Justin Taylor recently encouraged his readership (which includes myself) to check out an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal by Eric Felton on the self-publishing boom in the Kindle market. The article’s title: “Cherish the Book Publishers – You’ll Miss Them When They’re Gone.” The thrust of the piece is that book publishers do the grunt-work of weeding out the myriads of bad books so that we can more easily find the diamond in the rough:
Shouldn’t we be grateful that it’s someone else’s job to weed out the inane, the insipid, the incompetent? Not that they always do such a great job of it, given some of the books that do get published by actual publishers. But at least they provide some buffer between us and the many aspiring authors who are like the wannabe pop stars in the opening weeks of each “American Idol” season: How many instant novelists are as deluded as the singers who make with the strangled-cat noises believing they have Arethaen pipes?
Many commentators have pointed out the similarities between what’s going on in book-publishing with what’s going on in music-publishing. On the music side, the rise of the digital age, combined with the mass production of decent yet inexpensive recording gear, has made it easier than ever to self-publish one’s music. I should know. I’m a self-publisher.
I probably don’t have enough information to adequately evaluate all the positives and negatives of the age of self-publication. However, my own personal experience puts me in favor of the empowerment of the masses. If I had to choose evils, I think I’d prefer letting the public panhandle the murky rivers over having publishers handing me a handful of rocks they’ve deemed diamonds. Here’s why, and I admit this is only anecdotal. As much as I’d like to believe it’s different, the music industry (the labels, the rights organizations) is beholden to the dollar in a way that the self-published artist is not, and that one reality changes the game plan of executing one’s ideals. As a result, I believe that the music industry’s loss of power in the face of self-publishing has been a net plus for music-making worldwide. If label-publishing ruled the day, I would never have heard of many of the artists (inside and outside the church music scene) that I listen to and prize. I think specifically about the hymns movement and all of the musicians associated with it. Without self-publishing, none of them would have been able to distribute their music.
The above article assumes that publishers sifting through the heaps of bad books are using the right grid, screening with the right set of ideals. Perhaps this is more true of Christian publishers like, for instance, Crossway, for which Justin Taylor is an editor. But Crossway still needs to be, in some capacity, driven by profit. However, an artist like me, with a full-time job, can “tent-make” at my artistry, freeing me from binding contracts and deadlines that could potentially stifle the music I feel called to make.
I wonder, though, whether comparing music-publishing and book-publishing is comparing apples to oranges. I wonder if the correlation is less than one-to-one. There certainly are perks which music and book companies provide for the public. They offer a more consistent quality. They often have the resources to broadcast great books, music, and artists to the general populous. But I’m not convinced that one of the perks the public needs is to have the publishing companies sifting out of all the bad. I’m not convinced of this because: (1) I’m not sure I fully line up with their criteria for good and bad; and (2) I think that cream still rises to the top when the public is brought into the evaluation process.
So, yes, there are some things truly lamentable about the free-for-all publishing age in which we find ourselves. But I don’t believe it’s all gloom and doom.