Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Gold Rush


By Lisabet Sarai

In January 1848, James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill, in what is now El Dorado County, California. That event kicked off the now-fabled California Gold Rush and changed the country forever. Between 1848 and 1855, by which time most of the readily available gold had been exhausted, some 300,000 people arrived in California, from across the United States as well as from many other countries. In seven short years, San Francisco grew from a small settlement of 200 people to a city of over 35,000. It took only two years for the United States to decide it wanted California as a state and to pry the land away from Mexico, to whom the territory belonged at the start of the Gold Rush.

An estimated 100,000 native Americans died from disease or aggression as the avaricious newcomers pushed them out of their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Many of the prospectors met equally dire fates at the hands of the Indians, the elements or their fellow gold-seekers.

New wealth fueled new technologies and new growth. At the same time, the Gold Rush destroyed much of value, damaging ecosystems, ruining families, tearing society apart. The boom town mentality rewarded short term greed and discouraged long term planning. It left the mountains of the Sierra Nevada littered with ghost towns. These days, a drive through the old gold country is a meditation on the nature of transience.

Publishing, especially epublishing of romance and erotica, seems to be experiencing its own gold rush. Book sales have surged by several hundred percent annually since the introduction of Amazon's Kindle in 2007. The number of publishers of ebooks has grown in proportion. Pretty much every week, I see a new digital imprint announced on the Erotica Readers & Writers Association list. Meanwhile, established print publishers, from Harlequin to Constable & Robinson, have rushed to cash in on the boom by developing their own lines of e-books.

On the plus side, this means more publishing opportunities for authors. Unfortunately, the boom has also made it possible for any individual who ever fantasized about publishing a book to do so. As a result, the slush pile has exploded by several orders of magnitude. For every work that I'd label as quality fiction, there are now hundreds, even thousands of competing titles that are, to be blunt, total crap.

It's true that it's easier to get published now than every before. Desperate for profits, some companies will accept anything that even remotely resembles a book. Plus there is always the self-publishing alternative. In fact, the burgeoning slush pile isn't the most serious problem. One of the worst aspects of the boom is the fact that it has become impossible for quality fiction to get noticed. You could write a Pulitzer-Prize-worthy novel these days and not sell more than a handful of copies.

One can understand the aspirations of would-be authors – no matter how lacking in competence they might be. After all, who made me the gatekeeper? So what if I believe that my erotica is better than 90% of what is available on Amazon today. Most writers probably feel the same way. Maybe one really should let the market decide. And indeed, with a sigh, I must admit I don't know what else we poor authors can do.

What frustrates me more than anything else, though, is the get-rich-quick attitude of the publishers – including some with long-standing reputations, who should know better. In the past few months I've reviewed ebooks from several well-known publishing companies that were close to unreadable due to editing and formatting errors. If I had purchased these books as opposed to having received free reviewer copies, I would have demanded my money back.

In one case, the book was a reprint of a classic erotic novel from before the ebook revolution. I believe that the original print book must have been scanned and subjected to optical character recognition (OCR) in order to create the electronic form. Anyone who's used OCR will know the process is rife with errors. Careful editing is required to correct the guesses made by the OCR software. As far as I can tell, the editor (if there was one) did no more than give a quick glance to this book. It was full of garbled text that seriously disrupted the reading experience. In their haste to get some income from this novel, this company apparently rushed it into “e-print” with zero quality control.

Does this company realize that, in my eyes at least, they've completely destroyed their credibility? I've actually had stories published by this company, but I'll think twice about that in the future.

If I were the author of this book, I'd sue the company for breach of contract. And then I'd make sure to spread the news far and wide via social media. As a reader, I'll certainly steer clear of any other titles in this series.

I wish I could tell you this was an isolated case. It's not. On the contrary, it's an illustration of the same sort of orientation toward short-term profits that made the Gold Rush so destructive, and I see it in many places in the publishing industry.

The Gold Rush reached its peak and then faded away in a mere seven years. It has been just about that long since the birth of the Kindle. What literary ghost towns will be left behind when the e-reading boom subsides – or changes to something unrecognizable? The rate at which technology and society change these days is dizzying. Anyone who imagines that the ebook boom is here to stay is as much a dreamer as the farmer from Pennsylvania who sold his farm and traveled half a year across mountain and desert, believing he'd make his fortune in the California hills.

I've been in this business since the end of the twentieth century. I've seen the eclipse of print and the rise of the ebook. I've done what I could to adapt, but I know tomorrow will be different from today. I plan to be here long after the get-rich-quick types have given up. Because ultimately for me, it's the stories that matter, not the money. That's why I hate to see the stories polluted by the greed of those who publish them.

[This post appeared a few months ago at the Oh Get a Grip blog. I apologize for double posting, but it's the end of term, I have four sets of exams to grade, plus thesis proposals and project reports... so it was either this, or skip my spot this month. And I definitely didn't want to do that! I promise fresh content next month!]


  1. Lisabet, these points are always fresh in today's environment, because there is a lag in perception for writers between what it used to mean to be published (not that there weren't problems with that system, too) and what it means now. I've heard from the mouth of an ebook publisher that their goal is to put up as much content as quickly as possible because it was the volume overall that made them profitable. I'd say I felt like a dollar sign, but I'm probably worth even less than that in their account books unless I promote myself, and that is an ever bleaker prospect in a saturated market. I believe that the people who really made out in the Gold Rush were those who provided services to the miners--bankers, merchants, even women who cooked and kept boarding houses. Someone will be making money from this, but likely it won't be many of the authors.

  2. What an outstanding metaphor! Yes, just like the Gold Rush enticed people with no skill or aptitude to attempt to discover gold, so to has the ease of getting published invited many who have nothing to say to try their hard can it be? After all, look at the dreck that gets to be best-sellers! If they can make gobs of money writing "fan fiction", or books that aren't even well-edited, then everyone can!

    On a side note, I'm actually incredibly jealous that you have all of those essays to grade, etc. Subbing for the past 11 years in 3 HS districts has not led to a job offer. A few times I've done long-term sub jobs, and I really enjoy grading student work. I've even done "lay-grading" in a district that pays for others to do the work their "coaches" don't have time for during their season. But we're told not to put comments on the papers or the students will know it's not their teacher who graded them. Sigh. As a writing specialist, I'm appalled that the students aren't having conferences with their teacher about the grades on their papers. No paper is ever "done"; they can always be improved with rewriting. That's how the students learn to be better writers. Alas, other teachers don't like my philosophy.

  3. Lisabet,
    In every instance where a new boom has risen there have always been three types of people involved. The Facilitators who provide goods and services to those doing the actual work. The Top Tier who not only know what they are doing but are good at it as well. And the Bottom Tier who are willing to risk everything for a half-ass dream they believe is a sure thing.
    The Bottom Tier has always outnumbered the Top Tier and their bones will litter the valley floor of publishing just as they did during the Gold Rush. There doesn't need to be gatekeepers, because the market truly will decide in the end. Give it time and all of those horribly written, abysmally edited books will end up in one large Internet Boot Hill. A place that will not so much as mark the dead but point to them and say, "That's where they went. You really want to follow?"
    As for the new mindset of the publishing industry, I am with Donna. This is a push by the major houses to flood the market in the hopes that one of two things will happen; Either readers will buy bad books and not complain about them too loudly, or like a room full of monkeys with typewriters, the major houses will find a bestseller without trying too hard.
    Think of it like Casablanca. One of greatest, longest lasting classics of the last century, (and a personal favorite of mine) its effect is still being felt today. But at the time it was released, the studio was literally putting out a picture a week. Casablanca was just one of 50 films that hit theaters that year.


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