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Crime and Publishment

Opinion | October 10, 2011

Meet Amanda Hocking. A 26-year-old assisted living worker from Minnesota, Amanda wanted to be a writer. Correction: a published writer. And so, fed up with hopelessly blind submissions, too-choosy editors, and impersonal rejections, Amanda self-published her three paranormal-romance-thriller books—delicious mash-ups of vampires, zombies, and utopian fantasy—as e-books online. By March 2011, she racked up two million dollars in sales. She sold 45,000 books in the month of January alone. All thanks to this explosive self-publishing craze, small-town Amanda Hocking is now a millionaire.

Amanda isn’t the only author dominating the digital e-book realm. Amazon’s Kindle store has become an increasingly enticing hotspot for writers who just couldn’t master the tricky world of print. As self-publishing services like CreateSpace, AuthorHouse, and Publish America continue to proliferate the Web, more writers are abandoning the old-fashioned route for the satisfying guarantee that their work will reach the public eye. Last year, CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon Kindle, topped the field with 34,000 self-published titles. According to a recent press release by Publisher’s Lunch, “non-traditional” books—that is, web-based self-published works and public domain reprints—ballooned to a staggering 2.776 million.

Not all writers are striking it rich. In efforts to entice readers and beat out savvy online competitors, self-publishing newbies must sell their e-books at extremely low prices, sometimes as low as 99 cents. The eager-to-be-published often find that the only way to sell books is to, essentially, give them away.

And this makes all too much sense. Without that vibrant connection to a reputable publishing house, complete with an in-the-know publishing team to do the dirty work for you, it’s significantly harder to produce a book of the same market value, let alone quality. Editors commit at least two years toward polishing content and nourishing a story’s literary genius. Today’s best-sellers and most critically acclaimed would be nowhere without the laborious, ever-continuous process of editorializing, producing, marketing, and selling. And there are the copyeditors, the often-undervalued masters of Chicago Style who strain their eyes scouring out spelling mistakes and reinforcing the basic rules of grammar. The process is meticulous, tiresome, and at times painfully slow. Like it or not, it works.

But it’s not all about the big bucks. Oftentimes it’s that strong, self-fulfilling desire to just write and be published—to see your heart-and-soul of a story somewhere other than your musty desk drawer—that drives writers to don the hats of editor, marketer, and distributor. According to The New York Times, a whopping 81 percent of people, or 200 million people, “feel they have a book in them and should write it”. This colossal pool includes its fair share of hidden literary gems. It also includes the inexperienced, the untalented, and the literary-clueless.

But what’s so mind-blowing isn’t the amount of people who aspire to write, but the numbers who sit in front of their computer screens and actually do it. This past summer, I worked as an editorial intern at the New York-based literacy agency Curtis Brown, where I witnessed this baffling trend first hand. Every morning, I gawked, bleary-eyed, at the mountains of query letters that took my inbox by storm, each promising to hit the top-seller list as Twilight numero dos. One of my jobs was to parse through the overflowing “slush pile”, the editors’ name for the heaps of manuscripts flooding their desk drawers, and alert my boss if anything had a hint of potential.  I also had the dream-crushing task of rejecting the overwhelming numbers that—as so eloquently put by the agency’s form rejection letters—“just weren’t strong enough to succeed in today’s book market quite yet.”

And so, disenchanted by the exasperating process of being repeatedly rejected by can’t-be-bothered agents (and their interns), many writers decide the hell with it. At the office, I heard many stories of writers popping up on social media platforms to tout the slick e-book versions of their once-rejected work.  In fact, social media sites have also become outlets of literary connection, fostering quasi-communities of writers who, realizing its not always wise to be back-stabbing competitors, offer each other mutual support. It’s common for authors to exchange marketing and promotion tips, and even write glowing online reviews of another’s literary handiwork. Glaringly absent from these discussions is any talk about the traditional concerns of publishing. That is, the actual content of these books.

This is not to say that there are no e-books written by talented literary hopefuls, whose catchy voices we’re thrilled to absorb on our fancy online devices. There are those whose roadblock to literary stardom isn’t quite their talent, but the struggling state of today’s industry. But there are also the notorious spammers, the ones who are eager to make a quick buck out of this anything goes book culture. These wise-guys simply steal snippets of text from various websites and mold them into quickie e-books, sometimes crafting as many as 10-20 books a day. And we often can’t help but fall for it.

This self-publishing craze has evolved from trend into threat, posing problems for the stability and health of today’s publishing world. By assuming full responsibility for their latest work, self-starter writers entirely eliminate the traditional roles held by the literary gatekeepers, the ones we rely upon to publish the good and the worthy, to reject the silly and just plain bad. As someone considering this shaky publishing industry myself, I’m not just touting these hard-working publishers for selfish reasons. Simply speaking, what they do is important. The editorializing, the copy-editing, the promotional efforts, and the all-too-necessary selection process—it’s there for a reason. It’s there to assure that we as readers can choose a book and know it will be real and poignant and grammatically correct and simply worth our precious spare time. It’s only when unedited, anything-goes literature starts to infiltrate our digital libraries that we  realize how important the gatekeepers really are.

When we scour through a bookstore, we have the reassuring feeling that, personal tastes aside, everything there has been published for a reason. The world of e-books is much trickier; with open, outstretched arms, it welcomes the crazy and fanatical, the dry and the insipid, the disorganized and the focus-less. Without that diligent weed-out system, the few online gems become buried underneath the teeming swarms of  “literature” that—for a good, concrete reason—editors just didn’t want to publish. Without the promise of good literature, it won’t just be the editors sifting through piles of slush; as today’s e-book readers and consumers, it’ll also be us.