A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
There have been few subjects that have provoked so much controversy in the den as ebooks and how we cover them. Some people hate the whole idea of reading off a “machine”. Books are a quaintly old-fashioned pass-time and we all have different associations with relaxation. For some of us, anything that resembles a laptop, powerbook or mobile phone is synonymous with work, not relaxation. For others, the smell, the feel the look of books is all important. All part of our associations with the immersive reading experience. It is mainly this idea of defending the printed book that leads to so much ire being directed at ebooks. Once scoffed at by all and sundry, now there are few who would deny that the ebook has not made significant inroads and looks to be a major part of the future of publishing.
As usual, gathering my thoughts together on what I might want to write about for Ebook Fortnight, a lot of disparate issues to sprang to mind. I want to talk about issues surrounding ebooks in general, and also more specifically about the experience of ebook publishing – including covers, price points and free lists.
Having struggled all morning to unite these disparate strands, and being greedy enough to want to write about them all, I’ve decided to go for the old Making-it-look-like-it- all-makes-sense-by-adding-in-headings trick. I’m going to post up a couple of short articles today – articles that are maybe too truncated for a full post, but together might put out there a number of questions, thoughts and musings to provoke general thoughts and debate. So please join in if you have any thoughts on any of these issues, big or small. So for my first truncated and slightly unsatisfactory piece, here we go. Heading No. 1:
Where are the Gatekeepers? And does it matter?
One of the big arguments we have in the den is the place of the gatekeepers. Many of us, being writers, love the idea of kicking over the traces and going it alone. No more waiting. No more rejection. The ability to edit at will. To have a cover that finally suits our work, our perception of our own work and what we want to say…
The publishing world is full of gatekeepers. It is a small industry with a lot of people wanting in. Agents, who previously worked for authors, can be as hard to gain as a publishing contract itself. Many publishers are not open to unsolicited work or only accept submissions from agents. Agents themselves may refuse to submit to smaller publishers. And that’s just the start of it. Add in the other establishment gatekeepers: the editors, the marketing departments, the book buyers, the reviewers, the newspapers, the wider media…And you realise that there is a whole series of hoops to jump through. How many writers last the course? And with advances reducing all the time, it is not surprising that many might see going down the ebook route as the more attractive option.
Traditionally, there has been a tendency amongst the would-be published to revere the gatekeepers. Many people on a writing forum I used to frequent would talk of them as ultimate experts – almost as though they were getting their homework marked by a teacher or sitting an A-level. They would talk of the bar that your work had to cross (I always had visions of manuscripts pole-vaulting onto agents and editors’ desks). They would analyse the way that your accompanying letter would be analysed and attach enormous importance to doing things the “correct way” and according to the system.
Of course, when you meet people who actually work in that system you find out things are not really like that – they are human like everyone else and struggling with other demands. You find out that many slushpiles are lucky to get a cursory glance, let alone someone pouring over your cover letter analysing it for signs of the right mixture of winning personality and grammatical perfection. You find that it can be tougher to get an agent than a publisher. You get disillusioned with the numbers of vaguely well-known people or journalists or just people who know people in that world who seem to have doors opened for them whilst struggling would-be writers are still plugging away sending their stuff in to the slushpile – year in, year out.
Epublishing offers writers that tantalising opportunity just to get their work out there. Just do it. Not wait for permission anymore.
After all, what do all these gatekeepers know and who do they think they are anyway, we can say to ourselves, standing proudly and looking windsweptedly proud and alone, balanced on our rocky promontory, into the future.
Getting rid of the gatekeepers allows greater flexibility, more originality. People don’t have to shove themselves uncomfortably into genres that don’t quite fit anymore. They don’t have to get a yay from editors, just to fall at the hurdle of the marketing department.
And, as a woman, you don’t have to accept a cover THAT IS PINK.
But there is a price to be paid.
There are the obvious questions – how do readers sift through the inevitable piles of dross out there?
Yes, there is the weird and the wonderful and the eccentric. Just a cursory look around the self-published work on the Kindle reveals the idiotic to the mildly disturbing (Telephone Boxes, their History and Variety is a particular favourite, along with Ten Step Guide to Pissing in Public.) But what about the illiterate, unedited and unspellchecked? And believe me, there is a lot of it around. How do the good books – the hidden gems – get a chance to be found, let alone shine, when buried in a tonload of rubbish?
Isn’t ebook self-publishing the equivalent of dumping the publishers’ slushpile online? With the poor reader expected to do the job of sifting it through?
And there’s another, more serious, question recently raised in the den by Bookfox Eve, specifically in relation to self-published books for children – but applicable across the board.
If the doors are open to everything, how can parents in particular be assured that self-published ebooks for kids won’t contain disturbing or even completely unacceptable material?
A couple of years ago the book world exploded during the whole age-ranging debate – with many published writers fondly recounting how they had read things far too old for them or with “adult” themes that benefited their writing imagination. However, the uncharted and unvetted offerings of the internet set up a whole new minefield of issues.
Books on telephone boxes and pissing in public may be charmingly eccentric and harmless, but it does not take a huge leap of the imagination to realise that, with no gate-keepers, there is nothing to stop the truly disturbing getting through. At least until the site administrators realise it’s there.
This is a serious problem. But I would argue, it is a problem for parents in relation to the whole of the internet, not just ebooks.
How we approach the problem of gatekeepers from both a quality and content point of view is going to be very interesting as ebooks develop. Will new gatekeepers emerge? Will people will rely on trusted websites or blogs? Perhaps directories of vetted and read and reviewed self-published books will emerge. Will readers pay extra for such services?
I am reminded of earlier debates about reviewing itself and blogging. Blogging, it was argued, would destroy the mainstream reviewing in newspapers. And the online world would destroy that of the printed paper. In many ways, this has started to come to pass, with all the associated debate we are now having about the ebook – about quality, about veracity. About suitability of content.
But it seems to me that these are important debates to be having whatever the form. We cannot stop the way the internet and digital has changed, and continues to change, the way we receive information. But we do need to be honest about the issues that surround it. As a great fan of bookblogs, I tend towards that side of the debate. But I can also see the many problems – of subjectivity, of exploitation, of how on earth anyone – writer, critic, journalist – ever gets paid.
We may rejoice in this moment where the gates have opened. But, in time, will we find we turn to new gatekeepers – but who will they be?
This article is part of Ebooks Fortnight on Vulpes Libris.