By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey, Thomas Payne and Jack Steel)
There’s one aspect of the electronic publishing revolution which is now becoming clear and which is also beginning to cause concern among people who actually care about the English language.
Because quite literally anybody can now publish virtually anything as an ebook, without the benefit of any form of writing ability and ignoring even the most rudimentary attempt at editing, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ebooks out there which are borderline illiterate and in some cases completely illiterate, full of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and faulty punctuation. The corollary to this is that there are very clearly also tens or hundreds of thousands of readers who either don’t know what’s wrong with what they’re reading, or simply don’t care. Presumably, as long as the story romps along in a reasonably satisfactory fashion, the fact that the author can’t spell and has no idea what to do with an apostrophe or what a gerund is, simply doesn’t bother them.
The author of the novel Beautiful Disaster, Jamie MacGuire, for example, has been criticised for poor usage and command of English, but that hasn’t stopped the book getting into the top 40 on the Amazon bestseller list. And the same criticisms and have been applied to Tracey Garvis Graves, the author of On the Island, but the novel has sold over 360,000 copies in ebook format, and she’s recently signed a contract for a reported seven figures with a Penguin imprint, yet another example of a self-published book being purchased by a mainstream publishing house. Which presumably means that at least the printed version of the book will be literate.
Some people are deliberately taking advantage of the freedom offered by the Kindle to make a kind of obscure joke, perhaps the best recent example of this being The Diamond Club by Patricia Harkins-Bradley. The author doesn’t exist, being a creation of ‘Not Safe For Work’ comedy website presenters Brian Brushwood and Justin Young.
And the book itself isn’t really a book, either, in that it doesn’t tell any kind of a coherent, logical or even vaguely sensible story. It was basically spawned by the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, and the authors – if that’s the right term – simply created an attractive cover and a blurb which promised far more than the book could possibly deliver, and stuffed the inside with pretty much anything they could find.
Their masterstroke was to acknowledge the joke, putting the book on the iTunes store for only 99 cents and encouraging people who bought it to post a hilarious five-star review. And it worked.
The book was published on 29 July 2012 and by 15 August it was at number four in the iTunes’s bestseller list with over 2260 reader ratings averaging at 4.5 stars. On Amazon.com on 23 January 2013, and priced at $1.59, it stood at number 28,225 with 95 reviews averaging 4.1 stars, while on the same day on Amazon UK it was at number 133,131 with only seven reviews averaging 3 stars. So maybe British readers are less able to see the joke, or want far more for their 99 pence than this offering. By any standards, the book is awful, with no discernible plot, just a series of largely unconnected sex scenes and simply terrible writing. But that, of course, was precisely the point of the exercise, to write a best-seller that was completely unpublishable by any sensible standard.
And on this subject, I do have a suggestion that might help readers decide what ebooks to buy. At the moment, the only way a reader can decide whether a particular ebook is likely to be worth reading is to look at the name of the publisher and glance at the reviews. If it’s a commercial publishing house, that should mean that the book will be grammatically accurate, and if it’s got good reviews then the story might be entertaining as well.
Perhaps a system could be initiated whereby for a small fee a self-published book could be submitted to an independent assessor who would analyse – not the story – but the way the story has been written, the way the language has been used. Any book which is deemed to be literate could then be awarded a kind of seal of approval, a stamp of quality, something like the old kitemark we used to have in Britain.
It wouldn’t be much, but it might be one small step towards stemming the tide of electronic illiteracy that is now threatening to engulf us all.
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