For now I'll concentrate on just this paragraph:
. . .for the sake of argument let's just say that all publishing was self-publishing. If publishers did not act as gatekeepers, determining the quality from the chaff, then who would? Consumers? Self-appointed critics? I honestly believe that if all the publishers were put out of work and we all went to straight self-publishing, you would see aggregations form. Some self-publishers would sell more than others, and they would group together and develop their own firms, or guilds, or whatever you want to call them. We'd be right back where we started, with gatekeepers that held the keys to respectability.
First of all, how important is it, really, to have cultural gatekeepers? When literary study was introduced into the university curriculum, this was supposedly one of the jobs English professors were to assume. They've certainly made a hash of it, to the point that they're no longer interested in the job themselves. Second, is it really plausible to say that book publishing in its current form is performing this role in any kind of acceptable way? "Determining the quality from the chaff"? As far as I can tell, mainstream publishing is in a headlong rush to spread as much chaff as it possibly can.
How about "readers" rather than "consumers"? As I said in the original post, the audience for literary fiction is small enough that I really can't see the need for gatekeeping among this group, although information and lively discussion of new books (on blogs, for example, whose proprietors are indeed pretty much "self-appointed critics") certainly does help such readers make informed decisions. Do we really think that the efforts made by the publishers themselves do much to help them?
I'm not so sure that "some self-publishers would sell more than others," but even if they did, how would this constitute a guild, since everyone would have equal access to them?
I may have something more to say about Scott's remarks on the role of editing in a future post. Short version: How satisfied are you with the editing being done currently by mainstream publishers? Do you think it's going to get better in the future?
In an e-mail to yours truly, Outer Life makes these comments about the current "publishing environment":
I'm wondering whether traditional publishing makes sense for anyone anymore. If Stephen King self-published, he'd still sell millions ofcopies, and probably make even more money. What does a traditional publisher do for Stephen King?
And an unknown writer of literary fiction needs lightning to strike three times in order to achieve any success in the traditional publishing world: first, get noticed by an agent, second, rise out of the slush pile and third, find an audience. Failing the first two steps would leave the writer's words forever unread, failing the third step would effectively result in the same oblivion. And even if lightning did strike three times, it's unlikely the writer would make enough from his book to quit his day job. So, in the end, what does traditional publishing really do for these writers, even for the lucky few who manage to make it through all three steps?