I was recently talking with a couple of researchers who observed that the most interesting science isn’t usually in the big name journals, but rather in the mid-tier or even lower-tier publications where really radical thinking and unusual results find their way into the literature. The big name journals are publishing on popular topics well along in the scientific literature. They’re important, but less interesting.
Curating out of the middle is a major opportunity for publishers and others in the information landscape. Repetition, presentation, prominence, and context all provide curatorial power.
The concept of curation is a hot-button topic in publishing these days, often conjuring visions of the literary boogeyman: a faceless, soulless gatekeeper whose only job is to keep the riff-raff out of the Ivory Tower and off the bestseller lists.
It’s a frustrating meme, one of the pundit class’ many ill-conceived spins on the Kobayashi Maru, typically posited without any intention of offering a dramatic test of character.
My definition of curator is not at all like the anti-progress archivist Mike Cane prefers, but closer to that of a community organizer, a la Richard Nash’s vision of social publishing or Dan Holloway’s “Why not one of us?” call to arms.
In an era where anyone can be publisher, but few can publish profitably, it’s important to keep three things in mind:
- 1) Google makes everything discoverable and more difficult to find.
- 2) Aggregation is not curation.
- 3) Gatekeeper is not a four-letter word.
Anti-curators too often focus on commercial publishing and mass appeal, missing the real opportunities hiding in plain sight in various niches, or as Anderson defined it, “curating out of the middle.” For me, the primary appeal of publishing in the digital age is less about enabling anyone to publish, and more about breaking down the limitations of a print-based distribution system in order to make a wider variety of work accessible to a wider audience of readers.
Harlequin’s Malle Vallik, writing about their new digital-only imprint, Carina Press, nicely put the real opportunity in perspective:
In the olden days when I used to edit print books, I would have been intrigued by this idea but I would also have been trying to fit it into an existing category. After all, I couldn’t just make up a category. Instead I would most likely have asked Jane to increase the romance, make the mystery more thriller-like or women-in-jeopardy type storyline and possibly move the story to Regency times.
But now I’m free. I can ask Jane to write the book she envisions and if I love it as much as she does then we’ll publish it. Our brilliant marketers will create a plan on how to sell it as a historical military mystery. Boo Yah!
Despite being a division of a “traditional publisher”, Carina Press’ business model is rather innovative, with no author advances, no DRM, a direct-to-consumer sales model, and a surprisingly horizontal mission, promising “a broad range of fiction” including “romance… mystery, suspense and thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, erotica, gay/lesbian, and more!”
At the end of the day, a true curator is marked by their passion for, commitment to, and advocacy of an idea — and the only judgment that matters is that of the community they serve.
What’s the trick to beating the pundits’ rigged Kobayashi Maru scenario?
Do the unexpected: Love it, publish it and be willing and able to create a market for it.