Back in June, Salon.com published a piece about how, should the continued assertions that the publishing industry will soon be no more come to fruition, readers will find themselves awash in very bad writing.
The piece explains that authors are finding increased opportunities to publish and market their works without editorial or publisher constraints/input thanks to more accessible digital self-publishing media. It goes on to say that the result of this is the creation and expansion of a huge library of poorly written stories that are neither engaging nor coherent in some cases. The ease-of-access through the Internet and the minimal fees charged for these e-books (which in many cases are little more than barely paginated PDF's) make them a minimal risk for consumers looking for something to read. After all, if you pay $2 for a bad story you wanted to delete after five pages, what have you really lost?
But this discussion begs the question of what the larger effect of this phenomenon has on the general reader, and authors as well. The article says that the common reader will soon become well acquainted with the "slush pile," which is the stack of bad manuscripts that come across book editors' and agents' desks on a daily basis. These professionals are paid to read through every new vampire romance, western, mystery, space adventure, horror story (yes, often all in one manuscript) that is sent to their doors.
Out of a pile of hundreds, maybe one will stand out as being something that is written well enough to warrant publishing expenses and appeal to widespread audiences -- if the moon is blue and the editor dances naked under it beseeching the blessings of the gods. But at least, they get a paycheck for their often futile efforts.
When every manuscript becomes a published e-book, though, the mainstream reader is now the one slogging through the slush, often with no compensation other than a good replacement for their favorite sleeping medication. If all you're reading is poorly constructed book-length manuscripts with wishy-washy characters who do absurd things within a poor story structure, your opinion of what is good writing is likely to devolve with every new e-book you read.
Like every author, I find it personally frustrating that in order for my vision of a story to make it to a reader, it must go through a system of people who hold the power to change my ideas to maximize profitability. But I understand the necessity of it, even if I don't like it.
Gatekeepers and media critics keep our mass literature in check. Sure, you can walk into any book store nowadays and pick up cheesy books with questionable storylines, but as a chain reader, I've found that this is more the exception than the rule. If one out of every 10 books I spend my $7.99 on to read ends up being a dud, I'm not that upset. If that was nine out of 10, though, I would most likely give up on reading all together.
Now if this is a likely outcome for someone who is virtually addicted to reading, how will it affect the millions of kids whose only experience with reading has been the (perceived) torturous assignments from high school and college English teachers? How likely are they to continue the demand for books in the decades to come?
While the e-book format is extremely useful and a great complement to traditional publishing, indiscriminate e-publishing has the potential to have a negative impact on mass culture. E-publishing houses with experienced editors interested in selling quality writing and keen insight into the the desires of their audiences will be the ones to advance the field. Until then, we live in a world where it's very much reader beware: there is an abundance of cheap and often free books on the Web, some of which are diamonds in the rough, while others aren't even worth the time it takes to download that free PDF.