Monday, September 16, 2013

The Gold Rush

By Lisabet Sarai

In January 1848, James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill, in what is now El Dorado County, California. That event kicked off the now-fabled California Gold Rush and changed the country forever. Between 1848 and 1855, by which time most of the readily available gold had been exhausted, some 300,000 people arrived in California, from across the United States as well as from many other countries. In seven short years, San Francisco grew from a small settlement of 200 people to a city of over 35,000. It took only two years for the United States to decide it wanted California as a state and to pry the land away from Mexico, to whom the territory belonged at the start of the Gold Rush.

An estimated 100,000 native Americans died from disease or aggression as the avaricious newcomers pushed them out of their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Many of the prospectors met equally dire fates at the hands of the Indians, the elements or their fellow gold-seekers.

New wealth fueled new technologies and new growth. At the same time, the Gold Rush destroyed much of value, damaging ecosystems, ruining families, tearing society apart. The boom town mentality rewarded short term greed and discouraged long term planning. It left the mountains of the Sierra Nevada littered with ghost towns. These days, a drive through the old gold country is a meditation on the nature of transience.

Publishing, especially epublishing of romance and erotica, seems to be experiencing its own gold rush. Book sales have surged by several hundred percent annually since the introduction of Amazon's Kindle in 2007. The number of publishers of ebooks has grown in proportion. Pretty much every week, I see a new digital imprint announced on the Erotica Readers & Writers Association list. Meanwhile, established print publishers, from Harlequin to Constable & Robinson, have rushed to cash in on the boom by developing their own lines of e-books.

On the plus side, this means more publishing opportunities for authors. Unfortunately, the boom has also made it possible for any individual who ever fantasized about publishing a book to do so. As a result, the slush pile has exploded by several orders of magnitude. For every work that I'd label as quality fiction, there are now hundreds, even thousands of competing titles that are, to be blunt, total crap.

It's true that it's easier to get published now than every before. Desperate for profits, some companies will accept anything that even remotely resembles a book. Plus there is always the self-publishing alternative. In fact, the burgeoning slush pile isn't the most serious problem. One of the worst aspects of the boom is the fact that it has become impossible for quality fiction to get noticed. You could write a Pulitzer-Prize-worthy novel these days and not sell more than a handful of copies.

One can understand the aspirations of would-be authors – no matter how lacking in competence they might be. After all, who made me the gatekeeper? So what if I believe that my erotica is better than 90% of what is available on Amazon today. Most writers probably feel the same way. Maybe one really should let the market decide. And indeed, with a sigh, I must admit I don't know what else we poor authors can do.

What frustrates me more than anything else, though, is the get-rich-quick attitude of the publishers – including some with long-standing reputations, who should know better. In the past few months I've reviewed ebooks from several well-known publishing companies that were close to unreadable due to editing and formatting errors. If I had purchased these books as opposed to having received free reviewer copies, I would have demanded my money back.

In one case, the book was a reprint of a classic erotic novel from before the ebook revolution. I believe that the original print book must have been scanned and subjected to optical character recognition (OCR) in order to create the electronic form. Anyone who's used OCR will know the process is rife with errors. Careful editing is required to correct the guesses made by the OCR software. As far as I can tell, the editor (if there was one) did no more than give a quick glance to this book. It was full of garbled text that seriously disrupted the reading experience. In their haste to get some income from this novel, this company apparently rushed it into “e-print” with zero quality control.

Does this company realize that, in my eyes at least, they've completely destroyed their credibility? I've actually had stories published by this company, but I'll think twice about that in the future.

If I were the author of this book, I'd sue the company for breach of contract. And then I'd make sure to spread the news far and wide via social media. As a reader, I'll certainly steer clear of any other titles in this series.

I wish I could tell you this was an isolated case. It's not. On the contrary, it's an illustration of the same sort of orientation toward short-term profits that made the Gold Rush so destructive, and I see it in many places in the publishing industry.

The Gold Rush reached its peak and then faded away in a mere seven years. It has been just about that long since the birth of the Kindle. What literary ghost towns will be left behind when the e-reading boom subsides – or changes to something unrecognizable? The rate at which technology and society change these days is dizzying. Anyone who imagines that the ebook boom is here to stay is as much a dreamer as the farmer from Pennsylvania who sold his farm and traveled half a year across mountain and desert, believing he'd make his fortune in the California hills.

I've been in this business since the end of the twentieth century. I've seen the eclipse of print and the rise of the ebook. I've done what I could to adapt, but I know tomorrow will be different from today. I plan to be here long after the get-rich-quick types have given up. Because ultimately for me, it's the stories that matter, not the money. That's why I hate to see the stories polluted by the greed of those who publish them.


  1. yeah, i see some really awful typos & grammatical errors in books i buy for my Kindle. & by editors & authors i have respected. the Gold Rush is exactly the right analogy. great post, Lisabet.

  2. Thank you for articulating this so well, Lisabet! While it's no secret that there's a lot of self-published material of dubious quality out there, the corner cutting whereby professional publishing companies sink toward that same level is, I think, a bit of a dirty secret—and a betrayal of the book purchaser's trust.

    1. Hi, Jeremy,

      One of the companies to whom I'm referring was founded in the eighteenth century. The original principals must be turning over in their graves.

  3. Great comparison to the Gold Rush times and peripheral effects, Lisabet. True, technology advances faster than I can catch up. Unfortunately in our system, greed is often the driving force, not art.

    1. I like to believe, though, that greed carries its own destruction. This won't last, and a lot of businesses will come crashing down because of that fact.

  4. I once asked to be sure the review copy I was reading was the final version, because it was such a mess. I was assured that it was. Sigh.

    One result may be businesses crashing down, but another, I'm afraid (because I've already seen signs of it in some submissions,) is that new writers pick up bad grammar and other bad habits from the examples they see in both non-edited online stories and books from presumably competent publishers.

    1. Hi, Sacchi,

      To be honest, I don't think people learn bad habits from these MS. They just don't know any better. I don't know who to blame for this - the educational system, the media, or the people themselves, but correct grammar, spelling and punctuation seem to have become optional.

  5. Lisabet, you've given us a fascinating overview of the current state of the biz. I'm never sure if what I'm seeing is typical. The Gold Rush makes a good analogy, and I'm sure you're right -- the only thing we can be sure of is that this too will change.

    1. All too typical, alas. At least based on my experiences.


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