When I go looking for a book, oh, let’s say I’m looking for a good Heroic Fantasy (I like heroic fantasy but good stuff–meaning stuff I enjoy about people I’d like if I met them in real life where the challenges are enough to keep me rapt but not so great as to set off my rather idiosyncratic “squick” factors and so on–can be hard to find). There might be a half dozen or so on the shelves that I’m not already familiar with and pulling that out of a shelf full of science fiction and fantasy is enough of a challenge. But how many manuscripts get submitted for every one that turns up on those shelves? If a significant percentage of those go the self-publishing route then my problem in finding that “good Heroic Fantasy” for this week has become a hundred times harder. Yes, the publishers “miss” good work in their selection process and let some utter dreck through but, as a former slush reader, I can assure you that the ratio of “good” to “dreck” that makes the publishing cut is at least two orders of magnitude better than the ratio coming in via the slushpile.
Up until now, publishers have performed two services: making books accessible, and acting as a filter to at least weed out the worst of what gets submitted. With POD, self-publishing, and especially e-publishing the first function has become largely superfluous but that also means that their ability in the latter function (far from perfect even in the best of times, and some of their business models in that vein have been nuts from my perspective) is greatly reduced. That doesn’t reduce the need for that second function to be provided by someone, even if not by the publishers. Who that someone might be, I think, is still an open question.
Like most people (I presume) I don't really pay any attention to who publishes the particular books I buy. I do buy a lot of Baen books, but a large part of that is that they make it easy to buy lots of books, cheaply, that I could put on my old PDA or on my iPod Touch now–I like the idea of being able to carry a large chunk of my library anywhere I go. Still, the fact that the book was on the shelves meant that it had been professionally published and that the worst 90% had been screened out before it was published. Another 9% or so was also screened out but that may or may not have been “worse” than what was actually published.
I do think somebody needs to perform that “screening function” (I believe the “term of art” is “Gatekeeper”). I, as a reader, need help to get through that thousand Eye of Argon’s to get to the one “The Oathbound”. Maybe reviewers can serve that function but at present I don’t see reviewers going through enough books to make a dent in that pile and I don’t see a business model to pay them to do it. (Yes, reviewers often want to be paid. Rude of them, I know, but that's how things work.)
I’m not disagreeing in the long run with self-publishing and e-publishing as being “the wave of the future” but I also foresee some pretty serious teething problems in the transition. The simple fact is that “Well Known Writer” as the byline is going to draw a lot more people than “David L. Burkhead” (Who?). To start “word of mouth” somebody has to read the book in order to tell someone else. And a book by Well Known Writer is going to have a lot more initial vectors to start that word of mouth than will David L. Burkhead (Who?). And since not everybody who reads the book will enjoy it, and since not everyone who reads the book and enjoys it will take the time to tell others, and since not everybody who is told how great it is will buy it themselves, the more initial vectors one has the better chance of a word of mouth that doesn’t fizzle into nothing for reasons that have nothing to do with how good the book itself is.
Whew, this is getting long (getting?). Let me be clear about one thing. Although I used myself as an example above I’m not complaining “it’s not fair!” I’m an unrepentant capitalist. But the idea that good product will always find its market in a “free market” is a myth. Good product has better chances, all other things being equal (but when are all other things equal?) but there are no guarantees. I am simply pointing out that a business model that can be attractive for people who do have a following, who have people who will at least give the work a look because of the author’s name on the cover, or who have the resources (which need not necessarily be financial) to provide the “push” that publishers can do for favored authors, can be more . . . intimidating to folk who aren’t in that position. But then again if it were easy everybody could play.
But, like I said before, no answers, just questions.