In response to the Boston Book Review’s column, “Books After Amazon” (http://www.bostonreview.net/BR35.6/roychoudhuri.php), thoughts collected in a Facebook comment exchange. (The comments of others are removed as I have not their permission to include them.) Updates to this post have continued in pace with the conversation.
(1) I think a very salient point is being missed here; the crux is not “print book or digital book” and it’s not even “publisher access to market or Amazon control of market”; It is a recurring cycle of ascendancy wherein old method of restriction and access control (in this case, traditional publishers as the gatekeepers of who makes it on the shelves) is being eroded by competitive and social forces (Amazon and the Internet; though the striations within “the Internet” are many).
Ironically, the industry that thought no one could ever challenge them to either (a) stop trying to control access to information (be that literature or other types of content) or (b) stop using their market control to influence what type of content is available or supported is being usurped by a company and a concept that, frankly, is doing exactly what you would expect (or should, if you have any business sense whatever):
Taking that concept and applying it to new environments using new technologies to not only become competitive, but to eliminate their competition.I didn’t see these publishers complaining when Amazon was begging them for a chance to sell their books online (which they denied).
I didn’t see these publishers complain when Amazon offered them the chance to put their books online and find the “win win” (which they refused, largely).
I didn’t see these publishers complain at all until they finally started waking up to the reality that they’ve effectively “controlled themselves” right out of their own industry.
Whose fault is that? (pointed look)
(2) Don’t get me wrong, I love books myself; but there is opportunity here for books to become treasures rather than bulky lugabouts. The publishing industry is completely overlooking that possibility, and why?
Why for the same reasons it has ignored, rejected, and stonewalled every “upstart” vanity press, collaborative, or digital offering in the last thirty years — control.
The way I see it, you reap what you sow and this harvest has been a very long time coming, all things considered.
This is an age of amazing opportunity; a time when voices may be heard with increasingly unrestricted fidelity. The publishing industry as a whole has been shamefully negligent in both supporting and growing upon the tsunami of interest and market demand. Thus, it is no surprise whatever that consumers look for it elsewhere.
I should think that the reality of publishing crying “anti-trust” rather than soberly reflecting on what this really means and finally doing more than attempting to put their finger in the literary dike and sing “la la la, I can’t HEAR you” is, frankly, viscerally indicative of the true problem.
Fortunately for the world, companies like Amazon, Lulu, Blue Thunder, and more are stepping up.
Vive la revolution! (grin)
(3) Actually, content on demand (granular content) is likely the future for mass market. I fully anticipate books to either die or go the way of collectibles (e.g., as they once were, which I find curious).
As for gatekeepers; Alma, this is simply an arena in which you and I will likely forever disagree. Literature, at core, is the communication of social and cultural discourse and the foundation of all future progress (as such, by mandate, requires discourse).
As in any other outlet of discourse, there is the common, the mundane, and the crass, yes; but there is also the sublime, the powerful, revolutionary, and the transcendent. Never in our history have we had one without the other and it takes every bit of it to effect full-scale cultural and social progression.
To attempt to say it is noble, appropriate, or even reasonable to filter or foster literature for fear of “bad writers” is, to my mind, the same as saying “only former Olympians should be allowed to compete”. Perhaps this should be true when we’re talking about the Olympics, but day to day? How else does anyone become Olympian but by moving through that very mass of the common, mundane, and crass?
Personally, I both believe and think that this is a true renaissance for literature as well as our cultures and societies. And, like that renaissance of old, exposure to new and different ideas, across the spectrum of “quality” will, as it always has, make the presence of the sublime, powerful, revolutionary, and transcendent all the more obvious (not to mention seen as such by more people).
Considering the sorry state of general literacy and the abject dirth of interest in the literary canons of the world unless one is mandated to regurgitate them in some corner of academia, how could this possibly be seen as other than a positive and progressive thing?
(4) You make my point — we all start somewhere — so the notion that there must or should be some external agent doing “quality control” is both counter-productive as well as ultimately pointless; how many people do you know who can’t write and spend their lives trying to get published because they’ve never had a public failure to drive the point home?
Meanwhile, the various collaboratives and vanity sites are delivering that message in no uncertain terms every day and have been doing so for the last decade. (Which, by the way, seems to be causal to the increase in success of writing courses of late as documented by the NPD Group). This, Alma, this I find to be proof of the pudding.
It is unrealistic to expect a publisher to function as impartial judge because their bottom line is in eternal conflict with that role. The market is VERY good at doing this, quite naturally. It has worked from the time when only those good enough to obtain a patron could BE published all the way to today.
Competition breeds excellence. This is an axiom known as true across any number of outlets. The false gate of the publisher has impeded a much fuller process of systematic progress toward excellence for entirely far too long. And it is now being overthrown. Frankly, I find this precisely as it should be and overdue.
I too, have encountered dreck on the retail stand. It is not as if publishers are either infallible or even consistently reliable. (You know this, so why try to make this argument?) Ultimately, the interest of the reading public is THE best judge and the market that this public supports is both statement and validation of “what matters” to our world in any moment.
Yes, sometimes, it is dreck. Yes, sometimes, it is hideous to witness. But I have yet to see any human collective truly progress without spending spots of time soaking in dreck. I do not find the attempt to pretend it is possible TO progress without that cycle occurring realistic.
(5) Side comment: Competitiveness in any avenue today is now more than simply a matter of talent or gift. I know many EXCELLENT writers who will never find publication simply because they are not willing to vest the time and effort to more than casually press their work into the public eye.
The amount of accessibility today is a windfall for any artisan or craftsman and the “death of the publisher” does more to increase that accessibility than anything has in the last hundred years. Seriously.
For those with the competency to write well, the gauntlet is thrown and, at last, the path is not artificially barred. Let those with both skill and savvy collect the wreath; no other will stay the course to do so.
This is NOT a bad thing.
(6) Again, you seem to be making my point in that value in literature is set by the efficacy of it and sustained/validated by the audience/society/culture. Particularly, that the artificial impediment of the publisher has corrupted that process by inserting the (fallacious) notion that literature cannot possibly be valuable in the arena unless first vetted, approved, and deemed worthy by some grand arbiter of “skill” and of course, “excellence”.
But, as we all know, Alma, that not only is not true, it is demonstrably and actively NOT how publishers behave, act, or pursue their business in the industry unless it behooves them (and lines their bank accounts).
Why, specifically, is the publisher in ANY WAY better as arbiter of these things than the audience/consumer/purchasing public?
For technical expertise? (Will you now assert that publishers ensure technical expertise in publications when we all know both how difficult it is to get a competent editor and how rare it is that ANY accepted writer has this provided without contributing to the publisher’s pocket for it?)
I assert that the publisher is, in fact, an industry entity whose sole existence is and has been not to “help” writers, but to control, channel, and make money off of them.
My questions to you are thus:
- Will you challenge this assertion?
- Can you in any way demonstrate a service that publishers regularly and unilaterally provide that is not contrived to line their pockets upon the skill of the writer AND their very inability or unwillingness to market themselves?
The days of elitism in the name of literary beneficence not only never were, but the masquerade is increasingly obvious (as demonstrated by the very article you reference).
The skill in marketing you decry is no different than the skill in navigating the political landscape of the publisher’s arena. That the tendency to ignore/avoid seeing this or understanding how the changes occurring today are GOOD for writers is, in my sincere opinion, a reflexive resistance to change and particularly to the notion that no longer can one rely upon catering to the preferential biases (which you KNOW are more than merely “can this person write?”) is opening entirely new vistas of opportunity to writer’s who could not be published because they do not speak the words the publisher wish to hear, even if they speak eloquently and well.
At no point can I see an instance where these changes are other than stimulating to literature as a whole. At no point can I see the place or time where the preferences and interests of the reading world are dis-served by higher availability, increased accessibility, and the removal of the publisher from the cycle.
The notion that only “good” writing should be published is laudable, but ultimately defeated in consideration upon the single question:
Who gets to define “good”?
You know as well as I that technical writing skill is not the single consideration. You also know that were this so, the advances of technology and competitive interests could not have found a niche from which to establish themselves.
Nothing is permanent, change is inevitable, and artificial controls of expression are no less legitimately susceptible than any other.
At the end of the day, a glut of literature is still better than only that literature which bears the approval of the elite.
Simply put, I’d rather swim in dreck than live without the chance or hope of seeing voices crop up and stand out from unusual, unexpected, and unheard places.
(7) Assertion: You say there is no room for writing professionals. Why? Where have I said that there’s no room for a writing professional? I haven’t said that. What I have said, and continue to assert without any appearance of rebuttal other than elitism, is that there is neither room nor need of what are essentially third-party arbiters of what SHOULD be published.
But hold on a moment, are you really trying to say that all literary expression is not equal as such? Or that what you (or someone else) judges to be “just a momentary entertainment” (sic) should influence, affect, or control what I am allowed to see on the shelf?
And that’s not elitism…. how?
(8) Assertion made: Literature is harder because it requires an investment of money and submission of work to vet substantiveness. Correction: “Used to have a requirement of investment”, as in bowing and scraping to industry opinion, bias, and preference even if/when it has nothing whatever to do with technical writing competency.
As I said much earlier, we will likely continue to disagree and I’m ok with that. (smile) But I do not envy you the weight you will bear in future and I hope that you find with time that this is a far more positive development than you fear in this moment.
Frankly, if publishers were savvy and forward thinking, they would immediately publish digitally and offer print versions at premium pricing for the collector; leveraging edition collectibility, artistry, and author involvement to drive the niche. Additionally, they would turn their editors and related skilled professionals to subscription based review and referral servicing rather than attempt to cling to the lost cause of control. This would both address the revenue issue as well as meet the interests and needs of the traditional market while allowing them to continue growing and succeeding in the new ones.
It may also be worth noting (in closing) that the historical greats were often neither published by others nor would they have meet your criteria. More recently, Tolkien himself would have found rejection were the stringent control you now profess consistent in the industry. While I understand your position and why you hold it, the argument thus far in its support has been fairly unsupportable as it is an argument of slippery slope fallacy as well as perfectionist fallacy.
My point is and remains simply this — literature as a whole cannot progress if/when conventional, traditional controls remain unchallenged and unchanged. Thus, this is no worse a change than the move from the manual press, excepting that publishers weren’t smart enough to anticipate it and then compounded that foolishness by refusing to embrace it, and essentially cut their own throats trying to collectively smother it.