Volume II, Issue 2 -- May, 2001
May a Hundred Million Books Bloom:
In Praise of Slush
A Literary Saloon Dialogue
The Scene:It is late night. Darkness envelopes the city. The dim, smoky Literary Saloon still harbours a mass of littérateurs -- faux and real, would be and has been. The hum of discussion throbs in the room.
A sits at the bar, nursing a fourth whiskey. B has been making the rounds in the room, volunteering his opinions, accepting drinks. Now he joins A, pulling up a stool beside him at the bar.
The Dialogue:B: E-publishing ! Print on demand ! The dissemination of content in electronic format and/or via the Internet ! Heady times for authors and publishers alike, don't you think, as new ways of reaching an audience are explored.
A: It does appear that new technological advances may soon -- or perhaps already do -- allow anyone who wants to "publish" a book to do so. Of course, old technological advances permitted anyone who wanted to publish anything to do so for the past several hundred years -- though admittedly at an often prohibitive cost. Now the cost is almost negligible.
B: Xlibris offers to turn any manuscript into something of a book for free .....
A: They did. They have now revised that policy, becoming just another vanity press after all.
B: Still: great times.
A: Not everybody is pleased by or optimistic about the new possibilities. Some even see a grave threat.
B: What could that be ?
A: The "threat", apparently, is that now that it is so cheap to put out a book everybody will do so, flooding the market and drowning consumers in words.
B: I hadn't thought of that.
A: Well, suddenly everyone can be a published author -- of sorts. Though, of course, much as vanity presses of yore and self-published books of yesteryear stood little chance of finding their way into neighborhood bookstores, so too most print-on-demand books and e-books will not get much shelfspace. Virtual bookstores, able to stock an infinite number of titles, and Internet sites (download directly !) provide other outlets, but chances are that most of the titles that take advantage of the new technology will not be going mainstream too soon (i.e. they won't be stocked at your local superstore, and they won't be reviewed by your local media outlets).
B: Still, I can see that it might become a problem.
A: Can you ? Well, you're not alone. There has been a surprising backlash against writers being able to make their work so readily available. Many voices have been raised, saying that all this is a bad thing. A very bad thing. Several writers have recently suggested, in prominent publications, that there are great horrors to come because of this situation. And these writers have come to the defense of -- of all people ! -- publishers, writing what are almost ringing endorsements of the industrial powers that be.
B: They might have a point. What do they say ?
A: In The Village Voice Nick Mamatas warns of the Attack of the Living Slush Pile (20/3/2001), arguing that "the importance of an editorial filtering system to spare customers from bad writing is clear." In an article in Salon (25/7/2000), Laura Miller explains how fortunate readers are now, because what publishers "offer readers is a bulwark, a sacred shield against the ultimate monstrosity: rampant, unfiltered, unholy slush." And in a recent annotation in Harper's Magazine (12/2000) Tom Bissell and Webster Younce argue that print-on-demand publisher Xlibris threatens to save publishing "by destroying it", contending that if Xlibris is successful (in publishing "100,000 mostly dubious books year after year") it will, "in time, affect American publishing in every worst way and obliterate whatever remains of a genuine book culture."
B: Wow ! Who knew ?
A: Indeed. Apparently we live in the age of the literary apocalypse.
Praise to the publishers, for they know what they do !
Upholders of the faith !
Protectors of the culture !
Our only hope !
Let us bask in their beneficence !
And, apparently: down with slush !
B: I detect perhaps a note of sarcasm ? But you have to admit, it all does sound rather alarming, the way these writers put it.
A: But are they putting it correctly ? Some of the claims don't seem to stand up to scrutiny. Publishers as trusted gatekeepers, doing what is best ? The alternative -- slush unleashed on a helpless populace -- a nightmare to be avoided at all cost ? And the fragile American book culture in mortal danger ?
B: But slush -- well, I've waded through slush. It's a terrible experience. I still have nightmares. It almost put me off reading entirely. Publishers do provide a service, in pre-selecting for us ...
A: There are a number of issues to address here. One of the difficulties is, in fact, the muddle of issues and confusion of facts.
B: Such as ?
A: I suggest, among many other points, that:
B: I'm not sure where to start ...
- the more the merrier: a wider selection is always preferable to a more narrow one
- too few books (of any sort) are published and/or available (in any form), a situation the new technologies should help remedy
- literary culture is almost an illusion, and it always has been, and it can't be as easily killed (or revived) as most of these writers believe
- established publishers wouldn't have that much to worry about from do-it-yourself upstarts -- if they took their job seriously and acted responsibly towards their customers
- established publishers have largely failed their mandate -- to readers, authors, books, and society alike
- gatekeepers will help readers separate the wheat from the chaff -- though it remains to be seen who will prove dependable in this role (it seems clear and obvious that publishers have largely failed here too)
A: I am. Tom Bissell and Webster Younce are editors (at Henry Holt and Arcade, respectively), and so have a vested interest in the subject. Still, as industry-insiders they surely also have valuable insight into publishing. For example, they confidently state: "The book industry has many problems; publishing too few books is not one of them." They write of a "glutted market", pleading for those high barriers to entry that can save consumers from the deluge.
The less vested Laura Miller (Salon's New York editorial director) agrees: "I'll hazard that very few readers walk into their local bookstore, look around, sigh and say, 'Is that it?' "
Of making books there is too much ? The super-stores are filled with an over-abundance of literary offerings ?
B: Absolutely. I've felt overwhelmed.
A: I envy you, if you really find the range too broad, the selection too generous. Even in New York City, encircled by a slew of Barnes & Nobles and the like, a smattering of still-independent stores, and a few decent-sized used-bookstores -- and the venerable Strand with its "8 miles of books" --, as well as with Amazon.com and all the rest of the Internet booksellers at ones fingertips, forays into these and other bookshops are still, by and large, exercises in disappointment. Especially if one's interests are primarily literary. Perhaps there is a surfeit of cookbooks or computer manuals available (they take up enough shelf-space at the local bookstore), but as to literature ..... If it is not a relatively new publication, or an old standard, chances are it can't be found. (Used bookstores, online, extend the reach, but come at the cost of high prices and unreasonable delays -- and even there not nearly everything is available.)
B: Possibly ...
A: Absolutely. I maintain that one of publishing's greatest problems is, indeed, that far too few books are published and available. Far too few. Especially works of fiction.
B: That is a strong statement ...
A: One should be clear about what, in fact, is at issue. The writers quoted above (and others) bandy about numbers without too much precision. Bissell-Younce say, vaguely: "Last year, thousands of titles were published by respected houses like Knopf, Norton, and Harcourt", and they note that Xlibris' ambition is to publish 100,000 titles a year -- "the 1999 output of all American publishers combined." Laura Miller speaks of "50,000 new titles published annually" (so are the other 50,000 Bissell-Younce found old titles being republished ?). These are intimidating numbers -- the deluge already seems to be upon us. In fact, however, most of these titles are utterly irrelevant. In all this spouting of grand numbers there is no differentiation between titles. Cookbooks, travel-guides, and self-help manuals count equally with fiction. In fact, as few people care to mention, the total number of fiction and belles-lettres titles published annually is only a relatively small percentage of the very grand total. And fiction and belles-lettres are all that interest me (and seem generally to be the focus of discussion when these writers babble about "book culture" and such nonsense). The glut of cookbooks may also be an issue -- I certainly find it worrisome --, but curiously not many people show much interest in discussing that.
As to the actual numbers -- well, it is apparently not that easy to categorize and count everything that is published. One source finds that in 1994 US book production totalled 40,594 units, of which 4765 titles were "fiction" (11.74 percent) and 1854 were "literature" (4.57 percent). Other sources suggest a similar percentage and number. It should also be noted that "fiction" does not limit itself to literary fiction. Indeed, the majority of fiction titles are of the truly pulp variety. It seems unlikely that even today more than 2500 even semi-literary (with the cut-off level at, say, the John Grisham level) fiction titles are published annually. And if one has any sort of standards (i.e. one doesn't count Danielle Steel's oeuvre as literary fiction) then the number is considerably smaller.
Even in that saddest of all literary categories, poetry, apparently only 1200 titles are published annually in the US (see this City Paper article). Given how slim many poetry volumes are, an intrepid reader could actually probably read this entire annual output in the span of a year (not that I would recommend such rushed reading).
So, while it serves some purpose to spout absurd numbers which include every book that is published in the US, the debate about "book culture" and the like actually focusses on a tiny sliver of that huge output.
B: Still, 1200 poetry titles and a few thousand fiction titles is an enormous amount. And that's annually -- the heap just grows bigger and bigger.
A: Ridiculous. There are a number of categories in which there are clearly too few books published and/or available. Among them are:B: Overall I don't know that one can say there are too few titles.
- Previously published titles: from old to relatively recent classics books go out of print with terrifying speed -- and once there they can be extremely hard to find.
- Regional English-language literature: a great amount of contemporary African, Asian, Australian, Canadian, even British fiction is not published in the US, and thus extremely hard to find.
- Literature in translation: almost no contemporary (or classic) foreign-language literature is currently being translated in the United States (or other English-speaking countries, though UK publishers still do a fractionally better job). The few hundred titles added annually are only a smattering of what is available (and worthwhile), and many literatures go almost entirely untranslated.
- Previously unpublished fiction: new authors are constantly being published, but many still go unrecognized. Numerous previously published authors are reportedly unable to find publishers for subsequent works. The example (old as publishing itself, it seems) of the bestseller that was turned down by 20+ publishers before being bought is still far too frequently heard -- and only considers bestselling as a measure of success. The number of books of quality that continue to be turned down for being too uncommercial is presumably far greater.
A: I do.
Each of these categories poses different issues and problems, and they can not be lumped together. Only the last has to do with the infamous slush pile and the concern that is the main focus of discussion, but it is worthwhile considering the others as well -- in part because they also show some of the possibilities of the new technologies, as well as the complete failure of publishers.
The issue of out-of-print titles is perhaps easiest to deal with, because here the new technologies do show great promise. It is possible that in the future no published title will go out of print, that it will always be available in "print on demand" form. Curiously, however, while publishers claim to have taken steps to make this a reality, it does not seem to be one yet. (Something to think about.)
B: Many books that are out of print are available, in some form. Some libraries even stock a few out of print books.
A: Our local ones don't seem to.
B: And scouring used bookstores -- now on the Internet as well ! -- anything that has been published usually can be found.
A: The cost, however, both in time and money, may be out of all proportion to the value of the book. Essentially, for the casual reader, if it's not at the local Barnes & Noble or, at a stretch, at Amazon.com the book is unavailable. Yes, bibliophiles will hunt down sought after tomes, but casual readers -- i.e. the vast, vast majority of us -- will just take what we are given (and thus miss out on most of what should be out there).
B: I still don't know that the problem is such a big one, the loss so great.
A: The problem of books disappearing out of print is beyond measure. One need not even consider vaguely marginal titles. Just look at books that were on the bestseller list two or three decades ago: chances are they can't be found at your local (or most any) bookstore. And that is just the ones that sold well (proven successes, in other (i.e. publishers') terms) -- not the ones that were actually good. Some literature survives: nowadays you'll always find your Hemingway and Faulkner and so on, but most can barely hold on.
There are an endless number of examples one could choose, but consider for example Australian author Patrick White. Dead barely a decade, one of the greatest English-language writers of the second half of the 20th century, a Nobel laureate (in 1973), author of a large variety of impressive work, and even fashionably homosexual, his works are out of print in the US. Your local bookstore doesn't carry him, and Amazon.com offers only his Letters (non-fiction oddly always seems to trump fiction). Sure, some of his work is available in England (and you can even find seven titles at Amazon.fr -- in French). Sure, by trawling enough used bookstores (online, and off) you can eventually find most of his work. But he remains basically inaccessible except to the intrepid reader who very actively seeks him out. And that is asking a bit much of the reader. Works by an author of White's stature should always be readily accessible, and it is an embarrassment that they aren't.
And White is only one example among literally hundreds of thousands. The vast majority of the literature of yesteryear is not in print or readily accessible. Some of that literature deserves to have sunk from sight, perhaps even most of it, but a great deal certainly should still be available. No doubt publishers have good excuses. The books don't sell, there is no money to be made. But here we begin to get at the crux of the matter. If publishers are our gatekeepers, the torch bearers of "book culture", then we can and must expect certain things from them. Including that they help preserve and maintain that book culture, that they hold it dear and build upon it. But, over and over and over, publishers have failed in their mandate. A publisher that allows the books of Patrick White to go out of print has failed the reading public, and has certainly failed any idea of a "book culture".
I don't fear too much for White -- because eventually at least some of his titles will find their way back in print, to mark some anniversary (of his birth or death or something). But it is still outrageous and ridiculous that the situation should arise in the first instance.
B: Publishers are commercial enterprises ...
A: And there is nothing wrong with that. The bottom line is a good argument -- but they can't have it both ways. Either their focus is on preserving the literary heritage and acting as trustworthy gatekeepers (presenting the good, keeping out the bad) or they are doing anything for a quick buck. They claim they are balancing the two, but from my angle (with Patrick White et al. missing in (in)action) it looks like the scales have been tipped.
Print-on-demand looks to be the obvious solution for keeping works such as those by Patrick White in circulation. Curiously, the technology seems to be here -- but the books aren't. Draw your own conclusion. (And note that once again the publishers have failed you, knowing that they can profit more from the traditional method of holding back and then re-releasing the works of an author such as Patrick White rather than making them print-on-demand accessible. Yeah, they're doing wonders for "book culture".)
B: But surely this is a situation that will resolve itself.
A: I admire your optimism. I certainly have my doubts.
Regional English-language literature presents similar problems (and possible answers), though it is remarkable how little (other than British fiction) gets published in the United States. The books are, also, technically vaguely available (order direct from Australia !), but there is literally only a trickle of such imports into the US. American publishers tend to be hopelessly provincial, and foreign worlds only interest if they are larger than life or at least achieve bestselling status abroad.
B: I don't know that they are all that provincial ...
A: I do. Indeed, the situation is far more dire regarding foreign-language literature, where American publishers have completely failed the reading public. Some (including some university presses) make a valiant effort at presenting a few titles annually, but the selection is extremely limited. Even from major languages such as French or German only a few dozen fiction titles a year, at best, are offered. (And I point out yet again that, for example, the most significant German novel since The Tin Drum, Peter Weiss' Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, still has not been translated into English -- though here too the examples of other overlooked titles are too numerous to even consider). It is a ludicrous and ridiculous situation.
And note that the explanation is that American audiences are not receptive to or interested in foreign literature -- i.e. they won't buy the stuff (not that they are given a real opportunity to do so), i.e. the argument once again boils down entirely to the bottom line. Funny how that keeps happening.
B: Perhaps you're not entirely incorrect -- about this. But what about the slush ?
A: Ah yes, the great unpublished masses -- the first-timers and all the others who can't get their great and (far more numerous) not so great works into print. The slush pile. Previously unpublished fiction continues to be produced in ever increasing amounts, but little of it makes it into print. The writers I quoted argue that this is for the best. It most assuredly is not.
B: Oh, but I too have waded -- and quickly almost drowned -- in slush. It is like quicksand -- tenuous, inescapable, a slow, torturous death.
A: But consider the difficult journey many "successful" books had making it into print. The stories are legion, the sagas well documented. It is not a new problem. Many works now considered classic did not readily find either a publisher or an audience (it happened a hundred years ago and it happens today). Many bestsellers were rejected by numerous publishers before making it into print. We are only aware of the books that survived, that somehow did make it. Possibly all of the worthwhile ones did. Possibly only the tip of the literary iceberg did. (Given how many "lost" (i.e. unpublished) works by even well-known authors are known to have existed the percentage of worthwhile fiction that has been written and did indeed make it into print, in some form, is probably relatively but not extremely high. But that's just a guess.)
Rejection comes for myriad reasons: a book may not be a "good fit" for a particular house or imprint. A publisher might not think a particular title would be financially worthwhile to publish. The book in question might truly be bad -- most are, after all, even the ones that get published. And any given publisher can only publish a limited number of books over any given period.
B: Many remarkably good books do get published.
A: As do many astoundingly bad ones. Since we can never know how many worthy titles have gone and continue to go overlooked it is impossible to judge how successful publishers actually are in getting worthwhile fiction published. My guess is that publishers are, in fact, doing a fairly poor job in finding and publishing the best of what is out there.
Admittedly, "best" and "worthwhile" are difficult to define. Certainly, everyone has different notions of what constitutes "literary quality". People enjoy a wide variety of books, and few share absolutely the same taste. And even if one could reach some agreement about literary quality, that is all well and good as a measure of a book (it is all I care about) but if a book does not sell then it is often considered a failure -- perhaps rightly. Conversely many titles sell exceptionally well while being of no literary worth whatsoever (just look at this -- or any -- week's bestseller list.)
But the number of copies sold is certainly a dangerous measure of the worth of a book. The truly significant and lasting literature, the one that defines the times (and influences what follows) is generally not the most popular. James Joyce was not a publisher's dream during his lifetime (though he certainly is now, especially as his works fall out of copyright), but surely there are few as significant authors from that time.
Even the writers I quoted admit "agents and editors often misunderstand their market and sometimes reject good or even great works" (Laura Miller) and "this is not to say that every good book is published, or that every published book is good" (Bissell-Younce). But they believe that it is a worthwhile tradeoff, since publishers "do prevent a vast quantity of truly execrable writing from being published" (Laura Miller). Ah, yes, beneficent publishers can -- nay, should -- be trusted and thanked for what they do.
B: Publishers decide what to make available, limiting the choices -- but, so Miller and Bissell and Younce, -- also assuring a certain quality. Sounds right to me.
A: There's part of the rub: do they really assure good quality ? Acceptable quality ? Any quality ? Surely if publishers were good gatekeepers -- presenting the books the public wants and enjoys -- then they shouldn't be the least bit worried by the opening of the floodgates. People will continue to turn to the products presented by the big (or small) name publishers, trusting their selection process. A publishers imprint is like a badge of quality. Or at least it could be.
The reason publishers and editors (like Bissell-Younce) are worried is because they know that they aren't very good gatekeepers and that their names carry little weight with readers.
Publishing is an odd business. For one thing: anyone can be a publisher. There are some barriers to entry, but they are relatively small. The cost of simply publishing a book is minimal. Marketing and distribution are a bit more complicated (and expensive), but can also be manageable.
Bissell-Younce et al. are, of course, mainly concerned with the large, established publishers, seeing them as the gatekeepers protecting consumers. (Since titles from these houses dominate store bookshelves it is proper to focus on them.)
Curiously, most of these publishers have removed themselves from the front lines of selecting the products they will then present to consumers. They have erected barriers between the creators of the product they sell and themselves, hiding behind the ridiculous middlemen called "literary agents". While they still take an active role in deciding whether or not to publish a given title, they leave the pre-selection process up to these middlemen. Most large publishers at least officially state that they will not accept unsolicited manuscripts, preferring to deal only with agents. The infamous slush pile supposedly no longer exists at many commercial houses (though in fact most do have some such pile tucked away somewhere).
This is an odd -- and, to me, inexplicable -- state of affairs. What other industry fobs off the basic responsibility to seek out new (and old) talent ? Apparently those that need protecting from the slush pile are not consumers, but publishers. Certainly, it is easier to deal with fewer submissions, and to know that the truly terrible efforts have been weeded out. Certainly, it is easier to receive manuscripts through familiar channels, from people who know the rules and one's likes and needs. Certainly, it is a relief not to have to deal directly with authors until it is absolutely necessary. But all the benefits of not having to weed through the slush pile oneself benefit the publisher. What about the poor consumer ?
The selection process large publishers have adopted is fraught with problems. Despite the gaudy "literary" these agents append to their names these people are money-seeking intermediaries. Nothing wrong with that, but the profit-motive trumping any literary motive must be noted: literary quality is all well and good, but all that really counts is that it has to be salable. By using these middlemen publishers are, for example, able to avoid the hard choices about young (or old) talent that don't look like immediate breakout successes but rather might need nurturing: those books won't even make it to their desks.
This very American attitude of not dealing with the actual pre-selection of literary material has now even spread to England, where numerous publishers have stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts (see this article in The Independent). The number of literary agencies there reportedly has trebled over the past decade: just what the world needs more middlemen. (If anything spells the end for "book culture" it is this.)
B: It should, however, be remembered that many small, independent, and regional publishers still do accept unsolicited manuscripts.
A: A drop in the pond.
And publishers left to their own devices often fare miserably as well. A recent piece in The Missouri Review (see this article in the National Post) gives a remarkable account of many fine literary works rejected by Knopf and the often misguided reader's reports that doomed them. Or there was the famous instance of a man who retyped, retitled, and resubmitted Jerzy Kosinski's National Book Award winning novel Steps to dozens of agents and publishers, only to have it rejected by them all (see, for example, this article on Facts and Fakes). And there are the countless examples of the book rejected ten or twenty times before it is published, only then to become a bestseller.
It is easy to have some fun at the expense of publishers, what with their seemingly endless mistakes -- the flops they overpaid for and the bestsellers or literary greats they overlooked.
B: Publishers might counter that, over the long term, they do get it right.
A: True: they do publish many good books. But they also overlook many great books and publish many terrible ones -- often compounding the horror with shoddy or indifferent editing. They may be the standard-bearers, but oh how poor the standards are.
B: Still, they do keep the total number of choices down, and there's something to be said for that. It keeps us from being overwhelmed. And the process does keep most of the truly terrible stuff out of our reach.
A: If publishers did their job well -- if they offered what is worthwhile and buried what is worthless -- perhaps I could agree with you, and those who consider them a "sacred shield" keeping the bad (the slush) from consumers. But publishers don't really seem to be doing such an impressive job. If they think they can make some money from it they'll publish and market it, regardless of quality. Readers are beholden to publishers, who largely decide what readers can read: if it's not published -- and distributed and readily available -- readers can't read it. Unfortunately, not even the limited selection of titles publishers do make available is of reliable quality.
B: Much of it is.
A: Yes, much is. And much isn't. As far as non-fiction goes, publishers do a decent job, I believe. By and large. But non-fiction hardly matters to me. It's for the now, not for the ages. Fiction is what matters, and fiction they do badly.
B: How can they do better ?
A: I'm not sure that is the proper question. Though I submit that greater editorial involvement and less business-management involvement (and "literary" agent interference) would make for a decent start.
No, I think that maybe the floodgates should be opened ..... Much more would be available, which seems a marvelous thing in and of itself. And surely it is better to let the masses (and the individuals, each and every one of them) decide for themselves ... or is that too democratic an idea ? Indeed, I argue that it is the only chance the literary world has.
B: Others have said much the same -- Alex Good, for example, also says: "I don't need a corporate filter. Now: Throw open the gates !"
A: I agree with him completely.
B: Well, the argument made against opening the floodgates, against unleashing the slush pile on the world is that readers can't handle it. An argument with which I agree. Bissell and Younce suggest that the flood would "affect American publishing in the worst way and obliterate whatever remains of a genuine book culture" ...
A: I'm curious about this "genuine book culture" they talk about -- I've not seen hide nor hair of it in years. Perhaps it's only to be found in the rarefied halls of publishers like Henry Holt and Arcade.
B: Laura Miller states that "flooding the marketplace with the work of awful writers isn't going to make it any easier for readers to find the good ones".
A: Sure, it sounds like a nightmare.
B: Well, how is a poor reader but to choose ?
A: The concern for readers is touching. Apparently readers are limited in their decision-making capabilities. To offer them more choices makes their life so much more complicated that for their own sake they should be protected from even that mere possibility. The ten or hundred or however many thousand titles published annually are already too many, apparently. Indeed, maybe there should be fewer choices. Maybe only a few hundred titles a year should be published. Maybe only one a month -- Oprah could pick it -- and that way no one would have any difficulty in deciding what to read.
Or maybe there should be as many books available as is possible. Every piece of fiction ever penned. Even: Borges' Total Library !
B: But remember: even Borges warns of the truly all-encompassing Total Library, that "all the generations of mankind could pass before the dizzying shelves (...) ever reward them with a tolerable page."
A: The Total Library is an unattainable ideal, and not quite the same thing.
There are clear advantages to open floodgates: if the slush is unleashed then it is all out there. The good, the bad, and the ugly. For everyone to pick and choose from as they wish -- and not as the publishers decide. Admittedly most of it will be very, very ugly indeed. But is that really a problem ?
B: God yes. I mean, it certainly could be.
A: I'll remind you that it has always been possible for practically anybody to be a publisher -- or publish through a vanity press. I'll remind you that few have had tremendous success taking that route.
B: Since they are badly edited, and since there is practically no marketing support.
A: And since the books themselves also tend to be quit bad.
B: All this is exactly Bissell-Younce's point !
A: Again: what, then, is the problem with making even more of this stuff available ? Of course, most of it will be unreadable. But at least it will be available. And just like previous onslaughts of vanity- and self-published material it will probably make barely a dent in the literary world.
B: But it will get in the way.
A: Possibly. But remember, publishers aren't the only gatekeepers. Booksellers play a large role in deciding what to stock and display (though admittedly publishers' marketing budgets do have some influence there too). Reviewers, too, are gatekeepers, providing information about what is good and bad and worthwhile and worthless. Though, admittedly, they don't really seem up to the task at the moment.
But that's an area where the Internet looks to improve the situation. Even the readers' reviews at Amazon.com are often surprisingly useful.
B: And often not.
A: It's not an ideal system, but others will develop.
B: Like the brilliant complete review .....
A: Another drop in the pond. But yes, along lines like that.
B: You really think so ? Doesn't the absence of almost any semblance of a literary culture -- as evinced even by what publishers unleash on the public nowadays -- make it unlikely that any standards whatsoever can be maintained ?
A: It's a worry. But then again: how can things get worse ? Look, indeed, at the crap publishers unload -- and the good literature that they bury and forget, from backlist titles that are allowed to drift out of print to foreign works they leave untranslated. But here is where I think the pressure of the tidal wave of do-it-yourself publishing will actually have a cleansing effect.
First of all, all the authors of the mega-bestsellers -- the Grishams and Clancys and Stephen Kings -- will certainly do it themselves and no longer rely on traditional publishers. Though I note that it is curious they haven't really done so yet, not to the extent I would have expected -- in large part, I suspect, because the cash and security a publishing contract provides outweighs the potential greater profit of going it alone. I actually find it more curious that publishers still stand for it, that they still are willing to subsidize and coddle these authors, even though they earn almost no money off of them.
B: It's the age of the blockbuster book. Everyone clamours for them, even if they are all loss-leaders.
A: Well, that should certainly change. Similarly, in many non-fiction categories -- cookbooks and self-help books in particular -- it should eventually be as easy for an author to go it alone (as, actually, many already have) and to do so successfully.
But one area where publishers can still figure is, surprisingly, literature. If publishers set standards -- and keep to those standards -- then readers will turn to those imprints and publishers that they believe they can trust. It's almost unthinkable to reach for a work of fiction nowadays and trust it to be good merely because of who published it, but that day will probably return. Good editors -- who actually edit (a rarity nowadays) -- will have a great deal of clout. And they will wade through the slush piles and find what is worthy.
B: If they have any idea of what that is, after so many years of surrounding themselves with so much mindless drivel.
A: At heart I am still an optimist. There are good books out there. Many. And I think it will be easier for them to float to the surface in the nightmare scenario of Bissell-Younce et al. than in the current money grubbing, straight-jacketed literary environment that prevails in the publishing industry.
B: Will publishers be able to make any money that way ?
A: That's not really my concern or interest -- but I note that they aren't doing a very good job of making money the way they go about it now. So change can only be for the good.
B: You understand that money -- profit -- is a concern for the publishers ?
A: I suppose. And, depending on what they might be satisfied with, I think there is adequate money to be made. But I would argue that currently, at least for the large publishers, the costs -- in reputation and money -- of their feeble approach certainly do not outweigh what meagre benefits accrue. And the reading public certainly also deserves to be much better served.
B: So you greet the coming of the slush with open arms ?
A: I find myself confronted with walls of what is essentially slush every time I visit a bookstore. The more the merrier; I'll gladly waste and while away my hours picking through it for the rare readable works.
B: And for those without the time or inclination ?
A: Others will help them sort through it. Better review fora. Publishers with higher standards -- what am I saying: with actual standards.
B: You are an optimist .....
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