Tuesday, March 01, 2005

So that's where the midlist went . . .

First, let me say this: I am a published writer. My debut novel was published by one of those frisky little imprints at Penguin Putnam, and my second novel is due for release this fall. And no, I am not going to use this forum to peddle my wares. I’d rather remain anonymous—though I’ll give you this tidbit: my debut novel is currently at 13,763 on Amazon.

It’s a fairly good day.

So, why am I here? To tell you about an entire world of books we are all missing: self-published titles—specifically, POD titles.

For those who do not know, about four years ago the self-publishing world took an awkward and potentially regrettable turn: Publishing on Demand. This means anyone with a word processor and a few hundred bucks can create a book that can be distributed on Amazon, BN.com and various other online venues without having to pre-print a single book (at an inflated price—about $3 to $5 more per trade paperback.)

Genius, really.

As a result, however, the world has seen an influx of some of the absolute worst writing known to mankind.

No, seriously, it sucks.

Here is where the headache begins: the lack of editing, the orphans, the widows, the cheese-ball covers, the lack of plot, the lack of common sense—and oh, dear God, the lack of talent.

I had lunch with two of my writer friends one day and they showed me a novel that was produced POD. Little did I know it was a prank. I had to admit the cover was tastefully done (quite unusual) and the book was perfect bound and solid, the paper was good quality. Even the picture of the author was professional.

Then I read the first paragraph.

Two of the first five sentences were verbless. I can only assume this man forgot them by accident, perhaps so excited at the prospect of seeing his product in print that he wrote the thing in a week. Let’s hope.

Soon, it became a hobby for my friends and me. Trying to find the worst POD titles out there and collecting them (hey, some people collect pieces of string—I’ll be the first to admit I did it subconsciously to help me feel better about my own writing.)

Then one day I got a surprise of my own. Thinking I would grab the diamond award with my friends for worst POD ever, I read a book called LORD VISHNU’S LOVE HANDLES by a guy named Will Clarke, a story about a guy “knowing things he shouldn’t know” and having visions and the like, who eventually meets two “secret agents” who show him what it is really like to “lose your mind.” The plot alone was enough to launch it to the top of my POD collection, except for one thing: I finished it in four hours. It was, and is, magnificent, from the first sentence to the last. I still laugh out loud when I think about parts of that book.

Granted, it wasn’t perfect. It had a handful of grammar issues and some minor editing glitches, but really nothing worse than I have seen in some stuff released by Random House (Penguin, of course, would never make such a mistake.)

I mentioned the book to my editor and she blew me off (which is fine because, well, she’s my editor) and said it sounded ridiculous. Even now I cannot truly explain the story well enough to give it justice. However, vindication came two months later when she told me she heard the movie rights to the bizarre title had been sold. And now, as it turns out, the book will be released by Simon and Schuster in hardback sometime this summer.

My copy was from 1stbooks (now Authorhouse). Let’s just say I’m keeping it safe and damage free.

Then it happened again with a book called PIPSQUEAK by Brian Wiprud. He had originally published with iUniverse and now that book (and others) were sold to Dell.

So I did a little research. It turns out many decent books that were once POD went on to do well and sell to major publishers, including LEGALLY BLONDE by Amanda Brown and THE IDIOT GIRLS’ ACTION ADVERNTURE CLUB by Laurie Notaro (which I read when it was a NY Times bestseller and had no idea it was once POD.)

I mentioned this to my editor, part as a jab and part as a query. She responded with “Look, I read tons of good stuff, but reject most of it because it just doesn’t move me. If this writer happens to miss the mark with other editors the same way, then her book dies, with no imprints left to submit to. She’s got two choices: self-publish or throw it in the garbage.”

And so I realized, as the “midlist” dies (a dreaded place, I should add, that my book lives), it will slowly move to the POD list. It seems it may be heading there already. I can name eight POD titles off the top of my head (books I would not necessarily recommend) that have sold more copies than all of the 2004 National Book Award fiction finalists combined.

There are some good books in there. But it’s like trying to see a constellation through a cloudy sky. There is just so much crap in the way.

Well, that’s why I’m here.

We’re going to find the good ones.

Let’s begin.