Sunday, June 27, 2010

"Brave New World" for Readers, or More of the Same, Just Different?

In perusing blogs this week, I came across a link to this article by Laura Miller in Salon in which she contends that once self-publishing really takes off, readers are going to find out how awful it is to have to read through the slush pile.  She says, in part

You've either experienced slush or you haven't, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is....It seriously messes with your head to read slush....In other words, it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it, and if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours.
Miller seemed to think that readers are going to have to start plowing through a lot of slush in order to find anything good to read. My question is, how is that any different, really, than what I'm doing now? (Note: I'm not going to lay the negative connotations on the word "slush" that she puts on it. In the remainder of this post, "slush" will simply mean a LOT of something.)

Let's say I'm searching for something new to read. First, I have options of where to look - my own bookshelves, the library, a bookstore, an online book seller. Then I have a huge number of books to go through in order to find THE one I'm going to read. Part of the process involves eliminating what I don't want to read.  When I walk into a bookstore, I don't even bother walking through the sections that contain genres I don't care about. I go straight to those parts of the store that I believe will have books in my area of interest and my favorite genre. Then I start scanning covers and titles. Thinking about my trip a week or so ago (when I ended up buying the two books), I sorted the books in my mind without ever picking them up. If there was a vampire (or vampire-looking sort of being), or if the title seemed sort of trendy or angst-ridden, I didn't give it another glance. I zeroed in on those books that seemed to have some link to something historical.  I'll admit I also looked more closely at books with titles that started with "N," "O," and "P," since I'm at that point in the A-Z reading challenge.  My point is, going through the slush wasn't a time-consuming, mind-numbing process. I already have filters in place that help me wade through the slush, and I bet you do, too.

What happened when a title or cover art caught my eye and seemed to meet the conditions of my filters? I read the back cover blurb to get an idea of what the plot might be and who the characters are. It actually annoys me when the back cover is devoted to testimonials about the author's work; at that decision point, I don't want to know what someone else says about the author - I want to know about the story.  If the blurb passed the test, I usually flipped the book open to a couple of different points in the middle and read a couple of sentences, or a paragraph, or even a full page or two. The more I read on those random drop-ins for the book, the more likely I was to buy the book.  If the writing at some random point seems not so good, I assume there are going to be other problems, especially if the writing is not so good at multiple random points.  On the other hand, if the voice catches me right away (as it did with Ophelia), it's a done deal - I'm buying the book.

I guess I don't understand why Miller thinks having more self-published books is going to change the way people choose their books. We all have our rubrics for making choices, and those rubrics are going to apply, regardless of the number of possible choices available. I prefer not to read science fiction, so it doesn't make any difference to me whether there are 5 new science fiction books out there or 50,000. I'm going to be looking at historical fiction. If there are 50,000 new historical fiction books, I will sort them by looking for books about a particular time period.  I'm hoping the loosening of control on publishing will give me some more choice; I'm tired of having most of the limited few historical fiction books published each year focus on a limited range of historical time periods and famous figures (anyway, that's how it seems).

Unlike Miller, I'm not going to assume that anything published by some alternative to commercial publishing is "dreck." Sure, I agree that poor writing is painful to read. Believe me, I have suffered my share of pain through reading student papers!! I've also suffered some of that pain reading self-published novels. But I've read some self-published and small-press works that were pretty good and could have been really good with some more editing. I was willing to forgive their flaws because their characters were so likeable or because I got caught up in the story and wanted to know what happened. In the end, it's not who published the book; it's where the story takes me.

I say, bring on this brave new world! People won't give up and quit reading (as Miller seems to contend). Readers will continue to forge their way through the deluge of new work the way they always have - using whatever means have served them well in the past.

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