Too Many Bad Books? The Status of Books Continues to Plummet

(c) Copyright 2014, Margaret Langstaff, All Rights Reserved

 “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” –Erasmus

Wow, have times changed all that much?

Every author and publisher I know is in a huff over Amazon’s new subscription service, unlimited access to “more than 600,000 titles” for $9.99 a year.

Amazon did not say please or thank you, but swept every ebook on its Kindle Select platform into “Kindle Unlimited.”  Authors are compensated for “reads” of more than 10 pct of their books from a very murky Amazon controlled “pool” of funds.

We all accuse Amazon of devaluing the printed word, driving costs down to almost zero, holding authors and publishers hostage.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately.  The truth is, most books in Kindle Unlimited are self-published, although some backlist titles from major publishers are involved.  And the fact is, for what it’s worth, that Amazon’s do-it-yourself program, Kindle publishing, is responsible in some way for this because it has glutted the book markets with millions of half-baked, poorly written books. Social media is rife and raucous with indie authors screaming “check out my book!!!” or “Now only 99 cts!!!” etc.  It’s a deafening din and pathetic, ridiculous.

As book critic (an NBCC member) and the recipient of tidal waves of unsolicited review copies of the same, I have to say it’s made me expect the worst tripe, just more garbage, every time a new book arrives on my doorstep.

The bad (in sufficient numbers) always drives out the good, obliterates it.

As a result, in a breathtaking short period of time the word “book” and the status of books in our culture has plummeted.  Books used to be valuable things even in the eyes of those who were not readers. “Author” used to mean you had at least half a brain and the stamina and commitment to spend years, thousands of lonely hours, with your imagination and mental faculties engaged to produce something serious, usually, and meaningful. It meant you had studied and learned your craft.

Seems like yesteryear already.  The often reviled villains, the “gate-keeper” publishers, surely made mistakes, but over time a certain level of quality was maintained.  Random House and Simon & Schuster had excellent, for the most part, acquisition editors.  They had diligent proof-readers, for heaven sake!  It meant something to have a book published by one of them–and still does, I think, and maybe more so today than ever.  I still approach titles from major publishers with a degree of confidence in their inherent quality.

Amazon’s sinister effect on books is not just about pricing.  Amazon’s free for all has also unleashed a tsunami of wannabe authors who haven’t learned the trade, haven’t read anything, can’t punctuate or spell and who couldn’t spot a typo if it poked them in the eye.

Maybe this will all sort out in the marketplace of art and ideas eventually.  Maybe the millions of “I wanna be an author” types, once a critical mass of them have delivered themselves of a few wholly ignored and disregarded “masterpieces,” and failed miserably to win fame and fortune, will give it up and take up casino gambling instead.

I suspect that the real market for books remains pretty much a constant over time. Few have been and  are actually willing to go to all the trouble of learning how to write them well, and still fewer are willing to read them if they are not filled with simple thrills and chills.

If you’re trying to make a buck or gain notoriety, the odds of success are better at blackjack or roulette tables in Vegas, no matter how fine a writer you are. If novitiate “authors” had done their homework, this would not be news. The math and statistics are plain as day. It’s nuts to think you’re going to hit it big writing a book, even if you write a great one.

Has Amazon has become just another pandering vanity publisher? Sure looks that way. When the writing is on the wall, I bet Amazon starts charging authors upfront just as the vanity pubs do–and with overrides, back-ends, cross deals, higher commissions.

They’ll ride this one trick pony to death and then move on to something more lucrative than mere books.

One thing they have been really good at is cashing in on the dreams of fame and fortune of the average joes and jills, most of whom grew up when books were considered a good thing, authors worthy of respect, and the writing endeavor inherently worthwhile. But this too will pass, and quickly, I fear.

Please know that I’m not by any means demeaning indie writers as a category, I’m simply pointing to the uncomfortable fact that there are so many more bad ones than good ones that they give the good ones a bad name.

The good ones actually might be better off selling their books out of the trunks of their cars door to door, eyeball to eyeball, or at art festivals and the like.

But Amazon’s over-reaching and self-aggrandizing ways with authors and publishers (“business decisions, market share”) may eventually peter out.  Not everyone wants books, or ever has, and Amazon is about to hit the wall on this point.  Other media are more appealing to the large numbers than print.

So what’s next? Books as flash or thumb drives to stick in your ear? Voila! Effortless reading? Nobody knows.  But that would not be reading in my book nor an aid to higher thought and insight. Images and print involve different kinds of cogitation.  Not the last word, readers and writers. Only something to think about 🙂

[PS – I will  leave you with a final afterthought, a speculation: it seems entirely plausible to me that Amazon launched the subscription program not so much as a competitive response to Oyster’s and others’ subscription programs as the fact that one day some marketing genius there said, “What the hay?  So few of these indie books are actually selling in significant numbers, maybe we can get a sales spike of some sort on them with such a deal.”  They held all the cards on Kindle Select authors, had all the leverage in the contract terms …. and maybe that will payoff in the short term for them.  But not for long if the majority of the books are bad.  The minority of quality backlist titles from major publishers in Kindle Unlimited is so small, so I’d bet the bloom will be off this rose in short order.]







About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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5 Responses to Too Many Bad Books? The Status of Books Continues to Plummet

  1. Wow, a breathtaking argument.


    • Oh, Brenton, you are always so nice. I’ve been around the block in NY publishing and started and sold a few small pub companies myself. Amazing the changes just in the last 2-3 years. It’ll bottom out, cream will rise to the top, some publishers will go under, new ones will sprout, but people don’t devote their lives to writing and publishing unless they are wholly devoted to books, not to profits first. Yes, they have to keep the lights on and pay salaries and have to make some compromises, but it’s always a struggle.


  2. This is a great post! Not so encouraging for serious writers who want to self-publish but better to be forewarned. Amazon looks very much like a greedy whale ready to eat up to shreds its authors – not caring whether they are junk food or real nourishment. What, though are the alternatives? As you said, authors might be better off selling their books from the trunks of their cars. Not a happy thought at all! Let’s hope that good writing doesn’t get swallowed by the mass.


  3. I really appreciate your comment. I wrote this with gritted teeth knowing it would not be welcome news, but it’s there and really not news. No one wants to talk openly about it. Listen, Twain, Whitman and countless modern writers sold their books hand to hand. Where’s there’s a will there’s a way. Public readings are good, book clubbing and other face to face interaction, great. Libraries have programs and many even pay you for it. Social media has become a cacauphony of “check out my book!” and everyone has become suspicious, condescending, if not deaf. I suppose Facebook works for genre writers but watch out for trolls there


    • Final note: Wish there were guaranteed methods, but there aren’t. So many variables in any kind of publishing, you have no idea. You are a happy writer if you enjoy the process and can connect with a few appreciative readers. Keep at it if you love the writing. 🙂


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