At first, my publisher was resistant to a novel about the book business. I understood. There’s always something at least a little smug about self-reference—magazine articles about idealistic journalists, TV shows about TV actors, ironic films within ironic-er films: all this meta-media populated by thinly disguised characters making oblique inside jokes.
But, on the other hand, I thought, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for book readers to look at us, the book business, at this moment—a moment when more than a few authors are questioning whether they need publishers; when readers are wondering whether they’ll continue to patronize bookstores, or instead will buy books the same way they buy ground beef or stream music; when the world might be reconsidering whether to buy books, period.
After all, there are plenty of Real Housewives and tweets and blogs to entertain us. Untrained actors shouting unscripted lines: it’s not terribly dissimilar to unedited and unproofread text in undesigned packages, unmarketed and unpublicized and unreviewed and undifferentiated, written by authors who are, essentially, unpaid. The business of publishing words—of putting stories and ideas in front of the public—is rapidly trending toward the unprofessional.
On the face of it, this development might not seem so bad for readers. Unlimited content choices? Much of it free or cheap? No more reliance on gatekeepers—publishers, booksellers, media—to dictate a work’s merits? What’s to complain about?
Perhaps everything. Maybe the deprofessionalization of publishing isn’t just a looming disaster for the book business—there are, after all, not that many of us left in the industry—but for the millions of readers.
In a market of unlimited book options, how does an audience make choices? At the moment, most of that burden is carried by the book business. The publicity and marketing campaigns and cover designs and flap copy—the things that publishers do—are not just methods of selling books; they’re also readers’ main tools for discovering books. The same is true of the curating and merchandising in stores, and book coverage in the media. Without reviews, staff recommendations, and endcap displays, unlimited choices aren’t narrowed down—they’re overwhelming.
Second, if all books become cheap or free to readers, then writers are unlikely to earn much (if anything). Who will want to write if writing doesn’t pay?
Third, without the gatekeepers, those who do write will create books that are worse—and not just authors whose dormant genius must be drawn out by patient editors, but all authors. Every book that doesn’t first have to get past a gatekeeper or two, or 10, before being put in front of the public will be worse.
A few years ago, I hopped over the gate. I’d had 12 different job titles in publishing before I typed “The End” at the bottom of a manuscript page. I thought the manuscript was in great shape; I was pretty proud of myself. Then I sent it to some publishing friends, and they tore it apart. I revised it, twice. I sent it to an agent, and he brutalized it. I revised and revisited and rewrote. We eventually sold it to a publisher. And then what? That’s right: more revisions.
It wasn’t just the gatekeepers’ specific guidance that made the manuscript better. It was their mere presence; they loomed in front of me, wearing dubious looks, demanding rigor, requiring me to produce something better.
I didn’t need to go through all that rigmarole. Instead, after I’d gotten to the end of that self-diagnosed brilliant draft of mine, I could’ve simply hit the “publish” button. What if I’d done that? Even putting aside all the things that my agent and publisher did to improve, market, publicize, sell, and distribute the book; even putting aside the interior and cover design, the production, the copyediting and proofreading; putting aside all the publishing aspects of publishing, what about the text itself? It would’ve been crap. Because it would not have been forced through all those gates, getting better at each stage.
If I had gone ahead on my own, the handful of readers who did happen to stumble upon that unimproved thing would’ve been unimpressed, their time wasted. They would’ve put down their bad-looking, typo-riddled, printed book, or closed the file on their device, and switched on TV. Because even Real Housewives has gatekeepers—people whose job it is to ensure that it’s the very best possible amateur screaming of unscripted lines.
That first thriller of mine won an Edgar Award, and my second is set, in large part, in the world of book publishing. Thankfully, the gatekeepers made sure I kept the smug self-referential inside jokes to a minimum.