The So-Called Publishing Revolution

Man, that’s a clumsy way to make this article topical. I feel like I’m cramming a square peg into a circle hole. Too late! Is what it is. It’s out there. Let’s just move past it.

And now, let’s talk about the —

*drum roll, crash of thunder, thunderous hoofbeats*

FUTURE OF PUBLISHING.

I write this post because I just came from reading a thoughtful, incisive post over at John Horner‘s Hornor’s Bastardized Version about publishing and e-books (“I Sing The Book Electric“), and there I posted a comment and it feels like, instead of dumping a fat back of blubbering word count in his comment box, I’d be better coming over here and jabbering into the void. So, prepare to get a little bit on you.

To give the gist of John’s post (though please, go read it, he says things far more intelligently than I can paraphrase), it’s this: right now, we as authors are facing a potential transitional period whose value is not known. Yes, blah blah blah, e-books are ascendant, except we don’t really know how true that is. It’s the Wild West in terms of both electronic and traditional publishing, as old laws are slow to catch up into new territory. What is likely (and this is John’s main point) is that the ease of publishing will lead to a wider diversity of published material, but this diversity has the potential to be paralyzing rather than empowering (at least, from the audience’s perspective).

As authors, this is both totally exciting and deeply fucking terrifying, because we don’t know if this trip is going to lead to a mighty gold rush, or to us breaking down in the middle of nowhere, forced to cannibalize one another. Mmm. Sweet meats. Long pork. Pass me the fork?

I am equal part e-book Luddite and wild, frothing futurist in my thought response to not just John’s post, but to any future scenario regarding the “publishing revolution.” At the outset, I’m pretty much in John’s camp in this one: traditional publishing has handed to me a wealth of wonderful books. The gatekeeper model has worked — at least, it’s worked to put good books into my hands.

What it hasn’t done yet is worked to put my books into the hands of others (nor has it necessarily worked to put my friends books — like John’s — out there). Maybe my books suck, and that’s a good thing. I dunno.

The reality, I’m afraid to say, is this: the world is home to a lot of bad fucking writers. Wretched wordsmiths, clumsy and fumbling. The fear is, the FUTURE OF PUBLISHING will kick down the doors and allow all these awful writers to come flooding onto our shelves and into our e-readers, a tumbling horde of zombie book-monkeys whose vast hunger for brains is present simply because they themselves possess none to begin with.

The signal-to-noise ratio will wobble wildly, and next thing you know, it’s going to be all noise and no signal. That’s the fear. It’s a fear I myself possess. It’s good for bad writers, and bad for a good audience.

Except, like with all things, the truth isn’t really at the margins. The truth can’t be that simple. It never is. The truth seems to forever lurk in the mushy middle, in the mire of moderate thinking.

(Mmm. Alliteration.)

In no particular order, here’s some added thoughts.

That Awful Buzzing Vuvuzela Noise Has Always Been Here

It’s easy to submit to the fear that the sudden e-book revolution will produce greater difficulty in separating wheat from chaff once we strung up our gatekeepers from the streetlights. But the truth is, the noise has been present since Caveman Thag learned to scratch pictures of Two Stags Fucking on the cave wall. The ability to write — and, later, the ability to print — has essentially granted the ability to make books and tell stories since the dawn of time. This is wildly simplified, since different barriers — like, say, the inability to read or the Black Goddamn Plague — prevented this, but my point is that in general this publishing industry model isn’t that old, and in its most currently refined form is only a couple decades into its life cycle.

Further, I cannot speak to your experience, but I can damn sure speak to mine: when I walk into a bookstore or I flit on over to Amazon-dot-com, I am already paralyzed by diversity. The shelves are full, and so are the databases, and it’s all spines and bright colors and ISBN number and —

You know what’s missing?

Filter.

I find no filter. My method of finding new books to read is, at present, one of two.

One: I take recommendations from people I know, or I read reviews, then I find those books.

Two: I wade into the septic morass and reach through the fetid glurge to see if my searching fingers can find a bauble or three hiding underneath all that goddamn poop.

Taking the FUTURE OF PUBLISHING to its most apocalyptic destination, what happens if all the gatekeepers are eradicated and the aforementioned doors are kicked down?

For the audience, it basically defaults to the same thing. They still have to wade through the feculent froth. They still have to listen to the recommendations of peers and reviewers.

What’s the difference if I’m weeding out a novel about glittery vampires or some bullshit self-pub with a rat’s nest of spelling errors and grammatical fol-de-rol?

John quotes a Salon-dot-com article (“When Anyone Can Be A Published Author“) —

Furthermore, as observers like Chris Anderson (in “The Long Tail”) and social scientists like Sheena Iyengar (in her new book “The Art of Choosing”) have pointed out, when confronted with an overwhelming array of choices, most people do not graze more widely. Instead, if they aren’t utterly paralyzed by the prospect, their decisions become even more conservative, zeroing in on what everyone else is buying and grabbing for recognizable brands because making a fully informed decision is just too difficult and time-consuming. As a result, introducing massive amounts of consumer choice leads to situations in which the 10 most popular items command the vast majority of the market share, while thousands of lesser alternatives must divide the leftovers into many tiny portions.

…except, to me, that doesn’t sound like what will happen when the FUTURE OF PUBLISHING is made manifest. It sounds like what happens right bloody now.

Do You Trust Those Who Keep The Gate?

John says:

I am an author. For now, I’ve bought in to the traditional manner of publication. Get agent, submit books to publishers, get rejected, hopefully get accepted, go through another revision and editing process, have book cover designed and typeset by professionals, have PR and marketing people do whatever it is they do (even if it’s not as much as it was before this age of the internet).

And, finally, know that when my first book comes out, it’ll have run the gauntlet and be absolutely the best product it can be. A product produced by a team of people. I want to be the recognized brand.

And, again, I’m inclined to agree. Obviously, this is the method and the manner I’ve chosen for my book and for future books. The process is the process, and I think that the people in place who groom such books for birth do a good job. Once again, this process has put a lot of lovely books into my hands. What has not put lovely books into my hands is the self-publishing masses. Not yet.

But, once more, I’m forced to look to (cover your ears) THE FUTURE OF PUBLISHING and wonder aloud if it’ll really change the model all that much. Agents and editors will probably still exist, but probably with an “unfettered” contingent — meaning, those who are not bound to any one model. The gauntlet may remain: to get a book to stand out, it’ll still have to have That Special Something (even if That Special Something isn’t quality, since even now bestselling books are not necessarily the books of the uttermost quality). You’ll still need a flashy cover, or a good blurb, or a well-read book. Those who accomplish this will likely still submit to the same symbiotic relationships that exist presently: the editor, the graphic designer, and so on. Some of those roles may drop away. I dunno. But you ask me, authors will always need editors. Agents, too, in some form.

Thing is, I think it’s important here to create a a separation between trust in the people and trust in the system. I trust the people. I trust my agent. If I get an editor, I trust that editor. And I hope to even trust the publishing companies themselves, but the entire system is one that could maybe use a little oil for its joints. This system produces bestselling novels of dubious quality. This system produces minimal support for good authors. This is an ecology with an uncertain life cycle — books get returned, books get lost on shelves, authors find themselves frozen out, robust advances can be a curse instead of a gift, and so on.

Good authors will sometimes fail to get into the system despite having a great book and an amazing voice. Could be a luck factor. Could be a sales factor. Original material is often lost beneath tides of rehashes and gross facsimiles: that is not ideal for us as an audience, and it’s certainly not ideal for the art and the power of good storytelling. For instance, John is a great author. I’ve read his stuff. And I hope to Jeebus that the traditional model and the system that’s in place is one that would support him and get him published.

But it might not be.

And that’s where (ahem, cough cough) THE FUTURE OF PUBLISHING may have some benefit — it gives authors and creators a new avenue toward publication. It’s one more road toward an audience. See, right now, a book has to earn a fairly big audience to be considered a hit and make anybody any money. But something published on a smaller scale can reach a micro-audience and can still do very well for the author — but only if that story is not yoked to the slow, groggy ox of the old system. Can’t have it both ways.

Once More, We Return To The Formless, Gooshy Middle

And that’s really where I keep coming with all of this. The old model isn’t dead, and the new model didn’t kill it, and the so-called FUTURE OF PUBLISHING is really just the PUBLISHING PRESENT ALBEIT MODIFIED BY A NUMBER OF FACTORS. There will be no e-book revolution.

The new models are not a magic bullet, nor are they an ax to the back of the head.

In a perfect world, we’ll see books in more hands, and we’ll see authors have a few new paths and tunnels toward some manner of publication. But the crap is already out there. The Internet has already made it very easy for shitty writing to find a home — and, as it turns out, shitty writing is still shitty. It’s still misspelled and poorly-conceived and it still gets its tiny crowd of back-scratching Yes Men, but it also doesn’t find its way to a real audience.

The paralyzing diversity exists. The noise already overwhelms the signal.

I don’t know that any so-called publishing revolution can change that.