Battles, Real and Imaginary


I’ve been accused of idealism, and it ain’t every day that happens. In response to my recent piece on publishing, Jordan Cooper thinks I painted too rosy a picture of the human motivations at play:

This battle is not about books. It’s not about the creative good. It’s not about what’s best for the world. It’s a battle of egos – and it is definitely not imaginary.

His argument, in summation, is that publishers want to keep things the same because they like the monopoly upon which their business survives. Authors, with the possibility of self-publishing, have started to believe that just because they’ve created something, it deserves wide distribution. At the root of the whole mess are the baser human desires of greed and hubris.

The working title of my original piece was The Gatekeeper Myth. I wanted to talk about how publishers were no longer (if ever they were) the arbiters of taste — that instead they’d print whatever sells. The idea that their rubber stamp meant anything about the relative quality of the work was laughable.

As I wrote, however, I realized that daubing the story in black and white like that wasn’t really the most honest way to tell it.

Why? Because imagining publishers as some greedy amorphous blob is reductive and ridiculous. Likewise, reducing all authors to a single person is silly.

There are different kinds of publishers, for a start. Some aren’t in it for the money — like the non-profit I happen to work for. Not only that — the staff of most publishing houses are generally drawn from the pool of available humans, which means that they all have their own desires, taste and motivations. You can’t say “publishers just want to keep monopolizing and making money” and leave it at that. There are natural business/editorial tensions, but find me an editor whose only goal is to make money, and I’ll show you an exception.

Authors — well, what can you say about authors? It’s true that they churn out absolute duff. Like Jordan says, just look at the bestseller lists. They probably do invariably think that their work is deserving of a giant audience. You can’t pretend that the only reason they’re writing is so that they’ll strike it rich, though.

A point, my liege!

OK — so here’s what I really think. I think that Jordan is absolutely right to say that market forces affect the publishing industry. I don’t think that they are the only forces at work.

My argument isn’t that everyone has at their heart a pure desire to see great books get made and read. I’m not so naive.

I do think that there’s an unnecessary antagonism between publishers and authors — and I think we have a chance to put that aside in order to reform the industry completely.

If we don’t: authors — on their own — will publish badly edited, ugly covered, meagerly publicized books. Publishers, losing their death grip, will publish even more crap-that-sells, just to maintain the bottom line.

The best way forward is to meet in the middle and work together. That will involve compromise and restructuring and effort, but it’s how we work towards putting great books into the hands of readers. Which might not be our goal, but bloody well should be.

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