05/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Publishing Is Dead [Part 2]: Can We Make It About Writers For A Change?

Thought experiment time.

Pretend, for a moment, that the nation's publishers met Godfather-style in a smoke-filled room somewhere high atop midtown Sixth Avenue. Everyone is there: Random House overlords; Simon & Schuster bosses; charming and benevolent folk who run HarperCollins. Everyone. In the corner there's a nice dairy tray with lox and whitefish, but no one's paying attention to that. The business at hand is too life and death. The industry heads agree - yes, they've been flooding the marketplace with too many books. Too many authors for too many niches and too few eyes. So they've come to a decision. They're tightening the reins and establishing what amounts to a basement. Let the Internet have its laissez faire free-for-all. It's what it's intended for, damn it. But the ink-and-binding set will move in the opposite direction: only credentialed, worthy writers get to publish under commercial banners. Word tumbles down to the editorial gatekeepers that, yes, or rather no, there will be no more taking chances on just anyone's two bit thesis. Err on the side of exclusion. If something looks like it should be relegated to the vanity presses, it should. We can't afford to take chances on a slush pile's silt. The draw bridges are rising up, and we're taking the express elevator to the upper floors of our ivory tower.

So here's the question: Is there anything wrong with this?

Sure it's elitist. But we're evolving into a culture that can allow for a healthy dose of selective elitism when it's needed. You aren't Spielberg? Have no care. Throw that video of your toddler angrily dropping fuck-words on the family cat onto YouTube. If it's compelling, a few million people will watch and cheer. Or maybe they'll prefer your neighbor's video of Grandpa belching out the national anthem. But you'll be better off either way because the chance of someone in Singapore seeing your adventures in auteurism is much higher than if you decided to try for a dozen years to secure foreign distribution through NBC Universal!

It's an extreme and not completely analogous example, but there's truth here. Despite all those fancy technological advancements and truncated attention spans leading publishing gradually down the path to the graveyard of dinosaurs, books matter. They have cachet. And having your name on the spine right above Knopf or St. Martin's or Penguin or, ahem, Harper, still means something to you as a writer (you mean me?). But walk into any Barnes & Noble and look on those overflowing tables. Look at some of the people "playing author" right now. It's one thing to be an expert in a particular field and have a little assistance, whether by ghostwriter or co-author, like a lot of my pals do.

A lot of these manuscripts are mis-labeled midlife crises with acknowledgments, an index and a marketing budget. And more are so-called books doodled by people who are desperate to have PRODUCT to show their friends, associates, mistresses, and the longed-for prospect. My current publisher ("McGraw-Hill/S&P") proved to me that they are more interested in an author's "platform" and who follows him, miles before they reads any of his content.

Just because you're good at one thing doesn't mean that you'll be swell at another. That holds true in every industry--all except book biz. Some people really have compelling stories that ought to be told. Most people do not. The filters are broken, dammit!

Alas, there is a reason they're called vanity presses. These places appeal to the absorbed bits of every person's soul; I'm talking the bulbs that light up when you pics up Tolstoy and murmurs with eyes ablaze, "Shit. I could do that." So go ahead. Publish. Do it independently, though. Write your masterpiece, put it on Amazon or in the back of your van, take it to the willing with spare cash at a state fair. If it's good it'll sell. You just got to make them open it up.

Some home-schooled child wrote a dragon book and proved just that. It's likely not very good and it will not sell. At which point . . . you think people will just give up. Because the same it's not every morning a shower karaoke balladeer winds up on Sony BMG, not every halfwit who can tat-tat-tat and has time to keyboard it down will clog the ridiculously congested publishing pipeline made worse by desperate agents and slammed-to-the-wall editors.

So, well, now a favor: Just because you can't write doesn't mean you should stop reading.

Twitter: @laermer