Assuming publishing as a whole is akin to Christianity writ large–your Orthodox, Mormons, Methodists, Pentecostals, etc.–then the Big-Five are the Roman Catholic Church and the self-publishing community is the Evangelists. Think about it for a minute…
Founded in the 1st century AD, the Catholic Church has been around so long its part of the cultural fiber in a way that’s impossible to remove from the conversation. Worldwide there are 1.2 billion members, led by the Pope in Rome. Structured around rigid rules and tradition, the Catholic Church has some not-insignificant hurdles to become a Priest. Sure the Church is corrupt and plagued by scandal, but it remains the strongest faction of Christianity due not just to immense wealth and momentum,but to the status earned by its clergy over centuries. Whether that faith is warranted, the illusion of its value supersedes any argument of fact.
By comparison, most places will site the requirement to become an Evanglist Minister as a desire to be one above all else. Like all things in life there are good Evangelists and bad Evangelists, those who dedicate themselves to the Calling and those who pay lip service to it. Regardless there is only one fundamental requirement to becoming one, an unswerving desire to tell the story of Christianity and covert others, to bring the ‘good news’ to all corners of the globe.
Does this sound familiar?
In recent weeks we’ve had this looped conversation pinging back and forth between those who believe self-publishing (or indie publishing! Because reasons!) is the one true path and Big Five publishing who believe the system serves a purpose. The former would say the system is unfair. In Big Five publishing one does not succeed or fail solely on talent, nor are the rights contractually granted conducive to earning a living. Traditional publishing argues that cream rises to the top and the rights, while often a problem, do not detract from the overall benefits of the corporate backing. Where the conflict lies is self-publishing, who is new on the scene and eager to establish its faith as the true one, pushing a narrative like Justin Bieber’s publicist after a bender. Their narrative expounds that, not only is Big Five publishing functionally elitist, it is actually an inferior way to make money as an author. Not dissimilar is the argument that Catholicism, bound up in its traditions and history, is of declining relevance. The response is a movement that not only tries to trumpet its philosophy, but actively recruits from extant traditions to erode traditional paths.
Hugh Howey, the self-publishing equivalent of the Vicar of Christ, has argued, with spurious data, that self-publishing and electronic books aren’t so much the future as the right now. His argument is predicated on the notion that Big Five publishing will collapse because it will not respond to the demands of the marketplace–namely pricing and format. Unfortunately, he speaks not at all about quality, something most self-publishing czars wave their hand as if to say, ‘readers will figure it out on their own.’ It’s a position built on the idea that quality doesn’t really matter. It assumes that readers, particularly Kindle readers, will buy books that sound like their bailiwick in large part because of the price. At $.99, $1.99, or $2.99 an eReader has little expectation of quality and thus is happy to purchase it blind. This assumption is almost assuredly true, but it ignores the larger question.
Today’s media is overwhelming. Video games, film, television, and the internet have created an environment where sitting still for any length of time is the exception not the rule. People are reading less all the time. If quality of product is neglected, will fiction hemorrhage readers? Isn’t it possible the business model extolled by the self-publishing community will ultimately erode the very underpinning of book selling? I believe it will.
Gatekeepers serve a purpose. They aren’t always right (believe me), but they provide a barrier to entry that curates the quality of fiction that the public consumes. Quality control keeps the product valuable, a service that without its existence self-publishing in its entire could collapse. Isn’t it possible that the ability of self-publishers to make money is partially built on credibility with the public generated over decades by the Big Five publishers? Because of their efforts there’s a belief that fiction has value, both as a means of entertainment and social illumination. We need to be very careful that value proposition isn’t destroyed.
Likewise the impetus behind self-publishing is warranted. Authors struggle to make a living wage in Big Five publishing outside a select few and self-publishing provides opportunity to anyone willing to work for it. I don’t begrudge anyone’s right to ascribe to any faith be it religious or economic. In this case, I believe very strongly that self-publishing and traditional publishing can work in concert. But, like religious factions, the self-publishing crowd and the traditional crowd are talking at each other, but not with each other. It not a discussion of collaboration, but a demand for corroboration. There can be only one result, a fracturing of the community that descends into polemics not about how to earn a living as a writer, but about who is right and who is wrong.
And that’s silly, but also damaging. Because in the end don’t we all just love Jesus? Don’t we all just want to be able to read (and write) good books?