The effect of this long term approach has been to reduce the number of authors on the market (not necessarily a bad thing) and to act as a kind of quality control. Not many published authors are out and out awful, and those who sell badly may not get another book published.
However, there is a downside. Because agents/publishers actively look for reasons to reject a prospective author, they can miss gems. The most famous modern example is JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series, but she’s not the only tremendously successful author to be rejected multiple times.
It is undoubtedly the case that whilst the agent/publisher net has prevented a huge number of rubbish and mediocre writers from entering the market they’ve also stopped a significant number of excellent writers from doing so.
But now, the stranglehold/quality control role of the agents and publishers is becoming loosened. People can and do publish online, offering books for a price or free, bypassing the traditional ink and paper route altogether. It’s now much, much easier for an author to get into print (well, e-Print) than it ever was before, and there are also print-on-demand (POD) services for physical copies.
The role of quality control has perhaps not disappeared, but been taken over by reviewers on websites and bloggers. If I put out a book and Amazon reviewers gave it 1/5 stars it’d sell very badly. With 3.5-5 stars I imagine it’d do ok or pretty well. Naturally, reviewers are subjective (as are agents/publishers) and not professionals (usually), but ultimately the prospective readership matters more than industry insiders. If a book is rejected by 100 agents, gets released by the author and sells a million e-Books then I suspect the author will be the chap with a big smile on his face.
Returning to Ms. Rowling: she’ll shortly be launching the Pottermore website, which will include digital downloads of both e-Books and audiobooks. This will bypass the retailer link in the chain altogether. It’s an interesting new development, and the latest in a string of technological advances which are changing the way books are written, published and sold.
As regular readers will know, I’m writing my own book, to be released as a stand-alone e-Book (although I’m still considering the exact route I’m going to take). I do think the increased freedom for authors the e-Book offers is a good thing, but at the same time the shift towards online sales and retailers, and books that are reduced from physical copies to mere information is not something I want to become total.