In my previous post, I discussed some of the changes brought by the e-revolution for publishing. The advantages for the author are immediately obvious. In a creative world dominated by the corporate bottom line and top-heavy publishers that drive the cost of books up, authors find themselves increasingly squeezed from all sides. The book publishing industry is less profitable than ever, and more authors are published than every before, resulting in less money being available to be allocated to any given book for advertisement and publicity campaigns. In fact, more and more publishers are looking to authors to bear the brunt of the advertising and buzz for their books. Meanwhile, authors have almost no control over their cover art and inside flap copy.
With the rise of the e-revolution, authors no longer need to pass through these often seemingly insurmountable gates and their keepers; they are able to bypass them completely and take their wares directly to readers.
The chief objection to this new digital publishing is that of quality; naysayers can only shake their heads in dread of what gigantic glut of mediocre reading material will be foisted upon those poor dupes, the reading public. This argument, more than anything else, is the argument for the preservation of the gatekeeper hegemony. This attempt to preserve the literary, media and news regulatory elites is always the last, desperate hand-ringing attempt to hold onto power by those suddenly threatened to lose their place. “You need us,” they say.
It is the gasping plea of that stereotypical villain at last surrounded by the peasants he has oppresses for so many years, all of them armed with torches and pitchforks. He staggers around within their circle, whining and protesting about how much he has improved all their lives, and that they’re really being darned ungrateful. We all know what happens next, of course. The people see how arrogant the villain truly is, how he views the average person too stupid to be able to evaluate the world on his own. They close in on him as he yells and flails, and the last we see and hear are kicking arms and a scream cut short.
The works published without professional reworking will be poorly produced, the elites claim. But, of course, most authors understand the need for a good editor and copyeditor to really get the manuscript into fighting shape. If they don’t, they’re fools. The only trouble is that they are being kept from the professionals by those very elites. If the publishing industry wouldn’t sneer at e-books and the digital revolution, many authors would pay decent readers’ fees to have folks look over and help polish their manuscripts; causing the general value and content of the average e-book to soar higher. Those authors who didn’t believe they needed an editor would quickly discover how wrong they were, as customers begin to complain about typos and other basic errors. Their sales would correspondingly suffer against those who got the offered assistance.
Even now, though, it is easy enough to glean the quality of a book, as all e-book sellers allow previews that enable buyers to suss out the ability of the author. Epstein, in Book Business, writes that the e-revolution will “test the human capacity to distinguish value from a wilderness of choice, but humanity has always faced this dilemma and solved it well enough over time.” Every time new technology places more power in the hands of ordinary people, there is more ability to make more things available, with a corresponding drop in quality.
But then, this was as true for the historical cusp of the printing press and the mass production of paper, which allows more people the freedom to print and read books as it is for the e-revolution. We seem to have sorted out these problems with the wide reach of books today, and we will solve the new challenges of the e-book revolution too. We can do this because the “filter that distinguishes value is a function of human nature, not of particular technologies.” There is, for Epstein, “strong grounds for optimism.,” due to the fact that the “critical faculty that selects meaning from chaos is part of our instinctual equipment, and so is the gift for creating and recreating civilizations.” Mankind seems to have a “genius for finding their way, for creating goods, making orderly markets, and assigning value.” For this reason, Epstein assures us that there is no reason to fear that the internet, or the e-revolution, will overrun this faculty of our being. “In fact,” he concludes, “the Web’s diversity will enlarge these powers, or so one’s experience of humankind is permitted to hope.”