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Literature Review

Doom of the Shem – Leon Clarke

Doom of the Shem – Leon Clarke

The Internet is a bit of a wild-and-woolly sort of place, isn’t it? It’s a place where reviewers ” like me, for example ” can really sink their teeth into the sort of idiotic crap that passes for pop culture these days. It’s a place where we can just cut loose on the Uwe Bolls and the Rob Liefelds of the world, where we can ridicule Tom Cruise as a couch-bouncing, scenery-chewing, brainwashed cultist nutjob, run photos of Britney’s naked spadger by way of commenting on her Ëœtalent’, and devote reams of terrifyingly literate hyperbolic abuse to Electronic Arts for their unbelievably cretinous Digital Rights Mismanagement.

However, there’s one thing that each and every one of those entities have in common. They are ” theoretically at least ” professionals. They have careers. They make money; often unfeasibly large sums. They are, in short, legitimate targets. They put their work up in the public eye, insist that it has merit enough to demand a shitload of cash for it, and expect us to be appreciative. Far as I’m concerned, there’s an implied contract here: give me good work, and I’ll consider the money well spent. Give me shite, and I will grimly begin unrolling the toilet paper.

However, the Internet has blurred the lines. Used to be that the only real way you could get your stuff out into the market involved big publishing and distribution companies, who made sure the world heard all about your latest magnum opus, and in the proces raked off most of the income generated by it. With the advent of the ËœNet, that’s changed. Musicians, artists and photographers are starting to showcase and distribute their own stuff, and in many cases it’s every bit as good or even better than the material we used to get through the big players.

Thing is, there is another function of those big publishing firms ” or there’s supposed to be, anyway. They’re supposed to be gatekeepers, ensuring a certain minimum quality of work. The idea is that they only publish and distribute what they think is good enough to sell, and that keeps the rank amateurs out in the cold. Admittedly, this process never seemed to stop people like Britney and Ron Hubbard and Uwe Boll, but certainly it has acted as a filter, and there’s an awful lot of stuff we’ve never suffered through because of it.

Which brings me to the realm of self-publishing, or vanity press.

Once upon a time, nobody went through what was called vanity publishing; at least, nobody with a brain. It cost a fortune to have your pet book typeset, printed, bound and shipped, and without a distributor to get it into the stores, it wasn’t much good to you anyway. These days, the face of vanity publishing has changed ” changed to the point where it’s nearly respectable. A mob like Eloquent Books, for example, will take your book, typeset it, offer you a deal on printing it, ensure that it’s linked through to online sellers like Amazon, maybe even do some basic publicity, hook you in with a distributor, maybe more. And their prices are within the reach of the common man. Through the magic of Print On Demand, and electronic distribution (PDF documents, etc) they can even ensure your book comes within reach of a very large audience indeed. At least in theory.

All of this can happen because with electronic publishing and typesetting and distribution, the risks and capital expenditure per book are much, much lower than they are for the older publishing model. But with the risks lower, more players enter the game. Margins are lowered. Competition is stiff. There are quite a few firms doing what Eloquent Books does now, and that means Eloquent has a choice. It can try to pick up on quality, and hope to attract a serious following of purchasers… or it can go with volume, and simply line their pockets at the expense of the starry-eyed masses with long-cherished manuscripts in their word processor files.

Guess which model is most popular with this new form of publisher? I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t involve outlaying good money for editors to work closely with writers on their manuscripts. Nor does it involve saying no to people who might have money to spend on printing… almost anything, really.

And so a whole new category of books is filtering into the market. Not quite Ëœsmall press’, not quite purely electronic, not quite commercial, they fall somewhere in a grey area occupied largely by hobbyists who believe their interest in 1/52nd scale trainsets of the Victorian era deserves to be commemorated in print, and by people who really, really want to be writers… but aren’t prepared to go through the long, painful learning process to make the grade.

It’s true. There are authors who have become famous through self-publishing. There are writers whose works, rejected by conventional publishing, have gone on to make Big Money. But the truth of it is this: at least ninety-five percent of the books rejected by conventional publishers are rejected because they are not very good at all.

And that brings me to Doom of the Shem, by Leon Clarke.

I could put Clarke into the crosshairs, set the selector-switch to full auto, and run a whole magazine downrange. Doom of the Shem is a novel about evil, tentacled alien invaders battling hardbitten, decent human defenders. The author clearly has a liking for the military end of SF, and he’s given three hundred and seventy pages of free rein to his imagination along those lines. Unfortunately, he hasn’t worked up his chops as a writer, and if I wanted to write a scathing, snarky, sarcastically funny review of the book at his expense ” the material is there.

But that wouldn’t achieve anything. Leon Clarke is a Science Fiction fan with his heart on his sleeve. I’ve been one of those most of my life. It could have been me in his position, if the Internet had been around maybe twenty years ago. Tomorrow, it might be you.

Does Clarke really deserve the kind of bollocking I hand out to cynical, talentless hacks like Uwe Boll? It’s true Clarke has been a little rash in stumping up to produce Doom of the Shem. It’s true that any half-decent editor would have demanded and overseen a near-total rewrite of the material. It’s true that even Clarke’s friends should have been able to tell him that this book needs about ten years of development from the writer. I could say this is all something Clarke should have foreseen, and therefore he should be able to deal with the rough end of the pineapple at review time, because that’s what it means to play on the professional field, in the big leagues.

But the truth is this: the book may be Not Very Good, but it’s a labour of love. And it isn’t Leon Clarke’s fault that this new form of vanity press has come into existence to make money out of people precisely like him. So all I’ll say is this: there’s a lot of work in that book, Leon, but it’s not ready for the reading public yet. You need to work on your skills as a storyteller for a while, okay?

The real bastards of this piece are Eloquent Books, and all the other firms like them that hold out the promise of fame, fortune and glory to little people with big dreams. Because every time they put a half-finished book into print; every time they accept a manuscript without proper editing, every time they dump a big steaming turd into the already stinky world of print publishing, they make it that little bit harder for the whole Net-publishing industry to get any credit, any respect. And that’s a disaster, because we ” you, the readers, and writers like me ” we desperately, desperately need a credible, respectable alternative to the big, fat bloodsucking megacorporations that own almost the whole landscape of publishing today.

So the substance of this review: Doom of the Shem, a three-hundred-and-seventy-two page science fiction novel by Leon Clarke, is Not Very Good. But Eloquent Books and the rest of the new wave of Internet-based near-vanity publishers represent something very bad indeed.

Fair warning for anyone who wants me to review their largely unedited Internet-published novel in the future: if you want it treated like a book, then make sure it’s up to standard.

Because I will call it exactly as I see it.

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About The Author


Dirk Flinthart is a mildly notorious writer, raconteur and sometime rakehell bunkered in the forbidding hills of north-east Tasmania. He's probably best known as an occasionally fictitious character in John Birmingham's books, but the reality is both stranger, and far more coherent. Flinthart's recent works include Angel Rising (with Twelfth Planet Press), Canterbury 2100 (as editor, courtesy of Agog! fiction) and he has a story shortlisted to the 2008 Aurealis Awards. Having just completed his black belt in ju-jitsu and begun his studies of Iaido, Flinthart is confident of surviving the coming Zombie Apocalypse in fine fashion, and expects to continue writing speculative fiction long after the undead have eaten your rich, gooey brains...

Article Information

  • Posted: Thursday, January 15th, 2009
  • Author: Dirk Flinthart
  • Filed Under: Literature,Review


One Response to “Doom of the Shem – Leon Clarke”
  1. avatar Q-Dog says:

    I have been on the outside of small press publishing, having done covers for a series of self published fantasy novels. I agree that the power of self publishing, or assisted publishing, and in fact most of the D.I.Y aspects of the new media which allow us to put our pet projects out in the world are in need of great scrutiny.

    There is often a damn good reason why only certain things get published, or picked up as comic books or distributed by record labels… because they have been through the process.

    Sometimes this results in soulless homogenized shit, but other times it results in script or manuscripts that have actually been through many drafts, have had objective eyes on them and have been given, at the least, a once over.

    i wish everyone the best who is trying to self publish or whatever… but realistically, the reason you may be getting knockbacks is because you may need to get better. there is a very very fine line between self confidence and self delusion.

    having said that, i haven’t read the book so thanks for the review Dirk. i think it stands as a timely warning to all other self publishers… feel free to submit, but be prepared to be told….

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