There is a lot to be afraid of when one considers the online book marketplace. When I read Laura Miller’s apocalyptic piece on the inundation of self-published slush pile submissions a couple of weeks back it made me incredibly depressed. The thought of the marketplace being full of subpar, unedited manuscripts turned into ebooks or printed on demand, thus making it impossible for readers to differentiate the good book from the bad, was a devastating one. Why? Well, we call it the slush pile for a reason. Although there are a handful of stories about the hidden gem buried in the slush pile, the slush pile is, for the most part, full of awfulness. (Full disclosure: I am very familiar with slush piles. I have spent many hours, days, months, with slush piles.) And Laura is right: it will suck the will to live right out of you.
And now, gradually, the stuff that sucked the life out of me is available for purchase. To be fair, it is usually available for very cheap. But I got paid to read the pile and would never pay to read it.
So when anyone can “publish,” doesn’t the marketplace become the slush pile?
How will a reader differentiate a good book from a bad one?
This is a legitimate concern, but I also believe it is the opportunity that many publishing houses, big and small, have been waiting for: a real chance to brand themselves to a receptive audience. Readers will looking for a stamp of approval on books and that stamp can take the shape of having a publishing company attached to the title.
I think it’s fair to say that few readers make buying decisions based on imprint or publisher now, and few can probably name the publisher of a book they’ve just read, despite many publishers doing their best to brand themselves. But this could change when readers look for ways to narrow down their book search and filter out as many stinkers as possible. Perhaps this is a chance to breathe new life into imprints and turn them into key identifiers of good books.
Imprints currently have cachet within the industry, but few book buyers bother to read the label, so to speak. Some genres readers already have publishers whose colophons are trusted advisors. (Are these perhaps the same genres that were early adopters of self-publishing?) But this trend stands to spread when it becomes more and more difficult to single out good books.