The new Grub Street
Last month I wrote some observations about the so-called golden age of publishing that’s been ushered in by the ease of self-publishing, and predicted that the bubble was bound to burst sooner or later. Some of the responses and discussions I’ve had since publishing that article brought up the question of what will remain after the bubble pops. Certainly, traditional publishing will survive; how self-publishing survives and what role it will play remains to be seen. I am sure it is here to stay but how rosy the future is for self-published authors rests with both writers and readers.
Browse Amazon’s crowded bookstore and you’ll find some wonderful self-published books that probably would never have seen the light of day through a traditional print publisher. These gems are, admittedly, few and far between and most are as neglected by the reading public as they would have been by publishers. Nonetheless, it does make you realise that digital self-publishing is a pretty terrific thing and something we’d not like to see disappear or be left languishing on the lowest rung of the literary ladder.
Alexander Pope’s scathing satire, The Dunciad, gave the early 18th century world a picture of a literary culture bereft of intellectual rigour, imagination and continually pandering to the lowest common denominator. Were Pope to rise from the dead and browse the sea of self-published books with us, he might well feel that the literary world of the early 18th century was, comparatively, a Golden Age and that today’s output makes the literary and intellectual vices of 300 years ago look almost saintly. Grub Street remains, though it has gone from bricks and mortar to digital, an alley of bits and bytes teeming with penny hacks and hopefuls, whose cookie-cutter works possess characters and plots so devoid of originality that they can be divined simply by the sign the author hangs around its neck: paranormal romance, dystopian, urban paranormal, and so on and so on. These aren’t exclusive to the ranks of the self-published, but include a smattering of writers from the major publishing houses. We have created a Model T production line for literature: consumerist, cheap, dispensable, and available in any colour provided it is beige – or, these days, perhaps grey.
Lurking in the shadows of Grub Alley are the marketing and writing experts, each with the same advice and each with the same promise of sales and ranking – provided the writer observes the rules. Rules not of writing and word-craft, but rules of marketing, rules of engagement. Any real writer doesn’t have to be told to read and read and read, any more than they have to be told to breathe and eat and drink. Ah, but there’s a difference say the marketing savants; writers need to read in order to understand what readers want; reading is market research, market intelligence. They’ll have us believe it’s like Grimpin Mire out there, with hell-hounds of indifference and pitiless bogs of reviews that leave no trace of the unheeding writer. Write to the market or perish.
Well, perhaps so, if authors wish to write to order; short order writers who wil serve up to the public whatever is the fashionable fancy. Wizards, swords and sorcery the order of the day? Well, let me just whip up a batch. Zombies all the rage? Right, no problem; keep the recipe and just swap the ingredients. Dystopian? Ah, that’s the Chef’s Special.
It’s tempting to imitate – it’s far safer than being original – but do authors really want to live by tabloid principles? ‘Yes, we know it’s rubbish but we are just giving the public what they want. This is what they buy.’
Self-publishing is losing the stigma it once had. Just a few years ago, mentioning that the book you are touting is self-published was akin to announcing that it had literary leprosy. Over the past couple of years, though, self-publishing has gained credibility and respectability. Unfortunately, it is in danger of losing what ground it has gained as it becomes synonymous with cheap, knock-off genre fiction. We need more self-published quality genre fiction, more literary fiction and a healthy number of non-fiction titles outside the self-help and those promising instant riches and/or key-to-happiness type titles.
Amazon is still a good place to look to get a feel, at least, for what is happening. A snapshot of the Amazon Kindle fiction Top 100 lists reinforces the idea that genre fiction dominates among self-published titles. I’ve no reason to criticise genre fiction per se, as I pointed out in a previous article, The genre war. My concern isn’t about genre but about the tyranny of populism and the danger of being dominated by it. The trouble is that we run the danger of creating a book ghetto, with self-published books acquiring a reputation of being second-rate.
Perhaps it will take time for the standard to rise; perhaps that will not happen until the bubble does burst and many of the disappointed hopefuls quit the field. Or maybe, like a child in a sweet shop, readers will come to have a surfeit of unchallenging, easily-digestible books and look beyond price and accessibility and demand more of us.
We don’t want self-publishing to become the modern Grub Street. That will serve neither writers nor readers. We need writers who value their work more than they value the market; writers who remember that the ability to write is commonplace but that the skill and craft to write well is uncommon – and that the gift of imagination is rarest of all.