February 19, 2013

Correcting a Fallacy

Today I’d like to talk about ebooks, and specifically their impact on the publishing world. I was just reading my (electronic!) copy of Analog, which is a contradiction in terms in and of itself, if you think about it. There is an article by Don Sakers which begins on page 102, where he writes some about ebooks, then gives reviews of several books which are available in both print and e-formats. Although his article is specifically about SF, it applies to all genres of writing. Mr. Sakers says, “Another consequence of e-books is removing traditional publishers as gatekeepers of content. This has both good and bad implications for SF. On the positive side, much more good SF will be published. The age of the mass market is fading; in a sense, we’re entering the age of the niche. To be sure, some niches are larger than others. There will always be big-name authors – but now, we’ll also have medium-size names, small names, tiny names, microscopic and nano-scale names all equally available to readers.

“The bad news is that the same expansion will result in enormously more bad SF. No one reader has the time to wade through thousands of unsuitable books in search of the one or two that are suitable.”

I’ve seen this argument repeated too often to count. Go back and read that last sentence again. When he’s talking about ebooks removing traditional publishers as gatekeepers, what he actually means is self-publishing of ebooks. Mr. Sakers seems to be discounting the thousands of traditionally published ebooks that are available to the reading public. The debate here is not electronic vs. print books, but traditional vs. self-publishing. His opinion is clear: self-publishing will force readers to wade through thousands of horribly written manuscripts in order to discover the one or two gems that have been written by good (i.e. traditionally published) authors.

No matter who states it, the argument is always drawn on the same lines, there will be thousands of horrible things to wade through in order to find the rare gems. I take exception to the math used by people who parrot this argument.

First, it’s very difficult to tell, before purchase, whether a book is self or traditionally published.

Second, there are many authors who have been traditionally published for many years, who are now self-publishing alongside their traditionally published works. Does the fact they are now self-pubbing suddenly make their work inferior? Of course not.

It is very true that many authors, myself included, would not be published at all if not for the financially feasible options of print-on-demand and e-books. However, it is absolutely not true that there are thousands of bad self-published books to every two or three gems.

I read constantly. I cannot get to sleep at night without reading. I read self-published books. I read traditionally published books. I read long out-of-print books that have been restored and made available as e-books. In 2012 I read 410 works containing well over 45,000 pages. That’s pleasure reading, not the reading I do for school classes, or for other informational purposes. It’s also books, not counting magazines, blogs, and my morning cereal box.

Every once in a while I find a book that’s so badly written, or so badly edited, that I can’t bear to finish it. More often I find a book that has outrageously stupid mistakes in the writing or editing – things that should have been caught by either the writer or one of the many editors. I find this sort of mistake in both traditionally published and self-published books.

By and large, most of the things I read are good enough to finish the book. Many of them are good enough to re-read. Unless I have an atypical experience as a reader, I would say that the ratios presented in Mr. Sakers' article are exactly reversed. Readers of traditional and self-published books have the privilege of enjoying thousands of well-written, well-edited stories, while knowing that they will definitely come across the few horrible pieces, which are both self- and traditionally published.