Literary agent Colleen Lindsay this morning tweeted Laura Miller’s recent Salon article about how the future of literature will be shaped by e-book and on-demand print self-publishing services. Miller observes that these services promote themselves as a means to circumvent the “elite literary gatekeepers,” and that their customers are really authors, not readers. She points out, rightly, that the so-called gatekeepers provide a service to consumers, that removing them will drop the slush pile directly atop readers, and that this may have dramatic and unintended consequences.
For my part, I wonder whether these services won’t cost humanity more than one potentially-great book, when the author gives up on finding representation and self-publishes instead of going back for another polish. See, personally I don’t view editors and literary agents as gatekeepers. I see them as the laws of physics.
That may require further explanation. I assume most people are familiar with the classic film images of early attempts at flight, outlandish contraptions that all looked like they might fly until they were pushed off a ramp or the side of a cliff and smashed to pieces on the rocks below. If you’re not familiar, there’s a sample at the end of this post. That is the metaphorical image I most associate with a writer’s first attempts to get published.
The pilot (writer) has a pretty good idea what a plane should look like, so he builds one at home. He has a couple of friends take a look (hopefully friends who know a little something about aerodynamics) and verify, “yep, that looks a lot like a plane.” Then he takes that first big step and pushes the plane off the cliff – sends his book out to a few agents and publishers. Sure, some planes fly on the very first try, but most fall straight to the rocks and smash. If the pilot is lucky, maybe the plane stays airborne for a minute (the metaphorical equivalent of a partial request or helpful criticism), and he learns something about building a successful plane before the crash. The pilot dusts himself off and decides whether he wants to go back and try another design, or go get a job as a patent clerk.
Now, let’s just say for the sake of argument that someone starts an on-demand plane catalog, and let’s say he’ll buy the rights to any plane design, and pay royalties to the designer when any customer orders their plane. How many aspiring pilots, after a crash or two, would submit their designs to the catalog hoping to make a few bucks. Worse yet, how many would just draw up a design and sell it completely untested? How do you suppose the customer would feel who ordered one of those planes and tried to fly it?
Had there been such a catalog back in the early 1900s, might the Wright Brothers have gone that route instead? To dispense with the metaphor here, how many great books might not exist, how many renowned authors might be unknowns, had someone at the time offered to publish their rough drafts?
Well, that crappy plane catalog exists today. In fact, there are dozens of them, some better known than others. My question for aspiring authors is this: even if you’re sure your plane can fly, do you think your best option is to list it in the same catalog with thousands of crappy non-functional designs? If you’re so confident, give it a good solid push off that cliff, and see if it stays airborne.
I know my answer. I’m not interested in selling my failures, and I refuse to blame the laws of physics when my planes don’t fly. Frustrating as it may be, I’m going to keep testing and tinkering, and trying entirely new designs, until one of them finally takes flight.