A few months ago I read this article, which is partly about free education and the Clemente Course, but also about a curator and teacher who pushes his students to question social values about art. In the course, the teacher, Hamza Walker has students read anthropologist Clifford Walker and discuss how various pieces of art move between the categories of “artifact” and “masterpiece” and how they are determined to be authentic or not.
To a Shaker, their furniture’s form is the natural outflow of their values, which makes it valuable to non-Shakers in a way that other well-made furniture is not. Similarly ‘crazy quilts’ from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, which were originally made by people who could afford neither large pieces of fabric nor sewing machines, but nonetheless needed to stay warm, have been externally elevated to the status of high art and national treasures because of the cultural history behind them.
It got me thinking about the book publishing world and who decides what’s valuable. As I get my manuscript closer to a sellable state I have been learning all I can about the current publishing landscape. Depending on what day today is, it might be that an aspiring author is best off self-publishing, in electronic format only, through an established channel like Amazon.
Or maybe not. Maybe it would be best to be published through traditional means by finding an agent, selling the manuscript to a mainstream imprint and including e-publishing only as a small piece of a traditionally driven strategy. Or, maybe self-publishing in print is the way to go.
Then again, maybe it would be best to self-publish electronically, use sales of that book to build an audience, then use the resulting clout to get a book deal with an established imprint. Or maybe there’s a new way of doing it that I haven’t heard of, and the new way is THE way today. Publishing has been changing rapidly and it changes every day.
What this means is that control over publishing and sales has been removed from the exclusive grasp of the mainstream publishing industry and put in the hands of, effectively, the reading public. To some extent this has always been true – a book might be published and then flop commercially because the reading public just isn’t interested, but publishing in print is so expensive that agents and publishing companies are very cautious about what projects they take on and don’t make a whole lot of mistakes.
Now that anyone can publish and distribute widely without ever involving a traditional imprint, or an agent, value is determined solely by the reading public.
What sells, sells, but now the reading public has a larger pool to choose from and the ultimate say in what will succeed. I think it means that we’ll have a lot of bad novels floating around out there, but I am also curious to see what kinds of books emerge that might not have had a shot in the old literary world. Maybe it will lead to greater diversity in a good way and maybe someday a novel that might not even have had a shot in the days of traditional publishing will come to be considered the masterpiece of its time.