07/05/2011 05:38 pm ET Updated Sep 04, 2011

The Good Reading Seal of Approval

Nothing better than curling up by the fire, or stretching out on the beach with a good book. Don't know what to read? Each year there are over 300,000 new books released by traditional publishers from which to take your pick. For more choices, check out the million or so self-published volumes crying out for an audience. You'll be so busy reading that you won't have any time left over to surf the web -- or read the Huffington Post.

Many of us solve this "too much information" tsunami by turning to critics and top picks, soliciting recommendations from friends, or staying with entrenched reading habits, i.e. the 50th book by a famous author who is churning out three books a year to support his joie de vivre. What we don't do very much is sample new dishes on the buffet, the young author with a unique perspective, the retiree who brings a lifetime of experience to the page, etc... (At least not until the tipping point of the bestseller list puts them on our radar).

So, a lot of "good stuff" falls through the cracks. And, if we do read, we read, through inertia, a lot of stuff that's at best mediocre, sold to us by the glorious memories of the authors' books past or the intensive marketing of their PR firms present. Many publishers have adopted the "Hollywood model," of selecting a catalogue of books to launch each year that are judged by potential marketability rather than literary value. A celebrity memoir is seen as a better "investment" than a well-written novel by a hitherto unknown scribe. In today's brutal market, even authors in mainstream publishing houses that have not returned big sales numbers, despite positive reviews and a loyal following, are being washed out. Those that remain standing are often asked to take on more and more of the publicity and marketing duties that once were provided by a publisher at no cost.

For new authors, despite -- or because of -- the profusion of books, the road to readers has become much more impassable in the past decade. While making the rounds of seminars, conferences, "Cons," and book fairs to market my recently (traditionally) published mystery-thrillers, I have come across a slew of capable writers whose manuscripts are languishing with agents or in self-addressed stamped envelopes, praised for their quality, but deemed not enough of a "sure thing" for strapped publishers to gamble on precious annual release slots.

Many excellent authors are now opting to detour around this impasse and go the self-publishing route. Ironically, this option may be equally frustrating for them, as their literary "wheat" gets lost in the "chaff" of casually written and edited tomes such as "The Week I Stayed Home Sick" and "The Tao of Toenail Clipping."

I can't begrudge folks the opportunity to publish, blog, journal, or otherwise express their inner artiste. There may be entertainment, catharsis, and even wisdom in the kernels of everyone's work, even if the work seems less-than-stellar on first viewing. However, as a reader, I'd like to be able to more easily locate interesting, well-written books that may not meet the criteria of "mass-marketing sure thing," and, frankly, to avoid books that truly are poorly penned. Online, "peek inside" options do allow a glimpse of "danger ahead" in that regard, but I've still ended up spending dollars on self-published books that would have better been an entry in a free personal blog.

There are services such as Kirkus Discoveries and Foreword Clarion that offer professional reviews for a fee to self-published authors. And some companies that provide self-publishing services such as iUniverse, for example, screen their products and give better books a rating of "Editors' Choice." But almost all books that are viewed as "self-published," except those of already established best-selling authors, are seen with a jaundiced eye by both the publishing industry as well as many readers. Quality books that would have found a traditional publisher and space on a store's bookshelves as little as 10 years ago, are now exiled to the netherworld of so-called "vanity publishing," because they are not immediately impressive as "commercially viable."

It would be wonderful to see our country invest in its artistic and cultural legacy by providing funding for, or even by launching, an entity that would rescue these orphan manuscripts by acknowledging their value. An organization for the professional reviewing and public archiving of high quality, well-written self-published books that may not fit the criteria for a best-seller in a for-profit, business-based model, but still have something important to say, and say well. No, this archive would not be responsible for publishing, critiquing, marketing, or selling these self-published volumes -- the authors would still have to arrange for that themselves. What the archive could do would be to lend a stamp of literary legitimacy to capable authors' efforts that is unbiased by the almighty dollar and the profit-seeking bottom line.

How many Catchers in the Rye and Girls With the Dragon Tattoo are out there whose authors have not yet found the self-sacrificing agent, the supportive editor, the effective indie publisher, and the pro-bono marketer to pave their way to commercial success? Without a commitment to supporting a non-business based publication model, we may never know.