I listened to a podcast recently by a group of published authors discussing the advent of e-publishing. One of the key points they brought up is the concept of The Gatekeeper. In their industry its the publishing houses and editors, who essentially get to decide what books are worth reading.
Gatekeepers are frustrating for people who are trying to get through the gate and can’t. They trumpet the ability of e-publishing to let “the little guys” have a chance at making the big bucks. The idea, of course, is that these people’s novels are good enough, but the gatekeepers just don’t want to give them a chance. This can be true, certainly, but more often than not, those gatekeepers are protecting the market from absolute drivel. They act as quality control, making sure only quality finished products get released.
Sure, it’s not a perfect system, but the alternative is chaos. Without the gatekeepers the floodgates are open, and anyone patient enough to produce some more-or-less finished piece of art/entertainment can put it out there. Most distribution nodes like Amazon and YouTube offer some sort of feedback system to supposedly help people identify the better stuff from the bad. But as we’ve all heard, those reviews can be gamed. For example, competing authors can always go post a review trashing someone else’s book and recommending people come read theirs instead–while remaining safely anonymous.
So the real option comes down to word of mouth from friends. This can help, but if our circle of friends isn’t varied enough or vocal enough about what they like it’s unlikely we’ll get exposed to much new content.
I wonder if we’re at the top of a cycle right now. Everything is moving toward cheap or free on the web. If this continues long enough the traditional gatekeepers–publishers, record labels, movie studios–will collapse. In some ways this would be a good thing. But the question then becomes “what next?”
I believe we’ll go through another cycle where “masses-produced” content will become king for awhile. We’ll all feel like “cool-hunters” trying to find new and interesting content to share with our friends. But will we actually pay for it? Who knows? And without money only those who are passionate enough to do it for free or who couldn’t make money from it to save their lives will be able to produce content. Quality will fall off considerably.
Then what? Will entertainment consist of social media navel-gazing? Will the arts return to a patronage system, where only the wealthy can afford quality entertainment? Where would we be as a society if only the Warren Buffets of the world get to read good literature while the rest of us have to settle for Farmville?
Or will all art become marketing material? Yes, you’ll still be able to get the latest Stephen King, but it’ll be Stephen King’s “The Tommyknockers – Sponsored by Boeing”, with Boeing ads throughout and product placement within. Will ebook front pages start to come looking like NASCAR hoods plastered with sponsor stickers? Will our movies start to include characters plugging products in little asides a la The Truman Show?
Or will we start to find a new set of gatekeepers? Perhaps everyone and their dog can publish their ebooks online, but only those that get recommendations from The Huffington Post, Instapundit, Ashton Kutcher, or Perez Hilton will ever get attention and, therefore, sales? Will these entities want that kind of role? If Glenn Reynolds starts getting thousands of manuscripts every month from people wanting him to plug their books I suspect he’d just stop checking his mail.
I don’t know the answers any more than anyone else. It may be that the traditional gatekeepers we have now will wrap their heads around the new business models and find a way to retain their roles. I almost hope they do. I think we need some brave souls between us and the bohemians at the gate.