Readers Face the Slush Pile: A Few Hard Truths

Elliott bay: Seattle's legendary independent bookstore - IMG_1422

Photo of Seattle's Elliot Bay bookstore by Nicola since 1972

I know the publishing industry has been in major flux over the last few years with e-readers and the advent of digital self-publishing. (Let's mark that as my most obvious statement of the year.)

And though change is always uncomfortable and stressful, I think it's also opened up a whole new world for writers. Like agent Deidre Knight posted about recently--No, no longer means never. If a book can't find an agent or a publishing home (or the author doesn't want to go that route at all), self-pubbing is there. Options are wonderful to have. It gives power to the author. Yay for that!

However, that also means that books now don't have to go through gatekeepers, so Amazon and online bookstores are open to anyone who wants to put words on a page (whether well-written or not). That means there is a tidal wave of slush filling up the market and it's up to the reader to decide if a book is worthy or not.

First novel attempts are out there (thank God this option wasn't around when I thought my first attempt at writing a book was made of awesome--it wasn't and would be an embarrassment to me now.) Rough drafts are out there. Total, breathtaking masterpieces are out there. But it's up to the consumer to sift through it and discover and applaud the ones worthy of it by posting great reviews and passing on word of mouth.

But here's the thing: lots of readers seem to be perfectly impressed by mediocre writing.

Now, I know books are a totally subjective experience. And who am I to judge what is good or bad writing. But there are also standard practices of writing, clichés to avoid, and just general solid story telling techniques that are around for a reason. And I realize that I'm a writer who is going to have a much more critical eye when it comes to craft, but still it's frustrating seeing a book with a nice cover, a good blurb, and great reviews/sales rank, getting excited, then opening up those sample pages and groaning with disappointment.

Yesterday, I had it happen twice. Two books that looked great and then didn't deliver in the sample pages. If they'd been read in the opening pages gong show I talked about last week, they would've been gonged by the agents, no doubt. But these authors are selling books and have an army of good reviews gracing Amazon, so either they're padding their reviews or most readers are satisfied with "decent" writing ability. 

Now, before anyone jumps my case, I'm not saying there aren't traditionally pubbed books that suck too. But at least they've been through a few editors, including not just a copy editor but a macro editor who is looking at the big picture stuff. Grammar and typos can be handled by a high school English student. Having an editor that can critically evaluate things like story structure, character arc, info dumps, plot holes, etc. is not quite as easy to find. That kind of editing is what is going to separate (whether traditional or indie) the good stories from the just alright.  

So here are some hard truths I've come to terms with regarding the new world of books...

#1 I can't trust reviews or sales ranking anymore unless the review comes from someone I know and trust or a professional book blogger/reviewer who I know gives honest opinions.

And I am looking more and more towards goodreads instead of amazon for reviews. I find that goodreads gives a more well-rounded picture. And I'm learning the book bloggers who tend to have taste similar to mine, so I trust their recommendations.


#2 For self-pubbed/indie books, I'm reading sample pages before I buy unless it's an author I already know/have read/trust.

No, it's not fair that I tend not to do this for traditionally pubbed books. Usually if the blurb and cover grab me, I'm buying. But I've been burned one too many times on the self-pubbed stuff, so I'm reading pages before purchase.


#3 Though the gates opening is a great thing, I think we're going to miss out on some really fantastic writing from authors who would've had to hone and refine their craft more if they'd faced the gates first.

If an author puts out a book that's "good enough" or "decent" and it sells well, there is no motivation for her to take the time to study craft and get better, to push herself. In fact, the only thing she'll probably feel pressure to do is write the next one as fast as she can to get more "shelf" space. So, she can continue to put out more of the same. That's great if she can make a living at it, but what kind of story may the world have gotten if she'd had to push a little further, dug a little deeper? (So if you are publishing, either self or traditionally, always remember to hone your craft. Study books/blogs on writing, read books from authors who are masters at their craft, and always strive to make the next book better. Never be happy with "good enough.")


#4 Being a writer means being a picky reader.

I'm almost jealous of those readers who can read a not so well-written book and enjoy it--not pick up on the clichés or the 20 million exclamation points, not worry that the character is looking at herself in the mirror and describing how she looks, not seeing the plot holes. Being a writer is like being a chef who tries to eat in someone else's restaurant and sees every flaw in the food.


#5 I now have an endless variety of stories to choose from.

This is a good one. I LOVE that books that may not have fit in the traditional mold and would've gotten put in a drawer are getting out there. Genre-crossers, niche stories, boundary-pushers, shorter works. That's fantastic. I just have to accept that the flip side of this benefit means the extra step of sifting through the slush.


So yes, I'm all for writers having the variety of publishing options. I haven't ruled out self-pubbing stuff in between my traditional stuff in the future (if I can learn to write faster and have some time in between deadlines, lol.) But the benefits don't come without some negatives. As a reader, I now have to work a little harder to find what I want. It's something I'm still getting used to.

So what are your thoughts? How do you make your book buying decisions? Have you been burned buying a book that had stellar reviews and sales? Do you read sample pages before purchasing? What are some indie books that really knocked your socks off?