Some pointed questions about books

I heard on NPR the other day that Amazon’s sales of Kindle editions is now outpacing their sales of hardcovers. They’re predicting Kindle editions will overtake paperbacks as well sometime in 2011. Amazon controls something like 12% of the bookselling market (don’t quote me on this — I also heard this on NPR in an interview with an industry expert), so they’ve hardly cornered the market.

Yet other signs point to the demise not just of the printed word (Barnes & Noble being up for sale, for one thing; the New York Times’ struggle to staunch annual operating losses in the hundreds of millions for another) but of traditional publishing as well. Is this a bad thing?

Consider this: books used to get edited copyedited and proofread as part of the publishing process. I doubt that they do anymore, or at least with any care. It’s common to see horrendous typos, malapropisms or production mistakes (like entire paragraphs repeated) even in later editions of a book. So quality has dropped off at the page level. But what about at the book level?

If a publisher has decided to put the money behind a manuscript, does that mean it’s a book worth reading? Oftentimes, the answer is no. Publishers publish and market what they think they can sell.

If you self-publish a book, does that make you a total loser? Does it mean your book sucks more than a book that a publisher actually decided to pay to publish, market and distribute? Self-publishing has a stink on it that you can smell a mile away, with the books being the turds no one wants to touch, let alone to admitting having produced themselves. But I sincerely hope that this is a state of affairs that will eventually change.

I have read “legitimate” books that were no better (or sometimes much worse) than self-published efforts. I suspect there are probably some very good self-published books out there too. If I could just find them. That’s one big problem when traditional publishing goes away: the marketing and promotion. But with that also goes the hype for books that are, frankly, not worth the paper they’re printed on (or, if you prefer, the hard drive space they’re taking up).

On reason I think that the quality of so many books has gotten so bad is that publishers are focused on their cash cow books. A bio of Hillary Clinton can keep a company afloat and pay for all those debut novels written by Jane Q. Dontquityourdayjob.

Is there a reason not to self-publish? Isn’t getting 100 people to buy and read your book better than having it rejected by 30 editors, never to find an audience at all? I kind of wish more people would stop looking to the publishing industry model and just jump on the self-publishing bandwagon. Wouldn’t it be great if a bunch of great writers emerged from what has traditionally been viewed as the final desperate option for failed writers?

Why not make the process of publishing as democratic — and as ephemeral — as blogging is? Blogs and videos find an audience through word of mouth. Perhaps ironically, a blog’s popularity will often lead to a book deal! (See also: Smitten Kitchen, Alright Tit, The Oatmeal, James Lileks et al.) Books…magazines…blogs…increasingly there’s not a lot of difference. I don’t care about the medium or format. I just want to read something that’s original, has a distinctive and consistent voice, and is interesting. Increasingly, I’m finding this content online, on people’s blogs. If traditional publishing — and the books it produces — is dying, maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world. Maybe it’s just evolution.

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