Who Cares about Quality Writing Anymore?

by Jami Gold on March 13, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Bored girl holding her head in her hand

No, that’s not a rhetorical or trick question.  Recent events in the publishing industry have left me asking that as a serious point of confusion and discouragement.

I know this is an ongoing complaint about the state of literature.  Over a century ago, people complained about penny dreadfuls and dime novels, and then moved on to complaints about pulp magazines, comic books, and mass-market paperbacks.

In many ways, this argument has historically been framed as genre fiction versus literary fiction, but I’ve known too many genre authors (including myself) who genuinely care about the craft of writing to allow that attitude to stand.  Now the ability of people to accept low-quality writing is creating surprising situations.

What Are the Gatekeepers Protecting Behind the Gates?

In recent decades, publishers were seen as the gatekeepers, the ones protecting readers from crap writing.  A story didn’t need to be merely good, it had to be great.  Publishers began cultivating their reputations as these gatekeepers.

As self-publishing rose in prominence in recent years, publishers promoted those reputations even more.  They wanted readers to associate their names on the spine with quality writing in order to differentiate themselves from the deluge of self-published books.

A self-published label doesn’t automatically mean the writing will be crap, just as a traditional publisher doesn’t guarantee quality.  However, that fact didn’t stop some agents and publishers from bemoaning the lack of gatekeeping infecting the industry.

Enter the “celebrity” books.  These are the books that publishers provide to readers regardless of their quality (or lack thereof) because, like any business, they’re trying to make money.  Yet, even the Snooki book was edited (and most likely, ghost-written), as the publisher didn’t want to damage their reputation too much.

So, what are we to make of the Vintage Books deal for Fifty Shades of Grey?  Vintage Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (which is part of Random House), is supposedly known for highbrow literature.  Which begs the question, why did they release their version of the ebook yesterday with zero editing?

Many people love these books, but even they admit the writing is in desperate need of editing.  At Jezebel, where they share several amusing NSFW (not safe for work) excerpts, their consensus was “the book is pretty ridiculous — for every lashing there’s an “OMG!”"

(Mildly NSFW tangent: One sentence from the excerpt had me laughing out loud: “Pulling off his boxer briefs, his erection springs free.”  Hello, dangling (*ahem*) modifier!  Did his erection have little hands to pull off those boxers? *snicker*  Sorry, I’m not trying to bash anyone—every author makes those blunders—but that’s why editors are so important.)

With their decision to release the ebooks with all these errors intact, Vintage Books has proven they care about money more than their reputation, more than quality writing, and more than the readers.  They say an edited version is coming later—as if that makes everything better.

No, what that means is they’re perfectly happy to sell a version they admit needs editing for the full price in the meantime because they don’t want to lose any potential sales during the current media storm simply due to that pesky concept of quality.  There’s healthy greed, and then there’s naked, ugly greed that breaks trust with readers.

Are the publishers gatekeepers of anything?  Can they still claim to protect the reader?  Do they still care about quality writing?

Signs point to “no.”

As I discussed with agent Rachelle Gardner after my rant about how publishers view social media, “[It seems like] the numbers are more important than the words.”  And she essentially agreed with me.  This latest deal by Vintage Books is yet another example confirming that sad fact.

Do Readers Care?

As mentioned above, readers know and recognize that the writing quality in Fifty Shades of Grey is less than great.  Yet, many of them love the story anyway.

In fact, the book has often been labeled “literary” instead of “genre” fiction, despite the writing quality.  And if literary isn’t defined by high-quality writing, what is it defined by?  Too much navel-gazing?  Not enough of a plot?

Does that mean readers don’t care about quality writing either?

An argument can certainly be made that good storytelling forgives almost any writing sin.  As a writer, I’m more sensitive to mistakes than typical readers because I’ve trained myself to look for them in my own writing.  So yes, my ability to enjoy crap writing is negatively affected in that regard, but this lack of discernment among the NY literary crowd surprised me as well.

Regardless, I have an answer for the question posed the title: Who cares about quality writing anymore?

Me—and all those thousands of other authors who read craft books, attend workshops, value their beta readers and critique partners for feedback, and push themselves to continually improve.

On some level, we always write for ourselves.  We write because we have to, because we’d go stir crazy without that creative outlet, because we want to make our ideas and characters manifest on the page.

That means we don’t need anyone’s “permission” to aim for quality writing.  Even if no one else cares whether I edit dangling modifiers from my writing or spend several minutes debating whether that sentence should have a comma, I care.

I care because I’m a perfectionist.  I care because I respect my readers.  I care because my name, my brand, and my reputation are important to me.  I care because I approach writing as my profession.  I care because I’m passionate about writing.

I care because I’m me.  And that’s really all that matters.

Do traditional publishers still offer benefits to readers over self-publishers?  Do publishers still function as gatekeepers?  Do you think readers care about writing quality?  How important is writing quality to you?  What do you think about this Vintage Books deal?  Does it break an implied trust with readers to sell an unedited version?

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84 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Angela Ackerman March 13, 2012 at 5:56 am

This is the first I’ve heard about an unedited version being released. I am kind of sick at the fact that they know it’s in bad shape and still want to rake in the cash.

I know the reader end of this is important–ultimately they pay cash for the product. But as a writer, I can’t help but seeing it through a different filter. Writers who publish traditionally trade the editing & marketing processes for dollars–we all know that. However, more and more often we hear about how promises made are promises broken with the marketing end…and now it’s happening with the editorial end, too?

Right now, trust is one of the few layers that keeps career authors with publishers when many can do better on their own. I wonder how the author must feel, knowing they’ve been let down by the publisher in this manner. I would not want my ‘rough writing’ out there for all the world to see, no matter how many sales might come of it.

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 9:21 am

Hi Angela,

Exactly. This is one of those things that prompts the question: “Then what good are they?”

If publishers aren’t doing promotion or marketing, and now they aren’t doing editing and are ruining their reputation, what do they offer to a writer that they can’t accomplish on their own? This realization was a big part of my feeling of discouragement this past weekend after the news broke Friday night. *sigh* Thanks for the comment!

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Anna DeStefano March 14, 2012 at 10:55 am

Agree totally.

While there are publishers out there who do still focus on the editing, if you’re writing for/reading books from one that doesn’t, you have to make your voice heard with your next contract and book buy. If this kind of publishing isn’t your cup of tea, there are quality freelance editors everywhere for a writer to send work to, and alternatives for every reader who’s loking for more, not less, from their purchase.

In the end, alas, it’s the writer’s responsibility to make the book/story the very best it can be. Always has been. In the world of self/indie/digital-first publishing, this has never been more true. And if content/line/copy editing aren’t your thing, then get yourself the help you need to reach readers the way you want to. Not everyone has this skill, but that’s not an excuse to let the quality slide, even if your publisher might be willing to to make a faster buck.

Yes, all publishers should be focused on quality over quantity/numbers/celebrity sales. Not all do. But, as you say, Jami, all writers should mind their own business. In the end, it’s our name and our words, and we control what we allow the world to see.

Great post!

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Jami Gold March 14, 2012 at 11:30 am

Hi Anna,

Yes, as I’ve mentioned in a different comment, if I decide to go the self-publishing route for some of my stories, I’ll get a freelance editor to help me make the story the best it can be. No one else will care about my name or reputation as much as I do, so it’s my responsibility to make sure my work deserves my name and helps my reputation. Thanks for the comment!

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Nathan Lowell March 13, 2012 at 6:06 am

The thing about ‘quality writing’ is that it’s just not that cut and dried.

In the first place, there’s a continuum of “quality” that needs to be recognized. The axiom I grew up with was “It’s never done, it’s just due.” The idea of “good enough” has a negative connotation but it also means that I have to accept that it will never be perfect. I can make it as good as I can, but there comes a point where additional polish doesn’t add anything. It just delays the inevitable. Worse, too much polish takes the edge off the story, takes the bite out of the prose. (I realize that’s not what you’re talking about here, but it’s really the crux.)

In the second place, there’s Sturgeon’s Law — that 90% of everything is crap. What gets lost is that it’s a unilateral finding. You don’t get to pick the 10% of good stuff for me. That’s what mainstream publishing has been claiming for decades – the prerogative to find the good stuff and to screen out the crap. The problem is capacity. They lack it. They can’t publish everything so they pick the top 1% of stuff they think can sell.

Which brings up the third thing. Their definition of quality is “what we can sell most of.” Contrary to popular belief, the gatekeeping function is not about quality writing — and certainly not quality story telling. It’s about what has the best probability of selling a metric buttload.

Me? I don’t care about “quality writing.” That’s not because I’m not interested in the craft, or because I’m just shilling for the shillings. It’s because I don’t think *I* get to say what that is. I think it’s up to the readers. It’s up to the people who read and hear my stories. If they’re entertained, they’ll clamor for more. If not, well…that’s another kind of message–a message I need to heed.

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 9:37 am

Hi Nathan,

“The axiom I grew up with was “It’s never done, it’s just due.””

Oh, I totally get that. :) As a perfectionist, I struggle with that “good enough” line with every blog post and every decision to submit a story. I’ve gotten much better at recognizing true improvement vs. fiddling over my years of writing.

“Their definition of quality is “what we can sell most of.””

Good point! And I don’t disagree with publishers on that aspect–they are a business after all. But now we have a publisher consciously choosing to sell at full price what my TechGuy calls in a comment further down: the beta version. Even software companies don’t sell beta versions at full price. :)

As for your point about readers determining what constitutes “quality writing,” I’d agree with you if we defined it as “quality storytelling.” However, no, I don’t expect typical readers to know what a dangling modifier is or how to recognize one. That lack of their grammatical knowledge should not mean that I, as a writer, should be able to get away with not recognizing/eliminating them either. So the craft aspect of quality writing should fall on the shoulders of writers, while the judgment of storytelling quality resides with the reader, IMHO. Thanks for the comment!

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Nathan Lowell March 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm

“So the craft aspect of quality writing should fall on the shoulders of writers, while the judgment of storytelling quality resides with the reader, IMHO.”

Yeah. I wouldn’t argue with you on this point. If the reader can’t understand what’s happening on the page, that’s a problem.

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Anna DeStefano March 14, 2012 at 10:58 am

There are different kinds of editors, Nathan. Some focus on the grammer and fine-tuning, others on crafting the best story for the reader. Both skill sets are valuable. Both types of editing will make the story better.

I’m with you on this one. The writer’s resonsible for the reader’s experience. We can’t control it, once the book’s out there. But we can dig as deep as we can to give the reader the best shot possible of experiencing the world we’re creating on the page.

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Jen J. Danna March 13, 2012 at 6:12 am

Readers certainly should care about writing quality; as a reader, I know I certainly do. I wasn’t aware that an unedited ebook versi0n of FSoG was released yesterday, but it clearly shows the desire of the publishing company to make a fast buck versus turn out a quality product. They wanted to get in on the current furor over this piece. Let’s be honest, if it was top priority, they could have done a fast edit and gotten it out there in 3 or 4 weeks, but instead they took the shortcut. It certainly says something to me about Vintage Books, but it isn’t anything good!

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Jen J. Danna March 13, 2012 at 6:29 am

I’m coming back one more time to say that I just went and read the Jezebel article you linked to. o_O I actually laughed out loud, and I’m pretty sure that first sex scene wasn’t actually supposed to be funny.

Oh my…

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 9:41 am

Hi Jen,

Yes, I’ve read the first chapter from the comparison between the fanfic version and the published version. And I can tell you the writing in that whole chapter struck me the same way–unintentionally funny. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 9:38 am

Hi Jen,

I agree with everything you said. Yes, it is a shortcut to cash in, and it definitely says something to me about Vintage Books that isn’t good. Thanks for the comment!

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Anna DeStefano March 14, 2012 at 10:59 am

Unfortunately, readers care about what they choose to care about.

I think the key is how do we, as writers, connect and server the readers we want to care about our stories. If quality is important to you, both the grammer and the story structure, then figure out how to reach the readers who want the same things. The rest will be happy with Snookie’s next opus. Shrug.

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Chihuahua0 March 13, 2012 at 6:26 am

Ah, quality writing. At one forum, one user posted an interview of an YA publisher, and another user reacted along the lines of “they want more of what we don’t want?!”

For the record, the user was probably referring to dystopian romances with female protagonist and love triangles with best friend/mysterious friend as lovers…which describes the majority of mainstream YA, sadly.

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 9:40 am

Hi C0,

LOL! Yes, the “same but different” idea, which often seems to suggest “different but same.” Thanks for the comment!

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Shannon Bibby March 13, 2012 at 7:41 am

I completely agree with your post. Publishing companies are definately about the big money and no concern for reputation or quality. As far as myself, I would much rather have quality when it comes to my writing. Editing is a HUGE thing for me, so once I have my book completed I certainly intend on hiring an editor even if I don’t have a big name publisher. Thanks for your post! I enjoyed reading it!

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 9:44 am

Hi Shannon,

“Editing is a HUGE thing for me, so once I have my book completed I certainly intend on hiring an editor even if I don’t have a big name publisher.”

Ditto! No one is going to care about my “brand” as a writer of quality as much as I do, so it’s my job to protect my reputation by ensuring quality editing. I use tons of beta readers for my stories just to get them to the submission-ready level, and if I ever self-publish, I’ll be investing in a freelance editor as well. Thanks for the comment!

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Macy Beckett March 13, 2012 at 7:45 am

It’s not *only* the lack of editing that bothers me. What I want to know is how the author of 50 Shades (aka: Master of the Universe) isn’t being sued by Stephanie Meyer for publishing fanfiction.

Hey, I’ve read some fanfic in my day, and I have no problem with folks sharing it for free. But once you piggyback on the coattails of a successful author in order to establish a fan base, then change the names in your story and try to sell it, that’s SO. NOT. COOL.

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 9:48 am

Hi Macy,

Yes, I wrote about this issue last week–When Does Fan Fiction Cross an Ethical Line (the super long comment string there is still going strong as people are engaging in a fantastic conversation) and What Makes a Character Unique (talking about the just changing names issue). I agree with everything you said about it here.

As for the question of why Stephenie Meyer hasn’t taken action yet? I don’t know. But copyright holders have until 50 years after the death of the author to take action, so unless she files in the courts, this won’t be truly “settled” for a long time. (Imagine her kids taking the fanfic author’s estate to court 50 years from now.) Thanks for the comment!

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TRF March 14, 2012 at 2:11 pm

I think SM makes money from fanfiction: it mantains an active “fandom” and the interest in her books and the movies. Surely the last movie wouldn’t be such a success without the fandom and fanfiction is an important part of it. It’s been just one case so maybe she doesn’t do anything about it (oh, but her four children could…).
I’m so happy the best seller fiction in Spain this week is a novel, it’s literature, edited and published by one of the most respected companies.

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Jami Gold March 14, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Hi TRF,

“I’m so happy the best seller fiction in Spain this week is a novel, it’s literature, edited and published by one of the most respected companies.”

Okay, now I feel envy. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Jami's Tech Guy March 13, 2012 at 9:03 am

>>”They say an edited version is coming later—as if that makes everything better.”

Ahhh, so they’re releasing a Beta version of the story. I wonder how they’ll enable early buyers to upgrade to the latest version. I didn’t realize the publishing industry was mimicking the software one.

*calls FSoG book support*
“This book is terrible, with grammar so bad English teachers everywhere are spinning in their graves. Even living ones.”
-This is Steve, I’m sorry you are having problems. What version of FSoG do you have?
“Version? Um it’s an ebook.”
-Please go FSoG.org, enter your serial number, and get the latest version.
“What?”
-If you have a support contract, you can upgrade to the latest version.
“What?”
-Thank you for calling FSoG book support. Have a Grey day.

-Jay
@jaytechdad

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Brooklyn Ann March 13, 2012 at 10:01 am

That is just too funny…and terrifying.

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Melinda Collins March 13, 2012 at 10:22 am

LOL!! But the sad part is that this may be what they’re going to end up doing in order to get an updated version into the readers’ hands. :(

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Buffy Armstrong March 13, 2012 at 10:30 am

That made me snort through my nose. My boss is looking at me like I’m idiot. Too funny!

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Jami's Tech Guy March 13, 2012 at 11:27 am

Yay, I made someone snort and it’s not even noon. My work for the day is done.

Seriously though, writing quality is extremely important to me. I love to beta read in part because I get to see a story evolve from an interesting but ugly duckling to a gorgeous and even more interesting swan over the course of a few revisions. The finished story, with improved pacing, better plotting, and fewer things pulling me out of the world is far more compelling. (And yes, it makes me downright giddy when an author incorporates my suggestions into their story.)

Which reminds me, my beta pile is empty…

-Jay
@jaytechdad

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 11:57 am

Hi TechGuy,

Good point! Yes, great storytelling can pull a reader back into the story after they’ve been pulled out, but my goal is to never kick a reader out of the story to begin with. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 11:11 am

Hi TechGuy,

“Beta version” LOL! Exactly!

I believe Amazon might have the ability to email buyers of an ebook to alert them to new versions, but as far as I know, the other ebook retailers do not. As far as whether it would be a free upgrade, that’s an excellent question!

Would they get a new ISBN number because there were so many changes? If so, the upgrade probably wouldn’t be free. Thanks for the comment and the laugh!

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Brooklyn Ann March 13, 2012 at 9:14 am

I think the big issue is that most readers don’t know what quality writing is. I blame this on the text-messaging generation. Social networking sites are filled with teens’ status updates that read: “OMG im so board,” “wat r u doin” etc. So what we see as unedited crap, they see as superior spelling and sentence structure. It’s really sad.

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 11:16 am

Hi Brooklyn Ann,

I don’t disagree with you in the slightest. *sigh*

Many schools aren’t teaching sentence diagramming anymore. (Heck, when I was in school *mumble* years ago, I think I had a whole week on sentence diagramming. Ever.) If someone understands sentence diagramming, they can recognize dangling modifiers, impossible present participle phrase actions, “squinting” modifiers, etc. (I’m not always good at catching those last ones. :) )

It is rather depressing. And in the next couple of years we’ll hear the whining and moaning from these same students that they can’t find a job because they have no business communication skills. *double sigh* Thanks for the comment!

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Anna DeStefano March 14, 2012 at 11:04 am

Readers know what they want when the see it. Or when a publisher or social media “expert” they’re following tells them what they want.

How do we counteract that pattern? By telling them a story that’s so good, so well-written, so “effortlessly” better than anything else they’ve recently paid money for, they give us some of their time. And tell others, and build a buzz, and the social media flies…because of quality.

I don’t mean to be beating the same tune all over the comments. But it begins with what we do as writers, and then it spreads, as we figure out how to make what’s important to us clear and appealing to the masses.

We’re not getting anywhere saying it’s not fair that quality isn’t what’s being bought above all else. We’ll make that change by supporting publishers who still care about the books they sell, over (or as much as) the dollars they make, and by banding together to reach the readers who care about the same things.

Or am I just ranting???

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Jami Gold March 14, 2012 at 11:33 am

Hi Anna,

No I don’t think you’re ranting. :)

I agree with you about how it doesn’t help to complain about the situation “not being fair.” That wasn’t what this post was about. My whole point was that, we, as authors, have the power to ensure our own quality, and then as you said, to work with publishers who will help us make our work even better. Thanks for the comment!

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Buffy Armstrong March 13, 2012 at 9:38 am

As a reader and as a writer, good writing will always be important to me.

I read somewhere when I was in high school or college, “Computers have made bad writing easier.” (I am paraphrasing here.) That always stuck in my head. I guess we can say that the ease of e-books has made bad publishing easier. That statement is directed more at Vintage Books than at the self-published author.

I have different standards when it comes to self-published novels. I can forgive a multitude of literary sins. I can’t say the same for traditionally published novels. In the last few years, I’ve read some truly awful bestsellers. To add insult to injury, I bought them in e-book format and I can’t even donate them for the few dollar tax write-off or bounce them off the wall in frustration.

I know as a writer I worry all of the time about the quality of my writing. I am learning every day and I still know I have a long way to go. But isn’t that the point of becoming a writer in the first place?

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 11:24 am

Hi Buffy,

Interesting comparison! It’s similar to how the proliferation of spell-check and a sort-of-grammar-check can make people lazy when it comes to memorizing the correct way of doing things.

“I am learning every day and I still know I have a long way to go. But isn’t that the point of becoming a writer in the first place?”

Yes! A big part of why I love writing is because it’s never stagnant. I’m learning new things about the craft, I research topics or history to include in my story, I’m trying new risky things with my storytelling, etc. For me, writing is all about pushing myself to be better–every day. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins March 13, 2012 at 10:21 am

As an avid reader who thoroughly enjoys the hard work of the author and their editor, and also enjoys received *top quality work* for her hard-earned $$….and as a writer who has spent, like you, an enormous amount of time, energy, and $$, learning and perfecting her craft, I am absoluetly apalled that this particular book was purposefully released by a traditional publisher. And what kills me is that THEY ADMIT IT’S IN NEED OF EDITING!

*sigh*

I really, really don’t understand and I do wish that someone, maybe from another planet, would explain it to me. Other than that, quality writing and hard core editing is extremely important to me, and not just with my own work. If I’m paying for a traditionally published book then I expect that book to be *almost* top notch (hey, we all make mistakes and there are a few out there, but no where near as bad as they could be).

Every writer should care about their quality of writing. Think about it, if you go the self-publishing route you’re expected to be an entrepreneur. I wouldn’t open a bakery and sell half-baked muffins just the ingredients for someone to go home and make the goodies themselves. So why would I publish, or much less a publisher publish, a piece of work that’s not complete in it’s baking process? I think I just asked the question that you’ve already answered though. LOL! Greed!! $$!!! Anyway, I value my brand, my work, my readers, my EP’s, CP’s, and myself far too much to just throw something out there that’s not the absolute best it could possible be (and even then I’m always going to wish I’d done somethis differently).

Great post, as always, Jami!!! :)

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 11:28 am

Hi Melinda,

“I really, really don’t understand and I do wish that someone, maybe from another planet, would explain it to me.”

LOL! Yes, it might take someone from another planet to make it make sense. *sigh*

And I agree with everything you said. I don’t hold self-published books to a lower standard either. If someone enters the professional field of publishing, they should act like a professional (and respect my time as a reader) and not put something out there that’s less than what it should be. Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy S. Thompson March 13, 2012 at 10:32 am

“I care because I’m a perfectionist. I care because I respect my readers. I care because my name, my brand, and my reputation are important to me. I care because I approach writing as my profession. I care because I’m passionate about writing.”

I could have written this. I feel exactly the same way. Is there really anything more important than this, at least from a writer’s perspective?

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 11:35 am

Hi Nancy,

I don’t think there’s anything more important either. Which is why I don’t care if I could slack off. As I said over in the whole ethics of fanfic post, just because I can do something doesn’t make it right. So even if readers wouldn’t notice the errors–I’d notice. And that’s what matters to me. Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda March 13, 2012 at 12:14 pm

I can think of one advantage a big-name publisher can offer a reader: I’m more likely to walk into a bookstore and find the book on the shelf. As someone who can spend HOURS wandering the aisles, this is a big deal for me. Smaller publishers are likely to be overlooked by big chains, and it wouldn’t surprise me if your mom-and-pop bookstore can’t afford the prices from a smaller publisher.

That said, I’m not sure there’s a valid marker of quality writing any longer. Look at all the books that get nominated for the prestige awards (Man Booker, Nobel, National Book Award). Without fail, I pick up one of those books and I fall asleep within minutes. The writing might be top notch, but in some instances, the editors are fawning all over the writer and not bothering to edit AT ALL (and I can name at least two authors who need better editors, and both have large followings, and no, the first name does not begin with the letter “S”). Other times, editing won’t help a story without any action…and God knows how much time I’ve wasted reading (and buying) books that end up being nominated or winning awards and they are, I swear, the most boring books ever written.

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Hi Amanda,

LOL! Yes, I’ll admit I’m a genre reader for exactly those action, conflict, etc. reasons. :)

And you’re also right about how it seems the multi-published, popular authors often aren’t edited enough. A neighbor loaned me a book she thought I’d love (because it’s “a romance”) written by one of the grand dames of the romance genre. It was a Did Not Finish because it was filled with “As you know, Bob…” conversations. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. So yes, once an author gains a certain number of auto-buy readers, the editing quality often slacks off.

I see this as a separate issue though, because the auto-buy customers in the above scenario are ones who already love the author and are therefore blind to their faults, while this situation with Vintage Books involves trying to turn trendy buyers into future auto-buy customers. A backlash has already started about these books in regards to their quality, and Vintage Books doesn’t care because they’re interested only in grabbing the trendy buyers. It seems like a very short term strategy.

As for your observation about bookstores, that’s very true. Some smaller publishers are gaining a foothold in the Ingram’s catalog (the major book distributor to bookstores in the U.S.) and it will be interesting to see if that grows–or how much physical bookstores continue to matter in the next year or two (which is yet another depressing thought). Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Glover March 13, 2012 at 6:16 pm

I wonder at times if we are so judgmental about the current state of literature with the new publishing paradigms merely because we don’t recall the history of books.

I have a history degree, and I see this with politics and culture all of the time. People assume that politicians are far less civil now than ever, which is terribly untrue because we don’t all study the vicious presidential campaign of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson or the name-calling against Abraham Lincoln. We don’t remember the past because who researches that long ago and that much when we have plenty of other things to take care of? We remember the big stuff.

I’m not sure that books were that much better in quality with the Big Six or around the time of the printing press than now. I think people have always wanted to make money with books, so they are willing to publish whatever they believe will make money. It’s a creative calling for many writers, but it’s a business for publishers and distributors. We writers ourselves need to encourage a higher level of writing! So yeah, I agree that we need a higher quality of writing, Jami. I just don’t know if the publishers are the ones to do it.

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Hi Julie,

Yes, I very much had that rose-colored glasses, good old days tendency in mind as I wrote this post. :) As I pointed out in the beginning, people complained over a century ago about penny dreadfuls eroding literature.

I was thinking more about how in recent years publishers have tried to differentiate themselves from self-publishers by acting like they were devoted to quality, as though they had a lock on professional editing. And now, at least for Vintage Books, they can’t even claim that. So I wasn’t advocating that publishers should solely be in charge of quality writing. *shudders* More that, yes, I think it is a personal commitment on the part of the author, even if the publisher or reader no longer “requires” it from us. Thanks for the comment!

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AE March 13, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Jami,
I’ve chosen the path of self-publishing for a variety of reasons, but I will never deny that “validation” from the industry isn’t something I wouldn’t take if offered. By validation I mean review and editing and suggestions about my work, by people considered professionals.

I feel sorry for the author of 50SOG since it is obvious now she is simply a cash cow to not only her old vanity publisher but also to her new one. I would be horrified about seeing my subpar work out there but maybe that is just a level of standard I have that she doesn’t. In fact I think I would have worked it into my deal in the first place (editing before re-releasing) but I suspect all parties in this are more concerned about money than anything else.

Thanks for the discussion.

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 10:39 pm

Hi AE,

“By validation I mean review and editing and suggestions about my work, by people considered professionals.”

That’s a great way to define it. Being validated by someone rubber stamping us doesn’t mean as much, does it? :) Thanks for the comment!

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Anne Forlines March 13, 2012 at 9:27 pm

Love it or hate it, nearly everyone agrees that Fifty needs a good edit. At the very least, a copy edit. I’m astounded that the new publisher would release any version without first copy editing. Money talks, but an extra week would not have made a significant difference in the numbers.

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 10:40 pm

Hi Anne,

Exactly. This smacks of ugly greed, pure and simple. Thanks for the comment!

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Jessica Schley March 13, 2012 at 10:14 pm

I think Julie Glover’s point is a sound one, that to some extent, we do f

At the same time, I feel that at a minimum, a major house should be ready to take on the responsibility of at least editing for things like grammatical errors. I threw the sample on my nook yesterday morning just to see if they’d edited anything, especially given the substantial similarity between the fic “version” and the published one.

Not a word was changed. The opening is still riddled with all the sentence structure errors that it always has been. And more interestingly, all the front matter is still from The Writers’ Coffee Shop, despite the fact that the version is listed as published by Vintage.

And the REALLY scary thing…the paperback is supposed to drop on April 3, according to the B&N title computer. That means, with a 750,000-copy run, it’s on the press this week in order to be in stores for an April 3 release.

When were you planning to do that editing, again, Vintage?

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Jessica Schley March 13, 2012 at 10:18 pm

And totally abandoned that first sentence! Talk about a need for editors. :)

I think Julie’s point is a good one–that we do forget the past. For instance, there’s been a good deal of discussion in various parts of the net about how the “ebook revolution” in some ways mirrors the “POD revolution,” in that people assumed it was going to revolutionize the industry, but in the end, it simply gave major houses an even better way of controlling costs to keep their backlist in print.

I do think ebooks are behaving differently than POD in many ways, but I do wonder how it will all end up shaking down, and how radically different publishing will actually look when it’s all over…I mean, obviously James could’ve gone entirely self-pub a la Hocking and made her millions long before anyone gave her a contract, yet still she went with houses.

But, if publishing houses are going to say that they add value…I would like to see them add it. Having worked in one for a few years, I believe they do…but I can’t imagine my little house putting our name on something as poorly-edited as FSoG.

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Hi Jessica,

No worries about your editing. I’m sorry my commenting system doesn’t allow for people to edit their comments. I’m always happy to fix things if people want me to in order to make up for that fact.

And thanks for chiming in on the conversation from the perspective of someone who’s worked for a publisher. Yes, I wouldn’t want my name on it either (even with the money attached). If I publish through a publisher, I’d expect their editing to help me be my best. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t go with that publisher again. Thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold March 13, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Hi Jessica,

I hadn’t heard of a release date for the paperback yet. And the front matter is still TWCS? Wow, that…makes no sense. That’s just plain weird in fact. It will be interesting to hear how the supposed edited versions stack up, and if/how they make it available to previous buyers. Thanks for the comment!

(And I approved both posts because the text was different. Let me know if you want to edit or delete one. :) )

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Jamie Raintree March 14, 2012 at 12:13 am

I definitely care! And this is one of the reasons I still want to pursue traditional publishing in the age of self-publishing. I don’t trust that I can get it perfect by myself, no matter how much research and studying I do. I like the idea of creating a book as a team effort. I still have faith that traditional publishers can offer that. Maybe there will be some that are led astray but I think there will always be those out there who put quality first.

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Jami Gold March 14, 2012 at 9:15 am

Hi Jamie,

I sincerely hope this situation doesn’t herald a new lax attitude toward editing within publishers. I don’t think it will. I think this is more of an outlier situation driven by greed. That doesn’t make it any better for this situation, but it gives us hope for the big picture.

And I agree, even if I decide to self-publish some of my stories, I’ll be using a professional editor to help me make the story worthy of the professional level. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Donna Hole March 14, 2012 at 1:05 am

Lots of thoughtful details here. I will be back to read it again.

……dhole

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Duffy March 14, 2012 at 9:02 am

I think what a lot of the news media outlets and bloggers are forgetting is that The Writers Coffee Shop was not really a publisher when they started. TWCS was a site dedicated to talking about Fanfiction and a general place for people to go and discuss anything they wanted. The site was created by women who loved FanFiction. Much like Twilighted.net and Omnific. Twilighted.net was one of the first sites created that was solely dedicated to Twilight fanfiction and their forums discussed a wide variety of topics. That site was created by the same woman who founded Omnific Publishing.

The Writers Coffee Shop followed suit when Omnific Publishing launched. Both sites were a group of women who were lovers and readers of FanFiction and wanted to publish some fics and make some money. Neither of these two “publishers” had any experience with the industry, and for the most part flew by the seat of their pants using the fandom to sell their product.

TWCS just happened to pick more risque fics like “Master of the Universe” and “The Perfect Wife” both titles had a lot of controversy around them, so it looks like TWCS won the battle. I do believe Omnific tends to produce more quality books in terms of editing and standards and removing anything Twi related, unlike TWCS who never had any proper edits on their books.

Everyone is talking like TWCS “snagged” ’50 Shades of Grey’ but they didn’t. They approached Icy about publishing it and that’s how “TWCS Publishing House” was born.

This could be a whole new topic in itself…what does it take to make a Publishing House? And why use a Publisher if there are no benefits from it? They did nothing to improve Icy’s fic, and what kind of promoting did they do? MotU already had its own audience.

If Icy’s contract was a standard type contract with most Indie publishers, I bet she paid them at least 30% of her commission sales, if not more. So who’s the fool? She could have loaded MotU to Kindle Direct Publishing and Createspace and forgone the whole middleman who did absolutely nothing but cash checks.

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Jami Gold March 14, 2012 at 10:41 am

Hi Duffy,

“[W]hy use a Publisher if there are no benefits from it?”

That’s pretty much my question of the day, from looking at both TWCS and Vintage Books. :)

As for what it takes to start a publishing house? All you have to do is call yourself one. I know many people–friends of mine–who have signed with publishers I’ve never heard of. If those publishers can’t provide quality editing, get the books into bookstores, or help with promotion, I wonder what good are they and why my friends didn’t just self-publish.

But everyone has different goals for what they want from their writing career, and I can’t fault them for wanting to avoid learning all the in-and-outs of self-publishing. *shrug* And there are several small publishers with good reputations, good editing, and good support for their authors, so it’s not as simple as labeling all small publishers worthless. Maybe that small publisher I’ve never heard of is making an honest go of it, and they’ll be the next buzz-worthy thing in six months.

However, in the case of these pull-to-publish, fanfic-centric publishers, I think they’ve done a grave disservice to most of their authors by misleading them about what they could do for them, from editing to promotion. Thanks for the comment!

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KB/KT Grant March 14, 2012 at 9:12 am

Over at Entertainment Weekly’s Shelf Life someone commented that the 50 Shades books are being edited for Vintage:

http://shelf-life.ew.com/2012/03/12/fifty-shades-of-grey-a-winning-romance-novel-goes-from-fan-fiction-to-viral-hit/#comment-464820397

“It was edited and is currently being re-edited for the Vintage edition. Nor were just character names replaced before publishing. This work has characters that were not in Twilight. Did Edward Cullen have a bodyguard named Taylor in Twilight? No. Is Bella raised by her step-father? No. Is Edward seduced by an older woman? No. Yes, the roots of this story are widely known now. It’s the story of the day and tomorrow’s birdcage lining.

Fans of Christian and Ana are buying not only the first but the second and third books,
which are also top of the NY Times Bestseller’s lists. That shows that
people are enjoying this sexy romp that at its heart is a classic
romance with a kink.

Young innocent girl meets commanding, brooding, wealthy, older man was done before Ms Meyers. Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Tess all came long before Twilight. ”

But money talks and if a book can make a publisher a boatload of money without edits, then they’re not going to edit. 50 Shades is a perfect example of this.

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Jami Gold March 14, 2012 at 9:51 am

Hi KB/KT Grant,

Ugh, yes, the “editing” done by The Writers Coffee Shop (i.e. pseudo-vanity press) doesn’t count as editing–if for no other reason than it sucked. ;) Besides, the article at Dear Author yesterday proved that Fifty Shades of Grey is essentially the same as the fanfic version of Master of the Universe.” (They’re at least 89% the same according to plagiarism-detecting software, and many of the differences may be more “fiddling” than real changes, moving a paragraph break from before this sentence to after this sentence.)

I’ve already seen people chime in with their comparison between the TWCS version of FSoG and the Vintage Books version of FSoG, and they’ve said the ebooks released Monday are exactly the same (to the point of the front matter still saying The Writers Coffee Shop!). Vintage Books themselves have not claimed to have edited these ebooks.

As I mentioned in the post, Vintage Books does say they’re in the process of editing the paperback versions and will start selling the edited ebook versions after those are done, but they haven’t announced (that I’ve heard anyway) if or how they’ll update people’s old versions for free. In the meantime, they’re selling the “beta version” (hat tip to my TechGuy for the term) for full price. Thanks for the comment!

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The Chaser March 14, 2012 at 9:29 am

Hi Jami

Very interesting post again. I read a lot and very diverse subjects. I love beautiful sentences but beautiful writing with an engaging story is a rare contemporary find in my view.

John Birmingham wrote an op-ed in the Herald today, which finally addresses the fanfic/MoTU link. He also makes some interesting points about the future of publishing. But I do wonder if he has read the books and if Random House weren’t his publisher would he have addressed the end product – its lack of editing/polishing etc etc blah blah?

I enjoyed parts of the Fifty Shades trilogy simply for the novelty factor, and in THAT particular context of finding out about the whole fanfic genre and how the two versions were virtually unchanged. At the time it was just a bit of escapism. I did find the writing quite, well, awful in parts, particularly the contract which was just hilarious. But my personal peeve was the use of adverb overkill.

I find this whole THING – the fanfic link, the mainstream media’s denial, the WAY they’re promoting this book as ‘Mommy Porn’ no less, a major publishing House failing to push the book as a decent end product by doing its job, I mean there are just so many issues. A part of me does admire the writer for her drive but at the same time I wonder if she’ll be churning out books about these same characters as they dodder around the Red Room of Pain in their twilight years? I think it will be interesting to see this unfold as the hype dies down.

Best I lie down now. I was tempted to use more exclamation marks and the odd ellipsis but decided I better go to bed. Cheers for a really interesting post. ;)

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Jami Gold March 14, 2012 at 10:29 am

Hi Candice,

“I wonder if she’ll be churning out books about these same characters as they dodder around the Red Room of Pain in their twilight years?”

Twilight years”? *snicker* I did see one interview mention she was working on a fourth book in the series, so this isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

You make a good point about the novelty factor, and I wonder if that will fade or continue. Most series reach a point where they lose readers because they’re sick of the same issues/storylines/characters/stakes being rehashed over and over. So I do think there’s a limit to how far any author can milk a series, especially if the readers move on to other authors in the meantime.

However, many of the readers coming to these books are very casual readers, one to three books a year. So they might not try other erotic/BDSM/romance/whatever-appealed-to-them-about-these-stories books. Does that mean that they’ll gladly come back to her next release as their “one book a year” purchase, or will they have moved on since then? Only time will tell. Thanks for the comment!

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The Chaser March 14, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Thought I attached the link to John Birmingham’s piece. Here it is – http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/blogs/blunt-instrument/everybody-has-a-book-in-them-thats-the-best-place-for-it-20120315-1v4zj.html

No matter what at least we’re having an interesting debate/discussion etc etc. I particularly liked the comment about looking back at history with clarity (paraphrasing here – badly).
Cheers
C

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Jami Gold March 14, 2012 at 9:13 pm

Thanks Candice! :)

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Robert Medak March 14, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Great article!

As a freelance writer, blogger, editor, reviewer, and avid reader of most genres, I detest low quality writing.

I try to write in the active voice and help writers do the same with quality. There are many. Books that cross my desk that are in need of editing that I read for review.

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Jami Gold March 14, 2012 at 11:57 pm

Hi Robert,

Yes, my threshold for reading poor quality writing is very low. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Fiona Ingram March 15, 2012 at 12:22 am

This is a very interesting discussion and raises several points, which all concern the future. Can any writer sustain more books if they clearly have not grasped the basic concepts of grammar and sentence structure (don’t you just love those little hands yanking the boxer shorts???)? I think Random House have committed the unforgiveable in rushing into releasing badly edited (badly written?) novelty material? Their actions show they are concerned with cashing in quickly on trends which, through e-publishing, are becoming more and more shortlived. They must be so worried that next week someone else will come out with a new trend (the mind boggles!) that they are prepared to disgrace themselves by releasing material that clearly (judging by all the OMG-help-me-up-from-the-floor laughing) needs a LOT of work. Good quality, well written books are here to stay. The reaction of serious writers about the release of dreadful work is unanimous – these writers respect themselves and their readers. I really think this is a flash in the pan and will not last. I get angry when I read bad grammar and spelling that ANY computer program would have picked up. (The red line for a spelling error; the green line for grammar…) I hope other publishers will restrain themselves from flooding the market with unadulterated garbage. This is a warning to writers – are you in it for the long run? Do you respect yourself and your work enough to strive towards polishing and perfecting your work? Do you have NEW ideas for the next ten, twenty years? Are you writing for the short-term or the long-term? Let’s see this shocking state of publishing as a wake-up call to ourselves.

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Jami Gold March 15, 2012 at 8:20 am

Hi Fiona,

Yay! I think you’re the only person to have commented on that classic dangling modifier. Maybe the others were scared of those grabby little hands. ;)

And I agree. Much of this comes down to our attitude about whether we’re in this for the long run. If someone wants the quick buck, they might not care if their reputation is destroyed in the process. All that matters is whether the check arrives before the implosion.

Like you, my attitude has always been to approach writing as a profession and a career, so I’m in this for the long haul. :) Thanks for the comment!

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The Chaser March 15, 2012 at 3:24 am

Perhaps ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’ should be compulsory high school reading.

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Jami Gold March 15, 2012 at 8:21 am

Hi Candice,

No doubt! :) Thanks for the comment!

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Robb Grindstaff March 21, 2012 at 7:24 am

This is disturbing. As a writer, I don’t even let my beta readers or critique group see my first drafts. I edit and revise and rewrite, more than once, before I consider it a second draft ready for a small group of trusted readers. Then, after all the feedback and more revisions, I hire a freelance editor. I’ll go over it myself several more times, and I look at every single word and every single comma. Sure, there will still be the occasional typo or glitch, but it will at least be fit for public consumption before I even send it to an agent with a query.

To put something out this poorly edited really bothers me, and I’ll admit that this type of quality is something that has always bothered me about 98% of self-published works. But now that a major publisher is following that same route — “it’s an e-book, we can fix it later” — then what’s the point of using that publisher? I’m a huge believer in quality writing as an end to itself, as well as a method to achieve quality storytelling. And I’m a freelance editor who knows enough to know I can’t edit my own work all by myself.

Good post, even if it did disturb me. Ha!

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Jami Gold March 21, 2012 at 8:09 am

Hi Robb,

I agree. Even my alpha reader sees a revised and edited version. And great point about the “it’s an ebook, we can fix it later” attitude. That drives me crazy coming from anyone, much less a “professional” company. *sigh* Thanks for the comment!

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Jean Prince March 27, 2012 at 8:22 am

I enjoy fanfic, Indie books, and traditionally published favorites. I really do.

I also understand the need for thorough editing. It is a must, whether self publishing or not.

I think readers are falling in love with the characters and the plot more than the actual weaving and stitches of the writing. The example of the dangling modifier in your post had me cracking up though. I can not believe that was not edited!

As of right now I can’t pay for an editor, but I have bought so many grammar and editing books that I am in the fourth revision process of my novella. If something is amiss, I am sure the public will shout it out.

Thanks for the post!

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Jami Gold March 27, 2012 at 8:39 am

Hi Jean,

Yes, the general public isn’t knowledgeable about many of the grammar flubs that show up in day-to-day writing. And while I fully understand their interest in stories from a pure storytelling and character perspective, my opinion is we can have all that and quality writing, even if the public isn’t “demanding” it. It’s not an either/or thing. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena April 26, 2012 at 7:27 pm

I’m also very sad about this topic, because many readers nowadays, it seems, like to speed read. They just let their eyes fly, taking out all the key words and images, and then somehow connect all these into something coherent. They don’t even care how our sentences sound, or how they look. They just don’t have the time, or even the patience, to slow down and enjoy our writing.

Hope I wasn’t being whiny. I also have to admit that I am often one of those annoying book skimming readers, when I just want to finish a book as fast as I can so I can get on to other books.

It’s understandable that people want to read fast because they have so much to do, but what pain this is for writers who took so much time to craft those perfect sentences, just to have the reader skip over all of them.

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Jami Gold April 26, 2012 at 11:20 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes! And it’s so frustrating for writers. I know I’ve seen authors tweet about this (and I’ve seen it from some of my beta readers as well)–people complain that such-and-such didn’t make sense, wasn’t answered, was left hanging, etc., and yet the answer was right there if they hadn’t sped-read over it. As writers we’re told not to be repetitive, but if we don’t, people miss things. *sigh* Thanks for the comment!

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kittyb78 April 27, 2012 at 12:55 pm

I care about the quality of writing too.

As a fellow writer, I can no longer happily ignore the poor quality of what I read. I’m shocked that the NYT didn’t call it out for the poor quality of writing.

As for the publisher, I know which company NOT to buy from or shop my MS too.

My readers care about the quality of writing too.

Oh a big part of her success is that it started out as a fanfiction, therefore was read world wide before it even became a book.

I did a post about that here:
http://kittyb78.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/underestimating-the-allure-of-writing-fanfictions/

I’ll be share to link yours. Thanks for sharing.

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Jami Gold May 1, 2012 at 9:24 am

Hi kittyb78,

Yes, I did a whole post about how much of James’s success can be traced back to the fanfiction angle. Like you, I’ve lost respect for that publishing imprint. Thanks for linking to me and thanks for the comment!

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