Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cream Always Rises To the Top... But Then Again, So Does Crap

I've got a little secret for those of us that haven’t been paying attention. Digital book distribution has arrived. I've written before about how torn I am on the subject, but it seems the push to e-readers hasn’t slowed due to my indecisiveness. 

Over the past eight months or so I’ve been reading via my phone or iPad a great deal. The ability to read whatever I want as soon as I see it is intoxicating. It’s only my obsessive need to physically own what I’m reading that keeps me buying books.

But all that is old news, what do I really have to say here, today, on this topic that is relevant? Well, I’ve decided to experiment a bit. Digital distribution for books is a great equalizer. If one is so inclined, they can take their manuscript, which may have been rejected by every reputable agent and publisher in the U.S. and abroad, and plop that thing down for sale on the Kindle, or iBooks (or Nook, etc.) and see how the public reacts.

I got wind of one particular book that was released in such a fashion and it is making its author a great deal of money. More money, in fact, than all but the upper tier of authors in the traditional market typically make. This author is in the situation now that should a publisher walk to their front door and ask to sign them up for a multi-book deal... it would be better for them to pass up on the offer.

I recall hearing a similar story about MC Hammer, he was making so much money selling homemade CD's out of the trunk of his car that he passed on the the record labels when they came calling. They ended up having to give him way more than they wanted to in order to get him to agree to sign with a label.

Is the same thing happening in the world of novels? I don't know, but I wanted to find out what the gem of a novelist is selling so I bought a copy.

After careful consideration I've decided that I'm not telling who this entrepreneurial author is. Why? Because this book sucks. Hard. I mean, well, I'm not sure if I know how to describe it's awfulness.

What makes so terrible is not that the book contains typos or plot holes, most books I've read have a few that sneak through, even with lots of professionals looking for them. What makes this so egregiously awful is that sin of all sins, the plot can only advance by the characters being monumentally stupid.

Sigh. I can’t think of how this book can be successful as it stands. I think that the numerous five star reviews on Amazon couldn’t have hurt. But even there, the praise that it gets goes so far beyond hyperbole that I can’t see how anyone would take it seriously. This person owes a lot of people a lot of favors in return for the amazing reviews this book is getting.

Okay, I’ll stop. It isn’t fair to rake this over the coals, especially since I don’t have the guts to even let folks know what book it is. But I think I see a larger picture being painted here.

Real publishing, even in a digital medium, makes a promise to the reader. That promise is that the book, while I might not like it, will be professionally produced. I can be assured that the grammar will at least be at the grade school level, that a character, while perhaps not fully formed, won’t range from preternaturally intelligent to functionally retarded within a single scene… and that the author won’t do things like spend 50 pages making a character the possessed arbiter of supernatural doom, then also play that same character as helpless to the whims of the people around him a bit later.

Again, that promise is that the work meets minimum standards, I have read novels released by authors who self-publish before. The difference in the self-published books I've read before is that those authors still spent a great deal of effort, and their own money, to have people read, edit,and copy edit, and those said authors revised and rewrote their work accordingly. This book that I have been reading shows no signs of any of those things happening. It’s a first draft, complete with typos, horribly worded sentences, plot holes that render the entire book pointless, incomprehensible character actions and above all… every major character in the book has all but admitted that they have no idea what is happening (It isn’t mysterious, if just makes me think the author is just as surprised by the twists and turns of the story as I am. I should know, I do that too when I write myself into a corner).

I have often read about now famous authors whose work languished in slush piles or agent rejections for years before they found an outlet to be published. Only through perseverance and belief in their own story when no one else thought it was good enough were they able to succeed. Stories like that create an illusion that a lot of unpublished work is really of fantastic quality – it just needs a chance.

My evidence is anecdotal for certain, but make no mistake. Crap is hitting the market place right alongside the greats. Buyer beware. I think in the short term this can be a boon for folks looking to get themselves out there, and to make some money along the way. But long term I think this is damaging to the confidence of the reader. If I don’t already know the author, I sure as hell won’t be taking a chance on a novel now. It might be something that a drunk college kid whipped up over a long weekend to pay for his drug habit.

Novels are special. They’re hard to do well, and I have great respect for those that can pull it off with success. I can shrug my shoulders at a book that I hated that at least had signs of an effort being put forth from the author. But selling drivel and passing it off as a novel… it makes me feel like I’ve been snookered.

I’m not real happy about that.


Nancy said...

Loved this post and think it hits the issue dead on. Although I am curious about the author and a little bit of me wants to read it to see if think it is as terrible as you do. I think it's that can't look away from an accident thing. Not that I'm willing to spend money on it since I do trust your opinion.

Mister Sharaf said...


Wendy aka Quillfeather said...

Good post. Much food for thought.

Rusty Webb said...

Thanks Nancy - after I posted this I felt somewhat guilty about bashing another writer so hard. At least I didn't name names here. I wonder if what gets me so worked up is so much of what I'm reading from this author reminds me of what my drafts look like - with all the weaknesses and yucky stuff I have to work hard to remove. They just choose not to remove them. Seems lazy.

Mister Sharaf - Wendy - thank you both.

Joseph L. Selby said...

This person owes a lot of people a lot of favors in return for the amazing reviews this book is getting.

You're assuming the author himself didn't write those reviews with sockpuppet accounts. It happens. A lot.