The publishing industry, indeed pretty much all our industries, evolved in a world governed by the laws of Newtonian physics. Value flows through the supply chain, physically attached to the atoms of the product. Value is created through scarcity. The ability to manufacture and distribute physical works of authorship at scale was, and remains, scarce. Access to mass forms of media broadcast was scarce. Ownership involved physical transfer of atoms so that increasing the number of items in one place diminished the number in another. When goods and services are scarce, value is derived from controlling the good, physical access to it, or the ability to scale it.
None of that matters in the digital world. To type on a keyboard is to manufacture a work of authorship. To post it on the Internet is to distribute it, potentially at scale. The transfer of a digital copy of a work does not diminish the number of copies in stock. The laws of physics do not apply. Scarcity does not apply. The value of controlling scarce resources has a half-life measured in weeks. Soon it will be days.
The rise of the net and the shift of the economy away from atoms and toward bits has transformed every aspect of the publishing industry across all forms of media. That it would wreak havoc on things like printing, distribution, representation, agency, and the supply chain seems obvious and inevitable. Especially in retrospect. That it would disrupt professional societies and the recognition and award processes was perhaps less obvious.
Lately a steady stream of news related to authors arrives in my feed. To be fair I’ve invited much of it since a social media presence now seems to be mandatory to be successful as an author and all my favorite writers are now accessible. The temptation to reach out and interact is irresistible. In my 50+ years I’ve made many lists of books and authors I wanted to read. Now, for the first time ever, I have a list of authors whose books I am loathe to read because their public misbehavior completely eclipses any relative merit of their work. Wow.
The realization that keeping a list of personally rejected authors now seems reasonable and necessary came as quite a blow, but most of that impact accrues to the authors themselves. Sadly, some of the misbehavior to which I am now reacting involves influencing the legacy curation mechanisms such as yearly awards which still operate as if the world is atoms and oblivious to the influence bits now exert in the process. I can reluctantly live with the notion that an author’s behavior factors into my decision whether to read their book. But to game the awards process cheapens them, destroying their integrity and prestige in the process.
At least when the RIAA decided to attempt industry suicide by suing music fans, they did so as the official representatives of that industry. From my vantage point the poison spreading through the barrel that is book publishing comes from a few bad apples. They aren’t representative of the industry at large or the constituent readers of their respective communities, but the growing irrelevance of the awards affects everyone.
If there’s a silver lining here, it is that the same social media which disintermediated the publishing supply chain did not leave us empty-handed. Book awards are primarily a curation mechanism. They sit atop a pyramid of filtering in which content is sifted for quality and the best of the best rises to the top. But where the base of the pyramid used to be the lowest level of critic with access to mass media, in the digital world the base of the pyramid is the individual. Anyone who writes a review or rates a book contributes to the curation. Individuals and the algorithmic correlation of individual tastes has become the new bottom of the content curation pyramid.
These are useful but each has its problems. If you want to follow a critic for your book recommendations you need to search the multitudes of candidates to find one whose tastes are similar, or at least compatible, with your own. Who has the time? Finding a good critic to follow is mostly a matter of luck. You might turn to algorithmic rankings to find your critic or for book recommendations, but these operate on a power law. A slight numerical advantage early on can catapult the most unlikely and often unworthy things to Best Seller status. For the most part these systems work but not as well as curation by dedicated and skilled humans, and they tend to be unstable and highly reactive to fads.
So social media makes curation available to the masses, by the masses, but the medium imposes a natural ceiling on the quality of that source. The value of social media and algorithms as a means of curating book recommendations is a rising curve that eventually peaks and flattens. The value of of awards and professional societies as a means of curating recommendations is a on downward curve that we can only hope will level off above that of social media and algorithms.
Personally, all this is both a blessing and curse. My increased reliance on social media has led me to discover books I greatly enjoy from authors I might never have heard of under the old system. My new reading list is considerably more diverse. Those differences in gender, race and culture add flavor and push my boundaries. In those ways the change is a Good Thing.
My main regret in all of this is what it means to the new (to me anyway) authors I’ve discovered during this sea change in the publishing world. Surely some of these authors aspire to winning those awards. I’d say with confidence that several are worthy of strong consideration. I just wish whatever rise to prominence my new favorite authors experience would have happened before the awards were known more for being gamed than for the quality of the works presented.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d be happy, ecstatic even, for any of my friends who won an award. None of the authors I know personally are so lacking in integrity as to stoop to manipulating the process directly, so if one of them won I assume it would be based on the merits of the work. The problem is that my happiness would be because I care about my friend and not because I care about the awards. Not anymore. In fact, since nobody I knew personally one one of the recent awards, I have no clue who the winners are. I didn’t bother to look. When and if I do, it probably won’t result in my buying any books because the award itself is no longer sufficient to make a buying decision. In the context of the publishing business and for an avid reader like me who grew up caring about the awards, that’s a tragic loss.
Is there a way back? Possibly. I’d like to think innovation can help but I honestly don’t know. Any literary society wishing to rebuild the integrity and value of the awards process would need to decide what their values are, so precisely as to be expressable as code that is impossible to game at the time of implementation. They would also need to commit to continuous improvement because the digital world is by its nature a perpetual arms race. Whatever cannot be gamed today will be vulnerable eventually.
Sadly, the means of gaming awards are readily available and no group is immune. There is no author group or award immune from gaming and scandal. Will we innovate our way back to integrity? Can we? Only time will tell. In the meantime if you read a book you believe to be worthy of an award – an award of the pre-Internet variety – help the author out and write a review. If you want reliable recommendations for books to read, go old-school. Ask a friend.
And whatever else you do, when you see authors, readers or anyone else behaving badly, remember the #1 rule of the Internet and refrain from feeding the trolls.