What Happens When Self-Publishing Catches On?

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For every book that gets published, there may be literally millions that don't. Many of these could be lost works of genius. But as Laura Miller of Salon points out, many of them may also be really, really bad, kept out of print by discerning editors. So what happens, she wonders, when self-publishing scales, and the market is flooded with countless works of dubious merit?

Nothing good, Miller suspects. She describes a phenomenon, called "slush fatigue," that might be familiar to readers who've worked in publishing:

You've either experienced slush or you haven't, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is.

Miller goes on to explain that the emotional wear and tear of combing through slush shouldn't be shrugged off.

It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters -- not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés -- for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that's almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn't been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue ... Instead of picking up every new manuscript with an open mind and a tiny nibbling hope, you learn to expect the worst. Because almost every time, the worst is exactly what you'll get.

So what happens when there's no quality control between hopeful authors and the reading public? Miller expects things will eventually reach some kind of equilibrium, and the best books will still find an audience through word of mouth. But she fears there may be high rates of reader attrition in the meantime:

A few days of reading bad manuscript after bad manuscript has a tendency to make you never want to pick up another manuscript again, but when finding new talent is your job and your vocation, you keep at it until you're successful enough to hire someone else to do it for you. If, on the other hand, you're a civilian, and reading is something you turn to, seeking fun or transcendence, during your precious hours of free time, how long will you persist when book after book has exactly the opposite effect, crushing your spirit instead of refreshing it? How long before you decide to just give up?
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