Nov. 29th, 2012

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Here’s what I thought when I saw self-publishing become affordably possible (first through houses like XLibris, which started out free and then went to $99 per book, but now is insanely overpriced–and then through Amazon with the KDP program and CreateSpace): I was elated.

I was happy because I believed that the only people who would do this would be committed authors who had been writing for at least ten years (me, twenty-plus!) and had been published traditionally (and therefore understood that there were cycles of editing, peer review, beta reader input, and proofreading that went into ANY novel before it went out). I never IMAGINED that EVERYONE would decide to become a writer and start cranking out novels of varying quality.

At first, this was all good because what I saw coming out were the great books I had seen in workshops, critted in writers’ circles, and so forth, books that richly deserved to get published but were not considered marketable by the New York houses. Cross-genre books and literary novels often were praised by agents and editors, but the final answer was, “We can’t see how we could market this, and it wouldn’t sell like James Patterson, so go home.” I’m talking about books that had won contests and been around the horn collecting letters of regretful rejection and often lots of praise–they just weren’t seen as profitable, although they were deemed of good to great quality. These books DID find their way into print and e-print at first, and it was grand.

But then we began to see books from people who just sat down one day and decided to “write a book”–how hard could it BE, anyhow, as they had read a book once and they could type to some extent–and then push it through and promote it. We at first took all books seriously, believing that everyone would make the books the best things they could before revealing it to the discerning reading public. After all, we didn’t post our stuff “for free” until after it had been at agent one for a year, at Tor for two years, at DAW for a year, at agent two for a year, etc., with concomitant revisions and praise and ultimate rejection on the basis of it being too long for the genre, cross-genre, or what-have-you. So we expected excellence and offbeat-ness.

Perhaps it’s just ME thinking that some of the FREEFREEFREE stuff is clogging the channels, though, as the reading public’s taste truly runs towards books that I consider not ready for prime time. I’m not talking about TWILIGHT/HUNGER GAMES and so forth; the subject matter of those books appeals so strongly to readers, as did the DA VINCI CODE, that the prose isn’t so important, yet the prose IS serviceable. I am talking about books filled with typos and howlers and plot holes. Despite these easily correctable flaws, these books rocket up to Amazon’s prime lists and get great reviews. This is, I think, because the authors have posses of friends and neighbors who are willing to go out and promote and retweet and praise the novels. (This is in part a function of being younger, as well, and accustomed to going to a website to vote for your favorite whatevers just about every day. If you are old like I am, this is tougher, as your friends may not be ‘net savvy.)

I used to say that I thought readers just didn’t know that there were better books out there–but now I have finally been convinced that readers PREFER the sorts of books that make these lists. It’s a matter of taste, and that’s all there is to it. I don’t know if the current situation (in which anyone can publish strings of text and call that a good novel) will continue, but I do know that we can’t return to any paradigm in which there are “gatekeepers” or any persons who screen for “quality,” because our definitions of quality have diverged. Much as Phaedrus observed in ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, I once believed that “you know quality when you see it.” I no longer agree with that. Everyone now has his or her own definition of quality meaning “what I currently like,” and no teacher, Western canon list, or expert can tell anyone that something is of lasting quality, because now everyone votes on everything and the most popular flavor of the month wins, no matter what. So it goes. I’m the fossil here. This is the wave of the future–no, of the present.

Will books cease to be? Not for those of us raised on reading, those of us who have a need for story to help us make sense of the world and our destiny through vicarious experience. But for the new reader, novels may become something seen on the e-reader or computer, and will probably have embedded music, video, and personalization (for example, readers will insert the names they want for characters, and get to “Choose Your Own Adventure” in books rather than reading the author’s vision, and so on.) The old-school novel may be on its way out.

So it goes. As long as I’m around, the old-school novel has a place on my shelf. But I can’t guess what will happen in the years to come.


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November 2012

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