The idea of lauding publishers for protecting us from the dreaded slush pile is nicely contrarian and old-fashioned but it applies more to pre-1990 publishing than anything you see today. A book simply won't be published unless the marketing people think it's likely to find a mass audience. The unwritten contract between publishers and readers was broken when editors no longer were allowed to be ruled by their passions. A combination of Hollywood-type marketing decisions and the glut of technique-heavy MFAs have resulted in a lot of books with good-looking covers and readable first pages. Walking through a bookstore is a lot like visiting IKEA -- a sea of passionless mediocrity, but, oh, isn't it designed well?
How can Salon laud a free-for-all for music but not for literature? Sad comment when Stephen King is hipper than thou, dudes. If the Internet is going to be anything more than a computerized K-Mart (and I'm having serious doubts about that) then let the slush fly!
-- Susan Zakin
If publishers disappear, then critics can take up the slack of wading through the slush. It's extremely unimaginative to think there's no alternative to allowing a few big publishers to monopolize book publishing (and often at the expense of authors).
-- Andrew Dabrowski
Maybe the bookstores at the malls are full of good books that I'll never read. The technical book industry, however has many very good books that are out of print and unavailable in the used book market. At one time publishers would stockpile books for a number of years if demand was slow but steady. Changes in the tax code and business philosophy, however, have meant the quick extinction of many good technical books. Consider a book like "Detection of Abrupt Changes, Theory and Application" by Michele Basseville. This is a perfect example of a book that is very useful to a very small population, and is also pretty much unavailable for purchase. Basseville may have gotten a few hundred bucks in royalties, but no doubt the book sold for $50-100 when it was available. Thus, even if there was only a market for 200 e-copies, she would be far ahead of the game.
Many technical books are edited and typeset by the academics themselves, so I doubt that the book companies would be missed much in this market. I hope it is just a matter of time before a peer-review system for this kind of publishing is established.
-- Eric Keller
As an archivist of amateur fan fiction on the Web, I think it's a great idea for authors to go straight to the readers. But I also know it is probably delusional to expect that people will voluntarily pay for it. The most popular author on my site has a readership of about 500. Yet, each time she releases an installment of her magnum opus (chapter 23 just came out), she only gets about a dozen e-mails commenting on the piece, despite pleas for feedback.
My point is, people come to take free fiction for granted, like television. People are paying for King's latest for one major reason: They know they're being tested, and they are eager to pass. I believe the novelty and the inclination to pay will wear off rapidly. My fan authors write whether they get "paid" in feedback or not, but if this enterprise relied on payment, I doubt the 23-chapter story mentioned above would have gotten past the first chapter. And (if one follows King's system) what author wants the anxiety of whether his readers will pay for Part 2 enough to justify a Part 3?
-- Elizabeth Durack
One thing Laura Miller forgot to mention: how terrible "Riding the Bullet" was. I read and read, hoping to be thrilled in some way, but King couldn't save the hackneyed plot of a young man coming to terms with his mother and mortality. I was never scared whilst reading the terrible tale, except when my supervisor almost caught me slacking off.
-- Amanda Spear