Over the past month I’ve discovered a number of reasons why I prefer to try to go it alone as a writer, and I’m confident I’ll be talking about them in the near future. Reading the following quote, however, made me realize that some of the reasons are more moral and ethical than they are practical:
While the distant past may not be germane, we do have to go back to the middle years of the twentieth century. At that time, publishing was certainly a business, as it is today, but it was a business that had accepted a low rate of return on investment, in exchange for the thrill (and it is a thrill) of being part of the cultural life of the country, and indeed, the world. But in the 1980s and 1990s, bigger publishers began gobbling up smaller publishers, and then multinational corporations swallowed up the bigger publishers. Suddenly these houses needed to service the debt involved in buyouts, on top of the relatively modest six-to-eight percent return on investment that Bennett Cerf and Alfred Knopf had once been happy to receive.
I think that’s right. I also think it explains why I feel the way I do about the publishing industry — like they’ve been making suckers out of me and everyone else.
Today when I hear a publisher complaining about how books are sacred and how we need to protect the publishing industry, I’m reminded of the same talk from news executives about how critical hard news and investigative journalism are to the health of our democracy. Yet in both instances these are often the same people who are putting crap on the front page or front shelf, making crap physical products, and marketing the most sensationalistic crap they can get their hands on in the desperate hope that it can compete favorably with the crap on TV and the crap on the internet.
The proof that these sanctimonious arguments are themselves crap is blindingly obvious when you observe that these people — the very arbiters of the content they sell, and the first people to complain when their reputations are smeared (often with their own crap) — pathologically put sales and shareholder value ahead of any other goal. Including the thrill (let alone the responsibility!) of being part of the cultural life of the country. Like a politician exploiting patriotism for personal political gain or the enrichment of cronies, many of the established voices in the publishing industry want writers to believe in the Bennett Cerf Flag and the Alfred Knopf Constitution while the corporate bean counters attempt to exploit such romantic naivete by all available means.
Well you know what I want? I want to feel the thrill of being part of the cultural life of my country. That matters to me.
I’m sure there are still plenty of people in the publishing industry who care about that, too. And there are obviously many good authors who do. But they’re all hostage to the same forces I’m railing against, and I do not believe I can save them or me by buying into the process as it now exists, or as it will exist in the near future.
So that’s why I’m opting out. If events unfold and I ever get an offer to publish traditionally I will certainly look at it. But I’m not going to wait for one or ask for permission to put my work out there. Maybe my participation in the cultural life of my country will be three regular readers, two of whom are related to me by blood. Maybe my writing stinks and I’ll be critically pulverized for all the right reasons. But at the end of the day, the one thing I’m sure of is that I won’t feel like I volunteered myself for someone else’s sausage machine.
— Mark Barrett