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?Pin It