A Defense of Traditional Publishing: Part Two


The word “curation” embodies one of the key activities of a traditional publisher. My understanding of this word has been forever enriched by Steven Rosenbaum, the author of the fantastic book Curation Nation: Why the Future of Content is Context. (You owe it to yourself to read this book.)

We usually associate the curator with a museum. Our daughter worked for a family where the father was the curator for a major Art Museum in Fort Worth. We attended one of the exhibits he put together. Each painting and sculpture was there for a reason and he had spent a year traveling the world to select the best pieces for the event. He didn’t simply do an Internet search for “French Impressionists” and click through the top 100 search results. He hand-picked each piece. His job was all about selection, organization, and presentation.

In much the same way the publisher (and literary agent) carries the vital role of choosing which books and which authors are the best and have the most likely chance of commercial success. That is “curation.”

Rosenbaum says, “First, curation is about adding value from humans who add their qualitative judgment to whatever is being gathered and organized. And second, there is both amateur and professional curation, and the emergence of amateur or pro-sumer curators isn’t in any way a threat to professionals.” (Curation Nation, pages 3-4)

Before the Internet allowed for the proliferation of information the process was “curate first, then publish.” The ease of self-publishing has created a “publish first, then curate” mentality. The thinking here is to let the market decide. Let the word-of-mouth or viral community determine what works and what doesn’t. While there is considerable merit to this, in practice, obscurity is a more likely outcome.

I was stunned to read a couple weeks ago that in one day there were 16,000 new ebooks made available on the Kindle platform…all of them free to download. Think about the implications of that for a second. Sixteen thousand free books dumped into the system in one day. That would fill a good sized bookstore or even a regional library. This is the perfect example of “publish then curate.” Granted, it is likely these are all public domain titles uploaded from the Gutenburg Project and aren’t really commercial competition, but the point is still valid.

Our book purchasing patterns have shifted from a browsing activity to a searching activity. When you are online you cannot scan dozens of titles in a second to see what jumps out. Online we usually type (or click) a specific word, genre, or author name and search from there. The bestselling authors are placed in our peripheral view by the algorithms created by the vendor. The unknown author remains in obscurity. But in a brick and mortar store we stand in front of 500 or more titles in a section and browse where there is a chance that a new author or title will catch our eye. This is not a defense of one way versus the other, merely how we have shifted in our patterns.

The implication is that it is that much harder to stand out among the crowded data online. There are always exceptions like Amanda Hocking or J.A. Konrath in the ebook world and The Shack in the paperback book world. But exceptions do not make the rule. Without curation books like Radical by David Platt or Crazy Love by Frances Chan would not have been placed front and center for your attention.

Many authors bristle at this notion of curation saying, “What gives them the right to say yes or no to my manuscript?” Not everyone is understanding when our agency says “no.” Today’s technology allows that writer to still make the material available with little cost. But is that always a good thing?

Put it another way. What if all 10,000 applicants to American Idol were given recording contracts and their music uploaded on iTunes today? How would you know what is worth your time, not just your money? Watching the early auditions of Idol makes one thankful there is someone curating.

Another criticism is that traditional publishers are not doing a good job of curating. “Their choices are weak” and “the books they acquire are only by the already established authors.” The mid-list writers are being cut out of the herd and slaughtered. Only the big names or the fresh newcomers are being given a chance.

While not all publishing choices are good ones at least there is a measure of reasonable decision making going into the process. I know a lot of these editorial curators. They are pretty savvy people, many of them long time veterans of the publishing wars.

In my opinion, Curation is one of the major reason to embrace the traditional publishing model. For all its warts, it is still better than the alternative.

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: Curation

Part Three: Editorial

Part Four: Design

Part Five: Infrastructure


35 Responses to A Defense of Traditional Publishing: Part Two

  1. Avatar
    Connie Cavanaugh April 20, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    Curation was a huge part of the process of discerning God’s will for my “writing” life; ie: “If a publisher thinks my message is worth their investment then I will take that as a ‘yes, you’re on the right track’ from God.” Harvest House liked my work, gave me my first contract, and are now part of my journey of following God one yes at a time.

  2. Avatar
    Kathleen April 20, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    Curating. iLike this word and its many layers.

  3. Avatar
    Aimee L. Salter April 20, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    What a great concept. I’m going to use that one.

  4. Avatar
    Marcy Kennedy April 20, 2011 at 11:41 am #

    If I’m being completely honest, your post sums up my selfish reason for advocating for traditional publishing. I don’t want to waste my time sorting the wheat from the chaff. I want to know that someone has already done the sorting so that I have a better chance of feeling like the money I spent on a book was worth it. Yes, this means I give some of the power to determine “worthy” and “unworthy” to someone else, but as someone who’s written book reviews of self-published material, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

  5. Avatar
    Timothy Fish April 20, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    I believe your argument begs the question. Traditional publisher function as curators because they are hoping to find those books that will make them the most money. If there were no traditional publishers, there would be no need for curators, just as it is true that if there were no museums there would be no need for someone to select the best paintings for the museum. If we follow your argument through, we are to believe that traditional publishers select the best books and we know they select the best books because traditional publishers select the best books.

    I think some readers will tend to look for some form of curator when facing the large number of new books, but you imply that there is less obscurity in the traditional publisher with bookstores model than in the new model. That may be true if you happen to be one of the 500 titles you mentioned, but what of title 501? The unlucky fellow who didn

  6. Avatar
    Teddi Deppner April 20, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    This is an excellent point. We need curation of some kind to sort through the sheer volume of content.

    While I don’t consider myself at odds with “traditional publishing”, I strongly suspect that no defense in the world will save its life at this point. Printed books are not dead, and publishing, with its gatekeepers (or curators) is not dead. But the traditional models must change to survive, and I believe we’ll see in the next few decades what pieces of the traditional model are actually essential elements.

    The essence of the curator concept is definitely in demand, regardless of publishing model. Whether I rely on a publisher I trust, or the combined voices of millions who buy and tag some thing as “liked”, I need something to guide me to my next purchase.

    However, my tastes run to the fringes of what is most popular with the masses. TV shows I enjoy are usually cancelled. Books on the bestseller lists are okay, I guess, but rarely my favorite. I have been frustrated all my life by the fact that the kind of movies and books I enjoy aren’t “commercially viable”.

    At long last, the huge financial obstacles have been moved out of the way, and excellent quality films and books can now be made and distributed by anyone with the vision, skill, time and a very modest financial investment. This thrills me to no end.

    No offense intended (really!), but I’d love to see less discussion on preserving the old ways and more discussion on how to make new business models that support themselves. We need curators. But if they’re not being paid by the publishers anymore, where will they make their living?

    I have some ideas along those lines, but would really like to hear the perspective of those living in the industry. Steve, are there any glimmers of some of those new models yet from where you stand? If not, could you get a little wild and throw some crazy outside-the-box ideas out here for us fringe-livers to consider?

  7. Avatar
    Steve Laube April 20, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    You make a valid point and is one that should and will be addressed in future analysis of the industry. For now the focus will be on the foundational elements of the publishing industry. What they are doing right…irregardless of whether it is E or not E. We “should” preserve the best of the old ways and figure how to stand on those shoulders and get better in our content delivery.

    And to answer your “fringe” questions. Yes. There are glimmers and many creative ideas being batted around. But I’ll save what I’ve heard for another day, except to point you to an old blog post on “Digital Creativity in Books.” Take a look at:

  8. Avatar
    Teddi Deppner April 20, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    Thanks for providing the context for your series, Steve. I took the title more in terms of “defending the status quo” or “why authors should still use traditional publishers”. (I suppose, from what I know of you, I should have known better, but I’m still relatively new to your ways…)

    It is extremely valuable to identify what works well, why it works, and especially to examine these elements apart from the current “form” or format and see what new forms might work with the new technologies and environment.

    Looking forward to more, and will check out the post you referenced. Thanks!

  9. Avatar
    Scoti Springfield Domeij April 20, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    So how do you create an algorithm if you want to publish an e-book?

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube April 21, 2011 at 9:17 am #

      You don’t create the “algorithm” it is a function of the “Meta-Data” you fill out when adding the book to Amazon’s or Barnes&Noble’s web sites. This is a relatively new area of learning and expertise that publishers are scrambling to master. Much like the “tags” you placed in your HTML code when designing a web site, the meta-data is the info that the search engine looks at to determine which sites fit your search.

  10. Avatar
    Lance Albury April 21, 2011 at 4:09 am #

    I’ve been a long-time proponent of publishing houses serving as the curators of the writing world. I made a point in another blog that these curators (agents included) act in a capacity much like Olympic figure skating judges do for the general public; we rely on them to award quality and excellence.

    But I believe I’ve been a bit naive; this is more what the ideal should be. I see Timothy’s point in that, for the most part, the curators are selecting the books that will make them the most money–a wart indeed. I believe this wart has provided some of the fuel for non-traditional publishing.

    I’m not ready to give up on the traditional publishing model, but publishers need to do a better job about balancing what they believe will make them the most money with what exhibits quality and excellence.

    I’ve read several books recently that stand as evidence the curators are making some pretty bad decisions lately. It shouldn’t matter how big an author’s name is, quality and excellence should be the standard. Money will follow.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube April 21, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

      Unfortunately it has always been that way.

      Just look at Hollywood and some of the truly bad films that get greenlighted and then end up making millions.

      The balance is a forever challenge.

      However a novel like THE HELP would likely have not been discovered were it not for a sharp editorial eye. And that is a novel of good quality and compelling story.

  11. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan April 21, 2011 at 5:24 am #

    Steve, this is an excellent analogy and it helps me to better understand the traditional process of publishing a book.

  12. Avatar
    Robert Treskillard April 21, 2011 at 8:46 am #

    You said:

    “Only the big names or the fresh newcomers are being given a chance.”

    Is that true in today’s economy? Are the large CBA publishers really taking on many new authors?

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube April 21, 2011 at 9:19 am #

      Absolutely. Last year our agency sold three first time authors, two fiction, one non-fiction. We have an offer on the table right now for a first time novelist from a major publisher. So it still happens. It has always been that way. And it has never been easy.

      That is another argument for having an agent…but I digress. 🙂

      • Avatar
        Jami May 23, 2012 at 11:49 am #

        Except you can only be the fresh newcomer once. What happens, then, after your first time author turns in mediocre sales. Do you end up selling their next books, or do you drop them like hot potatoes? I think most authors hope to be able to sell more than one book/series.

    • Avatar
      Diane Tarantini May 29, 2011 at 10:50 am #

      I would think then that our goal as writers should be to BE the fresh newcomer.

  13. Avatar
    Mick April 21, 2011 at 9:20 am #

    Steve, I too love this familiar argument, and you make it as well as I’ve ever heard it made. I’ll check out the book for sure. Though I can’t say a successful agent defending the ivory tower is surprising, I completely agree in the value, indeed the necessity, of experienced help for every step in a book’s lifespan.

    But whether curating is a viable model for sustaining traditional publishing depends on how willing each publisher is to embrace their readers as the new curators and even seek out more such budding “revolutionaries.” And my experience tells me most established houses will defend this particular notion of superiority to their last gasp.

    As a recent casualty of the aging curator system, my position may not be surprising either. But I do agree that selecting the best books and building trust with readers is a valuable service. The problem with the assumption is it’s built on the faulty premise that a good % of readers will continue to accept the established curators’ standards for their choices. Daily, I see breakdowns on both sides of this battle, and my history book shows that the people will ultimately overpower any form of oppression, real or perceived, be it from governments, curators or assumptions of how things *should* work.

    The thoughtful responders here have made most my points really well already, but I can’t defend “warty traditional publishing” for not figuring out how to embrace the new opportunity to prove they’re listening to the wind blowing through every industry and around the world today. The shift simultaneously liberates and terrifies me, but I’m choosing to proceed with hope that I can still help improve some of those 16,000 ebooks being published each day…

    Rally on, my valiant friend! It’s a great work and service you perform. Nice looking new website here.

    Mick Silva

  14. Avatar
    Rachel April 22, 2011 at 6:17 am #

    Good points. I’ve always considered getting published as a way of confirming that my writing is now good enough. If the professionals want to publish my writing, then I’m ready. If not, I’ve probably got more work to do. I’ve read a couple of novels recently that were picked up by small publishers. The writers were told by the big publishers that their settings/content weren’t marketable. I loved the story lines, but the writing just wasn’t ready yet. I have to wonder if the writing had been better if the big publishers would have been more willing to take a risk on them. I probably won’t be picking up a book from a small press again. I want a “curated” book. It increases the odds that the book is ready to be read.

  15. Avatar
    Anne-Mhairi Simpson April 22, 2011 at 7:18 am #

    This is a valid point – curation prior to publication is the one thing the self-publishers don’t have and sometimes you really wish there was. However, I would have liked to see a more in-depth discussion about mid-list authors being “cut out of the herd and slaughtered” rather than it being stated and then ignored.

    If and when I get published, I don’t think I’ll be a superstar, but (hopefully) I won’t be “fresh and new” for long. The lack of analysis referring to mid-list authors didn’t fill me with confidence regarding traditional publishing. That there is a “measure of reasonable decision making” can’t be much comfort to the afore-mentioned mid-list authors.

  16. Avatar
    Keith Henry April 22, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    I have nothing against the curator model as it was operated say 10-15 years ago. Unfortunately as the “mid-list” and beginning authors find their opportunities dramatically reduced that it makes self-publishing seem like a viable option and it begs the question: Are my odds better in a dwindling traditional market, where the odds of a contract are very low and the royalties are OK, or do I go to self-publishing and get on Kindle where the odds are low that I’ll get noticed, but at least I have a book in print (at least in e-form). It’s a tough choice and when (and if) I finish my book I’m not sure which way I’ll go. But, as time passes and the traditional market shrinks and the Self-publishing market expands, the decision might be made for me. Either way I enjoyed your post!

  17. Avatar
    Brad Huebert April 22, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    Hi Steve.

    Great insights, especially using the word “curating” instead of “gatekeeping.” I suppose curators can become mere gatekeepers when they aren’t curating with vision, but ideally they exert a purifying and preserving influence when vision guides their discernment.

    The American Idol analogy is wonderful. Although, there might be a humor market for a “bottom 10” CD. 🙂

  18. Avatar
    Rick Barry April 23, 2011 at 5:26 am #

    Very interesting presentation, Steve. Here’s another angle on curation. I’ve applied repeatedly to get on the reality show SURVIVOR, so I’m always interested in my wannabe competitors. Twice now, CBS has allowed applicants to upload 60-second videos of themselves explaining why they could be the ultimate Survivor, and then posted these thousands of videos online. I’m blown away by how mundane are the vast majority. Even when people have weeks to prepare their very best shot at grabbing the producers’ attention, they come across as boring, simplistic, and definitely not the stuff of interesting entertainment. I totally understand why the curators of this reality show must select only the most interesting candidates–their careers are at stake. They don’t dare to choose players who just sit around without talking or doing anything interesting. I discovered that it takes only 5-10 seconds of video to decide whether a person “has it” or doesn’t.

    I view traditional publishing in a similar light. The world is brimming with wannabe-published people, but even if all of them really were published, most would not be worth reading. Traditional publishers serve as a pre-screening filter for the consumer. Sure, they make mistakes, but no doubt they weed out countless submissions that I don’t even want to see, let alone waste time or money on. They also compel me to improve my craft constantly if I want to make the cut. So, kudos to the curators.

    P.S. IF I ever get onto a reality show, you better believe I’ll mention my books as often as possible! Marketing, marketing, marketing….

  19. Avatar
    Lisa Grace April 27, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    Traditional publication with a large house is the dream of every writer. I do see “curation” being reader driven in the near future. Just like “records” are not the domain of the music industry, but the songs themselves, I believe publishers will come to realize the “story is the thing” not the medium (paper, ebook) it is delivered in.

    I see the industry evolving to the point where once X amount of books are sold as ebooks, then publishers will deem a book “worthy” (money making) enough to be published as a paper book.

  20. Avatar
    Rebecca Stuhlmiller June 21, 2011 at 7:52 pm #

    I am all for traditional publishing. Who wouldn’t be? But from what I have heard, I must write at least 45,000 non-fiction words to even be considered. I could manufacture that many words — blah, blah, blah — but my book will only have 20,000 tops. What choice do I have but go a non-traditional route?


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