I’m referring to a recent post over at Mediabistro (why do I continue to subscribe to them, they only depress me) crowing that over 235,000 self-published books were released last year. That’s physical books and their digital cousins.
Sturgeon’s Law would have you think 90% of those titles are complete crap but, based on my own investigations, I would say the actual figure is closer to 99.8%. Which means, according to my very rough calculations (I’ve detested math all my life), less than 500 of the aforementioned books are worth even glancing at.
Nearly a quarter million books, only 500 possessing any kind of literary merit. Pretty grim, huh?
But when was the last time you walked through a Chapters or Barnes & Noble book barn? Of the thousands of books your eyes passed over, what percentage looked intelligent enough to warrant a closer look? I’m guessing it was a very tiny proportion. Crap is crap, whether it’s produced by a bad cowboy poet from Dubuque, or issues forth from Random House, with the full weight of their publicity machine behind it.
I’ve just about given up on the big box stores. This past week we were visiting Edmonton and I had the great fortune to spot Old Strathcona Books, a wonderful used book place on Gateway Boulevard. The selection was amazing and the two gals behind the counter friendly and welcoming, real book-lovers, with in-depth knowledge of their wares. My kinda joint.
Get out there and support first rate bookstores like Old Strathcona, marvel at the wide selection of titles they offer, hard to find tomes and marginalia that highlight the diversity of fine fiction available to discriminating readers, unheralded authors waiting to be discovered. Because despite the flood of offal being spewed out these days by traditional publishers and the self-publishing gits, superb works of literature are still being produced…you just have to dig around and search for them.
Don’t be discouraged, steel your nerves and have at it.
The reward, finding a book that changes your perspective, alters the way you think and look at the world, sends seismic shockwaves through your soul and soma, makes all those tireless efforts worthwhile.
Right now there are, count ’em, three volumes from E.L. James’ vile, puke-stained series Fifty Shades of Grey at the top of the bestseller list.
Let me remind you folks: this “author” honed her chops on Twilight fan fiction and has, apparently, graduated at the head of her class when it comes to derivative, amateurish, abysmally written gutter trash. Reading the first five lines of any offering by Ms. James immediately reveals her paucity of skills, the crudeness of her prose.
I would never have believed it was possible that popular fiction could sink any lower than Stephenie Meyer…but then along came Amanda Hocking (ptui! ptui!) and, now, (God help western civilization) E.L. James.
Am I supposed to draw comfort from the fact that an unheralded talent can still score a lucrative contract from a venerable publisher? Should I holler and celebrate because at least two of these authors come from the independent/DIY/self-publishing world, same as l’il ol’ me?
Sorry, but that’s not the case. I’m embarrassed by the success of authors as horrible and sub-literate as James, Hocking, et al. I’m embarrassed to belong to a society where the printed word has become so devalued and compromised, this kind of crap is not only published but gobbled up by a public whose brains have gone soft and fatty from all the junk food we take in through our eyes, mouths and ears. We immerse ourselves in trash, refuse to task our minds with challenging artists and works, seek escapism the way a junkie craves the needle. The mind is a muscle and ours’ have gone flabby, resisting even the lightest exercise.
Video games, comic book movies, books written for an intended audience with a mental age of fourteen…all part of a decline, the barbarians at the gates garbed in corporate robes, enticing us with baubles, buying our delinquent souls with the equivalent of beads and flim-flam.
I shudder to think what the next step down the evolutionary ladder might be, how much lower literature can sink.
What comes after E.L. James?
That’s something too terrible to ponder…
I was talking to someone recently and spoke of the pressure I feel as an independent writer and publisher to ensure my work achieves professional standards. I’ve been an indie guy for over twenty (20) years and I can tell you I take what I do very, very seriously. I labor without respite, without consideration to either health or sanity, to release volumes of the highest possible caliber, painstakingly conceived and lovingly produced.
To me, it’s important to present readers with a complete package: a book that’s lovely to look at and hold, the formatting easy on the eyes and, most important of all, the quality of the writing is in evidence in every line.
Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.
Self-publishers, especially those who primarily favor the e-book format (for cheapness and ease), select the most generically ugly covers imaginable. Artless, crude, formulaic. And, chances are, those adjectives can also be applied the prose they excrete at an alarming rate. It’s amazing how many books you can churn out when you don’t edit or proofread. Or spell check.
I look at these efforts by my “colleagues” and shudder. And feel an even greater motivation to somehow separate my fiction from the terrible slop that people are constantly releasing thanks to e-books, blogs and print-on-demand (POD). How can I convince readers that my work is the exception that disproves the rule: not all independently produced writing is sub-literate, juvenile, asinine tripe?
That question has bedeviled me for a long time, my friends. I can’t describe to you what a downer it is to walk into a bookstore with some of my books and see the manager’s face fall when I tell him/her my work is released under my own imprint. Book employees are constantly being approached by people pushing their dreadful poetry, memoirs and cookbooks on them, demanding precious shelf space, while simultaneously giving every impression of enduring lives of endless persecution and unacknowledged suffering. But I have to say, the book people I’ve dealt with usually do an abrupt volte-face when I pull out a copy of a Black Dog Press release and show it to them. The covers are always eye-grabbers and that helps, then they spot the glowing reviews and blurbs, open the book, feel the pages, glance over the formatting…more often than not they end up taking a few copies. And not begrudgingly either.
I’m learning to accept that I can’t do much about the silly, deluded people who are determined to foist their unpolished, inept scribbles on the world, flooding the market, reproducing themselves with the prodigious energy of hormone-laced hares. I must keep on keeping on, positioning myself before this keyboard every single day as I have for the past quarter century or more. Seeking no fame or recompense, wishing only to improve my craft, grow and develop an an author. Clinging to a kind of belated faith that there are still serious readers out there, bibliophiles avidly seeking out literate, well-honed prose.
If I keep at it long enough, remain devoted and true to my calling, they’ll eventually find me.
It’s kind of like believing in God, only the evidence is far more tenuous, the suspension of disbelief even harder to maintain…
This is a cartoon by Mike Twohy—my pal Robert Runte sent it (so blame him, wannabes).
Now, let me be clear—when I say that, I’m talking about a certain segment of people, who meet a very specific criteria. I’m not referring to “young writers”, “aspiring writers” or “beginning writers”; those are entirely different categories (to my mind). Aspiring authors are humble and don’t take on airs. They possess few, if any, professional credentials; they might have a couple of poems or short stories published or filled dozens of notebooks with their secret writings over the years, but they certainly make no claim to any kind of status.
The wannabe is far less circumspect. These folks make all sorts of exalted statements and assign themselves great prominence in the literary community. They’re very quick to proffer advice, usually in the form of smug, self-assured pronouncements that speak of enormous (alas, unrecognized) talent and a vast breadth of wisdom and worldly experience (ersatz). That they have virtually no standing among accomplished, professional, full-time writers is entirely beside the point. Why, they’ve written dozens of books (no one has read) and have been putting words on paper all their lives (no one has noticed). They offer their services as experienced editors and are quick to thrust their work on you, in order to prove they should be taken seriously. God help anyone who questions their undisputed brilliance.
The on-line universe has been a bonanza for wannabes. If they have written anything—some of them, like the proverbial hundred monkeys at keyboards, are amazingly industrious, despite their utter lack of talent—they can post every word of it on their blog and to hell with the editors who never responded to their submissions or the people in that stupid writing group who said their suite of poems about losing their virginity was “childish and cliched”, “needs a lot of work” or just “ARE YOU KIDDING?!!!”.
Sometimes I’ll skim through some of the literary sites in the blogosphere and far more often than not I’m appalled by the really sub-literate tripe that people post on a public forum. Puerile verse and poorly rendered soft porn/romance and slightly fictionalized episodes from real life. Juvenilia. Artlessly composed and stupefyingly dull. Painful and embarrassing stuff, the sort of thing you might find in the locked diary of an emotionally disturbed adolescent. Some are clearly cries for help: look at me…aren’t I special…I feel things more deeply than most people…love me…I’m lonely…no one understands me…I need affirmation…
There might be a few sympathetic comments left by either kind-hearted readers…or fellow wannabes offering cautious praise before inviting them over to their site (presumably to see what real writing is all about).
I have heard it said that the explosion of on-line writing has led to an explosion of bad writing and I have to admit that this is demonstrably true. The vast majority of what people post on the web is dreadful, godawful stuff, unfit for human consumption. The lousy rep e-books have is well-deserved (most of the time).
One of my roles as an indie writer who publishes exclusively on the net is to work hard to demonstrate that cyberspace is not solely the domain of amateur hacks and weekend scribblers. There are some truly gifted writers out there, producing original and ground-breaking work. Some, like myself, have chosen to put their writing on-line because of the desperate state traditional publishing is in these days. These are experienced authors with real world credentials and undeniable literary chops. By maintaining the highest standards, tirelessly subjecting our work to the most intense scrutiny, editing ruthlessly, eschewing conventions and formula, we wish to reward intelligent, discerning readers who are tired of the status quo and are exploring other venues, seeking alternative visions and fresh perspectives.
But it can be disheartening for readers, sifting through the thousands upon thousands of blogs and literary sites, trying to find something of value. And that’s why a credible on-line critical community is required. With the newspapers cutting or drastically paring down their book sections, I’m hoping more good critics will start web sites and help single out particular writers who shine amidst the dross…and dismiss those who don’t make the grade.
And it would be most helpful if amateur writers used the new technologies to better develop their skills before they foist their cringe-worthy efforts on the rest of us. I’m talking about searching out like-minded souls, joining on-line writing groups and vetting their work with a diverse assortment of fellow writers (from around the world), getting feedback. Sharing their work privately, rather than punishing the general public, exposing not their beautiful, unblemished souls (as they hope) but their ineptitude. If you truly wish to be seen as someone with designs on being a serious writer, worthy of respect, give some thought to what you’re making public—believe me, you’re doing no one any favors if it’s garbage. You’re hurting yourself…and you’re making it more difficult for your talented, hard-working colleagues to reach potential readers.
Naturally, these words of caution will not sit well with wannabes. They’ll sniff that I’m being “elitist” and that the internet belongs to everyone. Unfortunately, the democratization of the web means that an entrenched cult of amateurism has developed and these people guard their domains like pitbulls. They brandish their imaginary credentials and howl in outrage should anyone refuse to defer to their alleged expertise. Why, their writing has been read by thousands of people (who knows how many?) and they’ve published everything from young adult novels to a ten part vampire series, not to mention their “erotic” fiction and two volumes of poetry about a beloved Pekinese that recently went to doggie heaven (all of it available in e-book format, listed on a site with a thousand other books no one in their right senses would attempt to read).
I plead with new and aspiring and upcoming writers to avoid such a ridiculous mindset: recognize your limitations, don’t publish precipitously, before your work is ready for public perusal and consumption. Have respect for the legacy of fine writers and great literature that preceded you; after all, you initially dreamed of becoming a writer because of the joy and succor and inspiration the printed word gives you. Your favorite authors wrote hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words before they had mastered their craft to the extent that they were, at last, worthy of publication.
Why, in God’s name, should it be any different for you?