Print On Demand [POD], ebook technology and Amazon have birthed a new phenomenon in the world of books – the indie author. Suddenly everyone who ever had an interesting idea or felt they had a story to tell has become an author… because they can. They do not need the traditional gatekeepers – the publishing houses – anymore. The orderly world of print has become a wild, wild west with words at the ready.
Not since the invention of the printing press has the world seen such a state of flux. The world of books is changing at an incredible rate and will continue to do so for some time to come. For readers this means that we have more choices than ever before and they cost less than a cup of coffee. Because of this we can dip and discard without feeling that we have blown the week’s budget on a lemon of a book. This is incredibly liberating and I for one am all for it. Since getting my ebook device I have discovered four new, good authors in three weeks and all for the combined price I would have paid for just one book in the past. I feel as if I’m part of a history making event and I love the sense of limitless possibilities that implies. I would not turn back the clock even if I could.
But such freedom has drawbacks as well. Technology has opened up new frontiers but, like the wild, wild west, those frontiers now have no guardians. There are no sheriffs in tall white hats dragging the bad guys off the streets. Worse still the bad guys don’t wear hats either, so every time I take a chance on a new author I do so at my peril.
Now I’ve already said that price is not much of a consideration any more and that is true, however wasted time is still an issue. If I have to dip and discard nine books before I find one worth reading then I have wasted some of my limited and therefore precious reading time. I have also spent 9/10th of that time being frustrated. And that is bad. Bad for me and bad for this new era because every not-good book chips away at my confidence in the rest of the books [and authors] out there.
No two people will ever completely agree about what constitutes a ‘good’ book so I’m not even going to try to define it. I will however give my definitions of the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’. To me an ugly book is one that has been dashed off, possibly by a very sincere, nice person, and then rushed into publication without even basic editing. These books are literally choked with typos, spelling mistakes, horrible punctuation, contradictions and the kind of grammar that would be poor if spoken aloud and absolutely awful when written down. Two pages of this and I just can’t keep reading, no matter how interesting the story might eventually become. These basic faults are the uglies and they stop the duckling from ever becoming a swan.
Bad is different. Bad can be quite well written in terms of the basics of language [see uglies above] but falls down in style. By my definition, style is not the same as the author’s ‘voice’ which is always unique. Rather it involves having a master craftsman’s knowledge of the power and the limitations of the written word. A short story I recently read is a great example of these limitations. The author of this short story clearly wanted it to be punchy and funny but he wrote it as if he was telling the tale to his mates over a beer at the pub. It could have been funny but wasn’t. Why? Because his words could not convey the body language, spoken pauses, -nudge, nudge, wink, wink- facial expressions that would have been part and parcel of the verbal telling. Without all those intangibles the written story was lifeless.
On the other end of the scale are the examples of the authors who do know the power of the written word but do not know how to exercise restraint. Just because you can write a sentence with multiple clauses does not mean that you have to do so. Sometimes simple sentences can be far more powerful than complex ones. Similarly, obscure vocabulary and screeds of flowery descriptions may illustrate an author’s breadth of knowledge but they rarely succeed in drawing the reader into the mood of the story. These faults can be overlooked if the story is very, very good but those kind of stories are rare. So far I have read one that was good enough to keep me reading and another two that were just too unpleasant to finish.
Back when we had traditional publishers acting like sheriffs, most of these books would never have seen the light of an LED screen. Some few would have been sent to editors to be massaged into shape before printing but they would have been the exceptions rather than the rule. Now we just have a level playing field littered with the bodies of those who thought first, or even second draft quality was good enough. It never is. Sorry.
In time I hope that this new frontier of publishing will develop an infrastructure of reputable editors, designers, proof-readers and printers to help authors polish their work before publishing. Once that happens we may know which authors are wearing the white hats and which the black. Until then we will just have to take our chances with the good, the bad and the ugly.