Hear me out. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now.
It’s just that I occasionally run into bits of news about writer’s rights when it comes to publishing (modern and traditional) AND news about readers being relatively unhappy with independently-published books. On one end, we have a discussion over empowering writers. On the other end, we have a discussion over people expecting to get paid for really crappy work.
I know there’s a middle ground somewhere; I think Wattpad is a great place to find great work for free AND get feedback for your writing (so you’d know if people would be willing to pay for your stories). But it seems that I persistently find places where the debate over publishing pits readers and writers against each other, even if the readers ARE the the writers and vice versa. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with the fact that we’re on the Internet where everyone has a voice (and, as my Dad says, everyone gets the license to whine about everything), or if it’s simply because self-publishing and ebooks just made book creation and consumption much easier.
All I know is that there are disagreements over this out there, and that I’m pretty sure everyone is at fault.
With regards to the writers
Again, one of the complaints people have over the new world order is that so much crap is being produced out there. Before you say anything, I’d like to point out that you don’t find these feces-laden work exclusively in self-publishing–traditional publishing has its ridiculous share of this stuff (which, incidentally are better promoted and are therefore passed off as exceptionally good). In fact, there are really good indie books; but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the crap.
In the case of “new” publishing, I suspect that the proliferation of crap is primarily due to the fact that it is “sold” to aspiring authors as “easy and affordable”. You don’t have to deal with jerkwads who will try to cheat you out of your hard-earned money. Yay, right? Unfortunately, many writers have taken this to mean that they can now get away with not investing as much money into their work–that is to say, a good chunk of them don’t even bother with professional editors, book designers, and the like. They just throw that thing out there and expect to earn lots of dollars for it or something, even if it’s likely that no one would want to read that thing FOR FREE. I think some of them even resent the fact that “people cannot appreciate their artistic vision”, which was probably born out of a gross misunderstanding of the advice “just write!” (I’ve come across some writers who completely ignore the “THEN polish!” bit).
Meanwhile, bad writers are also getting picked up by traditional publishers–possibly in a desperate and misguided bid to compete with the apparent success of self-publishing. I suspect that in their rush to publish all the things so they can capitalize on/discover the hottest trend in books, they also basically forgot the value of quality control. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I’m seeing more gag-worthy printed by big name publishers right now. This is horribly depressing, if you consider the fact that many writers out there expect the publishers to polish their work for them. It used to be a fair assumption, especially when you apply it to well-known publishing companies. But these days, it doesn’t seem to be a guarantee. Couple this with publishers opting to pay more for concept rather than actual talent and craft (thus making many writers focus solely on concept), and we end up in a horrible state of affairs.
With regards to the readers
This is not to say that readers have not had a hand in this. While readers like myself DO complain over the lack of quality, I can’t deny the fact that a cool concept does tend to bowl people over – I sometimes buy a book because I like its premise; although it occasionally results in my disappointment because the hook’s significance in the storytelling turns out to be superficial at best.
Allow me to use non-book examples here. If you look at the geek community–which seems to have grown significantly over the last few years–you will see just how easy it is to get excited over certain ideas. At the San Diego Comic-Con, a huge contingent erupted into cheers when it was revealed that the second Superman/Man of Steel movie will have Batman and that it will take inspiration from the Dark Knight comics series. Yay! Batman vs. Superman! This sounds SO AWESOME! Of course, there is no actual guarantee that this WILL be as awesome as we think it is–as optimistic as many of us are over this, we also can’t deny the fact that this could turn out to be a big, big, mess that will turn us against the very people who are trying to give us what we want: something really, REALLY cool. The problem is that we never really explain to them properly that the “cool factor” only works if you put it in the right kind of context. We just tell them (through our Internet fangasming) that so-and-so scene is legendary and should be included in the movie version or something.
As such, I think readers mislead a lot of people–including themselves–into thinking that the new concept is everything they need; sometimes, they completely forget that the concept itself only worked because of skillful execution on the part of the people who worked on the piece. Readers, especially fannish readers (and we have to admit that we are legion these days), often fail to articulate that they need more than an interesting premise for the book–they need a seamless reading experience that they find difficult to get out of. This means no misspellings, no confusing sentences, no plot inconsistencies that will niggle at their brains for the rest of the story (or make them stop reading altogether. As a case in point: The Dresden Files has an excellent concept AND its storytelling was phenomenal. There are cool bits, and they are cool because they are assimilated in the plot. Why is it so hard to do?
There is hope
Thankfully, there are writers out there who insist on making sure that anything they plan to publish is good before they actually publish them. There are also readers out there who take the time to explain in detail why an awesome moment works in one story, but doesn’t work in another (I wish I can do that, but I can barely even remember to eat lunch sometimes). There are people who decide to take on that kind of responsibility, and I have to admire them.
But they can’t do this alone. Fellow writers, we have to remember that we’re creating these things so they will be read–and we have to make sure that the reading experience is not painful for readers. Fellow readers, this hype-complain-hype cycle is helping NO ONE. We have to stop being so reactive and start really thinking about why we like the stories we like and help storytellers become better writers. We can help each other, I know we can! At the end of the day, we all love great stories; shouldn’t we try to make it work together?