If You Guys Were Publishers, You’d Publish Books

So I watched The Social Network the other day, and there was a particular scene that grabbed my attention. In the scene, Mark Zuckerberg (the inventor of Facebook) tells a group of Harvard grads who are suing him: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”Ā It took me a moment to parse this zinger, and once I did I thought it might just be stupid. But a couple of items in the ebook news this week made me think of it again.

The first was Joe Konrath’s invented dialogue on his blog between an author and acquisitions editor. To spare you wading through the whole thing, the gist is this: digital avenues to publishing have made traditional publishers rip-off merchants who gouge authors to line their pockets. It plays into a deep vein of mythology in the aspiring author world ā€“ publishers are out to get authors, steal their work and change it, steal their profits and then dump them when they prove not to be profitable anymore. And to those authors, I say this: if you wanted to self-publish your book, you’d self-publish your damn book. To Joe Konrath’s credit, he has actually done this, and made a very decent living doing so. But a brief flick through the comments of his blog post are a sideshow of authors who agree with him, but haven’t actually found success by self-publishing their work ā€“ digitally or otherwise ā€“ all beating the same drum: the publisher is dead, long live the self-publisher.

The other bit of news that has been flittering around the blogosphere over the past week is that Amazon is setting up a script assessment arm. Essentially they’re creating a space for writers to critique each other, with the best scripts that float through the system being passed along to Warner Bros in an exclusive first-look deal. There’ll be cash prizes throughout to motivate writers, and any writer that does get their script successfully turned into a film is guaranteed $200,000 from Amazon. Many bloggers, understandably, are seeing this as the death knell for script assessment, and can easily see Amazon turning their vast infrastructure into doing the same thing for book manuscripts.

I can see the same thing happening. But I’m not as convinced that it’s going to work. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love it if it did. When Authonomy first started, I thought it was a fantastic idea. Get a community of writers together to assess each others’ writing, and the best will surely rise to the top, to then be skimmed off by enterprising publishers. But to the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t worked fantastically well for HarperCollins. And I don’t believe it will work fantastically well for Amazon either.

The thing about publishing books is that there is a massive proportion of people who read who also want to write. Massive. And here’s the other thing: most of them are bad. So while the theory behind getting writers to do their own filtering is enticing, the logic is flawed. You can’t ask bad writers to assess other bad writers and expect them to find gold. This is why the industry uses a pool of readers, editors, agents, publishers and even other writers to help filter out the bad from the good. All of these people are talented and have a stake in the outcome, and work very hard to maintain a standard of quality in published books. And readers still complain that too many bad books are published. And writers still complain that there are too many ‘gatekeepers’.

So, bring on the self-publishing revolution, I say. Let all would-be writers who cannot get noticed by an agent or publisher publish their own work. And let us see if it succeeds. Because I strongly suspect that if these writers and companies were publishers, they’d already be publishing books.