Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pitchforks and Torches

by: Joelle Charbonneau

This week Amazon came under attack for a book that was self-published under their on-line publishing program. If you're on twitter or Facebook, you've probably heard about it. People clamored for Amazon to remove the book because of the content. I’m not one for banning books. I think that's a slippery slope whose navigation causes more damage than good. However, in this instance, even I was ready to get out a pitchfork and torch. I didn’t think I would ever go there, but I learned that a how-to pedophilia guide will cause that kind of reaction. Go fig.

Since the bru-ha-ha began, the book has been removed from Amazon, but not before a brave reviewer decided to read and post her thoughts on the book. Her review is a thoughtful attempt at objectivity about a book whose subject is inflammatory and unsettling. I applaud her ability to do so and thank her for reading the book to help me better form my own opinion.

However, after reading the review, I realized that this book is a symptom of a bigger problem. Everyone in the publishing universe is talking about the rise of e-books and how they are the wave of the future. I don’t dispute this – although you will probably have to pry paper books out of my cold, dead hands before I switch to reading on a screen. I like paper. I can’t help it. Still, this book, despite its horrific content shows why self-published e-books have a long way to go. Amazon allows anyone to upload their books onto the site and publish them. That sounds great in theory. No need to be rejected by publishers or agents and no need to share the profits. Type THE END on your book, format the sucker and get it out there so the reading public can discover you.


Or not.

The thing is, too many books, like the one called into question this week, are not ready to be published. In traditional publishing, the editors and agents act as screeners. They do their best to ensure a book has correct spelling and a readable sentence structure. Are mediocre or bad books published despite these gatekeepers’ best efforts? You betcha. But someone has done their upmost to make sure the book is professionally produced no matter what the content.

That isn’t the case on Amazon. Yes, an author can hire a freelance editor to go over their work before publishing, but how many of them do? I’ve looked at a number of excerpts and free reads that have been self-published. Some are interesting and well-crafted. Unfortunately, at least half of the ones I have seen, like this week’s How-To Guide, have terrible spelling and grammar. A new author is going to have not only a harder time getting noticed amongst the large quantities of books on Amazon, these poorly crafted and nearly unedited books are going to make it harder for the electronic book reader to take a risk on a new author.

The NY Times this week announced that starting next year they will begin publishing an e-book best seller list. What do you want to bet the same names who appear on the Hardcover or Paperback lists will appear on the e-book list? In this economic climate, readers are being careful with their money. If they have tried an Amazon self-published book with poor spelling or grammar, how likely do you think they will be to try another one? I’m betting they won’t unless given a darn good reason.

So I guess what I am saying is that I’m not a believer of the Amazon model – yet. (Yeah – I’m betting a bunch of folks are going to get out their pitchfork and torches and come after me now. That’s okay. I have my sneakers on and can run fast.) The lack of gatekeepers means more authors can be “published” but until the reading public can trust the quality of those books, the ones who will really be cashing in are the authors who are part of the traditionally publishing model.

What do you think? Do you think a new author has a chance to be noticed in the glut of books listed on Amazon and if yes – how do they get noticed? Do you plunk down your money on unknown authors (and not ones you’ve met on twitter or Facebook – but true unknowns)? If so, why?


Jay Stringer said...

You raise interesting issues.

I'm generally against self publishing for the same same reasonss you've outlined. I COULD have pushed my own novel out into the world the minute i finished the first draft. But then nobody would ever want to read book 2.

It could well be that we're assuming the worst of writers discipline- there are just as many of us who know we need editing and proof reading as there are writers who just want to get out there. But i can't shake my issues with the whole thing.

We don't really know what form the ebook age will take, because we're still too early. But publishers, agents and editors will still be an important part of it.

As for the final questions -bestseller lists and people buying new authors- i don't think ebooks will change any patterns there.

Back when i was a bookseller i tended to find that people were reluctant to try new authors in favour of a returning favourite. It seemed that there was some extent to which readers wanted to know a writer had three or four books on the shelf before they would dive in.

Ian Rankin is still a strange example of this. He's by far the best selling UK crime writer, however (again back when i was in bookselling) his publishers were always trying to find ways to get people to go back and buy his first few titles.

Which might not sound the most positive news for those of us just starting out, but to me it just suggests that it doesn't really matter how the publishing model changes, the readers will stay the same.

Dana King said...

No, I wouldn't by a book by someone I knew absolutely nothing about. There are too many books to read in one lifetime as it is; I have no time to waste on a pig in a poke.

I also think this glut of questionable books appearing online makes it a lot harder for newcomers of merit to get a hearing. There's just too much noise.

That being said, I don't see where we can do anything about it. I think a writer who's serious about the business is foolish to push a book out on his own like this, but I don't see where I get off telling him he shouldn't be allowed to do it. The price of freedom is often messy.

John Gilstrap provoked a spirited discussion on this topic on The Kill Zone the other day, also worrying about the banning of books. here's what I wrote there:

To say a book has been "banned," is to imply an official edict. This book has not been banned; it, and it's sellers, have been boycotted. This is a perfectly reasonable means of expressing dissatisfaction. I consciously avoid gas stations of oil companies that buy Middle Eastern oil.

This is an example of people making a personal decision not to buy the book, and to let the sellers know they won't buy anything else from them. The sellers than have their own choice. They clearly don;t believe strongly enough in the importance of the book to face down the economic consequences.

Not all books reach audiences, for a variety of reasons. This is just one more. It hasn't been banned.

The full discussion can be found at

John McFetridge said...

As usual, Homer Simpson said it best, "Democracy just doesn't work."

Seriously the whole idea of gatekeepers in every aspect of our lives may be the big issue of the 21st century.

KD Sarge said...

On 12/1/10, I will be a self-published author as my book Knight Errant becomes available. I can assure you I am very serious about my writing.

I think the "will customers risk money on unknowns?" issue is met by the wonders of previews. Amazon allows a customer to read the first chapter of a Kindle book before buying. PubIt (Barnes & Noble), allows previews as well. I've also placed the first three chapters online, free for anyone to read.

I've priced it reasonably for an unknown, as well--if you like the first three chapters, you can risk a whopping $3 to see if you like the rest.

I tried the traditional publishing route. One highly-respected agent kept my work for a year before deciding that she couldn't sell it so she wouldn't take me on.

This novel is space opera with a gay not-white main character, but it's not an issue book. "Hard to sell" is what I get for writing an out-of-the-box book that's good, but not utterly brilliant. I still think there's a readership for it, and now I'm poised to prove it.

The fact that I get to take the chance, that I don't have to sell the child on eBay and take out a mortgage on my cats to finance a print-run and then rely on reaching enough people by direct-mailing or some such--ah, that chance is precious indeed.

Mike Dennis said...

As Dana mentioned, John Gilstrap's post on this topic the other day brought out an array of responses, some of which felt the pedophile book had no place in our society.

I would submit that every book has a place in our society, because we live in the free marketplace of ideas. We should all be thankful that we live in a society where such material CAN be sold.

Once you bring the hammer down on pedophile books, what's next? Serial killer novels? There was already some hushed talk last year saying that "something should be done" about them because their victims are often helpless women.

You see where this is heading, right? Every victim group is going to want to ban certain books they find offensive, and pretty soon, once they're drunk with power, they'll be coming after you and me.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Jay - I agree that is is hard for a new author to get noticed even when he or she is traditionally published. It takes time for readers to discover a new author, which makes publishing a challenge no matter which method of publishing one chooses.

Dana - good point. This book was not banned in any traditional sense of the word, which is a good thing.

John - yep! I think the gatekeepers issue will be huge in the 21st century. Should be interesting.

KD - I am not against authors taking advantage of the new electronic models to get published. There are some great manuscript that fall in between genres that would never see the light of day if they weren't published in this manner. An if an author is very serious, such as you, about their writing - they will take the time and effort to make sure the work is the best quality it can be before putting it before the reader. Sadly, not everyone understands that part.

Mike - I believe that all books have a place in society, but I also believe that all books that are written aren't meant to be published. If an author isn't willing to make sure the book is spellchecked, I argue that perhaps the book shouldn't be aligned with other works that were treated by their authors with more care. I can't tell if I'm wrong in that, but it is how I feel.

Mike Dennis said...

Joelle--On the issue of poorly-edited books, most normal publishers wouldn't dare release them. Regarding self-published poorly-edited books, I don't like seeing them either. They're an eyesore and a blight on our industry. However, I firmly believe they have a right to be there, because the marketplace will take care of them in a proper fashion.

Even though the market is opening wide now, and the publisher-screeners are fading somewhat, those badly-written and poorly-edited books will get what they deserve in the marketplace, the same as the pedophile book will get what it deserves.

As long as someone has a printing press and is willing to rent it out to someone else, (or as long as someone has an ebook website that is willing to allow anything to be published on it) there will always be self-publishing and therefore there will always be atrocious books that get published.

And there will always be the final (and ONLY) deciders, the readers, who will render justice.