Thursday, 29 September 2011

Why publishers have shot themselves in the foot by selling their souls to 'Sleb Culture'

For many years I have been a member of an online reviewing forum. You know the sort of thing, authors upload chapters for other authors to read and review etc. Within days of joining and being bombarded with countless Harry Potter and Twilight imitations, I suddenly had the utmost sympathy for publishers and literary agents. To be faced, day in, day out with people hoping to make millions by becoming the next JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyer (even though the originals are both young, healthy and have at least another 40 years of writing in them), must be a soul destroying prospect. I have actually found the site quite useful in that often you need a stranger's eye cast upon your work for you to realise where you're going wrong, and the changes they suggest do enhance your story. But there are a small minority who refuse to accept that they need help with punctuation, spelling, grammar, structuring etc etc and when criticism is given, will deliberately seek out your story and write a scathing, free-will review, just to be spiteful.

Imagine being a publisher or agent and having to deal with people like this day in day out. I rather imagine these people to be like those X-Factor contestants who clearly can't sing, but when told by the judges they're never going to make it, start waggling their finger, giving it attitude and telling them that their family love to hear them sing. Yes, your family, who love you and think it's amazing you can belt out Hero when you've had a few; or you've managed to string a few words together and write a story that sort of makes sense. I would hate to have to be the one to break the bad news to people like this and I guess it is people like these who have caused agents to create a 'slush pile' that barely gets looked at.

I have no problem with agents. They do a worthwhile job, and there is no doubt, without one on board it is really hard to get the support you need to make it as an author. Putting your book on Kindle and hoping the world spots it and you become a millionaire is all well and good, but the hard reality is that you need promotion and unless you're very wealthy, most of us indies cannot afford that and are reliant on social media to spread the word. My problem is with publishers, and now they're whinging that things like Kindle and sites like Smashwords are taking away their bread and butter, and look set to 'ruin publishing forever'. Well, I have no sympathy for them whatsoever.

Years ago, when I first ventured forth with a (very badly written) novel, thinking it would be published, I had the option to either send it to an agent or to one of the many publishers who still considered unsolicited manuscripts. Quite rightly I got turned down, shoved my MS away and got on with things like going to University and getting a job. Ten years later I tried once more (novel slightly better written),and was astounded to discover that the mainstream publishers are now only accepting manuscripts from agents. Of course, I can see their point. They were trying to save money and to employ someone to go through the slush pile would cost a lot (although some might say an undergraduate on work experience would know if a book was readable or not), so it's easier to use the services of an agent to weed out the wheat from the chaff.

All fine and dandy, but then suddenly, in came the celebrities. In the UK, all starting off with Katie Price and her ghost-written novels, closely followed by Kerry Katona. Now joined by Martine McCutcheon, Colleen Nolan, Sharon Osbourne, Fern Britton, Penny Smith etc. Whilst the last five have all penned their novels themselves, I have personally known people to read novels by them and remark upon how badly written they are. (Don't believe me, check out the 2 and 3 star reviews for McCutcheon and Smith on amazon). Novels have become part of a brand, like perfume, calendars and clothing; and publishers - tempted by the lure of filthy lucre - have bought right into it.

All this would be fine, if the money raised by people inexplicably buying books by said celebrities, was then ploughed into nurturing new talent. The royalties from one Katie Price novel would pay for two graduates to sit sifting through a slush pile. But no, the doors are still closed to new writers and agents are so overwhelmed without Rowling and Meyer copycats that they too have no choice but to become over-choosy, often only picking novels that have been professionally edited to read in their entirety. Now publishers are sticking out their bottom lips and sulking because people have taken matters into their own hands and joined the Kindle revolution. Unfortunately, the X-Factor types are out there, publishing books that quite rightly should never see the light of day. But if someone has paid 99p for said novel, they won't feel so bad about just deleting it from their Kindle. How many of us have got iPhones or an iPod Touch and downloaded loads of free or cheap apps with the attitude that if they're crap we'll just get rid of them and won't have lost much? When I set up my reviewing website, I received self-published books that were so well-written, so engaging - and yes, edited perfectly, that it was a travesty that a publisher overlooked them in favour of some vacuous wannabe off the telly.

No doubt over the coming years, publishers will pull themselves out of their current mire and create some sort ofstranglehold on the industry, which prevents indie authors from publishing on Kindle and Smashwords. But I suggest when this does happen, they use it to publish decent quality fiction, not just celebrity tittle tattle aimed at selling units and nothing else.

I know, in writing this, I've probably jeopardised any chance I ever had of getting a mainstream deal, and I'll be accused of snobbery. After all, a friend once said to me that regardless whether or not Katie Price writes her books, it gets young girls who might not normally pick up a book, to start reading. This is of course true, andgood luck to the celebrities who are stretching out their fifteen minutes by trying to become authors. But proper writing is a long-honed craft whichmany people start in childhood and don't properly perfect until middle-age.It is also worrying that, if they were alive today, Jane Austen would need to get her tits out on Big Brother to be able to sell a few copies of Pride and Prejudice, and Emily Bronte would probably have to expose her inner torment on the Jeremy Kyle Show before a publisher would even deign to look at Wuthering Heights.

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