The Quickly Changing World of Publishing Part 2: Art for Money's Sake

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One complaint I often hear about the new self-publishing boom in the ebook world is that most of the writing is very bad.

This is unfortunately true. I’ve waded through many sample pages of indie authors looking for something that had the minimal grammatical readability I require to take something seriously and found misspellings, bad punctuation or a complete lack of punctuation.

The books that made it past stage 1 then reached stage 2: books made up entirely of sentences sputtering with clichés and over-used ideas, and yet, grammatically correct for the most part.

Now and then, an indie book passes stages 1 and 2 and reaches an all new stage, which I will not call stage 3, for I fear that this would only dignify the other two stages. Rather, I will refer to this stage as bookdom. Bookdom is a stage where the book suffers from what should be considered normal faults and triumphs with normal strengths. That is to say, its problems are ones of structure, communicability of the author’s ideas and consistency of pace and voice. The triumphs might be of a very standard variety. The author exhibits humor, suspense and dialogue where necessary and is never too heavy in one area or another.

But an ebook that achieves bookdom is not, because of its bookdom, a great book, but only a normal book, which is to say, an acceptable book. But we all know that an acceptable book is not the same thing as an exceptional book. Exceptional books always achieve bookdom but not all books that achieve bookdom are exceptional.

Most paperback best sellers achieve bookdom, both through practice and with the help of an editor. Most traditionally published books achieve mere bookdom, but it doesn’t make them great books.

I will not waste time waxing aesthetic or trying to define for you what makes a great book, but I think we can all agree, at its most basic level, that it has something to do with the unrepeatability of the book. I’m not talking about genre. Genre is fine. Every book is part of some genre or several predominant ones. Genre is inescapable. What I’m talking about is formula.

If a book has such a plot and such characters and such dialogue and such theoretical conflict that it seems familiar, that you’ve read the same thing in other books before in much the same way with much the same feeling, the book is disqualified from being great. That is the easy explanation I will not develop further here.

I will not attempt to prove that the quantity of bad books by indie authors is greater than that in traditional publishing—the proof is a few clicks away from you at any given time. Nor will I attempt to prove that great books have been written by indie authors.

I am not concerned necessarily with statistics between good/bad and great/acceptable. This is because it seems to me that wherever art is created, there is just as good a chance that a ‘great’ work will emerge somewhere from the fold. I base this judgment on the fact that this always seems to have been the case throughout history, despite how many changes publishing and print have gone through.

It would be just as silly to say that there are no good or great indie authors just as it would be silly to say that everyone who publishes their writing is a good artist.

I take issue with some of the assumptions that form the core of the arguments surrounding ebooks and indie-publishing in particular. One argument I’ve heard (read) from traditionally published authors and editors alike is this idea that, if a book is good enough, it will earn a traditional publication.

This is only true if we approximate this vague value, ‘good enough,’ to the value of the individual publisher.

However, if we are to take ‘good enough’ in a more colloquial sense, that is to say, in a way that is weighted by common assumptions we associate with a sense of ‘standard’—whether that ‘standard’ manifests itself as something transcendent or, more simply, as something that graduates from stages 1, 2 and bookdom to reach a level of unrepeatable greatness as I spoke of before—then the argument is historically false. It is false for the simple reason that far too many examples of books that are considered ‘great’ went through their initial printings as independently published works.

It’s easiest to talk about the ‘greatness’ of a given book in proximity to its potential to reach a canonical stage. This brings me to my second proposition in this series on publishing.

Proposition 2: Publishers are not mediators of the canonical process.

It is a mistake to say that traditional publishing in any way determines the overall merit of a book. Traditional publishing invests in a presupposition of the book’s ‘marketability’ and guides the author toward an ideal performance of the value system innately coded in that very presupposition of marketability—which is in turn a product of a previous model of some achieved financial success; a guarantee of eternal duplication.

But how many authors have been told, ‘We really liked your manuscript but we just can’t sell it’?

The glorious day may come when the author finds a publishing house that believes there is a presupposed ‘audience’ for her book. But for some authors, that day may not come. No publisher wants to publish a book that will not keep the house in business. That is the day the author may decide to self-publish her work. This says nothing of ‘merit.’

After the very first instant that a work of ‘merit’ was published independently, we must consider the traditional publisher completely arbitrary to the canonical process.

People who say that any good book will be published traditionally radicalize a view that has survived, until now, through subtlety: The idea of The Publisher as ecclesiastical authority. ‘You will know them by their fruit,’ this ecclesiastical authority wants to say.

But in the case of the publisher, the fruit in question is the fruit of financial value.

Anything can achieve financial value for a time but that financial value is fleeting. This is why canonical literature and financially successful literature, while they may overlap, are not the same. 

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