It is fashionable for content producers to rail against the concept of “curation” in the Age of the Internet. Why? Because the guidelines of those terrible people, the “traditional publishers,” are supposedly keeping authors from the global audience that certainly must be their birthright. True, the balance can (and in the recent past certainly has) swung too far in the direction of permitting far too few good books to gain access to traditional distribution channels.
But it’s worth remembering that the situation can look very different to a content consumer than it does to a content producer.
Why is that so? Because in the modern world, we are awash – indeed drowning – in a flood of content and data. More than we could ever possibly consume, even if we had a lifetime to read even a single day’s output of the global Internet production machine. And what drives that machine to expose most content is too often purely commercial, or ideological, or just damn silliness rather than good editorial judgment (take a look at your Twitter feed, if you think I’m wrong).
This is not, of course, entirely bad, although it is undisciplined. Content producers that previously had no way to reach an audience now can, and thousands of eminently worthwhile creators have taken advantage of the level playing field that the Internet provides to reach a readership that they could never have accessed a generation ago. And that audience has benefited equally.
But the Internet is non-judgmental: everyone’s bytes are just as worthy as everyone else’s when it comes to transmissibility. That leaves readers with a serious problem. How do you find the time to winnow the wheat from the chaff? Or even the occasional wheat from the usual chaff of a single source?
That’s where the process of curation comes in. I’m a lifelong reader of The New York Times, and even at its current high price, I still find enormous value in the fact that a staff of demonstrably educated, talented, discerning individuals are consumed with the goal of distilling all of the news that the world creates in 24 hours into a digestible summary of articles that they believe are worth the notice of someone that has only so much time to dedicate in any given day to keeping up with the news.
I seek out the same level of discernment in more focused areas of interest to me as well. For example, in writing, I have yet to find a news source for a self-published author that’s on a par with The Passive Voice. Every day (yes, seven days a week), David P. Vandegriff, a contracts attorney who represents authors, presents outakes and links to a half-dozen or so “must read” articles from an extremely wide range of sources. It’s a rare day when I don’t find myself interested in all of the articles, quotes and YouTube videos that he has aggregated. Not only does he select content of certain interest to authors and serious readers, but he has a sure finger on the pulse of how publishing in general, and self-publishing in particular, continues to morph at a galloping pace.
What that means is that I save a huge amount of time every day reading Vandegriff’s free, daily email aggregation (see the right margin of his homepage for the sign up window – as well as the “donate” button, if you are so inclined) rather than the virtually endless number of other sources available. Some of those sources are well-regarded journals (e.g., the Wall Street Journal. Forbes, and The New York Times) that only occasionally have articles on writing) while others are self-indulgent most of the time, but extremely illuminating the remaining times at bat. Thankfully, Vandegriff’s thousands of readers augment his own reading, and email him when they spot a gem. He then provides the final level of review before selecting his final selections of the day.
If that sounds like agents and publishers, well, guess what, it should. The combination of filters and curation is a timeless, fractal approach that has demonstrable benefits. Just as a start-up company is only likely to get the attention of a venture capitalist if they are recommended by a start-up attorney (like me), accountant or other entrepreneur, publishers rely on agents to filter the great mass of submission, and so it is across many other disciplines as well. The reading public benefits accordingly.
Is the process perfect? Of course not. There are endless numbers of worthwhile books you’ll never be exposed to if you only shop at brick and mortar stores. But how much reading time do you have in one lifetime, anyway? And at least you’re not likely to find dreck when you pull a book off a shelf at Barnes & Noble.
So here’s the moral to the story: we shouldn’t want to go back to the days where the publishers (and particularly today’s Big 5, corporate owned publishers) have near-total control over what content can reach an audience. But we also do not (yet) benefit from an ecosystem on the self-publishing side where readers can easily find the best self-published new books among the hundreds of thousands of new offerings that reach the market every year.
Happily, that day will come. Why? Because there is very little new wine that can be contained only in new bottles. Inevitably, the age-old fractal pattern will assert itself, and a new cadre of most-trusted reviewers will arise from the current turbulent marketplace. They will earn the respect of readers, and will recommend the books that are most worth reading.The difficult challenge will be for this to happen in a way that is more open and welcoming to a broader, but equally talented, range of authors than the system that came before.
When (hopefully not if) that does happen, we’ll all be better off – authors and readers alike.