Home » Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Business of Writing » Mushroom Publishers And The Tsunami of Crap

Mushroom Publishers And The Tsunami of Crap

18 April 2017

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

So much of the writing advice we get comes from a set of assumptions that are no longer true. I’m not sure if they were ever true. But that’s for another blog post. (Or maybe I’ve written that post already.)

Anyway, the assumption is that our culture is monolithic, that we all read the same books, and we’re all influenced by the same writers.

Maybe most of us were once. In the 1950s (before I was born), my father used to teach an adult education course called The Great Books, and it had a set curriculum. If you were going to thrive in the monoculture, then you needed to read these books.

The course was developed in the 1920s, taught around the country, and included books from the Western tradition only. The books included things like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (which I can’t imagine my father teaching) and Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Mathematics (which I can).

. . . .

[W]hat passed for U.S. culture for most of the 20th century believed that there was a list of “great books” which we all had to read to be educated.

The intelligentsia could augment that foundation with other prescribed books. Those books came into our house regularly—or at least the flyers for them did—usually promulgated by The Saturday Review, The New York Times Book Review, the Quality Paperback Book Club (yes, there was such a thing), and the Book of The Month Club.

Underlying all of these notions was the idea of “good books” and “bad books.” Books that could destroy your mind, books that were the equivalent of potato chips (unhealthy, but occasionally enjoyable), and books that would make you a better person.

. . . .

In his tome, An Experiment in Criticism, (published in 1961), C.S. Lewis writes, “The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of good….” That attitude is precisely the attitude most of us grew up with. The assumption that we could actually harm ourselves by reading the wrong things.

. . . .

A lot of the books we consider classics now were considered “bad” in their day. Worse, those books never appeared from “regular” publishers, but from presses that had terrible reputations.

Right now, I’m reading a badly designed, badly printed book from 1993, about the publishing industry in England in the Postwar period. The Mushroom Jungle: A History of Postwar Paperback Publishing by Steve Holland is, as far as I can tell, out of print itself. But it’s a fascinating read about publishers that grew in the dark—mushroom publishers—which published everything from what passed as porn back in the day (now we’d barely call it erotica) to science fiction, hard-boiled mystery novels, and other disreputable fiction.

Brian Stableford’s foreword reminded me of the C.S. Lewis book, which I had tried to choke down when I was in high school—after I had read The Chronicles of Narnia. I tried to work my way through Lewis’s oeuvre, only to discover that most of what he wrote was so not to my taste that I stopped trying.

In that old book of criticism, Lewis was justifying the fiction that he wrote. He didn’t like the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow” fiction, choosing instead to label readers “unliterary” or “literary” depending on the kind of attention they pay to the texts in front of them. (If the reader read solely for pleasure, and did not reread books, they were generally unliterary.)

This snobbishness permeated the industry. The snobbishness went all the way into business practices and marketing, in contracts and in expectations. Paperbacks were considered disposable. Hardbacks were not. The returns system in the U.S. was predicated on that. Hardbacks required full copy returns, and if the books were damaged, then they would not count against a bookstore’s bill. Paperbacks were mutilated, the covers returned only, so that the book could be thrown away.

Contracts and deals reflected the perceived ephemeral nature of the material, and writers often fell prey to it. They signed deals that would be ludicrous if anyone had thought more than two years head.

The attitude was that nothing good could come from disposable products, even though the paper books often outsold hardcovers by literary (and accepted) writers by ten to one (and sometimes by 100 to one).

Here’s the thing, though: the only way to become a remembered author who survives the test of time is to influence a lot of readers. If a “good” novel has a 5,000 copy print run and sells out, and a “bad” novel has a 50,000 copy print run and sells out, guess which one has the better chance of being remembered? The one with tens of thousands of readers, not the one with only 5,000.

But those are yesterday’s economics.

. . . .

[W]hile traditional publishing keeps repeating that there’s a tsunami of crap in indie (or self) published books, traditional publishers can’t really cite the same examples. Because no one is reading the same books any more.

That influential book, the one that changes minds and hearts, has to cut a swath through an accepted culture, and we don’t have one any more. Yes, every now and then, a book rises above, but it’s becoming rarer and rarer.

So how come I’m writing about the past yet again?

Because, as I read The Mushroom Jungle, replete with the judgments of critics and tastemakers long dead, I see the same phrases used against the mushroom publishers that I see used against indie publishers now. Phrases like:

  • The books are not very good (unliterary). The books have no redeeming value. The books aren’t memorable. They can be read in a single night. They’re not worth a reread.
  • They’re only read for entertainment. They’re not curated, not vetted, not approved by the literary powers that be.
  • How do you know if the books are any good, if there’s no consensus on what’s good and what’s not?
  • Yes, they’re all right to while away the time, but you (or your children or your sick aunt) would be better off reading something of quality, something worth spending your limited time on.

Have I raised your hackles yet?

. . . .

Books with a lot of readers tend not to be the critical darlings of the day. They tend to be the books that get the most word of mouth, books that are passed from hand to hand to hand or written up the most in blogs or discussed by savvy readers everywhere.

How do you become one of those writers?

Well, I don’t think you do it by setting out to write Art. As Holland notes on the next page of The Mushroom Jungle:

I very much doubt if any of the novels quoted in this book were written with any intention other than to put food on the table of the author, but like so much that is thought by the literary establishment to be ephemeral or unworthy, they stick in the memory of the reading public….

The thing is…the books that often stick in the memory of the reading public are books that surprise in some way or counter expectations or make the reader lose a few hours of sleep because the reader can’t put the book down.

Those books aren’t manufactured and fussed over and edited to death. They weren’t written to be judged, as literary novels often are. Those books weren’t written to impress. They were written because they had to be, or because the author needed to eat. The author wrote it, someone published it, and then both moved on—even though the readers didn’t.

Indie writers are doing the same thing right now. They’re writing what they love. A few are still writing what they think will sell, although that trend seems to be moving past us now. (Thank God). Most writers are simply trying to put food on the table so they don’t have to go back to the day job.

Traditional publishers, whose sales are continuing to decline and whose revenue is spiraling downward, keep trying to justify their curation services. Want to know if your book is any good? The traditional publishers say. We’ll let you know that—forgetting, of course, that readers decide what’s good and what’s not.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Business of Writing

14 Comments to “Mushroom Publishers And The Tsunami of Crap”

  1. Hmmm, with a “Tsunami of Crap”, the ‘Publishers’ should be seeing a lot more ‘free range’ “Mushroom”s sprouting.

    The trick of course is picking just the non-poisonous ones.
    (And magic mushrooms are a bonus!)

  2. She seems to get lost towards the end of the post. “Writing what you love” doesn’t have to exclude “Writing to put food on the table”, but the inverse isn’t necessarily true. I can tell when something I read was written with care and with thought, and that’s what I want to purchase. I can also tell when somebody slapped down any old crap just for the money (cough-Wendig-cough). I guess I just don’t get what she’s aiming at.

    • She qualified her statement that someone just writing a book, putting it out there, and moving on wasn’t referring to writing to market (or what they think will sell). It was an aside to clarify, she wasn’t talking about that, which is a different issue than just writing because you love it and need to eat and so don’t slave over the manuscript for ten years and kill its originality, etc., etc.

  3. I do think that in today’s world its not a good book that sells more, but an author with the marketing knack or financial ability to advertise better who sells more.
    Most readers in today’s economy are alright with passable quality as long as its free or very cheap.

    • What’s the standard of good and passable for a novel? How do we know whether a book is good or passable?

      Standards are often a function of purpose. Are there good purposes for reading a novel? Passable purposes?

    • “I do think that in today’s world its not a good book that sells more, but an author a publisher with the marketing knack or financial ability to advertise better who sells more.”

      So things haven’t really changed, have they? I mean, somebody bought “50 Shades of Grey.”

  4. The standard growing medium for commercial mushrooms is… cow crap! (Heat-sterilized, of course.)

    And the reason I ALWAYS clean mushrooms I buy. (Doesn’t apply to wild morels. Sigh… Morel hunting season has started back in the Midwest, and here I am in SoCal. 🙁 My mouth waters just thinking about them.)

    • But if you ask trad-pub they’ll be happy to tell you that their crap smells so much sweeter than any indie’s old crap! 😛
      (Me, I’ve had to follow along behind enough cows to know better.)

  5. Decades ago, I was in a big Indy bookstore that I went to every week, where I bought tons of books all the time. I was standing in the SF section as a couple walked by. The woman said to the guy she was with, in answer to some question, “I don’t allow science fiction in my house. It’s garbage.”

    I stood there vibrating a bit, trying to think of some comment, then simply kept pulling books from the shelves and putting them in the hand-basket to buy.

    Luckily, I am not crippled by someone else’s limitations. In these days of Indy publishing I have the shear joy of knowing that I can publish books that no one will buy and nobody will read.

  6. Luckily when I get the idea to re-read my stories, I no longer have to tote around a box of loose pages, I have all my stories downloaded to my phone which fits in my pocket and goes everywhere with me.

  7. Oh, let’s look at KKR’s assumptions:

    Here’s the thing, though: the only way to become a remembered author who survives the test of time is to influence a lot of readers. If a “good” novel has a 5,000 copy print run and sells out, and a “bad” novel has a 50,000 copy print run and sells out, guess which one has the better chance of being remembered? The one with tens of thousands of readers, not the one with only 5,000.

    Quick, how many people remember anything from “The Manxman” (Hall Caine, best-seller with 100,000+ sales) versus anything by Henry James (contemporary, 5,000 sales).

    I know, not really fair. After all, in the 1950s, works by Hemingway and Salinger were on the best-seller list, and they’re still being read. How about this: that the number of copies sold is no guarantee that a work will be read a hundred years later.

    Now the test of time isn’t about how many sales in the first year of publication, but how long the book is available.

    All books are available all of the time. The test of time is irrelevant.

    Because the books of the past were never part of a monolithic culture. Even back when there were paper shortages, and actual bookshelves were the only places to find novels, readers read different books than those on the prescribed list.

    And yet, we still read Dickens, Austen, Conan Doyle. They have legs. They were part of a monolithic culture (although I have to ask what era KKR is talking about. Victorian England? 1920s America? 1960s America? I’d argue they were pretty freakin’ monolithic, with subcultures bubbling underneath, but pretty small compared to what the majority — and I’d say 75 percent of the population — we’re experiencing.)

    The only difference is, as far as I can tell, that there’s no longer an accepted canon, that teaching a Great Books class would probably be impossible, and would lead to all kinds of fights.

    No argument here, except that if it did, it would at least be an interesting argument. People would read the books and fight over them. Instead of now, then people read a couple of chapters (if that) and finish with Michiko Kakutani’s review and parrot that instead.

    Frankly, I can’t figure out what KKR’s on about. She seems defensive that she writes entertaining fiction. Fine, but who is she arguing against? It’s not that anyone says she doesn’t; it’s more like no one says anything at all about KKR, not even to say she writes crap (which I have no opinion about; I’ve read a couple of her stories and they left no impression on me).

    I find it amusing that she sets up a bunch of assumptions and argues against them, but to no real purpose. True, the advice about reading “bad” fiction is hilarious. So’s warnings against women getting the vote and the belief that heavier-than-air flight was impossible. So what’s the point, except to exhort authors to keep writing what they want to write?

    To which indie writers, who are already doing just that, are looking at her and saying, “Where have you been for the last decade? We’re arguing about whether AMS or Facebook ads are a better medium for offering our box set.”

    • Liked.

    • Your first paragraph was followed by this:

      But those are yesterday’s economics.

      She was referring to a specific timeframe in publishing and how it is no longer relevant.

      She’s on about the fact that traditional publishing is acting like everyone’s still reading the same books, so of course they’re necessary to vet the ocean of muck produced by indies, but this is simply not true.

      It may be helpful to remind you that Rusch’s audience is not only indie authors, and so she still puts out posts that address the legacy of previous traditional publishing and how to shift mindsets from that to the new.

  8. More now than ever a few tentpole releases make up a significant chunk of the market. Despite having a tsunami of indie books (where each has a very, very limited audience) now more than ever there is a monolithic culture. A bit of a paradox but I disagree with the writer’s key assertion.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.