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ASK THE EDITOR Writers Must Rise Up for Readers

By Susan Malone

June 2002

An odd phenomenon is occurring in the world of books today. Constantly, I have people (from avid readers to those looking for a beach book) ask me for recommendations as they can't find anything good to read. They say they browse the books stores, and what they find promoted is of such schlock, they can't even get through the first pages.

On the other hand, the agents and editors I know are screaming for good manuscripts to represent and publish. They say they can't find decent material, and that submissions run the gamut from the merely amateurish (with some talent) to the downright dismal.

In the middle are the writers with whom I work, who have gained more than a modicum of writing skills, tools, and education to go along with their talent, and become appalled (now in a professional manner) by all of the mistakes and gaffes and just plain old bad writing in everything from how-to books to best-selling fiction. These folks aren't merely picking at grammatical inconsistencies either, but going to the heart of style and characterization and plotting, giving example after example of what failed and for inexcusable reasons. (I'm a big believer in breaking the rules, and instill that in my writers. The trick is to know what rule you're breaking, know why you're doing so, and be able to defend the decisions down the road to an agent and ultimately, publishing-house editor).

So what the heck gives?

While I'd like to lay the blame at NY's feet (and trust me, they deserve their share), the truth is we've all failed?on all sides of the issue. NY IS publishing (and more importantly, promoting) schlock. Readers aren't nearly as sophisticated as they used to be, due to a variety of reasons. And writers have gotten fat and lazy.

At the risk of p_ssing off all of NY, my contention is they've dug their own grave. Publishing is in dire straights, all the way around. Houses are losing money at an alarming rate (I say alarming, because just losing money isn't a new thing in this business), and everybody's scrambling to not only find books to sell, but also to figure out how the heck to sell them. Readership is down (and not just percentages, but actual numbers of books sold), and continuing to decline. NY says it's because of 9/11, but the problem began LONG before that. Or, that so many avenues of entertainment exist, people just aren't reading anymore.

Well, maybe if you gave them something decent to read, they would.

An agent friend was dining with an editor recently, and asked him why no one was publishing Male Action Adventure these days, especially in light of fact that the movies were filled with them. Rambo 42. Die Hard Until There's No Planet Left. Etc. And he said, "That's exactly it. People can go see the film in two hours, be spoon fed the special effects?which are much more vivid than they can image–and for less money than it costs to buy a hardcover book."

So much in that sentence turns my stomach that I could talk of it all day. But the crux, for me anyway, is the part about the lack of imagination on readers' parts. Yeah, finding decent books is difficult these days (hell, that's why Oprah said she was disbanding her book club), but it surely can be done. I see true gems all the time. But of course, I have to hunt for them. If books are important to you, however, you find good ones (shame on Oprah, if for nothing else than the sentiment). The dumbing down of America truly marches on. The experience of a book is night and day different from that of a film, and causes different responses in the brain. I'm still baffled, even for all the aforementioned reasons, that people have ceased to read.

Which brings me to the bridgers of the gap. Writers–probably the most maligned group on the planet–are the only ones who can actually DO anything about this. It's very easy for us as a group to blame NY. But the fact is, if we were producing better material, the bar would be raised as our books were published and found readership. NY ain't gonna do it, folks. They can only publish what they receive, although I, too, am amazed by what comes out of there, and what they pass up.. But that's another column. Think of the publishing industry, however, as the effect, rather than the cause. They'll never be proactive.

And readers ARE getting lazy. So give them something that's both well done and too compelling to put down. Take a page from Oprah's book (and even though I do believe what I said earlier, she still should be nominated for sainthood for what she did for this business).

When she promoted good books, readers flocked to the stores in droves.

Not only is it the writer's job to write well, but just as importantly (really, if not more so for the premise here), to read well. And voraciously. It not only improves your own work (immensely), but supports your fellow writers to boot. Writers are the most loyal readers, and trust me, if we don't stick together in this, we'll all be history. Finally, the writer's job is to tout the books she reads. TELL people about good books. Surely you, too, have folks bemoan the state of quality tomes these days. So tell 'em what's really wonderful out there.

And if you don't, shame on you.

Susan M. Malone is author of: By the Book (novel); BodySculpting; Fourth and Long; and Five Keys for Understanding Men, and owns a successful editorial service. Fifteen Malone-edited books have recently sold to traditional publishers! Malone is a contributing editor to Authorlink.com. http://www.maloneeditorial.com