Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Gatekeeping in the World of Ebooks

In this day, when social media are saturated with writers touting their self-published novels, it seems that anyone can write a book. Anyone with any talent or ambition, that is. Certainly, anyone willing to plug along and generate 80K or 100K words can do so.

On the other hand, so many of those who want to write never follow through, and of those, many never complete their project. To have finished a novel is an achievement, regardless of its quality or marketability. I think that's worth taking a moment to appreciate. We lose sight of how extraordinary this is, and miss out on the benefit of taking a moment to savor this accomplishment as a cause for celebration and pride in itself. Instead, we turn to publication as a source of validation. Sometimes there are intermediate steps, such as feedback from a workshop or critique group, or the search for an agent. But all too often, the next step is to format the book, slap it up on the internet, and voilà, one instantly becomes a "published author."

The very ease of self-publication removes the gatekeeper function formerly performed by editors and agents. This is not entirely a bad thing. Both have been wrong in the past, and marvelous works -- particularly those that are "too difficult" or "too controversial" or simply do not fit into current marketing niches have had a difficult time finding a publishing home. (Case in point: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle, which received 26 rejections.)

However, the literary gatekeeper is not necessarily the slayer of good books. None of us truly has perspective on the quality and value of our work. This is true regardless of where we are in our writing careers, although it poses a stronger problem for beginning writers. After we've been at this for a while, we have a cadre of insightful, trusted beta readers and we've worked with professional editors enough to have a sense of where our own weaknesses lie. We've acquired some degree of critical skills, even though we acknowledge this may not be reliable when applied to our current darlings. We know we have blind spots, but we also have the experience to judge when a work is ready for a round of pre-submission critiques, how to listen to that feedback, the willingness to rip things apart until they work properly, and when it's time to send the thing off to agent or editor. In other words, we set up a series of hoops to jump through, each of which is designed to help us determine, Is this book ready for the next step? By the time the manuscript arrives on the desk of the acquiring editor, it's likely been vetted by "a new pair of eyes" a number of times.

(There are, of course, variations to this process. If a project is sold on proposal, it's been through a differently-rigorous process at an earlier creative stage.)

Nowadays, even those authors who still work with traditional print publishers also self-publish. The easy releases are the reprints of out-of-print novels that have already been through the editorial process. (And hopefully, decent copy-editing and proofreading, but that's another topic.) What about stories that got, "We love it but we can't market it" rejections? What about books yet unscrutinized by editorial eyes?

Here at Book View Café, we are blessed with a wide range of skills in our membership. As a cooperative enterprise, we have the resources and expertise to fill these editorial and critical roles for one another. We hold the common goal of making sure that every BVC release, although not necessarily to the taste of every reader, is of professional quality.

Beginning writers often lack a similar cohort of peers. If they are fortunate enough to be in a critique group with more experienced writers or they have established a mentorship relationship with a professional writer or editor, or they have networked in some other way with those with more developed critical skills, then they are already well ahead of the game. They're more likely to understand where their stories are on the journey to publishable quality, and what they need to do in order to improve it.

The operant phrase here is publishable quality. When there are no gatekeepers (aka editors), does this even have meaning? Isn't it a matter of opinion, that one reader's publishable quality is another's drek (and vice versa!)? And does it matter, so long as an ebook sells? What's wrong with a situation in which anyone who's thrown together 80K or even 50K or 150K words, formats it, puts it up as a Kindle edition, promotes it all over the social media sites, and sells a bunch of copies (or a whole big bunch of copies)? Isn't that how the market works, by giving readers what they're looking for?

The problem I have with this scenario, being enacted thousands of times over the various epublishing venues, is not so much the flood of unreadable or barely-readable books making it increasingly difficult to find the ones I want. It's the disservice it does to the newer writer.

Each one of us has a unique perspective, a precious voice that is ours alone. As Edith Layton said, "No one else in the wide world, since the dawn of time, has ever seen the world as you do, or can explain it as you can. This is what you have to offer that no one else can." But we have to learn how to tell those stories in a way that fully realizes (makes real) them. To make them the best we can. We aren't born knowing how to do this (at least, I wasn't). We need practice and critical evaluation and explanation of the techniques and principles of good fiction. Rejection of early, poorly-conceived or even more poorly-executed novels, as disheartening and aggravating as it is, teaches us patience, and keeps our standards high and our egos in check. I'm not advancing the argument that because I and writers of my generation "had to suffer" through one round of obtuse rejection slips after another, that every new writer must therefore do so. I'm questioning whether eliminating the "apprenticeship/journeyman" stage of writing mastery is a good thing. And if it isn't, what is a beginning writer to do?

If all you want to do is have a virtual shelf of books to brag about, that's one thing. But if your goal is a lifelong writing career, with growth and development toward your full potential as a writer, with the creation of works of enduring value, then you would do well to replicate the educational process in your own work. This might be through peer-run writers groups, workshops at conventions in which you receive critiques from established writers, formal courses such as Clarion/Clarion West or Long Ridge Writers Workshop, or one-on-one mentorship with a writer or freelance editor (I think this latter is one of the most exciting developments in learning-to-write, with the opportunity to work closely with a seasoned professional).

One of the hardest things for a newer writer to accept is that not every early attempt at a novel is successful. Furthermore, heavily promoting an unsuccessful novel is one of the surest ways of sabotaging a career before it gets off the ground. We really, really don't want to concede that the darling we have labored so hard over is, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly dreadful. The way through that agonizing stage is to keep working at your craft, write another book with a completely new concept and characters, keep pushing yourself, get the best critical feedback you can, write another book and another. At some point, you will be able to look back and see for yourself why that first attempt didn't work. If you keep at it, you'll also notice when your stories started to soar. That's the threshold! That's when it's time to send the book out to agent or editor, or to consider the self-publication route. How you decide on one or the other is complex and rife with highly opinionated arguments one way or the other. The important thing is to become your own gatekeeper...with a lot of help from your friends.

The painting is Queen's Gate at Aigues-Mortes, by Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870), public domain.

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