Several weeks ago, before the current bestselling novel, 50 Shades of Grey was out on the bookshelves, I remember following a lot of news about it among published authors. Blog posts abounded. A few friends and I discussed the novel and the hot-button issues around it on Twitter. I wasn’t really ever planning on writing a post about the whole thing, but dang it if it doesn’t still keep showing up in all of my social media venues over and over again. So while I’m not really going to spend an entire post on this novel, it did bring to mind the bigger issue that I really have with it.
Brief background for those who don’t follow this kind of stuff: 50 Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, has rocketed to the top of national bestseller lists for fiction. The hullabaloo around it rests upon a couple of things: 1) It’s erotica – and not just any erotica, but BDSM erotica. If you don’t know what BDSM stands for, I will let you go look that up on your own. I’m not even sure I remember what each letter stands for. 2) It is a result of a re-worked fan fiction story based upon the Twilight characters.
I don’t have a problem with an erotica novel making the bestseller list. In fact, it’s kind of impressive that a genre that has likely been less respected in the literary world has basically said “in your face” to others. I do have issues with the origins of the novel. It is more than the idea that it was fan fiction. (Although, I have a lot of criticism for that, too – I used to believe that an occasional fan fiction story had potential for a “real novel” future, but I have overall changed my mind on that. However, that’s not today’s topic.) It is the idea that a self e-published novel that, while highly popular digitally (primarily due to the fans from when the story was called Master of the Universe on fanfiction.net and other venues), has made it to the print world in spite of how poorly written it is (based upon multiple excerpts, quotes, and reviews I have seen).
I worry about what this portends.
I get that publishers see success and want to transfer it over into dollars for themselves. Obviously publishing is an industry like any other. But just like how some consumers will choose organic apples over non-organic because they trust the (mostly) regulated process of how those apples were grown, so too do some trust the traditional publishing process to (mostly) maintain its gatekeeping of quality writing.
As we make the gradual changeover to an e-book society (and I do mean gradual as I believe that even as the e-book venue grows, we are still a very long way from it completely dominating), I worry about the transition period that includes the diminishing of this gatekeeping, that sheer sales on Amazon will be the number one draw vs. quality. In a post last month, I talked of author Amanda Hocking’s e-publishing popularity and how that attracted a publisher for her work, but having read one of her first books, I wonder again at the jump based upon the popularity. Interestingly, in these two particular cases, both authors have built their initial platform on the Twilight coattails (Hocking’s first e-pubbed book, My Blood Approves, is almost a replica until about ¾ of the way through. However, it should be noted that it is not this particular trilogy that St. Martin’s Griffin picked up for traditional publishing and Amanda Hocking herself just recently wrote a post about that publishing deal and it is worth a read. I have every hope and confidence that these later novels are much better – just as I have the same hope that any future work by James will also improve).
Obviously I cannot completely downplay that these two authors are among those that have sold a million+ copies of their work and certainly that has to mean something. However, I also know that Kindle owners are quicker to hit that “Buy now with 1-click” button for books that are $0.99 or even $2.99 (the price range that is heavily populated by self e-published authors) than Kindle versions of traditionally published novels that are more likely to hover around $8.99 or $9.99. From my experience, ratings on e-books are not reliable on separating the wheat from the chaff, and now I am running into examples that number of copies sold isn’t necessarily reliable, either.
So far, these two examples are clearly exceptions to the rule (and almost certainly not the only ones), but it only takes a couple to lead by example, and are these the examples we want to hold up to the light? Plenty of poorly written books exist in the traditionally published arena so it isn’t as if I want to hold the industry up as a paragon of all that is right and good with books. Plenty of excellently written books exist within the self e-publishing arena. However, in my completely non-data-driven, anecdotal, limited experience opinion that is primarily guided by instinct and my own social media realm, I believe there still remains an inverse proportion of high quality vs low quality fiction between the two platforms.
Ultimately, I wonder what will happen with the vetting process and how long it will take to go through the transformation. Currently, traditional publishing assists with screening through agents and editors and eventually both digital and non-digital readers, when we bring in the bestselling lists, too. E-publishing relies solely on digital readers. As the digital reader population grows, which will be the better vetting model?
Somehow, this song vid seemed entirely appropriate for this post: