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.

9 Responses

  1. i have given up on buying books altogether. not really for philosophical reasons but more pragmatic. i found that i would spend money on a book that i would read once, loan to someone else, and never ever see again. this seemed pointless.

    that is when i discovered the library. any book i could ever want . . . for free!!!

    the other part of the puzzle was that i found myself reading the same authors and not really knowing where to branch from there. so about two years ago (about when i found the library), i started reading off of two book lists: the modern library top 100 novels of all time and the winners of the nobel prize in literature (which goes back to 1900 or so).

  2. I’ll be back with more, but in the meantime I want to say, I have seen this and have insight, experience, and opinion, on this topic!

    • Oh, I was hoping you’d take the bait! No offense was intended, by the way. I was just looking to stir your coals to get those good ideas up here. I ask these questions for a reason, as I struggle with my own impulses to write fiction (and small pile of rejected attempts), while simulateously wondering what the point of trying is.

      • Funny, the first thought I had when I read this post was, “I bet she has a manuscript in a bottom drawer.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  3. It’s interesting to note there have been self-publishing phenomenons. Once a Runner is the most appropriate to cite here, and others like The Christmas Box and The Lace Reader have been picked up by mainstream houses and published to stunning effect.

    I think it’s a myth that books are less-carefully edited now than they were in the past. The editors I work with all take their jobs crafting manuscripts very seriously, and in fact I have seen them turn poor or middling works into fantastic and beautiful reads. I think what you are talking about, Julie, is copyediting and proofreading. Gross errors are embarrassing but they are part of a book being a manmade product.

    Your attitude towards reading — you don’t care about the format (electronic or organic) or type (book, magazine, newspaper, blog, etc) — is more and more the norm among a publisher’s consumer base. All publishers are trying to navigate our way through a marketplace that is changing sometimes on a week by week basis. I think most publishing folks will tell you it’s good that Amazon no longer has such a stranglehold on the ebook market. The Nook, the iPad and even the Sony eReader have chipped away at Kindle sales. So when Amazon says Kindle sales are up–well, sure they are, but so are sales at other ebook retailers.

  4. PS, ultimately, I believe that you must write for the same reasons you run: because you love it, and because you can’t help yourself. If you want to write fiction, then don’t struggle with that impulse, just do it. But, the same way runners understand we may never win a marathon, writers should also understand we may never get published.

  5. It’s a coincidence that TK mentions Once a Runner as I’m reading that now. Slowly — it wasn’t what I expected, and I like re-reading sections.

    Self-published books can be fine. Get an editor if you can. The only problem with self-publishing is the selling part. Having a box of 1000 books (or whatever the minimum run is) and selling them at markets or whatever to get your money back.

    By the way, for novels, I much prefer a book in the paperback form rather than as an e-book. Going to bed with a paperback is a pleasure — turning the pages; having something physical there.

  6. 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.

    Heh. I feel the need to mention that In a lot of cases its done offshore.

    By non native English speakers.

    Try this in a very specific subject that uses language in odd, often outdated, ways and see what you get. The results ain’t pretty.

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