Today I will not be popular with many of our authors because I am writing about a problem the majority of guest reviewers on this site, as well as a lot of readers and I are having with their books. I recognize that some of you may not care about this but the quality of the writing in this genre has declined significantly over the years, to the point where many reviewers aren’t requesting books for review. I receive complaints regularly from reviewers about the poor quality books they have been reviewing, a few of them even quit because they couldn’t take the shoddy writing any more, and others have taken a short sabbatical in the hope that things will improve when they return.
Have you noticed the number of 1, 2 and 3 star reviews on the site recently? We love it when we can praise a book to the skies and tell everyone how wonderful it is, but that hasn’t happened in a while except on rare occasions.
When M/M romance first burst onto the scene in 2003 I couldn’t get enough of these books because they were such a welcome change from het romance. It seemed that this new genre, which is actually a sub genre of romance, was well on its way to making a great impact and establishing a well deserved niche with romance readers, despite what the literary snobs said. I loved the stories and characters. Outside of classic gay books like The Charioteer written in 1959 my first contemporary gay romance was Bareback. Subsequently came Caught Running, Faith and Fidelity, A Note In The Margin, Mind Fuck,Wicked Gentlemen, and more recently I read A Hole in God’s Pocket and Irregulars, two delightful books. Adrien English Mysteries, Psycop, Deputy Joe, Cut & Run and The Draegan Lords were a few of the series that I thought were awesome. So what happened on the way to the big party? M/M evolved, but not in the way I expected.
Authors say that the genre couldn’t be more popular, and going by the sales figures they may be right. But not everything is as it appears on the surface. Sure, we buy a record number of books, but as many readers will attest, a large percentage of these books are DNF because the stories are downright awful. Think about it authors: we’re throwing our money away because you’re serving up ground chuck instead of sirloin! We’re stuck with a product we can’t return because books are not returnable. Yet we keep on buying your books because, despite everything, we’re optimistic about the genre and hope that maybe things will improve because we love gay romances. We keep on hoping for a return to those wonderful days of the past when we could be assured of an incredible reading experience whenever we cracked open a book, but all we end up with today is an ereader full of DNF books. You may say that similar problems are evident in general fiction and you could be partially right, but I don’t review much general fiction and I would like to focus my criticisms on one target at a time.
This post is not a castigation of all authors because there are still a few who subscribe to the view that a book must have a coherent plot, engaging characters with whom readers can become emotionally involved, great dialogue and prose and a believable ending. However the majority of books I have read recently are not professionally edited and contain such soul destroying mistakes as shifting POVs, no or very little character development, typos, spelling and grammatical errors, and all the other gross errors writers should have learned in writing school how to avoid. Let’s not even talk about the overused tropes that most M/M authors use in their books because that should be the subject of another post. The quality of the writing has declined markedly since I started reading this genre and the writers don’t seem to care that they are selling a substandard product, and do you know why? Because there is no incentive for them to significantly improve the quality of the books as readers are a contributory factor to this mess. We keep on buying this substandard, defective product even though most of the books end up as DNF!
It used to be that I was one of the few voices complaining about the poor quality of M/M romances but now this has become a chorus. Many of the guest reviewers are threatening to go on strike or quit because the books they are reviewing are so badly written. Some have already quit because they can’t take what’s being served up any more. What happened to the days when we opened a new book with anticipation rather than dread? The standard of writing in many M/M books is so low that at times we can’t find it. In the past we knew the bad writers and avoided them like the plague, but now even some authors who were auto-buys are releasing books that are clearly not ready for release, stories without plots, poor characterizations, horrible dialogue and prose. It seems that because of the current popularity of M/M, almost anyone who has a computer and an idea can pretty well get a publisher to release their stories, and if they can’t find one, they self publish. Whatever happened to taking writing courses and polishing your craft, before calling yourself a writer?
Here is a short list of some of my problems with the genre:
1. Authors are cashing in on what seems to be an increased desire by some readers for books at heat level 5 and are publishing stories with graphic sex – porn by another name. A bunch of graphic sex scenes strung together with no plot is not a story nor is it a romance, it’s porn. Also, do M/M authors seriously believe that what gay men do all day is have sex with multiple partners?
2. Since 50 Shades of Grey I’m so sick of reading abysmal BDSM books from writers who know absolutely nothing about the lifestyle and don’t do the required research, but figure this is their way to a quick buck and fame and fortune.
3. One of my biggest concerns is that most authors are not astute enough to retire a series before readers beg them to please let their series characters go to their eternal rest. I know it’s tempting but don’t give in to the urge for 3 or 4 more books just because that’s a sure source of income.
4. Last, some of the worst books I’ve read recently are the police procedurals. Here’s a tip for authors who fancy themselves as mystery writers. DON’T write mysteries unless you have thoroughly researched this genre, read many, many murder mysteries and figured out what it takes to craft a credible crime story that will hold the attention of serious mystery readers. It’s not about how hot the detectives are or how many times they bang each other. For serious mystery fans it’s about the plot, the investigation of the crime, the clues, the likely suspects, the leg work, and ultimately the reveal which should tie all the pieces together to give readers a satisfying conclusion.
5. Editing! Editing! Editing!
However, it’s not all bad. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel because a few of the smaller indie presses are doing a much better job in terms of content editing their releases. Let’s hope it’s catching.
In case you think this is all my opinion, here are comments from my partner, Aunt Lynn, and some of the guest reviewers:
Aunt Lynn’s Point of View
As you may have noticed, I am hardly reviewing these days (I think I posted three or four all of last year in total and nothing as of yet in 2013). Part of that is a time issue for me; I’m a super-busy person and I have chosen to devote the few hours weekly I have open to (mostly) behind-the-scenes stuff for the site, so instead of two reviews weekly, you see me now as the Giveaway Queen and you don’t see me doing a bunch of other admin-y things from helping copy edit some others’ posts, to acting as the WordPress/reviewer liaison, to being part of the team working to fix the continuing site issues. But another part of that decision was because I have been increasingly disappointed in the quality of what is being released, and if I am going to spend both my hard-earned, precious free time and money on books, I want them to be good, dammit.
I have noticed over the last few years that there seems to be a direct correlation between the sheer number of books being thrust at us readers and the downhill quality I have both experienced first-hand or via the reviews here and elsewhere. My opinion, as stated/inferred/questioned by others here in this post, is that the explosion of the genre (yippee!!) has publishers accepting — and releasing — anything that comes across their virtual desks (boo-hiss!!). While quantity can equal quality occasionally, this is not the norm.
I have been reading books in this genre for about five years now and reviewing for four, and while there was crap available back in 2007, there wasn’t much of it and I found that most of what I picked up was good if not pretty darn great. I discovered pubs that I could count on and authors who became auto-buys. I can no longer say that is the case; those same pubs and many of the authors have let me down. If I were to lay numbers, at least eight out of ten books have one or more major issues (and not just with new authors): horrible editing, poor plots, little to no character development, incredible (not in a good way) and implausible actions, more smexxin than storyline, Insta-Love, tired tropes, and series that continue well after jumping the shark have all made me want to hang up reading altogether and have driven me to do more and more revisiting of Old Favorites, including — yes, I’ll admit it — Harry Potter fan-fiction (laugh all you want, but some of that is waaaayyyyy better than what is being pumped out by pubs for pay). In fact, I can’t remember the last time I read a new release.
But authors and publishers aren’t the only issue: let’s not forget that readers play a part in this. They buy the crap by wheel-barrels full, letting the pubs think they are doing a great job shoveling the crap out.
My feeling is that something needs to change or a revolt will occur among even the most loyal of readers. I don’t expect my rant to be the catalyst for that change, but maybe my voice can be added to others, giving it weight, and perhaps someone out there will listen.
The main issue in my opinion is lack of editing. This is an area that’s always in a state of flux, but basically what most publishers need are developmental editors, not just copy editors. A few years ago, I worked as an editor for an organised and well-respected e-pub. Any book we thought worthy of publishing had to be vetted by the chief editor before the contract was offered. We did five editing passes per manuscript. The first two were developmental, two were grammar/syntax/style, and the fifth pass was the copy edit, undertaken by a colleague. Of course it was time-consuming. Of course we had to be picky. In my first four months, I signed two books out of literally hundreds that were sent in. My colleagues said I’d been unlucky with the amount of crap in the slush pile, but this was not an unusual ratio—overall we picked up less than 4% of what was submitted.
Then everything changed. The market was expanding. We needed to publish more books, and fast. Quality started to slide. We were told to offer contracts on books that only needed copy edits. Developmental edits went by the wayside. It was common for us to send revise and resubmit emails; a lot of manuscripts that were resubmitted, and which frankly still weren’t ready to be published, were now considered perfectly acceptable. Our five editing passes went down to two. We went from contracting a small percent of submissions to picking up around 40%. At that point, I quit—and I wasn’t the only one.
I know publishing is a business and it’s all about making money, but flooding the market with badly-written, poorly-edited books seems counterproductive. And yet it keeps happening (and in the mainstream, too), and we have to buy the mediocre stuff in the hope of finding something good once in a while, thus justifying the publishers’ decision to put out mediocre works. Can the trend be reversed? I hope so. But publishers need to invest time and money in their editors and they need to bring back developmental edits. They need to focus on providing a quality product rather than publishing ten books a week.
Lately I have become disappointed in the m/m bookworld. Part of it is my own fault. When scanning the weekly list of available books for review (for other blogs as well) several keywords stand out that make me almost immediately skip a book: homophobic (parents), in the closet, rape, dark past, werewolf mates, vampire mates, slavery/slave and BDSM just to name a few. Popular themes, but done to death. While originality has been dead since the monks in the middle ages started copying each other’s manuscripts, the m/m scene suffers even worse. The many common themes and tropes are recycled over and over again One book is almost like reading another, just with a different setting and different names.
Part of it is me (yeah yeah the old “it’s me not you”). I read a lot and when I like a genre I tend to stick to it. Plus I’ve been in this particular genre for 7 years. After a while you’ve seen and done it all. That’s not the only disturbing thing. When I started reading 7 years ago, I was lucky to find one maybe two m/m ebooks per week. Now there are dozens upon dozens a week and the genre has almost become a book factory. Just keep pumping out those books people! And with upped quantity, the quality goes out the window.
While I know every genre, mainstream or not, suffers from bad editing and spelling and grammar mistakes, I’ve come to the conclusion that the m/m genre is just as bad as fanfiction: name switching, twisted POV and name changing are just a few. I know some editors can do only so much, but are the books even sent to editors?
I buy and read between ten and fifteen M/M romance books a month. I review one book a week for Wave and over the last year, I have been struggling to find books I can enjoy, let alone wholeheartedly recommend. I noticed in particular when any writer using an unusual turn of phrase made me overexcited. I had become habituated to the endlessly repeated, lazy language used to describe relationships and sex. One of the reasons I originally valued this genre was it’s vibrancy of feelings translated into strong well crafted language. There feels like a real lack of joy, love and pride in the writing process at the moment. It is becoming much harder to dodge the shallow opportunistic dross that some publishers feel it’s okay to promote. Books that show little care and less imagination.
I know it’s obvious that when a niche genre becomes more popular there is always going to be an expansion of less crafted books. However I am also finding that my auto buys are not making the grade either. I don’t know if these writers are feeling the pressure and/or over producing. All I know is that once I had least ten writers of whom I would buy anything they wrote. At present there are maybe three.
I have no real answers as to what is driving this decline. My unoriginal thoughts include writers simply getting bored writing romance and publishers pushing out stuff that is of an inferior quality just to meet market demand.
I open every file wanting to like the story, and where I am usually let down is the plot. Sometimes I can’t warm up to a character or two (any character who looks like Binky as described by Nicole Kimberling is going to get the hairy eyeball), but generally if a book fails me, it’s on plot. It’s supposed to be the framework of the story, and if the sex wasn’t there, the plot should still be there and still hold together—and it has to be more than “hawt guys want sex, scheme to have sex, finally have sex.” Plot shouldn’t creak along held up only by the suspension of disbelief. Laws of physics can’t be ignored, established protocols have to be worked with, not disregarded. In an AU/offworld scenario, the wordbuilding has to be there and the plot has to fit within the rules established by the author. I’ve seen violations of all of these and rated the story accordingly. Plot is not the dull stuff between sex scenes!
I know something of what Wave is going to discuss, and I agree with most of it. So, to avoid writing a whole post of my own, I’ll focus just on editing. As a beta reader, I’ve learned that the quality of manuscripts authors submit varies greatly. At one extreme, some authors take workshops to improve their self-editing skills and edit extensively before letting anyone else read their manuscript. At the other extreme, some authors obviously don’t even run spell-check before sending it off. The latter are the ones I suspect result in books readers complain about (think silk purses and sows’ ears). To the reader, it appears unedited or, at best, poorly edited. And I’m sure that’s the case sometimes, as I’ve certainly seen some shoddy editing. But I think at least as often the cause is some combination of authorial laziness, arrogance, and/or rush to publish in an increasingly crowded genre. There’s only so much editing can (or even should) accomplish, as it’s almost impossible to provide nuanced feedback on an error-riddled manuscript. Hopefully as readers keep decrying poor quality, more authors will begin to take the time to make sure they’re submitting the best manuscripts they can, and the overall quality will improve.
The most unpleasant assumption that comes to mind is that publishers want to make more money and make it fast – thus putting out even more badly edited efforts. On the other hand, surely publishers see that readers are getting more picky and not less? At least I hope that they do.
I rarely buy books by new-to-me authors without a trusted recommendation, I want to try new authors for review, but the blurbs are just so very uninspiring lately and have been for a while. So then I go to the authors whose work I know reasonably well, but even those authors do not always deliver these days.
Val’s Kovalin’s viewpoint as an author
We authors feel pressured to meet demand by cranking out short fiction. But writing anything shorter than 50K words requires skill we may not have. Everything, even the romance, must be tailored to fit. So we prioritize before we start writing. We skip emotional development to work in sex scenes and get Insta-Love. We prune the conflict to a Big Misunderstanding, or neutralize it with a deus ex machina. Or we introduce too much conflict with no resolution. We neglect the vivid details of setting and characterization that can distinguish our work from the blandness of most gay romance books. This is one source of poorly written books: our urge to write short fiction while not knowing how to do it well.
So there you have it. A variety of viewpoints from some of the reviewers on this site of what we think is wrong with the genre and why we’re getting so many poorly written books. Your opinion might vary. One thing to remember readers is that we are just as culpable for this state of affairs. If we refuse to buy these forgettable, poorly written stories authors would treat us and their craft with respect, something that has to be earned.
This paragraph was included in my weekly update March 10 and since it was relevant to this post I’m adding it below:
“Just over a week ago (on March 1st), I wrote a post about the state of M/M romance from my perspective and that of some of the reviewers on this site. In this post I mentioned a few books and series that I loved however, I don’t want to leave the impression that the books or authors I didn’t mention were on my personal DO NOT BUY list. The danger of naming anyone or book under these circumstances is that people automatically assume that I deliberately meant to exclude the authors I didn’t mention and nothing could be further from the truth. Authors such as Victor J. Banis, Rick R. Reed, Josh Lanyon. Nicole Kimberling, Alex Beecroft, L.A.Witt, Clare London, J.L. Langley, M.L. Rhodes, Sean Kennedy, [Bobby Michaels, Patric Michael and William Neale who left us way too soon], the writing partnership of Abigail Roux and Madeleine Urban, Jordan C. Price, Ethan Day, J.L. Merrow, Marie Sexton and many others are on my auto buy list. If I didn’t single you out it doesn’t mean that I don’t value your writing or think highly of your books. Obviously my list is not as long today as it was say, 2 years or even 1 year ago, although there are many authors whose work I still value, but space and time won’t permit me to mention their names. However, I hope they continue writing the kind of books that will make this genre proud as we need all the quality authors we can retain. My thanks to everyone who commented on the post and still continue to do so today. I understand that many authors were upset, even offended, at the post, and felt that it was too negative. I can only say that I have to speak the truth as I see it. This is not about me – if you check out the comments from some of your fellow authors as well as the majority of the readers who responded, you will see that they agree with most of the opinions in the post.”