I know I’ve been talking a lot about the self-publishing revolution on the blog lately, but it really seems to be the hot topic in writer circles and I think it OUGHT to be one in reader circles as well. Why should READERS care?
The answer is that readers should care MORE than authors because they are being saddled with the role of gatekeeper. And that means, like the gatekeepers of old (agents and editors), they are probably going to wind up reading a lot of crap to find the gems. Readers/consumers will be slogging through the slush pile in place of the agents and editors, and although I’ve never been an agent or an acquiring editor, I’d done enough copy editing and read enough unpublished contest entries to have a sense of just how unpleasant that can be.
Now, I suspect many readers will say that they are discerning enough that they won’t actually buy books that are poorly written, poorly edited, or just plain not ready for prime time. I’ve certainly heard many authors who advocate self-publishing say that with sampling on Kindle/Nook, no reader should ever wind up paying for a book that has serious mechanical errors (unless, of course, the author manages to edit them out of the sample and forgets to fix the remainder of the book). Moreover, there’s a belief that the market will “punish” authors who can’t get it right–even if they sell a lot of copies, word-of-mouth and poor ratings on Amazon/B&N will quickly tank their numbers.
I hate to pick on anyone in particular, but yesterday, I learned on the Kindle boards about a book that is currently riding in the 2-3k range overall on Amazon and in the 20s-30s on the bestsellers in the Books | Regency list. It is a historical romance priced at $3.99 (although the cover looks more like erotica than historical). The cover copy is poorly written (and all in past-tense, which for me is like nails on a chalkboard) and the sample begins with one of the most egregious examples of a dangling participial phrase I’ve ever read. It doesn’t get any better after that. Although there probably were a few sentences in the first few pages that were grammatically correct and appropriately punctuated, it was only because they were too short for the author to get anything wrong. And let’s not even get into the story itself. This isn’t an Amanda Hocking style book, with occasional editing issues but a great story that overcomes its minor mechanical flaws. This is a train wreck from the first sentence on.
In short, this book was clearly never even looked at by a copy editor (even one of the most minimal competence) and if the author had any critique partners, I suspect none of them was over the age of 10 (my 9yo has a better grasp of sentence structure and punctuation, for heaven’s sake!).
And yet…this book is selling very well. Getting into the top 2-3k overall on Amazon is no mean feat. Hitting the top 100 on the Books | Regency list is tough, too. I know from my own self-published short story that being in the low thousands in the rankings means you are selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 copies per day. (I was in the 7-8ks when I was selling 10-12 per day, so I’m extrapolating.) How on EARTH is this possible?
The answer is…I have no answer. It’s not as if I’ve seen any promo ANYWHERE for this particular book. No reviews on blogs, no ads, no buzz on Twitter/Facebook. I’d never even have known it existed if it hadn’t come up on the Kindle boards. It doesn’t have one of those low, low prices that entices impulse buys. The cover and title might be enticing some people to buy on the belief that it’s erotica, but even then–wouldn’t they SAMPLE it, discover what a horror show it is, and choose to spend their $3.99 on four 99-cent erotica titles that had actually SEEN an editor (there are PLENTY of them)? Perhaps they are lulled into a false sense of security by the reviews (12 overall, 2 1-star and 10 5-star) and the fact that it’s on a bestseller list, but if I’d spent that much money on this garbage, I’d go back and write a scathing review rather than letting other people fall into the same trap I did. But my greatest fear, honestly, is that many of the people who are buying this book don’t even REALIZE it’s bad. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but given the gross grammatical errors in most emails I get from my (intelligent and mostly well-educated) coworkers, I’m not sure I can discount the possibility.
By the way, I’m not going to name the book here, not to avoid hurting feelings but because it’s kind of irrelevant to the point I’m making. The fact is, this is ONE self-published book that’s selling well on Amazon despite being poorly written/edited but I’d bet there are dozens more that would make just as salient an example of my premise.
And that premise is–the market doesn’t ALWAYS punish crap. It equally does not always reward diamonds. Many objectively BAD books will sell well, relatively speaking, while many truly wonderful books will labor in obscurity for reasons it is nearly impossible to fathom.
The free market is just that–free. And like any free entity, it makes mistakes.