Sunday, July 18, 2004

Laura Miller writes a piece in today's New York Times that is likely to outrage many dozens of readers, or however many of them are left, across this illiterate land of ours.  Her premise?  There are too damn many books published every year -- a staggering one per half hour, if estimates are to be believed.
"In all honesty,'' one [publisher] told [Miller], ''a lot of big publishers will say that not only are other publishers publishing too much, but they are, too.'' Obviously, no company wants to decrease the number of terrific books it publishes, and no one plans to produce outright bad ones. Where the going gets tough, or ought to, is among the books that are merely mediocre.
Controversial, provocative, outrageous, maybe even sacrilegious!  How could she even think such a thing?  Could it be, just maybe -- bite your tongue, Montgomery -- because it's true?

As a fairly active book reviewer, I see a lot of books.  Hundreds of 'em... at least a thousand a year, if I had to guess.  They are piled around my office in three to five foot stacks that perpetually threaten to topple over and kill me.

(The upside to that is that if anyone were ever to try a drive-by shooting down our quiet, suburban, dead-end street, the bullets would never reach me.  But the chances of that hardly outweigh the stress of navigating through a maze of books like a rat after cheese.)

Virtually all of the books I get are crime fiction of one sort or another: mysteries, thrillers, suspense, a little bit of horror and true crime.  Books by bestselling authors, debut authors, midlist authors, self-published authors, wannabe authors, old authors, new authors...the list goes on.
Some of the books are great (although never as many as one would hope), a lot of them are good, the majority are adequate.  That is what you'd expect.  After all, we're dealing (mostly) with professionals, companies that are doing this in an effort to earn a profit.
The shocking part, though, is just how many of these books are truly bad.  I would say conservatively that 10% of these books will never be read.  By anyone.  Not just my copy, either.  Every copy.  (I often wonder if the editor in charge even read it -- I suspect not.)  Many of these books are so bad that I can't even give them away, much less read them myself.
The book will languish on a few dozen bookstore shelves, occasionally picked up and quickly perused by a particularly intrepid shopper, then just as quickly replaced, passed over once again.  Eventually it will be returned to the publisher and remaindered, tossed into a bargain book bin with a $2.95 price sticker on it.  And still no one will buy it.
Most of the copies will end up on library shelves, ordered by hopeful librarians in a moment of supportive whimsy, eager to provide something new and different for her patrons.  And still it will go unread.  Even for free, no one is willing to take a chance.
The book will gather dust, its pages will yellow with time and it will sit.  Year after year, it will remain ignored until it is finally removed, stamped "Discarded" and sent off to the Elephant Graveyard of old library books that nobody wants.
What possible reason could there for readers to shun this poor book?  Simple: it is no damn good!  The premise is lame, the plot is trite, the writing pedestrian at best.  The characters are flat and unbelievable, the dialogue is ridiculous.  And it's not even difficult to see this!  Five minutes with the book reveals it wholly unworthy of any further attention.
"That's just your opinion!" you cry.  No.  It's more than that.  Even when dealing with art and personal taste, there are independent standards of quality.  It is possible, in some cases even easy, to make objective determinations.  Preferring chicken to pork might be a matter of taste, but refusing to eat a shit sandwich is objective.
So why were they published in the first place?  Damned if I know.  Obviously someone thinks them worthy.  Some publisher crunched the numbers and decided the book would earn back its cost, possibly even make a tiny profit.  Who knows, maybe it did.  (After all, those optimistic librarians bought 90% of the copies that were printed, so the publishers made their money.)
That's not a good enough reason, though, especially not for an industry that is perpetually crying poormouth.  Flinging clumps of dung at the wall in hopes that some of it will stick is hardly a reliable business model, even if Hollywood does seem to use it successfully.  (The difference is that the movie studios have a potential audience of billions, so they can afford to be looser with their standards.  Publishers have no such luxury.)
If we're to see any improvement, it is essential that editors tighten up their standards.  Even if publishers were to eliminate that hypothetical 10% of pure dross it would be significant progress.  If they were to remove another selection of marginal titles, it would be that much better.
Sure, readers will have slightly fewer choices when it comes to reading material.  But they weren't liable to pick those books anyway.  A handful of would-be authors won't have the joy of seeing their books in print -- but, then again, they don't deserve to in the first place.  Besides, there are always self-publishing and vanity options available to them.
If publishers were to concentrate more on fewer titles -- and even slightly fewer would be a start -- everyone would benefit.  The books would be better, authors would sell more copies, publishers would make more money, and readers would be better served.
Or you can try reading the latest mystery featuring a psychic cat on the trail of the century's worst serial killer...but don't say I didn't warn you.