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A Surplus of Quality

July 7, 2010

So, there’s this article over on Salon.com by Laura Miller.  You may have read it.  You may not – but go ahead and do so, and then come back.  I’ll still be here.

The gist of this article is a point that’s been talked about before (though perhaps more eloquently in Miller’s article) during the whole Great Death of the Publishing Industry apocalypse that’s been going on since the eBook thing  and self-publishing took off: that there is a veritable flood of poor-quality, un-edited or badly-edited manuscripts waiting in the wings ready to deluge you, the fair reader of fine fiction, in an unending wave of crap, in the aftermath of the publishing industry’s final death throws.  It will then be your job to discern the good from the bad (a  job you can only do by reading everything) – either that, or new gatekeepers will arise from the ashes of the old to tell the reading masses what’s good and what’s bad for them, as the editors and agents and publishing industry execs used to do.

Now, of course, the point of the piece is speculative in nature.  Certainly, publishing is undergoing some seismic changes, but it’s still a bit early to sound the death knell, and I think Laura Miller subtly suggests that in her peice.  And while I largely agree with her thesis, I think there’s a subtle correction that might need to be considered.

Certainly, there is potentially a lot of crap the writers of which want to get it published (present company not necessarily excluded, unfortunately, until proven otherwise).  But, I suspect there is another problem that compounds this.  Right now a very precious few ever succeed in getting their work past the various gatekeepers of agents and editors and marketing execs to get their work in front of the eyes of readers.  Most of these who do are good writers, some of them even great.

But for every good writer who succeeds at getting published, right now, I’ll grant that there are dozens of bad writers, but I hypothesize that there  are also a few more good writers who don’t manage to break in.

Which means that not only is there a flood of crap waiting in the wings; there is also a surplus of quality waiting to rain down on us.

What’s the problem, you ask?

Why, only this: as unrealistic as it is to expect the reading public to wade through all that crap, even if we narrowed it all down to just the good stuff, there’d still be more good writing available than your average reader can be expected to consume.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve already got a reading list that’s longer than I can handle, and that’s just dealing with traditionally published stuff.  If you add all the good, and even great, writers that are out there, as-yet unpublished (as much as I’d like to see many of them succeed), that already-unmanageable list becomes entirely unwieldy.

Certainly, there are super-readers who can absorb a certain increase in their reading material.  But for most of us, time is a precious commodity.  We want to read, but we don’t have time to read everything.  Generally, we slice up our reading list by self-selecting for genre, but if the “walls” of traditional publishing come down, that self-selection won’t be enough.

Think about it, though.  For instance, in my personally preferred genres (the speculative fiction genre), many of the old giants of the genre are still alive and kicking and writing new stuff.  Whenever they do, of course, the fans will flock to them.  (They’ve earned that.)  And just behind them is a whole new generation of rising stars and other published authors.  There are many of them.  And behind them, an untold number of writers who have not yet broken into the industry.  When the walls of publishing come down (if), that will be three generations of writers, including many really good writers in all three generations.  You’re not going to want to stop reading the old giants nor the rising stars just because the wall came down.  Do you have room for a whole new crop of fabulous fiction in your diet, let alone the accompanying less-than-superb fare?

That’s just food-for-thought for today.  Have fun reading!

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2010 1:54 pm

    I think that it would be nice for the bar to rise, in some respects. That way, the poor agents’ slush piles wouldn’t be so big that my poor Grand Novel gets buried under a plethora of hack-job romance novels!

    In other respects…it would be sort of a shame to shut down the self-presses just to improve the quality of writing in general. Isn’t that sort of totalitarian?

    I’m busy eating my fifth rejection letter from an agent. It’s not very tasty. It was a form letter, because of all the material that they were getting. Which is another testimony to your argument…

    • July 7, 2010 2:11 pm

      Well, I’m not specifically advocating any action, here. I’m speculating. A lot of sound and fury has been made about the death of traditional publishing, so I’m taking one of the common arguments against this predicted death (the need for gatekeepers, i.e. agents and editors, to filter out the less-than-stellar preemptively for the reading public) and asking a slightly different question about the implications of the loss of the old gatekeepers. What I’m saying is that I agree that our existing gatekeepers keep out a lot of lower-quality work, but that the “slush pile” is also currently burrying a lot of very good quality work as well. Maybe the weight is more in favor of the less-good, but there is good there is well, I’d put money on it.

      Central to this thesis is the idea that, although few who are trying to break in succeed in doing so, the existing ranks of those who have already broken in at some point in the past is sufficiently vast that the market for good quality fiction is already at or near capacity.

      Following this thought through and combining it with the “death of the industry” meme, and I came to the question: what if those “walls” came down, and all the good stuff that’s undoubtedly out there but unpublished, mixed in with the bad, suddenly became available?

      Readers would have a lot more good quality work to read (as well as bad).

      Given the economic laws of supply and demand, then (though I didn’t directly touch on this in my post), what happens next when supply increases rapidly? If the demand did not change (and here I presume it does not), then the natural consequence is that price must fall. Given the volume of good-quality material out there, that presents a unique challenge for the published (and established) writer and the unpublished alike, as the value of their products suddenly and rapidly approaches 0 (especially for the unpublished, whose product will closely resemble a commodity until it is sufficiently differentiated).

      Anyway… the point of this post was to consider the problem from the reader’s perspective. Do we (as readers) even have time for all the good stuff that’s out there already, much less what hasn’t been published yet?

      As for the perspective on this problem from the point-of-view of an unpublished author… that’s another question entirely…

      • July 7, 2010 2:38 pm

        I think I would have time, because of my current schedule. However, someone like you would not have time (unless you stopped blogging). People’s availability varies from person to person, and if they don’t have time in the first place, then how would more fiction being made available hurt their status?

        I see what you’re saying about the supply increasing and the price decreasing. That may hurt those trying to get published.

        Boy this is a complicated discussion. 🙂

      • July 7, 2010 2:50 pm

        You’re absolutely right that’s it’s a complicated issue.

        And I point out in my post that there are those who probably will have the time to absorb the increase in good books. But I don’t think this is a very common situation. (Then again, having a very constrained time resource, myself, my sample is a little skewed.)

      • July 7, 2010 2:41 pm

        I know that I do not have the time to read it all. I wish I did. My to-read list grows nearly daily. Even with the current state of publishing I already have to filter and choose – relying more and more on word of mouth, blog reviews, and articles. There are all the old books that I want to read, to catch up on, and new releases I want to keep my eye on.

        I don’t know what it means. What does kind of scare me as a reader and a writer is this: the death of the midlist / the backlist. I’ve already noticed that I can’t find some older books in bookshops – those ones I hadn’t gotten to yet. I’ve had to resort to ordering online.

        What if the generations you talk about disappear? What happens if publishing becomes only about what’s new?

        Sorry if I took the topic on a bit of a tangent. I’m just trying to wrap my head around this all.

      • July 7, 2010 3:02 pm

        Tangents are very welcome. There’s a lot of territory to explore on this topic. And you pose an interesting question, regarding the death of the midlists. That’s where most of the “current generation” and “rising stars” I mention currently live. A few of them are fully risen stars, but many are not, even when they’ve broken in.

        The “backlists” I’m not as immediately worried about… that’s been “dying”, apparently, for a long time, slowly. But with e-books, there’s potential for new life for the old backlists. If writers get their contracts right, old books need never “go out of print”. But, thinking about it, this only compounds the problem further. With each generation, the total number of available books increases dramatically – and the total available number of great and good books does, too. And if old books never go out of print, thanks to the magic of technology, then the supply for good and great books will continue to outpace any growth in demand.

        Why buy a new book from a midlister when you can get a ton of old Asimovs and Heinleins for dirt cheap on Amazon? (Or, closer to home for me, why buy a bright new fantasy star’s books when you can reread Tolkien for the umpteenth time?)

        I don’t mean that these problems are insurmountable (or, for that matter, are they necessarily “problems” so much as “conditions” or “situations” in which we find ourselves), but I don’t know the way around them – from either my point-of-view as a reader nor as a writer.

  2. July 15, 2010 2:39 am

    That’s a really interesting way of looking at the current situation. As someone who is convinced my work is at least “good” (i.e. competently written) despite a complete lack of success in selling my fiction, I’d like to believe that your thesis is sound. What I don’t see is any solution to the situation. For the average reader, the fact that a book has made it past the gatekeepers (agents and editors and publishers) into their local bookstore is an indication that it is more likely to be worth reading than the average self-published work. All else being equal, we can probably agree that this is correct – the odds of it being “good writing” (by whatever criteria one cares to apply) are better for the book issued by a major publisher than for one issued by a vanity press.

    The real problem is that with the shift in available media, the consolidation of publishing houses and the ongoing recession, the market for publication in the traditional sense has probably shrunk considerably. With fewer publishers to try, fewer still that take unagented work, and the need for publishers to be more risk-adverse as a matter of survival, the chances of an untried author cracking the traditional market become quite slim. So what are the good-but-not-bankable writers to do? I’m hoping that this niche will be filled by smaller, non-vanity presses, But if so, how does such a publisher gain the cachet and market penetration of the majors, or at least distinguish itself from the self-publishing houses? That’s the part I haven;t figured out yet. And I’m not sure the market as a whole knows the answer, either.

    • July 15, 2010 8:57 am

      Yes, that’s the problem with my analysis. I’ve got no answer.

      Yes, I agree pretty much completely with your first paragraph, with respect to the point-of-view of a reader. (I know that I have that viewpoint, no matter that I know that some self-published stuff really actually is good, my chances of finding something that I like among the pro-published is somewhat greater. Of course the reverse is also true: some pro-published stuff is not-so-great, IMO, but I can count the number of instances where I’ve found that to be true on one hand.)

      Your thought about smaller niche publishers does seem to be a growing trend – at least in the genre field. There are smaller groups popping up and doing successfully like Subterranean and Nightshade. But I think you’re right that publishing exclusively with small-press pro-publishers will lead to very few opportunities to gain wider exposure. Most of the people that I’ve seen publishing successfully with these small press publishers, so far, have been bigger authors who are using these niche publishers to publish some of their stuff that won’t have larger audiences anyway.

      Part of the problem for the contraction of publishers, I think, is that more and more people are looking and finding stuff they like through the newer, alternative channels, there is less demand for stuff from the big pro-publishers, which incents them to continue to consolidate and to be more risk averse with respect to unproven authors. That’s a vicious cycle. At some point, though, it has to break… Hopefully I’ll be there to take advantage of it when it does.

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