After three weeks of blogging and Site Seeing I definitely have a better handle on what’s happening out there, but I’ve also come to grips with the fact that I simply can’t keep track of it all. And that’s true even if I avail myself of all the latest tech, tech filters and social networks — which I would also have to spend a great deal of time reading about in order to achieve cutting-edge productivity.
(There’s a reason they call it the ‘cutting’ edge.)
In the end there’s too much to see and digest, let alone comment on, let alone act on. So it’s time to tighten the focus a bit, in anticipation of tightening it more in the future. Although this is an exclusionary process in some respects, I tend to think of it as irising in on something in the distance and pulling it into sharper focus. Simplification as zoom lens. Or sniper scope.
I can’t really say the industry is dead, because it’s not dead. What I can say is that it’s broken, and I think everybody gets that. But I don’t think it’s simply broken relative to some newfangled process or advance (the internet), but rather that it’s inherently broken in ways that the internet is only now revealing.
As a case in point, and as a direct attack on the great stuffy condescension of the traditional publishing industry, it’s interesting to me that the quality of the average product shipped by the industry has become worse even as printing, publishing and binding technology has improved. I have forty-year-old books on my book shelf — hardcover and paperback — and they all still function. The paperback books are badly yellowed, but they don’t fall apart when I open them. I also have three-year-old books on my shelf — hardcover and paperback — which have already fallen apart.
For all the romantic lip service given to the idea that people will always want physical books to hold and bond with, I cannot think of any other industry that has so resolutely destroyed the very romance they are trying to perpetuate. Books made today, by and large, are crap. If you tell me that the cost of producing a good book is prohibitive, I’ll even grant you the point — but the books are still crap. If you tell me that most people treat books as disposable commodities, I’ll grant you that point as well — but the books are still crap.
I don’t want to buy any more badly-made books. I already avoid purchasing books because I know they’re junk, and I’m tired of that. If I want knowledge or facts or information or entertainment in my house, available to me, I don’t want it to fall apart when I pick it up.
So before we even get to all of the usual questions related to one-sided book deals and the difficulty of a new author breaking in, or whether book publishers are any different from the music industry, I’m already done. And the truth is I’ve been done for years. Maybe even decades.
There will always be big book publishers, and I want them to be there. I’d love to write something that was published and marketed by a publishing house because it was good. I still love the romance of books. I wish I’d been discovered by someone at Knopf.
But I refuse to be the only party buying into the fantasy, while the bean counters in the publishing industry green light ghost-written Paris Hilton spy novels and manufacture books with less structural integrity than an overstuffed, ninety-nine cent burrito.
Make the call. Get help. I love you, but I can’t go on like this.
Online (electronic) Publishing
Less than a month ago I didn’t know how robust the current offerings were in terms of publishing content online, but one look at sites like Smashwords makes it clear that tomorrow is already here. Add in the fact that there will be changes on a daily basis, and consolidations, and standardization issues with e-readers and such, and it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go, but there’s no question about whether online/digital content is here to stay. It’s not simply here to stay, it’s going to turn everything else into a niche business. And I mean everything.
As interesting as it all is, however, I’d need a program to keep track of all the players, and I don’t know enough about the details of the business to comment effectively. I’ll always be curious, and try to keep up, but my interest in online publishing is that of a content creator, not a financial analyst. Until I have something I want to publish online, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to fully understand an industry that is so young and in such a constant state of flux.
It used to be the case that self-publishing was an indication of failure. Only people who had no talent self-published their own books. And of course the self-publishing industry aided this kind of thinking by riddling itself with con artists.
In retrospect, the truth is a bit uglier. While talent matters at some level, the book industry really only paid lip service to the idea of talent winning out. For the most part, publishing was not about creativity, but about exercising power — including the power to tell everyone else what is and is not worthy. That this kind of power is driven by ego and vanity is obvious, but it’s also driven by greed, because he or she who controls opinion also dictates spending habits. (How many book reviews have been pimped like bad stock offerings because of kick backs, side deals or quids pro quo?)
Which brings us to New York City, insular dysfunctional social circles, cocktail parties, and the ugly fact that if you didn’t bow down to the right people at the right time, you quite often didn’t get read. It’s not surprising that intellectualism is the currency of choice in literary circles, but intellectualism is no more valid than emotionalism, rationalism or any other ism you can think of. And there’s very little evidence that even the smartest thinkers of any day — no matter how well read or insightful — have an understanding of life that transcends what a mother knows when she suckles her child.
Throw in drug use, alcoholism, wife beating, cronyism, sexual harassment, tax evasion, and anything else and what you’ve really got in rarefied literary circles is what you’ve really got anywhere else. A bunch of fallible human beings desperately trying to get to the top of the pecking order by any means necessary. If you can’t help them do that, then you’re probably of little interest.
Which brings me back to the question of self-publishing. I’m writing this and publishing it myself. I’m not asking for permission. I don’t care if I’m nobody, or that I don’t know all the right people. I’m doing it. And so are you. And so are millions of people. And that’s really the best thing about removing the stigma from self-published in any medium — and particularly in the publishing industry. What has traditionally been the province of Ivy-League, New York City power brokers is inevitably going to be watered down, because without the power to decide who makes it into print and who doesn’t, their own power fades. And happily so.
The question for me in all this, as someone who wants to create, is what my self-publishing options are, and how those options compare with online publishing options. That’s a complex question, and again, because of the speed of change it’s one I’ll visit when I need to.
One point, however, bears repeating. I’m publishing this and you’re reading it. And nobody else was necessary. This simple, demonstrable truth is the theoretical floor of any new publishing paradigm, and we’re already there. And I’d be very reluctant to give that up without significant contributions from a third party.
If anything has surprised me so far it’s the amount of fiction that’s available online. I can’t really see this as anything but a long-term good, either.
The fact that fiction is suddenly a part of so many people’s lives, and that so many online communities are growing up around fiction, means that a base of support and acceptance is also being established for online publishing and self-publishing. But I think the most important aspect of all this is that writers are finding other writers to talk to and to learn from. As someone who was fortunate to have good workshopping experiences as a young writer, I can tell you that even a few interested peers can make all the difference.
Speaking of which, here’s Richard Nash on the power of community for publishers, too:
I later realized, however, there was something quite powerful in my last phrase, because it embraced the most critical lesson of my Soft Skull experience: the people who wanted to publish with Soft Skull were as much a part of our community as those we did publish. They were as important as reviewers, bloggers and booksellers. Indeed, a sizable chunk of them came from those professions. They read our books, they loved our authors. They wanted to learn from those authors, to meet them, to share with them, to be among them. The writers who sent unsolicited materials, simply put, were valuable.
I’m sure the bubble will burst at some point, and many people will move on to something else. But I’m equally certain others will arrive to replace them.
Here I admit to being truly surprised. What I thought would be a robust new medium seems to have stalled several years ago, although I have found a couple of interesting sites and I’m still looking for more.
Perversely, this is one area where my interest has only been sharpened. I think I see a way to do something cool here (at least to me), and I’m already trying to figure out how to move those ideas forward.
Maybe blog fiction doesn’t work because people want the real thing. Maybe it doesn’t work because it hasn’t been figured out as a craft.
Maybe it can work, but I won’t be good enough. But I still think it’s worth trying.
I know a little something about interactive storytelling, and after working on a couple of games in 2008 I think I know a bit more.
I’m interested in the fact that there seems to be a resurgence of curiosity in the idea of interactivity as a medium, but I can also see that what many people are describing as interactivity is not interactive. What these people are talking about is simply participatory, which may mean the same thing to some — and could even become the dominant meaning — but right now tends to promise more than can ever be delivered. (In my dark hours I think that’s one of the reasons the word is so frequently flung around.)
Finally, and on a related note, I added some docs to the site yesterday, and I’ll be adding more in the near future. Many of them concern interactive storytelling, and if you’re interested in that subject I would encourage you to read them. A lot of what is being talked about today has already been talked about before, and knowing that might save you a great deal of time, and maybe even some money.
— Mark Barrett
Personally, I’ve felt like the blog fiction community and readership is, if anything, growing. It’s just in its very early stages at the moment.
Have you taken a look at http://webfictionguide.com? I’m shocked at the amount of stuff that’s there and that’s just one site that lists fiction. There are more.
I’m glad to hear you say that things are on the rise. Yes, I’ve been to WFG, and they were helpful in pointing me to more than a few interesting sites. I think perhaps my concern about the medium is fueled by the fact that there isn’t a lot of talk about it, but maybe that’s because the entire industry is being wracked by spasm and all other conversations are being drowned out.
Being an under-the-radar type myself, that would be fine with me.
Eli James says
Interestingly enough, the online fiction community seems to be in agreement that blog fiction no longer cuts it, as a format. If you want to write a fictional blog, by a fictional person, then that’s still alright, but the blog as a way of posting epistolary fiction just doesn’t work. Right now we’re considering a shift from the blog format, to something else – something powered by a blog, no doubt … but something that looks, feels, and reads quite differently from the average blog.
Thanks for the note — and I’m glad your views seem to jibe with mine, if only so I don’t have to dig for any more new views right now. It’s hard enough keeping up with all this…. 🙂
I think there’s something in the idea of a character-driven blog. In fact, I think fictionalizing the blog form almost demands a character-centric (as opposed to plot-centric) approach. It’s the strength of the medium, and I’m intrigued by it.
The future is….better books…..
It’s going to be interesting — maybe even shocking — to watch how the migration of commoditized books to digital content affects the physical book market. So much of what’s published today is transient and of such limited use (because it’s often tied to pop culture), that it almost belongs online.
There are also many more book and paper artisans than you might think, and I would expect that their craft might see a resurgence as the idea of a book as an object to be revered comes back into vogue. I also hope the average book becomes a bit sturdier as well, because I’m simply done buying anything that looks like it might fall apart.
Hi Mark. Good post. Just thought I’d let you know that it’s been shortlisted in a Post Of The Month thing I run over here…