Hugh Howey recently posted a thoughtful piece on the future contribution of self-publishing to literary fiction which seems to have sort of got lost amid all the excitement over his latest AuthorEarnings report and the Hachette/Amazon face-off. It’s no surprise to see him come out in favor of self-publishing in no uncertain terms – to whit, “Self-publishing will save literary fiction .” But as alway’s it’s worth hearing his arguments.
Howey takes issue with the alarmist talk of Philip Gwyn Jones, former books publisher of Granta, in The Bookseller that literary publishing is in crisis, and “We may never know, as readers, which great books we’ve been prevented from coming across by their failure to be born.” Gwyn Jones, unsurprisingly, links this loss to the decline of the traditional publishing revenue model. Instead, Howey argues, “the future of literary fiction will be owned and operated by digital natives — writers who grow up posting on blogs, debating on forums, posting on Facebook and Twitter, and all the myriad forms of self-publishing that we don’t seem to label ‘self-publishing.’ Learning how to turn a manuscript into both a physical book and an e-book at almost no expense to the author takes a weekend of fiddling around.”
He goes further, though.
Soon (this is already true for many) self-publishing will be seen as the purer artform. No tampering with style or voice. No gatekeeper. No need even for monetization. Doing it yourself has all the allure of the hacker culture, the local culture, the maker culture. Doing it for a corporation has all the allure of . . . vanity, perhaps? Great works are being penned at this very moment. They are waiting to be discovered. The problem for the agents and publishers who like to plant their flag upon such works is this: In the future, it’ll be the reader who gets there first.
That doesn’t appear to leave much room for the publisher, never mind the agent. And Howey doesn’t even go into the intricacies of recommendation, book discovery, quality finding its own level, etc. – all that a discerning agent or editor is traditionally supposed to build their reputation and the list with. That could be an even more unnerving conclusion for traditional publishing staffers – that the whole argument for high visibility, easy discoverability, prompt audience acquisition, via self-publishing has been put across so often and so well (by Howey himself, and many others) that it can be taken as read.
Major publishers and prominent literary agents have long appealed to their status as guardians, protectors, and discoverers of great literature – even in the face of countless examples to the contrary. But if they lose that role too, what price publishers then?