Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Indies Introduce Panel Debrief

As I blogged about earlier, this summer I participated in a panel that selected 10 debut books coming out in the Spring of 2014 for special promotions. From about the middle of July to the beginning of September I read from cover to shining cover 14 books and at least 50 pages (sometimes much more) of 17 more. Here is the good, the bad, and the interesting of that reading experience.

The Finished
The Good
Your favorite author was once a debut author. Everyone's favorite author was once a debut author. But debut authors are a big risk for publishers. There are so many unknowns that go into signing and publishing an author for the first time and every one of those unknowns is a potential monetary loss. There's a chance said author will receive good review coverage, but there's a better chance the limited (in some ways) review coverage will go to an author the reviewer does not need to spend text introducing to the public. There's a chance a solid author tour will garner attention, that galleys of the book will get in the right hands and those hands will actually open said galleys so the eyes can eat the words, that the word of mouth support will be enough to at least see the bottom line and to establish some presence in the minds of the book buying public so the next book will get much more exposure, but it is more likely few people will go to debut author events, the galleys won't get opened, and the book won't sell enough to recoup the investment. But every great, guaranteed best-seller was once a debut, so publishers continue to take the risk.

But with publishing margins slimmed by a whole host of different economic and social forces, it wouldn't be that surprising to see publishers taking fewer risks and publishing fewer debut authors. You wonder if publishers will be willing to endure the sales of, for example, Ann Patchett's first book, no matter how much they believe in the talent of the author. (Fewer books being published in the traditional way would probably be a good thing, but not for this reason and that's a different post anyway.(And, of course, they're still one book short.)) This panel shows that not only are publishers committed to publishing debut authors (each publisher could only submit three titles), but they are finding cost-effective ways to support those debut authors. With so much of our book economy making so much of traditional publishing more difficult, (i.e. as the necessary capital is squeezed out of publishing by lower margins and lower sales) it is exciting to see publishers taking steps to make sure they continue what may be their most bottom-line damaging responsibility.

The Bad
The Read-a-Bunch-Of

So those bottom lines? Man, keeping those lights on and shit, huh? As publishers struggle, one of the concerns in the readerly world, is that they will skimp on editing; not proofreading, but that process by which a work of potential genius is improved, idea by idea, character by character, chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence, word by word into a work of actual genius; that weird alchemical art that discerns the potential of a work of literature and then induces the writer to reach that potential; the long, labor intensive, and thus, in many ways, expensive process, that can be a vital part of producing great works of human culture. That editing. And given that there is absolutely no correlation between quality and sales, one could not blame a publisher, or at least an accountant who works for a publisher, for asking whether it is really worth the cost to make a good work great.

But it is almost impossible to figure out whether capital restrictions are lessening the quality of published books. There just isn't a way to create any kind of meaningful data about un-reached potential. However, an alarming number of books I read for this panel, including a few I really liked, had very strong beginnings, and a marked tapering off in quality by the end. To put this another way; the chapters that would land an agent, and the chapters that an agent would use to get a contract, and the chapters likely to earn a purchase at the bookstore, were excellent while the rest tended to be mediocre. And what I saw were not issues of copy editing or proofreading (which are forgiven in galleys), but fundamental questions on the direction of the stories and the development (or not) of the characters and themes. In short, a solid number of the submitted books seemed to suffer from a lack of editing, the important editing that makes a good work great.

As I said, this doesn't really mean there is a trend of diminishing editing in publishing. Maybe the time and money was spent and what was produced really had reached its potential. Maybe the particular editors themselves weren't great editors. Maybe great advice was not taken. Maybe each book in which I saw this issue has its own perfectly rational explanation and this concern is totally unfounded. Still, a pattern is a pattern and it was a troubling pattern.

The Interesting
The Cat (Unreadable)
We needed to chose 10 books and we had slimmed the list to 11. One of them had to go. Our system worked out that the 10th would be occupied by one of two books. I actively supported one and really disparaged the other, another reader actively supported what I disparaged and disparaged what I actively supported. What's interesting is that, despite being very different books, we each made the exact same case for our opinions. I thought one of the books was totally derivative and, though competently executed, wholly devoid of anything new, original, or even interesting to say about the human condition. My compatriot thought the same thing about the book I liked. Despite being very different in terms of content and style, sometimes our exchanges were more like echoes than debates. Books are powerful because the exact same words create different reactions in different readers. One of the currents of the vibrancy of reading comes from the fact that people can have different opinions about the same book. Everyone knows that, so that's not interesting. But this was a scale, or type, or flavor of differing opinion that I hadn't encountered before. What this tells me is that two avid readers, reading in the same language and same culture, even sharing some opinions and reading priorities, can still live on, essentially separate reading planets. That speaks to the diversity of literature of course, but also the diversity of quality in literature.

Next in interesting, we've all had to read books we don't like in school and we all know how miserable that can be. I also had to read (all the way to the end) some books I didn't like, but it was a very different experience. Because I volunteered for this panel and because I felt a responsibility to the other panelists and because I felt a responsibility to the authors, the misery of slogging through an awful book in order to turn in a half-assed book report so your parents don't get mad at you for a bad grade, was not present. There really were times when a good old fashioned read-it-while-blacked-out was pretty appealing. But that school room angst wasn't there. The pressure to do this reading came only from myself and so it was easier to transition my reading experience from debilitating agony to the observation of my debilitating agony in an attempt to extract something useful about life, the universe, and everything from these awful, awful books.

The Big Wrap Up
Given the length of this post, I'll post about my two favorite books later (I believe this is what they call in the business a “teaser.”), but it seems like I should come to some conclusions. Here they are in list form.
I would totally read for a prize/panel again.

Being forced to read what you would not normally read every now and then is a very good thing.

Indie booksellers have, perhaps, the ideal mix of passion and reasonableness. Seriously, there were exchanges that went something like “I will cut myself in visible places if this book is not included in the top ten, but I've got to get back on the floor so if everybody else is OK with cutting it, I'm cool with cutting it.” How about we govern for a bit?

New art is still being written...

but much more new entertainment is still being written...

which is fine...

though I'd really like to see a little more art.

All told it was fun and challenging book binge, the piled remnants of which I still have no idea what to do with. What did you do on your summer vacation?

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