The happy demise of the rejection letter

Paul Raven @ 15-06-2010

Much of the recent debate about the future of fiction publishing has focussed on the end product and the distribution (and possible illicit duplication) thereof, but there’s another side to the story – that of the aspiring writer’s experience. Literary agent Nathan Brandsford suggests that the sea change in publishing economics may do away with a much-loathed (though also much obsessed-over) artefact of the process, namely the rejection letter [via Matt Staggs]. That doesn’t mean everyone will get to be J K Rowling, though…

Clay Shirky […] notes that we’re moving from an era where we filtered and then published to one where we’ll publish and then filter. And no one would be happier than me to hand the filtering reins over to the reading public, who will surely be better at judging which books should rise to the top than the best guesses of a handful of publishing professionals.

I don’t see this transition as the demise of traditional publishing or agenting. Roles will change, but there are still some fundamental elements that will remain. There’s more that goes into a book than just writing it, and publishers will still be the best-equipped to maintain the editorial quality, production value, and marketing heft that will still be necessary for the biggest books. Authors will still need experienced advocates to navigate this landscape, place subsidiary rights (i.e. translation, film, audio, etc.), and negotiate on their behalf.

What’s changing is that the funnel is in the process of inverting – from a top down publishing process to one that’s bottom up.

Yes, many (if not most) of the books that will see publication in the new era will only be read by a handful of people. Rather than a rejection letter from an agent, authors will be met with the silence of a handful of sales. And that’s okay!! Even if a book is only purchased by a few friends and family members — what’s the harm?

Bransford is arguing in favour of the crowdsourced curation model, in other words – that what is “good” will succeed in a free market with nigh-nonexistent barriers to entry. And that’s probably true, as far as it goes, but the critic in me wonders about the definition of “good”. We’re still very hung up on the fallacious notion of popularity being an indicator of quality (probably because quality is such a hard thing to define objectively for a subjective experience like reading a story), and a theoretically flat playing field will exacerbate the problem…

… and this is where I think you can say that genres, for all their own problems of objective definition, may be a saving grace in the long run, at least for those of us who like to analyse the things we love. As culture continues to fragment, each little literary clade will construct its own canons in real-time, and each clade will consist of multiple subclades arguing for their own definitions of quality… and then it’s fractal subsubclades all the way down to the individual. This may sound like the horrifying and centreless endgame of postmodernism to some, but I think we’ll be to busy enjoying the opportunity to exercise (and advocate) our own personal preferences to care.

Will ebooks vindicate vanity publishing?

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2010

Still plenty of flux in the publishing industry, and I doubt it’s going to settle any time soon. Here’s the latest development: Amazon has raised the percentage of cover price it pays to self-published authors using the Kindle store [via PD_Smith]:

This month, Amazon is upping the ante, increasing the amount it pays authors to 70% of revenue, from 35%, for e-books priced from $2.99 to $9.99. A self-published author whose e-book lists for $9.99 on Amazon’s Kindle e-bookstore will receive about $6.99 for each book sold. The author would net $1.75 on a similar new e-book sale by most major publishers.

The new formula makes digital self-publishing more lucrative for authors. “Some people will be tempted by the 70% royalty at Amazon,” Mr. Nash says. “If they already have a loyal fan base, will they want 70% of $100,000 or 15% of $200,000 for a hardcover?

That’s a pretty enticing slice of the profits… at a first glance. Consider, though, that any author with sense will still need to hire an editor, get the script copyedited and proofread, converted to the correct file format and so on. They’ll also need to eat up the publicity and promotional costs themselves as well, except in those rare cases (Stephen King, say) where news of a new book will spread itself with little help… so it’s far from a universal panacea, especially not for a new author.

And as P D Smith remarks:

But if all the big names self-publish e-books via Amazon, publishers will have less money to take a gamble on less well-known authors. Hmm.

Indeed – there’s a good argument to say new authors should be worried by this development in equal measure to being excited about it. Change cuts both ways, and easy fixes are rarely what they seem. The initial financial outlay for self-publishing may be much smaller these days, but that doesn’t guarantee you a ticket to the big leagues any more than vanity publishing ever has. Indeed, now it’s so easy and cheap to step onto the playing field, your competition is that much bigger (at least in numerical terms).

Question is, will that change? If the gatekeeper authority of publishing houses is undermined sufficiently, will new crowd-sourced curatorial systems emerge in response, alongside independent gatekeepers who carve out a reputation for themselves? (I’m sure Amazon would very much like to become that curatorial system, and I expect that’s one of the many reasons they’re cutting deals like the above.)

A lot of the stigma against vanity published works comes from the fact that a great deal of them are self-published because they’re simply not very good (e.g. Mister Riley and his cash prizes for readers). But is the desire for quality literature (a deliberately nebulous concept) something that we’ve been trained up to by the perfectionism and foibles of commissioning editors and publicists over the years, or is there something measurably objective about it? Will ubiquitous self-publishing produce a “race to the bottom” in writing quality?

I certainly don’t see that happening in the music world, which is probably as close to a test-bed of the situation as we’re going to get. As a music reviewer, I certainly see a lot more self-released albums from bands who simply aren’t up to the job than I used to just a year ago… but the playing field has widened enough that amongst the blatantly amateur, there’s a lot of very talented people releasing work that would have been considered too marginal for a record deal a decade ago. I guess I’m still fairly sold on certain aspects of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory – not necessarily the hard numbers side of it, but the notion that the age of the hit and the megastar is over, and that the lowering of economic barriers to entry at the niche end of the graph is letting a lot of marginal creators find their audiences, no matter how small that audience might be. Might the same happen with novels, short stories? Perhaps the rapid colonisation of web publishing by genre fiction (itself an inherently niche industry) is a sign that things will move that way for subcultural literature…

… unless you want to be a real pessimist, in which case you might say that genre webzines are just rats leaving the sinking ship and clinging to whatever flotsam they can find. I don’t believe that, obviously – I wouldn’t be running this site otherwise. But what do you think?

Drowning in data

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2010

Maybe we’ll have flooded our culture-lungs with angry YouTube comments and pharmaceutical spamblogs before the rising sea-levels get a chance to touch our toes… [via MetaFilter]

According to one estimate, mankind created 150 exabytes (billion gigabytes) of data in 2005. This year, it will create 1,200 exabytes. Merely keeping up with this flood, and storing the bits that might be useful, is difficult enough. Analysing it, to spot patterns and extract useful information, is harder still.

Actually, I don’t see this deluge of data as a bad thing, but I’m very interested in how we’re going to store, manage and curate it.

The attention economy: curation by duration

Paul Raven @ 22-08-2009

This Short Manifesto on the Future of Attention by Michael Erard pushed a lot of my buttons, and I reckon it’ll be of some considerable interest to other art creators and consumers (writers and readers, for example, which is most of you lot):

I imagine attention festivals: week-long multimedia, cross-industry carnivals of readings, installations, and performances, where you go from a tent with 30-second films, guitar solos, 10-minute video games, and haiku to the tent with only Andy Warhol movies, to a myriad of venues with other media forms and activities requiring other attention lengths. In the Nano Tent, you can hear ringtones and read tweets. A festival organized not by the forms of the commodities themselves but of the experience of interacting with them. Not organized by time elapsed, but by cognitive investment: a pop song, which goes by quickly, can resonate for days; a poem, which can go by more quickly, sticks through a season. A festival in which you can see images of your brain on knitting and on Twitter.

I imagine a retail sector for cultural products that’s organized around the attention span: not around “books” or “music” but around short stories and pop songs in one aisle, poems and arias in the other. In the long store: 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzles, big novels, beer brewing equipment, DVDs of The Wire. Clerks could suggest and build attentional menus. We would develop attentional connoisseurship: the right pairings of the short and long.

Has a hint of the science fictional about it, but doesn’t seem implausible by any means given the way the web is mutating creation and commerce. But this bit deserves special attention:

I imagine an attention tax that aspiring cultural producers must pay. A barrier to entry. If you want people to read your book, then you have to read books; if you want people to buy your book, then you buy books. Give your attention to the industry of your choice. Like indie musicians have done for decades, conceive of the scene as an attention economy, in which those who pay in (e.g., I go to your shows) get to take out (e.g., come to my show). It would also mitigate one oft-claimed peril of the rise of the amateur, which is that they don’t know from quality: consuming many other examples from a variety of sources, even amateur producers would generate a sense of what’s good and what’s bad: in other words, in their community they’d evolve a set of standards. This might frustrate the elitists, who want to impose their standards. But standards would, given enough time, emerge.

This sounds very much like the online short fiction scene to me, albeit a more highly evolved version thereof, and the pparallel with the indie music scenes, especially at a local level, is palpable. I’d be tempted to make “economy” and “ecosystem” interchangeable, though. What do you think – will curation of niche artforms become a form of crowdsourced consensus of attention?

(This is yet another link from Joanne McNeil of Tomorrow Museum, who I’ll stop linking to just as soon as she stops posting really interesting stuff… which hopefully won’t be any time soon.)

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