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"Publishing is tremendously susceptible to the availability heuristic"
April 27, 2013 7:54 AM   Subscribe

What Is the Business of Literature?
Publishing is a word that, like the book, is almost but not quite a proxy for the “business of literature.” Current accounts of publishing have the industry about as imperiled as the book, and the presumption is that if we lose publishing, we lose good books. Yet what we have right now is a system that produces great literature in spite of itself. We have come to believe that the taste-making, genius-discerning editorial activity attached to the selection, packaging, printing, and distribution of books to retailers is central to the value of literature. We believe it protects us from the shameful indulgence of too many books by insisting on a rigorous, abstemious diet. Critiques of publishing often focus on its corporate or capitalist nature, arguing that the profit motive retards decisions that would otherwise be based on pure literary merit. But capitalism per se and the market forces that both animate and pre-suppose it aren’t the problem. They are, in fact, what brought literature and the author into being.

Via
posted by the man of twists and turns (62 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hear, hear. Complaints about profit-driven publishing are generally no more than veiled complaints about taste: "not enough people like the authors I do!"

Ebook self-publishing eliminates the often timid hand-holding editors at big publishing houses do for the reading public, so naturally the complaints are going to be loudest from professional editors. They will poo-poo anything that hasn't passed through their filter not because they think it isn't good, but because they know that once enough self-published writers become prominent simply through self-publishing and the demotic (and capitalist) filter of the marketplace, the reading public will cock an eyebrow in the general direction of editors, wondering if they really were providing the service they said they were.
posted by luke1249 at 8:12 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


In 2012, the average e-book earned its author less than 300 dollars.
posted by Artw at 8:20 AM on April 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm sure the essay has some valid points. That said, I couldn't make it to many them, finding myself unable to slog through the author's endless, unnecessary, citations, and propensity for endless jargon. A stronger case could not be made for the value of editors.
posted by steve jobless at 8:27 AM on April 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


Artw, in 2012 the average unpublished manuscript earned its author $0.00.
posted by luke1249 at 8:38 AM on April 27, 2013 [12 favorites]


More English-language novels were published in single year, 2010, than during the entire Victorian era.
posted by stbalbach at 8:49 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


What a great piece. Many, many quotable paragraphs; the example in the post is one among many.
posted by Sokka shot first at 9:11 AM on April 27, 2013


I'm sure the essay has some valid points. That said, I couldn't make it to many them, finding myself unable to slog through the author's endless, unnecessary, citations, and propensity for endless jargon.

Agreed. I ran the text through summarization software. It produced a somewhat ungrammatical and incomprehensible text, but overall, it's a massive improvement over the rambling article.

What Is the Business of Literature?

Publishing is a word that, like the book, is almost but not quite a proxy for the "Business of literature." Current accounts of publishing have the industry about as imperiled as the book, and the presumption is that if we lose publishing, we lose good books.

Wholesalers quickly replenished their inventories of successful books because they could share information with publishers and printers more rapidly and comprehensively; in turn, retailers could rely on publishers and wholesalers to resupply them when the books were "Flying off the shelves." The book, in Christensen's terminology, was already "Good enough." It couldn't tweet, as the New York Times best-selling children's book It's a Book crowed, and that was fine.

So why is the margin attributable to the ideas in a book so low, at times in fact negative, whereby the total revenue earned by the book is less than the cost of producing and distributing it? Not because our society doesn't value literature, as so many of us complain, but because it takes so long to discover whether or not you'll actually like the book.

Book culture is in far less peril than many choose to assume, for the notion of an imperiled book culture assumes that book culture is a beast far more refined, rarified, and fragile than it actually is.


But I will produce my own summary of the article, based solely on the final sentence:

The business of literature is blowing shit up.

Correct, assuming "blowing shit up" means inflating things, particularly the author's ego. Apparently the business of literature is about finding longwinded, pseudo-intellectual ways of discussing simple topics.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:12 AM on April 27, 2013


Despite its punchy final sentence, this piece delivers a nuanced thesis that requires a series of nuanced explanations. It was neither loaded with jargon nor was it overlong given its ambition of summarizing and criticizing, in a reasonably comprehensive manner, the conversation about books.

But yeah, TEE ELL, DEE ARR, AM I RIGHT?!
posted by Sokka shot first at 9:19 AM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


See also: "Recording Industry."
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:25 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


in 2012 the average unpublished manuscript earned its author $0.00.

Right, and it also may be the case that books published by big houses do better in part because the books themselves were better or at least better known. It might be the case that if those better books were self-published they would also do quite well. Certainly that would be the case with the really big-name authors, who no doubt massively skew average profits for traditionally-published books.
posted by shivohum at 10:11 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


See also: "Recording Industry."

Okay, so I'll throw in with my standard bit.

It's not music (literature) that's in peril, it's the business model we cobbled together for its production and distribution, which despite some heroic successes, has never been even remotely excellent.

And what's interesting about this fast dying model, is that the new one is already pretty well defined, robust even, and we're all part of it whether we're conscious of it or not -- we the listeners (the readers), we the lovers of fine and/or kickass music (literature).

This model is defined by the fact that we can now get this stuff for pretty much nothing in terms of material costs.

Which is great until the creative stuff stops getting created because those doing the creating are forced to eat dog food (or whatever) in order to survive.

The question then is simple? How shall we, lovers of this stuff, find a way to get remuneration (call it income) back to its creators, so that they will continue creating? It's our call. We're the ones with all the power here. We just need to wake up to it, stop worrying about the sky falling. It's a shitty sky anyway. It should fall.

hint: I'm personally leaning toward the "solution" being a vast extrapolation of crowdfunding.
posted by philip-random at 10:15 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


once enough self-published writers become prominent simply through self-publishing and the demotic (and capitalist) filter of the marketplace, the reading public will cock an eyebrow in the general direction of editors, wondering if they really were providing the service they said they were.

It's true that the editor's erstwhile role as the gatekeeper of publishing, the one who selects worthy pieces of work for publication, is largely a thing of the past, and as an editor, I don't regret that. The selection process was always too arbitrary, too faulty, too heavily weighted by considerations of what would sell or what would be considered acceptable according to current social morés or what was in accordance with the literary styles of the time. There were great books that never got published and a lot of shitty ones that did.

But although editors are no longer determining what will be published, there's always going to be a need for their real role, for the meticulous editing of a manuscript by a skilled and relatively objective second person. Authors may not want to believe it, but their work is never too good to be edited and if their self-published works are structurally flawed or full of more minor mechanical errors, it will hurt their sales considerably because readers are going to gravitate towards better content. And sometimes, of course, authors just don't have the goods at all, but they can put their work out there anyway and find out whether it attracts an audience, and then at least they can't claim never to have had the chance to succeed.
posted by orange swan at 10:16 AM on April 27, 2013 [13 favorites]


Re, $300 self published earnings: I'm on a mobile, and don't have my bookmarks handy, but I recently read an article from a nyt best selling author about what that book made after the publisher took "expenses" out, and on a book that sold something like 300,000 copies, he made less than $15,000. His next book, he paid for an editor and proofer, self published and tripled his income on less than half the sales.

And I know of at least three female romance and adult theme writers who average $10k a month self publishing. They're very good at marketing, and fill a particular niche, but the $300 figure quoted above often includes people who make a book of grandmas recipes, but doesn't include the vast, profitable market of erotica.
posted by dejah420 at 10:22 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes, I've heard romance novels tend to do by far the best of any genre in self-publishing.
posted by orange swan at 10:27 AM on April 27, 2013


Ebook self-publishing eliminates the often timid hand-holding editors at big publishing houses do for the reading public, so naturally the complaints are going to be loudest from professional editors.

As an author who has been edited, fuck that noise. Editors are awesome.

Now to RTFA.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:38 AM on April 27, 2013 [14 favorites]


timid hand-holding editors [...] the demotic (and capitalist) filter of the marketplace

This whole specious market-populist argument should be a space on the Future of Publishing bingo card, since it springs up weed-like in every related thread. But it's even more irrelevant and RTFA-worthy than usual here, since the article is actually partly devoted to arguing that e-publishing changes almost nothing about the relationship between taste and the market — and, in fact, the article actually agrees that editors' gatekeeping function is largely a self-aggrandizing myth:
What, then, is the biggest job to be done by publishers? There is marketing and discovery, yes, but even though editors are not miracle makers who make their best decisions in a vacuum, the editor is a source of great value in the economics of literature and will therefore remain as valuable, if not more so, than before, even if less privileged.
[...] The skill that is commonly associated with the pinnacle of editorial talent—picking the right book—is, frankly, nonsense. Success, in terms of picking things, is a hybrid of luck with the non-self-evident and money with the self-evident, and even the self-evident often requires luck. This is not to say that people don’t work hard on those books that have gotten lucky, but all the retrospective justifications [...] are trumped by what really was a matter of luck and network effects.
What the article doesn't agree with, of course, is the remainder: the implicit anti-intellectualism that equates the gatekeeping/filtering function with "hand-holding," or taste and the basic claim that aesthetic quality exists with elitism.
posted by RogerB at 11:04 AM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, this is something I wrangle with. I've dabbled in self-publishing for some things and make a nice amount of pocket money for the month, so I'm constantly wondering why not just do that? But of course, there's that taint around it that you're putting out crap. But that attitude is coming from a dying industry where I may not make anything anyway, so who cares? In short, Libya is a land of contrasts.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:06 AM on April 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


hint: I'm personally leaning toward the "solution" being a vast extrapolation of crowdfunding.
what if the books that are good at being crowdsourced are not necessarily the books that are good at being books

brb kickstartering Phenomenology of Spirit
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:28 AM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


wondering if they really were providing the service they said they were

Spoken like someone who has never seen an un-edited manuscript. Authors' proclamations to the contrary (and particularly in the scholarly, science journal, non-fiction and business/trade sides of the business) a great many people with great ideas simply cannot write or express themselves properly in the English language. It's astounding, really.
posted by spicynuts at 11:47 AM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


a great many people with great ideas simply cannot write or express themselves properly in the English language. It's astounding, really.

I don't know that they can't. I just think a great many people have no idea how much work is required to take raw verbiage and work it down (up?) to functional literature (for lack of a better word). Which is WHY good editors are so damned essential. Yes, I'm sure there are examples out there of great published (and successful) literature that never passed across an editor's desk, but I feel pretty safe in arguing that these are "exceptions that prove the rule".
posted by philip-random at 11:58 AM on April 27, 2013


If you want a picture of the future, imagine Amanda Palmer shouting a poem in a human ear -- forever.
posted by escabeche at 12:27 PM on April 27, 2013 [9 favorites]


The biggest problem with analog publishing is that the industry stopped doing the "discovery" thing around 1979. Before then, there were dozens if not hundreds of viable publishers all reading their slush piles, all looking for something new and different that would put them on the map. But in the capitalist merger frenzy of the 1980's they all got snapped up into a handful of huge brands, authors became products, readers became a market, and pubulishing came to be about efficiently serving that market proven and predicatably popular product.

What good does it do to build a book superstore with 50,000 titles when half of them -- and I'm only barely exaggerrating -- are teen vampire romance imitations?
posted by localroger at 12:47 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Write a novel. (difficult but fun)
Rewrite that novel. (difficult but necessary)
Re-rewrite that novel. (difficult, pain-in-the ass work)
Re-re-rewrite that novel. (God the pain, but, I've got to get it into shape to show someone)
Re-re-re-rewrite that novel. (Pain but end is in sight.)
Send it to agents and publishers.
Wait for them to be wowed.
Wait for them to be wowed.
Wait.
Wai...
Sold the damned thing.
Now to wait for my $300 dollars.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:53 PM on April 27, 2013


Moreover, the role of the writer before Gutenberg was simply to transcribe. The writer’s purpose wasn’t to reimagine language—not gainsaying the existence of outliers such as Virgil. Writers were not thought leaders, conjurors of other worlds, conjoiners of emotion and aesthetic. Writers were the machines through which the word of God was reproduced and disseminated. Or, at most, the knowledge that humans had accumulated thus far—the myths, the legends, what is now called “folk wisdom.” They captured the store of human knowledge to date.

This... is kind of conflating a bunch of things. Let's take his unspoken assumption that we are only talking about Western, non-Muslim, Europe as a given. Yeah, most of the people who put pen to paper were transcribers, but there were writers throughout the period who were producing original works (often of philosophy and/or theology -- Boetheus wrote up to 525, Johannes Scotus Eriugena worked in the mid-9th C., Peter Abelard (12th C), Roger Bacon (most of the 13th) -- these are just a few that jump immediately to mind and are hardly comprehensive, not to mention the saga traditions, histories, etc. They weren't as prolific as writers after Gutenberg, but they also had a much smaller audience. There was a book trade in Medieval Europe, after all, it just ran on a very different economy.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:55 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you want a picture of the future, imagine Amanda Palmer shouting a poem in a human ear -- forever.

I read that as "Arnold Palmer shooting a hole..." and was carried away on a wave of reverie....
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:56 PM on April 27, 2013


a great many people with great ideas simply cannot write or express themselves properly in the English language

Imagine what good editing could have done for Joyce's "Ulysses". Break up those run-on sentences into concise, readable content!
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:03 PM on April 27, 2013


> I'm sure the essay has some valid points. That said, I couldn't make it to many them, finding myself unable to slog through the author's endless, unnecessary, citations, and propensity for endless jargon. A stronger case could not be made for the value of editors.

I knew there were bound to be lazy snarkers in this thread who spouted crap like that. In fact, this is such a good article that I read it when it was featured at The Millions and just now I read the whole thing again. It's thoughtful, elegant, subversive, full of good stuff. But of course you have to be able and willing to read something longer and more complex than a MeFi comment. For those who want a taste before making the commitment (it is, after all, quite long), here are a few excerpts. First, a quote from Rachel Bowlby:
In the history of shop design, it is bookstores, strangely enough, that were the precursors of supermarkets. They, alone of all types of shop, made use of shelves that were not behind counters, with the goods arranged for casual browsing, and for what was not yet called self-service. Also, when brand name goods and their accompanying packages were non-existent or rare in the sale of food, books had covers that were designed at once to protect the contents and to entice the purchaser; they were proprietary products with identifiable authors and new titles.
Next, an interesting point about those superstores that were supposed to be killing the world of books:
The non-mainstream was abetted by the growth of the superstore model of bookstores. The traditional independent bookstore stocked 5,000–10,000 titles, and so could only handle the new and backlist output of a limited number of publishers. But a Barnes & Noble or Borders superstore could have 50,000 or 60,000 or even 70,000 titles! Indeed, it needed those non-mainstream offerings to fill its shelves. Ironically, while indie, alternative, and literary presses frequently decried the predations of the superstores, the superstores were critical to their existence.
I remember being overwhelmed, on walking through a mega-B&N a couple of decades back, by the sheer number and variety of books on offer; I saw book after book that I would never have dared to order back when I was working for a very hip academic bookstore in New Haven. And when I visited a friend in backwoods Pennsylvania, she said the advent of a Borders in a nearby town had enabled the entire regional population to have ready access to books other than Bibles and romance novels for the first time. [NOT ROMANCE-IST] And finally, this, on the function of editors (about which he has much more to say):
Editors are also needed to produce books, of course. But beyond their editorial skills, what has kept editors in demand is relationship skills. The skill that is commonly associated with the pinnacle of editorial talent—picking the right book—is, frankly, nonsense. Success, in terms of picking things, is a hybrid of luck with the non-self-evident and money with the self-evident, and even the self-evident often requires luck. This is not to say that people don’t work hard on those books that have gotten lucky, but all the retrospective justifications for why, say, The Da Vinci Code, or the Harry Potter series succeeded are trumped by what really was a matter of luck and network effects. Books, like most entertainment media, live in what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Extremistan, a place with vast amounts of commercial failure and spectacularly high and extremely infrequent success. The advent of self-publishing has rendered this ever more visible. The vast majority of the 28 million books currently in print made no money at all, and every few years one author will make more than $200 million: first Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling, now E. L. James. It is remarkable watching people fall over themselves seeking an explanation for their success—there is no explanation, no more than explaining why a particular person won the $550 million PowerBall lottery in late November of last year.
There's lots more interesting, thought-provoking material where that came from.
posted by languagehat at 1:39 PM on April 27, 2013 [9 favorites]


Imagine what good editing could have done for Joyce's "Ulysses".

Well, he typed it up for a start.
posted by Artw at 1:41 PM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Which is great until the creative stuff stops getting created because those doing the creating are forced to eat dog food (or whatever) in order to survive.

I'm not that worried that new books won't be written, but that the good ones will be hella hard (term of art) to find. That's mostly due to the massive amount of books though.

This... is kind of conflating a bunch of things. Let's take his unspoken assumption that we are only talking about Western, non-Muslim, Europe as a given. Yeah, most of the people who put pen to paper were transcribers, but there were writers throughout the period who were producing original works (often of philosophy and/or theology -- Boetheus wrote up to 525, Johannes Scotus Eriugena worked in the mid-9th C., Peter Abelard (12th C), Roger Bacon (most of the 13th) -- these are just a few that jump immediately to mind and are hardly comprehensive, not to mention the saga traditions, histories, etc.

Yep. I think there were quite a few Greek and Roman writers who didn't fit his mold and just transcribing seems like a weird assumption. When de Troyes comes up with Lancelot, he might have been copying some lost source, but someone invented L. even if they were fooling around with extant material.
posted by ersatz at 2:16 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


So the internet is your own personal slush pile. Oh, joy.
posted by rikschell at 2:43 PM on April 27, 2013


But with self-publishing, I can take a concept that's just a moat in my I and with know ones help bring it to fruititon; an editor wood just get in the whey of my creative process.

Seriously though, not everybody is as diligent a re-writer as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and I suspect he made his mistakes too. A few of authors I used to think were on a track to greatness have seemed at times to be victims of their own success. I'm speculating that they got so much clout and/or prestige that their editors became afraid to challenge them. It's probably not fair to single him out, but Stephen King, I'm looking at you.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:51 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


As an author who has been edited, fuck that noise. Editors are awesome.

I wasn't talking about editors as artistes of the red pen. I was talking about their gatekeeping function: "This is literature. Ew no, that is not literature."

This whole specious market-populist argument should be a space on the Future of Publishing bingo card

Perhaps you should ask yourself why it keeps coming up.

the implicit anti-intellectualism that equates the gatekeeping/filtering function with "hand-holding," or taste and the basic claim that aesthetic quality exists with elitism.

Wow, what a tangled mess. My argument is the exact opposite of what you think it is. I'm arguing that the common folk are equipped with more than enough intellectual heft to make valid decisions about literature and taste in general. They don't need the gatekeepers. People who are interested in reading will explore and find books they like, given a sufficiently developed ecosystem. In other words, aesthetic quality does not coexist with elitism. Elitism engenders intellectual cowardice, as the gatekeepers realize that if the demos starts making decisions for themselves, the gatekeepers' jobs will be threatened.

Which, I might point out, is exactly what is happening.
posted by luke1249 at 2:52 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry, my comment was a bit of a derail in the sense that I very much appreciate the role editors play in helping structure books, but I do agree completely that no one should be in the gatekeeper business other than maybe the friend of the author who says you've published five novels and lost money on all of them, maybe you should rethink your approach.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:58 PM on April 27, 2013


Incidentally, there are now freelance editors who will help self-publishing authors for a cut of profits. This is what I mean by ecosystem. Once there is an amazon.com for self-publishers, with comment threads on the books and reliable ratings systems, and all the big publishers are dead and gone once and for all, then we'll start to see the type of variety and inventiveness that actually exists out there.
posted by luke1249 at 3:01 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've done some professional (librarian) wading through the mire and there really really is a difference between publisher-published and self-published. Sometimes, very rarely, it is about quality of the paper, the print, maybe the layout. More often it's about content. I know we worship the long tail but there's a reason for half the store being vampire romance - that's because people want it! I know it seems crazy because you want the variety and inventiveness, but there's a reason romance keeps going on, better than most, and it isn't just about who publishes it.

It is very easy to assume stupidity, or banality, on the part of the readers or editors, but whatever you think does not change the way the vast majority of people read - they want 'something like X' or 'someone like Y' or the latest in that genre.

Self-publishing, more often than not, has meant I get to wade through someone's very earnest stories about themselves, their childhood, their life. That's got a super limited audience and I almost always regretted the enormous* amount of time I spent dealing with these books. Not when I could be finding something that has been edited in the 'tighten this story' sense and in the 'holy fuck no' sense.

Most people do not have the time to work through this shit, have not gained the sixth sense on self-published stuff that long exposure gets you. Instead they come and complain, and get angry that the library bought this because it's awful (we rarely got that with publisher-published stuff - sometimes, and usually with a politico-social reason) and poorly edited and boring. Sure, IMO that applies to most of the vampire romance genre, but it is filling a need for people.

I think it's odd how we applaud and love 'curation' with our stores, with our fashion, our news feeds, but god forbid a professional get paid to curate the truly staggering amount of stuff being published?

*Comparatively - I could quick-flick through a Penguin and be reasonably sure I wouldn't find a descent-into-hell chapter where the author rants in a poorly disguised manner.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:19 PM on April 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


I wonder if there's going to be a general migration of publisher-published works away from genre and into 'literature', while self-published starts landing in sub-genres of increasing specificity. I'd like to see more meta-aggregated literary criticism a la rotten tomatoes. The fact that you get a separate score from critics and from viewers does a lot to manage my expectations of a film, and I think I'd get a similar heads up from knowing if something is popular but critically panned, vice-versa, or loved by all.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:34 PM on April 27, 2013


while self-published starts landing in sub-genres of increasing specificity.

"BACONPUNK".
posted by Artw at 3:40 PM on April 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


I wasn't talking about editors as artistes of the red pen. I was talking about their gatekeeping function: "This is literature. Ew no, that is not literature."

I wouldn't really know anything about that, since my editor helps me write books about hot alien kissing. In my experience, editors don't so much decide What Is Not Literature as they do take what's salable and make it readable.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:40 PM on April 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


METAFILTER: But of course you have to be able and willing to read something longer and more complex than a MeFi comment
posted by philip-random at 3:46 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wonder if there's going to be a general migration of publisher-published works away from genre and into 'literature'.

I doubt it. Publishers need the kind of sales that genre fiction produces to remain profitable, even if it means pulling out the tongs and picking up some used shades of gray. Given the kinds of ROI most serious novels produce, I'm not sure that publishers can afford putting out much more of it. Then too, given a lot of what is called literature these days, I'm not so sure I want more of it.

But that's just me.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:50 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


"BACONPUNK".

Unknown to the hierophant of the order of smoke, the most holy of holies had been perverted. Lurking underneath the pellicle lay a nascent consciousness of self-organizing apple flavored nanites as insidious as they were delicious.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:52 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


In my experience, editors don't so much decide What Is Not Literature as they do take what's salable and make it readable.

That's exactly what makes it so clear that the anti-"gatekeeper" argument is just veiled anti-intellectualism.

My argument is the exact opposite of what you think it is. I'm arguing that the common folk are equipped with more than enough intellectual heft [...] Elitism engenders intellectual cowardice

But your clarification makes your argument out to be exactly what I just said it was: market populism wrapped around anti-intellectualism. You're opposing the sturdy and democratic ideas of the "common folk" to the "intellectual cowardice" of these imaginary "elitist" gatekeepers. None of this has anything to do with either what the article says or how the publishing industry actually works; instead it's about the resentment of intellectuals and their defiance of the aesthetic judgment of the almighty market.
posted by RogerB at 4:13 PM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Cool discussion, thanks very much! One thing I wanted to address is the question of the ancient writers. That was something I discussed at length with the editors at the Virginia Quarterly Review. My point is not that some ancients didn't produce brilliant language, or that they didn't create new forms—my point is that they did do so not with the purpose of *self-expression* but understanding themselves as conduits through which the world, the Gods, the society, the tribe expressed itself.
See this sentence here: "The writer’s purpose wasn’t to reimagine language—not gainsaying the existence of outliers such as Virgil." See also my discussion of the invention of genius later in the piece.

I'm considering doing a book on this topic, actually, and I'll definitely take some time to expand upon this idea as it is a little compressed here.
posted by richardnash at 4:18 PM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


What a wonderful article, it made my day today and thanks for posting it. Too much to digest to have anything in particular to say but wanted to say thanks.

And since we seem to have a special guest, I do actually have a follow up to ask about: I've often heard that the specific economics and structure of the bookselling industry are rather, well, goofy, in all the details, and I'm curious if there is anything that can be gleaned from a close examination of those details. Sorry for not being more specific but I only know it as a goofy industry by reputation.
posted by hoople at 4:43 PM on April 27, 2013


As someone who's had to read the slushpile (and been on it as a pretty terrible beginning writer), I'm telling you, you don't want to have to wade through it. If you want someone else to do the sifting, you're going to have to pay them to do it, because 95% is unreadable dreck, and most of the rest needs a lot of work.
posted by rikschell at 5:31 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Goofy," ha! I suppose you're right in some ways. It just has such a long history and it touches on so many other industries (food via cookbooks, education via textbooks, travel via fading guidebooks, scientific research etc.). Here I focus only on the literary dimension of publishing, and examine the areas on which literature in fact extends beyond it. In many ways, the practitioners in the industry don't pay much attention to its underlying economics, which can often cause them to come across goofily, although I often find they're smarter businesspeople than they give themselves credit for, as they tend to assume greater rationality amongst corporate entities than those entities often show in practice. For that reason, I do think it is worth a close look—especially because more examinations tend to focus on the goofy bits, oh those whacky booksellers, rather than seeing what the underlying structures are and how we might learn from them more generally.
posted by richardnash at 5:32 PM on April 27, 2013


I just don't understand people who think the publishing houses are what is standing between us and things we want to read. I've seen a pretty good sample of books which are rejected by publishers. They aren't generally rejected because they are brilliant but appeal to too small an audience. They are usually rejected because they are complete and utter shit.

Editors are how I find books I want to read. Life is too short for me to spend my time reading mounds of barely literate garbage to find the few gems which get wrongly rejected.

In other words, any dedicated reader would admit their biggest problem isn't not enough good books to read but rather not enough time to read all the good books.
posted by Justinian at 7:02 PM on April 27, 2013 [9 favorites]


You know how you think The Da Vinci Code is terrible? Like, really awful dreck? I promise you that it is far and away a better written book than the great majority of stuff out there which is rejected by publishers. So when people say that the death of the publishing house will break down the gates, this utopia will mainly consist of people e-publishing books which make Dan Brown look like Vladimir Nabokov. Yeah, you won't have anyone standing between you and a wealth of e-novels. It's just that those e-novels will mostly consist of Mary Sues with telepathic flying unicorns, Supernatural fanfic, racist demagogic screeds against Antichrist Obama, and books about alcoholic university literature professors who feel unappreciated and whose marriages are falling apart.

The Supernatural slash fanfic will be the best of the bunch.
posted by Justinian at 1:23 AM on April 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


(yes I have strong feelings about this.)
posted by Justinian at 1:24 AM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


But your clarification makes your argument out to be exactly what I just said it was: market populism wrapped around anti-intellectualism. You're opposing the sturdy and democratic ideas of the "common folk" to the "intellectual cowardice" of these imaginary "elitist" gatekeepers. None of this has anything to do with either what the article says or how the publishing industry actually works; instead it's about the resentment of intellectuals and their defiance of the aesthetic judgment of the almighty market.

Wow, never thought I'd get called out for thinking normal people are capable of intellectual pursuits. I mean, who do you think we (you and I) are? Magna cum laude graduates of Intellectual School? You might want to sit down for this, but you're just a normal person. You're not better than everyone else. All those other people out there you look down your nose at? They're just like you.

I see the reason for the misunderstanding above now. By "anti-intellectual" I thought you meant "opposed to intellectual pursuits, the arts, science, etc." when what you actually meant was "opposed to intellectuals."

You know how you think The Da Vinci Code is terrible? Like, really awful dreck?

No. It wasn't great literature (or literature, in my opinion), but it was a well-put-together story. I take your point, but I think you used the wrong example.

Either way, it's interesting to see the nervous snappiness of some of the comments, almost like you really are afraid that the demise of the ancien regime will force you to wade knee-deep through a swamp of literary shit in order to find something decent to read. There is no way that would happen. Ever. People will come across something good and tell their friends. Word will spread. Etc. It's been happening since the monolith appeared and taught us to use weapons, and it will continue forever. What will disappear (is disappearing) is the ability of certain groups to dictate good taste.

I suddenly realize that we're arguing about whether something which is already happening will happen or not.
posted by luke1249 at 4:51 AM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


And just to clarify, I don't imagine smoky back rooms where people decide what the masses will read. (This is an argument Chomsky often has to deal with.) It's just the nature of a centralized system, not the wills of the participants therein, that produces uniformity of thought.
posted by luke1249 at 4:56 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


...books about alcoholic university literature professors who feel unappreciated and whose marriages are falling apart...

What? This genre really exists?
posted by Yakuman at 7:32 PM on April 28, 2013


It's probably all sitting on the slush pile and in the desk drawers of university literature professors.
posted by Justinian at 8:43 PM on April 28, 2013


I just don't understand people who think the publishing houses are what is standing between us and things we want to read.

Well, if your attitude toward publishing houses in general is annoyance (even outrage!) that they expect customers to actually pay for the product, then it helps to imagine they don't really add value to that product.

(Which is not to say that they don't sometimes act in otherwise foolish and irritating ways. They are human. It's part of the genetic make up in all of us.)
posted by IndigoJones at 1:35 PM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


luke1249: "Either way, it's interesting to see the nervous snappiness of some of the comments, almost like you really are afraid that the demise of the ancien regime will force you to wade knee-deep through a swamp of literary shit in order to find something decent to read. "

I was speaking as an (ex)professional - the amount of books I waded through was enormous, and self-published dreck took up a disproportionate amount of time due to the authorial interactions, the 'words from friends' and so on. Word of mouth works well in conjunction with things like editors and slush piles and, yes, rejections. Because the tyranny of choice is nigh on overwhelming when you're looking at the true amount of stuff that is published, least of all the stuff that got rejected.

I already wade knee deep in literary shit to get to something I like, I don't want it to go knee-deeper.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:45 PM on April 29, 2013


Yeah, the idea that "word of mouth" is a decent replacement for the publishing industry is fanciful at best.
posted by Justinian at 3:44 PM on April 29, 2013


What? This genre really exists?

No, it's a thing that people who don't like literary fiction use to make fun of literary fiction, the way that people who don't like SF refer to "aliens in bikinis with lasers" as a way to make fun of SF. I mean, it's not that there aren't any novels about alcoholic professors. Just off-hand I can think of two: Lucky Jim and Wonder Boys. They are both excellent and whoever hates them hates joy.
posted by escabeche at 7:27 PM on April 29, 2013


To be fair, I like both literary fiction and SF, and mocked SF as well in my comment! I am an equal opportunity mocker.
posted by Justinian at 11:03 PM on April 29, 2013


I already wade knee deep in literary shit to get to something I like, I don't want it to go knee-deeper.

So now that we have the technology to make self-published books available to everyone in the world, what we need is a way to filter the books, for readers to find the good ones. I don't know what that way is. It's such a noisy world, and there are so many, many books.

There's Goodreads and Amazon reader reviews, and they can be helpful, but they can also be gamed. I know of someone who self-publishes romance novels, and she gets her mother and her husband and her self-publishing author friends to post glowing reviews of her work on Amazon and Goodreads. I suspect she's posted 5 star self-reviews of her own work as well. But then it's pretty obvious when an author is doing that, and they'll only manage to muster a relatively small number of reviews. If a book has a hundred or more reviews, it's pretty likely that most of them will be from disinterested readers.
posted by orange swan at 2:17 AM on April 30, 2013


So now that we have the technology to make self-published books available to everyone in the world, what we need is a way to filter the books, for readers to find the good ones.

I have a novel idea, we could have people whose jobs involve separating the good books from the dreck, helping to make the good books better, and shepherding the books through the process of getting them to the readers.
posted by Justinian at 11:21 AM on April 30, 2013


GET IT A NOVEL IDEA
posted by Justinian at 11:48 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I know of someone who self-publishes romance novels, and she gets her mother and her husband and her self-publishing author friends to post glowing reviews ...

One complaint about the current system is that the above is a pretty good description of how it works, but larger-scale.
posted by luke1249 at 1:20 PM on April 30, 2013


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