Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bad Books: Or, A Paean of Praise for the Hated Gatekeeper

OK, it's time to stop hating the "gatekeepers"--if you haven't already. 
In fact, it's long past time to quit hating on them. 
Because what we've got by sidestepping the gatekeepers now is a whole swackload of really, really bad books out there. Books that are taking our money and giving us dreck in return.

Now, don't get me wrong. We've always had that swackload, in various quantities, floating around. It's been out there from the first days writers have tried to break down the doors of publishing houses and slip their "babies" in.  The difference between that previous condition and what we have now, however, is that now that swackload is publishing themselves, or getting published by small or indie presses...and the result is, shall we say, underwhelming.

OK, let's cut to the chase. It's awful.

CAVEAT: Do not construe this in any way as a generic slam against indie and/or small presses.  Do not put those words in my mouth; I'll spit 'em right back at you, with barbs attached. I'm published with small presses myself. I love small presses for many reasons--as long as they do as good a job with their own "gatekeepers" in place as the big monoliths do.

Trouble is...most times, they don't.
I hate saying this. I really hate saying this.
But, unfortunately, it increasingly is the truth. 
And it makes a bunch of people in the publishing business look like babbling fools.

The "hatred" of the so-called gatekeepers isn't really anything new. Those first readers, agents, assistants, and others who kept our "darlings" from seeing the true decision-makers in publishing have been maligned for ages.  They've been called petty, small-minded drones whose only concern is the bottom line. They've been called ignoramuses who wouldn't know great literature if it walked up and bit them in the neck. They've been called these, and other more unsavory things--once again--since the first writer tried to slip a Magnum Opus, scribbled in crayon on the back of an envelope, over the proverbial transom or under the proverbial door.  Why?  Because they stopped those Magnum Opera from ever getting near a publishing committee...and therefore, near a paying public.  And many, many, many times, that was a splendid and selfless thing to do.

Why splendid? Because when we saw a book get published in the past, we knew--or at least we could be fairly certain--that the book itself would meet certain minimum criteria. It would have a degree of readability. It would have basic conventions of grammar, spelling, punctuation, et al, generally observed and would make a degree of sense (James Joyce notwithstanding). It would, in short, be something that--odds are--not only met a basic benchmark of clarity and comprehensibility but was worth spending a few bucks and a few hours on. We may not fall in love with every book we bought, but at least we wouldn't feel like someone had robbed us of money or time under false colors.

And why selfless? Check out the pay scales for those gatekeepers, and that'll speak for itself. The great majority of editors in big houses begin as assistants to assistants and work their way up. Which means that their starting pay, if five of them room together in an apartment, might get them a decent place without bars on the windows, graffiti on the walls, or shots echoing around the neighborhood at night. Maybe. If you're one of the few people left in the world who really thinks  that "working in publishing" means you have a private windowed office overlooking the Hudson and/or Empire State Building, a great little "flat" in Soho or Chelsea or the Upper East/West Side, and that you spend the majority of your day with your feet propped up reading great stuff, in between schmoozing with name authors and agents and discovering the Next Big Thing...

Excuse me. I need to stop snorting now.

But despite these aspects of their trade, which most of them plied without complaint or (much) cussing, these first readers, assistants, and the like have taken a lot of abuse from outsiders in the industry. You know the type: they're the ones screaming about "artistic freedom" and "innovation" and bemoaning the "cookie cutter" aspects of publishing.  

The flip side? Much of what they say is, unfortunately, true. Publishing is by and large not run by people who love books; it's run by people who look at books as "product" (which they are) that should turn a profit (which it should!)...and less as artistic achievement--or, as Randy Ingermanson so wonderfully puts it, "Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."

But the resulting "publishing" climate that has grown out of this urge for new, fresh, innovative, and "creative" hasn't resulted in what these people have claimed to want, either. Yes, it's resulted in a more "level playing field." But are arts really about everyone competing on a "level playing field"? Are they even supposed to be?

I would submit that no, they're not.

Arts are not democracies. They never were meant to be that in the first place. Yes, everyone should participate in artistic and creative endeavors. But there still has to be a quality-control system in place so that little Johnny, sawing away on a Suzuki mini-violin, isn't afforded the same performing venue as Itzhak Perlman.  He simply hasn't earned it yet, no matter how many participation ribbons his proud parents put up on the wall. He's got years ahead of him to continue to learn the art. To refine it. To understand its nuances, its conventions, its "rules" and its boundaries. If he chooses to break out of any of those things before the time is right, he won't sound brilliant; he'll simply sound unpracticed and unprepared. And no amount of validation of his early efforts will change the fact that, as far as true art is concerned, he's simply not ready. He won't provide a rich musical experience. He may provide an exciting one, a promising one, or an unusual one--but just as likely, he'll simply provide noise.

And noise, no matter how you disguise it, cloak it, label it, or package it, is not music.
Just as "published," no matter how you cloak it, label it, or package it, no longer is any guarantee that a book is ready for public consumption. 

But nothing is more apparent in our present publishing climate than a swackload of these not-ready-for-prime-time books  getting out there and pretending to be ready.
And their authors truly think they are. No one, after all, gets up in the morning and says, "Today I'm gonna write a really awful book." So they create, without many "rules" and without any "gatekeepers," and they put it out there...truly believing that no one has the "right" to tell them that it's not ready yet.

Well, guess what?
That notion is wrong.
Someone does  have the "right" to tell you that you may not be ready yet.
That someone is a gatekeeper. In the case of the arts, it's a teacher, it's a coach, it's a performance jury, or the like. In the case of publishing, it's still a first reader, an assistant, an associate editor, an agent...or whatever title the gatekeeper goes by.

Yes, gatekeepers can make mistakes. And sometimes, especially nowadays, gatekeepers aren't as well-trained as they used to be (partly due to that pesky "level playing field" notion that leads people to think "anyone can do this"). 

But as they move up in experience and savvy, they won't make anywhere near as egregious a mistake as many, many authors, self-publishers, and small publishers are making nowadays in pushing inferior, badly written, and error-ridden stuff into the marketplace.

Folks who hate the "gatekeepers" are fond of telling us, "Don't worry, the market will correct itself. Those books simply won't sell."
Guess what? 
That's wrong, too.
Because the public--even a discerning public--can't tell the difference between a book that looks ready to go and one that actually is.  Some of these books are amazingly disguised. Some of them have great cover art, and almost all of them have superb reviews posted online. The brutal truth is, however, that  most of them cannot begin to live up to either.  

So how is "the marketplace" gonna correct that one?
And when is it gonna start?

I would submit that we already had a pretty good preventive system in place.
Certainly it wasn't always "fair," and certainly it could become hidebound and downright idiotic in what it pursued.
(It still is, at times.)

But at least it was fairer than subjecting consumers like me to thousands and thousands of books that all claim to be ready, all will take my money...and in the end, will rob me of both money and time by being anywhere from merely boring to unspeakably bad.
Those books wouldn't have gotten past gatekeepers in the past.
They didn't deserve to.

They still don't.
And in this way, then, the  "experiment" has failed.

How do we fix this?
And which of you strident "anti-gatekeeper" folks is willing to underwrite my next few purchases, so that I can support this Brave New World of deserving writers without getting fleeced by all the ones out there who may as well have put masks on before they sold me their shoddy merchandise?

Thoughts?
Janny 

4 comments:

Bobbi Holmes said...

I’ll choose what to read in much the same way as I did before the Indi explosion. Yet, instead of standing in the bookstore and reading the book description on the back of the cover, and reading the first few pages of the book, I will read the book description online and read the preview. I will probably look through the online reviews. Before eBooks, I rarely read book reviews. I would normally find an author I liked, read all of his or her books, and then go onto find my next favorite.

I love the current state of the publishing world. Not just because I am a self-published author, but because I’ve discovered some amazing books by other Indies – books that would have never made it past the traditional gatekeepers, for commercial reasons that had nothing to do with quality. I would not want to be denied those great reads, simply because I had to sort through a few poorly written books. Fortunately for me, I never purchased any of those subpar books – the preview alone told me not to buy them.

As an advocate of the free press, I have no desire to implement a gatekeeper system. I don’t need some third party filtering books for my consumption.

Janny said...

Unfortunately, my experience has not been that there are "a few poorly written books" out there. There are FLOODS of them. And there is absolutely NO WAY to tell whether the quality of a book is going to be good in many cases, because the smaller presses don't always offer the "look inside" features or the like which would allow that. True, it's becoming more common--but I have to disagree with you on loving the present state of affairs. It's not encouraging great writing that's non-commercial as much as it's encouraging ALL KINDS of writing that's non-commercial...and much of it is non-commercial for very good reasons.

Finally, I find the notion of "being an advocate of the free press" sounds like a slam on those of us who care about quality. We have a free press in this country and have ALWAYS had a free press. Merely because we've had some people making decisions as to which books their companies think will make a profit, and buying accordingly, does not render and has never rendered our presses "not free." The presence of people who can make sure a book is at least intelligible and can intrigue/interest/entertain enough people to be popular and sell well--thereby ensuring that there will BE a market for others--does not render the press "not free," either. But as an editor, an author, AND a reader, I certainly miss the presence of folks with reasonable knowledge enough to filter out the dreck. You don't have to agree with me--and there was a time I would have hopped right up on that soapbox with you about "gatekeepers." Too much just plain AWFUL fiction out there has, quite frankly, changed my mind. Apparently you don't mind wading through dreck to get to the good stuff; I, however, would like to spend my time more productively than tossing books figuratively against walls. :-) With the "old" system, I did much, MUCH less of that than I do now. To me, that's NOT change for the better.

Thanks for listening!
Janny

Bobbi Holmes said...

A simple solution is to purchase books published by traditional publishers. Of course, this would mean skipping some notable reads, like the current number one bestselling fiction at Amazon, which is also number two on the New York Times Bestseller list for fiction – a self-published book.

I can’t speak for all eBook venues – but you can find previews for even self-published books at Amazon.

I am not sure how proposing a gatekeeper to keep out the riffraff is not an infringement on the free press. Each of us has very different tastes. I imagine some of the books I enjoy you may hate, and vice versa. I really don’t want some gatekeeper to protect me from what they believe is poor quality literature.

And the fact is – some people love books that are poorly written. Just like some people like watching reality television, which I deplore. I may find much of it shoddy entertainment, but as long as other people want to watch it, I am not about to vote for a cultural-entertainment police, any more than I would advocate installing a gatekeeper on publishing.

Janny said...

A couple of notes.

First of all, I wish that authors out there would lose the hackneyed and ignorant notion that editors, agents, and other "gatekeepers" that publishing uses (and has used since generations before most of them were even BORN) are there to "keep out the riffraff." Reverse snobbism, anyone?

Even the term "gatekeepers" needs to go, frankly. Publishing isn't a national park from which certain people are being kept for arbitrary whims...it's an art and a business, and some of the dreck that's out there reflects people who have no concept of either.

Another notion that needs to go is that these people function as "cultural entertainment police." If anything, these people let in pretty much anything, AS LONG AS THEY THINK IT CAN SELL--which is their right as businesspeople, for heaven's sake. If they "buy" enough borderline books and gamble on them selling enough to keep the place in lights and heat and water and staff, there's not going to BE a publisher there for long. It may be tremendously in vogue now to jump up and down on the figurative graves of these publishers, declaring, "Well, then, they deserve to die"--but it's stupid, in that it hurts us all in the long run.

What we know about publishing today we know as a result of the efforts of BOTH book lovers and bean counters. One doesn't work without the other...or the ability to get books out for ANYONE to read dies out pretty darn fast.

So while it sounds "enlightened" to say that gatekeepers aren't needed and that they impede a "free press"...it's poppycock. If you've never lived where there truly ISN'T a free press, naturally, your hackles are going to rise at the very thought that ANYONE has the right ANYWHERE to tell ANYBODY else that their stuff really isn't ready for prime time. But that, again, is an immature notion brought on by the "entitlement" attitude that says, "Hey, if I write it, I've got the right to have it published."

OF COURSE YOU DO.

YOU ALWAYS HAVE.

And that's what a free press is about...which we've had all along. Self-publishing has ALWAYS been an option for you. It never WASN'T. If you want someone ELSE to spend money on your work, however, you've got to meet a certain set of standards they have. Just as in any other business, you've got to give a customer what he or she wants. If you don't want to do that with one customer base, go find another one--but don't rail against the first one for being artificially "policing" you. They're not. They simply see the scenario, and the business for which they're responsible, differently from the way you see it. They may end up misjudging your work, and it may sell in the millions. Them's the breaks of business; every business has that happen. And there may be people who love badly written books; in fact, it can be proven over and over again that these books even get past GATEKEEPERS with pretty much carte blanche, if a publisher thinks the book will sell. So where is the artistic "policing" going on? Where is the infringement on a free press?

It isn't there. It's never been there. And merely praising the gatekeepers who still exist--and who in many cases have helped save CONSUMERS endless hours of sorting through dreck to get to good stuff--doesn't change that one iota.

My take,
Janny