The Connoisseur and the Customer
A short essay meant in earnest by
Dr Bob Rich

    I speak as a writer of adventure stories loved by everyone -- except for publishers. Still, the grief of a thousand rejections has been fruitful, it made me realize a fact about our society. Let me share this insight with you.
    Somebody, I don't know who, once said, "To be considered Art, modern poetry must have no rhythm, no rhyme, and precious little sense." There is a general truth here that applies to many fields of interest.
    Much of 20th Century music seems to be designed to give the listener a headache; and to torture perfectly good musical instruments until they scream, sob and bellow for mercy.
    We Philistines are told that it's our fault that we don't appreciate modern paintings. Just because it looks like the random creations of a three-year old doesn't mean that it isn't Great Art.
    I ask you -- who is right, the small group of Experts, or the great mass of otherwise sensible, educated people who actually like Shelley and Keats, enjoy Mozart but can't stand Schoenberg, accept that Picasso was a genius merely because everybody has told them so but hate his paintings, and instead like Rembrandt and Van Gogh?

    Let's switch to the movies. If I want to predict whether I'll enjoy a new film, I'll take the trouble to read the reviews the Experts have prepared. If they offer praise, I know I'll hate the film. If they're scathingly critical, there is a good chance that I'll enjoy it. This is not certain, because I may dislike it for reasons the Experts never thought of. On the other hand, I can get a good prediction by listening to the opinions of ordinary people who are not Experts.

    Moving further down from the rarefied heights, we come to food. A plain, honest cheese sandwich will please a hungry person. The connoisseur's jaded palate is far beyond such boring simplicities. When you have habitually sampled the best the great chefs can offer, you lose the ability to enjoy the fare that feeds the rest of humanity.

    Who writes articles on restaurants? Who reviews films and books? Who decides which composer's music will be played, and who reviews the concert? Who decides which writer's offerings will be published?
    The jaded Expert.

    A form letter of rejection by a literary agency says: "... we receive thousands of submissions a year and reject more than 90% of them. ... But take heart: rejecting manuscripts that become bestsellers is a publishing tradition." The same letter also points out that "Although we have sold books to more than 90 publishers since 1972, our clients' work is still rejected. Nor do all of the books that we sell succeed."
    What a wonderful condolence for the rejected author! Rejection does not imply that the work would not be bought by ordinary people. It just means that the Connoisseurs can no longer tell what the Customers would like. Their taste has been spoiled through too much exposure.
    Publishers, like agents, get thousands of submissions a year. These typically consist of a covering letter, a synopsis, a resumé of the author, and a short extract from the book, probably a few thousand words. Some unfortunate person has to scan many of these a day, day after day, week after week, and select the few the Publisher can hope to turn into a profit. No wonder predictions are so woefully poor. Eventual bestsellers are rejected by agent after agent, publisher after publisher, while some enthusiastically accepted, even prize-winning, works end up as recycled paper.

   At least, there is a solution in this particular case. A submission from a hopeful author should be assessed in the first instance by ordinary people, just like those who will consider buying it. Not by Connoisseurs, but by Customers.
    It is true that there are thousands of hopeful writers who are desperate to have their work published. However, there are hundreds of thousands, even millions, of readers potentially available to help the Publisher to choose.
    Make submissions from authors available to the public, for example through the Internet. A person who responds (positively or negatively) to items on the list can be given a discount voucher for books published by the firm.
    Then the professional Expert employed by the Publisher will have a much easier job: assessing only those submissions that have received a high enough positive vote from the public.

    There is a Ph. D. thesis in this for someone, comparing the sales figures of books selected by the two methods. I offer the idea free of charge. I don't even want a discount voucher.


   Since I have written this essay, two major publishers have implemented online schemes that at first sight sound like my idea. However, there is a huge difference. Their intitial judging panel consists of writing hopefuls who compete with one another. Their opinion is not that of the general public. And in both schemes, they are being cruelly exploited.

There is a far more serious essay you might want to read here.

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