After recently reading a post by well-read blogger and literary agent Nathan Bransford about the future of publishing, I was giving some thought to this gated world of publishing and to Bransford’s POV on the subject of the changing face of publishing. In a nutshell, he argued that (indirect quote; please read full post):

self-publishing digitally will allow more writers to circumnavigate agents & editors, go straight to the published form, and, when their works are of a high quality, be “driven to popularity by passionate readers” – readers who somehow find these needles in haystacks and promote them (i.e., download them).

It strikes me as strange, though, that one might regard The Digital as capable of causing this sort of dramatic change… for writers. As if writers, in their desperation to be published and their exasperation at the querying/rejection process, will simply say, Forget it – I’ll publish it myself. Why would they turn to self-publishing now? Because it’s less expensive than it used to be? Yes, the tech allows it, but is self-publishing what writers want?

The flaw in such an argument is that it assumes writers have only opted not to self-publish because they haven’t wanted want to cough up the coin.

Self-publishing has been around for decades… and it has been darkened and marred by a stigma that has not, with the advent of e-books, been nicely polished away. Writers have never wanted – and, I’d argue, writers still do not want – to self-publish.

We want to be published (intentional use of the passive voice).
We see value in agents, editors, and marketing departments
at publishing houses; that hasn’t changed.

So why would the future of publishing, with digital as its guiding ray of light, see so many writers turn to self-publishing? It’s hard to argue that it would. At least, it’s hard to argue that digital self-publishing will in any way cannibalize the number of books published & sold the traditional way: with agents, editors, publishers, marketers.

But the Web & E-Texts May Offer Something to Publishing
Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube. Lily Allen was discovered on MySpace. They are 2 examples of talent discovered online – out of nowhere – and driven to popularity by passionate fans.

Admittedly, they are exceptions to the rule. And admittedly, it would be a hefty challenge for an undiscovered writer to record herself reading her MS, post it to YouTube, and get famous.

But isn’t it also a hefty challenge for an undiscovered writer to get in front of an agent who’ll see their potential amid 100s of other queries; sign to represent them; provide edits for their book that will precisely match an editor’s and her senior editor’s desires; publish it; and hope the readers, who’ve never seen the damn thing, love it and buy it?

Can’t we somehow use the Web to combine the easiest, best parts of those two options – of online discovery by the fanatic masses and of traditional publishing – and create a solution that improves publishing for everyone involved?–and, at the same time, includes a critical group normally excluded until the money’s been spent: readers.

“Driven to Popularity by Passionate Readers”
There was a time I wanted to be a book editor. I respect the role & value of the editor… and the agent… and everyone else involved in taking a manuscript from concept to creation to distribution.

But doesn’t it seem a bit odd that the only people filtering the quality of a manuscript are agents and editors? They are not the ones who’ll be buying these books in the end; the readers are. But only this select (read: elite) group of people – experts though they are – are giving the thumbs up or down? In the words of Amy and Seth, Really?

For the longest time, this is exactly how the marketing world worked, too. There was a Creative department and a Marketing or Accounts department; Marketing would tell Creative what they wanted, and Creative would sort out the how. And then Marketing would give the thumbs up or down, and the concept they selected would be published.

But the marketers weren’t always right.

Countless ad campaigns failed or blew up in the marketer’s face (remember the crowd-sourced Chevy ads?). Guessing at the best solution – based on whether you ‘like’ something or not – became very costly.

Then along came all these fancy web technologies, and now successful ecommerce sites use A/B and multivariate testing to test out their creative ideas with whom? With themselves? Uh-uh. With customers. With the very people who will be buying the item, after all. Smart online marketers are taking a back seat and letting the customers tell them – by voting with their credit cards – what creative is most effective… not vice versa. Lets Readers Discover Great Writers…
And Agents Reap the Benefits

The way to eliminate query letters and rejections is not to self-publish… because then you also eliminate all the amazing opportunities that come with traditional publishing and the people, skills & talents that make publishing so fascinating and, for some, profitable.

But what if we could eliminate query letters and rejections by looking at everything in the writer-discovery process differently?

(Why would we want to do this? For one, query letters don’t help agents judge fiction writing; they help agents judge querying skills.)

Here’s what we’ll be proposing with a movement from the traditional approach to breaking into publishing (starting with finding an agent) towards something less painful for everyone involved.

And here’s our proposed less painful version (with details of the final 2 steps to be discussed in an upcoming post):

If readers were to help writers refine their work before it ever sees an agent’s desk – if readers were to act as filters (since readers SHOULD be the filters) – not only would the quality of the writing be more front-and-center in the consideration process, but perhaps more books with proven marketability would get published… and those that readers don’t want to read wouldn’t.

Given the challenges in the publishing industry right now, this sort of filtration process can only help. But we’d love your thoughts on it, whether you agree or not.