20 November 2009

“Just Wait Until Self-Pubbing Becomes the Norm.”

Yet more quoting of what the brave new world of publishing might look like, this time from literary agent Rachelle Gardner:

If you think the published books are bad now, just wait until self-pubbing becomes the norm. Holy cow. Folks, you don’t see an agent’s daily slush pile. Sure, some of it is good. But let me tell you. At least half of it is seriously not good. As I look at all the books I say “no” to, and then realize these books could be for sale [through self-publishing] within a matter of months, I get depressed.

If you think the overall quality of literature has already declined substantially in the last, oh, forty years or so? I shudder to think how it will be ten years into a new world of self-publishing. “Literature” as we know it could be a thing of the past.
Gardner sees what quality exists in standard book publishing now as the product of an evolutionary struggle: each manuscript has to convince a lot of people in the industry who’ve read a lot of other books that it will make money before it gets printed.

Publication of “literature” is somewhat skewed because our capitalist publishing economy uses “making money” as the criterion rather than “literary quality.” But of course the latter does have some connection to the former, and the former actually pays the bills.

I think there will still be an evolutionary struggle even if every manuscript in the world becomes a book through self-publishing. That struggle will simply occur at a later stage—the stage of attracting readers instead of industry partners. Wealthy authors will be able to buy more promotion. (Of course, they can do that now; we don’t see the phenomenon often because “wealthy authors” is usually an oxymoron.) But in the end the books that please the most people will have the highest visibility.

I suspect the danger to “literature” will come if potential readers feel overwhelmed with available choices, and decide to get their story fix from another medium instead. We know that too much choice can make the human brain shut down, rather than open up.

The much higher cost of making a movie or television show could bring two unintended benefits to the cinematic medium: it will always have fewer choices, and professional quality will be more immediately apparent. In other words, those forms of entertainment will always have a tougher evolutionary struggle, and the winners may thus have an advantage over prose stories in holding onto an audience.

Thanks to Nathan Bransford for the link. For old times’ sake, here’s another look at part of Tor's slush pile in 2006, recorded by SF Revu.


gail said...

I've been thinking the same thing as Rachelle Gardner, in large part because I think that many members of the reading public don't understand what traditional vs. self-publishing is. They don't understand that self-published authors haven't met a standard of some sort. I've known some very sophisticated readers who didn't know how traditionally published books were selected for publication.

I'm seeing many self-published authors getting coverage in local papers around here, suggesting they are becoming more acceptable to journalists, who don't even mention how the books got into print. After reading about these authors, my impression is that many of them don't even try to publish traditionally, meaning they aren't trying to meet a professional publisher's standard.

I hope the evolutionary struggle will occur after publication. But I wonder if the public, after a few decades of reading more and more "seriously not good" writing, will just accept a lower standard.

J. L. Bell said...

Accepting a lower standard is one possible outcome. I’m afraid that another might be giving up on books altogether if the bulk are at such a low standard. But probably we’ll adjust our criteria for what to try—no longer, “It looks like a book,” but “Three people I trust have recommended this one,” or, “It scores 80+ out of 100 at RankBooks.com."