Even years after the advent of eBooks and the pioneers of self-publishing, the debate rages on over the purpose of traditional publishers, what a fair deal for authors really is, and the vitality of electronic publishing. If anything, the debate has only gotten more complex.
However, as my son’s school is participating in the Texas Bluebonnet Awards this year and he came home with a long list of reads so he can vote, I’ve had more opportunity to give the publishing debate a little more thought. First, let’s look at awards.
I’ve only voted in any sort of fiction awards once: WorldCon for the Hugos. It was certainly cool, and even though the book I voted for didn’t win, it was fun. Now, my son gets a similar opportunity. There’s something exciting about have a perceivable impact on fiction recognition. No, neither of us got to choose which books were nominated, but having that say, that little vote that might or might not make a difference, is a powerful feeling and one to encourage readers to get more involved. It’s one way that readers can impact the industry beyond their usual mechanism of choosing where to spend their money.
Book awards are a form of gatekeeper. And whatever end of the spectrum you fall under when it comes to publishing, most of us can see the advantage in some sort of filter. With thousands of books pouring into the marketplace, it would be impossible for the average, or even a particularly savvy, consumer to find what they like, much less figure it if it’s a quality read.
Until recently, publishers have filled the gatekeeper or filter role. Agents too. Before self-publishing became an easily accessible reality, agents and editors were the controls to ensure readers weren’t completely drowned when it came to browsing titles. Whether you think this is for good or for ill, the need for a filter of some sort has remained.
Today, though, there are many more possible filters. Awards are of course one, though they’ve been around for a long time too. Customer reviews are another. However, they too can be quickly overwhelming. Retailers are also their own kind of filter. The legal battles Amazon and publishers have fought reveal the potential power book sellers can wield. Even other authors have been suggested as possible future filters for books.
For my part, I am exceptionally thankful that I’m not completely swarmed with titles when I got book shopping. Well, to be honest, I am swamped by the sheer volume of possibilities, but I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if there were no gatekeepers to do some of the work of selecting for me. I’m an independent creature at heart, but the glut of possibilities would overwhelm even the most steadfast rebel. When it comes down to it, we all have our gatekeepers and filters that we rely on to narrow our choices. It may be the recommendations of friends, a certain publisher or author, a blogger we enjoy, or any number of other possibilities.
But gatekeepers and filters serve another purpose as well. In their own way, they open up possibilities.
Yes, that may sound completely contradictory, but consider this Texas Bluebonnet Awards as an example. Every time I take my kids to the children’s section at the library or bookstore, there are so many possibilities that it’s overwhelming. The kids know what they like, which is a pretty narrow range, and go straight for it because, to be honest, how else are they supposed to stay afloat in the sea of possibilities?
But as they’ll participate the the Texas Bluebonnet Award this year, they have a preselected list of titles promising they’ll be interesting. There are only twenty titles, and I can guarantee that not one would have caught their interest had we seen it at the bookstore. After all, seemingly endless choices often lead to a desperate desire to cling to the familiar to avoid the strain of being overwhelmed.
However, my kids are excited about pretty much every one of the titles on the Texas Bluebonnet nominee list. Because the awards have narrowed those choices down, my kids have room to become excited. They have a safe place mentally to venture out in their reading, and I am certain they’ll become better readers as a result.
The need to not be overwhelmed when book shopping is important for sales. For that reason alone, there will always be some sort of gatekeeper or filter, no matter what happens in the future of publishing.