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Old 04-27-2010, 11:17 AM   #16
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Originally Posted by rhadin View Post
I wrote about this problem, the problem of ebooks and the downfall of literature at An American Editor last Thursday. The article provoked a lot of controversy at various websites, with most commenters applauding the floodgate approach and deploring the gatekeeper approach to publishing. As a result of the comments and the hornet's nest I stirred, I have written a 4-part further exploration of the problem. The first article appears today at An American Editor, and the others will follow this week.

Among the questions to be resolved are these:
  • What literary legacy do we want to pass on to our great-grandchildren?
  • How do we find and identify the new John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, or Ernest Hemingway in the absence of a gatekeeper?

There is no question that anyone who wants to write and publish should be free to do so IF we have a way to build a consensus as to what newly published work is great literature. As it stands now, in the absence of traditional publishers we have no way to build that consensus. The idea that the Internet community can do it by word of mouth (or word of twittering) is ludicrous -- at least today.

I encourage those interested in the subject to read the articles at An American Editor and express their views.
I've read both your articles - really interesting and thanks for cross-posting. I am certainly with you on the question of whether there is something that we might call literature, or more specifically, literary fiction - as distinct from fiction more generally. I'm not sure I'm with you on what counts as it and what doesn't, but that doesn't really matter. My real question is whether you are overestimating the influence of publishers in establishing what's in the literary canon and what's not. Obviously publishers have a role in "getting the stuff out" in the first place, and traditionally if publishers didn't do it it, usually, it didn't get done, (though there are of course exceptions). But from that point on the "taking into the canon" of this or that work or this or that author seems to be a process involving literary critics, literary scholars, other writers and, to some extent readers.
If that's right then we still have literary critics, literary scholars and other writers, so there seems to be more or less the same mechanism available as there always was. Some of these literary scholars, writers and literary critics are even engaging with the question of what "new media" means for more traditional notions of literature and the aesthetics thereof.

There is the problem of the sheer amount of stuff that gets put out now as compared with the past and I probably think that there is a bit of "the cream will rise to the top" sort of process. Most of the, ahem, non-literary fiction will have a very small readership, will not find itself reviewed in the TLS or the NYRB and will not be the subject of graduate theses in university literature departments so, in sense, it doesn't matter.

As for the question of what literary heritage we want to pass on to our grandchildren - we'll only know that when we get there!
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Old 04-27-2010, 11:28 AM   #17
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Originally Posted by Direct Ebooks View Post
I have qualifications in English and Education, am an avid reader and own an eBook store and publishing services firm and I still struggle to accept that a published work is great literature because the consensus says so. I enjoy Michael Connolly, Shakespeare, Chandler, and Cormac McCarthy in equal measure. I love Military history, thrillers, drama and the odd bit of poetry. Different styles and genres mean different things to me, but all are enjoyed. I will equally put down a great published work if I dislike it or don't "get it."
Why do we have to be so decisive and divisive on these issues?
The question whether someone "enjoys" a book is separate from whether it has any literary merit. By having literary merit I don't mean anything more that it is judged to have literary merit by those who are in a position to make such judgments - people who have training, education, experience and knowledge. Just to head off the charges of elitism that will inevitably follow from me saying that, it's no more elitist than saying that someone who has the training, education, experience and knowledge to enable them to repair my car is in a far better position to tell me what's wrong with it than I am myself, no matter how much I protest that I've been driving for thirty years.
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Old 04-27-2010, 12:07 PM   #18
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Truth is, there really is a ton of unreadable dreck out there and you need someone to go through it. I prefer books that have been vetted by commercial publishers because that does usually mean the book meets a minimum standard of spelling and grammar. It may still be dreck, but at least I know it's written in readable English.
That is the role of an editor. You don't need to sell your soul to a publisher to get access to an editor, you can hire them by the hour or by the job (book).

Everything else that a publisher does -- distribution, promotion (if you're lucky), etc, is irrelevant in the internet age. Both established and new writers can easily bypass them in order to reduce prices for consumers, and at the same time increase their own income from what they write.
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Old 04-27-2010, 12:17 PM   #19
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The idea that the Internet community can do it by word of mouth (or word of twittering) is ludicrous -- at least today.
I don't see why. People with similar tastes and interests will congregate in the same virtual places, so their recommendations are likely to carry more weight than a review in a general purpose magazine.

With ebooks there is no real reason why you can't let people read half, most, or all of your book before they decide whether it is something they want to pay for or not. So if someone with similar tastes to you says "Hey, this book is above average", there would be nothing to lose by trying it.
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Old 04-27-2010, 12:48 PM   #20
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That is the role of an editor. You don't need to sell your soul to a publisher to get access to an editor, you can hire them by the hour or by the job (book).

Everything else that a publisher does -- distribution, promotion (if you're lucky), etc, is irrelevant in the internet age. Both established and new writers can easily bypass them in order to reduce prices for consumers, and at the same time increase their own income from what they write.
You're right that one doesn't need a publisher to get one's work edited, and as someone who makes part of his income as a freelance editor I'm very glad that's the case.

The point I was making is that while it's perfectly possible for a self-published author to hire an editor, it's not a requirement. There's no way for me as a reader to know beforehand whether a self-published book was edited or not. I've read the slush pile, I don't want to pay for the privilege of doing it again. A good self-published book can be as good as anything from any major or minor house out there - a bad self-published book can be as bad if not worse than the worst product of my daughter's second grade class.

That's a chance I'm not willing to take if I don't have to.

As for bypassing the book trade and the existing distribution chain, that works brilliantly IF the author already has a name and following. It does not work as well for authors who do not already have the benefit of that level of public awareness. There will always be counter-examples, but they're the exception, not the rule.

As of right now, the internet as a whole does not do as good a job of making sure that readers can expect a certain minimum level of writing competence in the books they buy as the publishing industry.
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Old 04-27-2010, 01:49 PM   #21
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As for bypassing the book trade and the existing distribution chain, that works brilliantly IF the author already has a name and following. It does not work as well for authors who do not already have the benefit of that level of public awareness. There will always be counter-examples, but they're the exception, not the rule.
True, but the same is the case about "good" writers in traditional publishing (with different people having different ideas about what constitutes "good"). The good writers will still be able to find their audience, as will a few of the ones who perhaps shouldn't have bothered.

All they need to do is get people to look at their work. It won't be instant over night success, but then again very few traditionally published authors have done that either.

The internet, and to a lesser extent self publishing/print on demand, will increase the amount of "bad" writing out there, but it shouldn't take more than a few pages to tell good from bad. They can also get feedback and advice from other writers as well as readers.
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Old 04-27-2010, 01:54 PM   #22
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That makes no sense. A general consensus from interested people can't make a consensus? That would certainly appear to be a ludicrous statement.
No, what I am implying is that a group of 20 people who read Joe Schmoe's autobiography and thought it was the greatest piece of writing ever written aren't enough to form a consensus.

The Internet has fragmented reading and readers greatly, making it harder to build a consensus on what is great literature and what is dreck.
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Old 04-27-2010, 02:02 PM   #23
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Why do we have to be so decisive and divisive on these issues?
We become decisive over these matters because we use the agreed upon great literature as teaching tools, as exemplars to which others should strive in their writing, and as a reflection of our culture and cultural values.

I personally think that, for example, J.D. Salinger is greatly overrated and David Weber is underrated, but I would also agree that as interesting a rewarding as I find David Weber's books, they are not great literature and Catcher in the Rye might be.

Would you want your 12-year-old to study any book that his/her current teacher decided was a fun read or do you think there should be some literary standards applied when choosing the book?
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Old 04-27-2010, 02:22 PM   #24
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True, but the same is the case about "good" writers in traditional publishing (with different people having different ideas about what constitutes "good"). The good writers will still be able to find their audience, as will a few of the ones who perhaps shouldn't have bothered.

All they need to do is get people to look at their work. It won't be instant over night success, but then again very few traditionally published authors have done that either.

The internet, and to a lesser extent self publishing/print on demand, will increase the amount of "bad" writing out there, but it shouldn't take more than a few pages to tell good from bad. They can also get feedback and advice from other writers as well as readers.
The problem is that the numbers are too large. A few pages per book adds up very quickly when you are talking hundreds of thousands of titles. It sounds good but it just doesn't work at that scale.
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Old 04-27-2010, 02:23 PM   #25
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We become decisive over these matters because we use the agreed upon great literature as teaching tools, as exemplars to which others should strive in their writing, and as a reflection of our culture and cultural values.

I personally think that, for example, J.D. Salinger is greatly overrated and David Weber is underrated, but I would also agree that as interesting a rewarding as I find David Weber's books, they are not great literature and Catcher in the Rye might be.

Would you want your 12-year-old to study any book that his/her current teacher decided was a fun read or do you think there should be some literary standards applied when choosing the book?
I'll take Weber over Salinger, too.
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Old 04-27-2010, 03:21 PM   #26
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Publishers are interested in separating people from their money. The rest is up to others.
Making a profit is part of the idea.

But publishers do go through a lot of crap to choose the better books (and that is a scary thought) and we would need some new mechanism to do this without publishers.

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If they were interested in 'literature', they wouldn't be in business.
Depends on how you define literature.
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Old 04-27-2010, 03:21 PM   #27
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We become decisive over these matters because we use the agreed upon great literature as teaching tools, as exemplars to which others should strive in their writing, and as a reflection of our culture and cultural values.

I personally think that, for example, J.D. Salinger is greatly overrated and David Weber is underrated, but I would also agree that as interesting a rewarding as I find David Weber's books, they are not great literature and Catcher in the Rye might be.

Would you want your 12-year-old to study any book that his/her current teacher decided was a fun read or do you think there should be some literary standards applied when choosing the book?
I can't think of any book that has been studied in (UK) schools that was less than 20 years old. That should be long enough to gain a consensus on whether a book is any good or not.
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Old 04-27-2010, 03:29 PM   #28
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The problem is that the numbers are too large. A few pages per book adds up very quickly when you are talking hundreds of thousands of titles. It sounds good but it just doesn't work at that scale.
How do you choose which books to read now? I tend to stick to genres that I am already familiar with, though I do stray outside them now and again if something gets good reviews or someone with similar tastes to me says they liked it.

Before the internet, I was much more selective, and generally stook to authors that I was already familiar with.
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Old 04-27-2010, 04:08 PM   #29
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As someone who's read the infamous slush pile (and seen excerpts from PublishAmerica books, and worked at a POD publishing service) I firmly believe in the importance of publishers as both gatekeepers and facilitators.

Truth is, there really is a ton of unreadable dreck out there and you need someone to go through it. I prefer books that have been vetted by commercial publishers because that does usually mean the book meets a minimum standard of spelling and grammar. It may still be dreck, but at least I know it's written in readable English.

Publishers also serve as facilitators, getting bookstore placement and promotion in the trade press.

I think they're vital to the health of the industry.
It's unquestionably true that there's a lot of rubbish out there that's not worth a second look - and writers are exceptionally good at persuading ourselves we've written something worth reading(even when we haven't). But if publishers' primary role is to serve as gatekeepers then they are obsolete and it will quickly become apparent. The fact is that no one needs gatekeepers.

To see why, let's think a moment here about other kinds of content on the Internet. I'd be prepared to bet that any time you do a search on Google, well over 90% of the hits you retrieve are worthless. Even if they weren't, how would you ever find time to read through all of them? So clearly the junk to gems ratio on the Internet is extremely high - and yet no one wants or needs Internet gatekeepers, because we can decide what links we follow for ourselves. The same is true for books. Ultimately, the free market is perfectly able to decide what is and is not a good book without a gatekeeper to make that decision for us.

I think that publishers served a vital role as facilitators in the past and continue to do so at present; whether they will continue to do so in the future- or whether they can even remain viable - is far from clear. As gatekeepers, however, they serve no useful purpose. Of course the quality of books from publishers is higher on average than independent books, because the publishers filter out much of the slush. But the free market doesn't really need a gatekeeper, and if the publishing industry ever reaches the point where its sole function is to act as such, it will become history.
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Old 04-27-2010, 04:16 PM   #30
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