What About The Content

In all this discussion about the explosion of ebooks, very little is being said about the quality of the work resulting from this newfound freedom, and that disturbs author James W. Hall, who wrote in a comment here:

You know one thing that keeps being left out of this discussion, Lee, is the writing itself. The traditional publishers (I find the term 'legacy publishers' patronizing and silly) served and continue to serve an important function as gate-keepers. They weren't always right, of course. But by and large good books got published and the "tsunami of sludge" that we're seeing now was kept offshore. Book reviewers had their role in all this, steering readers to 'literary' novels and maintaining or trying to maintain some conventional standards. Again, reviewers often got it wrong, and their bias toward a high culture novel often missed the books that people were actually reading and loving. Books like Peyton Place, say, which was an incredible success despite terrible reviews. That list is endless.

Anyway, with the huge sea change underway, neither reviewers nor publishers have the power they once had and many will say we're better off for that. I'm not one of those. I lament the loss of quality writing in this deluge of self-publishing. Being a hustler is now more important than writing well, creating rich, dimensional people, plots that are both full of surprise but are also coherent.

Writers interviews and blog posts are becoming all about cover art and social networking and the masterful manipulation of Internet outlets. I'm trying to learn my way in this new world even as I keep one foot solidly in the establishment publishing world. I read more than half the books I read on my iPad and my Kindle and realize these new delivery systems are inevitable and very positive in many ways. However, in our rush to embrace what's good about the new, there is far too much dismissiveness and self-congratulation by the emerging New Media stars.

In all this discussion about Hocking and Eisler and Konrath, everything seems to be about the marketing and profitability issues. I've yet to see any real discussion of the aesthetic issues, of storytelling, of graceful style, of all those features that writers and readers used to hold dear. Getting a 70% profit on every book sold is fine. More power to all of us. Karen's comment above is right. These are interesting days. I simply hope that what was good in the best books of the past will survive.

And that in our hurry to embrace and celebrate the new forms of delivery, we will not abandon our love for good writing and the well told story and solid, three-dimensional characters. And the discussion of literary values will someday again be about more than 2.99 versus 1.99.

I agree with his concerns about content and over-emphasis right now on money and marketing. The writing is getting lost in the discussion.

As exciting as this new world is for authors, it's creating a new set of obstacles for novelists hoping to stand out and for consumers trying to find the good stuff amidst the preponderance of unreadable, previously unpublishable, self-published crap that is flooding the e-marketplace.

In the near term, the writers who will benefit are those who already have a platform, mostly from having been published by the old guard before the e-revolution, because that's who readers will turn to first…names and franchises they can depend on…especially after they've been repeatedly burned by horrendous crap from writers they have never heard of. 

Even 99 cents is too much when what you are buying is nicely packaged, but unreadable swill.

That's not to say there aren't some great self-published, unknown authors out there…there are many (David Dalglish and David McAfee are just two that I'm happy to have stumbled across). But there's far more who aren't. Far, far more. One need only look at most of the stuff on Smashwords, the aggregator many writers use (including yours truly) to get their books on the iPad, Nook, etc. 

Go on, I dare you. It's not pretty.

Despite all the hoopla surrounding Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, John Locke and Amanda Hocking, it could actually get harder, rather than easier, for new writers to break-through the ever-increasing clutter and sell books in this new, e-publishing world than it was in the "old" print-centric one…

I'm still wildly excited about the opportunities for writers now…but I'm not so caught up in my own enthusiasm not to see the pitfalls for writers and readers alike.

21 thoughts on “What About The Content”

  1. I’m a newcomer to this whole writing/publishing scene.
    That said, as someone who was until very recently only a reader, I find the attitude Mr. Hall espouses insulting. Call me a libertarian (and I am), but I think people are quite capable of figuring out for themselves what is good or not and what they like or not, thank you very much. The public doesn’t need a “gate-keeper” to shield them from writing that doesn’t measure up to one standard or another. This is the only business I can think of where the customer isn’t trusted to decide whether or not they wish to buy the product. Instead, all sorts of people are talking about doing exactly that. Why? The only answer I can come up with is that, for the longest time, the real customer for writers WASN’T the reader: it was the publisher. The “gate-keeper” thing was about what the publisher liked, and thought was good. As Mr. Hall said, sometimes they were right, and sometimes they were wrong. But I wonder how many promising stories were lost from public consumption because some nameless “gate-keeper” in a publishing how didn’t personally like it.
    Long story short, this sort of hand-wringing is without merit. But that’s just my (not-so-humble) opinion.

  2. I can’t say anything about Eisler’s work but some of the others’ isn’t all that great, but then neither is Stieg Larsson’s from what I’ve read of it, some 244 pages so far. Imagine how bad most self-published work is? Well, we know. The creme of the hard work rises though, as with Obreht’s, The Tiger’s Wife, who was a student of T.C. Boyle. Amanda Hocking? Well, she got onboard. It’s doubtful that her work will win awards or even be considered literature of any merit. Selling a novel is tough. I can’t do it, at least so far. Sometimes crap can win in both venues. One can always wonder why.

  3. Despite all the hoopla surrounding Konrath, Eisler, Locke and Hocking, it could actually get harder, rather than easier, for new writers to break-through the clutter and sell books in this new, e-publishing world than it was in the “old” print-centric one…
    That really depends on how you look at it. It has always taken work to get noticed. However, marketing and selling directly to readers online can be accomplished more efficiently than authors were capable of doing in the past with print books. In any event, no matter how hard you market a book, if it doesn’t appeal to readers, it won’t sell. That’s the bottom line.
    Ultimately, I think the cream tends to rise to the top, eventually. It’s just a matter of who gets to decide which ones will succeed: the traditional gatekeepers or the readers.

  4. “Writers interviews and blog posts are becoming all about cover art and social networking and the masterful manipulation of Internet outlets.
    “In all this discussion about Hocking and Eisler and Konrath, everything seems to be about the marketing and profitability issues. “
    These are issues that have ALWAYS been talked about in publishing, you’re only hearing about them now because they are taking place in an open forum and not behind closed doors. That’s important, because there have been many great books (and their authors) that could have benefitted from this discussion, but were instead saddled with bad art, poor marketing and lackluster promotion.
    One thing we’re finding out is that the internet provides author with a longer fuse – that is if you put your book out there it doesn’t necessarily need to make a big bang right away before it’s yanked off the shelf. The shelf space is infinite. This allows for writers to keep writing, keep honing their craft, keep building an audience for their work and to always have material available. Nothing disappears unless the author decides it does.
    You will never get that with “established” (ossified) publishing methodology.
    We don’t talk about quality of writing, craft and so forth – because that’s a given. As a reader searching for a new book you look at the cover art, the title, the synopsis and the sample – in that order – to make your purchasing decision. That’s how readers judge quality. This is as we’ve always done, browsing the shelves at the local bookstore. When you describe a book to friends, you don’t immediately go to how well it was written. The first thing you discuss is how much you enjoyed the book, and were entertained by its story. The quality of the writing is a part of the entertainment value.
    Don’t worry about the crap. It will fertilize the soil and allow the roses to grow. As always it will be underfoot, but you won’t notice it. You’ll be too busy looking at and smelling the roses. You can tell right away when something isn’t of the quality you desire. At the bookstore you simply move on and find something that is what you want to read.
    And I think that in time writers and editors will work together – just not at publishing houses. Editors will be contracted for their services just as graphic designers have been.

  5. Of course, there’s another way to look at this, from a business perspective.
    People will be and are desperate for a way to separate the good self-published work from the crap?
    Then it’s an excellent time to start a site that does that. You’ll get lots of readers and excellent monetisation opportunities.
    Which, from the PoV of writers, implies that there will be (more) review sites popping up fairly soon, and that getting good reviews on them will be very, very important.

  6. Gatekeepers? What “gatekeeper” let Snooki onshore? We’ve all read too many gate-kept books that we put down without finishing. I’ve never read anything by Amanda Hocking, primarily because I’m not into her genre, but she was rejected by every single agent and publisher she queried, was consumed with self-doubt, and very nearly quit writing. In January alone, she sold 450,000 books. You can run, but you can’t hide from the fact that the “gatekeepers” got that one wrong.
    They got a lot wrong, IMO. And self-publishing will only serve to correct that wrong. All the sludge that James Hall fears will engulf us will in fact be weeded out by the astute reading public, just the way they weeded out the sludge that the “gatekeepers” fed them.
    Lee, you and I were on a panel at last year’s Left Coast Crime with Boyd Morrison, who was probably the original poster boy for the potential of digital self-publishing. Boyd’s a damn good writer, not good enough for the “gatekeepers” until he sold thousands of e-books on his own. Then, and only then, they loosened up the chains of the gate to allow him to slip through.

  7. Lee, you and I were on a panel at last year’s Left Coast Crime with Boyd Morrison. Boyd’s a damn good writer and probably the original poster boy for the potential in digital self-publishing. The “gatekeepers” didn’t want to offend readers with his “sludge” so they kept him offshore. Until, that is, he sold thousands and thousands of e-books on his own.
    Then, guess what? It was all about the MONEY!

  8. I am currently writing my first novel, and as part of the process I am educating myself on the best ways to get published once I’m ready. Of course, I’ve entered the business at a very interesting time… Here’s what I’ve found so far.
    One of the hallmarks of this indie movement is a backlash against publishers and (to a lesser extent) agents. Some of it may be justified, some of it not. I’ve met writers who were “ripped off” by their publishers, and writers who love their publishers. The biggest topic it seems is determining a “fair” price for ebook sales.
    But what isn’t talked about too much is what the publishers offer: professional editing, entry to literary awards, validation (more important for the new writer perhaps), a name behind the writer, and perhaps most importantly, someone who is going to take care of all those things like printing, distribution, marketing (to some extent), and other business tasks that writers just don’t want to deal with.
    I don’t think the need for publishers will just dry up. First of all, ebooks may become the dominant format soon enough, but does anyone really believe that print books are simply going to disappear?
    Second, someone has to take care of all those business details. Maybe it will be a “publisher” or maybe it will be an “agent” or maybe some new title/hybrid person who supports the author.
    Because most writers can’t do it all — or don’t want to, at least. Amanda Hocking is a perfect example of someone who inked a deal so she could write rather than worry about business.
    Publishers play a key role in the process, and not just in “quality control”. If they do disappear, I think the literary world will be worse off without them for many reasons.

  9. I, for one, am not capable of deciding for myself what is good and bad writing. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bags of lousy, unfinished books to sell to the used stores.
    I remember first hearing the world “samizdat” in college. It was the underground publishing world in the Soviet Union, made up of carbon copies and smudged copies made on ditto machines. I was intrigued by all the great stuff I was reading that had existed in this form and was eventually published for real in the west. But I wasn’t really shocked when a professor told me that most of samizdat was full of badly written crap and porn.
    That is what e-publishing look like to me. Only the censorship isn’t philosophical or political, it’s just monetary. The big publishers are starting to look like Hollywood and e-publishing is looking like very low budget filmmaking. That isn’t a bad thing at all, just complicated.
    Both the reader and the writer are going to have to do a lot more work to find what they’re looking for.

  10. “Despite all the hoopla surrounding Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, John Locke and Amanda Hocking, it could actually get harder, rather than easier, for new writers to break-through the ever-increasing clutter and sell books in this new, e-publishing world than it was in the “old” print-centric one…”
    My take is a bit different. The print book market is basically a homogenized mass market the way TV was when there were only three networks. The print book market, therefore, should not be the standard we use to understand the e-book market. The e-book market will bring the entire audience into the market, and books will be written on every subject under the sun, and the readers will find them by doing searches on the basis of subjects. The search engines of the future will be much, much more precise than now. Therefore, it must be easier for good writers to break-through to their readers rather than harder, for, if you walk into a bookstore now, you wander around blindly in the fiction section.
    Second, I really agree with Bill Cunningham about quality. Buyers of e-books will be able to browse a book before they buy it. They’ll know if the quality of the book is any good to them. They’ll only buy good quality books. The cream will rise to the top since price no longer factors out buyers. The good quality books will appear on the e-book bestseller lists, and there’ll be a list for each subject, so there could be a hundred lists or more.
    So I think that good writers will sell more than ever, make more money than ever, and do it so much easier than with the print publishing model.

  11. One thing that seems to stand out in what both Barry Eisler and Amanda Hocking had to say was the lack of any mention of an editor.
    For a long time publishing companies were headed by editors and their input was what was most important. Cover art, distribution, marketing – all that was secondary.

  12. I have read so many bad books from traditional publishers that I can’t really see the difference. The self-publish market will have soon regulatory mechanisms on internet that will help filter books for readers (more website to get references and see others opinions). But you will still get some really bad works, the same way I got them all my life from the “professionals”.

  13. The “quality” issue is really becoming a tired argument which is seemingly used by those unwilling to take advantage of the shift in how books are delivered and who have a vested interest in the status-quo. I respect Mr. Hall’s output but I’ve never been a fan of his work. He’s a “quality” writer, but he’s never grabbed my interest as a “storyteller”.

  14. An agent I follow offered codes some months back to 3 represented authors that were publishing through smashwords. Two were books published in the 90’s and one was a new book. Since they were free I downloaded them. I read no more than 2 or 3 pages of each and promptly deleted them. I’d assumed this successful agent wouldn’t recommend dreck.
    My daughter’s teacher started a book club using for her first book a self-published book and even invited the local author to visit. My poor daughter suffered through that book. (At 9 yo she was reading at college level and writes better high school papers than most college students.)She told me all about the usual complaints I’ve found in self-published books.

  15. As dismal my experience has been with reading most self-published books has been I don’t think the wave of junk will wash away the good stuff. Sure more junk might get sold but there will be a market for quality and now it might be easier and faster to find it.

  16. Validation? Three times in fifteen years my agent refused to send out the novel that an Amazon reader wrote: “I bought this on Kindle, and was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. I say this because it was super cheap, and sometimes that equates to being worth what you paid for it. Not this time. A combination of Murder on the Orient Express, the best episode of magnum P.I., and a good dime store detective novel, Murder in Waikiki was a pleasant read that had me guessing much later into the book than I thought. I will definitely try one of the author’s other books.” Nuts to New York.

  17. I tried to think of what the new e-book sales model would be for a writer with no previous platform, who goes from unknown to selling a lot of books. Might go like this:
    1. Writer writes a high-quality, information-intensive book, edits, gets good cover, formats, up-loads e-book to Amazon: it’s a noir mystery, set in Hollywood, during the 1950’s, involving Elizabeth Taylor, God rest her soul
    2. Book buyer has such a book in mind, goes to Amazon, clicks on fiction, clicks on mystery, clicks on noir: search produces list of 6,000 books
    3. Book buyer refines search: types in “set in Hollywood”: search narrows to 1,200 books. Types in “1950’s”: search narrows to 87 books. Types in “Elizabeth Taylor”: search narrows to a list of 17 books, one of them our e-book writer
    4. Book buyer types in “only list those with an A-rating”: search narrows to 7 books. Second rating category is “stars: 1 to 5”: so book buyer types in “list only the A-5 Star books”: list narrows to 4 books. Now book buyer reads the reviews, selects 3 candidate books. Book buyer browses books and selects our e-book writer
    5. Buyer reads book and loves it, goes to Amazon and gives it an “A-5star” rating
    6. Amazon has a facility whereby it shows lists of the top-rated books in any category the reader wants to search by. The unknown writer’s book shows up on this list. The book is so good it continues to garner more “A-5star” ratings. It rises higher in the list: the cream rises to the top, more and more sales occur due to the favourable ratings and the high quality of the book
    7. The writer reaches more readers, makes more money, and does it much easier than with the print publishing model
    Then, of course, there is blogging about the book, which helps spread the word. The search engine is what turns the tide in favor of good writers (along with their great book) and it is much more effective than somebody wandering around a bookstore looking for a good read, I believe

  18. How much marketing can one do with an ebook? You can’t have a signing at a store. You can do a blog tour, but hell, everyone online does that every day. The biggest problem for a writer is still composing something that’s publishable and entertaining for readers. Do that and the door opens. With ebooks the author will never know.

  19. “For a long time publishing companies were headed by editors and their input was what was most important. “
    I have to throw a flag on that statement and call “foul.” Editorial has always been a function of sales. In editorial you have to make the book great so that it equates to either a) sales or b) awards (which will eventually lead to sales just like Oscar nominated films).
    Cover art, marketing and distribution have always been major concerns. We wouldn’t have paperback books without distribution concerns. Which brings to mind many of the things people are saying about ebooks today, are the very arguments people had over paperbacks back in the day.
    Penguin Books wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the fact that in 1934 they went out and licensed books for really cheap paperback printing. Publishers and booksellers couldn’t understand how they were supposed to make a profit on a sixpence book, when they couldn’t make a profit on a higher priced hardback book. Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin knew if you had good writers, good design and good value (price) you would succeed.
    The same thing applies to ebooks.

  20. There’s a LOT of marketing you can do online.
    Just off the top of my head (caveat – I do this professionally, in film rather than books):
    – Press releases.
    – Connect to journalists personally and pitch the book at them (generally best to start months before)
    – Develop a presence in forums and blog comments relevant to your book (in the murder mystery example above, Elizabeth Taylor fan sites, Hollywood history and fan sites, noir sites)
    – Social Media. Yes, it’s overplayed. Yes, it works.
    – Ads. Only ineffective if your cost to convert is more than the cost of the book.
    – Blog. A great blog post can drive tens or hundreds of thousands of potential buyers. (Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow do this rather well, for example).
    – Produce a “book trailer” and promote it on video sites (worked well for Tim Ferriss recently).
    – Collate testimonials and reviews of your book and use them as social proof.
    – Guest post on relevant high-traffic blogs.
    – Comment on related news interest items. Attract the attention of news outlets of all kinds this way.
    And I can go on…


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