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The Writer’s Plague

Once Upon A Time by Artist UnknownIf you are a booklover who didn’t die before 1997, I would wager you have difficulty finding a decent story among the piles of…muck. In the past twenty years, authors—henceforth known as the Infected—have emerged, plague-ridden, with what we will collectively call the writing bug. While I try to remain optimistic, I cannot say this spreading sickness has been for the better.

The Contagion

In 2002, Joseph Epstein wrote an article, Do You Think You Have a Book In You?, which every online blogger for the past fifteen years has quoted to highlight the snowballing number of new writers. Epstein’s critique claimed 81% of Americans wanted to write a book, and he urgently discouraged any wannabe writers from adding to the sludge pile. At the time, only about 80,000 books were published a year in the United States. Unfortunately, his attempt at warning the masses was futile and somehow had a reverse psychological impact on the American people, which suddenly mass-triggered a book-writing frenzy. Today, well over a million books are published a year. Yes, everyone and their father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate is writing and publishing a book.

The Outbreak

In 2009, Bowker [the official ISBN agency and the world’s leading provider of bibliographic information] shared that with the million books published, more than two-thirds of those were self-published, reprints of public domain works, or some other form of print-on-demand books. And recently, in 2016—despite books reportedly becoming more difficult to sell—Bowker stated that 725,000 self-published works were registered for publication, showing a steady churn out of independent works. [Check out their 2010-2015 Self-Publishing Report.] The Infected are spreading.

Now, to be fair, writers have been self-publishing since before cuneiform. But the real explosion came in 1997 when Lightning Source, one of the largest print-on-demand (POD) companies, was birthed, soon followed by Createspace and Lulu. Then, a couple years later, blogs like WordPress, Blogger, and LiveJournal came into existence. And now, twenty years later, indie books have collectively surpassed the sales of the Big Five, using crowdfunding websites like IndieGogo and Kickstarter, and easy-access, distribution websites like Smashwords and Bookbaby.

Please note: I said collectively surpassed the sales. Currently, the average, self-published author is lucky to sell 500 books. Ever.

This should speak volumes to the number of Infected. The pestilence has swept across the web, spamming your inboxes and your social media with their stories; and sadly, let’s be honest, most of them suck.

My claim that most stories suck is not isolated in its summation, nor personal in its delivery. In fact, to be perfectly clear, I am not patronizing the independent author community any more than I would large publishing houses. Great writers exist among indies, many of which—in my opinion—are better than conventional authors. Seriously, we all know the pink elephant in the room, and her name is E.L. James.

I digress.

The Hard Truth

I have repeatedly, and publicly, announced, ‘You must be willing to suck at writing for a long time before getting good.’ I stand by this statement. Sure, I understand most of us want to be brilliant now; but not counting the prodigies, most writers take about ten years to become decent at their craft. I am not saying a writer should wait ten years before publishing their first book, but they should not be publishing that dusty manuscript they wrote in high school.

Seriously, throw that thing away and start over!

Great reasons exist to self-publish your work: 1) controlling your story and platform, 2) following your own publishing timeline, or 3) higher royalties and selling your own rights. But being inept, or incapable of getting traditionally published, is NOT a reason to publish the book yourself.

Writing is a craft. Developing a good story takes time and practice. Lots of practice. Real writers are not looking for a get rich quick scheme; they are willing to rework their story to near-perfection, because writers, no matter the genre, understand their social responsibility to add to the scaffold of English literature, while enhancing the minds and hearts of readers. They have a story inside them, AND they want to tell it in complete sentences.

For the past two decades, we have watched professionals debate over the regression of English literature standards, and the unchanging literacy rates of the populace [see the How Nations Ranked in Overall Literacy chart]. Approximately 32 million adults in America are illiterate, meaning 14% of the adult population cannot read. And around 30 million adults cannot comprehend texts appropriate for 10-year-olds. These concerns are rampant in the Western Hemisphere. Sure, you can point the finger at poor education, a failing school curriculum, or several other equally valid issues. But a writer should not lower their quality of writing.

The Remedy

If you have the dreaded writing bug, and you simply cannot quit, take the time to learn the craft of writing. If you choose to join a long-history of wordsmiths, then be willing to learn the rules of writing. Hemingway is famous for saying, There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ I call horse-hockey. Hemingway wrote for his school newspaper, traveled the world, fought in a war, wrote nearly a hundred articles for the Toronto Star, and met famous writers like James Joyce, who mentored him, before he ever published his first collection of stories. He did a lot more than simply sit down and start writing.

So, you may have access to publish a book in the modern world with the click of a button, but consider its impact on the literary world and our culture. Knowing how to use a pen does not make you a writer any more than knowing how to use a wrench makes you a mechanic.

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16 Comments

  1. Andrew Reid says:

    I think it’s somewhat disingenuous to suggest that access to self publishing is a factor in the degradation of English (how is English being degraded? Enquiring minds would like to know) and specious in the extreme to suggest that illiteracy is linked. Your statistic ignores the fact that literacy has, historically, improved and a greater proportion of the world’s population can read now than at any point in history (https://ourworldindata.org/literacy/). There is still some ways to go in terms of access to education but this general thrust towards the idea that we are somehow backsliding away from a Golden Age of Communication when books were books and everyone appreciated only the finest prose is, to put it simply, tosh.

    • Good evening, Andrew. Thanks for the comment!

      My intention was not to state that self publishing is a factor in the degradation of English literature, but writers should not be lowering their quality of writing to reflect the lower standards. I know many readers who do avoid anything “self-published” due to an expectation of poor grammar, spelling, etc. This is disheartening when knowing how many self-published writers take the extra steps to provide quality work. In addition, I know writers who hire ghost writers to complete stories and publish them under pen names without editing for the sake of making an extra buck, believing quantity is better than quality. Personally, I have read through near a thousand story submissions in the past three years, and only a handful have been worthy of publication. My argument is that writers should consider our contribution to literature, taking steps to continue a tradition of great prose and storytelling.

  2. I think you’re misinterpreting the Hemingway quote, and also underestimating the number of consumers who want to buy and read amateurish crap, if not the number of writers happy to give it to them. Can’t really blame people for wanting to be as rich as E L James, rather than go down the Hemingway path…

    • Hi James. I appreciate the feedback. Lol. I was quoting Hemingway tongue-and-cheek, because I hear it quoted in this way many times in writing groups. I am actually interested in the idea of consumers wanting amateur work. Admittedly, I know I can be a bit extreme (I still cringe if I see the Oxford comma was not used). I do recognize all writing will not be completely perfect (mine is not perfect!).

  3. MD Presley says:

    I take pride in that I had to google E.L. James.

    Self publishing, especially of e-books, is a two edged sword in that good authors now have access to an audience without the gatekeepers of the traditional publishers; but the same can be said of the bad/ inexperienced authors, as this article points out.

    I’m glad it refers to writing as a craft (as opposed to an art) in that producing crafts is a skill as opposed to “art,” which we all sort of agree is inherent. So though an author may have a brilliant/ artistic idea, without the writing skills to realize it, it’s still bad. That’s a very important point to take away from this.

    • Thank you for the summation, MD! I have many times heard writers say “this is my style” without understanding the craft, and a piece of me dies inside. I would reiterate that some of the best books I have read in the past ten years were written by self-published authors, but so were the worst. The main difference seems to be the time invested in writing. Most of us can agree the first novel we started in high school is garbage. Don’t self-publish that!

  4. Vasco Cardoso says:

    We are graduating from a society where the masses only read books into a society where the masses also write books. How one can spin this into a devolution of literature or language is bizarre.

  5. Tris says:

    I have been reading this blog for about 2 years and I’m shocked that this got published here. It’s bad, gatekeeping nonsense that essentially uses serious social problems like poverty and the state of public education as props in a crusade against the next 50 Shades of Grey. Not only is it offensive, but it is ridiculous.

    No one owns the English language, or any language. No one owns Western culture. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. If I want to spend 25 years working on 1000 page novel chronicling the human condition, you can’t stop me. If I want to self publish a series where a singer named Whitney Steers flies around in a magic van giving makeovers and solving crimes, you can’t stop me.

    Fantasy-Faction is one of my favorite blogs. I hope this is not a sign of things to come.

    • Fantasy-Faction is made up of more than fifty contributors, each with their own separate views. A wider variety of individual opinions is indeed a sign of things to come. If you read my article last week about self-publishing, however, you’ll perhaps be reassured that myself and Joshua are on slightly different ends of the scale in this particular debate!

  6. J says:

    I’m sure your intention in writing this is not to limit free speech. Regardless of your intention however, it does sound like a limit on free speech. You speak of the effects of “muck” on our culture but I am way more concerned about a culture that tries to define what kind of writing is acceptable. Who decides which writing is good and which is bad? Is it the job of the publishing companies who seem to strongly favor those with the resources and connections that help immensly when trying get a big writing contract? I’m sure Lily Collins (Phil Collins’ very wealthy daughter) did not have to refine her craft for years before her words were read by millions. Indie writing is a wonderful thing. It allows all to get their writing out there. Good or bad, it’s all subjective and I can accept that some will disagree with me. When it comes to silencing all but the chosen few, well, I will never accept that. Once again I am pretty sure that is not your intention, but you should think about where your words lead.

  7. Brian D. Anderson says:

    Speaking as an indie, I found nothing wrong with the article. The fact is, he’s right. There are thousands of books being self-published that are simply awful. Time and again I’ve seen people who think that they can bang out a story, click the publish icon, then sit back and watch the money and fame roll in. They forgo the intense and detailed process of creating a quality book entirely. Editing? Who needs it? It’s just a waste of money. Proof reading? Hey, I reread it a few times. I think I caught everything. Beta testing? Why should I do that? I already know my book is a masterpiece.
    Believe me when I say that those of us who have struggled for years to gain respect and recognition for our work, have no love for this type of trash clogging the web. And as the author of the article noted, there are many extremely talented writers in the indie world.

    • Em says:

      Agreed. I’ve been saying the same thing for months but people get very offended when they feel they’re being attacked. It’s not a value judgement on their worth as a person, it’s an observation of the fact that the markets are diluted with crap because people don’t take the time to learn the craft. It’s sad, honestly.

  8. I get it. As an indie author, I must confess that I’m also frustrated with the poorly written books crowding Amazon, many lacking any semblance of professional editing. While there ARE traditionally published books that suffer in a similar manner, it’s far less common. Publishers select books that they believe will sell. The simple truth is that a better book is more likely to be successful, assuming the publisher can reach the target reader. Self-published books don’t have this type of gatekeeper-someone who is willing to invest in their work. The result is that many, but certainly not all, self-published books are sub-par. The frustration for fellow authors comes when readers spend money, and time, to purchase and read something that should have never been published. It can skew readers’ perception toward all indie authors, poisoning the waterhole, leaving them leery to ever return.

    It’s apparent that this article is intended to stir emotions, for it comes across as elitism until you near its conclusion. For a while, my shackles were raised, but in the end, I must agree. I realize that the crappy books fade quickly as they fail to gain momentum, but the sheer volume of their existence increases the challenge of discovery for the books that deserve an audience.

    This new world of publishing is still young and I’m hopeful that the system improves, for the sake of authors and readers.

  9. Atsiko Ureni says:

    As usual, the issue is more complicated than it appears at first argument. The post is not elitist, but I do see how some could construe it that way. I think it’s excessive to demand writers consider their contribution to English literature. But I think it’s reasonable to wish for less dreck. Calling this a first amendment issue is comically exaggerated.

  10. […] read a pair of posts over on Fantasy-Faction via Magical Words on the issue of self-publishing and its effect on the […]

  11. Atsiko Ureni says:

    A bit of clarification on some of the issues involved here: https://atsiko.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/the-myth-of-publishers-as-gatekeepers/

    Self-publishing gets a combination of a bad rap and fair criticism. I think the metaphor used in this post is a bit unwarranted. Although I wish many more self-publishers would take more time to hone their craft before publishing, it doesn’t cause me any direct harm as a reader or writer.

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