The new class system

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Donald MaassAuthor, agent and blogger Donald Maass has written a nice post about what he describes as the new class system in publishing that’s developed as the industry has moved forward.  He does not see an industry of dinosaurs slowly being replaced by the plucky mammals gaining evolutionary dominance.

What’s happened instead is an evolution of the publishing world into a new class system, and like any class system it has winners, losers and opportunities. It’s a system that, if not recognized for what it is, will trap frustrated writers in a pit far more hopeless than the one they yearned to escape. 

Maass breaks down the “classes” of authors into the very understandable “first class,” “coach” and “freight,” best defined by their status, quality and available opportunities in the publishing industry.  He goes on to describe the limitations inherent in these classes, the obstacles faced by an author hoping to move up to the next level.

It has a lot of similarities to the description of the “publishing castle” that I’ve used for years, to illustrate a system where a publisher acts as final say over publishing—the king, as it were—and immediately circling this royalty of publishing control are the cherished favorites, the knights and other rich or popular royals, whose accomplishments are lionized by the royalty, and whose works are immediately recommended to a populace all but coerced into supporting the status quo.

Below them, but still in the castle, are lesser figures and talents who have managed to enter the castle under accomplishment, hook or crook; and having gained access, now enjoy some of the benefits of castle life.  They often spend more time kow-tow-ing to the kings and royals than the amount of benefit they gain from the relationship; but it’s still better than being outside the castle, digging in the mud to support the king.

And therein do we find the bulk of the talent (or lack thereof), outside the castle and hoping to find a way in.  Outside, life is tough, opportunities are scarce, and even the smart, strong or lucky can be cut down by unfortunate circumstances, or simply never given the opportunity to prove their worth.  Though some may almost miraculously gain access, most will never enter the castle and gain its benefits, no matter what they do.  Maybe a few will manage to leave their lot, and find another location where they can shine… but more likely, they’ll end up in the employ of another castle through which they are still denied entrance.

The choice of metaphors—Maass’ and mine—are clearly designed to suggest the hope/possibility of an eventual revolt of the system, a breakdown of the present feudal system and the subsequent installment of a new reality, a hopefully more equal state.  Clearly this would please the many people on the outside looking in, and I freely confess to being one of those.  (Of course, we all know that revolutions often result in new states as unequal as the previous state, just for different people.)

Being that Maass is an agent, I’m not sure how he really feels about the possibility or value of a revolution.  All the same, I’d rather see the revolution come, as it’s my opinion that a shakeup couldn’t hurt.

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4 thoughts on “The new class system

  1. Interesting. It’s great that we’ve broken out of the feudal system, and I like that quality is one of the determining factors in what “class” a book is able to attain. But I wonder (worry about) how much the writer’s available marketing funds affects things.
    If Shakespeare were alive today and living on the breadline, would he ever be discovered?

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    • That’s the big catch. Whatever your “class,” it still comes down to who can afford to get their work presented to the public. Until the old money-based advertising paradigm is finally replaced with something else (peer-reviewed, quality-metered, I don’t know what), even the class designations mean little.

      There will be exceptions: Those who are particularly media-attractive, or who nail a popular genre and subject, will gain some press–which means the press hopes to make more money off of their presentation, so it’s still a money thing.

      Shakespeare on the breadline? Unless he had mad video skillz and could make a YouTube video that went viral… not a chance.

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  2. OK. So, using the castle analogy, anybody doing the self-publishing thing is a peasant.

    Methinks that there is already a revolution going on, and royalty are hiding in their castles pretending it doesn’t exist. The revolution is happening because royalty so often fails to deliver on its promises (properly and timely reported royalties, fair rights management, promotion, editorial efforts, etc.). One by one, the castles (large bookstores) are falling, and money is increasingly going to those pesky peasants.

    I get your analogy, I’ve just taken it a little further. 😎

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    • “Peasant” is the word I’d use, too.

      Mind you, occasionally a peasant gets into the castle and pleases a member of the royalty by being beautiful, or funny, or clever enough to help the royalty with “peasant” matters. But generally, the royalty doesn’t have to worry about the peasants so long as they still control the money.

      We might ultimately end up with two systems, side by side: One, the existing “feudalism-based” publishing system; the other, the new “communism-based” system of equal authors sharing resources; and readers get to pick from either system through an agency that filters both.

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