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How the rise of the self-publishing industry contributed to the problems for Baltimore's mayor

Twelve years ago, the “Healthy Holly” scandal might never have happened.

Hidden inside the turmoil — which caused Gov. Larry Hogan to call for a criminal investigation into the $500,000 sale of Mayor Catherine Pugh’s children’s books to the University of Maryland Medical System — is the story of a disruptive new industry. It could be argued that the self-publishing phenomenon played a key role in the premature departure of Baltimore’s mayor.

Pugh announced Monday that she was taking an indefinite leave of absence for health reasons, and handed over her mayoral duties to City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. Previously, Pugh resigned her seat on the UMMS board of directors after details of the no-bid deal were made public. In addition, the Baltimore school system has confirmed that nearly 9,000 copies of the “Healthy Holly” titles, a seemingly innocuous series of self-published titles that encourages children to get more exercise and eat a healthy diet, are moldering unread in a local warehouse.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh's 'Healthy Holly' scandal: a timeline »

But chances are that none of these events would have occurred without the boom in the self-publishing industry that began in 2007 when Amazon released the Kindle e-reader. Self-publishing isn’t new; even Edgar Allan Poe financed the publication of his first poetry collection in 1827. But it wasn’t until Amazon unveiled Kindle Direct Publishing in 2007 that for the first time, would-be authors had access to a potentially unlimited online audience.

Inexpensive platforms soon followed that allowed aspiring authors to expand into physical editions printed on thick, high-quality paper with colorful book jackets and appealing cover illustrations that mimicked the novels and biographies released at much higher cost by such prestigious publishing houses as Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins.

“Until relatively recently, if you wanted your book to find an audience you had to go through a traditional publisher,” said Jim Milliott, editorial director of the trade publication Publishers Weekly. “But starting around 2009 or 2010, the self-publishing industry grew remarkably fast. And it changed everything.”

In 2015, the last year for which publishing statistics were available, 338,986 titles were released in the U.S. by traditional publishers, according to a report prepared by the International Publishers Association. Compare that to the 727,125 self-published print and electronic titles for the same year, according to Bowker, the U.S. agency that issues international standard book numbers (or ISBNs). Just two years later, the number of self-published titles exceeded one million for the first time, Bowker reported.

The new stockpile of self-published books might look good. But the content could be uninspired or riddled with errors. Self-publishing effectively sidesteps industry gate-keepers, the editors and critics who in the past rejected works deemed not up to their standards or pointed out authorial flaws.

That level of scrutiny is almost entirely absent in the self-publishing industry, Milliot said.

“The only way that a manuscript will get rejected outright by one of these self-publishing platforms is if it’s pornography or hate speech,” he said. “But just because it’s a poorly written book doesn’t mean that anyone will stop you from publishing it. There are people who will tell you that self-publishing has resulted in a great knocking down of barriers that has democratized the writing industry. That’s true to a certain extent. But there’s also a lot of junk out there.”

He acknowledged that the recent self-publishing revolution has racked up some impressive and high-profile successes. Without self-publishing, such acknowledged literary stars as E.L. James (“Fifty Shades of Gray”), Andy Weir (“The Martian”) and young adult author Christopher Paolini (“Eragon”) might never have been introduced to an audience that now numbers in the tens of millions. In addition, the self-publishing industry filled a big need by creating a supply of books — and, in particular, children’s books — that feature characters of color. Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” books, for example, chronicle the exploits of an African-American family.

But that doesn’t mean that anyone can sit down over the lunch hour and whip out a successful picture book. Children’s literature is a deceptively simple art form, experts say.

For instance, when Theodor Geisel began writing “The Cat in the Hat” in 1957, he thought it wouldn’t take long. Instead he labored away for between nine and 18 months to craft an engaging story using just the 250 words in the typical 6-year-old’s reading vocabulary.

As co-owner and children’s curator of the Red Canoe cafe and children’s bookstore, Josie Rhodes has read and winced over many manuscripts by wannabe children’s authors.

“A lot of self-published books come across my desk, and I reject the majority of them,” she said. “There are some diamonds in the rough. But there’s a reason why most self-published books don’t get picked up by major publishing houses.”

Some literary experts say that Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” series of four published* books, each about 20 pages long, fall into the latter category. (A fifth book has not yet been completed.)

Melissa Taylor, the Colorado educator who writes the popular “Imagination Soup” blog, told The Baltimore Sun recently in an email that the Healthy Holly books “are more pedantic than I generally like — or I think kids like.”

She also noticed editing mistakes in Pugh’s series that she said were typical of self-published books.

“Kids prefer stories with compelling characters, rich language, emotional appeal and an entertaining story arc,” she wrote. “I don’t see those elements in this particular book.”

For example, in the third book in Pugh’s series, “Fruits Come in Colors Like The Rainbow,” the title character says:

“‘Eating fruit will keep me healthy. Being healthy makes me happy. I am Healthy Holly,’ she smiled.”

With those shortcomings, it seems unlikely that “Healthy Holly” would be accepted by a mainstream publisher like Random House.

Pugh’s administration was beset by other problems long before her book deal came under attack. But Baltimoreans might wonder what would have happened if the Kindle had never been invented, or if the meteoric rise of the self-publishing industry had been delayed by perhaps three decades. Would “Healthy Holly” have remained Pugh’s own private brainchild instead of a roughly 80-page national embarrassment? And would she still occupy the Baltimore mayor’s office today?

mmccauley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mcmccauley

*A previous version of this article misstated the number of "Healthy Holly" titles. There are five titles in the series, four of which have been published.
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