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Garrison Keillor Laments the Death of Book Publishing

Garrison Keillor Laments the Death of Publishing

by Jake on June 21, 2010

Mourning the Death of Book Publishing

“Call me a pessimist,” Keillor writes in his latest New York Times Op-Ed , “Call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea.”

He goes on to mourn the loss of value in writing and readership:

We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

Worse yet, Keillor muses, writing itself, by becoming democratized, is becoming meaningless and worthless:

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a Web site. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to Lulu.com or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check and our babies got shoes. But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And the New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, will vanish (POOF) whose imprimatur you covet for your book (“brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light” — NY Times). And editors will vanish.

The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.

The Death of the Gatekeepers

Of course, Keillor isn’t really lamenting the death of publishing. What he’s really lamenting is the death of the Gatekeepers. The (often) self-anointed literati who have for a couple centuries defined what is good and what is bad writing—and controlled the flow of information to the masses.

To Keillor, this is the end of civilized era of literature. By golly, now the barbarians are the gates with their blogs, ebooks, and Lulu.com’s. What’s a well-educated, appropriately connected person to do as the gilded walls of literature are torn down?

There’s no doubt that we lose something as book writing becomes democratized. Keillor is right about the fact that much crap is published and proliferated on the Internet. But I think there is much to gain as well.

The failure of Keillor, and others like him, is that they cling to the nostalgia of publishing’s golden age without celebrating the possibilities of the digital age. Keillor worries that editors will disappear in this dark age of literature, but what we’ll really lose is the institution of editor. Very good editors will still exist. They’ll just have to actually be good editors—as a opposed to well-connected power brokers in a bloated and dying industry.

The Rise of the Empower

A good editor is an empower. Keillor recognizes this fundamental truth when he writes, “And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check and our babies got shoes.” But he celebrates the wrong aspects of empowerment. If empowerment is some editor smiling on me and sending me a check so my baby can have basic needs met—well, I don’t need that kind of patronizing. That’s the Gatekeeper in action. That’s the old-world system of blue-blood control.

I like editors at the houses. Don’t get me wrong. I have some good friends in publishing. But even they will tell you that the old business systems that publishing houses employ hamstring them. For every great book they believe in they have to put out tons of crap to pay for it. One editor I know told me that he publishes crap books he knows will sell well so he can champion one good book a year. Doesn’t seem very noble to me—seems just as uncivilized as self-publishing.

In the new age of publishing, the same amount of crap will still exist, but editors won’t have to deal with it. They’ll be able to pick and choose the projects they want to work on—and believe in. I wrote about this in an earlier post on this blog (Why the Future is Now for Ghostwriters and Freelance Writers). They’ll be able to become true empowers, working with clients to make something both writer and editor (or ghostwriter) believe in and can sell with full confidence and integrity.

Enough with this nostolgia about writing and publishing as if it were some mystical religion. In the modern world, it’s a business—it’s been so for centuries and will continue to be so. But that doesn’t mean it has to lack integrity or pander to the lowest common denominator. What it does mean is that we have to stop lamenting—and start adapting.

Only then will you be a happy and successful writer.

[Photo by [ Henning ] ]

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Melanie Jongsma June 22, 2010 at 10:30 am

Well said, Jake! I suppose it’s natural to wax nostalgic about books and editors and publishing, but new generations of writers will have different milestones that are meaningful to them. Not the first royalty check, but perhaps the first blog comment from someone whose email they don’t recognize. Not the first print run, but perhaps the first download or forward or ping. Yes, the democratization of writing means that anyone can be published, but as Keillor himself concludes, not everyone will be read. Getting read will still require skill, and work, and learning, and craft, and positioning, and having something worthwhile to say—just as it always has.

Jake June 22, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Great points, Melanie. Thank you!

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