fiction publishing sort of seems like a scam?


I am a much worse reader than I used to be. Kids and prestige TV (but mostly kids) mean I can barely keep up with my monthly sci-fi book club. That’s okay: I long ago reconciled myself to being a not-particularly-fast reader. And maybe some day I’ll have more time.

But this limited intake (and social mechanism committing me to finishing these books) means that the cost of getting stuck with a bad book feels high. And our club has been getting stuck with a lot of bad books. In particular, the recently published books we select are often surprisingly poor. It seems like this trend has been getting worse.

There are a few ways this could be in my head. Book club is a social experience, and it’s more fun to criticize a book than to blandly celebrate it. And the books we select from past years also benefit from additional filtering: the nature of culture means that recent books get discussed more than old books, so if an older book rises to our attention it must have been pretty good.

Still, as a reader it’s hard to escape the sense that something is badly awry in how fiction gets published and makes it into the reviewer ecosystem. I frequently finish a book, thinking it was not particularly good, then dutifully file my review on Goodreads only to find it surrounded by a bunch of effusive 5-star ratings from people who should know better. De gustibus and all that. But something feels amiss.

I think there there are several things going on here. What follows is just hunches based on reading a bunch of mediocre novels and paying close attention to their Acknowledgements sections. I don’t have any connection to the industry. So maybe I have all this wrong. But it’s the kind of stuff that people in the industry would have good reasons to avoid saying. So I’m going to bet on my naivete as a competitive advantage.

Don’t Yuck Someone Else’s Yum

The most effusive reviewers are also the most prolific. They’ve got little badges next to their names declaring them to be the top Goodreads reviewer in Wales, or whatever. They link out to their book-related podcasts and Youtube channels. They are bookfluencers, or aspiring authors themselves (more on this below). They are building an audience, and you know what audiences don’t like? Being told that something they love is bad. This is a fundamental truth about people that I badly wish I could convey to my irascible adolescent self. It’s why every pop culture podcast you’ve ever listened to has only good things to say about that TV show you’re watching. It’s why nobody runs negative reviews anymore, except as an occasional try for virality. It’s why movie critics swallow their grumbling and publish hundreds of words about whatever redeeming qualities they can identify in Ant Man. This is an inescapable consequence of our unbundled Darwinian media ecosystem, and it’s mostly fine, but it means that published criticism is very different, vastly more forgiving, and considerably less useful than my outdated mindset expects.

Pick Authors for Criteria that Matter (So: Not Quality)

It’s famously hard to identify hits in entertainment. Nobody with any taste thinks the most commercially successful books have the most artistic merit. And the new media environment weakens sophisticated gatekeepers’ power to anoint winners. Plus there are way, way, way more plausibly-competent aspiring authors out there than the industry needs to keep shelves stocked. So why should anyone bother trying to find the best books? It’s not like the audience can be counted on to tell the difference. So why not use a criterion that makes more sense? It works for radio programmers, after all.

There are several approaches that suggest themselves. Publishers can pick someone who already has an audience to bring along, like the YouTuber whose middling sci-fi debut we read. Or someone who’ll be helpful to them in other ways, like the author who happened to quietly also be Time Magazine’s book critic. Or the author who, along with their partner, ran a wildly influential sci-fi blog. In all of these cases we picked the book based on the press attention it got, then learned the alternate industry rationale later. And in all of these cases–okay, nearly all–the book was unimpressive but basically fine. Maybe these authors’ success in other domains simply speaks to their overall intelligence and commitment to their chosen genre milieu! I think that’s plausible.

But these filtering mechanisms are different than the (also deeply imperfect!) ones that the genre formerly used, and while they have their merits, they don’t seem to suit me as well as the old ones. An author’s social capabilities seem to be more important to whether their work gets attention than ever before. I think this is why my genre fiction author friend’s anecdotes about trading book blurbs are so depressing. I think it’s why YA authors all behave like psychopaths toward each other. The people who rise to the top of this environment have to produce work that meets a minimum threshold for quality. But beyond that, other considerations seem to be the ones that matter most.

There’s No Money In Books So Book Authors Should Try To Write Something Else

Publishing is a mug’s game: a small number of hard-to-predict breakout hits earn money, and everything else loses it. But even the hits produce paltry returns compared to other forms of entertainment. So if you’re lucky and talented enough to write one of those hits, your first order of business seems to be getting your work optioned for film or TV. One particularly audacious author we read ended his rote sci-fi action thriller, which hewed to every screenwriting formula you could imagine, by thanking the agent that represents him for those other transactions. Perhaps most depressing to me was N.K. Jemisin’s newest series. Unlike the others mentioned in this post, I think being a three-time Hugo winner and possessed of enormous actual talent is enough for me to risk being gently mean by naming her. But The City We Became is an obviously calculated mix of cliched action setpieces and derivative provincial fanservice. It is cinematic in the worst way. But most people haven’t noticed, and it’s on its way to the screen. Oh well. Broken Earth was great and I’m glad to see its creator get paid.

Is it hopeless?

Basically: yes. But not completely. Our club winds up reading a bunch of books that come out of writers’ workshops and MFA programs; or books by self-consciously literary authors who stray over to genre. These aren’t sure bets either (I understand our writerly training systems’ focus on short stories, but think it could stand some interrogation). But they do represent filtering systems that are at least more connected to the work. I don’t doubt that the people running those systems care about craft.

Amazing stuff still gets published, still gets attention, still makes its way into our monthly meeting. But goodness is it nestled amidst a lot of forgettable trash.

About the author

Tom Lee
By Tom Lee