Thursday, December 8, 2011

Some thoughts on publishing, "teaching to the test," and artistic vision

I see a lot of discussion of the publishing industry these days. We're clearly in a period of overwhelming change, and I don't find it useful, personally, to take sides in the traditional-publishing-versus-self-publishing conflict. I continue to write; I observe from the sidelines, and I continue to hope for a result that will benefit authors and keep readers reading high-quality work. I think an upheaval like this one will end, not in any complete supplanting of old models with new, but with a new equilibrium whose parameters are as yet uncertain.

Publishing is a very old business. When I first started learning about it with a view to getting published, I was surprised at how little penetration of modern technology (simple stuff like email and websites) there actually was. At this point, these have become the norm. Word processing and email have made it very easy for authors to submit, but the bottleneck they must face is the same as it always was: someone has to read the work all the way through in order to evaluate it. This takes time, and it takes people. The deluge of incoming work has put far more strain on these people than they had to face in the past.

The role of the gatekeeper is a problematic one, and double-edged. The gatekeeper, because of her/his role, has power that can be resented by petitioners. But at the same time, the gatekeeper is protecting the publisher, and the readers, from work of low quality. I'm sure you will say that a lot of poor quality work gets published, and I have indeed felt the same way myself, but the evaluation of fiction is nothing if not subjective. Getting published is not just about being "good enough," it's about reaching someone.

If there is anything I would choose to decry about the current situation, it's the way that the concerns of marketing have pulled us away from that core question of reaching someone. I compare it to standardized testing. Standardized tests were created to evaluate a person's total education, but they never bore much direct relation to it; they just happened to be a good indirect measure of the results. The problem arises when getting a good result on the test becomes so overweeningly important that we decide we must instruct people directly how to take that test. Performance on the test goes up, but the total education that the test once reflected is gone, and students end up with meaningless test-taking skills that leave them woefully unprepared for the demands of life that the original full education once addressed (or at least tried to). In publishing, teaching to the test is the equivalent, in my view, to buying for the marketers. Letting the numbers dictate the content of our fiction will lead us toward fiction written by the numbers, and everyone will suffer as a result.

Fortunately, I don't know many authors who spend much time compromising their vision to a business model. The core of what makes fiction and storytelling wonderful - what makes it visceral, and has made it a vital part of human societies since prehistoric time - remains intact. And I believe that this kind of vision is something that need not be lost at the level of the publishers. Just because we work within a market doesn't mean we need to lose that spark. The example of the late Steve Jobs should be instructive in this regard. Apple stands out as a company because he understood that computers weren't just a business - they could be a vision. I would like to see publishers recapture that feeling of vision, because this business all about inspiration. As authors, we are constantly working to take the voice of the Muse, to convey it to our readers, to deliver it to our agents and our publishers. In the new equilibrium, I can only imagine the most successful publishers will be there to pick it up and let it shine.