Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Too Smart?

Have you noticed the quality of novels in the bookstore recently?  It's no secret that bookstore sales are decreasing, even as the indie publishing scene grows.  I started seriously pondering this question recently, going back through what I've bought in order to try and figure it out.

Unfortunately, I was having little luck on this front.  Most of what I buy is quality(seriously!), so it was difficult to understand the phenomenon from what I had in my home.  In an attempt to explain this madness, I headed down to my local Barnes & Noble and began to peruse the shelves with more intensity.  This is where I figured out some of it.

During my normal routine, if I find a book boring or poorly written, I discard it quickly.  Why would I waste my time on something that sucked?  Well, as I went through more books that I would usually lay down about two seconds after opening, I found that most of what is on shelves just stinks.  There are two main reasons for this - 1) they're poorly written; 2) they treat their readers like idiots.

There's little I can do about a poorly written novel.  We all know people who couldn't string two words together if given both and a context.  A writer that puts together gibberish is just wasting our time.

However, it's the second category that I began to take more note of.  Books used to challenge us.  They played on our imaginations and made us question our long standing presumptions about the way a story should unfold.  Books published in recent years have forgotten this.  In an attempt to appeal to a wider market, traditional publishers have flooded our shelves with the lowest common denominator.  The reasoning is that the average person is an idiot who won't read great works, so they have to dumb them down to get more folks to read.

The problem here is that the average person doesn't read much, and no amount of dumbing down is going to draw them in.  Why read a stupid novel when you can watch a stupid TV show and let the blinking box do all of the work for you?  Further, by doing things like this, publishers are driving away their core audience, the audience that is insulted by what's coming out and being marketed as "good literature."

There's precedent for this.  The Sci-Fi network(or is it SyFy?  These things can be confusing) has seen a steady downturn in viewship since it started trying the mass appeal tactic.  Sure, a showing of Sharknado may temporarily draw in a crowd of stupid stoners looking for a laugh, but it isn't going to keep them.  When that becomes the norm, the smart people who loved the channel when it had more real sci-fi are going to leave because they feel such programming insults them.  There is a net decline in viewship that is nearly impossible to reclaim.

Traditional publishing is now caught in this death spiral.  By trying to gain more readers with stupid books that have little real value, they've alienated the readers who always bought in the past.  The slack in this is being picked up by the indie market.  Don't get me wrong - there is plenty of trash on the indie scene, but most of the more challenging stuff I've read has also come from there.  People who enjoy reading for the sake of it - the nerds(no insult...I'm a nerd and damn proud of it) - are flocking to indie because it's the last refuge of smart literature.  We seem to have a greater chance to find that diamond from its ranks than we do from an afternoon in Barnes & Noble.

Perhaps traditional publishers will return to smarter books, but I kind of doubt it.  In fact, I think they'll continue to read further decline as an indication that they need to make things even more dumb for people.  This is a losing strategy and no way to win back readers, but I'm not complaining - what they can't attract, perhaps I can.

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