for a few brief minutes in the limelight.

    And that’s good enough for me.

  43. Whatisfortytwo

    Cliff, I happen to agree with you.

    I am not a great writer but I love reading. And with the proliferation of e-books which are bought at ridiculously low prices, I often find myself considering that most authors are probably hacks. Having said that, the advantage of the ridiculously low price is that people would buy the e-book just to try it out. I might spend USD 3 on a book by Amanda Hocking, however, if I don’t like what I read, I will never read anything she has written even if she gives it to me for free and pays me to do it.

    I have not read anything she has written so I would not comment on her writing skills but I do wonder how true her statistics really are. While, she may be selling 100,000 books per month, I can’t help but wonder how many people are buying her books more than once. Does she have repeat buyers or is she relying on her low price to get people to buy her books at least once.

    This is something which has become very popular in India. Nowadays, a lot of Indian writers are selling their books for INR 99 or a little over USD 2. And I am talking about print and not just e-books. In fact, I recently got an email informing me that one of the most popular Indian authors (for reasons which continue to elude me) is now selling his book for INR 20 or less than 50 cents. Even at that ridiculously low price, I refuse to buy his book because I have read some of his previous work and have not found it to my liking. However, Indians are lapping up his books.

    While it is a matter of preference, for me it is also a little disturbing because I understand how frustrating it would be for a good writer to not have an audience willing to read his wonderful story. I suspect the aforementioned author probably outsells Salman Rushdie in India and I find that disturbing.

    I hope you and everyone else who has commented on this blog in favour of great writing and not just mediocre writing continue along your chosen path. I wish you all luck.

  44. Cliff Burns

    As long as there are readers still willing to put in time and effort sorting through the muck, there will be excellent writers to discover. Discover…and then spread the word, through whatever social media you have access to. The more we “talk up” good writers and pan the rotten ones, the better we serve the printed word and its legacy of masters.

    Thanks you for writing and for your insights into Indian publishing. Sad to realize that hacks proliferate everywhere. All the more reason to identify them and, hopefully, weed them out like noxious undergrowth…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s