Filters Are Elitist … So What?

Standing Out From The CrowdI have suggested before that the best way to improve blooking (or blog fiction) would be to implement some form of editorial process on the web. This is a problem for a few reasons: 1, some people come online to escape the constraining editorial process in the traditional print world; 2, an editorial process (or a way to separate the chaff from the wheat) sounds just like something a traditional printing house would do. It is, however, an easy way of introducing first time readers to good online fiction. Editors who know what they’re doing and a website that highlights the best blog fiction out there can go a long way in solving the drought of quality blooks we have at the moment.

Now the main accusation thrown at me when I suggest this form of filtering is that of elitism. Editors?! You kidding me? And on and on. And I’m sick of this, really. Elitism on the Internet as applied to content is quite different from elitism as a political concept – it is, in fact the thing that has kept culture growing for a very long time.

Elitism As A Form Of Quality Control

Before the Internet the only way to get publish was through a traditional publishing house. These houses were very serious about editing (and they still are, thank God), and the books they published met certain minimum standards of quality we have come to be used to – proper vocab, proper spelling, (mostly) polished stories. At this point some of my friends have argued that there are crappy books published by traditional publishing houses as well, but I have to point out here that these crappy books are far less than if Penguin published every Tom, Dick and Harry without going over their books with an editor and a smoking gun.

There is a problem with this model, of course. Traditional publishing houses run very tight businesses, and they often do not publish good books that they think are not financially viable. I wonder how many publishing houses would publish Das Kapital for the first time in the 21st century – I don’t think any would considering how nonfiction today is published based on the initial proposition of an idea to a publisher before the book is written.

But that is an extreme. For the most part the publishing industry and its minimum level of entry has pushed writers and poets all over the world to constantly evolve and bring something good, or new, to the table. The editorial process may be elitist, true, but when applied to culture it is a very effective tool for solving the signal to noise ratio.

Populism As A Form Of Quality Control

Football and chess piecesWhen we look at the Internet we will find another effective tool I will call – for the sake of argument – populist. Google makes use of links as ‘votes’ to see if a topic is relevant to your keywords, and Digg makes use of public voting to decide if a story is appealing or not. This model works because it harnesses collective intelligence to make sense of a sea of information – and it does this quickly and easily. Editors don’t have to spend entire lifetimes sifting through the millions of news stories that break every day on the Internet – they just have to throw this decision to the readers. And the readers will choose what they want to read.

But populism fails when it comes to choosing important stories. The crowd often cannot tell if an article is groundbreaking new thought – simply because it is powered by the lowest common denominator. We don’t have to look far for such an example. Digg’s and Reddit’s stories are almost entirely selected based on broad appeal – and we all know that broad appeal alone does not determine a good article. There is an example in The Cult Of The Amateur where Andrew Keen points out the following:

As I write, there is a brutal war going on in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah. But the Reddit user wouldn’t know this because there is nothing about Israel, Lebanon or Hezbollah on the site’s top twenty ‘hot’ stories. Instead, subscribers can read about a flat-chested English actress, the walking habits of elephants, a spoof of the latest Mac commercial and underground tunnels in Japan. Reddit is a mirror of our most banal interests.

Filters May Be Elitist … But They Work

The two models I have outlined above already exist on the Internet. 9rules, the blogging network, uses the elitism model (3 ‘editors’, to be exact) to select good, quality blogs. And it got famous quickly because it provided readers with a one-stop location to find good content to read.[1]

Now, I’m not saying one model is better than the other. I have already shown you the failings of both, and how they can miserably backfire as a way to filter content. But when it comes to online fiction I believe there is a distinct need to create a place where editors have a final say in what is good and what is bad. Broad appeal matters, sure, but to eventually get to a place where we can challenge offline, real page fiction we have to set an ever escalating bar of quality for ourselves. This is one idea I’ll be frequently coming back to, but actual implementation will have to be put on backburner for a bit.

Before I close I’d like to point out that ‘elitist’ is often used as a generic insult, not because of its meaning but out of general animosity towards a subject. People call the editorial process elitist out of spite, because many can’t get in. But what author hasn’t secretly dreamed of landing a book deal? I certainly have, despite being a proponent of the Internet as a publishing medium. We shouldn’t let all we hate about traditional publishing houses mar what could be a good alternative to the broad appeal camp.

Because, I don’t know, the Internet might end up nicer for it.

Update: I realize just how vague my proposition is, so here’s my explanation from the comments below, copied and pasted for clarity:

Let’s say we have a website that accepts the ‘very best of blooks’. These blooks are picked by a bunch of editors, who not only do the preliminary selection but also follow up with quality control. Then we built this website to such a stage where people respect and value the short stories and the blooks which are showcased there. People want to get in. In order to get in, they have to meet a minimum standard of quality.

A good bunch of published authors today (in the traditional book world) learned their craft in little magazines, where an editorial process (and a ton of rejection letters) spurred them to continually improve. We don’t have this on the web – anyone can put up stuff, and since we don’t have to be good to be published there isn’t as much motivation to get better as before.

1.Disclaimer: Novelr is a member of the 9rules blogging network.

Possibly Related Posts:

Category: Publishing · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    And, yeah, before the debate begins I’d like to point out the differences between three posts discussing filters in Novelr.

    Filter Shmilter, a guest post by Alexandra Erin, states that we don’t need filters because the readers who take the time to sort through the dross are the readers whom we want.

    A progression from that is my Long Tail post, which argues that the only way to advance online fiction is to attract more than our target audience. And we do that by making it easier for them to find the good stuff (read: through filters)

    Here I’m arguing that editors as a filter is a good way of improving the quality of the medium. It’s worth noting that this editorial process should be out in the open, though. If the editors don’t say why this is good, or that is bad, then it isn’t any different from a Digg-like system for online fiction.

  • http://nomananisland.wordpress.com Gavin Williams

    I’m just asking this for clarification, but when you say “editor” you seem to be describing a “reviewer” or a “critic” and not what I think of as an editor: someone who takes written work and edits it for clarity, grammar and spelling.

    People writing reviews can only be a good thing, especially when opinions are varied and discussion is encouraged. But the process of editing, I’m finding on my own site and on Alexandra Erin’s, often occurs because of readers, who scan through the pages they are reading and assist in correcting them.

    Editing happens, and sites like Pages Unbound do a cursory review. I think I’d like to check out the 9rules site now, but I’ve long been considering writing longer reviews of the fiction I enjoy. I have the background for it, as a literature major. I think the more people participating in the process is democratic, not elitist, as we help each other fine-tune our work, and spread what’s good by word of mouth.

    Because the difference between the internet community and the elitism of the publishing world, is that publishers control what we read, they decide. On the internet, no one can stop you from publishing. And the Long Tail theory indicates that, sooner or later, someone who likes your stuff just might find you.

    Review sites can only help that happen.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Duly noted, Gavin. Going back and reading the post has made me realize how vague my proposition is. Let me try to clarify that here:

    Let’s say we have a website that accepts the ‘very best of blooks’. These blooks are picked by a bunch of editors, who not only do the preliminary selection but also follow up with quality control. Then we built this website to such a stage where people respect and value the short stories and the blooks which are showcased there. People want to get in. In order to get in, they have to meet a minimum standard of quality.

    A good bunch of published authors today (in the traditional book world) learned their craft in little magazines, where an editorial process (and a ton of rejection letters) spurred them to continually improve. We don’t have this on the web – anyone can put up stuff, and since we don’t have to be good to be published there isn’t as much motivation to get better as before.

  • http://www.sflare.com Eoghann Irving

    Editors do a lot more than remove the odd typo or correct some grammar.

    When allowed to do their jobs properly (i.e. when not dealing with the really big authors like Stephen King, Robert Jordan, etc.) they can help to polish the whole product.

    It seems to me that this is an element that is missing in most online projects. It’s easy to become self-indulgent as a writer.

    The problem with the way that “Long Tail Theory” is being bandied about is that it doesn’t address quality beyond the likely result that poor quality will likely end up further along the tail.

  • http://nomananisland.wordpress.com Gavin Williams

    Thanks for clarifying that.

    “Real editing,” where the editor helps the writer polish the material, assisting in actual plot arcs, improving scenes, tightening dialogue…

    Other things I’ve read indicate this happens less and less in the publishing world. New writers need to have something publishable to have a hope of getting published, and best-sellers don’t have anyone criticizing them. That may be an oversimplification, but that’s the impression I’ve picked up.

    A group of actual editors helping internet fiction improve sounds great to me. Come over to my site anytime — I thrive on feedback and the quest to improve my writing. I can do it for other people, but for myself I have this weird blindspot. I read what I wrote and it says what my brain wants it to say — enough that my imagination fills in the gaps. But that doesn’t mean it will translate to someone else’s imagination as well.

    A guide around such blindspots is a prize beyond price.

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    First, let me point out my opinions about the term “elitist”:
    Synthesized Happiness, Intellectualism, and the Elitee

    But I’ll follow that up with my disagreement with this article.
    In part, I disagree because Lexy’s proposition of group filtering is fairly valid: any given story’s chances of even being seen by the casual browser are greatly diminished if it is a crummy story, and greatly enhanced if it is well received.
    However, the other, and perhaps larger, reason I disagree is more subtle. I do think that filters are necessary and, frankly, they need to be more than a collective unconscious. That doesn’t mean we should appoint a board of editors though.

    Instead, I propose voluntary editors. That is, I voluntarily peruse Novelr, and generally take Eli’s recommendations about web fiction. I’ve learned to trust his opinions because he’s proven himself.

    In this case, our “editors” become more like “critics.” We find those people who are competent, well read, and of agreeable taste, and allow them to function as our personal filters.

  • http://www.sflare.com Eoghann Irving

    The problem with self selected filters is that it requires the potential readers to put in a lot of extra effort.

    If the aim is to expand the audience, then creating extra barriers (like having to wade through stuff you don’t like in order to construct your personal filter) isn’t a good plan.

    Publishing evolved the editor system for a reason and that reason wasn’t to make it hard for authors to get published (even if sometimes that’s what it turns into).

    Lets not fall into the trap of assuming that everything old is automatically bad.

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    You’re misconstruing the reason that the editor system developed – it wasn’t to sell GOOD books, it was to sell POPULAR books. That’s because the publishing company is a business, and wants to make money.

    The internet is actually much better at sorting out popular prose, because it doesn’t require somebody to predict – it just puts it out there and sees how it does.

    And, look. There are no real barriers to new readership. You’re manufacturing them. The only real barrier is whether they can find your story. And guess what? Building a readership and natural popularity will expose many more people to your story.

    Anyone who is interested in web fiction can find some. Saying there are barriers to new readers is like saying that there are barriers to new webcomic readers. First, no, there really aren’t. Second, the most useful sites for a beginning reader are not blank label comics or other elite groups. The most useful sites are things like buzzcomix or TopWebcomics, which, suprise, utilize the collective filter.

    I’m not saying that’s perfect, but I am saying that anyone who comes looking will find. And if they’re unhappy with the quality of what they find, well, that’s where the self selected filters come in.

  • http://nomananisland.wordpress.com Gavin Williams

    I don’t think it’s that hard to “wade” through things. I’ll use myself as an example:

    While at work one day, I conceived of the notion of an online comic book, where new pages had links to related earlier stories, improving the old print model where the editor puts a caption in the corner of the page like “See issue 132!” Instead, readers could reference the story quickly in the archive, and continue on their way.

    I got excited about the idea, crosslinking stories and character profiles in a web, and talked to my cousin about the feasibility of creating a comic book website (he’s a designer). I started surfing and found out there are lots of comic books on the internet, and they link to more. The ones I liked most tended to link to ones of similar quality, and I stopped reading the lesser ones.

    At random, I clicked an advertisement on one, and it lead me to Tales of MU. Alexandra Erin helped me get No Man an Island started, a project I’m a little more comfortable with than the comic book one (I’m primarily a prose writer). I think questions like mine prompted her to start Pages Unbound, and helped make online fiction more accessible.

    The review system there comes in handy, and again, I found the stories I liked linked to more stories I liked, and it was easy to stop reading the ones I didn’t.

    But the sites that collect links for distribution, like onlinecomics.net or Pages Unbound, certainly speed up the process.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Thank you, guys, for the debate. Great stuff you’ve brought up here.

    I would like to point out, though, that this suggestion about editors can only be brought in at a later stage, when Internet fiction has grasped a firmer foothold amongst readers/net surfers.

    At the moment we’re mostly grappling with wider exposure, and much of what Sebatinsky and Gavin has said is in line with that.

    My suggestion however, does not concern itself with exposure. Exposure’s a part of it (my post has talked about editors and how it may help readers find online fiction), but when I talk of editors working to set a bar of quality amongst online fiction I was thinking more of quality. Sebatinsky and Gavin is right in saying peer filters are better in gaining new readers.

    Here’s the problem I’m trying to address in my post: right now we just can’t compete (quality-wise) with offline fiction. And this is one way – the only way, perhaps – that can push us to reach such a level. Editors – loathed as they are – are still important.

    @Eoghann: I’m not sure about extra effort in self selected filters, but I’m quite sure as time goes on it gets easier and easier to find good stuff on those filters. More people reviewing means more stuff getting reviewed means better stuff comes out of filter.

    It probably also means the barrier falls, instead of rises.

  • http://nomananisland.wordpress.com Gavin Williams

    I don’t know if “competing” with offline fiction is what we want to do, exactly. We’re definitely an “alternative for” offline text. But there is certainly a different mentality.

    Tales of MU (sorry to keep coming back to this, but it’s currently seemingly the most successful model) would not work as offline text. Yes, Alexandra Erin offers print runs on Lulu, but established fans buy them. THe series itself would never make it to print on its own because of its ongoing serial nature. I’ve been reading it since the summer, and the story itself has only spanned four weeks, because of the detail in each day and each chapter. People come back for more because of this intimate and ongoing relationship with the narrator, and the constant daily updates. It’s like Dickens’ audience so long ago, they waited breathlessly for each installment.

    But traditional publishing isn’t publishing serials anymore, they want an individual book with a plot. Or, a series of books like Harry Potter. Big and complete, not ongoing like ToMU, which is potentially endless.

    The biggest complaint from readers with my story occurs near the beginning, that there are too many characters in the first chapter, and then the scene shifts abruptly from their present problem to their childhood, and then back to the plot. This is considered “disruptive.” However, I’ve checked and rechecked lots of different prose offline text that shifts scenes and timeframes in the same way, and they are best-sellers. Multiple characters in a first chapter isn’t worrisome, if you get to know each one in the next few chapters.

    “The medium is the message” – offline fiction, you know that in a few pages more will happen. So, the busy crowd scene is endurable (and possibly enjoyable) so long as it contributes to plot and the audience knows where it’s going. But online fiction happens one short chapter at a time, leaving people waiting. They want to know something important about your characters in chapter one, something that makes coming back tomorrow worthwhile. And a change in scene and time can look disruptive, because each day is formatted like the one before. In a chapter book, you have the transition of the blank page and a big bold caption: Chapter Two!

    My book gets more interesting to online readers as they go on, because I learned to create deliberate snapshots of action — interesting in themselves, complete enough in themselves, leading the reader on to the next day with small cliffhangers or unanswered questions. So now I want to improve the beginning to attract early, less patient readers.

    But that problem would not exist in an offline text. I don’t think you can call it competition when a “real” author puts out maybe two books a year, if that, while I can read Tales of MU every day. Nor when I know I can sit down with a paperback novel and get a whole story, while ToMU leaves me waiting for tomorrow. They are different experiences, and enjoyable in different ways.

    I think the way to sell online fiction is, you’re right, to work together to improve the writing. But it’s as an alternative experience to offline fiction, not a competition with it. Readers read. I’m not giving up print novels for the internet, but I’m also not going to stop enjoying reading a new chapter every day and then sharing comments with the author directly. Both are satisifying.

    I know my writing has improved because of reader interaction. But that’s haphazard at best. “Editors” that are systematic and dedicated to polishing material, that sounds great to me. I’d be willing to do it for others, if there’s interest. And I’d love to invite anyone to collaborate on improving No Man an Island.

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    Well written, Gavin. You and I appear to be on the same page.

    Also, I think it’s about time that I got over there and read No Man an Island.
    *sigh* sooo much stuff to read! I’ve been reading Agnosis by Darren Hawkins, and it’s quite good.

  • http://www.lethebashar.blogspot.com Lethe

    I haven’t been able to finish reading the comments but here’s my take on this issue. I’m looking at it from a blog novelist’s point of view. What distinguishes the internet from regular print is frequency of posting. Granted if you have a book deal there are going to be deadlines, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the conflict between the internet’s uncanny velocity and the writer’s vocation of craft. For the writer who wants to write well, there is a temptation to hold on to each chapter and revise it until its ready. However, on the internet, the writer must also consider that her audience is expecting her work to come out in fairly short intervals, maybe three times a week. What is the proper amount of editing for a blook? If a writer is compressed by time, then how can the editing process/or more important, the revision process occur? Thus far on my interlinked fiction blogs I’ve been working with material previously created, but now I’m entering into the territory of the new and wondering how to ply my craft with the demands of internet currency? Are quality and currency possible for the fiction blogger?

  • http://johnbakersblog.co.uk John Baker

    Editing happens anyway, doesn’t it? When I’ve finished a piece of work I go through it again, usually several times, getting it as good as I possibly can before giving it to someone else to read, a trusted friend, an interested pro, an agent, an editor. Each of these in their turn act as editor. Usually, at least half a dozen people will see it before it finds publication in print or on the internet.
    Surely the benefits of that are obvious. People pick up little things like spelling mistakes or inconsistencies in the narrative, and often bigger things like the passages I couldn’t bring myself to delete even though they added nothing to characterization or plot.
    I’m quite sure that editing as such is an essential part of the publishing process, on or off-line. The main problem, it seems to me, is that a large number of editors are required. This is because they tend to specialise, like the rest of us. Some editors can pick a good crime novel, while others can’t be bothered with the genre at all. Some like poetry while others are grabbed by suspense.
    Perhaps part of the job of being a writer at all includes finding someone who can act as an editor for you once you think you’ve come to the end of your piece of writing?

  • http://nomananisland.wordpress.com Gavin Williams

    Wow I’ve had a lot to say on this.

    Anyhoo: Lethe said “Are quality and currency possible for the fiction blogger?” And I would say “Yes.”

    I think writing improves the more you do it. Writing every day means that, by next year, you would be a much better writer than you were 365 days before. Posting new writing daily, and having readers comb through it (which is what experience shows me they are doing) means that errors are found, questions asked, and this too improves writing. A novelist might take a year to write one book, and it involves preening and editing and perfecting. But it’s still one book that a dedicated reader like me is going to read in about three hours.

    But the raw velocity of posting every day means writing is improved in that same way, but the public gets to see the process as it happens. They don’t have to wait a year and enjoy it for three hours. They get to wait a day and enjoy it as it happens. That’s why communities spring up, that’s why they come back for more. It’s the same process of improving, but it takes on a whole new shape.

    The only danger (if it is a danger) is that I worry some writers might gather sycophants who convince them they’re doing well. I’ve been lucky enough to have other online writers become readers of my work, and they totally call me on chapters that don’t sit right. But, because of them, a good two-thirds of what is posted has become much better than the start of the story, and even that is being improved as I revise things.

    Quality is totally possible, with effort. It’s a natural part of the process. To put it another way, a writer of print novels edits and revises invisibly, and offers a finished product after a year or a decade. But it was rough in the beginning and polished at the end. Online writers might start rough, but audiences watch the metamorphosis from rough to polished, and participate in it. In some ways, I think that might be more fulfilling.

  • http://www.philquotes.blogspot.com Lethe

    Gavin,

    You’ve brilliantly stated what was only a faint suspicion in my mind about the differences between print and online fiction in terms of revision. Now I’m about to embark on the rough-hewn territory of fiction blogging without the saftey nets of finished drafts . . . I’m looking forward to it . . . and I know it will signal a change in how I write . . .

    Lethe

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    Gavin – in response to ToMU being “seemingly the most successful model,” I would point you toward David Wellington:
    http://www.brokentype.com/davidwellington/

    Depending on how you define web fiction, he may be our best example. He actually /became/ published via his serial novel posted free on a blog. Now he makes most of his books available free online, but he also seems to do pretty well on dead-tree sales.

    I liked his novel _13 Bullets_ pretty well.

  • http://www.elysekufeldt.com Elyse

    I do agree with most of the comments here regarding editing, but I think that this post brings up an interesting idea that Eli touched upon: a “central” website, perhaps even ala 9rules.

    If, say, a central community were built on several blooks that qualified “editors” approved of (details can and should be nailed out) and those blooks were fed into said community easily, with editors constantly looking for more quality writing, I think we have real potential here for community involvement and cross-critiscm and improvement.

    Within the community there could be “genre” groups for the books to fall within, and perhaps the member agreement states that authors within a genre must read their fellow authors’ work and contribute input, edits and review. This can be done either on the blook’s webpage, or perhaps in a forum to allow for behind-the-scenes polishing before posting.

    If we shift the focus from “filters” and “editors” to “community,” I think you’ll find a whole new realm of possibilities that are overwhelmingly positive.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Elyse: it’s an idea that I’ll be looking into in the not-so-distant future, certainly. But at the moment I’ve got exams and too much offline things to do, not to mention an unforgivable lack of PHP prowess. But soon, I promise you, soon.

  • http://www.elysekufeldt.com Elyse

    It’s definitely not something I’m charging YOU with doing, haha. Though I’ll be interested with what you come up with. If there’s anyway or any thing I can do to help, just let me know! I’m not very good with PHP either and I don’t feel qualified enough to be an editor, but I make for a good lackey. :)

    Good luck with exams!

  • IKBrown

    Regards any “creative writing” published on the internet, I give a loud “Amen!” to that.