When anyone can be a published author

How do you find something good to read in a brave new self-published world?

Published June 23, 2010 12:23AM (EDT)

 (Vladimir Melnikov)
(Vladimir Melnikov)

When their former dictator, Augusto Pinochet, died four years ago, thousands of Chileans poured into the streets to celebrate -- but that's small potatoes compared to the crowds lining up to dance on the grave of traditional book publishing. The industry, we're forever being told, is antiquated and hidebound; it doesn't know how to spot great books or how to deliver them to readers. Fortunately, a tsunami of sparkling new technology is just about to hit those old fogies, washing them from the face of the earth so that the people who know what they're doing can finally take over.

If you have any contact with the publishing world, you probably hear some version of the story above every day. What's most striking, however, about the many, many conversations I've had about e-books, innovations in self-publishing and the emergence of publicity venues like social networking is how difficult it is to stay focused on what all of this means for readers. No matter how hard you try, within five minutes the talk turns inexorably back to how agents, editors and publishers will suffer in the coming cataclysmic change -- and, above all, how gloriously liberating it will be for authors.

One thing is true: Aspiring authors have never had more or better options for self-publishing the manuscripts currently gathering dust in their desk drawers or sleeping in seldom-visited corners of their hard drives. Writers can upload their works to services run by Amazon, Apple and (soon) Barnes and Noble, transforming them into e-books that are instantly available in high-profile online stores. Or they can post them on services like Urbis.com, Quillp.com or CompletelyNovel.com and coax reviews from other hopeful users. If a writer prefers an old-fashioned printed copy of his or her opus, then all of these companies (and many others) would be more than happy to provide print-on-demand services, producing one hard copy at a time whenever one is needed.

"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.

It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters -- not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés -- for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that's almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn't been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue. You walk in the door pledging your soul to literature, and you walk out with a crazed glint in your eyes, thinking that the Hitler Youth guy who said, "Whenever I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my revolver" might have had a point after all. Recovery is possible, but it'll take a while (apply liberal doses of F. Scott Fitzgerald). In the meantime, instead of picking up every new manuscript with an open mind and a tiny nibbling hope, you learn to expect the worst. Because almost every time, the worst is exactly what you'll get.

In other words, it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it, and if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours. Also, no one will pay you for it. Granted, the entry-level editors who used to do this job in old-school publishing didn't get paid very much, but it was better than nothing, and there was always the chance that a career could be made by plucking a hit from the slush pile (as happened with Judith Guest's "Ordinary People" in 1975). You, on the other hand, will be offered no such incentives.

Did I mention that there are a whole lot of these books? Bowker, a company that tracks industry statistics, calculated that, in 2009 alone, new titles published outside of "traditional publishing and classification definitions" numbered 764,448. Yes, you read that right: upward of three-quarters of a million books in a single year. Not all of those books were intended for a general readership, but if, say, two-thirds of them were, you could just barely manage to read the first page of every single one of them in the course of year -- provided you also gave up eating, sleeping and bathing. (I calculate about one page per minute; your mileage may, of course, vary.) And this is the situation even in the days before we've come close to hitting the crest of the new, technology-driven self-publishing boom.

Again, these developments are in many ways great for authors. Readers, however, may be in for a serious case of slush fatigue. I recently confided my worries on this account to former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg, but he was unperturbed. In the near future, he assured me, "'publication' will become meaningless." If anyone can "publish" by forking over a few bucks to produce a paperback or e-book, then doing so won't be any more special than, say, printing out the manuscript on your Deskjet and running off a few copies at Kinko's. Readers will be saved from wading through slush by amateur authorities -- bloggers and other pundits specializing in particular subjects or genres -- who will point their followers to the best books. "People will find new ways to decide which books merit their attention."

Authors have long complained that the way publishing has been making such decisions is unfair and arbitrary. It's all about who you know, they say, or whether you're young and good-looking or can drive book sales by using a media "platform" like a TV show. Self-published authors claim that their high-quality literary efforts have been rejected in favor of lowbrow, mass-market pablum by editors who only care about the bottom line. Nowadays, any author can use social networking and public appearances to build direct relationships with his audience, readers who will be referred to his work by experts who are far more accountable than the faceless editors and agents who've run things up to this point.

Perhaps this system will work better, but I'm not so sure. Contrary to the way they're often depicted by frustrated authors, the agents and editors I've met are in fact committed to finding and nurturing books and authors they believe in as well as books that will sell. Also, bloggers or self-appointed experts on particular genres and types of writing are, in my experience, just as clubby and as likely to plug or promote their friends and associates as anybody else. Above all, this possible future doesn't eliminate gatekeepers: It just sets up new ones, equally human and no doubt equally flawed. How long before the authors neglected by the new breed of tastemaker begin to accuse them of being out-of-touch, biased dinosaurs?

Furthermore, as observers like Chris Anderson (in "The Long Tail") and social scientists like Sheena Iyengar (in her new book "The Art of Choosing") have pointed out, when confronted with an overwhelming array of choices, most people do not graze more widely. Instead, if they aren't utterly paralyzed by the prospect, their decisions become even more conservative, zeroing in on what everyone else is buying and grabbing for recognizable brands because making a fully informed decision is just too difficult and time-consuming. As a result, introducing massive amounts of consumer choice leads to situations in which the 10 most popular items command the vast majority of the market share, while thousands of lesser alternatives must divide the leftovers into many tiny portions. This has been going on in the book world for at least a couple of decades now, since long before the rise of e-books: Bestselling authors continue to sell better and better, while everyone else does worse and worse.

So even if things shake down as Scott predicts, we'll still wind up with a literary marketplace in which a handful of blockbuster names capture most of the sales and attention, personal connections are milked for professional success, and relatively few authoritative voices have the power to lift some artists into the spotlight while others languish in obscurity. Writers who are charming in person and happy to promote themselves and interact with fans will prosper, while antisocial geniuses may fail. (It's unsettling to wonder how the Salingers, Pynchons, Naipauls and David Foster Wallaces of tomorrow will fare in a world where social networking and glad-handing are de rigueur. Why should extroversion be required of a great novelist?) The result: not a whole lot better than the system we already have, but also (hopefully) not much worse.

What still troubles me is how we'll get there. Will readers have to flounder in an ocean of slush before the new gatekeepers appear to rescue them? And if so, how long before they contract slush fatigue? A few days of reading bad manuscript after bad manuscript has a tendency to make you never want to pick up another manuscript again, but when finding new talent is your job and your vocation, you keep at it until you're successful enough to hire someone else to do it for you. If, on the other hand, you're a civilian, and reading is something you turn to, seeking fun or transcendence, during your precious hours of free time, how long will you persist when book after book has exactly the opposite effect, crushing your spirit instead of refreshing it? How long before you decide to just give up?

Referred to in this article: Urbis.com, Quillp.com or CompletelyNovel.com are community-based self-publishing operations. "'Vanity' Press Goes Digital" in the Wall Street Journal provides a thorough overview of the self-publishing options now available to authors, along with a handful of success stories (which should come with the label "Results not typical" required in advertising for diet plans). Bowker's report on 2009 U.S. book production is described in this press release. Salon's interview with Sheena Iyengar provides more information about her work. Scott Rosenberg's blog, Wordyard, has more information about his many projects and books, including "Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters."

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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