Saturday, August 7, 2010

Publishing - an exercise in disappointment

After finding and reading Nico Vreeland's great post over at Chamber Four about publishing (at a bit of a delay, perhaps...), I had to add a few words and a couple of personal numbers. Vreeland writes about the "real" death of publishing - not eBooks, not consumers demanding lower prices... not us, but them.
[Publishing is] not a victim, period. Publishing is slowly strangling itself by myopically hard-selling each and every title it cranks out, instead of nurturing the readers who sustain it. [...] It seems, in short, like publishers aren’t culling bad novels like they should be, and then readers have to do it, which means sifting through dozens or hundreds of published novels to find just the few worth reading. And that gets old.
I recommend reading the entire piece. Vreeland raises a lot of really good points, ones I could only hope to verbalize. But I'll take a stab anyways.

My main problem with this issue is what Vreeland looks at as well - the amount of crap that comes out every year. Publishers are meant to be kind of a buffer zone between readers and books. Sure, I can access tons of free writing online written by amateurs, but I'll most likely find amateur-level writing. Every once in a while, a self-published book can be good, and then what happens? It gets picked up by publishers. Why? For publicity, for sales. To make money. Okay, legit. Those are meant to be rare cases. And for the most part they are, so I'd like to set this matter aside. But publishing seems to forget it's other task, that of keeping the junk away from us. Theoretically, books rejected by publishers are supposed to be the bad ones (more on this in a moment). This means that books publishers do spend money on should be pretty effing good. So why aren't they?

First is the fact that some of the books rejected by publishers actually are good. So why are they rejected? Sales. Publishing, the giant business that it is, aims to sell and make money. A good business model, yes, but ultimately bad for readers. Readers who ultimately drive the book market. So it's a little stupid by this point.

Not every book is always going to be to everyone's tastes. This isn't new. I'm pretty known for disliking a lot of the books everyone else seems to love - whether they're classics that history has deemed worthy, or just plain ol' books-of-the-moment award winners (I'm thinking of "Catcher in the Rye", "Let the Great World Spin" and some others here). That's understandable, that's expected. But to publish books that are almost unquestioningly bad because they'll make you a couple bucks... there's something off to that.

In the past three years, I've read 91 Anglo-centricly published novels published from 2005 and on. Like Vreeland, I decided to run some numbers. Turns out I needed a different scale than the simple "bad okay good great" scale. Mine was "terrible bad mediocre nice good great amazing". 6 books were amazing, 11 great, 11 good, 17 nice, 27 mediocre, 14 bad, and 5 terrible. That's somewhere around 50% books not worth reading, 30% books that were pleasant and had merit, but didn't really blow me away, and 20% worth keeping on the shelves, worth recommending, worth gushing about, worth reading.

Call me selfish, but I want 100% of books I read to be amazing.

No, that's wrong. Life would be so boring without the guilty pleasure books that fell into the bad category. And a terrible ride is wonderful every once in a while. So essentially I want somewhere around 80% of books to be awesome, 15% to be enjoyably bad (or not my style), and a small 5% to be "I'm gonna punch the author in the face for even writing this, and the publishers for making me spend money/time on this". And you know what? I'm sick of it.

I'm sick of being told by publishers that I'm asking for unreasonably low prices for things that are worth less (eBooks!!!). I'm sick of feeling bad for writing bad reviews online when books are bad and don't deserve to be read (and then getting surprised reactions of "how could you not love this? You must be stupid" or things to that extent). I'm sick of suggestions that libraries are bad for publishing or bookselling. I'm sick of feeling like I have to search for good books, that I'm on some crazy holy-grail-esque quest for a novel that doesn't suck. And I'm sick of books that do suck. And guess what? Most of them do. 50% of the contemporary books I read in the last three years were disappointing and not worth my time. What kind of statistic is that?

This week I intend to read good books, like I decide every week. Chances are that won't be the case. More than anything else, that disappoints.

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