Future of book publishing

It’s not a new debate, and the news isn’t new anymore. Editors loose their jobs daily, hop from one publishing house to another, or from a house to a literary agency, and then back to editing. Publishing world is a mill that constantly churns up the same water, while occasional rain brings fresh drops.

From time to time we hear questions about the need for editors, to say nothing of literary agents. Ask any writer and you’ll get a handful of opinions on the subject.

Some will say that editors are a necessary middle step before a book reaches readers, whereas others may opine: I’m going straight to self publishing. The times are ideal for those who want to skip the headache of going through the old process of submitting manuscripts, proliferation of self publishing venues allows for unprecedented freedom. It has not gone amiss on the publishing industry (see the eBook debate), where more and more high profile authors choose to publish directly to eBook format.

What do editors think about it?

“The people who tend to the words are the most endangered contributors to the publishing process […]” Writes one.

Alberto Manguel has his own view of things, and suggests that editors are dinosaurs slated for extinction, the sooner the better. In his books The City of Words, he asks the rhetorical question: Are writers the only creators who are considered dumb, and thus must require editors? After all a painter’s work is not edited. Neither is a composer’s. So, what is it about the publishing industry that makes a job of an editor indispensable?

He writes:

“This literature [saleable, easy reads] exists in every genre, from sentimental fiction to the bloodthirsty thriller, from the historical romance to mystical claptrap, from true confessions to the realistic drama. It confines “saleable” literature firmly to the realm of entertainment, of relaxation, of pastime, and therefore of that which is socially superfluous and ultimately unessential. It infantilizes both writers and readers by making the former believe that their creations must be licked into shape by someone who knows better, and by convincing the latter that they are not clever enough to read more intelligent and complex narrations. In the book industry today, the larger the targeted audience, the more obediently the writer is expected to follow the instructions of editors and booksellers (and lately of literary agents as well), allowing them to decree not only practical copyediting changes of fact and grammar, but also of plot, character, setting, and title. […] The controller in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World explains these tactics succinctly: “that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art.”

As an author I have to agree with Manguel. If I want to be published I have to wag my tail every time an editor or an agent graces me with her attention, and accept whatever she demands of my books.

However, I am an optimist, and I believe that ultimately the reader  decides. Manguel argues that the reader has no choice, must consume only what an editor chews and spits out, and at last this model is begining to bite back, hence the troubles facing the industry.

One can hope that the debate on the future of publishing looks, and with humility, to those that it should always keep in the foreground: the readers.

Alberto Manguel Podcast

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