August 20, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
I just finished reading a blog on digital publishing by Ulf Wolf. I always enjoy his blogs, but I disagree with the idea in this one that gatekeepers produce good literature. Manuscript editors yes. Gatekeepers -- in the sense of acquisitions editors and publishers -- not so much. Manuscript editors add an incredible amount of clarity and value to most any written work. But in the past, "experts" decided what was good, and then forwarded those few selections up the ladder -- through the many hoops described by Ulf -- to the public. Publishers had to incur upfront production costs and were not very good at anticipating what would sell and what wouldn't, as demonstrated by the full remainders tables in most bookstores.
That made publishers very cautious about using new writers, who had a difficult time breaking into the club. Established writers were the ticket to success for any publisher, especially those established writers with a series of well-received books. So book publishing was a sort of insider's club, a republic of unelected literary representatives. And self-publishing -- the so-called "vanity press" -- was denigrated as self-serving tripe dished up by the well-heeled.
Now, anybody can write and publish a book and let the market of readers and book buyers vote with their plastic. With publish-on-demand systems, only those books that are purchased are put to paper or sent to an ereader. Authors have no real upfront costs, but they receive no advances from publishers, and get no editing or marketing help. And publishers, those "gateways to good taste and fine writing" are being bypassed by millions of people with something to say -- from undiscovered geniuses to those who pass their books out to relatives and friends and don't really expect to make the New York Times bestseller list.
True, the number of books to wade through is daunting, but members of social networks regularly forward videos, etc. and the interesting, lurid, grotesque, literary, etc., selections rise to the top and are viewed by millions of like-minded people.
Book publishing is now a cottage industry, a democracy of ideas, producing works that range from incomprehensible to profound. And as in any democratic town-hall meeting, one might encounter the ramblings of nuts as well as reasoned debate. Digital publishing is a vibrant new field of do-it-yourself communication that devalues the experts and gatekeepers. In a decade or so, I expect an explosion of new authors -- unburdened by gatekeepers -- with new ideas and new ways of expressing them. They will still need editors to brighten their manuscripts, but they won't need permission to publish them.
Wayne Hanson is editorial director of Digital Communities. His interest is in the future of communities and the elements necessary to create those places in which we would most want to live and work. What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?