Last spring, a writer called Mary Walters suggested that literary agents are killing literature by rejecting work which they consider unmarketable (she provided a nice piece of meta-analysis by simultaneously discussing the discussion which followed over at Authonomy*). Mary proposed that as the work that agents reject doesn't get seen by editors, it doesn't get published; from this, she concluded that literary agents are preventing all sorts of talented writers from reaching their potential readers. Her blog post notched up hundreds of replies and, according to Mary, several thousand views. Several agents and editors linked to her post and she was interviewed by UK literary agent and head honcho at Litopia, Peter Cox.
Good for Mary, I say: she got herself noticed, albeit not entirely in a positive way.
The problem is that her argument about literary agencies is based on a misunderstanding of how the publishing business works: and so when you begin to strip it down and look for solutions you get tangled in a maze of assumption and confusion: there is no clear resolution to her problem because (with all due respect to Mary) her argument was flawed.
Mary is not alone in her reliance on fallacy to prove her point. If you care to indulge in a little light Googling, I’m sure you’ll be able to find plenty more similar articles which insist that mainstream publishing is failing and suggest ways in which it could be made to succeed.
It seems to me that those suggestions focus primarily on the commentators’ own agendas. Often, the publishing failures they report aren't failures at all—just a misunderstanding on their part, or a feeling that publishing has somehow failed them, often by simply rejecting their work.
Almost all of these articles are eloquently written, passionately argued and contain a good few useful ideas, and some of them make suggestions of staggering brilliance; but they also demonstrate a huge misunderstanding of how publishing really works. Consequently, the few people who read these pieces and who work in publishing and who therefore have the access and contacts required to change things are likely to dismiss the articles as ill-informed nonsense; the good points are lost with the bad. The doubly-rejected writers will have their cynicism reinforced and nothing will change.
I urge anyone who considers that publishing is broken to do their best to first understand the business properly before announcing how it should be fixed. If you're convinced you know how it could be changed for the better then make sure you understand the full implications of that change; because that way you might get listened to by the people with the power to make those changes, and you could make a truly significant difference.
*I can't find a link to that Authonomy discussion now but if anyone knows where it is, do please add a link to it to the comments and I'll edit it in--thank you.