Too crowded?

Opening up publishing to the once unpublished

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post themed to an element of Perfecting Sound Forever, a book that I really enjoyed.  In it, Evan Brooks talks about the growth of ProTools, a music-editing product he helped bring to market:

“ProTools was all about egalitarianism, bringing those (music-making) capabilities to literally anybody… Unfortunately, if you allow anybody to make music, anybody will make music, which is a whole other set of unintended consequences.” (p 298 – 299)

That sentiment came to mind as I read a recent post at An American Editor, where the rise of e-books is seen as potentially the death knell for literature.  Fear of the new can be distilled by paraphrasing Evan Brooks just a bit:

“ … Unfortunately, if you allow anybody to make ebooks, anybody will make ebooks, which is a whole other set of unintended consequences.”

The tremendous growth in front-list releases that prompted the post at An American Editor is fueled by effective use of print-on-demand (POD) technology.  That growth opens up book publishing to a whole host of previously under-represented groups and individuals.

An American Editor equates greater ebook volume with a decline in quality.  That assessment misses two key points: greater volume exists today, with or without e-books; and many of the books brought back as POD titles are public-domain classics of established quality but limited appeal.

But there is also a larger set of assumptions at work here.

We have grown up accepting the role of editor as custodian of quality, as a form of gatekeeper determining what gets published.  As upfront costs fall, the financial importance of having an editor as a filter declines.  That’s uncomfortable, but it’s not synonymous with the decline of literature.

Richard Nash has spoken eloquently of publishing as a club, one built in an era of content scarcity.  We like our clubs and lament losing them to the wider world.

There’s life in a new model, though.  Yogi Berra captured this inflection point best: “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

Posted by Liza Daly
Apr 23, 2010  at  10:14 AM

I didn’t feel the piece at An American Editor called for a detailed reply, but your point about underappreciated public domain works reminded me of one of my main objections to the original post.

“Professional editors, designers, and producers” undoubtedly improve the overall quality of literature published today.  But to say that a single author and a single proofreader/editor couldn’t produce a timeless novel is clearly falsifiable—classic novels were written long before the publishing industry as we know it existed.

Posted by Brian O'Leary
Apr 23, 2010  at  10:28 AM

Thanks - that’s a really helpful extension and a point I failed to make in the post.  I agree that a detailed critique of the American Editor post is overkill.  What troubles me is really the point you make so well (and simply): publishing didn’t always look like this, and it’s okay that it look different in the future.

Posted by Richard Adin
Apr 23, 2010  at  01:27 PM

I guess I didn’t make my point very well. Literature in its broadest sense encompasses all written work—good, bad, indifferent; short-lived and timeless—but the literature I see in decline is the timeless literature, those written works that people will read 400 years from now—the Shakespeares of today.

Timeless literature becomes timeless from a confluence of multiple events, including a broad consensus that a work has literary merit. It is that broad consensus that will be difficult to obtain when readers are inundated with 1,000,000 new works every year. Can you name a single work of fiction that was published in 2009 that has a broad consensus that it will be read 100 years from now? I can’t think of one. Yet we had no problem coming to that agreement with Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye almost immediately after its publication.

Although many people pooh-pooh the gatekeeper role of publishers and editors, it really is a valid role. I grant that it, too, has been in decline with the consolidation of publishing houses and the creation of micro-niche publishers, but the day will come, I predict, when we will see a return to the publishing methods of the early to mid 20th century. This will come about as a result of readers being overwhelmed with dreck.

Posted by Brian O'Leary
Apr 23, 2010  at  01:44 PM

Thanks for adding your thoughts here, as well.  You made your points well; we likely don’t agree on the solution.

Technology does help transform the market, but I don’t lament a lot more content getting published.  It shifts the gatekeeping role from arbiter to trusted evaluator (I got in trouble earlier this week calling it curation).

I’d like to think a bit more about the “Catcher in the Rye” perspective.  I don’t have a full sense of how I might answer that, so ... I’ll wait smile

Posted by Richard Adin
Apr 27, 2010  at  07:16 AM

Brian, just FYI. Starting today at An American Editor is a 4-part series on ebooks and the downfall of literature. The original post, which you commented on above, seems to have touched a nerve, with many commenters being adamantly ooposed to the gatekeeping role and solidly in favor of letting anyone with a computer become an author and publisher. So I decided to explore the matter in greater depth (I’m just a glutton for abuse, I guess smile). You may find the articles interesting (or not), and I certainly welcome your comments at An American Editor—whether in agreement or not.

The only thing I would say is that fundamentally the matter boils down to whether or not we as a society believe that identifying and creating a literature legacy for future generations is important. The more we believe it is important, the more problematic the current state of ebook publishing is; conversely, the less important we believe it is, the less problematic it is to have anyone with a computer become an author/publisher. I’m not prepared to have twittering become the literary legacy I pass on to my great-grandchildren.

Posted by Brian O'Leary
Apr 27, 2010  at  08:23 AM

Thanks for the heads up.  I’m still thinking about the points raised earlier.

Posted by Brian O'Leary
Apr 29, 2010  at  10:18 AM

I did give some additional thought to the question about Catcher in the Rye and have posted something new at That .post includes a link to the most recent posting at An American Editor, as well.

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