The noise and discovery problem
A couple of days ago, Chuck Wendig posted a long expletive-rich rant about the proliferation of low-quality books—which he blames on self-publishing's lack of gatekeepers—and how that makes it harder for everyone because the signal (quality books) is being buried in the noise (poorly written/edited/packaged books). And despite the high-handed tone so many writers adopt when writing about others (and perhaps I'm guilty of that as well), he makes some good points.
To sum up this point:
All books go into the big undiscovered pile at first.
All books need some manner of discovery to, duhhh, be discovered.
Traditionally-published books have access to more channels of discovery.
Self-published books have access to fewer channels.
So: what does this have to do with the quality level of author-published books?
There are nearly 200 comments on the post so far, but I wouldn't call it a comments thread, as most of the participants, even when replying to each other, seem to be talking past each other. Even so, it's an interesting read and worth a few (or more than a few) minutes if this is a topic of any interest to you.
One thing I find distasteful about many of these discussions about publishing is that the participants so often take the the attitude of "there's this problem and it's your fault!" Maybe this is more than simply a difference of opinion. Wendig writes:
But the very existence of self-publishing as the robust option it has become is one that comes out of a culture of people. And the books that exist now and do well now are sometimes the product of that culture and of the collective passions of people who freely share information.
These cultural differences I think do come into play. Maybe that's why so many times it feels like these discussions are less debate and more tribal warfare.
I tend to see both sides, though, and feel caught in the middle. I come from two cultures—one of highbrow (or high-middlebrow?) attitude about the importance of quality, and one of entrepreneurial attitude about forging your own path, which in part, at least for me, has an element of rebellion against orthodoxy for orthodoxy's sake.
I hate the noise that buries the signal in the books world today, but let's face it, it's only a change of degree, not a new problem altogether. I've bought and read an awful lot of crap over the years, and nearly all of it was traditionally published—mainly because self-published books haven't been strong in the marketplace all that long, but also because, as a reader, I, too, have a prejudice against self-published books, in part out of habitual attitudes cultivated by long years living and working in traditional media, and reinforced by the all-too-often horrific quality of many books today.
That's from the reader's perspective. Where are the books I want to read?
What about from the writer's perspective? How do I get my book in the hands of readers? This is where I focused my contribution to the comments non-thread:
This is a tough subject, but let’s frame it by comparing apples to apples, not apples to apple pies.
For the reader, it makes sense to compare end-product to end-product. The reader is looking for a book, and there’s no question that’s a challenge, and the proliferation of poor-quality books makes that harder, and the self-published author has fewer resources, theoretically, to stand out from the noise and get noticed by the reader.
However, for the writer, the fair moment at which to compare self-publishing with traditional publishing is not when the book is published, but rather when the manuscript is completed.
The author with a completed manuscript has a choice: To self-publish or make a go at the traditional publishing route. Either way, the author faces a discovery challenge. The author can try to stand out from the noise in the published marketplace, or the author can try to stand out in the traditional publishing process (finding an agent, being accepted by an agent, being noticed in the slush pile, surviving rewrites demanded at any step along the way, and so on). Either way, there is a lot of noise.
Maybe my view is too colored by Hollywood, where the myth of “meritocracy” is cited daily in self-congratulation.
The whole industry is in disruption. Yes, self-publishing is generating an awful lot of noise, and it's next to impossible to get noticed. And yet it seems that the traditional publishing route has huge problems as well. Either way, when it comes to books, the reader is far far away from the writer, and there is no easy way to cover that distance.
This is how things are now. Where are we headed?