May 25, 2009
The Editor as Wizard
Joanne McNeil over at Tomorrow Museum has a terrific post about self-publishing that deals with the idea more deeply than most things I’ve read. There’s lots to dig into, but this part resonated with me:
[…] I was talking about some of this the other night with Diana Kimball, who recently wrote a paper on the subject. […] She made the often lost point about a major publisher’s role as validation for the author, as well as the reader. The author needs to know someone with expertise and good judgment found his or her material worthwhile. Otherwise, why risk the embarrassment of bringing unsatisfactory material to a wider audience?
(Here’s Diana’s paper. And yes, a post that cross-references Diana Kimball and Tomorrow Museum starts to feel like a cunningly-designed trap for Snarkmarket. I’m afraid my laptop is about to shoot me with a poison dart.)
“The author needs to know someone with expertise and good judgment found his or her material worthwhile.” This is a deep point. Part of what makes blogging so “do-able” is the low stakes. First, the stuff you’re pointing to is already published; you’re operating entirely under a pre-existing umbrella of validation. Second, the work you’re doing is pretty easy, anyway. If people don’t respond immediately… no big deal.
There are other kinds of work that feel much more high-stakes. A short story, a novel. An EP. A long piece of research and analysis. Or, I guess, even a certain kind of incredibly labor-intensive blog. And it does seem to me that, in these cases, the editor’s touch is transformative.
That doesn’t have to exist in the context of publishing as we know it today. What you’re really looking for is a smart mind, “with expertise and good judgment,” who you trust to evaluate your work honestly, saying: Yes. There is a place for this in the world.
That doesn’t have to mean print; it doesn’t have to mean payment. It simply means solving this riddle, posed by Diana:
The problem with self-published books, for authors and for potential readers, is that the physical book no longer signifies that anyone has read it. In fact, the physical fact of a self-published book is far more likely to signify that astonishingly few people have read it.
I think there’s a generalizable version of that problem, even for non-books, and even for work that stays digital forever. And the solution? I imagine a tiny editor standing on top of the work, shouting: “Hell yes someone has read this! I did! And you think I publish just anything? I’ve got standards, people. Come check this out.”
I guess it’s a kind of risk-shifting: You, as the writer, musician, researcher, whatever, no longer bear it all yourself. In fact, you suddenly bear very little. And, I mean, wow, thank goodness. Making things is hard enough as it is. Let me, as editor, take the chance here; if people think your work sucks (or worse, if they don’t think about it at all) I’m the one who made a mistake. You just keep working.
I’m overstating it a little for effect. But to me, it feels like alchemy, or sorcery. It changes the terms entirely.
A lot of bloggers think of what they do as “editing the web,” and I wonder if more shouldn’t take it a step further. They (we?) could spend curatorial capital to bring new work into the world. Hey blogger: Why don’t you expand that post about Proust and Professor X into a whole little essay? We’d love to work with you on it and cross-post it on Snarkmarket when it’s finished.
In other words: Yes. There is a place for this in the world.