The announcement that Penguin Books is getting into the self-publishing genre fiction game was inevitable. Under the guise of a talent search, a la American Idol, Penguin and other publishing entities, including many startups soon to overload the field, the promise of so-called “literary” fame and fortune will be the lure and the goal of the sponsors, as always, will be profits.
In general terms, here is the way it will work: Authors with hopes and dreams of becoming known genre writing brands will post their work in the various genres and sub-genres in the fields of romance, detective, fantasy, science fiction, vampires, zombies and on and on into numerous subcategories within subcategories.
According to newspaper reports, in addition to complete works, individual chapters and short stories, the authors can also post ideas, outlines and whatever else their creative writing urges dictate. Readers will interact, provide comments, suggestions and conversation, critique characters, plots and other aspects of particular interest in whatever genre fits their fancy.
One of the obvious hurdles to this potpourri will be the copyright challenges and the risk of what one can best describe as “stolen ideas,” a vague definition that will raise hackles on those who believe their ideas spring from original inspiration. In my long career as a novelist I have discovered that many people who believe in their imaginative uniqueness will quickly learn that numerous minds in many lands have concocted similar ideas, plots, and characters that tend to be mirror images of each other. Intellectual property lawyers will have a field day.
What the publishers and website sponsors hope is that there might be one or two breakout books that they might scoop up for commercial exploitation, while mining money through fees and advertising based upon what the sponsor hopes will be a vast audience of readers and wannabe genre fiction writers.
This critique in no way is meant to denigrate the individual writers who will step up and accept the challenge. I believe strongly in the creative impulse that motivates authors who write creative fiction, even those who work with the tight restraints of the genre palette.
Indeed, getting their work out to be read and commented on by others will garner many personal psychic rewards, especially if some readers register approval of their work. Unfortunately, they will have to bear the brunt of a compendium of negative comments, a kind of multiple rejection process that will be difficult for those who cannot face negativity with a well-armored constitution. Internet comments are rife with such postings, especially if they are anonymous.
There is no question that wannabe professional genre writers will flock to the Penguin site and others in operation or about to be. Many will have been badly bruised by an endless search for agents and traditional publishers. Most will believe that their work deserves a broad audience and will yearn for the time when they can quit their day job and earn enough money to support themselves with their writing.
Such fantasies equate with dreams of winning the lottery. Rising above the chatter of millions of books available on the Net will be the author’s challenge, whether they are aspiring or established. Unlike the brief performance segments on American Idol or the song business in general, reading or listening to a book takes considerable time and mental concentration. Reading is not a casual enterprise.
Consider this then a cautionary tale of what writers who post on Penguin and other burgeoning sites will have to face. The odds of finding a traditional publisher or agent in this uncertain environment will be beyond formidable. Even if one were lucky enough to acquire them through this process, the cash advance is likely to run from small to none. Nevertheless, expect to hear success stories, promotional ploys designed to keep the pump primed for the sponsors and continue to attract more and more postings. Caveat Emptor!
On the other hand, such postings will provide psychic joy to aspiring authors in the genre field. They will be able to point with pride to the fact that their book has been published. People might comment on the text, a good sign that some have read the material which is the object of the exercise. That alone could be well worth the effort for some.
In general, the creation of such material is a remarkable achievement for anyone. It is extremely difficult to write a long-form genre novel, an awesome challenge to the imagination and one’s self-discipline. There is a lot to say for such an achievement.
As for expectations of achieving popularity, fame, fortune, praise or discovery, authors should temper their hopes with realism.
On the plus side, remember, someone always wins the lottery.
Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections. The War of the Rose, adapted from his novel is an international classic. Other films include Random Hearts with Harrison Ford, and The Sunset Gang. His newest collection of short stories, New York Echoes 2, will be available soon.