Monday, December 11, 2006

Do You Trust Me?

Yesterday, I noticed an entry on the Convergence Culture Consortium (one of my favorite blogs, right after BLDGBLOG). The post pointed towards an article on the by Joe Pareles in the New York Times about the sheer amount of user-produced content that hit the internet in 2006. Self-published books are not mentioned, but if you substitute the word “books” for “music” throughout, you can start to see the relevance.

What Pareles finds most interesting is that when you “toss out those old obstacles to creativity [hit-driven recording companies, hidebound movie studios, timid broadcast radio stations, trend-seeking media coverage] and, lo and behold, people begin to crave a new set of filters.” Why? Because there is just so damned much content out there for people to chose from. Once your run-of-the-mill internet punter discovers exactly how much information is available for perusal, something akin to agoraphobia sets in.

Which, quite naturally, leads Pareles to the question of filters.

The open question is whether those new, quirky, homemade filters will find better art than the old, crassly commercial ones. The most-played songs from unsigned bands on MySpace -- some played two million or three million times -- tend to be as sappy as anything on the radio; the most-viewed videos on YouTube are novelty bits, and proudly dorky. Mouse-clicking individuals can be as tasteless, in the aggregate, as entertainment professionals.

Unlike the old media roadblocks, however, their filtering can easily be ignored. The promise of all the self-expression online is that genius will reach the public with fewer obstacles, bypassing the entrenched media. The reality is that genius has a bigger junk pile to climb out of than ever, one that requires just as much hustle and ingenuity as the old distribution system.

This is exactly the problem facing the self-published writer. We know that it is not simply enough to write or publish a book. These, in and of themselves, do not hold any promise of exposure to the audience. What is necessary is a means of telling the audience that the book exists – that it is good and worthy of reading; perhaps even worthy of purchasing.

In the commercial publishing model, there are two filters. The first is the slush pile, which works really well for winnowing out those authors that are weak on grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence formation, storytelling or reality. As good as it is for filtering those things out, it is equally bad at filtering in the good stuff. Still, what gets stuck in the great publishing lint trap goes through the machine and is spit out the other side in the direction of the second filtration system: the reviewer.

(The word reviewer is, in my opinion, a deceiving word for what the individual inhabiting the role is intended to do. Really, the word should be recommender, because the individual is recommending good work to people who are, honestly, looking for recommendations. Ordinarily, I would throw this away as a digression, but words are important, not just to those of us who are writers, but to those who consider the English language as the primary means of communicating ideas and concepts to one another. If you do not periodically reexamine your labels, you run the risk of allowing those labels to grow stiff from disuse. Okay, now I’m done digressing.)

The review filter is a time-tested, honorable, well-intentioned, grass-roots model that faces exactly the same problem as the produced content that is pushed through it: exposure. It’s great that I am offering to review science fiction and Fantasy POD is offering to review fantasy. But if there are no readers who are looking in our dusty corner of the internet, then those reviews don’t mean a thing.

But where a writer (or other content producer) faces an uphill battle to get any kind of exposure, a reviewer has the ability to gain a much more distributed readership because he is able to produce a variety of different kinds of content. Not every book reviewed will be to the tastes of every reader, but the chances are good that some of the books reviewed will be to the tastes of some of the readers – enough so that the readers will learn to trust the tastes of the reviewers and come back to them for more reviews down the road. Eventually, some of those readers may end up recommending the reviewer to other people, allowing others (readers and writers alike) to tap into the ever-explanding nexus of exposure.

Basically, the key word here is trust. If you do not trust the reviewer in your role as a reader, there is no reason to trust the reviewer in your role as a writer. At the same time, your reading habits should include at least one trusted reviewer that is able to tell you where the new, good material is to be found. More than anything, that trust relationship will drive the new content filters (like myself and others that have chosen to take on this dirty job with me) and allow them to generate the readership that they need to be effective recommenders-at-large.