Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pirates, Gatekeepers and Darwinian Publishing Part I

It's odd how events trigger unrelated ideas.

I just heard a pirate on the radio, you know the one:

"Yaaarh, Cap'n."

That accent has been instantly recognizable as the iconic 'pirate' accent for the past sixty years, even by people who have never seen the film or heard of actor Robert Newton who uttered it in "Treasure Island" in 1950. How does such a thing get embedded in the collective consciousness, so deeply in the culture that it is still being used today?

I think the answer is it strikes some sort of chord, some basic understanding/connection in the American subconscious that it sticks there and won't go away. To do that it must compete with tens of thousands of other equally clever and memorable utterances. But…without a Disney film to carry it, this iconic accent would never have been heard, and certainly would not be fixed in the culture.

That brings us to gatekeepers. The public was only able to hear that accent because some number of gatekeepers (agents, producers, directors, casting companies) at Disney Studios hired Newton and approved his interpretation of the character. The gatekeepers ruled.

For the past two hundred years in the publishing industry the gatekeepers have been agents and editors. If one of them didn't like or understand what a writer wrote, no one got the chance to see it.  In other words it never got a chance to compete in the marketplace.

In the past two decades we all know of blockbuster stories that only got printed because some small publisher shrugged and said, "what the heck, maybe we'll break even." It is understandable. Costs of publishing have been skyrocketing while sales are flat, driving agents and editors to look for that blockbuster, which only means they are unwilling to take real risk and are continually looking for the Last Big Thing, which means they generally miss the Next Big Thing. Again, gatekeepers ruled.

Meanwhile advancing technology conspired to put word processing in the hands of literally anyone, at least in the USA, insuring an avalanche of badly written stories magically appearing in agents' in boxes.

In theory, (Wouldn't you love to live in Theory, everything seems to work there.)

In theory, competition improves the product and drives down prices as businesses innovate (i.e. take risks) to bring more and better products to the free market. In other words, it is a Darwinian process with the buying public determining who survives and prospers. Of course it has been a long time since we've had a really free markets in most things, electronics being a notable exception. Hence all the iThings and eThings that keep getting cheaper and better and adding more function.

But publishing has never really been a free market because of the nature of how stories get accepted to appear in print. Gatekeepers again. The producer of the product, the writer, never really had a practical way of competing with the choices made by the publisher, because of his (the publisher's) wide, deep, and exclusive distribution and marketing channels. There have been notable exceptions with self published works eventually attracting a big enough following that a 'real' publisher picked it up. But these are really rare and countable on one hand.

Today the iThings, eThings, the Internet and real innovation and competition have brought us to the edge of Darwinian Publishing. An emerging marketplace where the buyers REALLY get the chance to decide who prospers and who does not, and the producers (writers) get to directly compete in the open market.

More in Part II about the ways this is coming about, hint: it's not just about ebooks.


  1. I suspect you may be right but I wonder how much longer it will take to get there.

  2. Really interesting post, Bart! I agree the traditional publishing gatekeepers are losing control of the asylum, but I believe the end-game will be a new set of gatekeepers. Once all the truly craptacular stuff out there gets published along with the midlist stuff and the really great stuff, the reader will be so overloaded that the result will be either 1) no one will read anymore for fear of being buried under the craptacular; 2) leery of reading anything because the books one has heard of belong not to the better writers but the better self-promoters; 3) the new gatekeepers--reviewers and book bloggers--will emerge. Of couse, my crystal ball is rarely accurate :-)

  3. Dear Bart,
    I would like to live in theory. How do I get there?

  4. Linda:
    That's the unknown here. IMO it will happen much quicker than we can imagine, as really quickly accepted technology sometimes does.

    You are right about alternate 'gatekeepers' and about the avalance of craptacular stuff. But that still leaves us all with the option to search for things we like on our own, which we cannot do now because of the current gatekeepers. Reviews and blogs will undoubtedly play a role. As with any truly free market, it will self-regulate. And the asylum is already in the hands of the inmates.

    To get to Theory, you go straight through Neverland, take a right at Brigadoon and it's just past Camelot, about a mile up on the left. Just follow the signs.