Business Musings: Mushroom Publishers And The Tsunami of Crap

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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). Because my father was teaching this course during the paranoid McCarthy years in the U.S., he added some books he thought outside the 1950s curriculum, books that would get him (and his students) in trouble for reading.

The books were on a banned list, and I have no idea what they were. But if they’re from the original 1920s list, they were probably Marx & Engel’s Das Kapital and Lenin’s The State and Revolution.

My point here isn’t my father’s rebellion, which, in McCarthy’s home state (where we lived), could have gotten my father arrested (if someone had noticed). It was that what 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.

We, the reading public, would know what a book was just by whoever was promoting it.

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.

Another attitude intersected with that first one. I’ll call the second The Test of Time attitude. If the book withstood “the test of time,” then it was a good book, not examining, of course all the prejudices that made it impossible for books by some writers to get reprinted. (Subject matter—like writing about “forbidden cultures,” which was anything from LGBTQ fiction {not called that at the time}to writing about non-academic, non-white people—never got reprinted no matter how good the sales were. The same with books that defied the writing styles of the time.)

Here’s the irony, though. A lot of the “bad” books withstood the test of time. They were passed on in battered editions throughout the family and friends, and eventually got reprinted in new editions as the culture changed.

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.

Now the test of time isn’t about how many sales in the first year of publication, but how long the book is available. We have no idea how many books will eventually have the most readers because we’re in a new ecosystem, one that allows books to be discovered naturally.

And here’s the really cool thing: There’s no monolithic culture passing judgment on each and every title published.

So, yes, while 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?

Because if I have, then I’ve gotten you down to your reader self, not your writer self. Your reader self will defend your reading choices to the death.

So what if I read erotica? you think. I like reading it.

Or maybe your hackles went up about your favorite sf novel, or your favorite mystery novel, or your favorite impossible-to-categorize novel. Maybe you’re even thinking about your favorite movie, or your favorite TV show, or your favorite game.

It relaxes me, you think. I don’t have time to read something that’s difficult to understand on the first go-round. I’m just trying to get through the day.

Got that? Because your reader self is onto something.

Your reader self knows the value of entertainment, of relaxation, of storytelling.

Most people’s writer selves have forgotten that. We’re trained in colleges and universities to write Art. We want to write something lasting. We want to be the exception to the rule—the literary bestseller, beloved by readers and critics alike.

We don’t look at the history of the novel, at what we’re really considering classics.

For example, Holland in his introduction to The Mushroom Jungle, explores another book of criticism, this by a woman named Q. D. Leavis. Leavis, writing in the 1930s, believed that writers like Charles Dickens and other bestsellers atrophied the attention of the reader and ruined a reader’s “reading capacity.” Leavis suggested that such books be censored.

Holland writes (and I love this):

If Mrs. Leavis wanted to suppress the works of Charles Dickens in the 1930s it makes you wonder what she would have made of…any one of the paperback books read in the hundreds of thousands two decades later. [Mushroom Jungle, p.2)

Holland looks at Leavis’s list, and found that it included a lot of classic British writers. I look at Holland’s list of books published in that mushroom jungle, and see a lot names I recognize as well.

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.

Readers share with other readers, and unlike any time in the past, we writers have time to build an audience. Ebooks feel ephemeral because they’re not on paper, but they will last longer than most books published in the last 100 years. There’s no need to stock real store shelves, just the virtual ones.

So a book can take off years after publication. That’s probably happening more often than not nowadays, although I’ve not seen any statistics on it yet. (Just my own, and wow, am I seeing sales on older titles. It pleases me a lot.)

Postwar England had mushroom publishers.

Post-the-development-of-the-Kindle English language books have the tsunami of crap.

Readers then bought books published by mushroom publishers, and readers today buy books out of that tsunami of crap. We’re not going to know for another few generations who the writers of this decade are, or where the readers discovered those writers.

But if I had to guess, I would wager that a lot more of the Writers of Tomorrow will come from the tsunami of crap than from anything approved and stamped and validated by the critics and the literary community. That’s the way it worked in the past, and I’m pretty sure that’s the way it’s going to work in the future.

I was simply so amused by the way that the critics of the past judged the books we’re still reading now. I’m stunned at the fact that the language of judgment—the “unliterary” “lowbrow” “bad” books that “ruin” readers or prove that the masses have no taste—repeats itself year after year, always focusing on a different—non-approved—target.

It’s very threatening to someone “in charge” to see that others, unapproved others, are more successful, particularly if they’re publishing or writing or creating in a method that’s hard to control.

Indie writers are very hard to control. They can put up their own books. They can write against the prescribed rules. They can fly in the face of popular wisdom.

If they’re willing to take the risks.

If writers think of what they’re doing with the same attitude that their reader selves have—the self that will defend to the death the right to love something someone else deems unlovable.

It’s tough for writers to find that kind of courage.

But inside that kind of courage lies the path to success. Because the writers will write something that surprises (yes), and something that has a lot of heart.

I find these histories of publishing so hopeful. In them, I always find tidbits like some short-sighted someone still believed that the work of Charles Dickens was a bad influence sixty years after his death. Because fiction has always thrived in the most unlikely of places. Because readers are (and have always been) the best arbiters of good storytelling.

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.

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. Plus, the list of Great Books would be a lot different than the list formed in the 1920s or the modified list my father taught in the 1950s.

Sometimes I miss the monoculture, only because I really want to smash through it. But mostly, I’m glad it’s gone. Or at least, the perception of it is gone, from the reader side.

Now, if we can only get rid of it from the writer side. If we can accept that our assumptions were formed in another century, a century that is stunningly different from ours.

We can write and publish what we want. We aren’t even doing it in the dark.

So, let’s embrace the present and publish our works. Let the future take care of itself, and drop as much of those past assumptions as we possibly can.

And remember—if you find a book that’s spectacular, share the news with someone else. That’s what’ll keep books alive for the next 100 years.

Just like it did 100 years ago.

I intend this blog to be ephemeral. If it were made of paper, you could use it to wrap tomorrow’s fish. (That’s an old newspaper joke for those of you who don’t pay attention to paper newspapers.) Yet I have written a number of books by compiling my Thursday blog, something I hadn’t intended once I finished The Freelancer’s Survival Guide.

You just never know what’ll last.

What’s been marvelous from my point of view is how your support has lasted since I started this thing eight years ago in April. I couldn’t do this without you.

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“Business Musings: Mushroom Publishers and the Tsunami of Crap,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.


15 thoughts on “Business Musings: Mushroom Publishers And The Tsunami of Crap

  1. Also, I really liked what you had to say. I’ve had the sense for a while now that the “literature” of the present, was the populist favorites of the past, Dickens being a good example.

  2. You gave a quote by C.S. Lewis, regarding good vs. bad literature. I think he was quite broad minded about it. He’s a favorite of mine, so I’m lightly defending him. No hard feelings or anything.

    “In order to pronounce a book bad it is not enough to discover that it elicits no good response from ourselves, for that might be our fault.”
    ? C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

  3. What an insightful post, thank you for sharing it. I’m one of those authors whose writing has to put food on the table. I want my books to tell a story but I don’t try to create fiction that will be approved of, or admired, academically. Having attracted a good following of readers, I listen to what they have to say while still writing in a way that is enjoyable for me. I like what Dusk Peterson said about there ‘being no dividing line between literary fiction and genre fiction among the classics.’

  4. I graduated in 1987 from St. John’s College in Annapolis, which has an all-required Great Books curriculum. The college is still around, and it still has basically the same curriculum.

    I learned a lot about writing genre fiction from the Great Books. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Cervantes, Milton, Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Twain . . . These are genre fiction writers, folks. They were writing adventure, war fiction, fantasy, erotic fiction (I was shocked the first time I read Chaucer), and even some proto science fiction. I’ve adapted Dante’s hell for one of my fantasy stories. I received a goodly dose of training in gay writing from the Greek authors.

    I agree with you about the snobbishness of some portions of the literary establishment. I’d only point out that they accomplish this snobbishness by ignoring the obvious, which is that there is no dividing line between literary fiction and genre fiction among the classics.

  5. Often enough, the “unliterary” books, then and now, were as literary as any other books. What really mattered to critics, then and now, was how “literary” the writer was. And it was the critic who proclaimed, “I’ll decide who’s an ‘author’ around here!” Which has a dreadfully familiar ring to it…

  6. K. W. says that he was glad he had a bunch of stuff published before he went back for his MA. At least he knew he could write a book. (Mostly, he lurked because his type of writing –you know, books people like to read — was ridiculed and frowned upon in the program. I think he comforted himself with the thought that more of the “great books” were written for money rather than for art.

  7. I’ve noticed publishers still consider paperbacks to be a lesser form of book. In that they are releasing more trade paperbacks over mass market one. Waiting for the cheaper paperback doesn’t always work anymore. The trades are almost as expensive as the hardcover.

    So glad that views on reading have changed. I always come away from tsunami of crap articles scratching my head. I’ve found so many new favourite authors through indie that I literally can’t afford to keep up with them. I can count on one hand all my trad favs. At least those that have published in the last 5 yrs. Many more the further back you go.

  8. 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.

    Funny how that brings up memories.

    The longer you study, the more exams you take, the more you work on meeting expectations from the more learned than yourself. At some point you get a bit of initiative back, as you get closer to actually mastering your discipline, perhaps eventually launching into a thesis of one’s own… But by then exam habits are firmly in place, the mindset to meet certain very clear, almost explicit expectations. To reach a standard.

    I think I just got an insight into why most former literary students seem not so readable to me, whereas amongst amateur writers, I found engineers, a sociologist, a (would-be) store owner, a real estate agent, non-literary teachers, an accountant, amongst others, who all write things I like, enjoy, admire and find myself richer from reading. Those are only people I actually met, but subjectively, it seems many writers I like and admire, when I check out their (self-written) biographies, did a great many things in their lives besides studying, and didn’t actually do literature-related work.

    I’m not saying studying literature is a curse that dessicates one’s creativity. It just seems that what many draw from literary studies is a lot of knowledge and know-how, but also an attitude that kiils the fun in writing and reading. Whereas people who read for pleasure, who lean towards culture as a hobby, even as their lives and jobs are not at all in that line, when they get to writing, usually turn out to be interesting, engaging and relatable.

    And I suspect outgrowing exams and setting out to actually work, in “the real world”, might have a lot to do with that.

  9. Yes, this conversation has been going on for a long time! Speaking of Jane Austen, she wrote a “defense of the novel” in Northanger Abbey, as novels were not considered edifying reading material for young ladies. “Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?” (it’s longer than that but I didn’t want to post a very long comment–it’s at the end of Chapter V) Austen also wrote in one of her letters about joining a reading group (where several people would chip in and buy books and then pass them around): “As an inducement to subscribe, Mrs. Martin tells me that her collection is not to consist only of novels, but of every kind of literature, &c. She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great novel-readers and not ashamed of being so; but it was necessary, I suppose, to the self-consequence of half her subscribers.” Okay, I’ll shut up about Austen now. 🙂 But the larger point stands…as you wrote, there’s always some sort of literature that people enjoyed and other people wanted to shame them for enjoying it.

  10. Puts me in mind of some of the stuff I’ve read in books from that period. I mention it in reference to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s idea that reading had gotten “too easy” by the time he’d come to write Through the Magic Door. Christopher Morley’s books Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop heap scorn on popular authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs—whose works have since come to be considered classics.

    There’s always been this sharp divide between academic and popular tastes. Perhaps there always will be.

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