Tag Archives: quality

Zen and the Art of Literary Gatekeeping

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.

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.

Page-views as metric of journalistic quality

GalleyCat quotes a speech at the Copyright Clearance Centre’s copyright conference by Gaby Darbyshire, Gawker Media’s COO of finance, legal, operations & business development, in which she discussed the recent change in pay structure wherein Gawker writers are remunerated in proportion to the page-views garnered by the articles they authored:

“When we started paying our writers by the page-view (bonuses based on page-views), everybody started talking about how there would be a race to the bottom–how we’d be writing about nothing except Paris Hilton sex tapes. The absolute opposite has occurred, because at the end of the day, you don’t get a sustained growth in audience [and] in the success of your content, without producing quality.”

She concluded: “What our writers discovered–even though they were scared to start with (they were like, ‘oh my god, we have to find big scoop-y stories)–was that the diligently researched feature type good stuff that’s original and new; that’s what works. That’s what they are incentivized to produce, and we can measure exactly what is successful and what is not–which newspapers, by the way, never could, because you don’t know who is throwing away what section of the paper.”

It’s evidently safe to say that the policy hasn’t done Gawker’s traffic stats any harm… but the issue here is one’s definition of quality*. If quality writing is simply ‘writing that ever-greater numbers of people want to read’, then I guess Gawker has found the secret recipe for success.

I suppose it marks me as some sort of intellectual elitist, but I’m inclined to think that quality and popularity are not correlative in that particular way… which sits awkwardly at odds with my general belief in market forces. If there had never been a market for quality journalism, then we’d never notice having less of it; on the other hand, if we can recognise (or at least worry about) a decline in the amount of quality journalism available, that implies there’s still a demand for it, albeit in smaller volume than the demand for titillating tabloid gossip. It’s all very well chasing “scoop-y” stories, but a scoop about Paris Hilton isn’t of the same worth as a scoop about, say, government corruption, corporate misdeeds and so on. Not in my world, anyway.

An therein lies the rub. It’s different strokes for different folks, in other words; if all you want is page-views and the ad revenue they bring, then by all means write for page-views, because the readers are hungry. Personally, that editorial approach turns me right off (the only Gawker property I follow is Lifehacker, and even that’s been in something of a decline since Gina Trapani stepped away from the steering-wheel), so the question is whether the simple page-views model will work for ‘quality’ journalism… and if it won’t (as seems to be the case), how should it compete with populist sensationalism?

Surely, if web publishing has such superior feedback and analysis data by comparison to print as Darbyshire suggests, there must be a way to make it pay and scale… unless the cynics are right, and proper investigative journalism really has always been subsidised by celebrity gossip and scaremongering.

[ * Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, anyone? ]