Publishers As Gatekeepers: St. George, or the Dragon?

Or, “About 50% of the human race is middle-men and they don’t take kindly to being eliminated.” ~Mal Reynolds, Firefly “War Stories”

The digital revolution has createda free market in publishing for the first time in…decades?  Centuries?  Human history?

The second publishers saw that they could be disintermediated–which digital publishing, both of ebooks and of reasonably priced print on demand marketplaces made possible–they immediately started yammering about how important their job is, that they exist to protect the consumer from all the truly terrible writing out there in the world.  They are necessary, they claim.  It’s for the good of the public that their anachronistic and inefficient industry be protected from the vagaries of an open market and the brave new digital world.  “Look what happened to music,” they say.

Well, okay, let’s look at what happened to music.  Suddenly, people are buying tracks and not whole albums.  What happens?  Artists can release a good song when it’s finished,  instead of waiting for the album to be done.  And–gasp–artists have to create every track to be a song worth downloading on its own merits rather than being able to coast on the power of 3-4 good songs.  Seriously, how many times in your life did you buy an album and dislike half or more of it?  I can’t count the number of times.  Sure, maybe life is harder as a producer of creative material, because the market holds you to a higher standard and you might only sell smaller pieces at a time…but I think that being able to buy track by track actually works better for most musicians.  It limits piracy, because people can buy only what they want (versus wanting the song enough to rip it but not enough to pay double-digits for the entire album it comes with), and it expands a musician’s audience, because people can buy that one song they kind of like and will readily drop a dollar for, when they might balk at $15 (or $9.99) for a full album.

But that’s just the business side.  I want to talk about the market side, the side of all the unfiltered dross that the good stuff will be lost beneath.  I just…I don’t think that’s true.  Maybe the old music industry gatekeepers would consider much of what’s out there to be bad, but not every consumer will share their tastes and point of view.  The internet age has led to a creative explosion, and, yes, also a splintering of our culture into subcultures and sub-subcultures.  Some people lament that.  I think it’s beautiful–as a consumer you can find your particular tastes filled, and as a producer (either as an artist or just a dabbler, a social networker remixing on youtube or tumblr) you can find the specific audience that responds to you, no matter where they are.

This is especially true of the digital market for the arts.  If you’re an independent artist—be it someone on deviantart or a local band or an author—you can reach those few people who really respond to your niche no matter where they are, if you and they are online.  I have on my iPod a couple rap songs from a South African rapper, Die Antwoord.  I found him either through the iTunes Genius or the Pandora algorithm recommender.  All he had to do was get his music into that channel, and it found me in the stream. 

I would never have heard of this guy 20 years ago.  His genre is too obscure, his presence in America too small, his “relevance” to the gatekeepers too negligible:  he disrupts the “world music” narrative of African roots music and modern tribal hymns in favor of American style rap with electronic backing.  Do you think any of the NPR world music types were going to give a shit about a white rapper from South Africa?  Shit, no.  But I do.  I like his style. I like his cadence.  I like his mingling of Afrikaans and accented English.  And I found him because of freedom of the digital marketplace. 

Here’s my big conclusion: Consumers don’t care where their products come from as long as it is a product which they like.

This is based on talking to friends who buy ebooks and digital music.  No one looks at a song and thinks, “Oh, RCA put it out?  Must be good.”  No one.  You listen to the sample.  You maybe look online to see if they have a video on youtube with the full song, or a website that has audio streaming to let you hear a song or two.  Then you decide to buy, or not, based on what you heard in the sample (or full song if you could find it).  You are buying that track or that album from that artist, not from the label.

The model works.  It’s exactly the same model we have with books, but music transitioned first.  See, I remember the old days, where your local music store would actually let you listen to a CD before you bought it, if you asked to.  That is the equivalent of sampling on iTunes/youtube/band website, now.  Books are no different.  At the store, you pick it up and read some of it to see if you liked the writing.  With ebooks you can download a sample of 15-30% and see if you like the writing.  (And also see if it is unedited, unreadable garbage, or professional grade quality.)

I am not afraid of the endless offerings of crap out there.  I am not afraid, as a producer of creative content, of being lost in it.  I believe I have a quality product.  It may not be this month, it may not be this year, but the longer I work and the longer I keep my online presence active and the more I publish, the easier it will be for people who would like my work to find it.

Also what will be making it easier is the refinement of new filters for the part of the marketplace that has bypassed the publishing gate.  Right now, you have to be a fairly savvy, proactive consumer to find self-published writers you are likely to enjoy.  You have to read review sites and blogs, you have to pay attention to sites like Goodreads, you have to be willing to quality-check samples. 

My husband thinks browsing books digitally will be more of a chore than doing it in a bookstore, because at least in a bookstore you know the books will be coherently written and mostly error-free. 

He’s right that the digital market in books does not have adequate filters…yet.

Amazon is working on them, essentially creating gatekeeping controls for those who want them.  They have Amazon Singles—quality-vetted short fiction pieces which Kindle authors can submit their work to for consideration—and their Kindle Indie section, which is a spotlight for self-published work based on sales and quality; currently it is not a shortlist authors can submit to for consideration.  Amazon is branching into print publishing with selected authors from the indie ranks who sell well, market well, and have the potential to sell well in the “traditional” market of in print in bookstores avenues.  (As a side note:  the book sellers who are petulantly refusing to stock Amazon-published titles are only shooting themselves in the foot and underscoring their own irrelevance, in my opinion.) 

Amazon also uses its buying pattern algorithm to tailor results to individual customers.  Expect that to be a better predictor of what similar items you might like the more people adopt ereaders and ebooks.  It might not be helpful for someone with eclectic tastes, or someone who wants to read in two different genres at once, but for those who read heavily in one genre (such as romance and fantasy, for me, or science fiction and history for my husband), their recommendations will make a great starting point for additional browsing.

So let’s talk about a conspiracy theory scenario in which Amazon selects their choices for at least the digital sub-markets (Singles and Indie) on the basis of who pays them to have their work submitted.  Do you know how long that lasts?  Exactly as long as it takes the consumers to figure out that the titles Amazon is pushing in those sub-sites are shit.  Once readers realize the quality is low and that places are being bought, Amazon’s sub-markets are abandoned, and possibly Amazon, as well, in favor of a competitor who does create gatekeeping mechanisms for those who want them with integrity and the good of the consumer in mind.

And that is what a free market comes down to, over and over and over again:  the best interest of the consumer.  If Amazon is providing crappy products, people will stop using their store.  If Amazon’s gatekeeping controls are based not in a genuine desire to provide people with easy access to the products they are most going to want, but some nebulous other aim (such as sucking money from authors for placement), then Amazon will fail because people will catch on and punish them for it. 

Also, the very idea of intentionally corrupt gatekeeping is shortsighted and reckless; Amazon will make a million times the money off of providing a means for readers to discover the best of the indie work so that more and more readers can keep discovering more and more quality work, than they will by taking a larger up-front amount of money that in the end loses them a much larger chunk of their customers.

Amazon isn’t stupid.  They are in the business to make money.  Their business model is built on making a little money from a lot of transactions.  They get those transactions by having better prices and being able to offer whatever people want.  So if they can’t offer people what they want, then they stop making money.  The rise of Amazon from a nothing company selling at a loss to the bully of the online retail world is a testament to the fact that they are not a shortsighted company–they play with the end game in mind.

Again and again, the money coming in is what it comes down to.  If the market demands a system of controls so that the customers who are risk-averse can find quality-checked indie authors so they have the same reasonable chance of liking the book as they did when looking exclusively at traditionally published books, then Amazon (or whoever) will find a way to put that kind of rating or ranking or quality control in place.  It does not have to stifle anyone’s ability to enter the marketplace, either; it just creates a subset of data that makes it easier for the customers who want a 70% chance of liking a book (my odds for any given title I take home from a bookstore that I have carefully selected based on my tastes and sample read) to find that ratio, rather than the 20% odds of the entire marketplace (which is what I’ve seen several columnists who did a five-indie-author experiment come out with).

Amazon, or other digital content retailers, are also not the only means of filtering, just the most immediate when browsing.  I have seen at least one website (Booklamp) that tries to do what Pandora and Genius do for music, and break down story elements into a “book DNA” profile to help readers find similar titles.  I don’t know how refined it is or whether it can take into account writing styles, but I expect someone, somewhere is working on the program that does.

And let us not discount the greatest power of the internet:  crowdsourcing.  So my husband does not want to wade through twenty crap titles to find one he wants to read; well, there is his opposite out there who loves doing exactly that.  It’s what hipster culture is, that glorying in the obscure, the unknown, the undiscovered.  I mean, there is a running joke meme of “you’ve probably never heard of them,” alongside the accusation of an artist being a “sell out” the second they get famous enough that actually, yes, someone else has heard of them.  That desire to root through obscurity to find the one particular niche that is an exact match to your own aesthetic/point of view/obsession is strong for some people–and many of them are bloggers and reviewers, who will report on their findings for the good of their fellow consumers.  For every person who wants the 70% likelihood of a match from the vetted subset of ebooks, there will be a person trolling the 99-cent discount bin for the newest next big author for the joy of being able to claim to be an Original Fan.  They want to be someone who loved Lily LeFevre before it was cool to love Lily LeFevre, so that they can be authentic and not posers and not corporate shills or whatever.

For me, the publishers have it wrong if they are basing their necessity on their role as gatekeepers.  They are not necessary, because they are not the only means of filtering for books.  They provided a useful service, but it didn’t always work (see all the books you have been disappointed in over the course of your life), and what product made its way through was always predicated on their tastes and their impression of the public’s tastes (see all the rejections J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer received before becoming international bestselling phenomenons).  Publishers might still have a place in the digital future…but I have yet to hear the effective argument as to what it is from any of them.

This is the second in a series of articles about the digital revolution in publishing.  I welcome any comments, links, dissension, and, of course, if you liked the perspective please check back for future installments!  I plan to blog about this at least once a week for the next couple months.  Thanks for stopping by! ~Lily 

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