By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From 18 December 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, appearing on Tuesdays at Publishing Perspectives.
Keeping Watch Over Our Schlock by Night
There will never be a return to quality but a steady decline as the crap merchants pile on higher and higher. Success will become more and more random.
This is our good colleague Baldur Bjarnason writing about an issue a lot of us hesitate to address head-on.
One of the consequences of anybody being able to publish is that everybody can publish, not just the worthy few who big publishing never got around to or those who were a little bit too weird, innovative, or unique for an editor to take a risk.
In a post titled with baleful accuracy Schlock, Bjarnason — an Icelander based in London — looks hard at an aspect of digitally enabled content abundance that many of us routinely duck.
The biggest beneficiaries of open, free, and equitable access to publishing tools will never be skilled writers, readers with taste, or anybody who sells a quality good, but the purveyors of mass-manufactured schlock and buyers who either don’t mind it, or can’t tell the difference.
Part of the widespread reticence to address this as forthrightly as Bjarnason does is a kind of political correctness, of course. We live in an age in which it’s not cool to speak ill of one’s fellow…you name it, employees, church members, classmates, parents, authors, publishers, editors, agents, at least not in public. Only in Direct Messages.
The truth-killing dictum “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” was not, to my surprise, confined to my own Deeply Southern upbringing. There’s a widespread fear of criticism, much more potent in American society than in most European cultures I’ve lived in for any length of time. We’re counseled never to speak ill of anybody.
But however cordially such instruction is intended, mind you, it looks like foolish politeness when someone like Bjarnason calmly points out the emperor’s schlocky clothes.
The $5,000 bonus to which he refers here, of course, is the one announced for U.S. Random House employees because of the success of Fifty Shades of You Know What. Bjarnason writes:
That $5000 bonus might well be the herald of a brave new world, not a world where big publishers think that rebadged fan fiction is the next big thing…but a world where helping anybody and everybody who manages to have some success to scale is their biggest source of revenue.
— Bring us your intellectual manure, your algo-generated pap, your generic schlock, and we can leverage your success into massive profits for us both!
Speaking of leverage, Bjarnason would not shy from, I think, my description of him as a firebrand, albeit for the right reasons. Like a white-hatted hacker, he likes to point out weaknesses of process and perspective in the industry! the industry!
He tends to disturb some with this because he generally has a good point to make.
What does this all mean?
Simple. If you are trying to sell a good book you have to earn your customers one by one and learn how to treat them well enough for them to return to buy your next book.
It’s a slow-going task, full of hard work and few rewards, but it’s the only sustainable tactic in a market that is increasingly dominated by randomness.
It’s also a tactic that doesn’t scale. It can work well for individuals and small– to medium-sized publishers, but the direct selling necessary isn’t easily scalable to the levels needed to sustain a large corporation.
What you might find makes this latest essay from Bjarnason especially potent is that there’s a such a profoundly blind side to our international publishing hive.
Everything that makes a crap book crap also makes it a more contagious idea on a social network.
We’re bound together by social media and yet, for the most part, we don’t really know who can write, and who can’t; who can edit, and who just says he can; who can really market a book and who’s just retooling platitudes swiped from people named Seth and Tony and Anne.
Crap is grasped at a glance, its actual content is so scant that it can be boiled down to tweetable catch phrases.
Do blog entries reveal literary-fiction talent? Maybe.
Good books have no god-given right to exist.
Do artful tweets promise incisive nonfiction? Possibly.
There is no reason on earth why a market should automatically give good books the space they need to survive.
Do we really know who we’re talking to? Nah.
The dynamics of free-access digital markets favour rubbish.
If anything, the “democratizing” elements of the web’s Mousquetaire-ish community ethos welcomes all to the table. Its egalitarianism is blinkered to such topics that dare not speak their name: talent, genius, the general paucity of both. Writers of beautiful-dead-girl romance for young women are greeted as the peers of humanitarian essayists.
Toxic ideologies and world-views stand out more easily and are grasped more easily than considered opinions.
This all makes for happy relations in the digital marketplace. Here amid the dings and dumps of the digital disruption, we are a happy, happy crew, aren’t we?
Online communities are allergic to nuance and subtlety. Originality cannot be condensed down to a tweetable description. Anything that faithfully represents the complexity of human life and thought is trampled into the ground by the pandered herd.
While keeping watch over our flocks by night, it’s good to have a Bjarnason ever near us. Reminding us that once we were about quality, and business, too, surely, but the business of finding and promoting quality. Literary quality.
Is that what we’re about today?
Difference needs to be hand-sold, one by one. Or, it needs to be lucky, relying on the whims of randomness. Neither way is reliable and neither is easy.
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