Monday, April 11, 2005

Publishing in the 21st Century

Secret Agent #6 has just sent me the full text of an article that's apparently making the rounds as literary agent's samizdat. The original appears on the Backspace web site, which is an interesting site in its own right and well worth checking out, and the article takes the form of a three-part series by big-bucks literary agent Richard Curtis.

In Part 1: At the End of the Millennium, Curtis does an excellent job of explaining the historical and commercial forces that shaped publishing as we knew it, and this part serves as a good primer on The Way Things Used To Work.

In Part 2: Paperbacks: The Tail That Wagged The Dog, Curtis explains what has happened as a result of the The Great Distribution Implosion of 1996, which is a topic near and dear to my heart as I was caught up in the midst of it. This, better than anything else I've read, explains why The Way Things Used to Work don't work no more.

It's in Part 3: On The Road to Virtual, that Curtis becomes what to me is deeply discouraging:

Increasingly, agents pitching projects over the telephone can hear the editor’s fingernails clicking on a computer keyboard as they converse. The editor is googling the author, checking out his or her photo, web site, ranking, reviews and publication history, forming impressions (and perhaps even reaching conclusions) before reading a word of the author’s text...

For many jittery young people, printed texts on a stack of paper are, as one editor [emphasis added] said, “kind of boring.” “If all it is, is a book, merely words” he elaborated, “it’s hard to get excited. I ask myself, ‘What else is it besides a book? Is it a video game? A movie? A web site?’ It’s got to be more than a book to turn me on.”

Curtis ends the series with a paen to blogging, which strikes me as a somewhat strained attempt to end on a positive note. Apparently in his vision of the future, writers will no longer bother with novels or short stories, but will instead merely keep online journals and serve as facilitators of online conversations, and those who can keep sufficiently exciting discussions going will get rich by counting click-throughs and selling banner ads.

Or perhaps I'm merely reading Curtis's essay in an unusually bleak light. In any case, his article is highly recommended reading, and I look forward to the exciting discussion that no doubt will follow. Yeah, baby, let's get that click-through counter humming!