Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The dark side of the Kindle

There are plenty of freebies to be had on the Kindle store. Many are old classics in the public domain, converted to Kindle format by enthusiasts so people can read them free of charge. But others are less well-regarded.

I'm talking about those released by writers without a publisher who want to see their name in print.

It's easily possible to release a book of your own on the Kindle. A Word document can be converted using Amazon's own programme, and then released (complete with artwork, provided you have some) at a price of your choosing. It's no-risk self-publishing. Amazon take from any profits you gain, but you can still get a load of money, as proven recently by one man who recently sold his millionth ebook on the Kindle.

The problem it that it's too easy. Why go through the effort of trying to find a proper publisher when you can just upload a file and have people download it for little or no cost? Why risk rejection when you can be guaranteed to see your name in print? It won't make much money, but it'll still be there. And for me this risks killing the legitimate publishing industry, with the standard of writing dropping.

If I want to read a novella, I'll generally look for something by a writer I know. I downloaded Sublimation Angels by Jason Sanford not so long back, for example. It had a cost (a couple of pounds, if I remember correctly), but I knew what I was getting. I knew I was getting something that had previously been published in Interzone and serialised on StarShipSofa. It had got the seal of approval of the industry before being released as an independent ebook. Needless to say, I enjoyed reading it.

On the other hand, if I'm cash-strapped, I might want to delve into the free ebooks. Some will have come from legitimate publishers, of course, and if they have that's a nice bonus, but quite a few have probably come via self-publishing. And having experienced a couple, the quality isn't great.

It's easy to go for self-publishing for the Kindle, simply because you don't have to improve your writing style and quality for a chance at making some money. The one I picked up recently wasn't bad per se (it had an interesting story), but the writing was lacking. There wasn't any flair or originality. It seemed to be a stock collection of clich├ęd dialogue and substandard action scenes ("No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die" etc). An editor at Interzone would have taken a look at it and thrown it out. On getting the rejection slip, the writer would have had the incentive to look at his work and improve. With this system, there isn't an incentive.

One of the biggest things I find worrying, though, is the potential to sideline major publishing companies and - even worse - smaller publishing houses and their imprints by the flooding of the market with cheap, substandard stories. A glance at the top sellers in SF for the Kindle at the moment tells me that there are a few 'big' titles from professional publishers selling well (Surface Detail is one; A Clash of Kings another), but will that last long?

And if people get used to less than mediocre fiction, what does the future hold for fiction in the future? We already see the Dan Browns and Stephenie Meyers of the world - complete with their advertising juggernauts - dominate bestseller lists, while more intelligent, better written books are pushed into niches. We're constantly told (or, at least, I am) that being a bestseller is a mark of quality, so are we going to find twenty years down the line that children, having been brought up on cheap, poorly edited ebooks, think of those as being the zenith of literature?

It's all hypothetical at the moment. But it's a worrying thought. It could be that a potential saviour of the publishing world turns into its destroyer, and that would be a real shame.

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