The dirty little secret of the publishing industry is that virtually every new work of fiction and nonfiction hitting the market today is a piece of garbage.
Publishers have always had a strategy of throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall and hoping that something sticks. Today, for a variety of reasons, nothing’s sticking. The spaghetti is uncooked, stale, flavorless, or all three.
It’s enough to make a serious reader cry.
So why are books uniformly lousy?
1. Publishers are paying much more attention to the marketing plan than the contents of new books. It used to be that publishers actually cared about content. In today’s marketplace, they’ve gotten so fat, lazy, and dumb that all they care about is pushing books into the marketplace, no matter how derivative, boring, or useless. Authors who have massive social media followings, national TV presences, or multitudinous speaking events. Why? Because then the publisher gets to free ride off the hard work the author has done building his brand. This is a recipe for relatively easy book selling and relatively awful books. Typically, there is an inverse proportion between the amount of effort authors make in developing their brands and developing their content. So publishers are taking the easy way out.
2. The death of the midlist author. Decades ago, publishers carried authors from book to book, building their audiences while at the same time teaching them how to become better writers. That model is toast. Today, publishers expect every book, no matter how juvenile the writing might be, to make money immediately. There’s no opportunity for authors to grow in quality or popularity. They’re just thrown out of the nest. And if the book doesn’t sell, and why should it, they’ll never get another deal. Is this any way to run a publishing industry?
3. Incompetent acquisition editors. Publishing has always been a lousy paying industry, with new hires sleeping three to a one-bedroom Hoboken walkup and mid-level executives forced to change houses just to get a decent raise. The problem is that if you pay peanuts, you can only afford monkeys. Show me one new author discovered by an acquisition editor at a major publishing house in the last ten years who commands a major following and I’ll sauté that novelist’s latest book, flambé it in peanut oil, and eat it. If these people are supposed to be so good at “curating” (gag me!) literature, then why haven’t they discovered anyone worth reading?
4. Your tax dollars. It used to be that a book proposal stooping to mention the fact that 30,000 public libraries constituted a market for a given book would be laughed out of any self-respecting publisher’s office. No longer. Your tax dollars are essentially subsidizing the major publishing houses, by buying thousands and thousands of copies of books that no human being spending his or her own money would ever purchase. These books end up on shelves that have to be heated, cooled, and dusted at taxpayer expense. If public libraries had to be more judicious in their spending, a lot of big name publishers would wither and die.
5. There’s no arbiter of taste for independently published books. Here’s a business model that will make someone billions: Create the ultimate online reviewing source for independently published books. For some reason, no one has thought to do so. Major newspapers and literary magazines either stop reviewing books altogether or don’t deign to take independently published books seriously. They should. Someone out there will make a fortune helping readers separate the wheat from the chaff. Why not you?
So there you have it. Five reasons why the quality of books is in decline today as never before, and unless each of these five points is remedied, things will never get better. The only good news is that you can write your own book today, publish it without the blessing of a gatekeeper, and laugh all the way to the bank. Why not do that today? The competition is a lot less severe than you think.