Yesterday, while mowing my lawn, I fell into an argument with myself about the notion of self-published authors flooding the market with poor quality novels. I often talk to myself when I'm alone, and, yes, sometimes it leads to an argument.
Four hours on a riding mower can make the voices inside my head a bit combative. We had quite a discussion, me and myself, and came to a conclusion. But first, the argument:
In full disclosure (and because it's a great opportunity for a plug), I self-published my novel, The Night Train this past February on Amazon. In April I published the print version with Amazon's CreateSpace. Last week I published the Nook version on Barnes and Noble.
Until recently, an author who self-published was labeled "vain" (hence the name, vanity press, for the companies which catered to them). An author basically paid these small press companies to print their books. It was expensive and frowned upon by the writing community in general. But Amazon changed that.
The story of Amazon, and what it has done for (or to, depending upon whom you ask) the publishing industry has been talked to death, so I won't repeat the repeats. If you don't know the story then you probably landed on this blog by accident.
The lawn mower argument basically confined itself to the theory that Amazon's kicking down the gate has flooded the market with sub-quality books. That argument contends that readers have been done a disservice because they are forced to wade through poorly-written, unedited, typo-riddled books uploaded by unprofessional authors. The flip side points out that the cream will rise to the top. Shoppers on Amazon are presented with the top-selling/top-rated books first. Getting inside Amazon's Top 100 is no easy task. You won't get there and stay there with a book that is not appealing to readers. No one goes to Amazon, clicks a book category, then jumps to page 1000 to browse for books. That's like going to Barnes and Noble, walking past the front shelves, past the bargain counters, and asking if it's okay for you to dig through the garbage bin out back of the store. No one does that.
I can't tell you how many times I've walked into our local bookstores and left with nothing. Rarely did I find anything in the New Releases section, or even among the top sellers. I began to think I was so out of touch with literary trends that I might as well give up reading. Or, I told myself, I can WRITE the kind of books I wanted to find on the shelves but couldn't. Surely I'm not the only reader who doesn't care for zombies and vampires.
The Big Six know what readers are buying, my anti-self-pub side screamed. Yes, but they also control what readers CAN buy. The big publishing houses certainly have tons of sales data. No telling how many people they employ to analyze that data to mine out the trends. Then, as good business people will do, they accept authors who write to those trends. All others need not apply. Write to that model or continue to tack that damnedable adjective aspiring in front of author. So, one could contend, readers and writers were trapped in a circular game of reading/writing what sells because they are only offered what has sold in the past.
My more intelligent side (I say intelligent because I agree with it) thought of an analogy: Amazon set up the equivalent of a book flea market. Flea markets are very popular in the South. Not sure about other areas, so if you don't know what they are let me offer a brief explanation: flea markets allow individuals to rent a space, set up a table, and sell whatever their heart desires (within the confines of the law). No one vets the merchandize except the seller and the buyer. You can set up a table and offer dirt clods for sell if you want. No one is required to buy it and no one is prevented from selling it.
The argument could certainly be made that flea markets do a disservice to consumers because so much of the stuff for sale is useless junk. Potential buyers may pass a hundred tables of junk before they find something of value. On the flip side, a potential buyer may have been looking for that junk on a table everyone else is passing by with a shake of the head (who'd buy that crap?). Certainly the big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target know what people are buying. They track sales. If it was of value to consumers, wouldn't they be the ones to know? Wouldn't they offer it in their stores?
It's the same argument with books. Yes, flea markets invite kooks with junk to sell, but consumers flock to these venues and spend money. People like variety. Consumers like searching for that oddity they can't find in the big box stores. Can readers be that much less capable of deciding what to buy and what to pass up?
Amazon allows readers to download free samples of books, or read free samples straight from the website, just like when you browse a bookstore. Barnes and Noble allows you to read the entire e-book from their website, or on your Nook if you are within reach of a store's WiFi. Readers are intelligent. They are capable of deciding what interests them.
The lawn is mowed now. I am at peace with myself once again. There are some very good writers out there who self-publish. One book that comes to mind is Since Tomorrow, by Morgan Nyberg. It's an excellent read, and he published it without permission from any gatekeeper. Author Suzan Tisdale gave us Laiden's Daughter, and not once did she have to check with a corporate decision maker to predict sales. She wrote the book from her heart and, guess what? It sold. It sold well. Suzan will soon release book two in her historical romance series, and I'd bet she would tell you her readers are not the least bit inferior to those who purchased works from authors represented by traditional publishers.
But what about the notion that self-published authors can't possibly produce the kind of works put out by the likes of Hemingway, Hugo, Dickens, and Tolstoy, to name a few? Surely it takes a collaboration of author, editor, and publisher to crank out real literature. Don't tell that to Mark Beyer, author of The Village Wit. I'm five chapters into The Village Wit at the moment and I would stand it beside any work of classic literature on my shelf. Mark is an artist. He paints his masterpiece with words and sentences instead of colors and brush strokes. Perhaps Mark didn't get the memo that he's not supposed to be able to do that on his own.
There are many more examples, and I don't mean to leave anyone out. Take Andrew E. Kaufman, for example and the shock waves his success has sent through the publishing world. Andrew's dream-come-true story should inspire all of us to reach deeper and work harder. Success is possible, even for the self-published writers who, like me, just want the opportunity to write what we want and offer it to the reading public.
Ashley Barron, author of Ava, understands self-publishing perhaps more than anyone I know. Her blog is a wealth of information for writers, both established and up-and-coming. Is Ashley hurting readers with her in-depth discussions on writing, publishing, and marketing?
I don't mean to sound smug. I'm not opposed to traditional publishers. I don't want them to fail. It breaks my heart to see brick and mortar bookstores closing. There's room for all of us. Keep the big box publishers and the services they provide, but leave me the flea market. I like to read, too.