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.