Maybe everyone should write--it can be therapeutic, I suppose, although that's never been the case for me--but should everyone publish? Was there some value for the larger culture in the old-school gatekeeper role of traditional publishing? Sure--they missed a lot of good stuff that deserved to be published, and published a lot of stuff that they ought to be ashamed of. But did they also serve a valuable role by weeding out huge quantities of execrable schlock? Surely there's some writing that should never see the light of day--but now the rusty handbrake of traditional publishing has been released, and what's left of literary culture is careening toward the cliffs. I'm playing devil's advocate here, to a degree--but for the sake of argument, who are the gatekeepers now? Or was there ever a need for gatekeepers in the first place?
The knee-jerk answer is "readers are the new gatekeepers." But I don't think they were ever not gatekeepers. Publishers push things that readers will want.
Now to the larger question, the answer isn't "yes" or "no." It's irrelevant if someone is a crappy writer and publishes something. Readers won't want it, and its effect on the literary whole isn't considered.
But readers like traditionally published crap (Twilight, etc.). They might just as easily like self-published crap, no? Readers are the gatekeepers, but are they good gatekeepers? Was it entirely a bad thing, having the self-appointed gatekeepers of the trad pub world? I'm really of two minds here: on one hand, I'm all about people doing whatever the hell they want, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone. On the other hand, I share the concerns of those who worry that quality writing, already in short supply, will be utterly swamped by great tidal waves of shit. But maybe that's already happened and I'm too much of a relic to see it.
Now let me play devil's advocate. Who the hell are you to say what's good and what's not? Sounds like another stodgy academic is worried his ivory tower is coming down.
That's not what I think, but it's the general attitude of combative self-pubbers with more balls than brains. I agree, the crap is becoming crappier. The rich, thought-provoking work is becoming rarer. Both are sad to see, but I think this is the wrong question. What you're really asking is, "Does everyone deserve to be read?" The answer is absolutely not.
Put into that context, it forces you to consider quality, not economics. Maybe that's the question the writing world should be asking instead.
The recent harangues may start up again, but I agree with both of you. I'm certainly no longer the grateful recipient of big-house publisher's approval. I started that way. I was deeply grateful and utterly convinced that they, and only they would nurture my series until it could stand on its own two feet and walk out into a world of readers eager for good historical crime novels. Admittedly, that was very foolish of me. They let me down instantly and it took me two years to realize it. During the subsequent years I've taken abuse from bad editors and been apologetic to my agent, and they've done nothing for me. A series cannot succeed without any publicity.
So now I'm self-publishing and I'm no longer crawling humbly before the powers above. I'm getting a fair deal from Amazon. I got there with a delay. Turns out, it takes time to cut all the strings. And I find that in some ways I'm back in the same boat: how do I sell my books among the tidal wave of stuff that went straight from the slush piles onto Kindle or was pulled from under grandma's bed or unearthed from teenage school scribblings to appear suddenly in print? It's an ocean of slush. Visit the Kindle boards and read all about it.
The problem here is that being published is an ego thing for a lot of people. And many of them are angry that they haven't been chosen. You used to find ego among traditionally published writers, too. That gushing delight when they held their book in their hand for the first time. The chicken clucking over its egg. Before that emotion everything else recedes.
And readers, as Ben points out, cannot be trusted to be gatekeepers. Porn is among the bestselling books. E-books are perfect for porn; suddenly perfectly proper Southern matrons write under pseudonyms.
Still I'm somewhat optimistic. Part of that comes from the fact that it's damn hard to write a novel. It takes time and effort and a little bit of education. In lieu of the latter, one pays big money to editors. And after that one pays for formatting and cover designs. Few people will be serious enough to go through all of that just for the thrill. Besides, readers don't buy everything, at least not in sufficient numbers and not consistently. A "writer" may do well with the first book, but if it's terrible, they won't buy the next.
So we'll have to wait it out.
Why do we need gatekeepers? We don't. We can and should depend on the market (aka readers) to decide. It's the same in music or art. In both, there is a lot of crap on the market but the best shines through untarnished by those lesser efforts surrounding them.
In the old days, when editors and publishers decided winners and losers, the record of success was miserable. Only 30% of published books earned back their fixed costs. So they failed as gatekeepers to make sure the good got through and the crap didn't.
I think the new way is vastly superior. By the way, agents and editors are now looking through self-published books to find authors with a burgeoning track record to sign.
Thank you Amazon, authors are lucky to live with in a time with the freedom to publish that we now have.
There was a time when a publishing house could be looked upon as a viable gatekeeper, weeding out the chaff. This was when the houses stood alone, and were vehicles for producing literature. (Regardless of one's definition of that term.)
Now the publishing houses are owned by conglomerates, and the MBAs who run them are interested in little more than how many units of product they can move. The prestige of having a reputation fr producing fine books is now only valued as a marketing tool.
It's still too early for me to form an opinion whether this is good or bad. My guess is it's neither. More books will be made available, and something else will take the place of steering people to the books they want as print publishers and reviews control less of the market and opinion. Sites like this one and blogs will draw the distinguishing reader, hopefully enough of them to create niches where what we call mid-list writers now will still have an impact and make something like a living. Social media are the word of mouth of the 21st Century for writers.
Like I said, I don't know if it will be good or bad. It will sure be different. Considering how writers have been treated recently, different is likely to be better, once we figure out how it works.
Was there, Dana? What there was no chaff in the stores?
And how would anybody know? I read a lot of fantastic stuff in free books published free by the authors on Kindle and keep thinking... why the hell didn't those idiots publish this?
And I see a lot of total kitty vomit out of these "curated" houses and think... why the HELL did somebody pay to publish this junk?
Nobody really knew what was outside the Manhattan canon before. We're starting to find out. The idea that I need somebody to filter for me is obnoxious, to my mind.
The idea that New York Times is a better judge of what real people should read than the emerging network of newsletters and reader-focused blogs makes no sense at all.
And I think while writers are figuring out how it works, the are also changing the way it works. And I just have a really hard time thinking its for the worse.
But there were a lot of people who thought it was horrible to let the people run a country instead of a few oligarchs with divine rights.
I guess we're still finding out how that works, too.
But you don't see many people huffing and puffing that we were better off with kings and ministers to tell us what to do.
I said they were viable; not perfect. It only makes sense that the "crap to readable prose" ratio will go up if no one vets a book before it's released to the public. I'm not saying this is good or bad; it will be different.
And I also agree with Dana about the "crap to readable prose" ratio as well.
I agree with Dana. It's too darn early to form an opinion to me. LOL!
I've been repped by four different lit agents by now, but never had a deal with a major publisher, but I'd like to think that even if I'd had a deal I would still be glad for all the authors who now have at least some readers who aren't related to them or working in the next cubicle over. Wouldn't it suck if you were, say, a pottery enthusiast, and couldn't sell your stuff at the local flea market? That's how it's been for most authors until recently. This digital revolution is a great thing IMO even if it complicates things for readers some in regard to selecting what to read. But of course most readers don't read a lot and tend to go for the blockbuster books so they can play it safe and/or discuss the book with others who've read it.
As for the more adventurous reader, there is some curation going on already in the new everyone's-an-author environment: reader reviews (see Amazon or Goodreads, for example), blogger reviews, sales rankings, reading samples, social media word of mouth, off the top of my head. But I'm hoping the curation gets much better in the near future, perhaps via some technological innovation.
My suspicion is there will always be big publishing even if only half the number of people will be employed within five years and even if only blockbusters and, in a kind of pro bono effort, lit fic, will be published, the midlist drifting to self-publication. So if you want old fashioned curation you'll still be able to get it for the blockbusters and the serious lit fic.