The happy demise of the rejection letter

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.

3 thoughts on “The happy demise of the rejection letter”

  1. Dear Paul: thank you for your submission “The happy demise of the rejection letter” to Futurismic. Unfortunately, while we enjoyed your quirky take on this topic, we lack the space to run your post at this time. Best of luck, the Editors.

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