24 July 2010

The Gatekeeper Exposed.

There has been a raging debate recently about self-publishing versus traditional publishing. Simultaneously, another debate arose about the need for agents and increasing their pay rates. At the core of both arguments was the same flawed concept: that agents and publishers serve as gatekeepers of literature. The premise is that publishers and agents must be valued (and compensated) for wading through slush piles, finding books of quality, and bringing them to market for the reader. The other implication of this idea is that any writer who circumvents the gatekeepers by self-publishing is delivering sub-standard goods; if the trend towards self-publishing continues, readers will stop reading altogether due to the sheer frustration of being unable to find decent books.

That’s the argument anyway.

This idea that houses and agents are guardians of quality is not a new one; it’s the backbone of the literary industry. But never before has this vision been obviously wrong. It is so patently false that even average readers can point out the flaws in this perspective with very little effort.

First, if the gatekeepers are looking out for our best literary interests, then why is there so much crap on the shelves? I’m not referring to books I don’t personally like. I mean crap - bad premise, worse writing, and awful construction. This is no longer a rare-occurrence; a reader has to shift books by the ton to find something worth reading. If the gatekeepers serve to protect us from bad writing, they need better training. Either that, or the overall quality of writing has declined so much that these offerings are the best of a bad lot. But if our society has become that illiterate, then surely we do not even need book industry.

Then there are the self-publishing fallacies. The gatekeepers would have us believe that every submission to a publisher, having been rejected, will be a) self-published, b) be published exactly as offered to the publisher, and c) be loathed by readers. Let’s take those one at a time.

Not every manuscript will be self-published. Self-publishing takes work and knowledge. Un-assisted, the author must edit and re-edit the manuscript; even substandard writers will not release a book un-spellchecked and loaded with bad grammar. Also unassisted, writers must learn layout and how to format for printing. If this is not done correctly, the book cannot be put on paper (or e-readers for that matter). All this hard work outside of the creative process will, and does, keep many amateur writers out of trouble.

As for slush-pile offerings: writers have known for decades that there is a significant lag-time between submission and review, sometimes as much as a year. Just because draft #2 was submitted does not mean that’s the draft which would go to press. In fact, by the time the agents or editors extract that manuscript from the pile, the actual book is probably ten or more drafts down the road. As much as writers hate editing, we are drawn to it like flies to s--sugar. We certainly wouldn’t have a book sitting about when we could be messing with it.

Regarding that final claim: why shouldn’t readers like the book? Perhaps the gatekeepers don’t see it selling millions, or even thousands, but it may sell a couple of hundred. That trite, overdone, cliché-driven, vampire romance has an audience and if the writer can tap it, the book will sell. For that matter, the protectors of literature have notably rejected scripts which, once self-published, have won awards and/or sold millions. So much for their good judgement.

Now let’s take a look at industrial fear-mongering: a market flooded with self-published crap will make people give up on reading. Funny, a market flooded with traditionally published crap hasn’t made that happen. In fact, readership is up around the world for both types of publishing. But the gatekeepers are scared about becoming irrelevant and out of work. Therefore, they must ensure there is a need for their services. To accomplish that, they are scaring the public. This is akin to bicycle repair people shouting that the automobile is dangerous and should never be driven.

A do-it-yourself arts industry does quite well. Look at the popularity of independent films. Even better, look at indeed music! The entire world of punk was founded on do-it-yourself-because-the-industry-doesn’t-like-you. You needn’t look hard to find other examples in music: alternative, heavy metal, grunge... scenes spawned by public interest and driven by bands willing to ignore corporations. If they had not, there would be no REM, Nirvana, or Iron Maiden.

The gatekeepers would have us believe that they are the only ones qualified to judge quality literature, a conceit we readers have allowed to grow into this festering pustule. They have deluded us, and themselves, into the belief that all books must be vetted by so-called qualified individuals. Otherwise, readers will despair of finding anything worth reading and may decide to watch TV instead. This is patently untrue. Any reader is quite capable of sorting the wheat from the chaff. After all, we’ve been doing it for all of our reading lives. We skim covers and pick the one that catches our eye. We read the blurb and, sometimes, the first few paragraphs. Then we buy or, most often, decide the book is not for us and slip it back on the shelf. Why would this process change with self-published works? It wouldn’t. Bad or plain covers won’t get a second look. Uninteresting blurbs or bad writing will get immediately rejected, and we will move on to the next book. Just like always.

With one difference: these books have not been pre-selected by people who think they know better than you. In a retailer, you get to browse books published on the basis of what someone else thinks you will want, and you pick from that. With self-publishing, you get to browse a broader range - indeed, an entire catalogue - of books on offer. The difference is night and day. Buying from a retailer is like eating at a restaurant chain: you know what you will get and that it will be of a certain standard. Not necessarily an exiting meal, but edible. Browsing the self-published world is like going to a food fair: a huge variety of dishes on offer, some really good, some less-so, but all of them different.

The gatekeepers would have us believe that they are guardians of the written word, protectors of literature. Actually, they are the bling-draped bouncers at an exclusive club. The famous and the rich and their friends get to pass. The rest, no matter how well dressed or how skilled, are turned away. Now, not content with that, the bouncers are following their victims around, telling everyone that they are worthless. Elitist in the extreme, the gatekeepers are telling you, the audience, what you shouldn’t read. Luckily, the sales figures show you are no longer listening.

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