Curating Books

Second in a series about the changing landscape of publishing. Check out last Thursday’s post, Reconsidering Gatekeepers, to start at the beginning.

Agents and editors have said many things to me over the years about books and about the publishing industry, not all of which I’ve agreed with or even understood at the time. I’m realizing now that a whole swath of these comments (and the attitude driving them) are the result of reading slush. I’d never done that until recently. These comments concern the decision of which books get published. This traditionally has been done by agents and editors. You could call it curating books (and I will).

A curator in an art gallery or museum is able to be objective about the objects in the collection. He or she can see the relative value of the works, what they each contribute to the landscape in their particular niche, what they express and how they move the conversation forward. A curator ideally has a vast knowledge of trends and patterns and techniques, the better to position works in an exhibit and create a coherent whole. A curator won’t hang every possible candidate in the collection for a specific show, but will choose the best examples to explore the theme in question. Curators manage collections. You can probably see the parallels between curating an exhibit of paintings and curating a publication list, but let’s explore that more.

Curating is not an exact science, and not something that can be readily explained, but there certainly could be said to be a way to curate books. Going back to those sayings from industry people, here are a few of them which I’m finding particularly resonant right now:

1. I’ll know it when I see it.
This is the description of the right book, the break-out book, the big book or the career-making book. Most editors and agents say this or a variation of it when asked what they want to see next or what they’re looking for or how they know when it’s time for an author to be given a big career push. It sounds pompous. It sounds like there are other hidden variables at work. But the fact is that when you read slush, a truly excellent book shines like a diamond in the dust. As a reader in a curated market, the diamonds are less evident, because most everything available for you to read has been plucked from the dust and polished to a shine.

The subject and the structure of the excellent book could be anything at all. What matters is the storytelling and the craft of the writing. You can’t anticipate those books, much less their source, but you do know them when you see them. A curator has a trained eye.

2. Not all book ideas should be written into books.
3. Not all books should be published.
I’ve heard #2 more often than #3, but I think industry people really mean #3. It just sounds too harsh. (If the “unworthy” book doesn’t exist, then there’s no question of publishing it. This removes the weight of responsibility for a negative decision.)

I think #3 is more true than #2. There are book ideas that need to be written so that the author learns something about character, structure, language or storytelling. The author might even be learning about a new market niche or style. But every single book that an author writes might not be one to publish – or the one to publish next. That doesn’t mean the work has no value – it’s been an exercise for the writer, and possibly a necessary step required before taking the next creative leap.

Writers tend to think that everything they write should be published, because it takes work to create each book. Because the writer created the book, he or she is necessarily less objective about its relative merits – at least immediately after completing it. I find that it takes me at least five years to be objective about a book I’ve written, maybe ten if I really loved the idea. That lack of objectivity – and assumption that everything deserves to be published – makes writers poor curators of their own work.

Like so many things, the creative challenge changes when there is money involved. If an author wants to make a living by writing, then choices need to be make about publishing work. There are two goals in a working writer’s career: the first is building skill, which requires writing exercises that may or may not be published. The second goal is building audience, and – according to the traditional model – to do that efficiently and effectively, books need to be curated. Traditionally, that curation has been done by someone other than the author.

4. This book contributes nothing.
This statement has always felt like a slap to me. The implication is that the author is marking time, or repeating a success, not developing as an artist. The book contains no new ideas or new twists on old themes; it’s not “fresh” in New York terms. It brings nothing to the party, just offers more of the same.

This is a curatorial notion, too. It means that each book published by an author should guide that author’s career one step further. (Each painting hung in the exhibition must add something to the overall presentation, otherwise it can stay in the vault.) Even within genre, each book should be bigger (have more scope,) be more strongly crafted, have more vivid characters or exhibit better storytelling skills. The notion is that an author’s skill will continue to grow, and if each book offers an incremental improvement, the audience will grow with the author. There is no creative merit in marking time: the author must always be learning and developing. There might not even be any commercial merit in marking time – we’ve all heard readers say something like “I used to read Author A, but now all of his/her books are the same.”

Even if we acknowledge the need for books to be curated (and not all authors do), the question remains of who the curators should be.

Traditionally, the first line of curators were agents. This makes sense: an agent has to choose where to invest his or her time. Obviously, an agent well read in a certain niche will be interested in presenting books to editors that the agent believes the editors will want to buy. These would be books that were excellent and/or fresh, books that bring something new to the niche.

The second line of curators in traditional publishing were editors. Again, this makes sense. Publishing houses  need to outlay financial resources to publish any acquired book: it only stands to reason that they would want to do that for books that their editors believed would find an audience – the bigger the better. Alternatively (especially in literary fiction) they might wish to publish a book that they believe contributes to the cultural landscape. Such books need to be published in a curatorial sense, whether they make money or not.

With the explosion of indie publishing, authors have become their own curators. It could be argued that part of the reason for the growth of indie publishing is that editors and agents were curating too strictly. The fiction market became closely controlled and it was perceived that only certain kinds of stories were marketable. Not only was it hard to find diversity within genres, but authors had a hard time diversifying and developing their work. Many authors were pigeon-holed by publishers as a specific kind of writer writing a specific kind of book, and actively encouraged to mark time, delivering a very similar book each and every time. This meant that no one would have to think very hard about how to build authors’ careers or their audiences or how to market their books. Some of the curators became lazy, which isn’t good for readers either. I believe that this kind of lazy curation is a factor in the success of indie publishing – both authors and readers wanted more choices.

On the other hand, as we discussed last week, authors aren’t always impartial judges of their own work.

The final candidate for curatorial responsibilities is readers. The risk here is that readers will turn away from the task of having to sift through book lists to find something they want to actually read. So, I don’t think readers should have to do the curating.

I suspect that what’s required is a whole new industry structure, or at least another option for publication. We’ll talk next week about some different scenarios for the future.

In the meantime, tell me what you think. Do you think books should be curated? By who – and why?