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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Books & new media: the sea change

Driving to my sister’s house on Saturday, to work on a Kickstarter video — we hope to win support for publishing a “bridge into reading” chapter book for second and third graders — I heard a TED talk on the radio, about young people putting their work out through the new media. The presenter said, “We don’t feel like we have to ask permission.”
And boy, is that different. I want to write today about how it’s different, and what this may mean for writers and readers of books.

The first book I wrote, myself, was rejected 75 times. It never got published by anyone. Since then, like most people who do some sort of creative work professionally, I’ve had years and years of knocking on doors, working with agents, trying to get one project or another green-lighted, published, whatever. Sometimes I’ve succeeded, sometimes I haven’t. That’s pretty normal.

And now along comes this whole new world.

Two years ago I started Long Stride Books, which is basically me with help from two other people. So far we’ve brought out my 12th and 13th young-adult novels, True Shoes and The Prince of Denial. They’re doing okay! And the Kickstarter project, if it succeeds, will help make possible our next publication, the bridge-into-reading Treasure Town (my sister Sarah-Lee Terrat, 30 years a working artist, is the illustrator). And for none of these projects have I asked permission of anyone.

I haven’t gone to editors, or my agent, or anyone; I’ve just been able to decide, This is worth bringing out. And that is different.

The fast rise of new-media publishing — in books, this means both ebooks and print-on-demand publications — does, of course, raise huge issues. Last month I had some typical winter bug and went to see my doctor, who has written a very good medical thriller (I’ve read it), with which he has secured an agent but no offers yet from publishers. “Everyone tells me go independent,” he said — “but thousands of independent books are coming out. And most of the ones I've seen are really bad.”

This is true: the old barriers have come down, and what’s flooding through is usually not that professional. If you can just publish, without help from editor, copyeditor, or proofreader, not to mention a good page designer, the chances are very high that your book will not be what it could be. There may be good in it, and an editor’s job is to help bring that out; if you don’t work with one, you are up against it.

That’s only one of the issues — but the core fact is, the walls have come down. Nobody quite knows what this will mean, including me. But I do have two observations:

1. Just because self-published books are often bad doesn’t mean traditionally published books are always good. A whole lot of junk flows through the old system. Often because it may sell; sometimes for utterly baffling reasons.

2. The center of gatekeeping is shifting toward the public. Until just lately, a few gatekeepers — editors and acquisition committees at the major publishers — decided what books would get a chance, then the big review journals decided what would get a boost. Now those high-level folks are only part of the mix. Readers, the Web — whatever it is that picks up on something and sends it viral: this indefinable power is the new gatekeeper.

As all this takes shape and shakes out, will it mean that more good books get a chance? Or that lots more decent books will be lost in the flood tide of new-media publication?

Nobody knows. But everything has changed.

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