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.: March 2006 --> The real threat of blogging

The real threat of blogging

» Salon's Scott Rosenberg recently attended a Berkeley CyberSalon on the topic of elitism in media and blogging and came away with the feeling that it was a rehash of the tired blogging vs. journalism argument that has been going on since 2003. But I think he has it wrong.

The dichotomy in the argument he describes isn't "blogs vs journalism". The unspoken premise underlying this argument is that books and articles are published commercially because they represent the best writing that is available. But that's not the way the publishing business works.

Publishers are interested in printing books and articles they can sell, nothing more, nothing less. When publishers evaluate a book proposal, they don't ask if the work is true or original or insightful or well-written. First and foremost, they ask themselves if they can sell it. If they don't think they can, they pass. If they believe there is a market and that they can effectively market the work, they buy it.

Magazine editors pass on well-written articles that don't fit with the focus of their publication. Editorial boards pass on well-written book manuscripts in genres they believe they cannot sell. Conversely, there are a lot of marginally-to-poorly written books on the shelves (The DaVinci Code, The Left Behind series, some genre fiction all come to mind). The Weekly World News is not noted for its superb journalism, but it apparently sells well enough to maintain a stable of advertisers.

So that's the false dichotomy. Blogs are threatening to a certain type of writer not because they allow mediocre writing to flourish — the commercial market already does that. They are threatening because they unequivocally demonstrate that commercial publishing does not necessarily represent the best writing that is available.

 [ 03.20.06 ]


rebecca, well put. one line stands out:

>First and foremost, they ask themselves if they can sell it. If they don't think they can, they pass.

spot-on. in a similar vein, had a set of buddies who were in an incredible band with a strong, significant local following in chicago. they played regionally, hundreds of gigs, had a bunch of critically praised discs out. they went to NYC to play at the mercury lounge for the industry types. three execs showed up, two left during the gig. the third waited around, wanting to meet with them afterwards. the conversation went like this:

"you guys are incredible. i love your lyrics. i love your sound.

but i could never sell you. i'm sorry."

and with that, she turned and walked out.

Amen. This goes back to the power of the link as a mark of attentionworthiness.

I couldn't have said it better myself. And that's not because I'm a poor writer or a mediocre blogger. ; )

Perfectly put. There is always room for good writers on the Internet.

I dunno. Did people really believe commercial publishers were publishing the best of all writing? That they would sacrifice profit for art? Or, that they constitute some kind of an elite?

I sure didn't.

The trouble with this kind of critique of commercial media is that it suggests that noncommercial bloggers will, more or less by definition, produce better copy. That smacks of fighting alleged elitism with alleged eltism.

I'm not critiquing commercial media. I'm unpacking the implicit assumption in the argument Scott recounts.

As you know, I've been a persistent realist in response to the more extravagant claims of the blogosphere. Nonsense is nonsense, no matter which side of the argument claims it as truth.

I think it's obvious that if you write well and have an interested audience, you can get things 'published', as it were, that would never have been published before due to the commercial disinterest in your particular topic. Just because you have a popular blog doesn't mean you can get a book deal, but it also doesn't mean you can't attain a deal of success because book publishers still aren't interested in you.

As an artist it was a hard lesson to learn that making good art and becoming a [commercial] success in the NYC gallery scene was not necessarily the same thing.

I'd never make a good publisher. I value creativity and intelligence over marketability.

> Publishers are interested in printing books and articles they can sell, nothing more, nothing less.

Isn't this, though, a VAST generalization? Obviously there lots of junk published, but there's lots of junk blogging too. There are a ton of small presses out there and a ton of opportunities. I know lots of people who have published stories, poems, even novels. Publishing is not nearly as closed and elitist as you would think.

To me, the difference is much more straightforward: blogs aren't "threatening" because they allow for continuous, short-format publishing, which effectively reduces the barrier to entry but comes, often, at the cost of depth and length. Lots of excellent bloggers couldn't write a 7,000 word essay in the style of the New Yorker, for example; but they can write an awesome 1,500 (or 500) word essay. That kind of super-short non-fiction writing doesn't have an outlet except for blogs.

This has a lot to do with this comment: "Amen. This goes back to the power of the link as a mark of attentionworthiness." Surely one of the reasons that it's possible for so *many* people to read blog posts and link to them is because they are very short? They fit into the rhythms of the workday much more easily than, say, a long essay in the Threepenny Review or the NYRB? Obviously the blog post is in "competition" with other genres of writing for the limited attention of readeres. But blogs aren't providing the same product, only better; they're often providing a different product that is, in some ways, inferior.

Yes, of course it's a vast generalization, but as an author — and friend of numerous authors — I can tell you that work is sometimes rejected because the publisher doesn't see a market for it, or because the publisher doesn't feel that they in particular are effective in selling that type of work. My sister's agent won't even send out one of her books because the market for that genre is so bad right now, and she feels publishers would reject it on that criterion alone.

Otherwise, you make some very good points. I agree that blogs are accessible because the posts are usually short. (Although many bloggers regularly produce posts roughly the length of op-ed pieces — so I guess you might see that as a direct competition.)

I would take issue with two things: I have not claimed that blogs are producing better writing than commercial publishing. My claim is that blog writing is sometimes as good or better than what is commercially available.

And I disagree that blog writing is inferior to longer forms, just as I disagree that poetry and short stories are inferior to novels and plays. They are different, that's all.

Having said that, your point is a good one. I now deliberately schedule time to read books. My drop in reading a few years ago puzzled me — I've always been an avid reader — until I realized one day that I spend hours everyday reading online! No wonder I don't automatically think of picking up a book when it's time to relax..

I see no dichotomy between blogs v.s. journalism or literature, for me it is about the reader. Who cares where the words he consumes are published? It is all about the reader's choice to spend time reading a particular author's words no matter where they exist.

You've hit the nail on the head, Rebecca (as usual). And, as you point out, there's nothing wrong with publishers only wanting to publish what they can sell. Many people in the publishing industry love books and writing (or magazines, etc.), but they are in the business of selling writing.



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