It's all very well for the writers, but where will editors and publishers fit into this brave new digital world?
Last week I wrote about the new freedoms and opportunities a contemporary writer can enjoy, and even benefit from. Inevitably, some of the subsequent posts raised the question of editors and the role of publishing houses in this new environment. Since I used to work as an editor (at Faber), and think I understand what's at stake, I thought I should address this now: it turns out to be a good moment.
By chance, there are two contributions just in on this subject: first, a cri de coeur from Carol Baron of Knopf at the Huffington Post (I'll come to that in a minute); second, a brilliant piece by my old friend Jason Epstein on the future of book publishing in the digital age in the New York Review of Books. I recommend both: in their different ways Barron and Epstein signal a significantly richer and smarter engagement than heretofore with the reality of change in the world of books.
While Epstein is a deep thinker in this field, Barron was responding impulsively to a complaint by one of her author friends that "there is no editing any more". She, naturally, rejects this, and it's certainly an old complaint. As far as I can recall, people have been moaning on like this for the last 30 years, possibly longer.
The previous age of books is always seen as the golden one. In that fabled time, a generation of Maxwell Perkins clones walked the aisles of the great publishing houses, lost in the quest for split infinitives or dangling participles, or engaged in extracting the angel from the marble of the heroic first draft, as in the case of Thomas Wolfe, author of the sadly forgotten classic Look Homeward, Angel (by the way, my guess – based on experience – is that, yes, there was a generation or two who worked very hard on improving writers' manuscripts, but that Wolfe's example is the exception not the rule). Much of what Baron describes as the editor's function now – her "10 things", once choosing the book and editing the book have been dealt with – strike me as having more to do with in-house PR. The role of the editor is not what it was: everyone concedes that. So much for the microcosm. When we turn to the big picture, we find Jason Epstein.
His clear-eyed pragmatism is refreshing: the world has changed, irreversibly and forever. The great publishing giants and their old ways are increasingly redundant. And yet there is still the inescapable fact that writers sit alone in rooms, putting words on paper, or on screens.
In respect of "the difficult, solitary work of literary creation", Epstein says "the cost of entry for future publishers will be minimal" without the overheads of traditional, multilayered management. The devolution of gatekeeping from centralised corporate publishers, he argues, has already begun, with the emergence of "semi-autonomous editorial units" (what some people call "imprints"). These, Epstein believes, indicate the way of the future.
In other words, whatever the innovation on the instrumental side of the delivery system, there will still have to be a measure of mediation, or gatekeeping. I share with Epstein the view that whatever the hopes of the blogosphere for communal projects, the fantasy that the contents of the digital cloud can be mashed up to form "a single, communal, autonomous intelligence" is just that – strictly for the birds.
Epstein is, I think, right to note that, long before and long after Gutenberg, literary form has been typically conservative. The act of reading is a reflective and solitary pursuit that abhors distraction. The act of writing is also a lonely business: it takes place in small rooms, in solitude, and (typically) in silence.
It's hard, if not impossible, to imagine a radical new literary paradigm that might change that. For the moment, writers still need intermediaries: the job description will change, but the function remains broadly the same.