The flood of self-published fiction (including my own modest contribution) does not please the majority of fiction publishing houses – and with good reason. No industry likes to compete against self-manufactured junk, or at least unsanctioned junk that has not been properly spell checked and molested by a team of sweaty marketing zealots.
Publishing houses ought to stop worrying. I’m sure it will all work out. Consider the previous revolution in print: monks, royal scribes and other official producers of the medieval written word must have been apoplectic with rage when Gutenberg’s movable type enabled anybody with a few coins and a hare-brained idea to publish their works willy nilly, without giving due consideration to religious or political dogma. The movable type ushered in the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment. Intellectual and scientific progress received a much-needed shot in the arm. In time, even monarchs learned to fear their subjects, which I think is a healthy arrangement.
Of course, the increased access to communications / publishing technology during this period meant that people increasingly adopted the roles of both creator and critic, leading to all sorts of manics and hot heads massacring one another. While I heartily believe that scientia potentia est, we don’t need cheap books as an excuse for killing. Reflexive hatred, fear and stupidity will do nicely — which helpfully leads me back to the topic of publishing houses.
I like to think of publishing houses as close relations to estate agents, banks, car salesmen or lawyers: people and organisations that feed off human social inefficiency. These groups exist because they corner and control certain types of information and processes. While I happily admit that I need a publisher, I certainly don’t consciously want one — sort of like I wouldn’t really want my gut flora if there was a better option. But I have no choice: I need its help in achieving a certain goal, at the risk of certain undesirable side-effects.
In the meantime I am obliged to do my own editing, design my own covers and make feeble attempts at social media marketing where I share useless witticisms and inane comments in the hope of generating things called ‘clicks’.
It is in such and similar areas where publishing houses claim to add quality to a work, implying that most self-published authors represent a thickening layer of brown, smelly foam that threatens to soil the tranquil oceanic goodness of the Traditionally Produced Book released by the Lords of the Traditional Publishing Industry (although some publishers are scrambling to embrace the self-publishing and ebook scenes, albeit with hilarious reluctance).
But foam dissipates. The scum of literary sewage disperses, floating away on the currents of economy and time. The truly worthless self-published works — of which there are many indeed — are forgotten, while a happy few gain the attentions of a publishing house. That said, being smothered in the perfumed bosom of an established publisher is no vindication of the quality or originality of a work — and yet such authors occasionally enjoy enormous success. E. L. James, for example, is currently raking in a nipple-stiffening amount of money for reasons I don’t entirely understand.
Publishing houses should be delighted at the current state of affairs, given that ideas — even recycled ideas — are what really matter these days. Our gut flora have never had it this good…