Cherish the Book Publishers
You'll Miss Them When They're Gone
By ERIC FELTEN
July 1, 2011
The Klondikers of digital publishing are rushing to stake their claims, inspired by tales of the gold to be found in the Kindle hills. A few pioneering prospectors have indeed struck it rich with light entertainments, most famously Amanda Hocking, who is a sort of Tolkien for our times (if Tolkien had been an avid fan of "Star Wars" instead of an eminent scholar of "Beowulf"). Her self-published e-books racked up so many sales over the past year that St. Martin's Press recently signed her for some $2 million.
And then there's John Locke, whose "How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months" is a primer on peddling digital dime-novels—well, 99-cent novels—at Amazon's Kindle store. Though now it seems even 99 cents may be too much to ask for e-pulp fiction. Eager newbies are finding that the price of getting their books read is to give them away. ("How can they possibly make a living that way?" the old joke asks. "Volume.")
It isn't just the elusive prospect of riches that excites the untold thousands of hopefuls crowding into the new self-publishing space. They are buoyed by escaping the grim frustrations of trying to get published the old-fashioned way. No more form-letter rejections from know-nothing agents and can't-be-bothered editors.
It's only natural for those locked out to despise the gatekeepers, but what about those of us in the reading public? Shouldn't we be grateful that it's someone else's job to weed out the inane, the insipid, the incompetent? Not that they always do such a great job of it, given some of the books that do get published by actual publishers. But at least they provide some buffer between us and the many aspiring authors who are like the wannabe pop stars in the opening weeks of each "American Idol" season: How many instant novelists are as deluded as the singers who make with the strangled-cat noises believing they have Arethaen pipes?
A friend, years ago, worked at a major New York publishing house tending the slush pile. It was her job to peruse the unsolicited manuscripts for anything that might be a hidden gem, and to send the dreaded form letters to the rest. She took no pleasure in sending rejections and was eager to find something, anything, worthy in the pile. She dreamed of discovering the great undiscovered talent—oh, what a story (and a career) it would make! Alas, in two years of sifting she found only one marginally plausible submission she could recommend to her bosses.
The e-book era promises us all the pleasure of wading through the slush pile ourselves, even as the pile grows exponentially. Much of that growth comes from eager literary hopefuls making earnest efforts. But spammers are also making their contribution to the teeming digital library. As Reuters recently reported, some unscrupulous self-publishers have begun creating books by the ream merely by grabbing a few pages of text from websites and dumping them into ultraquickie e-books. The authors of such faux tomes can knock out 10 or 20 a day. And even if only a handful of people make the mistake of downloading one of these "books," the spammer still makes enough pennies to keep at it.
The stodgy old gatekeepers are to be replaced with "social media." But self-publishers are finding that getting the attention of the crowd once their e-books are out there isn't easy. Which leads to efforts to game the judgment of the new and amorphous network of influence.
Look in the forums Amazon hosts for its Kindle "direct publishers" and you won't find many posts asking how to do the basics of traditional book production—copy editing, anyone? But there are plenty of threads with titles like "Promote your book" and "review swapping?"—orgies of desperate back-scratching that make old-school literary logrolling seem downright genteel.
Typical is the suggestion of self-publisher Erika Szabo, who in a late-March post wrote: "Let's help each other with reviews. We need them to climb up the 'ladder' in order to sell our books." Alas, this unsubtle proposition doesn't seem to have done much for Ms. Szabo's books—an herbal-medicine guide and a "historical- fantasy-romance novel" about Attila the Hun's aunt. After a month of waiting for some reciprocation, Ms. Szabo felt burned: "I bought 3 books, wrote 3 reviews, liked 8 books and tagged them. I got NONE in return."
Plenty of e-book authors find such come-ons unseemly and rail against them on the Kindle boards. The most vigorous and vocal scourge of review-swapping is a self-published author whose books include "Blueprint for an Escort Service," "Blueprint for an Escort Service 2," and "The Complete Blueprint for an Escort Service."
No doubt there are geniuses languishing in obscurity. Who knows how many great books are just waiting to be discovered? But are we really more likely to find them once the publishing pros have been handed their hats and shown the door? I rather doubt it—even though there's now hope for that series of novels I've been writing about an elf-detective who travels through time to woo Helen of Troy's third cousin, who, as it turns out, is a more-attractive-than-usual troll.