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The Wheat And The Chaff

The Wheat And The Chaff

Today there is a proliferation of more books being published than ever—which is both good and bad.

~ It’s good for readers because they have more books than ever to choose among.

~ It’s good for authors because they have more opportunity than ever to get their books published.

~ But it’s bad for readers because some of what’s out there are bad books—either badly written or poorly edited, or both—and how is a reader to know which books are worth buying?

~ And it’s bad for writers because with so many books out there, competition is fierce and sales of individual books are generally down.

What brought about this state of affairs?

Inarguably, the proliferation of self-publishing had a great deal to do with it. If a writer can’t get her book accepted by a traditional publisher (and there are many wonderful books that, for one reason or another, get rejected all around), she can always self-publish—although, assuredly, there are many authors who self-publish for other reasons, whose books were not rejected by publishers, but who chose to self-publish for other, perfectly valid reasons. And in no way am I putting a universal knock on the quality of self-published books.

Another factor is the rise of boutique publishers. Most of these use print-on-demand technology, rather than traditional printing with its larger and more expensive press runs, and the need for renting expensive warehouse space. And many of these boutique publishers do not accept returns of unsold copies. All these factors put together mean that the boutique publishers can afford to accept and publish more books per year than most other publishers, excluding the few industry giants.

Some of the boutique publishers, operating on a small budget, pay little to their editors…and get what they pay for. Some of the self-published books aren’t edited at all…or are “edited” by the author’s sister-in-law, the retired second grade teacher, who mostly vets the book for obvious spelling errors…period.

To be sure, I have caught glaring errors in some books put out by major publishers. I won’t name names but I can think of one traditional big publisher in particular in whose books I inevitably find errors—spelling, typos, grammatical goofs and gaffes. But these errors are more likely to pop up in books that either have not been edited or have been edited by either a second-rate editor or an amateur.

And with this huge proliferation of books to choose from, what is the content of a particular book? If it’s nonfiction, is the topic interesting? If it’s fiction, is the plot entertaining? Is the book well written? If it’s nonfiction, does the author know her subject well? Fiction or nonfiction, how does this book compare with others on the same topic or in the same genre? With so many books to choose from, how does the reader discern which is the best choice to spend her money on?

So, many really good books get left by the wayside because of the huge quantity of other books competing for the reader’s limited budget.

Reviews aren’t much help. First of all, what appeals to a reviewer may not appeal to any given reader. Different tastes. “Different strokes for different folks.” Second, the major reviewers—such as those in the New York TIMES—review basically the books from the major, traditional publishers. There are an awful lot of really good, really worthwhile books coming out of boutique publishers and self-publishers that will never get reviewed by the major reviewers.

Of course there are the reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and such, where any Jane Doe or John Smith can leave a review of any book. But how trustworthy are those reviews? For one thing, the reviewer’s credentials may be questionable, or at best her tastes may not match yours. I have seen good books totally dissed by these so-called reviewers. One wonders at the motive behind these poisonous comments. And on the other hand, I have seen rave reviews that are totally undeserved. Some books, including some really bad ones, get bogus reviews written by the author’s friends and family.

Once again, it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you’re ordering online and cannot thumb through a copy before making your decision—and many wonderful books are just not available in bookstores—how do you know if a book is worth spending your money and your reading time on? How do you tell the wheat from the chaff?

So there are more books than ever to choose from, more competition for the authors, and more competition for the reader’s dollars. If you are a reader with unlimited funds, unlimited reading time, and unimited bookshelf space, this plethora of books to choose from is a blessing—although also a curse if you choose wrong. But how many people do you know who fit that description, anyhow? And if you are an author, you have a better chance than ever to get your book published—but a slimmer chance to sell a lot of copies.

It’s a mixed blessing, for sure.

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