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

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!]