Is the Book Business Dying?

Is the preponderance of self-published books killing the book business? I’ve been reading articles about how Amazon is promoting self-published ebooks — a few people have been picked by Amazon arbitrarily, and Amazon promoted these books constantly for a week and made them best-sellers. I’ve seen a couple of these best-selling self-published ebooks, and they are so poorly written, I can’t see why anyone would buy them, but since people do buy them, it must mean readers don’t care about good writing or good story-telling. I’ve also seen books go viral for absolutely no reason I can fathom. (And often, the writer has no clue, either.) Most often, these books go viral only on Amazon, with no bleed-over into other ebook formats, which means Amazon has an amazing control of the book business.

There seems to be a movement going on to erode the traditional means of determining a worthwhile book, with vast numbers of people saying book standards are dead and they can write however they choose, without regard to grammar or story-writing skills. Which apparently is true, since such books find a market. (And often, these books get 5-star reviews, which says more about the reviewer than the book.) There is also a growing militancy among self-publishers. If you say anything against the practice, there is a huge backlash of disapproval.

I’m not saying all self-published books are poor quality — some are well written and well-edited and deserve their acclaim. Nor am I saying that traditionally published books are good quality — most are not worth reading. But with books on both ends of the spectrum selling millions of copies, is there any place for those with well written, unique, and perhaps thoughtful books who aren’t self-published and who don’t have a major publisher behind them to push the books? Or have the people spoken and said they have no use for such books?

When books are so prevalent, especially when vast numbers of readers seem to have no ability to determine what is worthwhile, books become devalued. Albert Nock, in the 1930s, disagreed with universal literacy. He contended that when everyone can read, books will be written to appeal to the least common denominator, and there is no doubt that during the subsequent decades, books were published based on their ability to appeal to the most readers possible. If there is any truth that book quality declined with universal literacy, wouldn’t it be even more true if there is universal publishing?

Historically, whenever one product or category of products dominated the market, it presaged the end of that product. If you are old enough, you remember when the streets were clogged with VW Beetles, and now you seldom see one. Is the preponderance of books on the market today the beginning of the end?

12 Responses to “Is the Book Business Dying?”

  1. Cathy "Elaine Garverick" Gingrich Says:

    Hi Pat, As a successfully published writer, I can understand your frustration with the flood of less-than-good material that is suddenly available. As a reader it is annoying to have to sift through so much material, BUT as an unpublished writer I can tell you there is nothing sadder than your manuscript collecting dust. At least its out there for people to read and make their own judgment. I started out reading comic books and Mad Magazine. Thers’s something for everyone!
    Thanks for giving my voice a place to be heard on your site.
    Cathy Gingrich

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      You make good points, Cathy, but the truth is, despite all the hype to the contrary, most books do not find a readership. And that is even sadder than a manuscript gathering dust.

  2. sandy Says:

    You are right. And as books as we know them are replaced with kindles and nooks and people give them the same kind of half-assed attention they do when they text or tweet, the structure and language of story telling will change even more radically than it already has and eventually the people who continue to read the literature we loved will be as rare as are the scholars who read Plato and Aristotle in the original Greek. Well, that is what I’m seeing anyway. It is the reason that I no longer write. But I have a nice closure on that. My last novel retitled by the publisher ( The Secret of A Long Journey will be released in April of 2012 about the same time that Plain View Press will release a 2nd Ed. of my first novel, The Nun, which they originally published in 1992 so a twenty year cycle completed at the cusp of the end of the era of literature I grew up with.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Sandy, yes, that’s what I’ve been thinking. Now there are phone apps and e-books enhanced with video, author interviews and social-networking applications. As the guy I interviewed said, “Contrary to traditional belief, reading is not a solitary endeavor. We make it easy to share your thoughts with friends, book review sites and the author!” Maybe that’s what’s wrong with this whole new book scenario — it’s become a group activity.

      • sandy Says:

        I guess this guy wasn’t thinking about introspection which is one of the ways we grow mentally. I think classrooms and bookclubs are great for people who have all read the same book and learned something from their reading (including what questions to ask in life) can share these thoughts but I think they need to read the book first by themselves to form those thoughts.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          Books are inherently interactive. What was conceived in one mind comes to life in another. But beyond that? I don’t see the point. I used to spend time on Goodreads, but I find I have nothing to say about the books I read. Whatever I gleaned from them is mine. Maybe once I would have liked such a forum, but now it seems . . . unproductive.

          I wonder if I wll ever get back to writing fiction. The plethora of books on the market make it seem a foolish endeavor.

          • sandy Says:

            I have enjoyed meeting with a few bookclubs who selected my books to discuss, all of them clubs affiliated with libraries so nice to see they are keeping books alive for a little while anyway (most of the members of these clubs are my age or even older) and I love what you say about the interaction between author and reader, the idea that the idea conceived in one mind comes alive in another, nice way to put it. I’ve enjoyed your fiction and glad you went to the effort to write it but I share your discouragement about continuing to write in this current atmosphere. I feel like we came in at the end of Act 3!

  3. Deborah J Ledford Says:

    Excellent post, Pat. And you’re right–self-publishing is so very easy for less than stellar product to find a market. The only reason a majority of these books are so popular is that they’re offered for free or under $1. A shame because readers will expect to pay this nominal amount for quality work. Bestselling authors, mid-listers and up and comers are doomed to fail if this becomes the norm.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I just find it so discouraging. It’s as if self-publishing and kindle books are a new game, not like books at all. Which seems to demean the whole concept of “book.”

      And yes, readers will expect to pay those low prices. I wonder how many ebooks are being read, or if people are simply filling up their ereaders.

  4. Catana Says:

    I found your link at the discussion on Attacking the Page and thought it was interesting enough to follow up. “There seems to be a movement going on to erode the traditional means of determining a worthwhile book…” This sounds a bit too much like a conspiracy theory, but I know what you mean. What’s very hard to get across in discussions of self-publishing vs traditional, print publishing is that the level of education in countries like the U.S. and Great Britain (yes, I know GB isn’t a country) has declined greatly over the last 50 years or so, and literacy has gone with it. There’s also every reason to believe that reading isn’t a natural trait, and for a significant proportion of the human population, it’s never easy or enjoyable. I haven’t read Nock in many years, but I think he’d agree.

    What I think is happening is that the new ease of publishing is simply revealing the underlying weaknesses in our devotion to literacy and literary appreciation. In the other discussion, someone brought up time constraints as a factor in the preference for shorter, easy to consume novels. This theme comes up over and over, ad nauseum, but I’d bet my last dollar that semi-literacy is as important a factor. It’s too obvious that people will read what they’re capable of reading. So obvious that it can be ignored. So obvious than it can be overlooked in discussions of good and bad writing, which the OP tried to brush off as a matter of taste. Since taste is a touchy subject, it’s best to avoid it altogether rather than consider why it’s tied to literacy levels.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Catana, How interesting to see you here! The most compelling comment in the other discussion was yours, “I’m not only a maverick, I’m a pessimist. I think the battle for culture, for literacy, even for our civilization as a whole has already been lost.” I wish I didn’t agree with you, but I do.

      Semi-literacy — yes. People can read, but it’s not something they prefer doing. Not having time to read is merely an excuse. People find time to do that which they value. I don’t really care about all the barely literate novels being uploaded to Amazon except that it lowers the norm, makes quality and taste a thing of the past. And it makes it almost impossible for thoughtful books to be found. And then there’s the small matter of people reading for passive entertainment without a desire or need to bring anything to a book. I don’t think kindles and such do much to help create literacy. Sure, more people are reading (or at least downloading books), but that does not mean literacy as such is increasing.

      • Catana Says:

        I agree that the Kindle, and ereaders in general, are doing nothing to increase literacy. They’re simply making it easier to carry books around with you to read in your spare time, and providing a bigger pile to choose from. The amount of badly written and edited dreck should really be sufficient to disprove any claims about increasing literacy.

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