Brave New [Publishing] World

A recent internet review of  Empress of Eternity claimed that it was “the least inspiring” of any of my recent books.  I cringed when I read those words, not because the reviewer didn’t like the book – Empress tends to polarize readers; they either like it or hate it, and I understand that – by what the “reviewer” wrote wasn’t what he meant to sat.  The book was inspired.  I had to be inspired to write such an intricate and involved weaving of timelines across millions of years and make it all come together. But what the reviewer meant was that he didn’t find it inspiring.  He wasn’t inspired.

In a nutshell, this is a small example of one problem with the whole gamut of internet publishing, reviewing, and commentary.  Too many people are using words and grammatical constructions, not to mention facts, that they don’t understand… and setting themselves up as authorities.  All it takes is some eye-catching graphics, a catchy and/or pretentious title and… voila!  Another sage is born.

And if no publisher will take on a book?  Then e-publish it!  List it for sale on Amazon, and Jeff Bezos will be happy to try to sell it and take his cut.  It costs him next to nothing.  List it for $1.99 or even $.99, and maybe it will become a Kindle bestseller.  But does that tell any reader whether it’s any good?  Over the years, I’ve had reader after reader tell me that they buy books from certain publishers because they know exactly what they’re getting and what the quality is.

Established publishing firms – and magazines – tend to have standards, although I will admit that sometimes those standards and procedures do keep a good book from being published, but after 40 years in the field I can say that, for every good work that didn’t get published by a major publisher, there were thousands they didn’t publish that never should have been published… not because of censorship or anything so sinister, but because those unpublished books were just plain bad.  Such standards don’t exist on the internet, and I have doubts that they ever will.

That is what publishing firms have been for – to find, refine, and publisher works of a minimum acceptable literary quality (and hopefully much better) that appeal to the tastes of readers.  Especially in today’s fast-paced world, very few people have the time or the inclination to sift through manuscript after manuscript (or self-published e-book after e-book) in hopes of finding passable, or quality or thought-provoking entertainment.  Yet the combination of e-publishing and Amazon may very well create a huge gulf in writing/literature, with, on the one hand, the mainstream publishers only able to publish “super-titles” and a handful of other “literature” titles, while leaving readers to struggle through a sprawling mish-mash of e-novels, ranging from a comparatively few well-edited and coherent works at the top down through a vast plethora of sub-mediocrity to an even vaster array of abysmal attempts at fiction.

Welcome to the post-literate e-world!

18 thoughts on “Brave New [Publishing] World”

  1. Ryan Jackson says:

    Although I could be wrong, not knowing the person who made the original content. I’d guess it’s less an issue of using words that they didn’t know the meaning of and more arrogance.

    Right or wrong I’ve been in places where I’ve said that phrase about something. It wasn’t coming from a place of meaning it didn’t inspire me, it was that of a full collection of works I had read from that source, I felt this was the weakest, the one most missing that crucial spark that elevates a piece of fiction from a basic little fantasy story to something that could almost be a real world.

    I avoid statements like that anymore purely because I accept the fact that I don’t always have all the information and out of a desire to come across less arrogant than I probably am. But when I have those thoughts I do mean them exactly as they sound.

  2. Max says:

    It used to be that I browsed the “Hot New Releases” on Amazon section every few months, with left side filtered by “Sci-f/Fantasy”, and then opening new tabs on interesting books, but it became impossible lately with only 3-4 books out of 100 in the list being “real” releases, and the rest being 0.99/1.99/2.99 self-published stuff.

    Amazon should do some kind of “Filter out self-publishers” filter, because otherwise the whole space is polluted.

  3. Chad says:

    “Welcome to the post-literate e-world!” That is just the kind of establishment elitism that will push me towards the new world of self published words. Why dismiss the ability of thousands of readers to cheaply review the mass of self published works and thrash the cream to the top via review numbers? This is mainly how I have found new authors in the old traditional published world anyway.

    Also, the idea of readers sticking with a publisher because of quality is rapidly failing due to cost cutting. Reviews over the past few years are full of critical comments directed at poor editing and corrections.

    But, I will agree that change can be scary… especially for those well established in the old way of doing things.

  4. There’s nothing wrong with elitism based on quality, and nothing to recommend quantity without quality.

  5. Brad says:

    I can’t say that I agree with you, Mr. Modesitt… I can’t tell you how many bad books I’ve read by major publishers… even Tor has put out plenty of duds and I sit there wondering how in the world they get published.

    Good authors are going to get the shaft no matter what the model is. Either you miss out on them because the publishing industry “filters” them out by some subjective quality standard or what they think the flavor of the month is, or you miss out on them because everyone is e-publishing and it gets lost in the mass of $1 ebooks and drowned out by the voice of those who are better at internet marketing than writing.

    I have read good books on both sides of the fence, and I have read bad on both sides. At least with e-publishing you have a chance to find the good works.

  6. Max says:

    Problem with relying on reviews is that all self-published books have 4.5 stars review, you won’t find any lower then 4 stars. But reviews don’t match the quality of the work.

    I had purchased on a whim several of them (hey its just 1.99, click), based on reviews, and was not able to finish a single one. Now out of these 100 $1.99 books, I’m sure there will be 5 or 6 good ones, but since all of them have 4.5 star reviews, only way to find these 5 out of 100, is to read all of them, which I have no inclination of doing.

  7. But… as I’ve noted before… all too often “bad” isn’t bad, but a subjective “I didn’t like it; so it’s bad.” I’ve had books that won awards and sold lots of copies declared “bad” books by some readers. I’ll still assert that major publishers have a far, far better track record than self-publishers.

    1. Brad says:

      Aren’t most reviews, both good and bad, subjective in nature? Most people say things are “good” based on the simple fact that they like them.

  8. Chad says:

    wow, a caption filter mistake wiped my 8 paragraph reply.

    Advice to others, copy your reply to your clipboard before you attempt to fulfil the caption verification.

  9. Nate says:

    I have read self-published work that was virtually unreadable because of grammar errors. I’m not usually super picky, but the editing (if there was any actually done) was atrocious. Whether or not the story-telling aspects of a book are agreeable to you, there is an objective quality to a book that truly does influence enjoyment. And you can just about guarantee that when you buy a book from an established publisher, that it will meet those basic levels of readability. I have enough demands on my time that I am willing to pay extra for a book that I know I will be able to read, even if there are no guarantees that it will give me exactly what I want in a story.

  10. Wayne Kernochan says:

    On an irrelevant subject: I’m baffled that people tend to be “polarized” by EoE. As far as I was concerned, it was of your usual high quality. My frustration with what I thought you didn’t say about climate change (because I didn’t pick up the hints) was matched by my appreciation of the solid grounding of what you did say, and its integration into a good story. And it’s not as if you haven’t discussed “ecolitan” concepts before. Is this a phenomenon among relatively recent readers?

  11. There’s definitely more “polarization” expressed these days, but whether that’s because people are more willing to express extreme feelings about books or whether that’s limited to newer/younger readers is something I have no way to determine.

  12. Chad says:

    I have no argument with the idea that the traditional publishing route produces a more consistent product. What I do think is that this will become less consistent in the future. This will be due to declining revenues driven by competition with self publishers, fewer readers in general and new media. This will result in a downward spiral for that industry… similar to the decline in news papers we are seeing today. For those companies there will be less funds available to have the staff required to sort submittals, edit the good ones and distribute the works in the traditional paper form.

    Because of this, I am happy that an alternate source is available. Think of it as the publisher outsourcing the initial discovery of a new author to the public. Once the public responds favorably to a new author deals can then be made to have that author sign with the publisher or risk that author remaining independant.

    For the established author not much will happen except a decline in sales due to a diluted market.

    For the established publishers, the ones who will simplify their system and begin to offer Eworks direct to the market will prosper. I see big things happening with Baen’s E books and book bundles.

  13. You may very well be right… especially about the decline in consistency… and that worries me greatly, because someone should be holding to a standard to which others can aspire.

  14. R. Hamilton says:

    The same mechanisms that enable e-publishing also enable independent reviewers to attain sufficient respect to be able to assist readers in making selections from an unfiltered marketplace.

    The problem I see is rather the same one as with hundreds of cable channels: people can choose to watch or read only that which aligns with what they’re already familiar with or comfortable with, leading to a balkanization of knowledge, literature, culture, and society into a multitude of isolated domains, each containing plenty of self-justification as to its innate superiority.

    Nevertheless, the answer can’t ever be to go backward. The same tools that create a problem necessarily provide opportunities to address it. To some degree, existing genres in music or literature are sustained by the gatekeepers – the publishers – and crossover genres are less supported. Perhaps leaving gatekeeping up to the consumer aided by trusted advisors will enable more rather than less cross-pollination.

  15. Mayhem says:

    Yep, the quick response I made to someone else recently was along the same lines – addressing why John Scalzi doesn’t read self-published works.

    Simple answer – self publishing suffers badly from Sturgeons Law.

    Longer winded version – requiring a professional publisher to have worked on the book at least guarantees a certain minimum level of quality – it will be properly edited, typeset, proofed and (hopefully) a decent story. Also, it helps maintain professional standards, which he has a responsibility towards as a leading member of the SFWA. Vanity presses and many of the print-on-demand scams work against that.

  16. Mayhem says:

    As to Brad & the others regarding quality …

    Lets take Baen as an example of a publisher with consistent output. I have read probably 90% of what they have published in the last 10 years. When you pick up one of their books, you can expect :
    1) A ghastly garish cover
    3) Generally straitforward plots, where Good gets Done.
    4) Generally consistent editing, spelling & grammar usage.

    Would I class all the works as Good? Certainly not, they range the gamut in my opinion from dire to superb. On the other hand, I can at least categorise most of them as fairly well written – there are very few authors in the Baen stable who can’t write a story. Some I wouldn’t ever want to read again, but there was definitely a story there. Even John Ringo, of so much Oh God No fame knows how to write a tale.

    Compare that to the works I’ve picked up at bargain basement prices from the Internet and it’s a complete world apart. Sock puppet voting to pump up popularity, inane badly spelled language, paper thin plots and cardboard MAIN characters, let alone those in the background who make tissue paper look deep. To be honest, I will happily throw good money at the professional publishing houses for quite a while longer to never have to look through the slushpiles again.

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