As the title of one of the new century’s most beloved novels reminds us, complexity can exist where we see only the absence of complication. A single color contains multitudes. That novel’s author, E.L. James, might have been commenting on the category to which her own work belongs: “bad” books. Fifty Shades of Grey is a bad book—cheesy, boilerplate, and silly, despite its silky dreams of sophistication and naughtiness. But man, the simple descriptor bad encompasses so many other vistas of badness, strange and terrible to behold. These are planets of implausibility and awfulness that revolve beyond our wildest imaginings.
Welcome to Kindle Scout.
Kindle Scout is a new initiative from Amazon, a “reader-powered” publishing platform for “new, never-before-published books.” It works like this: Authors submit their manuscripts, 5,000-word excerpts of which are posted on the website for a 30-day scouting period. During that time, Amazon members can browse the selections and nominate the ones they’d like to see published. A reader is allowed just three swappable picks at a time, to preserve the integrity of each recommendation. At the end of the trial run, a team of staffers tallies the nods, applying its own secret rubric to decide which manuscripts get released. (A Kindle Scout representative declined to elaborate on the criteria it uses.) Selected books, explains Amazon, “will be published by Kindle Press and receive 5-year renewable terms, a $1,500 advance, 50 percent eBook royalty rate, easy rights reversions and featured Amazon marketing.”
On the writer’s resource site Writer Beware, Victoria Strauss has a smart post assessing the authorial incentives and drawbacks of such a deal. The advance, though small, is better than nothing, and a 50 percent royalty rate seems fairly generous. Kindle Scout offers exposure (rose) on a swift timeline (rose) without much prestige or developmental support (thorn, thorn). Chosen manuscripts hit the digital shelves as-is, sans editing, proofing, or guidance on artwork, though a spokeswoman for the program did mention that Kindle Press had connected “some of the very first” authors with professional copy editors. The real winner would appear to be Amazon, which can leverage readers’ direct involvement to lure them to its website and profit from successful new titles without losing too much on clunkers.
Beyond each writer’s personal arithmetic, though, and Amazon’s feline-stroking evil genius, Kindle Scout invites all the usual philosophizing about publishing and access. A program with open submissions puts more voices in circulation. It amplifies different kinds of voices, razing institutional wayposts that tend to disproportionately welcome white men. It responds more nimbly to the demonstrated preferences of the reading public, asking us to rethink our inherited notions of literary merit.
But I am not here to talk about the democratizing heroism of self-publishers and crowdsourcers. Or about the growing centrality of the consumer, who is able to customize her reading experience by telling Amazon precisely what she wants to read before any work goes to press. I am here to talk about The Billionaire’s Bodyguard Bride. This is one of the first success stories of the process, a Kindle Scout–approved book soon to be “published by Kindle Press,” unfolding the romance between kick-ass “covert protection” agent Lauren Reynolds and gorgeous business mogul Rafe Dimitriou. We meet them at a wedding-themed fashion show where Lauren plays the bride and Rafe the groom. They have a past. “His kisses had tasted like forever,” but those “hard muscular lines that provided the perfect counterpoint to her soft curves” were not enough to save their relationship after he discovered that she had infiltrated his heart for a newspaper story.
Two years later, at the fashion show, “what Rafe did to that suit should be illegal,” and Lauren is “even lovelier than she’d been when he’d first laid eyes on her after he’d fished her out of the waters of his private beach.” They yearn, they despise. “Testosterone practically oozed out of his pores. Much to her dismay, all of that testosterone happened to be focused on her at the moment.” They bait each other with dialogue that belongs in an antique Archie comic. “If I’d known you were in New York, I would have been certain to be out of town,” Lauren says. “Shouldn’t you be in France? I just read an article about your new publishing house there. Judging by the photo of you and your latest conquest that accompanied it, you’re still mixing business with pleasure.”
Oh, hell. I’ll keep going. You know you want it.
“You know what they say about all work and no play,” he shrugged, the subtle movement drawing her attention to impossibly broad shoulders magnificently showcased by the tuxedo’s exquisite tailoring.
“So what brings you here? Another acquisition?” She hated that she needed to know.
“In a manner of speaking.” He paused, capturing her gaze and holding it. “I have business with you, actually.”
“You came here to see me?” she asked, incredulous.
He nodded, pulling her closer while soft, romantic music pulsed and ebbed around them.
This kind of writing is unabashed. It is breathtakingly, gloriously bad. And it raises a question: What do we mean when we talk about bad books?
One phrase that gets thrown around a lot is “guilty pleasure.” This generally means titles that engross and titillate even if they’re not painstakingly written or constructed. Think plot-heavy thrillers like The Girl on the Train or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Fizzy heartwarmers like Bridget Jones’s Diary. Trashy confessionals like Valley of the Dolls. With a guilty pleasure, the reader has to make a series of calculations, weighing demerits (these characters all sound the same) against redeeming qualities (but I missed my subway stop). When a guilty pleasure works, it means suspense or an appealing voice or soaring fantasy elements have overridden weak prose or flat characterization or dumb plot contrivances, so that the net reading experience is positive.
But other books, oh other books, sail across that fine line between being pleasurable despite their badness and being pleasurable because of their badness. (And being nonpleasurable because of their badness, that’s always an option too.) Instead of forcing readers to weigh pros against cons, these titles collapse the pro-con distinction. If a guilty pleasure is an occasional, delicious bag of potato chips, these books are a nacho tower fluorescent with cheap cheese, unappetizing, weirdly compelling, “so bad it’s good.” You don’t feel guilty enjoying it in spite of its flaws. Rather, you feel some mix of superior and delighted as you devour it on account of its flaws.
In just a few months, Kindle Scout has become a murderously deft purveyor of books seemingly designed only to be inhaled like so many bibliographic nachos. It does not appear, for example, that writers are submitting their sensitive domestic novels or dissections of the Brooklyn literary scene. (In a survey of more than 15 approved or aspirant e-books, the single gut-sparing exception I found was this excerpt about growing up amid the zombie apocalypse, which verges into traditional “middlebrow” territory.) A lot of the titles appear to be fanfic, such as a Dexter knockoff, Dennik, about a suave serial killer. Even the less explicitly derivative stories are touted in promotional copy as spiritual descendants of best-sellers: “Bridget Jones meets the Midwest,” “The Da Vinci Code times ten,” “Harry Potter meets David Sedaris meets Texas.”
The callbacks only serve to emphasize the category difference between Kindle Scout releases and the fun but not hyper-challenging books they invoke. It is possible to take Dexter seriously, but not Dennik. You can grudgingly admit that Dan Brown packs a thrill, but not this guy. I wonder how many of the Amazon users nominating their favorite excerpts are doing so perversely, in the spirit of camp. Under what other auspices could one possibly endorse the howling awfulness of, say, Pit Bulls vs. Aliens? (“As the intent of the invaders becomes clear, Colonel Benjamin Jamison is called upon to lead a military force to stop them. An impressive show of firepower comes up short as the technology of the aliens proves too much. All hope appears lost until the human comrades inadvertently discover one thing that the aliens cannot defend themselves against—and the earth has millions of them.”)
If people really are demanding bad writing from the Kindle Scout program in order to smirk at it—whether out of a love of camp or a love of lulz—that seems mean, not to mention limiting. Sure, there’s snarky pleasure to extract from the bodyguard bride’s inner monologue. (Let’s extract some right now! “Did [Rafe] honestly think she would break out the pom poms to celebrate his exalted return? If so, he was going to be sorely disappointed. The fatted calf would be staying in the barn.”) But when you refuse to take a book at its word, even with reservations, you aren’t approaching it as a consciousness comparable to your own. You’re shutting down a chance to empathize and learn. You’re making the experience about you.
But the bigger problem with so-bad-they’re-good novels is that sometimes they’re just so bad they’re … bad. For every camp triumph on Kindle Scout, every daft splendor of weaponized pit bulls, you’ll find three corresponding duds. A writer will insist on, like, narrating all the muscle movements involved when a character opens a window. Or she’ll create exhausting pileups of irrelevant plot. The author of The Billionaire’s Bodyguard Bride is extravagant in her badness, merrily contemptuous of anything resembling realism or restraint. But other writers prove grimly, humorlessly terrible. Their malignity flows from ambition, an irony that makes you want to avert your eyes, always an impediment to reading enjoyment. And oh, the prologues! The self-serious, groaning prologues:
As the sun set, shadows bled over the landscape. Ordinary objects, harmless items by day, became sinister as darkness infected them. Secrets hid in shadows. Nightmares were born from them. The night depleted courage, corroded bravado like an acid, eating away at it as the shadows deepened, suffocating the warmth and safety of light.
There are just so many ways for books to be bad, and not all of them pay off. I haven’t mentioned the boringly formulaic thrillers. Or that mode of precious, jokey, self-regarding prose that seems like a desperate bid for our readerly affections. (“Why does there have to be a huge canyon between me and that forest? She asked that internal question most likely because only five feet behind her was a sheer cliff.”) On Kindle Scout, one reads all these excerpts, meets all these orphan-vampire-wizard teens, encounters the incendiary seductions and unruly blond mops of ringlets and teeth gritted with fury—and discovers so few moments of real inspiration, divine or infernal. Perhaps sublime failure is as difficult to achieve as sublime success.
And yet. When it arrives, it can be incandescent. Just try not to revel in the nacho-flavored hazmat of Lauren and Rafe’s reunion, and to suspect that the author was cannier than she let on. Something about a terrifically bad book taps into our shared fallibility. It conjures a world in which we don’t pass muster, or follow the rules—but press forward regardless. Everyone’s a critic, these holy misfires say, but have you ever penned a novel about an amnesiac jewel thief who falls for a house elf with a secret? Maybe you want to. Maybe you should. And if you do, Kindle Scout is waiting.