Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Zombie Publishing Memes #3 - Without Legacy Gatekeepers, No One Will Be Able to Find Good Books

This is the third in an ongoing series that Barry Eisler and I are writing. When we talk about zombie memes, we’re referring to arguments that just won’t die no matter how many times they’re massacred by logic and evidence. Because we’ve been shooting down so many of these memes for so long, and because they just keep reanimating (often repeatedly from the same people), we thought it would be useful to create an online source for easy (and time-saving) reference.

We’ll be tackling these memes one at a time over the course of the next few weeks and then publishing a free downloadable compendium, so if you’ve encountered a zombie meme yourself and don’t see it listed here, please mention it in the comments. And if you’re aware of articles on these or related topics, please refer us to them so we can include links. The complete list of zombie memes we’ve addressed so far appears at the end of this post.

Without Legacy Gatekeepers, No One Will Be Able to Find Good Books.

We’ve been talking about this one since at least 2010, and Joe debunked it in a post called The Tsunami of Crap in July 2011. Yet it staggers on even today.

The thrust of the argument is this: without legacy gatekeepers carefully curating the slush pile and winnowing choice for consumers, the unwashed hordes of self-published authors will unleash a deluge of worthless books that will engulf the good ones, preventing readers from finding anything worthwhile.

Of course it’s true that when there’s too much choice for consumers to sample individually, we need third-party systems to help us winnow the choice down to manageable levels. But it in no way follows from this that legacy publishing is the only or even the best such third-party system.

Here are few things to consider. First, when was the last time you sampled every single book in a bookstore before making a selection? Even in legacy’s heyday, the industry was publishing something like a quarter million new titles every year. Whatever winnowing function legacy provides, it therefore seems not a particularly stringent one.

Second, are there existing third party systems you primarily rely on to help you select the books you want to try? Recommendations from family and friends? Newspaper, magazine, and blog reviews? Search terms? The bestseller racks in bookstores? Amazon customer reviews? Do these means of winnowing choice seem more or less important than the traditional gatekeeping function that results in hundreds of thousands of new titles every year?

Third, can you think of any area in which consumers face more choice than they can reasonably manage themselves and in which there are no third-party systems to help them? Television (which, by the way, has grown from a handful of channels a generation ago to hundreds today -- and yet somehow, people can still find the good stuff)? Movies? Music? Restaurants? Travel? Too much choice creates a need for new systems to help consumers winnow that choice, and we’re unaware of any industry that has collapsed because people couldn’t find the good stuff for all the bad.

Fourth, if consumers really needed gatekeepers to help them manage their choices, the Internet itself would be useless. After all, for any given person, it’s a safe bet the Internet is 99.99999999% crap. And yet somehow, every day, each of us manages to find the good stuff amidst all that crap, all without any gatekeepers keeping the unwashed masses from putting their stuff on the Internet. If “tsunami of crap” proponents really believe the Internet would be better with gatekeepers screening out 99.99999999% of it, they should have the intellectual clarity and honesty to say so, or at least to explain why the immeasurably vast Internet works without gatekeepers while the more finite world of books would collapse in the gatekeepers’ absence.

Fifth, everyone has read books by legacy publishers which they didn't enjoy. Maybe they can point to bad writing, or editing, or formatting, or cover art. Maybe they just didn't like it. If a publisher failed you, they cannot be the sole arbiters of what constitutes a good book. Snooki, anyone?

Finally, the notion that we need legacy gatekeepers to build dykes lest we drown in a tsunami of crap is an instance of a logical fallacy whereby people conflate an important function (here, winnowing choice) with the entity that has traditionally provided this function (here, legacy gatekeepers). In fact, the entity that has provided a function is a demonstration of one way of providing that function. It doesn’t follow that the entity is the only or even the best way of providing that function.

The notion that “the old way is the best or only way” is such a common fallacy in publishing (and in life--see Theodicy and the Best of All Possible Worlds) that we’ve decided to give its own heading. We’ll return to it in a future entry and will cross reference individual instances like the Tsunami of Crap.

Previously addressed zombie memes: