J.M. Reep

Does Indie Nation Have Talent?

In Commentary on June 11, 2009 at 1:54 pm

(This is an article that I published on another site last month. It received such a surprisingly positive response that I had to repost it in this blog.)

Today, I want to revisit an objection to self-publishing that I hear quite often: that only losers and quitters (I myself have been called both those names) self-publish or start their own publishing companies. If I had any talent at all, the argument goes, I’d be able to find an agent to represent me and a real publisher to publish my work. Oh yes, it may take years to find both an agent and a publisher, but if I really think that my work is worth reading, then I should keep at it and not quit (i.e. don’t self-publish). This is an objection that has been refuted a number of times elsewhere on the web, but there’s an underlying assumption in this objection that is often overlooked, and it’s that assumption that I want to address in this post.

I’ve seen arguments that flippantly declare that 99% of self-published titles are crap, and that only the books that are actually worth publishing and reading are those that are published by the big NY publishing corporations. These arguments are built upon the premise that writing talent is rare — that most stories written are of very poor quality. The really good books, then, are like precious diamonds that must be extracted from the filthy pit of so much awful writing. But today, I’d like to propose just the opposite: that instead of a scarcity of writing talent there is an abundance of it in the world. There is so much talent, in fact, that Old Publishing is hopelessly overwhelmed by it all.

What Flickr Can Teach Us

And it isn’t just in the field of writing where one finds an abundance of creative talent. For example, open up a new tab in your browser and head to Flickr. There’s a section within Flickr called “Interestingness.” I know you won’t be able to resist browsing the photographs, so go ahead and do that for a while. I’ll wait.

Was this taken by an "amateur"?

Was this taken by an "amateur"?

“Interestingness” is Flickr’s attempt to filter through the thousands of photos uploaded every hour and pick out just a few of the many impressive, inspiring, and interesting photos that people are sharing and then offer those photos for viewing in one convenient place. As you explore the photos in this corner of the website, you’ll find that all of them are truly beautiful and extraordinary. Of course, Flickr doesn’t pretend that these are the only quality photos being uploaded; “Interestingness” just offers visitors a small sample.

Was this taken by a "professional"?

Was this taken by a "professional"?

And if you dig deeper and visit the profiles of the photographers who took these pictures, you’ll discover something just as interesting as the photos themselves. While many of the photographs tagged as “interesting” were taken by “professional” photographers (that is, people who regularly make money from selling their photographs), just as many of these photos were taken by “amateurs” (that is, people who simply love to take pictures and love to use their cameras to creatively engage the world around them). Flickr’s algorithm for selecting photographs for the “interestingness” section doesn’t distinguish whether the photographer is a professional or not. There isn’t any sort of artificial division between “real” photographers and “hobbyists.” The qualifications are based more upon the Flickr community’s reaction to a photograph.

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Tell me: Does it even matter?

In fact, when it comes to the art of photography, the distinction between a “professional” and an “amateur” is a distinction that is becoming less and less recognizable each day. Right now, there are over a dozen stock photo websites where any photographer can put his or her best photographs up for sale. Individuals and businesses looking for compelling pictures to use in websites, brochures, or promotional material — even book covers — can purchase the rights to use these photos. Customers never ask, “Was this photo taken by a ‘real‘ photographer or an ‘amateur’?” because such a question is essentially irrelevant. If it’s a good photograph, and if it’s the kind of image that you’re looking for, then that’s the only thing that matters. The quality of the work itself is what’s important — not the credentials and resume of the photographer.

So just as Flickr proves that even “amateur photographers” can take interesting pictures, so too, I believe, is it the case that even self-published authors are capable of writing stories that are worth reading. Writing talent isn’t rare; it’s all around us.

Nathan Bransford’s Experiment

Today, literary agents are drowning in a sea of manuscripts. Every day, a typical agent will receive dozens of query letters and emails from writers who have either completed a manuscript or who have a book proposal they wish to market. Recently, Nathan Bransford, literary agent and blogging celebrity, conducted an experiment designed to show his readers — wannabe authors, mostly — just how difficult the job of an agent can be. He called it the “Be An Agent For A Day Contest.” For this contest, he posted a series of 50 query letters (including many letters penned by readers of his blog) and asked his audience to pass judgment on the queries. Each participant in the contest could only select 5 letters out of the 50 to let pass through the gate — 5 queries whose authors would receive requests for complete manuscripts (Bransford explained: “because hey, you’re not going to have time for your clients if you request more than five manuscripts for every 50 queries”). Sprinkled among the 50 letters were three letters written by “real” authors whose work described in the queries was already published. The winner(s) of the contest would be the participant(s) who could identify all 3 of the published authors’ letters in the 5 queries they picked.

I didn’t take part in the contest, but I did take time to browse through the queries. What struck me was how few of them seemed to me like obvious rejections. Sure, not all of the queries described books that I, personally, would be interested in reading, but I couldn’t think of a reason why most of them wouldn’t deserve to be published at all. (Of course, I’ve always been skeptical of the proposition that anyone can tell anything worthwhile from a query letter. Query letters and novels are two very different forms of writing. It’s like asking me to decide whether an author is worth reading by consulting his obituary.)

Apparently, many of Bransford’s readers also had trouble deciding which queries deserved call-backs and which ones did not. At the end of the contest period, Bransford reported that “out of the 300+ people who participated, only two people guessed all three published authors with their five choices.”

Now wait — let’s stop and think about that for a minute. Less than 1% of the participants “correctly” identified the queries of books that had been published. Or to put it another way: over 99% of the participants — writers and authors themselves — disagreed with the selections made by literary agents and publishers. If ever there was an illustration of just how subjective the gatekeeping process in publishing really is, I think this is it. What Bransford was trying to do was demonstrate how difficult the job of literary agents is. Instead (and quite unintentionally), I think what he really did was prove just how obsolete agents are. Because when you imagine just how many manuscripts are out there being sent to (and rejected by) agents compared to the tiny number of manuscripts that make their way through the logjam of corporate filters and reach publication, it becomes clear that there are more deserving and worthwhile books not being published under the old system than are being published. Before the Internet, the limitations of physical space made these corporate filters and their many rejections a necessity. Now, though, online storage and distribution means that there is no limit to how many written works can be published and made instantly available to the reading public.

The Past and Future of Literacy, or The Kids Are All Right

We are living in a Golden Age of Literacy. Never before in human history have so many people been able to read and write. Statistics provided by UNESCO show that the percentage of illiterate people in the world has been cut in half since 1970.

UNESCO: World Literacy Rate

UNESCO: World Literacy Rate

In America, the younger generation, in particular, is reading and writing to an extent never seen before. How is this possible? The same Internet that makes ebooks viable, that has made self-publishing more than a pointless vanity option, and that today threatens the business models of Old Publishing — that same Internet is guaranteeing that new generations of readers and authors will continue to enter the world.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, my friends didn’t have cell phones. If I wanted to hang out with friends on a Friday night, I called them on the family telephone plugged into the wall. Some families had personal computers, but almost no one had Internet access (the world wide web did not yet exist). If I needed to do research for a school essay, I went to the library. When I wanted to share some songs with a friend, I recorded them to a cassette tape. No one heard of “email” — there was just the mail. My classmates and I lived in a purely physical world, not a digital world.

Back then, illiteracy among youth was a real problem, in part because it was possible for teens to get by without ever reading or writing anything. Certainly, literacy was not a requirement for an active social life. I mean, what kind of loser writes messages to his friends?! — you’re supposed to pick up the phone and call them! Duh!

Oh, how times have changed! Today, if you’re a teenager and you can’t read and write, then you’re the loser who doesn’t have a social life. Literacy has become crucial: blogs, instant messaging, Facebook — even YouTube requires some degree of literacy. And the Internet isn’t just a place to connect with friends or make new friends, it’s also, of course, a platform for self-expression and creativity, which is of course importance when you’re young and the whole world doesn’t understand you. Young people today engage in an amount of reading and writing that was absolutely unheard of when I was growing up.

But — but — wait! cry the self-appointed Grammar Police and the sheepish followers of Strunk & White. Kids today aren’t spelling their words correctly! They don’t use punctuation properly! They write “TTYL” when they’re supposed to write “talk to you later”! To those people, I say, Who cares? “Literacy” does not mean conforming to dictionary spellings or a particular (and possibly anachronistic) set of rules concerning punctuation and grammar established by generations past. Literacy means actively engaging in reading and writing as a living and ever-evolving form of communication. Text messaging has its own rules and customs, BTW, and just because a written utterance breaks one set of rules does not mean that it isn’t operating under its own complex set of rules. Trying to set up one set of rules as necessarily better than another set is at best pointless, and at worst elitist, classist, or racist. And really, can anyone seriously argue that writing “you” makes more sense than writing “u”? Maybe we should start writing “Igh” instead of “I” — LOL!

Do The Math

In this century, I predict we’ll see a rapid increase in the amount of literature that human beings produce. More new writing will be published in this century than in all of the previous centuries of human history combined because all of the old barriers to publication are collapsing. Anyone can do it now — and everyone will.

The number of potential authors is astonishing. For just one limited example, let’s take the United States. Right now, there are over 300 million people living in the US. If only 2% of those people have literary ambitions — that is, if only 2% of them wish to write a volume of non-fiction or a novel or a book of poetry or a screenplay — that’s still 6 million people. And let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that of those 6 million writers, about 90% would produce work that just isn’t very good — or maybe it really is complete crap. That still leaves 600,000 writers who are capable of producing work that is worth reading and is worth publishing. That number is far too large for Old Publishing to absorb, especially now when the big publishing corporations are in financial decline and are downsizing their operations, making it harder than ever for wannabe authors to pass through the gates to the promised land of publication.

And if you disagree with the idea that 90% of writing done by would-be authors is crap (I disagree with that), and if you disagree that only 2% of the US population harbors dreams of becoming a published author (I think that percentage is much too small), and if you assume that people in countries outside of the US are also interested in writing (obviously!), and that many of those writers (especially those from English-speaking countries) would like to publish work in the US as well as in their home countries, then you MUST admit that the supply of talented writers far exceeds the capacity of the publishing industry to publish them all. No army of literary agents can ever fairly evaluate all of that work. No nationwide chain of brick-and-mortar bookstores or libraries could ever contain all of those books.

But they can be contained digitally. Already, the Internet has the capacity to store as many books as might be produced in a year, and the Internet makes on-demand distribution not only possible, but easy. Now, not only can anyone publish their work, but that work can find an audience.

The myth that talent is scarce is just that — a myth. The reality is that there is too much talent in the world. It’s a tsunami that threatens to sweep away the old system of publishing once and for all because the old system is completely inadequate to deal with it. Digital storage and distribution can, however. In fact, the Internet is the only thing that can contain the entirety of human creative endeavor. Professional or amateur, self-published or not, those artificial distinctions don’t matter anymore.

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