Zen and the Art of Literary Gatekeeping

Paul Raven @ 04-04-2011

Via Chairman Bruce, here’s a very interesting post-and-comment-thread combo at Self-Publishing Review. It’s interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the aforementioned comment thread, which contains (gasp!) spirited disagreement conducted with a rare degree of civility, but the big central point is one I’ve danced around a few times before: when the barriers to publication are negligible, will definitions of quality shift considerably by comparison to the old “gatekeepered” model? Or, more simply: when anyone can get their book in front of potential readers, will we find that “good writing” doesn’t actually matter to a lot of the audience? Because that’s what appears to be happening on the wild frontiers of the ebook boondocks right now…

From the original post itself:

At the risk of sounding like a snob: non-sophisticated readers will not care if writing is non-sophisticated, and there are a lot more non-sophisticated readers than sophisticated ones. That’s millions of potential readers.  Publishers might like to believe that they have the finger on the pulse of what sells – or what should sell – but when mediocre writing is becoming a bestseller, this pretty much renders the slush pile meaningless.

If mainstream publishing is really hurting for money, it would make sense for them to get into the ebook-only/print on demand business. Devote some resources towards basic editorial and cover design, some press, and see which books take hold. Right now, word of mouth is more powerful than reviews – a lot of people find books just browsing the Kindle store, rather than reading press about a book, and there is a lot of profit to be made on slush pile books that appeal to a huge number of people. It’s possible that eventually people feel burned by bad, cheap books and stop buying them – but, again, the majority of the reviews on many fast-selling self-published books are positive.

The (currently) final comment makes an important counter-argument, though:

This is an interesting and provocative article, but one that also completely misses the point. Yes, some quite poorly-written self-published books are selling in minor quantities (from a few hundred to a few thousand) in Kindle form. Why? Because they’re priced at around a dollar, whereas even the cheapest commercial Kindle titles sell for four times that amount and upwards.

Commercial publishers simply aren’t interested in selling a few thousand ebooks for a dollar apiece: they want to sell tens of thousands of copies, in both paper and ebook form, for between five and ten dollars apiece. To suggest that they could make a few extra quid by starting up self-publishing ebook sidelines is like advising a Michelin-starred restaurant to open a serving hatch late at night offering kebabs to drunks wandering the streets. Not only it is it not what they’re set up to do, but it would also very quickly cheapen their brand.

As mentioned before (by me, and by many far smarter folk from whom I’ve wholesale stolen the riff), gatekeeping is all over; curation is the new game, but the rules have yet to be written. The argument above, though, pretty much crystallises the root source of panic in the big publishing houses: all they’ve ever had to show their superiority to vanity presses and one-man-bands was their insistence on selecting for “quality” – though it should go without saying that “quality” is defined differently from one boardroom or editorial office to another. But all of a sudden, there are hints that “quality” may not matter to the biggest slice of the market pie… and when your entire philosophy of business is anchored solidly to that notion by a chain of centuries-old tradition, well, you’re going to struggle to swim with the tide.

Personally, I think it’s too early to say definitively that “quality writing” is a dead scene; the market is too new, too chaotic, and the metrics currently used to assess the market’s assessment of “quality” are utterly subjective – I really don’t place any faith in Amazon reader reviews whatsoever, for instance; an effective crowdsourced curatorial system will be much harder to game, and perforce deal with a much smaller slice of the total market (niche verticals, long tails, blah blah blah). But of course, Chairman Bruce has a long-game grenade to throw into the punchbowl:

The unseen literary player here is machine translation. It’s getting “better” fast, and we may soon be in a world where on-demand machine-translated texts become major literary influences. The real web-semantic breakthrough would be a machine-assisted ability to painlessly read texts outside one’s own language. At that point we’ll have entered an unheard-of state of linguistic globalized electro-pidgin.

[…]

It’s not that the slushpile is profitable; it’s that there is no longer an analog dam against which the slush can pile.

If the dam is gone, then the would-be curator must discover a new method for catching fish. Trying to work the whole river would be madness… but finding a little pool or slow-flowing channel to focus on might reward you with fish of consistent species and health.

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2 Responses to “Zen and the Art of Literary Gatekeeping”

  1. Ben says:

    We already know that “good writing” – in terms of well-turned sentences and paragraphs – didn’t matter to most of the potential book market before the advent of mainstream ebook reading. The Da Vinci Code sold millions of copies, even though it’s full of terrible, unclear writing. [1]

    I can think of plenty of bestsellers (and not just recent ones) where I was disappointed by unclear writing, nonsensical plotting and sloppy research, to the extent that my enjoyment was completely ruined, and I’d have expected an editor to either reject the book or fix the flaws. I’m not talking about prose style as a matter of taste, I’m talking about basic factual errors or sentences which don’t say what the author thinks they mean. And yet these books get appreciative reviews on Amazon, and even from ‘professional’ reviewers.

    If people were happy with those books in print, then it casts doubt on whether there was ever actually much of a gatekeeper function before ebooks (it might have declined over the last decade or so as publishers consolidated and paid less personal attention to each book). I read the beginning of Diary of a Mad Fat Girl and the quality of the prose doesn’t seem much worse than the low end of commercial chicklit (it did seem to have formatting problems like backwards apostrophes – but then again, commercial Kindle titles produced by OCR often have a much worse rate of typos than you’d expect from ‘professional’ books).

    Not only is being commercially published not much of a marker of quality, but I know of at least three excellent books which couldn’t be placed with commercial publishers because they weren’t “marketable” – and one of them [2] went on to sell relatively well.

    Incidentally, I don’t buy the argument that people will feel burned by low-rent books and stop buying them, because of the availability of free samples. People can easily read the first couple of chapters for free and see if they are happy with the quality of the prose (though I guess there is a slight risk that people will start deliberately writing two amazing chapters with a load of rubbish tacked on at the end).

    The point about machine translation is a red herring. Not that I think it’s impossible that machines will ever be able to do it – but when a machine can understand a novel well enough to render it into another language, while reflecting the original author’s stylistic choices, understanding which cultural nuances require changing or clarifying, and so on, and actually produce a faithful translation, machines will surely be sentient enough to do most human jobs (including writing software, or rewriting their own software), and the impact on the publishing industry will be the least of our concerns.

    [1] See http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000844.html for a funny discussion of how badly written just the first page is.

    [2] http://machineofdeath.net/about/

  2. Rick York says:

    My two cents are reduced to a penny by Ben. Sturgeon’s Law always has and always will prevail, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”