I published this comment on http://theswivet.blogspot.com/ earlier today. It was in response to the general discussion of a hypothetical question of what would the world look like if writers paid agents to read their work and other such weighty matters regarding the greatly exaggerated demise of the publishing industry (replete with the REM soundtrack: "The End of the World as We Know It")
The product of a writer's work--whether it is marketable as an artistic distillation--is determined by an imperfect system. Often the distillation is malformed or downright unreadable. But, the scary thing that writers everywhere decry is the trust we must put in strangers' judgment. It is often such a small polling of the general interest, we are forced to wonder if this singular judgment is correct. The publishers pay big money to writers/agents that flop, right? Is it unfathomable to think that they also may let a Hemingway slip through their editorial fingers?
On the other hand, agents and editors are inundated with such a large outpouring of potential work--and they sadly cannot print it all--that they must choose what they deem to be the best business decision. They do not want to invest poorly. They are gambling on interest in a creative property. It is more volatile than selling a tangible product via a pitchman on tv.
This means that writers must remember foremost it is not the art, but the marketability of their creation that must drive them. That is, of course, if they wish to be published.
Agents are inserted into the publishing equation as both a "gate-keeper" and a marketer/career manager. Their dual role is sometimes conflicting. They must demonstrate both attraction and repulsion, addition and subtraction. Agents have created more frustration in exchange for taking the onus off of the big bad editors. It is the agents who are often regaled with the constant whine of unpublished, unloved, confused (and dare I say, talentless) aspiring writers attracted to the bright lights of the publishing world by their common passion for the written word...and those fat advances that they are reminded of constantly.
I say all this to say that I feel that the future of books is not doomed. Readers’ tastes and expectations will change as they always have. Eventually, writers will catch up, despite their own reluctance to change.
As we move forward into this brave new publishing world, I think that a shift in the relationships between those who fund the publishing of books and those who produce the works of art will be affected most. The debate over the next decade will not be the mode of artistic delivery. It will be the business model of its production and distribution. Additional "middle men(women)" may be inserted to ease the strain of submittals (which I predict, God forbid, will increase exponentially), and a more hands-on approach will be invested to ensure the quality of the material publishers are buying is secure. Editors will enable agents better as to what the market trends are, share more openly with the potential writing clients their needs and much of the mumbo jumbo hocus pocus of writing will be removed.
This will produce a more sterile, more-informed-but-less-personal writing style with mass-market appeal that will prove effectual until another invention will force us to concentrate on greater artistic forms and deeper human communication.
Whew. Sorry for the long comment.
I wanted to write more, but I will save it as fodder for posts later this week. And I heavily edited this after I originally posted the comment. The author of Eats Shoots and Leaves would have choked on her raspberry scone if she was browsing the comments section today.