Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
The American Association of Publishers recently held its annual meeting in New York, with best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell as the closing speaker. The theme of his message: We need an editor.
Gladwell used a variety of real-life anecdotes to make his point. He first told about a patient with prostate cancer who had to reckon with too much information–and not all of it necessarily helpful for the decisions the man had to make. Gladwell’s diagnosis of the situation: “What the patient needs is an editor.”
In his second example Gladwell said, “We didn’t have too much information [before 9/11]. “We had too much. We needed an editor…to take what mattered and throw out what didn’t matter.”
In another example, Gladwell depicted Steve Jobs’s great skill as editing down to what was most important.
As for publishing, Gladwell opined, “What will sustain this industry [is] if it returns to what we wanted [it for]…which is to be a tastemaker and a gatekeeper…An expert’s job is to place limits and impose standards.”
In closing he said, “Don’t give me more. Give me less, and make it good, and you’ll be in business forever.”
I believe this goes to the heart of publishing’s identity crisis. Publishing has forgotten what makes it unique but instead has become absorbed with transitioning into the e-world. In its scramble to turn the massive ship of each publishing house, with its large staff, mammoth warehouse, and serious office space, I see many publishers forgetting what distinguishes legacy publishing from self-publishing. One of those distinctions would be the person who combs through the submissions, buys what his or gut says to buy, and then surgically removes from the manuscript the detritus that the author couldn’t see.
As I’ve watched self-publishing bloom, my concerns center on what Gladwell pointed out: Who will be the 21st-century tastemaker? Who will be the gatekeeper?
If you think we don’t need someone to take on those roles, look to Gladwell’s examples–or the mammoth list of self-publishing books available to you on Amazon–it will make you cry, “What I need is an editor!” (More than 700,000 books were published in 2010 from 85,000 legacy publishers and self-publishing entities.)
The argument is offered that good books will self-select. Really? In such a sea of books, how do I decide which one to read? One way to edit down the number is by zoning in on books that already have been selected–by a legacy publisher.
I don’t know about you, but my reading time is limited; I’m not going to go exploring in the self-publishing word because I know that no filters have been applied. Now, I would buy a book self-published by an expert (e.g., Seth Godin), but I don’t have time to be adventurous in my reading options.
What I want is for publishing to re-empower the editor, who has been dethroned by marketing and sales, and let the editor serve as the tastemaker and gatekeeper we all need. (By the way, the majority of editors I know are people who love books and have the skill to make a manuscript all the author had hoped it would be. The area in which editors have lost clout is in making buying decisions.)
I have other thoughts on this subject, but this ought to be enough to get our conversation going. Tell me if you agree or disagree with me and why.
Note: Beginning this week, we’re changing the rhythm of our blog posts. In the past we’ve written in clumps, offering anywhere from two to five posts in a row by the same writer. As we receive more comments to our blogs, we’re finding that more and more of our blogging days are taken up in the online conversation, which we’re thoroughly enjoying. But to keep all the Books & Such agents from being distracted from their major job–caring for our clients–we’ve decided to each take a specific day of the week as our blog “offering.” The schedule will be: Monday, me; Tuesday, Wendy Lawton; Wednesday, Rachel Kent; Thursday, Rachelle Gardner; Friday, Mary Keeley.
So tomorrow you’ll be hearing from Wendy. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to your response to today’s post.