Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fragments: A Democracy of Readers

Jill Lepore wrote an article in The New Yorker, "Dickens in Eden"; where she talked a lot about Charles Dickens, and a little about Dickens Camp in Santa Cruz.

I skimmed this article, largely because, although I've performed that Dickens Fair, I'm not interested in Dickens Camp. However, I was intrigued by the article's statement that Dickens felt oppressed by his readers. The article explains that book reviewing began in the 18th century as a response to a large number of books being published. However, as literacy improved and the cost of books decreased "a democracy of readers rose up against an aristocracy of critics".

I think the book industry is again at a crossroad of change. The issues may be somewhat different and I think in particular they include the idea of gatekeeper. People have claimed that with the advent of e-books the need of gatekeepers has decreased. People can make their own decisions about what is good or not, and that allows someone who is fond of an unpopular genre to continue to find books they might like to read. An intriguing concept, especially when anyone can read a sample of someone's work before buying.

Yet, I find the current maturity of the publishing industry not yet sufficient to support this idea. Samples can indicate that an author has mastered line-level writing, demonstrate their voice, and showcase a couple scenes. It can't indicate the ability of the author to develop character arcs, weave a story into a satisfying ending, or even necessarily give you an idea whether the author kills off characters.

This new publishing world has social networks such as Goodreads, and even the online bookstores provide reviews. Yet, they aren't what drives me to read a book, or at least consider sampling it. Recommendations by people I know, and articles on blogs are the typical way I hear about stories.

I guess what I'm left feeling with after all of this is that we may have a democracy where readers choose who is the effective victors, but we come from an environment where someone -- traditional publishing, an algorithm on booksellers website or social network -- picks our candidates. What I'm interested in is what drives the grassroots. To me a democracy of readers means the readers must be involved in the early stages as well, at least if we're going to remove gatekeepers.



  1. An interesting question... As it happens, I do have some vagueish thoughts on the subject. Nothing concrete or actionable, yet.

    Currently, a small number of readers act, as you say, as gatekeepers - agents and editors are also readers, after all. And they have their own tastes and styles. In all honesty, I'm not so sure in the current system readers even get to "elect" the winners: we read what we're aware of, and largely we're aware of what the editors and marketing departments deign to make us aware of. Not only are the candidates picked for us, but so too the probable winners.

    I'm not sure if a true democratization of the process is even possible. The potential candidates (aspiring writers and authors) are too many to sort through systematically. We need shorthands and heuristics. Genre labels are one of those, but that alone is insufficient as a sorting mechanism.

    One semi-democratizing concept I've been thinking about is the use of "Kickstarter" or a Kickstarter-like community. In this idea, the community pics those works to be funded for development. There is still questions or problems with this model: it may be difficult to determine the value or worthiness of a given book project based solely on short samples, as you point out. And there's also the problem of awareness, which brings us back to the question of gatekeepers.

    There could be a lot of book projects competing for public attention to see the light of day: potentially many more than individual readers can process. Somehow, there would need to be some mechanism that helps a reader quickly sort through the potential projects to choose the ones they are most likely to prefer.

    Traditionally, this is a human-driven process. Gatekeepers are in this way sorting mechanisms employed to help the masses sift between the potential "candidates". Part of what bothers both the reading public and the aspirants to candidacy, however, is how opaque this sorting process has traditionally been.

    Some possibilities: a more transparent sorting process (gatekeepers give the general public a list of all potential candidates and then transparently promote those they find most worthy), or giving up on sorting and crowdsourcing the whole thing (so what if there's too many to sort through, let the public figure it out on their own - no individual will be able to fully assess all possible candidates, but collectively all possible candidates will be assessed).

    Since I mentioned Kickstarter, I should point out they do quite a bit of non-transparent gatekeeping as well, on two levels: they select which projects are accepted to Kickstarter based on certain parameters, and they they select which projects are promoted on the main page. I'm not sure I think this is necessarily the best approach, which is I why I mention something "kickstarter-like".

  2. Intriguing on the Kickstarter, I've seen it used by a large number of well-known authors (Tim Pratt, Mur Lafferty) who already have a strong audience. In the Tim Pratt case, I don't think it mattered even if he wasn't promoted on the front page (his recent project reached funding in 24 hours even before he had posted about it on his blog).

    I like the idea of making the sorting more transparent. I have been reading a lot of short-fiction for the last couple of months (on the idea that I'm focusing on writing short stories so therefore I should be following the market.) As I've been promoting my own selections, I usually search on the stories that I read to see if I can find an online version, but more often with some of the recent ones I've come across reviewers that look at each of the short stories in a magazine. I'm amused how sometimes I'll agree with the reviewer on one and not on another, so that I'm not seeing them be consistent.

    What would work for me in the transparent sorting process is finding those gatekeepers that result in consistent agreement with my own assessments. I expect this will mean that from a traditional publishing standpoint this would mean an increased emphasis on the editor's lines. I find it interesting that this has not occurred at this point.

  3. Hi there Aidan --

    Playing devils' advocate here...

    Publishers invest money in marketing, provide advances and editing services, have industry contacts, and generally create a quality benchmark for books to pass through, that most would recognise as being - at least - subjectively useful.

    Regardless of whether a publisher does the publishing work, or the writer spends all their time *being* a publisher, somebody needs to perform these functions if being read (and perhaps making money) is your objective. It may well be a service worth paying for.

    The situation with or without publishers is essentially the same, except with the former you have somebody sifting through the 'noise' to find something to back commercially. Folks can disagree with their choices, but publishers are *also* trying to find what everyone wants to read *and* have money riding on it...

    These days, I imagine that previously 'unpublishable' manuscripts submitted to publishers are likely to have a much easier route to appearing as very bad books with the help of modern technology. It's still likely to be unreadable chaff, though, and we'll still have to be sift through it.

    There may be some 'cause célèbre' from those junk piles who rises up outside of traditional concepts of publishing (e.g. virally supported on line), but the principles of publishing are still likely to be valid for the vast majority. There are only so many Stephen Kings. So what does everyone else do?

    The list of all books has to be somewhere. We can change who categorizes and sifts, but in the end we all want a bit of help finding the next good read, which means a few people fit at the top of that list and the rest go down below.

    At that point, regardless of who is choosing, some authors will always attempt to adjust their odds if they want to push out of position -- appealing to readers via some form of promotion -- and so we're back at point where a service could be provided on your behalf. Or you could do it yourself. But either way, it'll likely need need to be done if you want to be visible.

    I'd say promotion isn't actually a bad thing as long as it's not cynically executed, which is just as likely to be individuals as organizations.

    And while convention dictates it's not 'all about the money', it's quite a bit about the money if you want to be a full time writer instead of doing some other form of paid work.

    So I'd say that there are always gates -- it doesn't matter how good a book is if nobody can find it to read it, or no one is drawn to it in the first place.

    Sorting that out is *also* publishing, whether it's the effort of the author or a third party.