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Friday, June 17, 2011

Of Filters, Risks, and Torrents

by Cynthia Light Brown

Susan (see post below) got me to thinking about filters. You can filter data in Excel, parents can filter out objectionable material on TVs and computers, your body filters in and out all sorts of things.

One of the oldest types of filtering is in water.

Water filtration has a couple of similarities with the quality filtration in traditional publishing. For the maximum—best—filtration, you have the following:

  • It normally passes through the filter at a very slow speed. (There are two speeds in publishing: Slow, and VERY SLOOOOOOW.)
  • It passes through several stages of filtration. (Can you say agent, acquiring editor, executive editor, marketing personnel, acquisition committee, copy editor?)
  • You have to have good quality filters to get good quality filtration. (aka you get what you pay for, or a good editor is worth her weight in signed, first edition Harry Potter books.)
  • Filtering can remove beneficial constituents (in water, stuff like fluoride; in books—read on.)

I fully believe that traditional publishing will still play a big role in how we choose our books. I love my physical books, plus I’m a traditional gal at heart.

But traditional publishing also filters OUT a lot of good stuff. If you’re a writer who’s been seriously writing for any length of time—even if you’re well published—you know what I’m talking about. I wrote a picture book a few years ago that I still love; it landed me an agent, an editor who loved it, and it went to acquisitions at a major publisher. The marketers on the committee just couldn’t quite picture the illustrations. The manuscript is now in a drawer, keeping company with lots of other manuscripts. How many authors have heard that the editor loves, loves, loves the story, but it’s not quite edgy enough or is in between middle grade and YA or is too literary or too quiet or is a little too close to another book on their list or is just too too too?

Please don’t think I harbor any ill feelings towards the industry because my story isn’t in full color in Barnes and Noble. They’re a business like any business and very good at what they do. But they respond to the market, and a big part of their decisions is about risk, not about quality. The risk of new authors, the risk of a book that doesn’t quite know which shelf it should be on, the risk of something that would have a following, but maybe not a big enough following. In other words, yes they filter out a lot-lot-lot of stuff based on quality, but they also filter out a lot of stuff based on other factors.

Here’s the thing: the risk for publishers is not fully aligned with the risk for authors, or even for readers. Partly aligned, yes, but not fully. And authors need to figure out where we differ.

If you’re a writer with a quirky book, or a book that needs to sit on an in-between shelf, or may have a limited following, then your book represents a high risk for publishers, but not for you.

And if you’re a reader, when traditional publishing filters out books for reasons other than quality, your risk of not finding a book you want is higher than it is in the e-publishing world.

Except for the fact that earthquakes cause tsunamis. E-publishing is at least a 9.0 on the Richter scale of upset in the publishing world, and we now have torrents of books (and yes, I mean torrents in both the flooding sense and the internet sites for downloading illegal books sense). So even though a reader might be able to find the perfect book in the e-world that wasn’t available in the traditional world, how do they find it?

Forgive me for continuing with the water metaphor, but I think what is needed is perhaps more channeling than filtering. Getting the right book to the right reader. And the more finely divided those channels can be, the better. Part of that can be a filter for quality—sorting out the real dreck—but even more it’s style, genre, sub-genre. Not just a “it’s high quality” but what about the book makes it great. Then, as a reader, I can decide if those criteria are important to me. Because things that are important to me may not be important to other people. That’s always been tough to figure out, and with the sheer number of books coming out now, it’s even more daunting. I have some thoughts on specifics, that I’ll post in Part 2, sometime in the next week.

1 comment:

  1. Does it have to be either/or? Trad publishing filters as well as channels, doesn't it?

    Meanwhile, I think the internet is stronger on channeling than on filtering. The filtering it does apply seems based mostly on popularity/sales numbers. (And isn't that where the trad publishing industry has been tending lately, too?)

    Much food for thought!

    Love your scientific analysis of the issues, BTW.