One Small Step for Publishing, Giant Leap for Bad Authors?


We’ve all seen them: the sketchy ads lining the margins of websites or the grainy back pages of the free dailies that serve as street decor rather than news sources. They tell us: “Get published!” “Become a model!” “Lose 100 Pounds Fast!” If the hyperbolic promises punctuated by exclamation points don’t tip you off that they’re gimmicks (polite word for “rip offs”), their faux-humble request for money should. If not that, then the bogus testimonials that seem describe the Second Coming rather than a realistic product should. If not that, well, then, you’re out of luck, my friend.

However, now one of these once-outrageous promises is backed up and carried out by Smashwords, an e-book publishing company. Launched in 2007 by Mark and Lesleyann Coker, spouses and co-authors of a novel set in the behind-the-scenes world of daytime soaps, when they couldn’t get their novel published. (It is said that the manuscript wasn’t picked up because “[it was] questioned whether soap opera fans read books.” Wow.) Frustrated by such arbitrary obstacles in a world that seems to have eliminated most hurdles via the digital age, Coker decided to take the decision of what’s readable out of publishers’ hands and place it back into the hands of the readers. Enter

Boasting “175,430,897 words published,” Smashwords’ website is well-organized and simple, allowing readers to search by author, genre, or publisher. With so many authors that the general population is probably unfamiliar with, there’s also a section for the most downloaded, best sellers, most viewed authors and publishers. It’s also simple to publish with them, which can be a blessing or a curse. Now that practically anyone can publish their original material, it’ll be harder to filter the bad from the good. But the philosophy behind Smashwords is that the filter be handed over to the reader rather than the publisher. The harm of bad writing getting published online is much smaller than if everyone were able to publish physical books. Especially in a setting such as a website, it’s easier to scan and skip. Rather than clogging up the bookshelves of a bookstore, you don’t have to see or move around books that don’t interest you. Also, the prices for the books are cheaper because of the format, some of them even offered for free.

The question at hand, raised by the release of the Kindle, SonyReader, and the more recent Nook, is the quality of the reading experience when it’s done online or in any medium other than the traditional physical book. Of course, the answer to this question is a personal one; my own answer is that nothing, not even the satisfaction of lowering our carbon footprint, will replace the pleasure of holding a book in my hands and flipping through its pages, setting it down (if I can), and picking it back up again. But from the perspective of a writer rather than a reader, assuming you can separate the two, this opens up so many possibilities for creativity and experimentation that the traditional world of publishing doesn’t always embrace. Not only can I find books and authors that might have been overlooked because of circumstances completely unrelated to the quality of writing, I am also allowed to reach an audience without having to navigate the exclusive world of book publishing.

However, this also raises the question of self-editing. Do I, or the general public author using this publishing platform, have the ability to put my best writing out there without the help of all the backstage hands in the publishing world? Nothing of what we read has been published without going through many hands and minds to make it what it is. Without all of those influences and filters, can Smashwords really be a force to be reckoned with? Can I?

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4 thoughts on “One Small Step for Publishing, Giant Leap for Bad Authors?

  1. Burnt Bridge says:

    A lot of good points here. One question, though: in a world where the great publishing industry machine seems deadset on finding the next Stephenie Meyer, can we really say that the traditional publishing route is providing that necessary filter? In a world where the Twilight saga is the only thing publishers and readers alike care about, why do we bother?

    • Hi Burnt Bridge,

      As much as I love to hate Twilight, the truth is that those are what sell. What’s missing in the publishing world is the room for literature alongside more marketable books. The problem I see with self-publication is the stripping away of the community of a publishing house. One of my favorite authors, Steve Almond, recently self-published two short collections at Harvard Bookstore, and I think that endeavor has been mostly successful because of his intentions. He already has set up a place for himself in the literary world. He’s given to the community and grown as a writer. Now that he has the means and a fan base, he has a place to go with his self-publications. He has a community that will respond and engage.

      We can’t overturn the capitalist motivations that dominate the publishing world, but we can definitely demand better quality from them.

      Thanks for reading!


      • Burnt Bridge says:

        I agree that we should demand better quality, but I firmly believe we won’t get it. The new wave of publishing, POD, and eBooks is of interest to me, however. That’s what I’m working on starting over here at BB. I want to build up a small, modest group of literary writers, all peer-edited, and use some of these newer, more economical means of distribution. I think the key to the preservation of good writing is those few of us who band together and work toward its future.

  2. I agree with you: While we should demand better quality, it should be with gusto and creativity. One of the best methods for showing what we want to read is to continue reading it, to support only literature that we believe in and that creates a community. We love what you’re doing over at BB, and the more grassroots means available that make projects like yours possible and successful.

    Did you check out Shane’s post on how support for lit mags should start with writers ( I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    – Melanie

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