Tuesday, October 18, 2011

who needs editors? writers.

What is it about the word “digital” that causes otherwise smart people to giddily disable their critical thinking ability?  

Case in point: the October 17 New York Times front page celebration of Amazon’s decision to become a book publisher  ("Amazon Signs Up Authors Writing Publishers out of Deal.”)   Not content to hog an ever-growing slice of the sales and distribution pie, the company has brought in a couple publishing veterans to acquire a branded line of fiction and nonfiction, and to, as the Times put it, “gnaw away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide.”

Whether the book industry is in desperate need of more concentration in the hands of one corporate giant is worth considering, but not today.  What caught my eye and dropped my jaw today was this quote, cited in the Times story, from “a top Amazon executive:”

“The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and the reader.”

This stunningly ignorant observation does not bode well.  As they surely know, many more hands and brains go into the creation of most books, and all those cumbersome editing, marketing and agenting people actually result in added value- i.e. a better book.  (And by "value" I mean intrinsic worth, not a cheap price.)

Perhaps because I’ve been able to observe the process that connects the writer and the reader at close hand for a decade at three stellar academic presses, my standards are a bit high.  But in my experience, a text which travels through the time-consuming labyrinth of editors, copy editors, readers, syndics, designers, production people, lawyers, marketing experts, social media experts, sales departments and booksellers is in every case a better text than the one it was the day the author delivered the manuscript. 

“Gatekeeper” is not a dirty word, or shouldn’t be.  True, the publishing process with its many checks along the way keep many books from ever getting published.  Too bad.  The chronically rejected author now has unprecedented options to print and promote his or her work directly and to call it a book.  But these creations are not “published” books in the way we’ve understood the term for a couple centuries.   

There’s nothing so depressing, and sometimes unintentionally hilarious, as reading the pages of ads for vanity presses in reputable book media like The New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books.  Even with just a couple sentences of boilerplate about each title- small samples, presumably, of the author's style- the contrast between these blasts of self-expression and real books, vetted by a real publisher, couldn’t be plainer. 

I fear that centralizing the editorial process in the name of streamlining and abolishing gatekeepers will simply drag the book industry toward a more sophisticated form of vanity publishing. 
It’s sad and frustrating that some good books don’t find publishers willing to take them on.  But as a reader, I’m more interested in rooting for a literary culture built around producing the best books, not around a writer’s right to be published.

That dismissive comment from the executive about the reader and writer being the only necessary people in the process nagged at me, and reminded me of something, and I finally realized what: Elizabeth Warren’s recent  cri de coeur  against market fundamentalism and the myth of the individual achiever:

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own…You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that maurauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did." 

To this I would add:  nobody- or precious few anyway- has written a book worth reading on their own.  Someone taught you to write, someone took care of the kids and the bills while you wrote, perhaps someone even gave you ideas.  And once an editor recognized quality and meaning in your work, and persuaded her house to take a chance on you, a complicated publishing apparatus improved on your creation.

That’s not always how it works.  And one solution might be more publishers, not fewer.  But as a reader, I’ll continue to buy books that have been brought to market by experienced professionals with a publishing legacy, and will be wary of books that make a virtue out of scorning them.

1 comment:

  1. Another great, insightful post, John. Interesting that the Amazon spokesman leaves Amazon, or any other bookseller, out of the equation, isn't it? Having done its work, it just drops out? Or perhaps they just collect the money, like a traditional publisher, only without doing any work or providing any service--perhaps like a pimp? Hmmmmmmmmmmm