What's Wrong With Traditional Publishing

MCMWednesday, May 6, 2009

Yesterday I was philosophizing over at Nicola Morgan's blog about the state of publishing vs self-publishing, and how the two differ. The conversation there has wound down, but I'm interested in continuing the thought process some more. Here's one part where I think I made some sense:

The analogy I'll use is that the established publishing industry is like a car that has a rattle in it somewhere. It's fundamentally sound, but there's a glitch inside that different mechanics diagnose different ways. It's not ALL bad, but it's certainly rumbling its way to the scrap heap, and nobody can be sure why.
Right now, the owners of the car (the established publishing companies) are, I think, smiling widely and praying to god it's not as bad as it sounds, and everything will be fine. Some may be trying to crack the hood and take a wrench to the engine while it's running, but even then, it's all guesswork. It's going to take a miracle for someone to actually fix it while the car is in motion... more so given the reluctance of the driver to acknowledge the issue.

One of the things I see from pro-publisher people (who are strangely passionate, I find) is the notion that the industry is a thing of perfection, and any criticism of it is delusional ranting or jealousy. I don't think you need to HATE something to think it's flawed... I think the self-publishing ecosystem is flawed too, but I still participate. Pretending that after ~150 years of evolution, we have finally reached the pinnacle of perfection in the modern publishing industry is... well, it's kinda silly, if you think about it. If anything, one should be willing to accept that things are bound to evolve further.

The problem I have with the publishing model is the gatekeeper bottleneck. There are other issues like turnaround time and consignment and all that nonsense (which may or may not be obsoleted by a shift to eBooks over the next 20 years), but one thing that could quite easily stay entrenched is the idea that writers must first land agents, and then publishers, if they are going to be read. I understand the principle behind it: it's a quality filter, meant to highlight the best works for the audience. Even in self-publishing, that's something that's needed (if only as an after-the-fact review aggregator).

But the thing is, the agent/publisher model doesn't work. It doesn't let people through based on merit at all. Sometimes it's because the agents or publishers are profit-obsessed loons who couldn't care less about literature... but more fundamentally, the system (as it stands) can't handle the volume of traffic that it's getting. You have a stunningly large number of would-be writers trying to shove their manuscripts through a few dozen holes, only some of which will actually go on to be printed. If you had 1,000 people outside your house trying to get in the door, what would you do? You'd get overwhelmed and start to panic.

Now think of it like this: you're an agent, meant to somehow parse all those books and pass along the best, but you're acutely aware that if you pass along something that flops, you're going to be less influential, and then fewer of the hordes will submit to you, and you'll have a smaller chance of finding the next big hit. So what do you do? Well, first of all, you try and put some kind of structure on the process: submission guidelines that you enforce with an iron fist. You pick the things that will be commercial hits first, because it's theoretically easier to pick them out than anything else. You're probably losing out on a bunch of genius manuscripts along the way, but it's all you can do to hold on.

It's not easy being a gatekeeper.

But it doesn't need to be that way. And the fact that it IS that way suggests there's a very big flaw in the system. A hugely big flaw, and one that probably inadvertently sees hundreds of genius novels being rejected every year, because there's simply no way to cope with the volume.

Think of this: over the last 20 years, I'll bet the literacy rate in developed countries has risen. More than that, technology has made it much easier for the average person to create a passable draft of their book, through word processors and spell-checks. Email has made it easier to submit to agents, and it stands to reason that even a subtle shift to an information economy probably inspires and enables a lot more people to indulge their creative impulses. In the last 20 years, the number of barbarians at the gate has grown exponentially, while the gatekeepers haven't changed much at all.

There's no way the old system can maintain itself like this. Even if you increased the number of agents to proportionately match the writer pool, it would just offload the stress onto the publishers. If you increase the number of publishers (or segment them, or what have you), it offloads the stress onto the readers. And if you offload onto the readers... well, you've got a mess, most likely. Especially if they can no longer trust a brand to deliver quality the way they're used to.

What's needed is a better filtering system. Something that can help highlight the quality and help it float to the top. It can't be run by a select few players, because that's just replicating the same problem. It needs to be broader, more dynamic, and less obsessed with "landing an agent". The goal needs to be to help writers find their audience, connect with good criticism, and learn to improve their craft. The good ones will get better, find a wider audience, and (probably) get offered a contract with an agent or publisher once they've reached a certain level of fame. (Whether they need – or want – to accept at that point is entirely up to them.)

I also wrote on Nicola's blog:

Legends abound of excellent writers who were passed over for years and years, who (when discovered) became superstars. So obviously (to take the view of the would-be author), the problem is that good manuscripts are not catching the eye of the agent at the right time. Ergo, the flaw in the system can be remedied by perseverance and finessing the system. "If my book is not picked this time around, it's because I was unlucky. It's not my book that's flawed, it's the way I tried to sell it."

Right now, we're wasting time and talent by de-qualifying the pre-agent stage of a writer's life. We're training them to be marketers and salespeople, but to a very narrow constituency, and possibly at the expense of their development as an author. We need to harness that period, legitimize it and turn it into an important part of the process. Encourage writers to learn what their audience wants, and to experiment, and to find the parts of themselves they can't see without experience. Draw attention to this fantastic international slush pile and make it an integral part of the literary landscape. Sure, there's going to be trash in there, but it also gives the savvy reader a chance to find the next writer superstar.

You could call this pool lots of things: the Pre-Publish Pool, or the Upcoming List, or maybe just the New Writers' Workshop. Or, if you were really clever, you might even realize it could be called "self-publishing".

(excellent photo of books courtesy of guldfisken)

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