A is for Arrogant

Recently I happened on an article in the online edition of Forbes magazine: “Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning in Indie Books – And That’s a Good Thing.” The author, David Vinjamuri, assesses the conflict between traditional and Indie publishing and predicts both will survive, even thrive. Vinjamuri begins by quoting two well-known authors who speak of Indies with smugness and disdain.

Brad Thor, a writer of techno-thrillers, declares that publishers “separate the wheat from the chaff” and that any “good writer with a great book . . . should be able to get a publishing contract.” I’ve never read this guy’s novels. Maybe he’s good. But I disagree that landing a contract with a big publishing house proves his or any writer’s excellence. I’ve encountered plenty of bad writing in novels issued by major presses.

Reading Tami Hoag’s Ashes to Ashes, I came upon an expository passage crudely borrowed from sources I recognized from my research into serial killers. It’s not plagiarized. Just partly digested and vomited onto the page. Okay, so Hoag was concentrating on plot and character development and left some crappy writing in the manuscript she sent off to her publisher. Where was her editor? Indie authors are exhorted to hire a professional editor lest their books seem amateurish. Let’s hope they find someone better than whoever applied the final coat of polish to Ashes to Ashes.

Maybe the editing was rushed to meet a publication schedule.

Bestselling authors are expected to write a book every year or so. Otherwise readers might abandon the brand and start reading some other author. Charlaine Harris, an author whose writing has given me delight, has been producing a Sookie Stackhouse book about every year. I’ve read all of them through Dead in the Family. Another has been published since then. Or maybe two. I’ve stopped caring. So have many fans, who find the plots lackluster and become frustrated by the lack of coherence in the story from one book to the next.

Harris’s publisher makes a lot of money from her novels. Maybe the people in charge figure her fans will buy them anyway, so there’s no longer any need for quality.

Commercial publishers are in business to make money. Nothing wrong with that. But the profit motive doesn’t necessarily foster literary excellence. Vinjamuri brings up the famous example of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, a novel rejected because Toole refused to make changes that an editor thought would render the novel more commercial. Later, Walker Percy championed the novel. It was published and won the Pulitzer Prize. Having the right connections helps. There are elements of luck and timing in literary success.

You wouldn’t know it, though, reading Sue Grafton’s sneers about Indie authors:

“I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall.”

Grafton pisses me off for a couple of reasons. First, she makes the broad generalization that every Indie author rushes to publish without mastering the craft of writing. Granted, much Indie writing is awful. But what is true of many (or even most) doesn’t hold for all. As in the process of commercial publication, cream rises. (So does shit, but that’s another story.)

Second, Grafton’s mystery novels aren’t “Carnegie Hall” material either. They’re the well-crafted products of a pedestrian imagination. I don’t want to offend Grafton’s many fans, but her work isn’t as wonderful as she seems to think. Sure, her books deserve to be published. They entertain many, many readers. But so do the novels of Indie authors like Morgan Hannah McDonald and Melissa Foster.

Read Vinjamuri’s article if you want evenhanded analysis of why Indie authors get dismissed while Indie filmmakers and musicians get respect, why the pricing practices of commercial publishers have created problems for them, and the ways publishing could change. As his title suggests, Vinjamuri finds reasons for optimism. It’s heartening to think there might be room for everyone.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Very interesting. I particularly agree that it’s perplexing how big publishers still start with hardcover and (sometimes) go to paperback after a certain amount of sales. Very few people buy hardcovers any more, and if they do, they do it through Amazon et al at a huge discount and so the publishers lose money anyway. He also makes a good point about why we value popular books: reading, despite the fact that it happens in solitude, is in fact a social activity. I had never quite thought of it that way, and I guess that makes me feel a little better when crappy books (such as a certain trilogy I won’t bother to name because it already has too damn much publicity) become best-sellers.


    1. Dreambeast7 says:

      I have to guess which trilogy? There are so many. Oh well, as long as it’s not The Lord of the Rings.


      1. Electron Woman says:

        Certainly not LOTR, which, while not to everyone’s taste, are genuinely well-crafted books. No, I was talking about a more recent trilogy whose title is something along the lines of “50 kinds of shit” or thereabouts.


      2. Dreambeast7 says:

        An example of the principle that shit rises to the top. Haven’t read those books . Seems like I might as well reread The Story of O. Laura Reese is pretty good if you like that kind of thing.


  2. Wren Doloro says:

    You make a really good point. I notice this decrease in quality happens with really big series too. Maybe a publisher makes more money if the later Harry Potter books are humongous. The third was the best. The 600 page book Shadow of Night, the sequel to A Discovery of Witches also needed a massive haircut.


    1. Dreambeast7 says:

      I think the price goes up for longer books, especially hardbacks. So publisher and author would earn a little more as long as fans stay committed.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      By the way I checked out your blog. Excellent reviews.



  3. Dan Hagen says:

    I agree. I read one of Grafton’s novels, and was amazed at what a snore it was. She needs to dismount that high horse and shovel away some of the dramatic excrement that litters her fiction.


    1. Dreambeast7 says:

      Damn! Wish I’d thought of that metaphor.


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