For the last few days I’ve been following the editorial pains of friend and fellow British Fantasy Award judge Hal Duncan on Twitter. I don’t know what it is Hall is editing, I’m just glad its not me having to do it!
It’s amazing how many writers can plaster their manuscript in copyright warnings, but can’t format it worth a damn. This says all the wrong things about how you see your own work. Because what it says is, “I don’t believe in myself as a writer.” If you really believed in yourself as a writer, you would know that no reputable editor would ever rip your work off (if you’re sending to disreputable editors then no amount of copyright warnings will protect the work). Editors and publishers need great writers, not just great writing. If they like what they see, they don’t just want what the book they are reading, they want the next dozen books that follow it as well.
I’ve seen two discussions recently about Standard Manuscript Format basically saying, why bother? Sure, there are editors who aren’t concerned about manuscript format, mostly at small presses and fanzines because they haven’t heard of it. But there are also many, many editors who won’t even read a manuscript that isn’t in SMF. Why? Because if the writer doesn’t even have enough respect for their work to place it in the professional format, how can you trust them to be professional in the thousands of other ways a writer needs to be if you’re going to invest in publishing their manuscript? Also, they get a bazillion scripts a week so it’s an easy way to just get rid of some.
SMF was once essential because the manuscript had to go through many processes that depended on standard format. Now word processors make those processes easier. But they also mean there are more writers, submitting more manuscripts than ever before. If you really want to stand out from the crowd, don’t hand scrawl your manuscript on mauve paper scented with truffle oil. Put it in Standard Manuscript Format. Make it look like nearly every great, soon-to-be-published book that has ever hit the desk of any editor anywhere. These days, that kind of professionalism and confidence stands out a mile.
Here’s a not widely discussed fact. Some of the established publishers we now recognise were set up in part as elaborate tax dodging ruses by wealthy people whose real business interests were elsewhere. A little publishing house could run at a loss and still help make a profit by reducing the tax bill. And if you could give your wife an advance for her little novel…or your friends wife…or possibly your mistress…well all the better.
Extreme examples perhaps. But it’s an unfortunate truth that for most of its history the novel has been the plaything of the rich. And while great writers aren’t often born from wealth, middling ones more than often are, and the ranks of the publishing profession are dominated by people with at least a little wealth behind them. As the publishing industry has professionalised, and as society as a whole has become more meritocratic, access has widened considerably. But it’s still dominated by people from a small number of universities, and hence a rather narrow background.
The great leveller in this equation is the internet. Without blogs and social media I can say with certainty I would never have had any of the opportunities to write and publish that I have had so far. So it’s hard for me to interpret the attack by Peter Stothard, chair of that bastion of literary snobbery the Booker prize, on blogging as harmful to literature, as anything more than an entitled whinge. Stothard’s rhetoric is so one sided and ignorant that we might suspect he is out to troll the blogosphere as a publicity exercise for an award that barely generates any significant publicity beyond the book world itself. The Booker increasingly relies on the book bloggers it is attacking to generate any buzz at all. But however calculated the trolling, it reflects a real agenda.
The meat of Stothard’s argument – that blogging is drowning out the voices of professional literary critics – is demonstrable nonsense. Critics who understand how to communicate in the new social media sphere are more influential than ever – I’d put forward Lev Grossman as a prime example of a critic who straddles old and new. The noise generated by the internet means we need effective signal boosting from curators of all kinds, a role critics are ideally suited to fill. But that role has also diversified. Neil Gaiman is a more influential taste maker than any single critic. The roles of writer, editor and critic are increasingly different hats worn by the same people.
None of this is communicated in Stothard’s argument. Likely because Stothard is simply blind to it. And perhaps wilfully so. The literature he sees under threat is a lovely walled garden, for those privileged few allowed to play in it. The online literary world is a vast complex jungle that demands an entirely different mindset from all those navigating it. Stothard is used to a world where a small handful of people could dictate the agenda for everyone else. Now literature is diversifying, becoming thousands of interrelated conversations that no one person or powerful clique can control. That jungle is more competitive and perhaps less friendly than the old literary world, but it is much more open to anyone with the drive to be a part of it. The critics who succeed in that jungle will be the ones worth hearing, not the ones who rely on an entitled background.
This evening I bought Jeffrey Eugenides ‘The Marriage Plot’ from the Amazon Kindle store. I would love to say that I always buy books when it would be just as easy to download a pirate version for free, but I would be being dishonest. But buying the book has recently become a far more likely outcome, for the simple reason that I want to see what other people are saying about it.
Reading through The Marriage Plot I am able to see where other readers have highlighted passages. I find this really quite interesting. It would of course be much, much more interesting if readers could share comments on the text directly through their Kindles. We may read books in isolation but we love to talk about them together. Books are about our shared human experience, so it’s good and natural that we want to exchange thoughts about them. Take it a step further. Think about the commentary that accrues around a text over the years. Reviews. Academic studies. Reader comments. Author interviews. Social media gives us the technology to connect all of these materials directly to the text. That’s incredible added value, which has hardly even begun to be tapped.
The publishing industry has been chronically slow in exploiting the unique added value of user generated meta-content around the product they publish. Particularly as it provides an absolutely compelling solution to the problem of piracy. Only the authorised text allows you both to read commentary, and to comment upon the text. Readers are in effect paying not for the book, an increasingly worthless product, but for entry to the community of the book’s readers, an increasingly valuable experience. My prediction is that the first players to provide a seamless commentary and meta-content system for published texts will gain an advantage in the game of modern publishing. It will almost certainly be Amazon, unless the major publishers suddenly gain a gift for innovation they have previously lacked.