November 22nd, 2011 11:29 EST
The Internet Lets Us Challenge Book Publishing Dogma
We take a lot for granted not because we`ve swallowed it but because it`s so damned inconvenient to examine it.
Take housing starts. Week after week the press tells us that our economy will turn around when there`s an uptick in them. Upticks come and go, and the press gets almost as het up about them as it does taking the stock market`s pulse. But why? Does our economy depend on building more houses when we already have six million empty ones, when we don`t have the jobs to pay for them? What`s going on here? And why should the Wall Street casino from which only a handful of very rich people gain be a premier news item night after night?
When have you heard the press ask those questions, much less seek answers? But some economists once said housing starts were a key indicator of economic health, and so what began as a helpful suggestion ends up as an economic law, even when the faces that mouth it day after day are unillumined by any understanding of it.
Take book publishing. A well known critic writes that all the books that deserve to be published eventually are published. Really? The best-seller list tells us who`s best. Really? It`s telling us who`s selling, it even says that`s what it`s telling us, but we read it as a measure of merit because that`s how the publishing industry wants us to read it. We live in a culture that equates merit with sales, a cash register society. We`re seemingly unbothered by paradoxes. For example, we study James Joyce in college, not Dan Brown, but we know perfectly well Joyce would have hardly sold at all had not some buttoned-tight postmaster general banned him in the United States.
It may as well have been written on a stone tablet that self-published books are not to be taken as seriously as books published by the major houses in New York. How would we really know that when you consider that most books are chosen for review on the basis of their publishers` reputations and the amount of money the publishers are known to spend on promotion?
For whom are these presumptions convenient? Who ix servec? Certainly not the general readership. Rather they serve the literary establishment which, after all, is simply unable to vet all the books that are published, and so it sustains the myth that what it does review is the best. This is one of the many reasons the media giants have bribed Congress to hand over the Internet to them "the Internet enables us to challenge these shibboleths, to the discomfort of the major publishers, which are, with perhaps two exceptions, subsidiaries of the media giants.
New technologies, notably print-on-demand and publishing in cyberspace, present us with an opportunity to shed the hypocrisy that currently defines the literary scene. We should make ignorance work for us. We "re not able to get every book, whether it`s self-published or published by a small press, into the hands of the most established reviewers. They`re not able to handle the volume, so they seek ways to screen out the vast majority of books being published. The big presses no longer screen books, they let agents do it, and the agents are often lawyers more concerned with how much money a book is likely to make than how good it is. We have a chance now to fess up to this situation, to stop pretending that merit and money are not a marriage made in hell.
Reviewers are not always able to review the books they want to review. Their editors often assign them. And the assignments are made on the basis of factors that don`t always have to do with likely merit "the currency of subject, for example, the prestige of the publisher or the author, the amount of advertising directed to the editor`s publication, any controversy surrounding the book, and many other considerations that have a great deal to do with marketing but little to do with merit.
Fessing up to all this won`t necessarily level the playing field, but it will relieve all of us of the burden of lying to each other, and with clarity and consensual honesty may come better ways to identify good work, no matter how it`s published. That is not to say that good work published by authors or small presses is invariably ignored or marginalized. That is not always true, but it is often true. The heroes in this predicament are the writers, reviewers and editors who champion a book simply because they think it`s good "they`re heroes if only because that`s not easy and it`s often not good for their own careers.
To some extent, the field is leveling itself because so many articulate people are writing about authors they like on the web. True, they`re often unknowns, often unprofessional, and sometimes not as literate as we might wish, but the gatekeeping function is no longer locked up tight. That of course is one reason the media giants are right now bribing Congress to hand over the Internet to them. They want to preserve that gatekeeping function. It`s money in their pockets. And it`s a very good reason, although only one of many, not to give them this power. Unfortunately, Congress and the President seem determined to do just that. It will strike a great blow against American culture, against freedom of expression, and against the hopes of unknown authors for a fair shake.
We have bought a great deal of hype about literature from marketers, but they have almost as little experience in this new technological era as the rest of us. We don`t really know if romances and thrillers "plot-driven novels "will always dominate. We know they have in a tightly controlled market. We don`t even know how poetry will fare in the new environment, because we "re hampered by a narrow definition of what poetry is. We don`t know a great deal we pretend to know, and this would be a propitious time to stop pretending.
It would be as if schools, instead of certifying what students know, put them in awe of what they don`t know and handed them some tools to make exciting inquiries. It would be a cultural revolution, and it`s beginning to stir on the Internet, which is exactly why scoundrels in Washington are plotting to hand over control of this superbly republican invention to corporate giants.
There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence for what I`m saying. Thirty or forty years ago it was unthinkable for a publisher to ask an author for a marketing plan. Marketing was thought to be the purview of the publisher. And what does it have to do with merit, anyway? Junk food is marketed very well, but it`s not good for us. The situation has prompted many authors to wonder aloud whether the big publishing houses are going to be needed in the future. If the authors are designing marketing plans and the agents are vetting manuscripts and print-on-demand has opened the door to self-publishing, it`s appropriate to ask the role of the big houses. The publishers themselves are resorting to print-on-demand and e-books to bring down costs, but their books are still expensive "and they`re still insisting on all the prerogatives they had when they were actually undertaking many of the functions they`re no longer performing. Big-box bookstores are becoming bric-a-brac warehouses, devoted to the sale of almost anything but books, and e-book sales are overtaking paperback sales. Why shouldn`t our operating assumptions be challenged? And if not now, when?
There is no reason that five or six publishers in New York, their corporate bosses and their Washington stooges should be defining the terms of this discourse. We should all be defining it, and if you search the web carefully you will see I`m only one of many writers challenging our tired ideas. That, in fact, is what is worrying Corporate America. It prefers us to be complacent consumer bots.
The argument that the traditional literary and publishing establishment is a guarantor of merit is somewhat like the argument that the private sector can do things better than government. Both arguments are facile, clever by half, and wholly unproven. In fact, there is a growing body of research showing that the private sector doesn`t do things better than government and does in fact give itself to overruns and corruption. That has certainly been our experience with contractors in Iraq and private prisons.
I`m not arguing, of course, that the government should intervene in the publishing industry, but I am arguing that we should not blandly accept presumptions because they`re convenient. We should ask, instead, Convenient to whom? And why? The Internet is the best antidote to dogma we`ve ever had "which is why it`s endangered "and we should use it to re-examine every facet of book publishing dogma.
Djelloul Marbrook`s first book, Far from Algiers (Kent State University Press, 2008) won the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry. Artists` Hill, an excerpt from his unpublished novel, Crowds of One, won the 2008 Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction. Artemisia`s Wolf, a novella, was published by Prakash Books of India early in 2011. Alice Miller`s Room, a novella, was published in 1999 by OnlineOriginals.com (UK) as an e-book, and Bliss Plot Press of Woodstock, NY, recently published his novella, Saraceno, as an e-book. Orbis (UK), Smashwords.com, Potomac Review (Maryland) and Prima Materia (New York). His second book of poems is Brushstrokes and Glances (Deerbrook Editions, 2010). Recent poems were published by American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Oberon, Meadowland Review, The Same, Reed, The Ledge, Poemeleon, Poets Against War, Fledgling Rag, Daylight Burglary, Le Zaporogue, Atticus, Long Island Quarterly, ReDactions, Istanbul Literary Review, Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review, Damazine, Perpetuum Mobile, Attic, and Chronogram. A retired newspaper editor and Navy veteran, he lives in Germantown, NY, with his wife Marilyn, and has lifelong ties to Woodstock.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com