Thursday, May 21, 2009

Too many "unworthy" writers getting published?

Emerald Jaguar, aka emmyjag, offered up an interesting question recently about who's to blame for published books that are riddled with errors. Is it the author's responsibility to put out polished work? Or the editorial team's? The discussion (a good one, too, accessible through the post title) resurrected a question I've occasionally tossed around in my mind.

What's the publisher's role? What's the reader's role?

It seems to me, the final arbiter of quality is the publisher. That's where the buck stops. It's the company that sets the standards for its product; it's the acquisitions editor(s) who, in accordance with those standards, must decide whether or not to give new material a chance. I can't help but wonder how, if a submitted manuscript is dreadfully written (loaded with spelling, grammatical, and syntactical errors; lacking in plot consistency; burdened by wooden dialogue and leaden characters), the damned thing gets accepted in the first place!

And the damned things do get accepted. All the time. For electronic and print publication. I suspect we've all read the output of verbally challenged writers. I don't mean people who have an essential but occasionally flawed command of their craft, I mean those who don't seem to realize authorship is a craft.

So maybe they have active imaginations capable of churning out plot devices like there's no tomorrow -- say, dragon-shifter ghosts that haunt the British Isles, looking for reincarnations of their former soulmates . . . or whatever. Maybe they have a real flair for dreaming up kinky sex scenes. Both of those capabilities are just dandy, but they don't amount to trail of rat turds if the writer doesn't have a sound command of both the language and the fundamental elements of fiction.

To quote comedian Ron White, "You can't fix stupid." Were I an editor who had some corned beef hash of a story thrust at me, I sure as hell wouldn't know how to turn it into New York Strip. And the author sure as hell wouldn't know, either, because s/he thinks that hash is New York Strip.

Ergo, it's publishers who must bear the brunt of responsibility for what kind of product they put before the reading public.

But . . . but (and here's something else to consider) what's the role of consumers? If the reading public gobbles down the hash without complaint, publishers have no incentive to improve their menus.

Whaddaya think?


jessewave said...

I have complained many times and have asked publishers this question whenever I interview them, but no one seems to have answers. I do think that the author has a responsibility to send the publisher the cleanest manuscript they can and if it is riddled with typos and spelling errors the publisher should return it.

About 18 months ago a writer (very well known) asked me to read her manuscript which was part of an ongoing series. I returned it to her a couple of days later and told her that I could not read it because it was riddled with errors. Her response - ignore the errors. I politely declined.

So far I have found that Samhain have the least number of errors, on average, in their books.
I think part of the problem is the newer pubs. that would take anything. There is one I absolutely abhor but I won't name them here. I'll email the information to you.

Consumers should put their money where their mouth is. I no longer buy from a few publishers whose books are so bad that I'm surprised that they ever were published. Both the publishers AND the writers have a responsibility to ensure that they don't put out a substandard product.

K. Z. Snow said...

The problem may be twofold, Wave, but I doubt any publisher would admit to either: 1.) a belief that more is better, i.e., "We're going to best the competition simply on the strength of the number of books we put out;" 2.) a lack of qualified, discerning acquisitions editors. I fully agree that a manuscript chock full of errors or lacking in creativity should be returned.

Then there's that pesky third possibility, which I mentioned late in my post: readers who don't give a rip. I just came across one today at a blog. She essentially said she wouldn't notice mistakes if they bit her in the butt. Therefore, they don't matter to her.

What I find troubling is that dreadful writers keep lowering the bar and making crap more acceptable. And that, in turn, siphons royalties away from writers who do take their work seriously and put a lot of time into it.

(I have to say that Loose Id has a really phenomenal editorial staff, right down to eagle-eyed FLEs and proofreaders. I'm so grateful for the things they catch!)

Jeanne said...

Interesting post, KZ
I feel I lucked out with my publishers, too. Liquid Silver Books takes improving their authors' craft very seriously. They offer ongoing workshops with hands on involvement for both their authors and aspiring authors.
I just went through a thorough -- and I mean, *thorough* -- edit for my last work from them.
I can tell that the editing process took.

MB (Leah) said...

I think the blame is on both author and editor' heads. But agree with you that in the end it's the editor/publisher's fault if crap is being put out there.

If an author sends in a work riddled with mistakes and general crappy writing, then it's the editor's job to not even accept it. And if they do, then it's their obligation to clean it up before it's offered to the public.

I'm one of those readers who reads mainly ebooks from smaller epubs. And I like to read a certain genre that's not too popular so the pickings are slim and I'm forced to take what's offered. I can tell you that most of what I'm reading is stuff that I wouldn't force on my worst enemy. Books riddled with punctuation issues, awful euphemisms, plot holes and so on. Crap, crap and more crap.

And I wouldn't know good grammar if it hit me on the head. So if even I notice these problems, it's really, really bad.

Bottom line though, when I read an awful book like that, first person I do blame is the editor because those books should never have even been accepted to begin with.

Unfortunately for me and fortunately for some authors, I will still buy in that very unpopular genre because there's not much choice and I want to read it. Ugh!

K. Z. Snow said...

That has to be difficult, Leah. I know you take your reading and reviewing seriously, and feeling obligated to wade through junk must get awfully frustrating.

This brings up another point. It's important for reviewers, just as it is for readers, to let publishers know when they're putting out grossly substandard fiction. If there's enough of an outcry, maybe the bar will be raised. As I said in my post, publishers have no incentive to change their policies if readers keep buying books regardless of how messed up or derivative they are.

Consumer demand for a higher-quality product is what creates a higher-quality product.

Ananji said...

Hmm. I think it's the publisher's ultimate responsibility to ensure quality in their product. But we live in the age of big box store philosophy, and so the key to profitability has spread to the publishing industry -- volume is the bottom line. Thus, quality takes second fiddle.

Regarding authors, I think there are four types. Those who:

~ know their skill is marginal and spare the world the grief of reading their drivel;
~ humbly admit they're talented and plug along in the publishing rat race;
~ think everything they write is an earth-shaking epiphany and assault the world with their Ass-itude.

Maybe a decent writer is a little of all those things. Either way, it's still up to the publisher. In my skillfully, humble and asinine opinion.

K. Z. Snow said...

I've seen the "quantity over quality" mentality in action, Ananji, but I won't say where. Your box-store analogy was an excellent way of putting it.

That was a succinct and accurate breakdown of writers, too, although I do believe it's important to cut aspirants some slack. Perspective on one's own abilities is difficult to achieve and maintain. It comes, usually, with age and experience (both have a way of carving an ego down to manageable size!)

I'll never fault anybody for trying to get published. I will, however, fault acquisitions editors for not sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Katrina Strauss said...

To quote comedian Ron White, "You can't fix stupid." Or as Stephen King says, you can't make a bad writer good, but a good writer can became great. I'd suggest the underlying issue is that some editors have a different idea of bad, good, and great, but to those of us with an adequate grasp of writing, grammar, prose structure, etc, it's hard to argue "subjective" in regard to just plain bad.

Of course the above likely contains a typo or two as I'm hyped up on allergy meds, but in the case of professional writing versus shooting the sh*t on a blog, it's safe to say I pay more attention when I'm getting paid for my words!

K. Z. Snow said...

Yeah, Katrina, that old "it's a matter of personal taste" refrain scrapes my nerves. There's a point at which definable standards trump subjective judgments.

it's safe to say I pay more attention when I'm getting paid for my words!

Say it isn't so! :-)

Kris said...

I said at Emmy's that I do think that editting mistakes, etc are the responsibility of both the author and editor, but I also firmly believe the buck ultimately stops with the publisher. After all, it is their product and they are one who employ or contract the others.

K. Z. Snow said...

Kris, exactly. There's a big difference between correctable mistakes/weaknesses and just plain crappy writing.

Xandra Gregory said...

Talent is subjective, skill can be measured. Don't forget, in romance and erotic romance, we are dealing with very emotional and visceral subject matter, a lot of which relies on garnering an emotional response from a reader. If you become emotionally invested enough in a story, the writing disappears into the background. Great for a reader, because they get the ride they hoped for, but not so great for an editor, whose job it may be to make sure that the writing does as little as possible to intrude on the story (although not always--there are stories and subgenres where it's the prose itself that makes the story stand out, or it's the prose the readers read for, rather than the story).

K. Z. Snow said...

Hi, Xandra, and welcome. What you said is very true: readers do want to make an emotional connection, and many will overlook shoddy craftsmanship if they feel that connection is there.

I believe it's still important, though, for publishers and editors to ensure a certain level of quality in craftsmanship. As I said earlier, awarding too many lackadaisical "hobbyists" with authorship only makes it that much more difficult for worthy writers to get their due.