Friday, June 25, 2010

"When anyone can be a published author" by Laura Miller

Ed here: My friend Dave Zeltserman sent me this link to Laura Miller's take on Salon about how "self-published books" are everywhere on the net these days. She also refers to the old-fashioned slush pile. I've read slush for two magazines and two book publishers and I agree with Laura's take. About 2% of slush has any chance of being published. A lot of it is flat out horrendous.

Who will be the gatekeepers in this self-indulgent new world? Are we throwing out all the rules just so people can proclaim themselves "authors?"

In case this sounds snarky let me say that among the biggest thrills of my life was being able to tell three people whose books I found in slush that we'd be buying their first novels. I found a short story and was so knocked out by it that we sent it to the late and great Roger Zelazny for an anthology we were doing. Roger liked it so much that he wanted the young writer's name so he could call him and tell him how much HE liked the story. Four months later Carol and I took the writer and his wife out to dinner where I informed him that Baen had bought his first novel. I'll always remember how happy they looked in those first moments. Editors WANT to find good material. They can't exist without it. But it's going to be a very different world now.

From Laura Miller:

"Digital self-publishing is creating a powerful new niche in books that's threatening the traditional industry," a recent Wall Street Journal report proclaimed. "Self-published books suddenly are able to thrive by circumventing the establishment." To "circumvent" means, of course, to find a way around, and what's waiting behind all those naysaying editors and agents, the self-publishing authors tell themselves, are millions of potential readers, who'll simply love our books! The reign of the detested gatekeepers has ended!

"How readers feel about all this usually gets lost in the fanfare and the hand-wringing. People who claim that there are readers slavering to get their hands on previously rejected books always seem to have a previously rejected book to peddle; maybe they're correct in their assessment, but they're far from impartial. Readers themselves rarely complain that there isn't enough of a selection on Amazon or in their local superstore; they're more likely to ask for help in narrowing down their choices. So for anyone who has, however briefly, played that reviled gatekeeper role, a darker question arises: What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?

"You've either experienced slush or you haven't, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven't seen the vast majority of what didn't get published -- and believe me, if you have, it's enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.

"Everybody acknowledges that there have to be a few gems out in the slush pile -- one manuscript in 10,000, say -- buried under all the dreck. The problem lies in finding it. A diamond encased in a mountain of solid granite may be truly valuable, but at a certain point the cost of extracting it exceeds the value of the jewel. With slush, the cost is not only financial (many publishers can no longer afford to assign junior editors to read unsolicited manuscripts) but also -- as is less often admitted -- emotional and even moral."

for the rest go here:


Jeff P said...

This is depressing, but I wonder how bad it will actually be. What is the ratio of readers to non-readers in the American population? I'm not saying all readers are educated and intelligent, but I doubt there's an audience out there for complete dreck---despite Brown and Meyer not being good writers, they at least must be able to tell a story (not having read them, I don't know). How many books put out by major publishers fall through the cracks, never finding the readership they need for more books to appear by that author? I think most self-publishers will fall to the same disinterest, especially with no publicity other than the author sitting at a card table at their local Borders, IF they can finagle THAT. Sure, maybe one in a million, who's got some bucks to advertise, will get through and gain some readers and maybe even have a bestseller. But I don't think we have to worry about that being the norm. Most readers will stick to real books by real publishers, print or long as publishers themselves don't fold.

Just my stream-of-consciousness two cents.

Jeff P.

Ed Gorman said...

Well put, Jeff. And I agree with you. I suppose constant internet hawking will get some poor novels some kind of sales but hitting a home run? I doubt it. And yes Brown can tell a kind of lumpy story (I don't get his popularity) and even though I couldn't get past seventy five pages of a Twilight novel I can see where her feverish prose would appeal to hormonally charged teenagers. But then who knows. Everything has been dumbed down so far in our society I'm prepared to be shocked yet again. Look at reality shows. In general they're stupid people entertaining even stupider people. And yet they prosper. Huffington had a bit today about the Kardashians having two more young `uns coming up. Wanna bet they get their own show? Back to your point about bestsellers you don't care for. Same here. But like you when I read these people I can always see why they appeal to a mass audience. Believe I've seen slush that would lead to mass suicide.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

Ms Miller makes a very important point: today's editors still want to find and promote good authors and good books. Little has changed, and it is nonsense to say or believe that publishers are only looking for hot sales prospects. Publishing still has its feet in both art and commerce. I was an editor at Walker and other companies, read tons of slush, found some gems and started several gifted people.

Even in the old days, Doubleday had to deal with 50,000 submissions a year, mostly over the transom. They had a corps of young ladies newly graduated from the Seven Sisters, hired at slave wages, to read and reject the material.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

This is awful news. Not having gatekeepers will keep good writers from finding an audience. The signal to noise ratio is already horrific.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have a friend who basically self-published two books. The only people who read those books were her friends. I don't know why this is a satisfying experience for anyone. She just doesn't get why the local Borders will not carry it. (They hardly carry any books beside best sellers). If your ego is such that self publishing is worth it, you can pay the price in several ways.

Jill said...

As an aspiring writer, I want the gatekeepers there. If my work isn't good enough to pass muster with people who know what sells and what doesn't (i.e., those who know their butts from a hole in the ground), then I don't want to embarass myself by trying to publish something sub-par.

I've read a few things that have been self published (things you can get for free from Amazon) and I have to say, 99% of it a.) is total crap, or b.) would have benefited greatly from having been rejected a few times. Rather than taking pride in their work or recognizing that writing is a brutal, unforgiving process, these folks want a short cut. Hopefully, readers will tire of reading the verbal equivalent of the ebola virus.

Jeff P said...

"Hopefully, readers will tire of reading the verbal equivalent of the ebola virus." Ha! Good one!

Ed, I hear you on the reality shows. I don't watch TV (not because I think I'm too good for it, it's just a choice of how I spend my time), but I work at a TV station and see this crap all the time, and can't get what the hell it is people see in it. It's like Mike Judge's movie "Idiocracy" come to life.

I don't think writing will get as dumbed down (God, I hope not!), because it requires the participation of the reader, some concentration and brainwaves. As opposed to television, the Glass Teat, which allows people to chomp their Doritos, swig their Dew, and laugh at stupid people who, as you put it, are smarter than them.